3 Grand 14ers, and 5-minute peanut trail bars
First things first, if you're here for the peanut/almond, cashew or [you choose] bars, know that they're trail fuel. All natural, gluten free, dairy free, easy-as-can-be, no-bake and tasty trail fuel. For sure they can do double-duty as snacks, but they're calorie dense. Not that this should deter you; they're terrific for long rides, mountain runs, hikes, and other big days out; and just think of the fun you and your food processor can share mixing, matching and swapping ingredients, at the expense of just five minutes or so active prep. This recipe is adapted from WH Foods' "Ten Minute Peanut Bars". You can change in infinite ways, just mind the consistency. All you have to do is blend, press, and refrigerate. Scroll for what may feel like forever to the bottom of this post, and you'll see ...
So, Tuesday, we packed up and headed to the San Juans for a few days, and my goodness, are they beautiful! Mid-summer, and the sweeping valleys are verdant and lush, the striking geology breathtaking and untamed. We stayed in a teeny tiny, quaint cabin at a charming RV park/campground called Elkhorn resort, in Lake City. Super basic, but all the amenities you need, including wifi, a microwave, a shower block and coin-op laundry. Lake City itself is not a city, but a captivating little town with an old-west, community-oriented, friendly feel. In its hay day (the 1800s, during the mining boom), Lake City was a supply and service center that held promise of gold and silver to many a miner.
You don't need a reason to go to this alluring part of Colorado, but a big motivator for me was the opportunity to stack up some time at altitude, and build trail skills for pacing friends at the Leadville 100 in a month. These guys are awesome runners, so it's imperative we do what we can to make sure our pacing doesn't let them down. Dave's pie-in-the-sky goal was been to shoot for five 14ers in four days, but we agreed to be flexible on that. Three 14ers in three days was much more reasonable, although we could have squeezed in more. The way each day unfolded and followed on from the other was just perfect. No regrets whatsoever, just wistful determination to go back. Here's how things stacked up:
Day One: Wetterhorn
We woke up at 5, managed to scarf down some oatmeal and a banana, and headed to the trailhead for Wetterhorn, which is only an 11 mile drive, but about 30 minutes away. That's because the road gets pretty rough. Four-wheel drive is essential, and actually, we had to park the Outback seven-tenths of a mile further down from the main parking area.
We picked this trail as our day one adventure because it was going to be the hardest to summit by far, and sometimes "go big or go home" is best. Of course, sometimes it's not. I have to say I'm glad and grateful for the way things worked out. The mountain is a class 3, but it earns a class 4 for exposure. You know how, in public areas such as national parks, trail descriptions may be exaggerated somewhat to really hammer in messages of safety, and to keep tourists from attempting something they're not prepared for? Well, let me tell you, I now know this is not the case when it comes to rating 14ers. The underlying assumption for these is, "you're all mountaineers; choose and do at your own risk". Exposure is a very vulnerable area for me. We reasoned that if I could conquer Wetterhorn day one, we could relax about everything else. If not, we'd learn a lot, and it would still be a great, challenging day.
One funny thing about the Wetterhorn route was, the only time you saw signs with arrows pointing the direction to Wetterhorn were when there were no options. On the other hand, at the fork in the path where we managed to go the wrong way, there was a trail marker, but with no practical markings. Luckily, it was just a minor detour. Nothing to fret about, especially with the gorgeous, sweeping expanse of scenery before us at absolutely every turn. Clear river, lined with copper slabs, delicate columbines; fat, funny marmots and pikas, and the most stunning mountain views, growing more splendid with each ascending step.
Everything progressed perfectly until about 12,5000 feet or so. There, things started to get a little bit hairy, in the form of some eroded trail, a sandy, gravelly steep section, and rocky areas, but nothing to worrisome. It was hard to keep anxious feelings completely at bay, though, because by now we could see past Little Matterhorn to our destination, which looked like one steep, sheer b**** of a menacing summit. I was determined to be brave.
After reaching the golden, sandy "saddle" area, things became dramatically more daunting. Before I knew it, I was using hands and feet, then hands- feet-knees, and finally, hands,-feet-knees-bum, and feeling panic bubbling into my increasingly cloudy brain. Dave and I then took our second wrong turn of the day, leaving the trail for a random route up the rock face, and I utterly freaked out. At this point, exposure became EXPOSURE, coupled with scree. I'd told myself I'd keep my eyes on the rocks/trail, but the occasional glance, even in the periphery inspired bouts of vertigo. Stuck up off route slammed awkwardly against rock slabs, these bouts became lightening bolts of vertigo that lit up the brain in the worst way. I think I was just short of dry-heaving. In the valley below were scores of sheep. We could hear them bleating, their plaintive sounds carried by the wind, which was starting to pick up. I am sure I was generously contributing to all the wailing sounds but Dave was, as always, even so patient and calm.
We made it to the Prow, which appears like a shark fin jutting just 100 vertical feet from the summit, and the notch, which needs to be crossed over before making the final, steep, scary ascent to the tip-top of Wetterhorn. By now I was composed again, but emotionally shattered. It felt heartbreaking to prevent Dave from climbing to the very top, but he insisted, and that's as far as we got, this time.
I guess from this description, you might think our "baptism by fire" approach backfired. Yet, it was a spectacular day, and the experience of horror then relief from our second detour was not just enlightening (we now knew where my trail skills are), it also allowed me to really jump the learning curve. I was so terrified that once I got out of the sticky situation, all the stuff on the descent that had felt tricky just a half hour earlier became relative cake. Maybe we'd have made it completely to the top if we'd saved this route for later, but who can say. I just know we'll be back, and conquer that final 100 feet yet. Best of all, having overcome panic erased countless moments that would have been catalysts for equal panic on the succeeding days, and that was absolutely invaluable...
