June 16, 2012
My comfortable room at the Grand Lodge could not lure me to sleep. I have suffered from insomnia since childhood, but I could tell something more than that was at work. Had my constant guzzling of fluids over the past few days failed to prevent altitude sickness? In the wee hours I gulped some more water and I did finally drift off to fitful dreams, only to awaken at 7:00 a.m. with a brain-busting headache. The last time I had a headache like that was when I hiked at Wolf Creek Pass last July. That time I’d driven up from Pagosa Springs at 7,105 feet to the 11,780 foot Alberta Peak for a day hike. This time I’d driven from Pueblo at 4,692 feet to hike at the Black Canyon at 8,000 feet and then driven up to Mount Crested Butte to sleep at over 9,500 feet.
About 20 percent of the population is susceptible to altitude sickness, usually triggered by elevations above 8,000 feet, and my symptoms matched its milder profile: headache, nausea, fatigue, loss of appetite, and sleeplessness. I didn’t ask my doctor for acetazolamide to help with it before I left Bartlesville, so that wasn’t an option. The fast cure is to drop altitude. I needed to heed the old adage of “Hike high, sleep low” and get off the mountain.
So I packed up, cancelled my reservation for the next two nights and checked out of the hotel. I pulled over briefly to snap a few shots of what I’m now calling Crested Brute. I was sad to be leaving the big mountains, but I would attempt a return later in the week, hoping that by then I might have acclimated better. Neither of my parents had altitude sickness when they visited Crested Brute, but I’m just special.
I headed back down to Gunnison at 7,700 feet, happy to see the big W of Western State University, which I took for Welcome this miserable morning, although from the photo you might wonder if it stands for Wal-Mart. My skull felt like it would burst. I forced myself to eat a tiny breakfast at the McDonald’s and took some ibuprofen. My symptoms began to ease after an hour and I reserved a room at the Quality Inn in Gunnison for the next four nights since I wouldn’t be staying with the Hendersons overnight at Taylor Lake either: it has a similar elevation to Mount Crested Butte.
The advice after a bout of this condition is to take it easy for awhile. My method of taking it easy was to go hike 8.25 miles with cumulative vertical elevation changes of over 1,600 feet. It takes all types!
I really did want to hike but I knew I needed to stay around 8,000 feet and be on trails well stocked with people. So I drove over to Hartman Rocks by the Gunnison Airport. This is an 8,000 acre recreation area with over 20 trails, serving hikers, mountain bikers, 4-wheelers, skiers, you name it. It is recommended as a warm-up area to hike to acclimate to the elevation – that’s the ticket!
It is named for a pioneer family and the area did look fascinating as I drove up to the main entrance, or “base area” – a skiing term, I believe. There was a big sign providing details on the area along with a map dispenser. That map would come in handy, even though it only concentrates on the motors-allowed trails. It turned out that my iPhone’s MotionX GPS App also had many of the trails on its terrain map, which helped me navigate in this immense area criss-crossed by trails of various types.
I peered into the camera for some reason at this point – I still had a bad headache, so I’m not sure what my intention was, but it does record my bad habit of ducking down my head to peer over my glasses rather than elevating it to try and peer through my progressive bifocals. If only big lenses from the 1980s were back in fashion, I’d probably do better at this!
Conquering the Main Ridge
Several people were mounting mountain bikes and heading out. An SUV was driving up a steep road which I later found out goes behind the main formation and is popular with rock climbers as well as bikers looking to start up high. I hiked up to the first landing, still below the higher part of the ridge, pausing to rest and drink at a picnic table.
My headache was finally gone and I decided I was good to go on up. I took a video of a mountain biker riding the Collarbone trail while his friend also shot a video of his ride and provided encouragement. I’d walk that trail myself at the end of the day, and those curves were far too steep to walk on; I had to run along some and find flatter side trails for others. I’d never ride a bike on them, but then again, I never even learned how to ride a bike until I was about to finish elementary school!
Speaking of encouragement, a bevy of scantily clad jail bait were running up the hill ahead of me. I’d managed to pick a very steep trail while the ladies were crisscrossing ever higher, putting me to shame. My route got even worse, but at least the steepest section had solid rock for my boots to grip, rather than loose sand and gravel.
Rising another level, I rested again and drank some more, with a cute cottontail keeping a wary watch on me, ready to leap to my assistance…oh, scratch that…ready to leap away if I moved a muscle. I was getting fairly high up, with interesting rock formations scattered about. But the final ridge remained. I shot a 360-degree panorama to record my progress, and posed by a trail sign, delighted that my altitude sickness was gone.
I looked down at some rare trees for this area and could spot Princess in the distant parking lot. The sun was peeking out to make interesting shadows on the convoluted rock formations and different shadings, while a chipmunk took over for the rabbit in monitoring my progress, backed up by N948CA of the Civil Air Patrol overhead. The 20x zoom on my Canon Powershot SX 260 makes me feel like Steve Austin sometimes. I wish it would make the bionic eye sound when it zooms in!
The rocks were now riddled with thin quartz strips and from the top I saw more long ribbons of volcanic intrusions in the granite. I was finally leaving the 160-acre Base Area jointly owned by the City and County of Gunnison and entering the thousands of acres owned by the federal Bureau of Land Management.
