Trip Journal: La Ventra (1995, Weminuche Wilderness, Colorado)

Diaries: La Ventra – Weminuche Wilderness, Rio Grande NF, CO


Matt Cassidy (Advisor)
Dan Hooker (Advisor)
Jessica Janega
Kyle Nelson
Judd Vincent

Monday, August 7

At 5:00 p.m. Jess, Dan, and Judd left Wilmette in Dan’s 1993 Subaru Legacy Wagon. After getting some trail mix and other supplies we got on the Tri-State 294 at 6:30 p.m. From there we got on I-80 and then on I-35 to Ames to pick up Matt and Kyle at Iowa State University. At about 12:30 a.m., we left for Colorado.

Tuesday, August 8

We DROVE, that was basically it for today’s activity. All five of us in Dan’s Subaru with the luggage turtle on top. As I drove the car through the never-ending state of Nebraska, at about 4:00am I was able to sum up the situation by insightfully saying, “Nebraska…..this place sucks.” We drove all day on I-80 and then on I-76 as we crossed the Colorado border to get to Denver. In Denver we picked up I-25 and drove through Colorado Springs and Pueblo, and at Walsenburg, Colorado, we got on US-160 and drove through Alamosa, Monte Vista, and several towns that looked like they were from the set of an old Western movie. One exciting point in the drive was when we drove through the Wolf Creek Pass on US-160 on the continental divide. The pass was 10,850 feet above sea level and was on a 7% grade. Both the car and its occupants were feeling the high altitude and thin air. By the time we reached the top of the pass the car was nearly out of gas so I coasted it down the other side of the pass for nine miles and then drove to a gas station. We then found a tiny little town with a hardware store and we picked up some last-minute supplies and then found a Super 8 Motel that was built like a large, tacky log cabin and stayed there for the night. I think that town was Pagosa Springs, CO. We had dinner at Pizza Hut and then, after packing the backpacks and sorting through the supplies, we watched “True Lies” on HBO and went to sleep.

Wednesday, August 9

The day started at 6:30 a.m. with a wake-up call from the front desk. We quickly left and got on the road. We went back up through the Wolf Creek Pass and up to South Fork, CO, where we got on CO-149 to drive to the tiny town of Creede, where the National Forest Service office was located. There we got some last-minute information. We then continued to drive along CO-149, which snaked its way through the mountains and followed the Rio Grande River. The river was dotted with log cabins, which were apparently vacation homes where people went to fly fish on the Rio Grande. Some of the cabins were large and quite beautiful. The mountains were mostly covered with dense evergreens but some rocky ledges, cliffs, and outcroppings were also visible. We turned off the road onto a small dirt road, which we rode for about fifteen miles until we reached Thirty Mile Camping Area located on the Rio Grande Reservoir in the Rio Grande National Forest.

After filling our canteens, we entered the Weminuche Trail at 9:30 a.m. at about 8,500 feet above sea level. From the moment we stepped onto the trail it was mostly an uphill hike. The trail ran along the reservoir and then entered into the mountains and across huge glacier-cut meadows. The meadows were expansive and had a stream twisting through the center. The ground was covered with rocks, long grass, and flowers and dotted by pines. In the large meadow we encountered a band of Mexican-American laborers doing ditch work using horses and mules. At the edge of that meadow we got onto the Pine River Trail and then onto the Rincon La Vaca Trail. After hiding out in the woods from a storm at about 3:00 p.m., we found a small valley with a stream running down one side and a campsite in the trees on the opposite side with a ring of rocks already established as a fire pit. We decided that this would be our base camp. We were now at 10,200 feet above sea level and we had hiked approximately 8.5 miles, a pretty good first-day hike. Soon we all felt the affects of the high altitude and thin air, especially Matt, who had to lay down for a while and groan like an injured animal. From the base camp in the valley we could clearly see the bald rocky peak of the Rio Grande Pyramid and the rock formation called “La Ventra” (“The Window”) to the west. Matt explained that he had read about the legend behind The Window, and it stated that during certain times of the year the sun would set in The Window and cast a red light throughout the valley in which we were camping. Spanish sheepherders at one time thought that this was a sign of the presence of the devil.

