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Buffalo Peaks Will Have to Wait

September 04, 2016  •  Leave a Comment

Buffalo Peaks Will Have to Wait

I am now fairly confident that when faced with the option of running or getting out of the way, it is best to get out of the way of a charging moose.  More on this later.  First, let’s talk about creeks.

This year I found creek routes in the Colorado mountains are great for backpacking-summit combinations.  Since I wanted to do more backpacking this year but didn’t want to give up too many mountain summit climbs, creek paths seemed to be the way to do that.  

Creeks offer access to water. Without access to water, backpacks get weighty because of the need to carry more water - then add camping and sleeping gear. Of course, lighter packs allow for quicker and less strenuous treks. Creeks also provide soothing white noise which helps mask those things you think you hear when sleeping in the woods.  And with surrounding trees, creeks are a cool place to relax on hot summer days. Creeks in gulches lead to saddles between mountains, which connects to a summit.  

It’s a good thing Colorado has hundreds of creeks to explore.  The hard part is deciding which one.  I chose another sparsely populated Wilderness Area this time. Surprised?  

East of the Sawatch Range is the Mosquito Range.  Contained in its southern region is the Buffalo Peaks Wilderness Area which is shared by San Isabel National Forest and Pike National Forest. Buena Vista rests in the Arkansas River Valley between the two ranges.  It’s from here we head north on highway 371 for a short distance until reaching highway 375.  The last mile and a half of this road becomes a 4WD road before reaching the Fourmile trailhead.

Let the adventure begin!  The destination is East and West Buffalo Peaks, twin 13,000 foot mountains joined by a saddle of interesting and rugged rock formations. 

I was at the trailhead by 4pm. The trail straddles the Buffalo Peak Wilderness Area boundary for a short distance with Fourmile Creek rushing below. Reaching the creek marks a more direct path into the Wilderness Area. 

The trail closely follows the creek on your right until crossing it just before it branches off to the east.  You’ll rise above this east branch (now on your left) through a mature pine forest before crossing it.  After this crossing you will again enter a pine forest where the trail will twist and become faint at times.  The trail will soon track above the west branch (on your left) and rejoin it before crossing again.  The creek will now stay on your right for the rest of journey up the pass.

 I set up camp shortly before the last crossing. It was just over 2 miles up the trail.

The creek winds through thick willows but with plenty of access points.  It is peppered with beaver ponds.  The beavers have harvested many of the soft aspen trees in areas of their most recent work.  In areas where they have not been busy the aspens grow with aggression.  

I may have mentioned in previous blogs that the weather is mostly unpredictable in the mountains. What was forecasted to be mostly clear turned out to be a night of off-and-on thunder and light rain. It was actually quite pleasant in my hammock. 

The next morning wasn’t much better, but I was hoping the day would clear up.  So I made some breakfast and headed out.

The trail splits just before the last creek crossing. Salt Creek Trail (#618) to the right.  Stay to the left (#617).  The National Geographic Trail Illustrated map (149) will label this trail as the Tumble Creek Trail.  The sign says "Four Mile Creek Trail".  If one were to follow this trail over the pass, beyond the scope of this hike, it would lead through beautiful mountain meadows and eventually meet up with the Rough and Tumbling Creek.  But, that's for another day.

The trail so far has been relatively flat; only 600 feet of altitude gain in the first two miles.  Shortly after this last creek crossing is a 1000 foot gain with a few switchbacks to the top of the pass where you will see a sign post without a sign.

This post marks our turn off point.  We turn right.  But, notice there really isn’t a trail.  That’s right folks, we’re bushwhacking now!  This was my first real solo bushwhacking experience in the Rockies.  I had a GPS map to follow.  I also had my map and compass.  But, truth be told, this is a very short stent through the pines to timber line; it’s maybe a couple hundred yards and it would be hard to get lost. The directions are simple – just go straight up.  I suppose a person could get lost if they ventured too far to the left or right, but it would need to be intentional. Regardless, it’s a comfortable way to learn about navigating.

Soon I was out of the trees and into the steep tundra.  I needed to get above 12,000 feet so I could see the remaining slope and the condition of the summit.  It wasn’t the best climbing conditions.  In fact, slightly above me was shrouded in clouds; wet and cold winds. If I continued, it would be 1200 more feet in elevation – colder, windier, increasing chance of hypothermia.  And the great views of the Sawatch I was looking forward to were not clear.

If I were with a climbing partner I may have continued.  The checks and balances that come with a climbing partner allow for greater risk taking.  But today I was content with resting on this 12,000-foot peak, relatively sheltered from the cold, wind, and rain, and just enjoying the scenery.  

There were small rainbows toward Mount Massive.  The sun broke through occasionally against the foothills and valleys below.  It was nice.  But between the sunbeams were not so friendly looking clouds that were releasing rain and building on a growing potential for lightening.  I don’t mind rain.  It’s the wind, cold, and lightening potential that are the unpleasant elements. 

I made a decision to make a slow descent and head back down to camp.  Some climbers have a more aggressive nature with higher risk tolerances; they have a greater need to summit.  Not this guy.  I simply enjoy where I am, content with the gift of now.  And, with this retreat I have a reason to come back.

Along the trail I see tracks – foot prints, horseshoe tracks, elk tracks, and something else that was less defined I couldn’t identify.  It occurred to me as I was looking over the marshy areas that this is a great habitat for moose.  I’ve always wanted to see one in the wild.  But I also knew that I would rather not see one close up because moose are large beasts that should be avoided as to stay clear of being trampled in its path.  

I like to – no, I need to stay aware of my surroundings every time I am in the wilderness.  Although I’ve never seen a predator, I know they are out here and likely watching me and being evasive, the way I prefer them to be.  So, I’m constantly scanning around me and listening for anything unusual.  For instance, a grunt, an unmistakable grunt of a bull moose. 

As I had just entered the edge of the first marshy area coming down the pass I heard it, the grunt, several of them. I looked toward the sound to see a young bull grunting with every step of his quickening trot.  He was walking parallel to me and 100 feet away.  We caught sight of each other at the same time.  I raised my camera to get off one shot before he went off to the opposite side of the creek with the same sense of urgency as he entered the clearing. I was glad for his good judgement.  At least in my mind I was not a threat.  I was just walking down this trail, minding my own business, not wanting any trouble from a bull moose.  I was thrilled to had seen such a majestic beast in the wild.  (this one had already shed one of its antlers) So far, this was the thrill of the day.

It wasn’t five minutes later I was a few feet from crossing the creek thinking about the awesome day I was having and that I would eat some lunch at camp before packing up and heading home.  Just then I heard another unusual sound, like someone had just kicked up a rock, right behind me.  I turned to see the moose within arm’s length on a full run and now grunting again.  

I may have spoken an expletive as he passed me and turned his head as he galloped away as if to affirm my choice of expression.  What a thrill!  In his approach he had crossed the creek and continued along the side of the creek I was crossing from.  As exciting as that was, I preferred the creek as a barrier between us as I would have a two second head start should we meet like this again.

The rest of the day was relatively uneventful, just a pleasant hike through the pine forests and along the moose-less creek (I checked) on the way back to the trailhead.  I couldn’t wait to get back to tell of this great adventure and to proclaim my confirmation that running is futile while in the path of a charging moose.  Step aside and enjoy the thrill of the experience.  Hike on!



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