San Juan Ramble

We continue with another Behind the Lens segment by Bedrock Bags Ambassador, Brett Davis. This time

we find him in our own backyard of the San Juan Mountains located in Southwest, CO.

Olympus OMD-EM1, M.Zuiko ED 12-40mm F2.8 Pro Lens—ISO 200, F2.8, 1/400 sec

Olympus OMD-EM1, M.Zuiko ED 12-40mm F2.8 Pro Lens—ISO 200, F2.8, 1/400 sec

For years now, I have had an idea percolating in the deep recesses of my adventure mind. Living in the

picturesque mountain town of Durango, CO, I am lucky to have access to one of the world’s most

stunning mountain ranges, the San Juan Mountains. Encompassing over 17,000 square miles, the range

is a playground for all mountain enthusiasts. I have hiked, climbed, skied, kayaked, and biked much of

the range. For most, an exploration of the range begins in the towns of Durango, Pagosa Springs,

Telluride, Ouray or Silverton. The scenic byways of 550 and 160 provide quick and easy access to high

alpine lakes, trout streams, rocky summits, and deep gorges. Additionally, because of the bisection of

the range from the Durango-Silverton railway and the presence of the famed Colorado Trail, a north to

south (or vice versa) traverse of the area is common. Few ever think of crossing the range from the

other cardinal points of east and west.

With a hectic summer schedule of work and consequently, little time for extensive personal travel, I

presented my idea to two of my most reliable and trusted adventure partners. Looking at the map

sprawled across the table, Jon Bailey and Steve Fassbinder watched as I traced a line from the

12,618’ peak of Lone Cone, the San Juan’s western most prominent peak, to Bennett Peak (13,209’), it’s

eastern most prominent peak. In between was 260 miles of rugged terrain. The idea was to do a

human powered, peak to peak traverse of the range. Along the way, we would get to explore places in

our backyard that we had never experienced and thus, expand our knowledge of our incredible home.

This first image was taken of Jon on the afternoon of our second full day of the traverse. A day and half

previously, we had left Durango and were shuttled to the base of Lone Cone. Arriving at 5 PM, the

weather was prime for a hike. Eager to be finally on the move, we raced to the elevated summit of our

starting point. After witnessing a breathtaking sunset, we descended to make camp and prepare our

mountain bikes for the next day’s riding. Objective one was complete.

The following day we awoke to a typical Colorado summer day: crisp and bluebird. Swinging my leg

over my new Salsa Spearfish, completely outfitted by Bedrock Bags, I took the first pedal strokes

towards the east. The next three days would be spent connecting single and double track trails to the

historical mining town of Silverton, CO.

It was late July, so monsoon season was in full swing. On the first day of riding, as we rode around the

northern edge of the Lizard Head Wilderness, the skies opened up and let loose a deluge of rain and hail.

Consequently, the riding for the day came to a halt as the tacky single track transformed into a thick and

sticky paste of mud.

At the time of this photo, we were just climbing above tree line and getting ready to descend on the

Colorado Trail towards the Animas River drainage. Behind us were the impressive 14ers of Mount

Wilson (14,246’) and Wilson Peak (14,017’), along with the area’s namesake, Lizard Head (13,113’) Peak.

We had been riding under threatening skies for most of the afternoon and were seeking to descend

from the exposure before a repeat of the previous afternoon took place.

Olympus OMD-EM1, M.Zuiko ED 12-40mm F2.8 Pro Lens—ISO 200, F8, 1/500 sec

Olympus OMD-EM1, M.Zuiko ED 12-40mm F2.8 Pro Lens—ISO 200, F8, 1/500 sec

For those who are winter enthusiasts, there was no better place to be this past winter than in the San

Juan’s. The weather gods had looked favorably on us, blanketing the mountain landscape in a

permanent veil of white for nearly eight months. It was well past mid-summer and the high country was

still partially closed by snow. On the verge of finishing the first biking portion of the traverse and

arriving in Silverton, we summited Rolling Mountain Pass to find our trail still buried deep under the

white stuff. Wishing I was on wider tires than my 29 x 2.35’s, we slid our way down the pass to find an

intermittent trail of snow and mud. A couple of hours later, we rolled into Silverton to prepare for the

next segment…

Olympus OMD-EM1, M.Zuiko ED 12-40mm F2.8 Pro Lens—ISO 200, F2.8, 1/5000 sec

Olympus OMD-EM1, M.Zuiko ED 12-40mm F2.8 Pro Lens—ISO 200, F2.8, 1/5000 sec

One of the cruxes of the route was how to get bikes across the rugged Weminuche Wilderness,

Colorado’s largest such area. When I was planning the route, the obvious choice was to ride north out

of Silverton and follow jeep roads and the Colorado Trail along the northern boundary of the wilderness.

This option seemed unattractive as we had adventured in this zone of the San Juan’s numerous times.

As designated by the Wilderness Act of 1964, motor or mechanized travel is prohibited, thus riding our

bikes across the Weminuche was out of the question. Hmmm…what if the bikes were taken apart and

carried by someone or something…


Bill Redwood, the owner of Redwood Llamas (http://redwoodllamas.com), has been offering llama pack

trips in southwest Colorado since 1985. After numerous phone calls with Bill to explain my proposal, I

sent him a $250 deposit check for the use of two photogenic and endearing llamas named Vance and

Grant. In his three decades of working with llamas, Bill had never received such a request… to have a

couple of his well-trained animals carry a load of mountain bikes. This was to be a first for all parties

involved.


