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Monday, October 7, 2002

The Thing About Summits
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To bag or not to bag? Silver Mountain, in the San Juan National Forest

To bag or not to bag? Silver Mountain, in the San Juan National Forest
Courtesy Jan Nesset

I live in a place surrounded by both mountains and desert. To the north of Durango, Colorado, the San Juan Mountains rise 14,000 feet above sea level. To the west rise the La Plata Mountains, some reaching nearly 13,000 feet. I am naturally drawn to mountains because of the sheer nature of the things. I’m a goal-driven person so the summit is a natural place for me to realize a goal. I love nature and how it blends into the physical and surreal aspects of life that make me tick and keep me interested.

A long sweeping ridge ascending to a summit is a beautiful thing to behold. That takes me to a nearby specialty, Silver Mountain, in the San Juan National Forest. Silver Mountain, a spectacle in the La Platas as it rises to above 12,000 feet, is easily seen from Durango. I look at it all the time, thinking about the beautiful ridges to its top.

One day, still fresh from the American Frontiers experience -- and still jobless – I decide to fulfill my desire to climb Silver Peak. There are a lot of ways and routes to climb the peak, but I can’t dislodge from my mind the beautiful ridge seen from Durango. I don’t know for certain but I believe that my chosen ridge is the farthest route to the summit from any road or trailhead…and I don’t really care. I want to climb that ridge.

So, today, which is soon after I hit the “gonna do it” button in my head, I hit the first Junction Creek trailhead for a climb of the peak. Junction Creek runs into the heart of Durango after it travels from the La Plata Mountains. It won’t take me directly to Silver Peak but it will get me far into the watershed where I can cross an assortment of ridges until I get to within striking distance of my mountain.

I get a late start, mostly because Silver Mountain doesn’t look that far away. I hike fast, didn’t spend a lot of time figuring distance on my map, and just didn’t care how long the climb would take because I had it lodged in my mind that I’d reach the summit and be back in Durango before darkness set in. (Sometimes flying by the seat of my pants is the best plan I care to put together – and it always elevates the sense of adventure).

Four hours later with two hours more to the summit, it occurs to me that any way I look at it I’m going to get back in the dark, unless I turned around right then. Now, I’m about to disclose an embarrassing fact: I had a cell phone with me. Other than on the American Frontiers Journey and while working as a Forest Service wilderness ranger, I have never – not once! – carried with me into the outdoors any type of communication device. Before leaving on my hike my wife handed me her work cell phone and said, “Here, take this, you might need it.” Without a thought I tossed it into the top pouch of my day pack.

So, I thought to myself, what should I do? Go back or be resourceful? So I called my wife and asked her to pick me up at 6 p.m. on the road in La Plata Canyon, which runs close to Silver Mountain but on the west side of it. I was hiking/climbing on the east side of the mountain so the road is on the other side, over the mountain. Okay, she said, you numbskull.

With a thousand or so feet to go to the summit I tell myself that I’m farther from the summit than I think, mostly because I am tired, my feet hurt and I have no idea what faces me on the other side of the mountain. Will getting down be easy or an epic journey? I was losing my will to go on because I was tired and a whiney feeling was welling up in me. But on I went until I reach a point on the ridgeline that had for so long been coveting from distant Durango, where my couch, beer and pizza were waiting.

The long sweeping ridgeline was broader than it looked from Durango. It was steeper than it looked from Durango. The specks of snow that had appeared the few days prior to my climb were much deeper than they looked from Durango. And I was happy about all of it. I was climbing in shorts and a T-shirt. Once in the snow, which eventually met my leg somewhere between my knee and groin, I put on my pile jacket.

Near the summit, a short but steep section threatened to scare me. But climbing it was easy so I focused on the summit rather than fright. Stepping onto the summit, looking around while catching my breath, seeing Durango in the distance and everything else revealed as panorama, the cold and fatigue that had been my companions were replaced by elation and gratification. There’s something about summits that is hard to explain, other than the goal thing I spoke of earlier. Within that goal thing is something that is tied directly to the things that make souls happy to inhabit bodies. My soul likes me best in times of summit joy or whitewater joy or clinging joy or loving joy. We’re all like that, in some way, of that I am sure.

But another thing about summits, the elation and gratification is quickly replaced by cold and fatigue when the clock is ticking. Looking eastward, across the expanse to where the road must be, I see no obvious way down. I pick a northerly drainage to head for because the route, although very steep, is the shortest to the bottom. Carefully placing my feet back into my snow steps that had dotted my route to the summit, I descended northward to a point where I had to leave my ascent route and find my route descent. Bye, summit and summit joy, wish me luck!

As luck would have it the route to the La Plata River and the road was indeed steep but less precarious than it looked. And in two hours of scrambling and hiking I had departed the summit and stepped onto the road. But no wife, and it was 5:45 p.m., only 15 minutes before 6 p.m.! What could have happened (people like me think these things when they’re exhausted, their feet hurt and they have beer, pizza and couch in mind).

But at 6:05 I see a familiar beautiful 1994 Nissan Sentra come into view, slowly dodging potholes. It stops as if its checking me out, and picks up its pace until stopping next to me. The most beautiful creature on the planet steps out from behind the driver’s wheel and says, “Hi Dork! That’s a pretty rugged road for my car.”

Jan Nesset


List of All Dispatches
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Saturday, September 20, 2003
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Tuesday, May 20, 2003
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Thursday, April 24, 2003
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Thursday, April 24, 2003
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Friday, April 4, 2003
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Sunday, March 9, 2003
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Saturday, March 1, 2003
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Monday, February 24, 2003
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Tuesday, January 28, 2003
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Monday, January 20, 2003
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Wednesday, January 15, 2003
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Wednesday, January 8, 2003
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Tuesday, January 7, 2003
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Tuesday, December 31, 2002
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Friday, December 27, 2002
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Friday, December 20, 2002
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Thursday, December 5, 2002
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Wednesday, December 4, 2002
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Monday, December 2, 2002
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Monday, December 2, 2002
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Sunday, December 1, 2002
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Sunday, December 1, 2002
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Tuesday, November 26, 2002
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Monday, November 25, 2002
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Sunday, November 24, 2002
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Sunday, November 17, 2002
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Friday, November 15, 2002
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Tuesday, November 12, 2002
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Sunday, November 10, 2002
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Thursday, November 7, 2002
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Thursday, November 7, 2002
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Tuesday, October 29, 2002
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Monday, October 7, 2002
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Saturday, September 28, 2002
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Wednesday, September 25, 2002
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Wednesday, September 18, 2002
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Saturday, September 14, 2002
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Friday, September 13, 2002
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Thursday, September 12, 2002
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Wednesday, September 11, 2002
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Tuesday, September 10, 2002
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Friday, September 6, 2002
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Wednesday, August 28, 2002
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Monday, August 26, 2002
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Friday, August 23, 2002
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Friday, August 23, 2002
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Thursday, August 22, 2002
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Tuesday, August 20, 2002
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Monday, August 19, 2002
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Saturday, August 17, 2002
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Friday, August 16, 2002
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Monday, August 12, 2002
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Saturday, August 10, 2002
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Thursday, August 8, 2002
Team South: The First Days
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Monday, August 5, 2002
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District Ranger Jimmy Deherrera and myself met the trekkers at
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Saturday, August 3, 2002
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Saturday, August 3, 2002
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Friday, August 2, 2002
Historical Talk at Lake Valley Ghost Town
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Friday, August 2, 2002
Interactive Map Now Available
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Thursday, August 1, 2002
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Wednesday, July 31, 2002
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Wednesday, July 31, 2002
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Saturday, January 1, 2000
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