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Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Runnin' Ragged!

Yule Pass
My summer of running culminated with an epic loop through the Raggeds Wilderness of the West Elk Range. After a rather dormant winter and spring, I picked August 18th as the ideal day for a long adventure in the mountains. It fit perfectly, as it was the day after the LT 100 and just prior the the first days of school. It marked a close to summer running and the beginning of next year's quest! Lucky for me, my good friend Jeremy Duncan is always foolhardy enough to join me on these notoriously intrepid adventures. We anticipated a 40 mile jaunt that would take something like 8 or maybe 9 hours. What we got was 12 solid hours of "ragged" trail that chewed us up and spit us out! But it was worth every hour! We ran over spectacular mountain passes, down into enchanting deep ravines, traversed steep canyons, trounced through quaking aspen groves and frolicked in giant fields of ferns. This was wild country, wild enough that we came upon a herd of mountain goats just minutes into our run. I feel incredibly lucky to have these lesser used mountains just a short drive from my house, and to have such a great training partner to share them with.

Raggeds Wilderness Boundary
The Raggeds proved they were aptly named. While this range offers some of the most stunning vistas I have ever seen, the paths that connect them are twisted, rocky, overgrown, steep, loose, muddy, loggy, and often faint. The organization, Colorado Wilderness, describes the Raggeds by saying:

"no more descriptive name exists in Colorado than the Ragged Mountains...the polished rock flanks of the Raggeds soar to a jagged, knife-edged ridge. Complementing these inaccessible peaks, the Dark Canyon of Anthracite Creek roars below, carving a deep and mysterious gorge through surrounding benchlands of aspen and spruce. Colorful peaks and prominent intrusive dikes of the Ruby Range angle north through the area's eastern end, perpendicular to the Raggeds. Capping the diversity of landforms in this area, the Oh-Be-Joyful Valley, one of Colorado's loveliest glacial valleys, sweeps out from the range toward Crested Butte and the Slate River."



our route began in Marble, Colorado and we were graced with a sensational sunrise, albeit, the sunrise created the red morning light that gives warning to sailors. Thankfully, the storms stayed clear of us for much of the day. From Marble, the trail climbed sharply until we reached the summit of Anthracite Pass. This sub alpine pass (10,200 ft.) was the gateway to North Anthracite Creek which the trail paralleled as it descended 3,000 ft. over the next seven miles, dropping further and further into the belly of the wilderness area. It was along this descent that we discovered vast fields of massive fern plants, but nary a sign of human activity, save the trail itself, and even it disappeared from time to time. The view of the Anthracite range to the south was impressive, and we jogged merrily through the wild woods.


Ferns in North Anthracite Creek
North Anthracite Creek confluences with Middle Anthracite Creek, the drainage that forms Dark Canyon. From this point (7,200 ft.) we faced a 10 mile, 4,500 ft. climb to Oh-Be-Joyful Pass. The long uphill began with the Devil's Staircase, which definitely climbed steeply, but the switchbacks were easily runnable. The staircase was followed by a long ridge that meandered through aspens and scrub oak. Eventually the route reached the base of the Ruby Range and it began to contour, first through Buck, and then Swan Basin, before turning abruptly upward and climbing the steep slopes of Oh-Be-Joyful Pass (11,700 ft.). Standing atop the pass, we were treated to views of the Elks, Ruby Range and Anthracites. 
Cruising through Buck Basin

Oh-Be-Joyful...For Views Like These
Some ominous signs of weather, namely dark thunderheads and distant flashes of lightning, hastened our stay on Oh-Be-Joyful, and we quickly descended into Democrat Basin, scurried across the tundra and power hiked up Daisy Pass (11,600 ft.). It too was steep, and offered similarly stunning views. The descent into Poverty Gulch followed sharp switchbacks along a very rocky trail that eventually intersected with an old mining road. We had run 25 miles through gorgeous wilderness and seen no one until we hit the jeep road when we exited Poverty Gulch.

Atop Oh-Be-Joyful Pass with Daisy Pass Directly Behind
Descending Daisy Pass

The final climb of the day was our ascent from Poverty Gulch to the top of Yule Pass (11,750). Along the road to the pass we bumped into our friend Dustin Simoens, a Crested Butte resident who went to college with my brother. We had intended on meeting Dustin on top of Oh-Be-Joyful, but due to our ridiculously slow progress, Dustin had decided to negotiate the Ruby Range Traverse to Yule Pass, and he was descending from the pass when we met up with him. By his description, the route was "epic" and would be a great twist to the loop Jer and I ran. The rough terrain had taken its toll on us and we struggled up the road to Paradise Divide, which marks the beginning the Yule Pass trail. Yule is essentially a two mile traverse along the steep wall of Purple Canyon. It is spectacular!

The Yule Traverse (Yule summit is right above the snow at the top of the photo)
The red sky warning that greeted us in the morning finally came came true in the early evening. Cresting Yule Pass, dark clouds rolled in and unleashed their fury. Making our way down Yule was a cold, wet affair as the rain turned to hail. The willow infested trail drenched us and slowed our downward progress as we wrestled the thickets of willows to find each foot plant, giving us both a literal and figurative slap in the face. However, by the time we hit the road, three miles from my car, the sun had returned and our spirits had livened. We happily clipped off the final miles, amazed at what we had seen, unsure as to how it had taken us so long, but thankful that we got to experience such beauty and such an amazing run. This run capped off a summer of awe inspiring runs and it reminded me of the reasons I love to run in the mountains; the beauty, the challenge, the folks I get to share adventures with, and most of all, because it's fun! 
What a Hoot!