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Local hikers dodge rattler, enjoy summits

Rattlesnake!

The word sends chills up a person’s spine, and I almost stepped on one.

Typically, rattlers warn intruders to beware of their presence by coiling into a defensive position and letting loose with an unmistakable, angry buzzing rattle, but not this time. Kathy and I, along with Lucy Chocolate Lab and Lily Golden Retriever, were in one of our usual “ off the beaten path” environments: the parched and desolate high desert BLM lands between Salida and Saguache, west of the Sangre de Cristos.

Another name for this type of landscape is “no man’s land” where varmints, such as the rattler, are comfortably at home, never expecting to be bothered by humans.

We were descending 8,738-foot Copper Butte’s east-facing slopes — very carefully. While not unusually steep, the terrain’s loose, pebbly footing was complemented with scads of dark rock and intermittently blanketed with nasty cactus. So much cactus that even Lucy had a distaste for this hike. She was weary of being a cactus needle pincushion, frequently raising a paw as a signal asking for help. Rather than roam freely as she usually does, Lucy chose to safely position herself between Kathy and me as we alternated guiding leash-bound Lily through the cactus maze.

Indirectly, the cactus-covered terrain benefited the dogs for I, being in front, saw the snake first. If Lucy were in front, she might have wanted to hunt the snake, while Lily might have tried to befriend it. Neither approach would have been a good idea.

I estimated the lethargic snake’s length, from the tip of its final tail rattle to the end of its pit viper head, to be three feet. The lethargy possibly could have been due to the cold-blooded reptile’s body temperature matching the early October mid-50s air temperature. However, more likely, the snake’s thick-bodied middle indicated that it was slowly digesting a recent meal, probably a small rodent, and couldn’t move speedily or aggressively.

Copper Butte rises in barren isolation, partially encircled by a horseshoe of forested ridges whose highpoint is 10,550-foot Saguache Peak. The butte, easily visible from the west side of U.S. Highway 285, is accessed by a variety of flat, BLM Jeep tracks. Not being particularly copper-colored, the butte’s southern slopes include a tract of private property with a run-down, but apparently still-occupied residence. My map also identified a gulch on the private property as Profit Gulch and I wondered if the butte is or once was the site of a marginal, probably unprofitable, copper mining claim.

Our cross-country route up Copper Butte was obvious, mostly requiring us to merely zig-zag around, through, and over cactus and rock obstacles while passing scattered junipers and healthy yuccas. The dogs seemed to be tip-toeing with us up a simple, south-facing ridge to the broad and breezy highpoint.

While not spectacular, our summit vistas were expansive and pleasant. Sitting on unevenly shaped, blackened boulders, we ate lunch and looked down upon the sprawling flats known as the San Luis valley. Stretching straight across the eastern horizon, the narrow Sangre de Cristo Range lacked even a minute trace of snow, appearing to be appallingly bone dry. This, the lonely heart of south-central Colorado, was suffering from a drought of epic proportions.

Copper Butte’s lonesome summit turned out to not quite be “no man’s land” for five years earlier, on Aug. 19, 2007, another contemporary Colorado explorer had left his trademark glass jar register on the highpoint. Once again, the obscure peak bagger extraordinaire had ascended an “off the beaten path” peak before me. Legendary Mike Garratt. Over the decades, I’ve probably signed more than a hundred of his registers atop some of the most out-of-the-way peaks in Colorado. Surprisingly, I’ve never encountered him during his endless Colorado wanderings and climbs. Naturally, I found myself wondering when I would again sign another of his registers.

Back at our truck, with our tiny home away from home, an attached pop-up camper, I promised our sore-footed dogs that they needn’t worry about cactus on the following day’s hike. We then drove briefly southwest through Saguache, later turning north on unpaved 466AA Road which became Forest Road 842, heading east to 9,944-foot Ute Pass where we camped. Ute Pass can also be accessed from the north via Forest Road 852, but that is a more challenging four-wheel route.

Nothing is more perfect than a crisp, clear, early fall morning in Colorado’s high country. We felt blessed to wake up to such beauty. The rich, yet acrid scent of fall and the classically blue heavens inspired us and our pups to begin walking as soon as possible. Scattered aspen rose like golden flames amid a sea of dark evergreens. We felt alive and one with the mountain.

Before beginning our planned major hike, we took a 1½ mile, round-trip “morning warm-up walk” up what I informally dubbed Ute Pass North Peak 10,360. This relaxed leg stretcher, along a wooded ridge, offered open, grassy hillsides, mellow scenery and lots of enthusiastic canine tail wags. “You kept your word, Greg: no cactus. Our paws thank you!”

Returning to the truck, we prepared for our longer hike which began on a smooth, unpaved track that horse-shoed at a saddle, soon ending at the prominent radio towers near Peak 10,512’s summit. We recalled our very easy walk to this unassuming summit in June, 2011 as being Lily’s introduction to high elevation hiking. To her, that easy stroll felt like grueling work, not fun. Slowly, Lily adapted and by summer’s end, she was loving her mountain treks.

Approaching the saddle, we left the track and began weaving our way, southeastward, uphill through the dark forest, our boots crunching over compacted layers of dry, copper-hued aspen leaves. Widely spread over the eastern flanks of Point 10,542, sun-drenched groves of willowy aspen and their striped shadows basked under the cloudless heavens. Comfortable with its rounded simplicity, Point 10,542 invited us to relax and enjoy the sun while atop its gentle summit. How could we resist? There was no need to rush.

According to our topo map, the undulating ridge, separating Point 10,542 from Saguache Peak, appeared deceptively easy to traverse. Yet, after clambering 100 feet through dense aspen and around other impediments, we opted to descend toward an open, sloping, grassy meadow which paralleled the ridge above us. Contouring over this open country toward Saguache Peak wasn’t as easy as we anticipated due to uneven footing over tussocks and unforeseen gravel drainages. However, the unexpected is always part of the game and we did enjoy our sweeping vistas to the south.

Eventually, we trudged up to a saddle separating the ridges leading to Point 10,542 and Saguache Peak. A minor uphill walk then led us to a modest cairn atop our pyramid-shaped destination. Again, we found another of Mike Garratt’s registers which documented his June, 1995 and August, 2007 Saguache Peak ascents.

East of the highpoint, we located an open hillside offering more far-reaching views of the San Luis Valley and the sky-piercing Sangre de Cristos. Eighteen hundred feet below us, Copper Butte appeared insignificant, but we knew better.

Obscure summits, like Copper Butte and Saguache Peak, are quiet and peaceful — far removed from the glamour of climbing 14ers. Why go to them? Mike Garratt, having climbed 3,000 ranked peaks in Colorado and all of the Colorado 11ers and 10ers on public lands, says he always likes to explore something new, selecting new peaks and places simply because he’s never been there. More than most people, I understand his passionate curiosity.

For Kathy and me, our solitude atop obscure Saguache Peak was comforting — the brilliant panoramas, inspiring, and the wildness, a blessing.

Recommended:

1. Rio Grande National Forest map

2. Saguache Ranger District, 46525 State Highway 114, Saguache, Colorado 81149,

Tel. 719-655-2553

3. Colorado Atlas and Gazetteer, page 70, published by DeLorme

4. US Geological Survey Topo Maps, Klondike Mine and Graveyard Gulch quads

Pueblo West resident Greg McKulick is an avid hiker and regularly shares his adventures with readers.

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