Upon arrival we quickly pitched Matt’s tent and my tent. We used my smaller tent as a gear tent and we used Matt’s larger tent as a sleeping tent for the five of us. Dan and I then set out to collect wood so that we could build a fire and, while looking for dry grass, I found part of the jaw bone of an elk that had been gnawed on by some other animal. The campsite had been fairly well used so I dug the large pile of ashes out of the fire pit and spread them uphill form the campsite all over the woods. After a brief storm and witnessing a spectacular double rainbow, Dan and I were able to get a roaring fire going and a hot bed of coals, which was perfect for cooking our spaghetti dinner. After dinner, Kyle volunteered to clean the dishes and then Dan, Kyle, and I sat by the fire while Matt and Jess went to sit on a couch-shaped rock in the meadow which we later cleverly named “Couch Rock.” Dan and I smoked our pipes as Kyle looked on with a fascinated, almost psychokilleresque stare. Dan and I smoked faster. Then I almost passed out. It was pretty cool.

Later in the evening, at about 11:00 p.m., a man on a horse wearing a duster coat and a cowboy hat and leading another horse came down from the mountains and was coming down through the valley in the light of the full moon. We had waved to him earlier in the evening when he passed by on his way up into the mountains. We went out to greet him and discovered that he was a ranger and he was searching for a church group from Texas that was supposedly going up to The Window. He needed to find a member of the group to tell him that his father-in-law had passed away, and he told us that if we encountered him on our hike the next day to give him the message. After talking to the ranger, we gazed at the star-filled sky for awhile before going to sleep.

Thursday, August 10

Today started for me at 6:30 a.m. and now at 8:00 a.m. I am still the only one awake. I got up early because I was cold and I decided that I would start up the fire again to warm up. The air temperature was about 40 degrees. It had rained earlier that morning so unfortunately the embers from last night’s fire were few and weak, and the dry grass around the site was wet. I continued to look around for anything dry and discovered that under some of the pine trees there were piles of dried elk dung, which were untouched by the rain because they had been sheltered by the pine trees. The dung consisted of golfball-sized nuggets that resembled balls of dried grass, so I used them to start the fire again and get warm.

It was a gray and damp morning, but I was able to see another double rainbow and it was even brighter than the one we saw the day before. Also this morning I saw four mules wearing bridles running up the valley towards the mountains, but there were no men with them. Thirty minutes later I saw a man on a horse and two dogs running up the valley at full sprint, followed by two Mexican-Americans running about 300 yards behind the horseman. Fifteen minutes later the horseman, dogs, mules, and the Mexican-Americans-now riding the mules bareback- came back down the valley. At that time of the morning I found the chain of events to be pretty amusing.

The rest of the crew got up at 8:30 a.m. and, after a breakfast of Nutri-Grain Bars and oatmeal, we decided to hike up the Rincon La Vaca Trail into the mountains and up towards the Rio Grande Pyramid. We backed up my pack with a trail lunch, everyone’s rain gear, a couple of jackets, cameras, and five quarts of water. Dan, Matt, and I took fanny packs as well. We got a late start (10:45 a.m.), and we switched off carrying the pack. We got up to a high ridge at about 12,000 feet but could go no further because of threatening storms and fatigue setting in for a couple of us. On the trail up, which was quite steep, we encountered many beautiful sights, including a small spring lake that was completely devoid of both animal and plant life. The water was as clear as the mountain air, and there was not a single ripple-just like glass. The bottom was bright white, silty, and completely smooth, though the banks were slightly sandy. The middle appeared to be only three feet deep and Jess, Kyle, and Matt thought it looked inviting for a little dip. However, Dan then picked up a fist-sized rock and threw it in the middle of the lake and, after making a few ripples in the water, the rock hit bottom and quickly disappeared in the very unstable white silt. It was probably an alkaline spring and it probably would have been a bad idea to swim in it.

Another interesting stop was made at a patch of snow on the side of a rocky ridge, where we enjoyed the novelty of a snowball fight in August. Also along the trail we crossed numerous streams and rock slides. Once we reached the top of the ridge in the high-mountain tundra, we ate a quick lunch before heading back down at about 2:30 p.m. to avoid an approaching storm. Our view was fantastic and limitless, and we could see the valley down below where we had set up our base camp. After hiking through rain we arrived back at camp at around 4:00 p.m.. We had hiked about 10 miles total that day.

Upon returning back to camp I cooked white rice and baked beans for dinner, and it was quickly devoured by everyone, even though it probably tasted lousy. Right now it is 7:30 p.m. and I am sitting next to the fire after finishing washing the dishes. Dan and Kyle are reading books, and Jess is giving Matt a back rub.

