Last year I started a new tradition of mountaining for my birthday, continuing this year in the beautiful (and relatively remote) towns of Silverton and Ouray, Colorado. Of course, in true Sarah’s birthday tradition, there was snow. And mountains! And coffee.
I had been dreaming this trip up for months; I hadn’t yet been to Silverton (my planned trip was postponed in favor of going to Lake City to meet up with my badass runner friend Trish) and basically I’ve been wanting to get back to Ouray ever since the last time I was there in March. In sharp contrast to my usual running trips, I had wild designs to stock up on all sorts of pre-made food from Whole Foods, so I might eat like a queen on the road. With a full cooler, piles of sleeping bags and blankets, and a new playlist, I + dogs left Leadville on the morning of my birthday for the 4.5 hour drive to Silverton.
I make a lot of jokes about how I live in the middle of nowhere, but the truth is Silverton is the middle of nowhere. It’s a tiny, ragged town (both tinier AND more ragged than Leadville, which is apparently possible) situated so deep in the middle of the mountains that it’s only accessible by gnarly mountain passes. Red Mountain Pass, from Ouray, is so gnarly in fact that it’s closed nearly every day now for construction because the outer lane is falling off and they’re trying to blast deeper into the mountain so the future pass can be more than one single lane. Red Mountain Pass (also called the Million Dollar Highway, which is great because I think at this point they’ve spent WELL over a million dollars on this road and it makes me think of Dr. Evil saying “one MILLION dollars”) is named for the iron oxide in the slopes of the surrounding San Juans (it’s true, they’re really red, the San Juans of Silverton and Lake City are extremely large piles of red dirt). I just found an amazing article (http://www.durangoherald.com/article/20140624/NEWS01/140629751/Highway-to-hell-) that says not only is Highway 550 one of the 12 most dangerous roads in the world, but also that it is notorious for having the highest avalanche danger per mile, and this beautiful piece of prose “the narrow road winds through the mountains like a drunk crazily stumbling, and there’s no guardrail to protect cars attempting hairpin turns from hurtling into the jagged ravines that lie, stunning and ominous, hundreds of feet below.” In fact, there are no guardrails because it would be too hard to push the snow off, and let me tell you, the stories of snowplow driver deaths are so harrowing that I can’t even fathom how much that job pays at this point.
Anyway, I rolled into Silverton, was amazed by the decrepit and tiny town I found, then promptly drove up a Jeep road looking for a campsite. What I stumbled upon was EPIC. Up on a hillside, miles into the wilderness, waterfall in proximity, spectacular mountain views. “Welcome to Silverton, Sarah, please enjoy this, the best campsite of all time, in honor of your birthday.” I almost considered setting up a tent and making a campfire, but chose instead to bunk down in the back of Hooptie in a cozy, warm nest, and read until I fell asleep.
Waking up in the morning in your truck in the middle of nowhere, there’s not a lot to distract you. You get your chameleon cold brew out of the cooler, throw some nutella on a tortilla, and put your running shoes on. I’m not gonna lie, you guys, I rarely even change clothes for the duration of a running trip. Who’s going to care? The mountain? Then you run all day, sleep all night. You’re limited to the food you brought with you (plus the Snickers and Coke you’ll inevitably buy when you go into town later), so I pretty much eat Nutella and tortillas, pb&j’s, and on this particular trip chips and (fancy) buffalo fake chicken wraps (for the two days they lasted). And I don’t even care. At home I wouldn’t touch a pb&j at this point I’m so sick of them, but sitting on the tailgate between trails it’s pb&j mow time. Read by headlamp, fall asleep. The next day is much the same: wake up, drink cold brew, eat Nutella and tortilla, put on yer shoes. Run mountains, come back for lunch, run more mountains, go into town. Snickers and Coke. Find a new camping spot.
