Celebrating Friendship, Fellowship,
and Flatulence, Volume VI
Flat Top Wilderness, 2006
High meadows and broad vistas
The Flat Tops is a large wilderness area in the middle-western part of Colorado. It is an area of high mountain meadows, steep canyons, and countless small lakes. Our trail departed from the Sweetwater trailhead, which, as luck would have it, was just past the Sweetwater Resort, ancestral home of the 1/2-pound Buffalo burger and strawberry-rhubarb pie ala mode. The whole Sweetwater Resort and Recreational Complex (SRRC) is found at the end of Sweetwater Road, a short car trip up the Colorado River from Glenwood Springs. (For those of you who wish to split hairs, there is a road that parallels the river.)
Our plan was to meet at 2:00 p.m. in the public campground at the end of the road, just outside of the SRRC. A dowdier and more homely campground cannot be imagined. It was overgrown, under-developed, unkempt, and ugly. The sites were small, dirty, and the only flat spots to be found were on the road itself. So it was with a sense of uncertain relief that I did not find my fellow MountainGuys there. But where to find them? That was now the problem.
The problem resolved itself. As I pulled into the gravel parking lot outside the Sweetwater Restaurant, (a wholly-owned subsidiary of Sweetwater Resort and Recreational Complex, Inc.), I was greeted with the familiar yodeling of the MountainGuys. There, on the second story balcony, was the rest of the tribe.
“You’re late,” scolded Oliver. I looked at my clock. It was 2:02 p.m.
“You were supposed to be in the public campground,” I responded.
“It was ugly, so we didn’t camp there. We found a much better site here at the resort.”
Our group this year included two new members, Dan S. and Kevin, both of Boulder, CO, in addition to the stalwarts, Oliver, Dan T., me, and Oliver’s dog, Ricochet. As I sat down to join the lunch party out on the balcony, I learned that Dan S. and Kevin were joining the trip just for the first two days, and that this implied a choreographed movement of persons and materiel as complex as any ballet, but without the tights.
The plan was that Kevin and Dan would join for the traditional arrival-night barbeque, the first day of hiking, and then depart after breakfast on Day 2. They would then hike back to the car, drop their packs, pick up their bikes, ride the 15 miles of gravel on Sweetwater Road, the 9 miles of pavement on Exit 133 road, and another 15 miles of bike trail squeezed between the Colorado River and the I-70 to Glenwood Springs. It was a bold plan, and one that ended in near certainty of a soaking in the hot springs there. These are our kind of guys.
One-half pound of ground buffalo is really more than anyone needs, and the strawberry-rhubarb pie (ala mode) was really more than any of us could comfortably finish, but by 3:00 p.m. we were done with lunch and ready to head back to the campsite to sort food and get ready for the arrival-night barbeque. Oliver, as usual, had done an excellent job of provisioning the trip. There were but two problems to overcome: 1) winnowing down the provisions to an amount that we could carry and might really eat, and 2) finding a way to make the new guys carry pretty much all of the food on the first day. Neither task was easy, but in the end, we got the job done.
Dinner that first night was fine fare, consisting of pork and chicken kebobs, grilled corn, roasted tomatoes, grilled skirt steak, grilled vegetables, buffalo sausage, and fresh apples. Wines once again were supplied by Mt. Vernon Vineyards, this time a 2003 Pinot Noir and a 2003 Cabernet Franc. Despite the festivities, all of the MountainGuys were in bed by 9:30 in anticipation of an early start the next day.
Day 1: "They ain't flat 'til you get to the top" (8 miles)
We were greeted that first morning with bright, clear skies. Kevin was up before first light, readying his pack and checking and double-checking his lists. I was momentarily hopeful once I realized that someone else was up first, but Kevin does not drink coffee, so his first act was not to heat water. Shame. Oliver and Dan T. were up shortly after me, but all that was seen or heard of Dan S. was a muffled voice from the tent, cursing the cold, swearing he wouldn’t arise before the sun was on his tent, and complaining that all the clods outside were making too much noise for him to sleep.
Dan did finally get up, bitter about having to emerge before the sun arrived, but up nonetheless. Preparations were quickly made. A breakfast of bagels, cream cheese, tomatoes, buffalo sausage, coffee, juice, and fruit was laid out and quickly consumed. Packs were packed with crisp efficiency, the cars were loaded, and the MountainGuys were on their way to the trailhead parking lot and ready to hike by 9:15 a.m. Uncanny.
