Lost & Found in the Weminuche

As my wife knows all too well, I have a major map fetish. For that reason, I usually have a pretty good idea in my mindís eye of what a place looks like before I ever set foot in it. Put the emphasis on "usually."

Last September I headed for a trailhead at the edge of the Weminuche Wilderness near Durango. The trail would take me, in about three miles, to the vicinity of Overlook Point, a 12,998-foot point in the wilderness with a commanding view of the Needle Creek Valley and innumerable 13,000- and 14,000-foot peaks. My intentions were to leave late in the afternoon, arrive at my destination in time to take sunset photos, then head back with a headlamp. I often do that. No big deal.

The hike was a delight. It headed north alongside Lime Mesa, past Dollar Lake. Past the lake the trail meandered across the tundra, only hinting at the beautiful view that lay ahead. Rather than heading up to the top of Overlook Point, I continued through a saddle to its east and came around a bend that provided a view as incredible as any I had ever seen. Wilderness as far as the eye could see, with Ruby and Emerald Lakes sparkling hundreds of feet below me, shimmering in the late-day light. As the sun dipped lower in the west, the light on three fourteeners Ė Sunlight, Windom and Eolus Ė and nearly-fourteeners Pigeon and Turret peaks, was stunning. Although they looked menacing, there were harmless dark clouds hanging over the whole of the Needle Mountains. The scene changed constantly as cloud shadows drifted across the sheer faces of the peaks. Just when I thought the light was gone for good, an intense pink glow painted the mountains all around. Somehow, the sun had found a way through the clouds just before it disappeared behind the western horizon.

Once the alpenglow faded, I set off back to the trailhead. As I hiked by Dollar Lake, it got noticeably dark. In the fading light, a silhouette of something big lumbered along the skyline 100 yards from me. Probably an elk, I said to myself, even though my mind conjured all sorts of scary creatures in the dwindling light. I fished around in my fanny pack for my headlamp. I pulled it out, turned it on, and Ė nothing. The batteries were dead. No problem, I thought. Iíve got a little flashlight in my pack. Iíll just steal the batteries from it and be on my way. I fumbled around a while and finally got the batteries changed. Turning the front element of the headlamp, a reassuring beam, albeit weak, shined forth. I was back on my way.

As a general rule, when I know Iíll be hiking back to a trailhead in the dark, I take note of special features or little reminders on my way in, just to help me make it back out. On this hike, everything was looking familiar, even in the dark, even when viewed in the opposite direction. I knew I was about a quarter of a mile from the trailhead. Could dinner in Durango be far away?

Then it happened. The trail disappeared. Somewhere in the darkness, I zigged, and the trail zagged. I backtracked. No trail. I swept diagonally. No sign of it. I had always prided myself in being quite the orienteer, but this was throwing a major monkey wrench in that reputation. As I frantically searched back and forth for the trail, I became breathless with a combination of mild anxiety and exhaustion from climbing over downed timber and up and down trailless gullies. For sanityís sake, I decided to sit down for a little while and catch my breath. The night was warmer than it shouldíve been, thanks to the cloud deck above. And there was no hint of bad weather. I figured I could just prop myself up against a tree and wait until morning. Piece of cake.

Then I remembered that dark shadow moving along the horizon back by Dollar Lake. I knew Iíd think about curious critters large and small all night long, so I decided to make one last attempt to find the trail.

I did one more sweeping arc and BINGO! I didnít hit the trail, but I did stumble onto the four-wheel-drive road I had come in on. I just hung a left and headed back to the trailhead.

Within ten minute I was back at my truck, thanking my lucky stars for that one last try.

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