Later that evening, we discussed what we would do the next day. Kyle and I were determined to climb to the peak of the Rio Grande Pyramid, 13,821 feet above sea level (ASL). Matt and Jess decided to hike up to The Window, which also was supposed to have great views and is at about 12,500 feet ASL. Dan decided that he was tired and that he wanted to just stay at the base camp and take care of things and read his book. Matt, Jess, Kyle, and I decided that we would get up the next morning at 7:00 so that we would have enough time to hike before the afternoon storms. Since the four of us would be hiking the same trail on most of our journey, we would leave together, but Kyle and I would possibly break off and go at a faster pace.

That evening we sat out near the campsite on Couch Rock. I jokingly called it “Freud’s Couch Rock” due to some of the “serious conversations” that took place there. That night we sat on the couch facing east and watched the stars through the light of the full moon and got eaten by mosquitos before going to bed early.

Friday, August 11

This morning Matt, Jess, Kyle, and I got up at 7:00 a.m. as we had planned and, at 8:00 a.m., we started hiking up the valley to the mountains. By the time Kyle and I had reached the end of the valley to enter the woods, Jess and Matt had fallen behind and by the time we entered the woods they were out of sight. Kyle and I each had a quart canteen and I had a fanny pack, which contained my rain gear, knife, potable aqua tablets, signal mirror, camera, sunglasses, and a couple of other small items, while Kyle carried the first-aid kit and his rain gear.

We hiked fast and within 1 1/2 hours we had reached the point where we had stopped the day before. The sky was clear and the sun was bright and warm. On the trail we met four men on horseback with three-pack llamas and we asked the leader where the Divide Trail was located. He told us a location that was very different from our map and found that the Divide Trail would not help us reach the base of the Pyramid, which was almost looming over us in our present position but still appeared unapproachable. We trusted the man’s word because he had just come from the Divide Trail and we asked where he thought we should approach the peak. Afer a long, thoughtful pause he looked around and pointed to a ridge and said, “You could try over there.” I then asked him if he had ever been up the Pyramid and he replied, “No.” He was a tremendous help.

The peak itself was mostly unpassible because it was protected by rocky cliffs that were several hundreds of feet in height. At the base of the peak there were two ridges-a shorter one on the west side and a steeper, taller one on the east side and a large expanse of snow in between. We decided we would try to climb the west ridge and then cross over to the east ridge and try to climb that to reach the base of the peak. So we set out across a wet boggy flowery meadow to the rocky west ridge and started to climb. After climbing up over one hundred feet I accidentally grabbed onto a loose rock, which began to move. Luckily, as we had planned, Kyle was not behind me but about fifteen feet lateral from me. I quickly realized that we may be in trouble as I was loosing my balance. The large rock rolled out of its position and struck a few other rocks that also began to move. This set numerous other large rocks into motion and this quickly developed into a small rock slide. The rocks under my feet were also loosening and I scrambled to find rocks that would support me and not move. I basically clawed at the rocks with my hands to keep from falling back and being crushed by the big rocks. Kyle was also trying to steady his position. Finally I grabbed a boulder that was stable and got a foothold as well. The rocks continued to rumble down the slope, carrying other rocks with them along the way and, most noticeably, one round boulder that probably weighed about a ton. My heart was racing as I looked across to Kyle, whose eyes were as big as saucers. With the tiny bit of breath I could muster I could barely gasp out, “Shit.”

We climbed our way up the rest of the ridge with extreme caution and approached the patch of snow, which measured approximately 50 feet wide and 250 feet long. While standing next to the edge of it we could hear running water underneath it and this made us nervous because the icy snow was most definitely rotten and unstable, but it was the only way to cross without going all the way back down to where we started. We found a place to cross where there were some boulders poking through the ice, and we simply ran across the icy snow from one boulder to the other until we had safely crossed the snow. We found the snow to be more densely packed and stronger than we had anticipated. In front of the cliffs were strange formations created by erosion that looked like something out of a Road Runner cartoon. The formations were simply columns of mineral dirt, rocks, and debris that were about twenty to thirty feet tall with straight vertical sides, and at the top of each column was a huge boulder. Our immediate surroundings made us feel like we were on the surface of Mars, or some other place not of this world.

We made our way to the other ridge and were faced with an almost 2,000 foot climb up a very steep rocky slope with no end in sight. It seemed impossible but we were determined. Carefully we climbed and climbed and we found that breathing became harder and harder. The sun was beating down on us relentlessly as the temperature rose. If we fell backwards there was no way of telling where we would land but it was certain that we would land on large sharp rocks. We proceeded carefully.

