This summer the Denver Justice and Peace Committee finally became convinced to risk sponsoring one of our benefit Maya textile sales. Back to Colorado one more time. And while there, it’s only natural that one would take advantage of the opportunity to commune with a bit of nature, which they have in such splendid profusion. The Denver sale made money for the Committee, but Sally had to catch a plane back to Austin just beforehand to start work on a new TV series. This wilderness backpacking trip would be accomplished alone, so it would be judicious just to go back to the old familiar Conundrum Hot Springs, a popular trail that I have hiked many times before. Besides, it’s hard to beat. The Conundrum Hot Springs may be the ultimate wilderness thermal hot springs. For me, the springs have become a regular pilgrimage site. With eight to 10 visits over the past 33 years, I claim the record for the number of visits by a flatlander. But over those years, the culture and atmosphere around those remote springs has either radically changed or I have or both.
The Conundrum Hot Springs are located in the Maroon Bells/Snowmass Wilderness Area between Aspen and Crested Butte. By far, the easiest access is to hike up Conundrum Creek from the Aspen side. From Aspen, go west on Colorado 82 across the Castle Creek bridge on the western edge of town to the traffic circle, where you take the Castle Creek Road about three miles to the Conundrum Creek Road on the right. You follow that as it turns from pavement to good dirt road to bad dirt road for a distance of about a mile, which brings you to the end of the road and the trailhead. From there, it’s about nine and a half miles uphill on a strenuous trail to the springs, with an elevation gain of about 3,000 feet. The springs sit at about 11,600 feet, in an alpine meadow that in July is a sea of wildflowers. At that elevation, you are just below the tree line and the spruce and the fir have already thinned out and become stunted on exposed ridges. The meadow is laced with little hot streams oozing from the ground. Some of these outflows have been dug out and dammed to create a series of pools. The largest is 15-18 feet in diameter and up to three feet deep with water of more than 100 degrees bubbling up in the middle.
The springs are located in the center of a cirque, at the head of the valley surrounded on three sides by towering peaks, with the drainage of Conundrum Creek stretching off to the north. The surrounding ridgeline seldom drops below 13,000 feet and is crowned by Castle Peak, Conundrum Peak and Pyramid Peak, all above 14,000 feet. Along the ridge to the east of the valley is Electric Pass, once the tallest “pass” in Colorado with a hiking trail through it, a trail now no longer maintained by the Forest Service and therefore gone. It earned its name with lightning strikes on summer afternoons and hence they don’t want you to go that way.
Walking up the Conundrum Creek valley, you cross the creek four times by the time you get to the hot springs. The first two crossings have double log bridges with handrails. No spills, no thrills, but lovely to watch the water rush by from midstream. The third crossing is just a shallow ford where you have to wade the creek. Best to change briefly to the Tevas there to save untreated hiking boots from saturation. The last crossing is only about 25 yards from the main pool of the springs. Until recently it was a single log, worn somewhat flat on top, 18 inches in diameter, 15 feet long and four feet above the very fast, very cold stream. For the acrophobe, this last crossing was cruel. Having busted your butt to get up there, now you had a serious balance test with the springs in sight, languid bathers watching, doubtless prepared to smirk at the slightest hesitation. Testosterone time.
This summer’s trek to the springs was unique in that I went alone for the first time. Once started I was quickly reminded that wilderness hiking alone is fundamentally different from wilderness hiking with other people. There is no back up. You must not slip and sprain an ankle. Your margin for error is very much diminished and every responsibility is yours. A cell phone that worked in remote mountain valleys might partially mitigate the problem, but I don’t have one. Besides, going into the wilderness with a cell phone has an oxymoronic quality. The situation demands caution, alertness and judiciousness and no smoking before the springs.
Considering my advanced age, I decided to buy a high tech, telescoping, titanium walking stick in Aspen before departure, the first time I have ever hiked with such a device. After this experience, it will forever be among my essential hiking equipment. It’s essentially a cane, principally useful for balance. This sometimes very steep and rocky trail made obvious its utility, if not its necessity. By the time I finished the hike, it was clear that I would never do this again without one. But my fancy cane was also a continuous reminder that previously I had been able to do without it and of one potential negative aspect of my future life as an actual elderly person.
Since I had a large pile of Maya textiles that some might consider valuable in the camper, I asked the nice young lady who sold me this walking aid if there were any theft issues with cars at the trailhead. She said that the problem there was not people, even considering my several inflammatory bumper stickers, which she assured me, might instead earn anonymous garlands of wildflowers on my hood. The problem was bears that were increasingly moving into the area and developing the habit of breaking out car windows to get to good-smelling stuff inside. So what do you do with the food you don’t carry? And what do you say to Mister Bear when you meet on the trail carrying your food not enclosed in bear canisters? Especially if you are alone and thus exponentially less able to “look big.” On the previous hike up to the hot springs, Sally had heard what was very likely a bear on the trail going up. I bought a loud whistle to go with the hiking stick.