Then I was in OURAY. I fucking love Ouray. Headed up to Mt. Sneffels (I know.) it’s immediately obvious that there’s a whole lot of snow above 12k. Sneffels, from Ridgeway to the West, actually has incredible vertical prominence (7,200) for the Colorado Rockies, and as this section of the San Juans have very distinct jaggedness and striped ridges, she was named for a volcano in Iceland, Snaefell, that appears in Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth. Apart from some silly Kansas tourists who don’t know the number one rule of Jeep roads (if you can’t drive faster than you can walk, then you or your car don’t belong) the drive in to Yankee Boy Basin was absolutely spectacular and fully otherworldly. I parked a ways below the basin for the extra mileage and headed out, woefully under prepared (while I suspected I would come across snow, I didn’t manage to bring spikes, wool socks, or gaiters). The trail up Sneffels crosses the basin, heading to Blue Lake Pass, then you take a sharp right to climb a crazy steep gully all the way to the ridge. It was actively snowing pretty good, and near the sharp right I ran into a guy hiking with his dog. “I was heading to Blue Lake Pass but there’s blizzard conditions! Where are you going?” I smiled awkwardly and lied through my teeth, “Oh, just hiking until I feel like turning around.” He accepted my terrible lies and went on his way, and I took the sharp right and started climbing the gully full of two feet of wet snow.
The climb made me question my sanity, as usual, because when you’re climbing so steep that you can barely ascend in the snow, how do you think you’re going to get down? And as usual, I relegated that question for later thought and powered up. The ridge boasted stupidly hard gusts of wind, and I thought about the TH sign that warned of the wildly high winds (up to 200 MPH!!) one might find on the Sneffels ridge. I pulled my buff over my face and carried on. By the time we made it to the summit, Lu was coated in wet snow (and a little pissed) and I was trying to remember how long it had been since I felt my feet. We paused long enough to turn my phone on and hope that it would stay on despite the cold for the 15 seconds to take this selfie:
then turned around. Tramping through the thigh deep snow on the ridge was cold but fine, and an excellent preview of winter. Descending the gully was about as I expected (not possible without spikes) so I took advantage of the lack of exposure and excellently slippery wet snow and glissaded almost the entire way. When we were back in the basin, Lu gave me the familiar “you can’t be serious, we’re going back already?!?” look and I wish you could argue with dogs sometimes because it was very different than the “you can’t be serious, why the fuck are we up here!?!” look that she had on no less than an hour ago. The basin offered stunning Northerly-ish views that I hadn’t noticed on the way in:
Descending to where we parked took us below snow altitude and apparently out of the storm going on in and around the basin; it was sunny and hot and I had to strip all the winter gear in a hurry. Back in Ouray it was nearly summer again. We ran the Ouray Perimeter trail and it further and further cemented my mad love for this teeny tiny town. Also, this is great, I found a campground on the edge of the city
My speculation is that because you can drive your rv’s and trailers into Ouray from the North, but to camp anywhere you’d have to take them up on Red Mountain Pass or on one of the various Jeep roads (towards Sneffels or Imogene Pass or off of Auditorium), the alternative is to park in town I guess. Get a Coke in town, pb&j, find a place to camp, read by headlamp until you fall asleep. Wake up, drink cold brew, nutella on a tortilla, put on yer running shoes. Find a mountain, run up it. Pb&j. Repeat. Coke in town, find a place to camp, read by headlamp, fall asleep.
What all of this means is: I love the simplicity. There’s no distractions. I always bring my journal but I almost never write in it, unless it’s to record one of my profound breakthroughs during a run (here’s one from Silverton, it’s fucking gold: we’re not looking for anything, we’re trying to find ways to sacrifice more and pay the price of freedom-for it is steep. Sometimes you have to break the things you love, and sometimes you have to love the things you fear; most often both). I run all day, I don’t have to think about what I’m going to eat, it’s just fuel. I don’t have to do work around the house, or go to work. I rarely talk to anybody, and I never, ever feel lonely on these trips, despite that I spend all of my time completely alone. I come back glowing, and it’s because I’m completely rejuvenated. When people say “no worries or cares” I think what worries most people isn’t even the worries-it’s the constant process of making the 3,000 decisions that go into your daily life. Those constant decisions are there in most vacations, too. The simplicity of a running trip…I think I’m onto something.