Crisp efficiency in the morning
A short, steep jog up a gravel road from the parking area led to the trailhead. The Shingle Peak trail and the Turret Creek trail led off through a gate on the right; our trail, the Sweetwater Creek trail, led off through a gate on the left. The first two miles climbed at a moderate but steady pace. The hiking was pleasant, through meadows and aspen groves. Aspens higher up the slopes were already turning yellow, and the occasional renegade aspen was turning red, but at the lower elevations the leaves had yet to turn.
Map of our trail through the Flat Tops
This was our first encounter with the open-meadow hiking with which we would become so familiar, and the miserable “bushwhack” bushes that would become an object of grave annoyance, if not dread. Hiking poles were of limited use, as they just hung up on the bushes—the bushes were stiff enough that they could not easily be pushed aside. Complicating the use of the poles was the tendency of the trail to be in a six-inch-deep rut, dug up by countless horses and pack mules, and liberally decorated with horse poop. In many places through the meadows, two and three trails would run along parallel to each other, the oldest trail a foot deep, another trail but six inches deep, and the newer trail more or less at ground level. Regardless the age of the trail, it was still decorated with horse poop.
Shortly after crossing into the Flat Tops Wilderness, about a mile and half from the trailhead, we passed a junction between the Sweetwater Trail and Rim Lake Trail. Ours was the latter trail, which, since Oliver picked it, proceeded up at a fairly steep incline. From the junction to Rim Lake is an elevation gain of about 2,600 feet over a span of six or so miles. Though steep in places, the trail was well graded and most of the climb was in the shadows of a beautiful forest of pines, spruces, and firs. These were among the largest trees we would encounter over our six days of hiking. A fire had gutted most of the area perhaps 20 years before, and almost all of the large trees were snags or deadfall.
Rim Lake is a pretty little lake perched just behind the ridgeline. The trail follows the stream that empties out of the lake through a low notch in the ridge, and weary hikers are treated to a view of the lake as they round the corner through the notch. A couple of mules were grazing alongside the trail as we reached the lake. As a veteran of last year’s Kings Canyon turf wars, pitting hiker against hiker and man against bear, I was immediately filled with dread that we would once again find ourselves in the company of thousands of other campers. Fortunately, such concerns were unjustified. The mules belonged to a fisherman who had rode over from Turret Creek for the day, and though he was wet to his waist and was sporting a broken fishing pole, he was nonetheless a happy fisherman. In his bag was a five-pound trout, which he had caught on a red and silver spinner that was itself as large as most of the trout I have caught over the years.
First-night campsite at Rim Lake
Our camp that first night was on a small hill overlooking the lake. A well-developed fire ring told us that the site had been used quite a few times before, but even so, sleeping spots were hard to come by. Much of the hilltop was covered by the infernal bushwhack bushes, and the bare spots, though level enough, featured every variety of hillock, hummock and hump. Forest duff was scarce. The hillside behind the campsite was forested, but it was too steep to offer any sleeping spots.
One of the challenges we faced throughout the trip was finding a good food-hanging tree. We started the trip carrying no less than 70 pounds of food, and there wasn’t a live tree in that whole forest that had branches large enough to hold that much weight. Kevin and I scouted the hillside for about 10 minutes before finding a snag that was canted over at about a 30-degree angle and propped on another tree. Though not ideal, it would have to do.
Kevin secured a modest rock and tied it onto the pilot line. His first heave fell short. His second heave fell short. His third heave was mighty and almost dislocated his shoulder, but it too fell short. I stepped to the plate. Using a technique first popularized by David in his confrontation with Goliath, but currently out of fashion in this land of the manly overhand throw, I swung the rock around and around, and at just the right moment I let go. Up, up, up went the rock, neatly falling over the snag—about 50 feet up. A Well Hung Badge for sure. When the time came to hang the food, the snag could be heard creaking and groaning under all the weight, and there was no way we could counterbalance the sacks high enough. Dan S. had to pull all of that food up without the benefit of the counterbalance. Were it not for Kevin and Dan T. holding onto Dan’s belt, he probably would have ended up at the top of the tree while the food was back on the ground. There was that much food.
Dinner that first night was chicken burritos cooked over the fire. Onions and red and yellow bell peppers were sautéed in olive oil, and the chicken and spices were added. The whole mixture was then combined with refried black beans and served on heated tortillas with cheese. The burritos proved to be a bit messy, but nothing was left over to feed the fire and we all went to bed feeling fat and happy.
MountainGuys at Rim Lake
The moon that night rose as the sun was going down, and would be full in three days. We would not get much star gazing with such a bright moon, but it did make getting up in the middle of the night to pee a lot easier.