Day 2: Uncompahgre
At 14,309 feet, Uncompahgre is the highest of the San Juan 14ers, and based on today, I'd put money on it being the best. So very well worth your time, a real must-do. It's seriously magnificent.
To begin, we had to park at the bottom of rocky and narrow Nellie Creek Road, a good four vertical miles down from the trail head. The road would have torn up the Outback. It took us just under two hours to hike to the official trailhead, including a fair amount of dithering and deliberating at each of two awkward river crossings.
After reaching the trail head, it was no more than 20 minutes before we were out of the treeline, and we were honestly dazzled by the panoramic views from that point onward. This is a really, truly delightful trail. Clear streams and singing waterfalls; the bright green valley was bathed in sunshine; slim rivers wind parallel to one another like playful mermaids; spectacular rock faces and grassy slopes; and lichen-speckled rocks seem like they must be volcanic, mottled with craters. We'll have to look into specifics on those rocks, and also learn the names of so many beautiful wildflowers we should probably recognize already.
Not long after emerging from the treeline, the trail veered left, and Uncompahgre just dominated the horizon with its grandeur. You know how sometimes life treats us to beauty that we just get used to, until we ignore it or take it for granted? This trail is the kind that treats you to this contemplative, steadily peaceful and grateful feeling, even as you're working your quads and climbing higher and higher.
Uncompahgre is rated a "difficult" class 2, and man, now I know that the people in charge of those raters are not sugar-coating anything! The trail is not technically difficult until the last 150 meters or so, but then, wow. The scramble is exposed, loose, steep, and scary. But this part doesn't last long (plus, it's magically much shorter on the way down), and it's so very worth it, and thanks to the terror I endured yesterday, this I kept my calm and loved it, even the fear...Eleanor Roosevelt did recommend doing one thing everyday that scares you, right? And we all know she was one classy lady who knew what she was talking about, after all.
Day 3: Handies
Although Uncompahgre was the most striking mountain in our three-day excursion, Handies was the best for overall views, hands-down (yeah, pun intended). This is the kind of trail that you don't have to follow to the summit to leave satisfied. It was very reminiscent of England's Lake District, with open, indescribably peacefully beautiful panoramic views. Some of the colors actually looked photo-shopped, though I'm a little ashamed to even make an artificial comparison.
There are a few different routes up Handies. We chose to start from the Grizzley Gulch trailhead, which is class 2 and not the easiest option, but closer to get to from Lake City. This was essential in our case, as the road up wasn't going to be smooth no matter what. The 16-mile drive took 1 hour each way due to just 4 miles of rough, rocky, and narrow.
Handies is one of the easier 14ers, and is part of the Hardrock 100 course. Don't let this fool you, however. I have a new appreciation for the people who run Hardrock, and an iron-clad certainty that I will NEVER attempt to sign up. Those guys are super human. They may even belong to their own unique species.
From Grizzley Gulch, the trail begins ascending decently steeply right away, alongside a stream and through forest. After a few brief wooded clearings, the trail opens out at about 11,500 feet, and opens up to reveal Handies, along with the most serene majesty you can imagine at every turn.
At about 13,000 feet (I'm really just guessing here), the trail starts to get loose, and there is a gravelly steep, switch-backed climb to the top that is surprisingly daunting, considering Handies reputation as 14ers go. Surprisingly, it seems much better going down, which is an unusual thing for me to say. And of course, it goes without saying, the view at the top is sensational.
I had a lot on my mind during the first part of our trip, and on our drive down to the San Juans, I promised myself I'd try to make clearing out mental clutter a serious goal. At the same time, I completely expected to do a lot of heavy thinking in the mountains. You could say I expected answers to questions, and resolutions to dilemmas hanging over my head.
After three full days of excellent, challenging wilderness, I must admit I didn't exactly get answers. What I got was even better. First, really special time with my husband I'll cherish forever. How lucky to have found a life partner who can spend days on end with me with moments of being as panicked and probably annoying as I can possibly be, and still love me. Second, I'd forgotten how priceless clearing the mind can be. It's not the same as being "empty-headed". It's more of a meditative peacefulness, one that may not provide surefire solutions but can recharge your spirit and body with renewed purpose. It filters out the garbage, the insecurities you didn't realize were accumulating until they're gone, or at least have begun to dissipate. We need more of this time, whether it's up in the mountains or a cherished space in the mind. It's how we do real living instead of existing. How very precious this is.
OK, back to the ordinary: just a really quick note, if you please, on these peanut bars. You can say that when you're hungry enough, anything tastes good, but it's just not true! Especially when it comes to endurance activities. The body can be fickle, and favorite go-to fuel foods don't always appeal the same way. Bars can be too heavy and dense, but not these. They were great. They really rocked it, I mean it, every day. Proof of this follows the recipe, fyi. Both Dave and I loved them equally, which is not as common a phenomenon as you might think. They go down easily and are just the right level of sweet. Plus, they're just so darn easy to make, and you know how much I love being in control of exactly what goes in what I eat. I can't wait to experiment with variations--swap nuts for almonds or cashews, raisins for apricots or dates...the list goes on...
5-minute peanut bars
- 1 cup raw or roasted peanuts
- 1 tablespoon minced fresh ginger
- 1/3 cup oats
- 1 tablespoon sesame seeds
- 1 tablespoon flax meal (optional)
- 1/4 cup unsweetened dried coconut (optional)
- 1 cup raisins
- 1/4 to 1/3 cup honey
- Grind all ingredients, except for the honey, in a food processor until fairly fine but having some texture (not the consistency of peanut butter).
- Add honey and process just long enough for it to blend in.
- Press into a square about 3/4-inch thick on a plate or square pan and refrigerate for about an hour or more.
- Cut into 2-inch squares.