Lost, but not really


by Jim Mimiaga

Bagging a peak is always an adventure, the classic journey-not-the-destination scenario, where logic clashes with reality and maps confuse more than help.

“The map is wrong” is a common statement when trekking in the Rocky Mountains. “It has to be,” my friend Van confirms on a recent foray into the South San Juans. “They just f*** it up somehow.”

We’ve been there before, on the White Rim in Utah, boating the Lower Dolores River, biking in Moab, even in the woods out our back door.

“Burn it,” I say as he pulls out the folded Delorme Atlas page he tore out during breakfast a few hours earlier.

Scanning the horizon of snow-splattered peaks and ridges and trying to match it with an inferior map meant for drivers and car camping is futile.

On a whim, we’re heading for San Luis Peak, a fourteener north of Creede. The day is azure blue, no wind and perfectly warm. We click by the miles with ease and top out a pass.

It’s funny how your mind plays tricks on you in the mountains, revealing a person’s true desires. A huge pyramid of scree rises before us; beyond looms a jagged, nasty-looking peak with seemingly impassible cliff walls guarding its summit.

“It has to be that one,” we agree pointing with glee to the more epic mountain. “This one is too low and easy looking to be a fourteener.”

And on cue, our minds perfectly match up our location and San Luis with the apropo dot on the map. Target acquired, march!

But pushed for time (work calls hundreds of miles away) and eyeing the circumambulate approach through multiple valleys, Van suggests bagging a couple of thirteeners nearby.

Plenty of land to explore up here, where the Colorado Trail and the Continental Divide merge into the vast La Garita Wilderness.

“That’s not a good enough bar story,” I respond.

“Well you better pick up the pace then, Frankenstein,” he responds, goading my propensity to plod heavily and slowly, especially when my mind drifts. “In the army they’d call you a straggler.”

Cinching down my pack, I comply and begin a light jog, happily cruising down a pass into an atmosphere of viridian beauty.

Two more passes and several hours later, we are still not there! San Luis Peak is mocking us, and our enthusiasm begins to wane into mild anxiety. Sheesh, too late to give up now, I think to myself, my eyes transfixed on how the towering cliffs get scarier and scarier as we approach this formidable fourteener.

Conversation passes the time, lightening the mood. First, a discussion of the poor quality of maps, acknowledging that ours is not the right one at any rate. We need the 7.5-minute quadrangle, essential for accurate mountaineering because it shows more detailed topographical data.

“What’s the minute mean,” I wonder. “Maybe a satellite takes a photo every 7.5 minutes?” Wrong.

“I think it is the longitude position or something,” is the response. Less wrong. We agree we used to know sometime in college, memorizing, testing and immediately forgetting.

Next a laughing fit about a Joe Cocker concert I relate from a few nights before in Hotchkiss. He’s the Woodstock icon whose songs everyone knows but cannot recall who sings them.

“Which ones?” Van says.

“Oh you know, ‘Feeling Alright,’ ‘She Came in Through the Bathroom Window.’”

“‘A Little Help From My Friends.’”

“Yeah, and my favorite, and I’m sure yours: … ‘You … are … so … Beautiful ...to … Meeee,” I mimic.

“People were swaying” which we imitate to good humor.

We follow up with dramatic plane crashes, queued by jets close enough to see sun-reflected windows. The way rows of passengers are sucked out at 30,000 feet caused by a stray bullet (U.S. Marshals – star Tommy Lee Jones holds on).

Tom Hanks’ Fed Ex jet pummeling into the ocean in Cast Away, one of the best airline wrecks ever depicted on film. And of course, reality. I think of the supersonic Concord bashing with spectacular explosion into that hotel outside Paris, France. Van recalls a Boeing 747 taking out a stretch of high-rise apartment complexes in Amsterdam.

Finally the summit push, much appreciated after a five-hour approach. I tire of this peak mocking me, and I swear at it, telling it to prepare to be conquered. Thighs numbed from 7 miles of up and down, I robotically move up its steep flanks. Another surprise, San Luis is also guarded by thick shrubbery called cinquefoil. Acres and acres of the stuff, another joke on climbers wishing for an easy walk-up.

“Go ahead, walk around them, lose altitude, I dare ya,” Señor Luis chuckles 500 feet above.

We bash through them and arrive at sheer rows of basalt cliffs covered in a luminescent yellow-green lichen. Weaknesses in the volcanic spires and rock walls are revealed in a steep ramp to the summit. Two huge ochre columns flank the passage entrance, reminiscent of Monty Python’s “none shall pass” and “what is the velocity of an African sparrow?”

We are granted access, and scramble up solid blocks and ledges to an airy summit. Encircled by peaks close and faraway, we are speechless. But wait, Old Man Wilderness has one more trick up his sleeve. With booming laughter coming from the west, Van unscrews the register canister to find that we just climbed 13,800 foot Organ Mountain! The inverted chimneys of the cliffs resemble the giant organ pipes of some European church.

Smug San Luis, is the docile scree cone we passed four hours ago.

We high five, white-man style, missing the slap. Fitting. Turns out the map, as always, is right. Organ is clearly east of San Luis. But no harm no foul, Van sprints back to his car, and I blissfully descend the peak and mosey the 7 miles back to camp, arriving at sunset.

Mistakes often lead to unforeseen accomplishment, so forget the map (and the watch), I say. Plus, high-altitude hi-jinx for the directionally challenged might make an OK bar story after all.



In this week's issue...

January 25, 2024
Bagging it

State plastic bag ban is in full effect, but enforcement varies

January 26, 2024
Paper chase

The Sneer is back – and no we’re not talking about Billy Idol’s comeback tour.

January 11, 2024
High and dry

New state climate report projects continued warming, declining streamflows