One result of these ruminations was the desire to make it all the way up to the springs in one day. Near the springs, there are many established campsites and usually a bunch of pretty cool people. The idea was that the same species in large numbers equals security. No camping alone somewhere half way up to break up the hike, a practice I often had followed previously when hiking with inexperienced companions not enamored of the joys of stress walking. This time, the plan was hot springs or bust.
Bears will focus your mind that way. Some have said that without bears, there is no wilderness. Wilderness should humble you and for the essential experience, you need a little competition for the peak of the food chain. There also was the “can I still do it?” factor, a perpetual problem of the aging ego. The judgement is that without the new cane, the answer might have been a resounding no. Going up this time took more than seven hours. No matter how well I paced myself, that was way at the outer limits of my endurance. I tried to walk systematically for 50 minutes and rest 10. It quickly became apparent that 10-minute breaks were not enough time to eat trail food, drink water, get out the poncho because it’s starting to rain, spray on more bug spray to deter the deer flies, doctor nascent blisters, etc., and rest. Then 50 minutes became hard to sustain. Break times lengthened and walking time shortened. During the last half hour stage, I was staggering under my pack, as usual filled with far too much food and clothing, eyes fixed on the trail immediately at my feet, counting steps, becoming slightly delusional with fatigue, but aware that I was getting close.
Arriving with still two hours before dark, there was plenty of time, just no energy. In my exhaustion, cooking and setting up the tent were the only reasonable accomplishments. Making it up the last 200 yards from my campsite to the springs, even without a pack, seemed daunting. After downing a big bowl of hot processed gruel, I passed out in the tent before darkness fell. Of course, still thinking of Mister Bear, all my food and cooking gear were in a bag at the end of a rope, swinging in space from the lower branches of a fir tree growing on the edge of a cliff 100 feet away from my tent.
The day before starting this hike, I had lunch with my old Boulder architect friend, Clifford Bravin, the first time we had met in more than a decade. We had once hiked to the hot springs together in what was the most memorable of all my hikes up there. Back then in the late 80’s, the problem with Clifford was that he always had some very promising romance it was crucial that he attend to up to the moment of departure. In the case of our hike to Conundrum, she lived in the high mountain town of Ashcroft, just over the ridge in the adjacent Castle Creek valley. All we had to do was hang at her little cabin the first night, me alone under the stars outside, him and her inside. Then we would just pop over Electric Pass the next morning, drop down into the neighboring Conundrum Creek valley and already be halfway up the valley to the hot springs. Seemed reasonable at the time.
The mountains will quickly relieve one of the hubris that this will be easy or safe. At the time, we were strong, experienced hikers and getting up to Electric Pass, although physically demanding, turned out not to be the big problem. We had waited just a little too long for Cliff to tear himself away from those loving arms back at 9,000 feet, so we arrived from the east side of the pass in the early afternoon with a thunderstorm rapidly building to the west and headed our way. Not a good time to be at Electric Pass. No stopping to admire the view from 12,900 feet.
We hurried along the very faint trail across the barren rock landscape of scree slopes leading down into the valley of Conundrum Creek. Within less than a half-mile we confronted a hard, crusty snow field across what was left of the trail, at best a faint indenture across the rocks. The icy stretch was probably 50 yards wide, no previous hikers had kicked out steps and we had no ice axes or crampons or ropes. It had about a 60-degree slope and extended downward for a couple of hundred yards to a point where it disappeared at what looked from above like the edge of a cliff. We could easily envision sliding out of control all the way down it and beyond into the great unknown, with a high probability of a rough landing. The growing threat of lightning strikes required going down fast, but not that fast. Instead, we left that remnant of a trail and descended straight down through the scree, steep fields of fist-sized rocks where you take one step and the rocks slide with you for another. It’s a controlled slide down on mini-avalanches. This, too, led to something that looked like the edge of a cliff, but unless the whole slope gave way, it was likely to be easier to stop yourself beforehand on scree than on ice. Hopefully, when we got to the edge, we would find a way down. If not, climbing back up through the scree in a thunderstorm was going to be a challenge. Luckily, we did find a way to climb down, with rain falling ever harder and lightning bolts dancing above us on the ridgeline for inspiration, demonstrating how Electric Pass got its name and why they don’t want you to go that way. At our recent lunch, Clifford shook his head and acknowledged that he’d never forget that experience or do it again. My theory is that as you get older, it becomes more reasonable to take chances.