I passed a large dead tree and ahead saw an oasis: trees with a bench and a fire ring, although the entire state is under a fire ban right now. One tree had a large hole and I peeked in, discovering a geocache.
I was thrilled by my accidental discovery, although my pleasure was reduced when I realized this area up top is easily accessed from the road system. You can take that steep road I saw earlier and drive right up here for an easy climb to the top of the ridge, something rock climbers do to reach their spots.
Big Brown Lands
The view westward was of rolling brown desert punctuated by protruding rock formations. I left the geocache area by the “V-Drop” trail, reaching an area crisscrossed by vehicle roads. On the eastern side of the ridge a turkey vulture was riding the thermals.
A nearby ridge of stone resembled a prone rock creature, at least to my altitude-addled brain. There were larger veins of milky quartz along here, with large chunks popped out across the ground. Someone had placed a few choice specimens in granite hollows. There were a variety of colors available, and someone had made a stone curbing for a part of this trail.
Some of the shapes and forms of the granite in this area, sans the intrusions, reminded me of the Wichita Mountains back in Oklahoma, while some of its color and mineral distribution reminded me of the pink granite of Oklahoma’s Ten Acre Rock. Interestingly, Ten Acre Rock was mined for pink granite for Oklahoma’s capitol building and Aberdeen Quarry here at Hartman Rocks was mined for Colorado’s capitol.
I heard voices and trooped over to a large stone face to find a piton and ropes. I clambered up a ledge and watched a young lady who was working her way up a rock face with guidance and encouragement from below.
Nearby were some large stone sentinels, and I posed to give them scale, showing that one standing stone puts even Stonehenge’s massive ones to shame. A blue bird flew past and posed in a tree with a snack in its beak. I came across the rock climbers’ vehicle, adorned with a 686 clothing decal. (I had to look that up, since jock clothing is not my forté.)
I stopped up top at one outcropping for a snack break, my lunch for the day consisting of a large PayDay bar. But I would make up for it with a huge dinner later on. The view west showed a rolling brown landscape with occasional protrusions of stone.
Another outcropping looked like a home out of the Flintstones and another like a stone sandwich. A tree popped out of another, bent but not broken. I saw tilted planes of stone looking like part of a loaf of bread…that would be hard bread indeed. Two more dead trees looked to me something like a natural version of something Roxy Paine would do.
I followed the road for awhile, heading back toward the Base Area. The managers have done a nice job of marking trails off for various uses, and periodically close some trails for reseeding and repair. Barriers help delineate trails not meant for motorized vehicles or in a few cases for anything with wheels.
I followed one such trail over the ridge and back into the mountain biking area, with a friendly biker passing by. I caught us exchanging hellos on video. My map showed another hiker-only trail on the north edge of the area, and I trooped over to try “The Ridge“. A gap in the rocks gave a lovely northeast view of a farm down below and purple mountain majesties beyond.
Wow – this was by far the best hike I found in the park. The Ridge trail slowly worked its way up to the north rim of the uplift, with more interesting rock formations, including a huge cleaved boulder which I posed by for some scale. I heard a jet and used my bionic vision on it, then used it again on a blue bird which flew past me and alighted on a tortured tree. Another tree silhouetted against the sky was framed by clouds.
Then I reached the north rim and saw a tremendous panorama. Tomichi Creek flowed below through its floodplain. I walked to where I could site along the rim and show you the difference in vegetation between the Tomichi Creek floodplain on the north and the high desert on the south. I shot a video for a 360 degree panorama of the view, zooming in on a golf course down below.
I couldn’t resist posing up on a pinnacle, showing that while I may suffer from altitude sickness I’m not afraid of precipitous perches. I think Christ the Redeemer up on Corcovado Mountain in Rio may very well be holding his arms out to help balance, now that I think of it!
Walking the Bike Trails
The Ridge Trail then turned back southeast with a series of switchbacks and curves designed for mountain biking fun. I could only maintain my footing through them by running instead of walking. I posed beside another huge boulder.
Golf Course Trail
From up high I had seen trees lining a dry creekbed. This turned out to the trail leading around and down to the golf course. I took it, adding an extra mile to my hike. I was rewarded with a very different trail than all of the previous ones. The doubletrack trail is used by people and horses and sported butterflies and aspens, which I always love, and a small grove of tall trees.
I reached the end, passing through an old fence which had buckled in interesting ways. A new barbed wire fence enclosed the entire area, however. A trail leading along the base of the ridge was closed off, and I had to laugh at the repetitive NO iconography on the trail sign. The golf course was also fenced off; evidently they tried letting people walk from Hartman Rocks along the paths in the golf course, but people strayed across the greens and fairways and that led to it being blocked off.
Bike Trails Wrap It Up
I spotted a hiker sporting what from a distance appeared to be a huge backpack. Was he in training? But then I realized it was some large partially zipped pad…oh, that’s a crash pad used by rock climbers. I’m learning.
I’d hiked a total of 8.25 miles and was rather weary. I checked into my new hotel room and was delighted to find a bathtub with whirlpool jets…I’d forgotten I’d picked that when making the reservation. The warm jets took my cares away and then I dressed for a tasty big dinner at Viva Mexico. I’d survived the altitude and was ready to take on pinnacles and needles the following day.