About 75 feet from the top, I thought my heart and lungs were going to implode and the slope seemed as endless as ever. Matt’s altimeter watch, which I had borrowed for the climb, read 12,900 feet, which meant that we had another 1,000 feet to go! It was then that a couple of climbers passed us by on their way down from the peak, and one of the men said, “You’re almost there!” With a confused look on my face I asked, “How far?” He replied, “Within spitting distance, about 50 to 75 feet.” After a brief conversation, he noticed the altimeter watch and asked me what it read; I told him and we both understood that it was way off. I asked how they planned to get back down, and he said, “Well, I’m still working on that part.” He then continued down and I had a burst of adrenaline that sent me at a quick pace right up to the top, and I yelled to Kyle that we had made it-13,821 feet-it was the highest either of us had ever climbed.

It was now 12:30 in the afternoon and the sky was bright and clear for the most part. The view was breathtaking. We could see for what seemed like hundreds of miles in every direction and we could even see the valley and the tiny place in the trees where our campsite was some 6 miles away and 3,500 feet down. All of the peaks around us looked just like enormous rocks with snowy patches on them. Besides me and Kyle there was also a young couple from Santa Fe with two dogs (how they got the dogs up there I will never know). They took a picture of me and Kyle with my camera, and I returned the favor by doing the same with their camera. At the very top of the rock peak we found a large rock with a 5-inch diameter round bronze seal embedded into it. The seal, from the U.S. Geological Survey, stated the elevation and that removal of the seal would result in a $250 fine. Kyle then spotted two white dots down in the meadow below headed for The Window, and we remembered that Matt and Jess were wearing white shirts. I took my signal mirror out from my pack and signaled them, and we later found out after returning to camp that they had seen the signal. Kyle and I sat on the north edge of the peak, which had an over 1,000-foot vertical drop, and ate a couple of Kudos bars while perched in this dangerous and precarious position.

At that altitude we were also able to see cloud patterns and weather changes, and we paid special attention to a huge thunderstorm to the south. We soon discovered that it was growing in intensity and was headed in our direction. At 1:00 p.m. we decided to end our short visit to the summit and climb back down to avoid the possibility of becoming lightning rods. Climbing back down was every bit as treacherous as getting up there. We were very careful but we made good time, especially on our descent down the edge of the east ridge, which in one part consisted of very small pebbles, and we were able to basically slide down as if it were a sand dune. We climbed down a dried-up stream bed and made our way back down and across the flowery meadow at a very fast pace. We made it all the way back to base camp by about 3:30 p.m., right after Matt and Jess returned to camp. After performing some first aid on my feet I decided that tomorrow I would take it easy. Today Kyle and I had hiked more than 12 miles, and I discovered that my hiking boots were not really suitable for the kind of climbing we were doing. Dan cooked a spaghetti dinner with red sauce, and we smoked our pipes in the rain before turning in for the night.

Saturday, August 12

Today I awoke at 7:00 a.m. and restarted the fire again using elk dung. Being the only one up on this sunny morning, I was able to witness a fair amount of campsite wildlife activity, including squirrels, chipmunks, large gray jay birds, and hummingbirds. It is now 9:00 a.m. Jess just emerged from the tent, and I can hear that the others are not far behind. Time to start the day.

Today has simply been a day of just sitting around, which is fine with me considering the shape my feet are in. I took off my socks earlier and found that the blistered part of my left shin that I did not cover the day before scabbed to my sock, which made taking off that sock a real treat. Early afternoon was quite stormy, and it would normally be during this time that we would be hiking (glad we weren’t hiking today). Most of our day was spent sitting around the campfire and talking while swatting mosquitos and blackflies. The rain today has been like the rain we have been typically getting the whole trip-a very heavy mist that penetrates everything. Fortunately our campsite is densely surrounded by thick pines, so we have had a bit of a barrier to the cold mountain mist. Tonight we had macaroni and cheese for dinner. Unfortunately the low-grade pasta and imitation cheese product took on a life of its own during the cooking process. We managed to create a thick gooey paste that eventually settled into a single solid loaf of starchy orange stuff. Kyle referred to this meal as “Cheese Rock.” Like the lackluster meals preceding this one on this trip, we ate our last dinner in the great outdoors. Tomorrow we pack up and hike the 8.5 miles back out to the car and leave this beautiful place.

Sunday, August 13

Last night was very stormy and wet, which made packing up our gear a bit difficult. The temperature had also dropped significantly, and there was a light frost on the grass in the valley. We dried the rain flies of the tents out in the sun in the valley on large rocks. The pine we had used to fuel our fires was heavily saturated with sap and pitch and, by the end of our trip, our cooking pot and hot water kettle had become encrusted with a thick layer of black tar. After collecting the non-burnable garbage generated by us and previous users of the campsite and packing it all up, we hit the trail at about 9:30 a.m.. The weather conditions were great-beautiful sunny skies.