The greatest trip to Conundrum was probably the first, but they’ve all been good. It was about 1973 and I was wandering west to California with rock drummer David Fore his girlfriend, Sherry, and her friend, Jackie, in two cars. We had stopped by Boulder for Steve Fromholtz’s wedding on the way. Somehow, we heard about Conundrum and decided to go. It was like that era in general; if you remember much about it, you probably weren’t there. What I do remember is that at the hot springs in those days, clothes were an option rarely chosen, standard dress when not in the water being hiking boots and bandana. Recreational drugs were also an ever-present option that most people repeatedly exercised, psychedelics in various colors, shapes and forms being de rigueur. Like a tea party with invisible cups, nude groups of relative strangers sitting in the springs kept one hand elevated above the water so as not to moisten the passing joints. Discussions of the relative merits of your Moroccan kif compared to my Oaxacan red hair filled the idle hours. Others spent hours engrossed in close up wildflower photography, oblivious of having run out of film.
If you became excessively languid and needed instant revitalization after hours of strenuous psychic activities while sitting perfectly still in 100-degree water, you changed your paradigms radically by doing very quick push ups in the stream of 40-degree white water that flowed nearby. And when it started pouring rain in the late afternoon, as it has always been prone to do, we all gathered in the old doorless, windowless one room ranger cabin to whip up a big communal feast. My hazy memory assures me it was somehow delicious, a hippie gourmet extravaganza, and that there were more flowers then, too.
In 2006, although there are still a lot of flowers, things have changed. People always say, “This place ain’t like it used to be.” That applies to almost everywhere, even Conundrum, more than nine miles back in the wilderness. When I arrived at the springs on a Tuesday evening, totally blown out, there were only a couple of other campsites occupied, out of about 20. It was the middle of the week, but I remember there being more people up here, especially in July, peak wildflower season and probably the best month for non-problematical weather. Heavy use had caused the Forest Service to designate campsites about 20 years ago. First thing the next morning, the people who had been there when I arrived left too. I finally made it up to the hot springs that Wednesday morning, a beautiful sunny mountain moment. There are now two logs over the final crossing. That last test removed, they had made it too easy. I only used the old one. No one was in the springs. I stayed for an hour before anyone showed up; four 20-somethings whose idea of a transcendent drug experience at the hot springs was to hike up and down in the same day while killing a fifth of whiskey. I suggested that wilderness backpacking was conducive to lighter weight drugs. They eyed me with some apprehension, even in a bathing suit, were distant and totally boring, even to each other. I gave up the springs to them and returned to my camp for a bite of lunch.
While descending to my camp, I came upon a group of a dozen Christian teenagers arriving with a bearded preacher-leader and setting up at the site next to mine. I could have been pissed by their noisy intrusion but for the fact that I had first encountered wilderness on the 1961 North Texas Methodist Youth Trail Hike with a bearded preacher-leader, in this very same mountain range, back when Aspen was funky and we were cool sneaking off to drink underage 3.2 beer. My spiritual life had been much enlivened by the experience, despite the futility of the Jesus rap.
These young Christians’ apparent attempt to get closer to God quickly bore fruit as it began to rain, then hail, then hail harder and bigger with strong winds, booming thunder, lightning strikes close by and plunging temperatures blowing down the slopes. They got their little tents up just in time and sat it out singing hymns from several tents simultaneously, audible between the bolts. Worked for them. The ground became covered with little ice balls. I watched from inside the dilapidated log cabin, cooking more processed gruel and alone. The rain dribbled on until after dark.
Thursday morning, my last in the mountains, was more or less clear again, so it was off to the springs for one more soaking before heading back down. On the walk up to the springs from my campsite, the Christian girls trooped by, headed back to their camp with wet hair. They regarded me as if I were a possible close relative of the abominable snowman. They had apparently gone to the springs in gender-segregated groups in the early a.m. Guys first. The springs were mine alone again.
I floated for a long time just above the place in the middle of the biggest pool where the bubbles rise. There are two rocks under the water there that you can use to maintain your floating body with the least effort in just the precise position above the outflow of the hottest water. Thus suspended, you ponder how far down the lava is and how it is the whole system could be so balanced and stable that the emerging flow is always the same temperature. The warm morning sun beat down and there was no sound other than a background of wind whispering through conifers and water cascading in the distance. A massive horseshoe of glaciated mountain ridge towers 2,000 more feet above, enclosing this perfect bath in a wildflower-strewn meadow among scattered spruce. You are centered in the warm pool centered in the bowl at the head of the valley. For awhile, I drifted away in splendid solitary serenity.
But it was fleeting. Eventually, this reverie was broken by gray clouds and rumbles that reminded me that I still had to walk nine and a half miles that day, albeit downhill. Most hiking accidents happen going downhill. I would be alone and it would very likely rain. Mister Bear could be there and fresh out of berries. Time to get it together, shoulder the pack and responsibility and head for Austin. Just enough time to drive non-stop so as to get there by the time Sally gets off work Friday. As you leave such a place, you always turn to look back on it one more time, wondering if this will be the last time you see it? Maybe I’ll take my grandchildren up there some day, but they haven’t been born yet and may need to hurry up. Maybe I’ll again feel the need to renew the ritual. I just won’t count on some youngsters to bring the party.