Walking to the Moon

This was a dream trip, one I had envisioned for over five years. Back in the summer of ’94, I thought it would be fun to spend time at Moon Lake in the Weminuche Wilderness on the 25th anniversary of the Apollo moon landing. Unfortunately, hot on the heels of the release of my first book, and with the logistical reality a solo trip of this length would entail, I blinked. Moon Lake sits high above Emerald Lake in a remote corner of the wilderness. The thirty-mile round trip carrying my usual 80 pounds of gear just didn’t seem as fun as I’d like the trip to be.

Fast forward to July 1999. After the success of last year’s trip to Sunlight Lake, where I "borrowed" the strong legs and unlimited fortitude of my friend, Dave Paisley, to help me carry all my gear into the wilderness, Moon Lake seemed like the perfect destination for a repeat performance. The 30th anniversary sounded just as intriguing.

Our itinerary started out by four-wheeling over Stony Pass near Silverton, then dropping down to where Bear Creek empties into the Rio Grande. (Yes, THE Rio Grande. Its headwaters are a stone’s throw from Stony Pass.) The trick was to cross the river and follow the rough road up along Bear Creek to the Hunchback Pass trailhead. It had already been a wetter than usual beginning of summer, so fording the river, in prime snowmelt season, might have been a problem. Turned out, it wasn’t. The river runs relatively slow along this stretch, so I was able to stop about halfway through so that Dave could gauge its depth. We figured it was two or two and a half feet deep.

Once at the trailhead, we donned our backpacks and headed up to Hunchback Pass. The clouds had been roiling all morning, but they were keeping their intentions close to the vest. Looking at the sky, it could’ve cleared up and been a beautiful day, or it could’ve suddenly turned angry. Once over the pass, it made its decision. Angry. It started to rain, and thunder rumbled through the valley we were descending. We took shelter in a clump of trees shortly after reaching timberline, wondering what the weather would do. While we waited, the view across the valley was unbelievable. The Guardian, Mount Silex and Storm King Peak, all summits over 13,600 feet high in the rugged Grenadier Range, pierced the gray sky, and ours was a front row seat.

The rain finally abated, so we continued along the trail until we came to a junction that would take us up to Nebo Pass. We would camp below Nebo for the night, then make our way along the Continental Divide Trail to near Rock Lake, our jumping off point for Moon Lake. That was the plan, anyway. Rain moved in and out for the rest of the day, clearing in spectacular fashion right at sunset. I suspected something wonderful was going to happen, so I partially unzipped the tent and stuck my head through the opening, waiting to see a hint of great light. (Looking back now, it must have looked like the tent was giving birth to a big, sweaty redhead!) The sky-spying paid off. The clouds swirled around the Grenadiers, all lit from behind by a setting sun that painted the clouds in brilliant reds, oranges and purples. Wow! The film was flying fast through my trusty Mamiya RB-67.

The rain continued off and on all night, so our plans began to change long before the sun came up. Dave and I arose a few hours before daybreak, with the intention of hiking up to Nebo Pass for sunrise. It was cloudy, but being the eternal optimist, I lead the way. The trail literally follows Nebo Creek for the first few hundred yards, lined with willows still dripping from the incessant rain. I had left my Gortex rain pants in the truck, so I was soaked to the bone within minutes. (Only after returning would I discover my el cheapo rain pants in my backpack. Damn!) But the pass kept tugging me forward. I had heard of an unusual lake with a huge chunk of rock in it just below the pass. I had to see it.

We trudged on through the dark. The higher we got, the more constant the rain became. By the time we reached that rock-strewn lake, it was pouring. Sunrise, if there were to be one, was minutes away. After 15 cold, wet minutes in the non-shelter of a nearby rock outcropping, I looked at Dave, shook my head, and we headed back down to our campsite.

And that’s where we stayed. That day, excluding our aborted photo journey up to Nebo Pass, we probably spent 30 minutes outside the tent. The rest of the time we napped, ate, napped some more, listened to the rain pelt the tent and I, for one, fretted over the missed opportunity. The next morning, certain that rain was our future, we packed up and headed back to the trailhead. A hard rain accompanied us almost the entire way, stopping only briefly as we neared Hunchback Pass, picking up again once we were headed back down the road.

On the drive out, we stopped to give a ride to a young newlywed couple who was spending their honeymoon hiking most of the Colorado Trail. The road was a sloppy mess. They cheerfully sardined themselves and their packs with our packs in the back of my truck, and off we went. But there was one other thing weighing heavily on my mind. After three days of steady rain, what was that river crossing going to be like?

When we neared the Rio Grande, I asked Dave to go back and warn our "guests" of what was about to happen, and to leave the back hatch of my topper open, just in case they had to jump out if the truck started floating downstream. Dave went up to the river’s edge and tossed a big rock into its deepest spot. "It’s much deeper," he said, a noteworthy look of concern on his face. While he stayed at the truck, I went up to do my own depth test. It was clearly a foot or more deeper. It was also the only real obstacle between me and a pizza in Creede. I walked back and said, "It looks the same. We’re going for it."

I hit the water, and a huge wave rolled over the hood of the truck. Too late to stop now, I gunned it, parting the river like Moses parted the Red Sea. We lurched onto the far bank and a large, hissing cloud of steam engulfed us, remnants of the mighty river meeting the hot steel of my engine block. From the back of the truck, the newlyweds hooted and hollered.

And the pizza with pepperoni and tomatoes tasted oh so good.

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Postscript: On May 31, 2000, Dave Paisley lost his life while leading a climbing party down from a successful climb of 16,421-foot Mount Bona in Alaska's Wrangell-St. Elias National Park & Preserve. While checking on the strength of a snow bridge he had marked with concern on the way up, the snow bridge failed. Dave fell into a deep crevasse and was buried almost instantly. Despite attempts by his fellow climbers to rescue him, he remains forever entombed where he fell.

Not a trip to the mountains goes by without thoughts of Dave running through my head. He was, quite simply, the most enjoyable trail companion I've ever known. We spent long tent-borne hours talking about life, love and obscure heavy metal bands of the 1970s. It sounds like a cliché to describe him as the nicest guy one could ever meet, but in Dave's case, that was true. Besides our off-trail friendship, I only had the opportunity to backpack twice with him, but we had many future trips planned.

The world was a better place with Dave Paisley a part of it. . .

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