Based out Silverton, we met Bill at his house just off main street during the afternoon of our fourth day

out. After signing the liability and lease papers, we grabbed some panniers and a small scale and

returned to our lodging for the evening. Our task was to figure out how we were going to load the

panniers with our bikes, ensuring that the weight was evenly dispersed and without exceeding 60 lbs.

We met Bill the following morning and proceeded to go through “Llama Handling 101.” Both Vance and

Grant were patient and attentive as we, the greenhorns, learned how to saddle them and pondered how

to effectively get our bikes secured in the panniers. In under an hour, Bill was happy with our pack job

and we were off, walking down main street and up into the heart of the Weminuche.


Taking the Kendall Mountain road, we climbed steeply out of Silverton. The goal was to get quickly

above tree line to avoid down timber which we had heard was extremely prevalent in the lowlands due

to the record avalanche year. Such obstacles would significantly affect Vance and Grant’s abilities to

move. Staying in the highlands, however, was not without its potential difficulties. Given what we had

encountered over Rolling Mountain Pass, we knew the remaining snow could pose problems. Llamas

are sure-footed animals, but without llama specific snowshoes (of which there are no such things), there

was no getting around our four-legged friends possible post holing across expansive snowfields.

The above picture was taken on the continental divide during our second day of walking. The inviting

north face of White Doom Peak (13,627’) dominated the skyline as Jon led Grant ever deeper into the

wilderness. Having very little experience with pack animals, I was unsure of how this segment of the

traverse would go. As others have found though, llamas are capable and user-friendly animals. They

trusted our leadership and patiently endured the unusual loads swinging on their flanks. As we

descended to the Rio Grande Reservoir, we knew this would not be our last llama packing experience.

Olympus OMD-EM1, M.Zuiko ED 12-40mm F2.8 Pro Lens—ISO 200, F5.6, 1/200 sec

Olympus OMD-EM1, M.Zuiko ED 12-40mm F2.8 Pro Lens—ISO 200, F5.6, 1/200 sec

Following our adventures with Grant and Vance, it was time to begin our third mode of travel for the

traverse: pack rafting. The pack raft has always made an appearance in our escapades. The advent of

this genius backcountry travel tool, is that creative thinkers now look at maps in different ways. The

blue lines take on more prominence. The far-reaching Rio Grande River makes its beginnings in the

upper reaches of the San Juan mountains and flows an impressive 1896 miles to the Gulf of Mexico. Of

course, in this day and age of high water consumption, by the time the snow melt of Colorado reaches

the gulf, nearly 80% of its flow has been siphoned off for agriculture and drinking purposes.

For us, near its headwaters, a strong current would carry us south and east. It would be yet another

opportunity to utilize the powers of Mother Nature to discover a new facet of our backyard. The release

out of the Rio Grande Reservoir was at nearly 1800 cfs—a perfect level for our first journey into the

opening class III/IV box canyon. We entered the canyon with some trepidation due to the year’s high-

water flows and the prevalence of down timber from a recent wildfire. There was a strong possibility of

wood obstructing safe passage through the canyon.


With conservative spacing and heads up boating, we took on each rapid with exhilaration. The canyon’s

beauty was mesmerizing as the liquid conveyor belt carried us past steep craggy walls interspersed with

the remaining toothpicks of once proud pine trees. The photo was taken as we were emerging out of

the box canyon and into the expansive Creede valley.

Olympus OMD-EM1, M.Zuiko ED 12-40mm F2.8 Pro Lens—ISO 200, F5, 1/400 sec

Olympus OMD-EM1, M.Zuiko ED 12-40mm F2.8 Pro Lens—ISO 200, F5, 1/400 sec

We spent two days on the Rio Grande river, paddling 62 miles to the small town of South Fork, CO. Over

the past nine days, we had covered nearly 190 miles. The final seventy miles would be adventured by

bike. With our steeds loaded once again, we began the long climb from the river valley back into the

alpine zone of the southern San Juan’s. After five days off the bike, it felt good to be turning the cranks

once again. We were now venturing into another area of our home range that we had yet to explore.

The ride towards Bennett Peak was quiet. Quiet, in that once we left the immediate vicinity of South

Fork, we encountered not a single human until rolling into the small town of Del Norte 36 hours later. It

was unbelievable given that we were riding on a forest service road versus single track. Startling a

momma black bear and her two cubs lounging in the middle of the deserted road reinforced that this

area of the San Juan’s is rarely visited. What a treat!


Our final camp of the trip was in a stand of dead trees at Blowout Pass. Above us was rocky double track

leading to the grassy summit of our finale. After a restless night listening to the spiritless wooden

soldiers swaying in the breeze, hoping they wouldn’t succumb to the pull of gravity and come crashing

down upon us, we saddled up under grey skies. Pedaling above 12,000’ was laborious, but after an hour

or so of work, we crested Bennett’s lofty summit. We had pedaled, hiked and pack rafted to the eastern

edge of the San Juan’s. As Jon rolled across the 13,000’ skyline, I snapped this frame with the San Luis

Valley shrouded below and the Sangre de Cristo Mountains standing faintly in distance. The past 11

days had been a memorable journey of firsts. With as much collective experience as my partners and I

have in our home mountain range, it is a wonder that we had experienced so much new territory. This

trip was a great reminder that no matter how much you think you know or have experienced, there is

always something to learn, especially when you are creative and open-minded about the possibilities.


You can follow Brett and see more of his photos on his Instagram (@brettrdavis) or the website:

www.thelessoncollective.com.

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