The idea of wilder­ness

Backpacker - - EDITORS’ CHOICE AWARDS -

is to cre­ate a place apart. Peo­ple may come and go, but their mark never re­mains. Th­ese are the words run­ning through my brain when the trail we’re fol­low­ing in the Weminuche tucks un­der late-sea­son snow and van­ishes. There are no blazes, no cairns, no sig­nage, noth­ing that says which way to go ex­cept that pri­mal hu­man in­stinct to keep go­ing up. We’re headed to Chicago Basin, a back­coun­try drainage hid­den be­tween a trio of Four­teen­ers deep in south­ern Colorado’s San Juan Range. It’s grand and ornery and needs lit­tle in­tro­duc­tion to read­ers of this mag­a­zine. Tak­ing the nar­row- gauge train to the Weminuche bound­ary is a wilder­ness pil­grim­age.

It’s such a pop­u­lar pil­grim­age, in fact, that you can count on plenty of com­pany in sum­mer. But not in spring. For if there is a way to im­prove upon per­fec­tion, it’s to dress it in snow. Noth­ing else can im­prove both beauty and soli­tude. And so in we go, packs tot­ter­ing with skis and boots, trust­ing our feet to find the way.

After 4 miles through deep for­est and across half-frozen creeks, Chicago Basin does not dis­ap­point. Moun­tains crowd all around. From our base­camp, the slopes seem to go up for­ever, gain­ing mar­bling by the ver­ti­cal foot un­til their sum­mits gleam like light­houses in an ocean of wilder­ness. The first day, we head up into the clouds on 13,125-foot Mt. Kennedy to a sad­dle pounded by wind and the first side­ways snowflakes of a brew­ing storm. There is no skin track. There is noth­ing but the el­e­ments that mat­ter: snow, rock, and evergreen. We de­scend snowy aprons into the trees and ride the high all the way to camp. The sec­ond day ar­rives with 6 inches of fresh ac­cu­mu­la­tion, as if the wilder­ness has torn off a sheet of pa­per to re­veal a fresh one.

Our tents are lit with the eclipse light of a snow- caked fly and even our skin track is gone. We make a new one, this time to the alpine park­land and steep shoul­der of 14,058-foot Sun­light Peak, where a lull in the wind grants ac­cess to the top. It’s a sight to be­hold, all ice cas­tles and frozen moats, and we float down to the sad­dle and back to our camp. We know we’ve got­ten away with some­thing to get such a fa­mous place to our­selves, but we also know we earned our re­ward. In wilder­nesses like the Weminuche, soli­tude is writ­ten in ice. But let win­ter keep oth­ers away. In the fol­low­ing pages, you’ll find plenty of gear to help get you there, and you should al­ready have what you need most: de­sire. – Casey Lyons

The fi­nal push up Sun­light Peak

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