Kirk Wolff, of Steamboat Springs, trudges across a mixture of fresh snow and last winter's drifts on the return trip to Slide Lake in the Mount Zirkel Wilderness Area on Saturday.

Photo by Tom Ross

Kirk Wolff, of Steamboat Springs, trudges across a mixture of fresh snow and last winter's drifts on the return trip to Slide Lake in the Mount Zirkel Wilderness Area on Saturday.

Tom Ross: August snow strengthens friends' bonds


— There are times in the life of a mountain woman or mountain man when a little adversity can be a positive thing.

Witness the mild suffer-fest two buddies and I took part in during a long weekend from Thursday to Sunday. Had it not been for the opportunity to trudge up and down 3,400 vertical feet in the midst of a hail/lightning/snow/slush storm with soaking wet boots, the weekend's wilderness jaunt would not have been nearly so memorable.

Trust me, I'll never stop talking about the great August snow blast of '08.

The risk/reward potential of backcountry travel was fresh in my mind this month after reading Karsten Heuer's amazing book, "Being Caribou." It's the story of a newly married couple (Heuer and his wife, Leanne Allison) that spends its honeymoon on a 2,000-mile trek chasing the elusive mosquito caribou herd on its annual migration across the Yukon to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and back. The hardships they overcame along the way make our little romp through the slush seem like a picnic at Fish Creek Falls.

Just the same, my friends and I strengthened our personal bonds by overcoming a little adversity together while keeping smiles on our faces. The only moments we lost our sense of humor came while squatting 100 feet from one another in a dense hail storm while lightning cracked over our heads.

August snow comes as no surprise to me. For the past 20 years, I've had a view of the Flat Tops Mountain from my kitchen window. So, I know that a dusting of snow on the highest peaks is not unheard of in the eighth month of the year. It's one thing to contemplate that summer snow standing in your snug home with a mug of morning coffee and another to tackle a rigorous hike through the storm itself while wearing soaking wet boots.

The snow didn't pile up in the Park Range like it did across North Park in the aptly named Never Summer Range. But, I assure you, the snow in the vicinity of Mount Ethel was very real.

We had a pretty sweet trip put together when we set out from the Rainbow Lake Trailhead in beautiful weather Thursday morning.

There were actually five in our group when you include Jumpy and Calico the llamas. They had been hired to carry some luxury provisions to our wilderness camp at Slide Lake. The edibles on board the llamas included steaks, pork chops, fermented malt beverages, fresh onions and apples. We feasted on tinned appetizers such as smoked oysters and sardines.

We probably would have had to hire at least one llama to bring along a satellite dish, a flat screen and a generator if we'd wanted to watch the Broncos win against the Cowboys. But I don't think that was a very high priority for Jim and Kirk. The only slow motion replays they were interested in were multiple angles of cutthroat trout biting their dry flies.

We awoke Friday morning to low-slung clouds and drizzle. It was perfect weather in which to photograph the waterfalls and wildflowers spread out for 300 yards across a long slope of cap rock just below the lake.

When the drizzle turned into a form of snow best described as grapple, I hunkered down in my tent with a paperback novel. The hardcore anglers continued their pursuit of trout at Upper Slide Lake. They returned to camp in time for a hearty dinner of tuna surprise, spiced up with a couple of cans of green chilis.

After dinner, Jim laid out our mission for Saturday. Even in bad weather, we were determined to hike a vertical 700 feet to the Continental Divide, ferry over about two miles to the next drainage and drop down to relatively inaccessible Roxy Ann Lake.

We knew that meant climbing 1,000 feet back to the Divide on our return.

What we didn't plan on was a freaky electrical storm followed by an unseasonable snowfall that left the trails running with frigid, slushy water.

Happily, Roxy Ann was worth the trouble. The spotted cutts weren't big, but they weren't small, either. And they were eager. I don't know when I've caught and released so many trout on dry flies in a 45-minute span.

We knew we couldn't linger long at Roxy, and we regretfully packed up our rods on schedule. No more than 10 minutes into the hike, it began to hail, and within another 10 minutes, the first rumble of thunder sounded up on the ridge. The hail intensified, and when we noticed a flash of lightning that overlapped the crack of thunder, we hastily put down our packs and metal rod tubes.

Separating ourselves by about 100 feet, we quickly crouched into a position known throughout the Rockies as the "Kiss your heinie farewell crouch."

The storm finally passed, but when we jumped up to march, our feet had chilled. We plodded on through hail turned to snow, then slush, with faith that our toes would warm inside our wet wool socks.

We could not have planned on an August snowstorm, and there's a real chance that had we known what we were in for, we might never have left camp Saturday.

However, all of us agreed that our many years in the mountains were significantly enriched by sharing the great August snow blast of 2008.


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