We hiked back down through the valley where our campsite was located, down through the vast meadow, over some streams, down some mountainsides, and through the woods back to the Rio Grande Reservoir. On the way down I found a horseshoe laying on the trail so I picked it up and kept it as a lucky souvenir. We arrived back at the car at about 12:30 p.m., and we were happy to find that the car was in perfect, though dirty, condition. I shed my boots for my Teva sandals and changed into shorts, and soon we had packed the car and we were back on the road. With the car stereo on and the windows open we drove back up the dirt road and onto CO-149, which twisted and turned along the Rio Grande. We did, however, make a quick stop at a grocery store in Creede so that we could buy soap, shampoo, soda, and the junk food that we missed so much while out in the forest.

At first we planned to stay in a hotel in Alamosa but upon arriving there we did not find many accommodations. So we kept driving through the flatlands and past enormous cattle ranches. An interesting feature to mention about these ranches is that the barns behind the houses were not anything like the large wooden barns I have become accustomed to seeing out in the Midwest. Railroad boxcars were painted red and parked out behind the houses to be used as barns. Boxcars probably stood up to the weather elements much better than large flimsy wooden structures.

Eventually we drove to Pueblo, CO, and we decided to stay there for the night. We found a Best Western and, as usual, we told the front desk that we only had three people. We got a nice room with two double beds on the ground floor, and we proceeded to clean ourselves up. What a great feeling it was to be clean again; we felt as if we were civilized human beings once again (or as close to civilized human beings as we could be). We found a pizza place on Santa Fe Blvd. where we could stuff our faces-it was called the “Do Drop In,” a disgustingly cute name. Our pizza was excellent, and Matt, Kyle, and I downed a couple of pitchers of Bud Light. On the way back to the motel, we picked up a twelve-pack of Natural Light. Upon returning to the motel at 10:30 p.m., all of us except Jess decided to go swimming. The small pool was closed and the lights were off, but it was outside and there was no fence around it so we jumped in anyway. In our semi-drunken state we were quite loud and obnoxious, but we really did not care. We also took turns trying to grab the branches of a tree hanging over the pool so that we could swing like Tarzan. After going back to the room, I discovered that I lost my key to the room so I went back to look for it on the pool deck and I noticed something at the bottom of the deep end of the pool-it was the key. After having just dried off, I dove in and got the key. After drying off again I joined the others in the room, where we watched TV while drinking more Natural Light before going to sleep.

Monday, August 14

After sleeping late, we left the motel at 11:00 a.m.. Dan drove first, and I slept in the back seat. Then at about 2:45 p.m. near the town of Brush, CO, he turned the keys over to me, and I now had the exciting task of driving through Nebraska once again. We stopped for a late dinner at a Perkins in Kearney, NE, and then, after twelve hours of driving, I drove into the driveway of Matt’s apartment in Ames, IA.

Tuesday, August 15

Dan had slept for a while, so he took the wheel at 4:00 a.m. and we drove down US-30 to join I-80 at the Iowa/Illinois border. At one point in Iowa I was awakened by a jolt against my seatbelt and looked out the front windshield to see two huge deer standing right in the middle of the road-Dan had stopped just two feet short of them. If we had hit them the car would have been totaled. They just stood there, so Dan honked his horn. One jumped off to the side of the road, and the other went the other way, practically leaping over the hood of the car.

As Dan continued driving we got into a huge storm. The storm turned the early morning sky completely black, and at the edge of the darkness was an ominous roller cloud. Driving through the storm was like trying to drive through a swimming pool. At about 7:00 a.m., however, Dan started to fall asleep at the wheel so after minimal sleep I got back at the wheel while Jess and Dan slept. The storm was producing huge amounts of lightning and rain, and I was afraid a gust of wind would throw the car off the wet road and into a corn field. At one point I stopped under an overpass that did not already have two or three cars hiding underneath it. I eventually started up again and drove at 40 miles per hour with the hazard lights on. Eventually, on I-80, the rain let up, and I realized that we were near the leading edge of the storm again, so I floored the accelerator and we burst through the front of the storm at 90 miles per hour. We hit the Tri-State 294 just in time for Chicago rush-hour traffic and, at about 10:00 a.m., we arrived back at Dan’s house with the car and its occupants tired but intact. We got through another adventure and lived to tell about it. Mission accomplished.

– Yukon, 8/18/95

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