Dave Shively: Routt County Rite

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— Moving to Steamboat Springs from Durango last fall, I was a little disappointed to learn that the highest point in the county was only 12,180 feet. Often working near Silverton, much of my time was spent in the heart of the San Juan Mountains, home to 13 of Colorado's 14,000-foot peaks -- not that I ever climbed any of them, with the exception of Handies Peak, which doesn't really count. With parking at over 11,000 feet, a lot of folks, including runners in the Hardrock 100 ultramarathon, jog up Handies Peak. It's easy enough that you expect there to be a gift shop with flavored oxygen and nacho cheese at the top, kind of like Pikes Peak.

Throughout the summer, my ape-like instincts have gnawed at me -- the inherent desire to climb to the highest point and get a lay of the land forcing me to look at a map.

Seeing how the nine-mile Mount Zirkel approach from the Slavonia trailhead would require an Alpine start for a one-day mission -- definitely out of the question -- I dug up my backpacking gear only to find my backpack missing.

Tethering and strapping down camping gear to a frameless pack, I hiked in with a couple of friends and made camp in the boggy marsh of the glacial valley beneath the Red Dirt Pass saddle leading to Mount Zirkel.

Rising early to the sound of whining pikas, I was surprised by the amount of snow still filling the basin and covering much of the trails leading up Red Dirt Pass. From the pass, the final pitch to the summit was a short and steep hike through fields of mixed rock and tundra wildflowers swarmed by butterflies.

The impressive view from the summit of Mount Zirkel feels higher than it should, looking west across a barren, rocky expanse at the craggy ridges of Big Agnes. I would've spent more time soaking it in had the dark clouds not rolled in.

Having left our packs atop Red Dirt Pass thinking we would hike back along the Continental Divide on Flattop Mountain, we hurried down from the summit to grab our sleeping pads. Screaming back down the patches of glacier, I vowed to return with nothing less than a Clark W. Griswold greased saucer.

Avoiding the worst of the rain during the exhausting hike down, one necessary rite of passage in moving to a new locale felt fulfilled.

This was my take on what I realize isn't much in the grander scheme of Routt County's avid outdoor enthusiasts. I hope to turn this Sunday Outdoor page into a forum of more breathtaking personal experiences outside of my own scope and to reflect the adventures, profiles and events that define the area in which we live. If you or someone you know has just escaped Maoist rebels to climb a mountain in Nepal, run a first descent of a secluded creek or simply caught the big one in Kremmling, I want to be the first to know.

-- To reach Dave Shively, call 846-1129 or e-mail dshively@steamboatpilot.com

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