Friday, August 8, 2014


Venable Peak and the Phantom Terrace
Venable.  I still breathe a sigh of contentment from that epic backpacking trip I took with 2 friends in the Sangre De Cristo mountains in southern Colorado.  The friends were Owen Frey and Nick Rieth. We worked together at the time and had arranged for a short trip away before cold weather and heavy snows kicked in for the year.  We had camped overnight in a county park at the bottom of the mountain, just west of the small farming community of Westcliffe, Colorado.  We arose, cool in the fall morning air and backpacked up the mountain, all day long. 
Camping at the County Park
We followed the drainage that turned into a stream up to camp beside a mountain lake at 12,000 feet, just below 13,000 foot Venable peak that night.  On the way up, I remember sitting along the trail eating lunch when I saw a flash of color zip by me, it was Owen, who’s sleeping bag had come free of his backpack and was rolling down hill toward the steam.  He caught it right at the ledge, just before it tumbled down into the cold water.  Owen had never been seen moving that fast before or since.
The trail followed this stream most of the way up
Nick & I at the Wilderness Boundary
Taking a break along the trail
Seriously fast reactions to save the day
We entered a wilderness area and noticed the trail became more rough with lots of loose 6 inch rocks everywhere you stepped.  At 11,000 feet we reached an alpine lake where a fire was still smoldering beside the trail from someone who camped there the night before.  We put out the fire and wandered around the ruins of a mountain cabin there.  It was SO very peaceful with awesome views.  I found Nick following at the zig-zag line of the trail inching far above us on the right side of the mountain.  We looked at each other and smiled, then leaned in to it and climbed the beast.
Venable Peak view from Alpine Lake at 11,000

Campsite at the upper Alpine Lakes

Smiling Nick has no comment
Owen tying a fly
At that next summit were another two alpine lakes along a bench with somewhat level ground where we setup camp.  No sooner than we had shed our packs the sky opened up and dumped hail and popcorn snow on us.  Clouds surrounded us, hiding the views.  The fall weather passed quickly and stayed cold.  It was near the end of the backpacking season and before a week we would need snowshoes and ice climbing gear just to proceed. Owen already had his fishing rod out and was casting for fish along the lake shore.  Nick and I setup tents and eventually got dinner ready while we watched the sun set on the Wet Mountains to the east of us.  When you sat here you could follow the way the tortured earth had folded upon itself in the ridge edges all around.  Fog rolled in and out.  When we could see the stars they were so intense, you could not make out the major constellations.  Our trail for the morning was called the Phantom Terrace, and we could see no sign of where it crossed the cliff face to our west, where the map showed we would go.

Nick at the Phantom Terrace

The view down

More of the Phantom Terrace
Owen leads off
Morning dawned bright and cold.  I’ll never forget the sunrise colors.  We strode along for another 30 minutes up hill before coming to the beginning of the Phantom Terrace.  It was a narrow path, cut 2-3 feet wide that followed a strata line across the east face of Venable peak.  It was 1000 feet above us to the peak and a 1000 feet below us to the alpine lake we passed yesterday.  The trail tilted downhill and clung to the mountain side.  At first it seemed wide and easy, but as the morning breeze picked up, I was gripping the rock wall with both hands, inching along with my backpack seemingly hanging over the abyss.  There was a place where the rock trail had fallen away, with a big stretch across the gap while clinging onto cracks in the rock. I made it, somehow and continued along.  A few feet later, I looked back to see Nick just walking along like he was on a sidewalk, his large, tall backpack swinging left and right with no apparent fear of falling.  I made it to the top, exiting the narrow trail by an old sign post, and picked up a broken sign that laid on the ground.  Nick finished OK, right behind me.  Owen strolled along, his internal frame backpack the better choice for balance along these ledges than our external frame, top-heavy packs designed for flatter trails back east.  Owen took a photo of us.
We reached the pass

Me, the Wet Mountains to the east are behind me
Owen taking a break
The view south to Crestone Peak
Pika-ville and Marmot World
The view west across the San Louis Valley to the dark line of the San Juan Mountains
The break at the top was long and rewarding with clear views west across the San Louis Valley 3000 feet below us and all the way to the San Juan mountains miles away across the high desert valley.  We were north of the Great Sand Dunes and could see the ragged peaks of Crestone, Humbolt and Mount Adams south of us. Pikas and marmots squeaked from the rocks.  Birds coasted on thermals above and we listened to the never ending wind.  We followed the ridge-line south to another 13-er, Comanche Peak, then turned back east and downhill. 
The trail back down
Owen is lost in the Aspens along the trail
More aspens
On down, down and down
The hike down was fairly easy, passing a much larger alpine lake than the one we passed yesterday. We passed a pack train of horses coming up the mountain, with a man setting up a camp for next week's hunt.  He hunts here every year and was very friendly.  The fall colors were better here than on the other side of the mountain and we lost ourselves among the aspen during breaks.
We were all lost in Aspen Glow
Thanks to Nick and Owen for supplying some of the photos and for spending that great time outdoors together.  Venable will always be a favorite trail for me.  One day, I plan to go back, setup a camp at the 11,000 foot lower Alpine Lake and day hike the area above treeline for a few days with ultralight gear.  

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