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Camping in Lead King Basin
by: Sandin Phillipson
The first Summer that I lived in Colorado provided me with an opportunity to spend six weeks camping in the western Rocky Mountains, during June and July. In preparation for a summer in the outdoors, I acquired an eleven-year-old1985 Dodge Ramcharger, a model famous for its 4x4 capability and ruggedness. Just the thing for negotiating the wilds of the West Elk Mountains. I cruised south from Glenwood Springs, turned short of the road to Aspen, and passed the beehive coke ovens of Redstone to the town of Marble. In some ways, Marble is a modern ghost town, with dirt roads and weather-beaten cabins, but as it hosts a Post Office and fire department, it retains its "living" status. True to its name, the local quarries provided some of the highest quality stone for monuments in Washington.
Pavement rapidly disappeared as I headed up the steep, one-lane road from Marble. I passed the U.S. Forest Service road sign that advised "4WD Only Beyond This Point" and my pulse quickened. I took the right fork and jounced slowly over twin ruts, the former road to an actual ghost town located some miles from Marble. As I rounded a bend blasted through granite, just wide enough to accommodate a horse-drawn wagon, I braked suddenly and gasped. The road in front dropped off into a steep pile of rubble that clung to the side of a mountain, high above the roaring Crystal River. Even the twin ruts degenerated into a jagged surface of jumbled boulders and cobbles. At the base of the steep bank of talus, off the road, a dented, burned-out Chevy pickup rested in the weeds, a derelict from a previous adventure in decades gone by. I shifted into 4-Low and dropped the automatic transmission into "1", such a low gear that even at engine idle the Ramcharger jerked forward and crawled to the tune of rhythmically whining gears. Two feet from the edge of the road's drop-off, and mindful of the Chevy's fate, I began the bouncing, swaying descent. Momentarily, the speedometer needle rose slightly from where it bottomed out at 5 mph, and it gently tapped the brakes. Too fast, perhaps 3 mph was more suitable. I crept down the ancient road, imagining how teamsters had once negotiated wagons over this treacherous track.
At last I reached the bottom, where the road was pot-holed and covered with dirt, presumably settled-out flood sediment from the roaring Crystal River, whose whitecaps danced at a level only slightly lower than the road. After some time, I ascended a rise and came opposite a weather-beaten, yet picturesque mill perched high upon a jutting promontory of granite above the river. Giant wooden beams, shed from the structure after a punishing winter, whirled in the vortex at the base of the millrace, smashed to splinters as the thundering current relentlessly pounded them into the unyielding granite. Beyond, the town of Crystal crouched alongside the road. Through town, the road had completely degenerated into a rutted, rocky, jouncing misery even at 5 mph. Rugged log cabin-type structures lined the street, constructed of rough-hewn square timbers notched together, boarded up and nailed shut. Aha, but I saw that this wasn't strictly a ghost town! The last house on the edge of town had a somewhat cared-for appearance, with a circa 1974 Ford pickup parked in front that prominently displayed a bumper sticker that advised "51% Nice Guy, 49% SOB. Don't Push It." No problem there, I'm just passing through.
As I continued out of town, the lush, green valley of Lead King Basin was sprawled out before me. I had broken out of the woods along the river bottom, and thick green grass sprinkled with yellow, blue, and white flowers swayed in the mountain breezes. All around, majestic, snow-capped granite peaks rose toward the sky, and the steep, jagged cliffs of the distinctively colored Maroon Sandstone jutted into the air. This is the same rock formation made famous in Colorado postcards of the Maroon Bells. I climbed the narrow jeep trail, carefully driving over a series of berms that, from the look of the surrounding prospect pits, had been piled up by a bulldozer to keep out the casual gawkers when prospecting had been more lucrative. I took a sharp left, and had to gun the engine to climb the steep, one-lane trail that ended at the boundary of the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness. What a gorgeous sight, as the classic U-shaped glacial valley spread out before me. The daily afternoon rainshower had begun, and so I elected to remain in the shelter of the Ramcharger's backseat for the night. The giant windows afforded a spectacular view of the surroundings, and I gasped in awe as lightning bolts crackled from the snow-capped, granite peaks across the valley at my very eye level.
The rain gradually diminished and ceased by mid-morning, and it was time to continue on my way. I rolled out of my parking spot, back onto the shallow, twin ruts that would lead me the short way back to the main jeep road. Suddenly, apprehension gripped me as I noted that the ruts, so easily climbed the night before, had a pronounced tilt from my present approach. I had been proceeding at a relatively sedate 15 mph, but apprehension turned to panic as I felt the Ramcharger begin to slide sideways as gravity tied to pull it down the deceptively shallow, but increasingly steep slope into a shallow gully. For a split second I considered making a controlled, soft landing, but quickly realized that by the time I slid to the bottom of the shallow gully, the truck would be on its side with no hope of recovery. As an automatic reaction to avoid danger, I stepped on the brake and was horrified to feel the truck speed up as the tires broke loose on the wet grass and greasy mud. I could hear the slithering slap of wet, leafy fronds on the tires and felt my momentum increase, bearing me toward the declivity, as I screamed Oh, Dammit NO! Counter to panicked intuition, I clutched the ball of the transfer case lever and pulled it back sharply from 2-High into 4-High as I goosed the accelerator. Trying to slow down had nearly been disastrous, and my heart was pounding as I desperately hoped that the engaged front wheels would pull me back up onto the treacherous, deceitful twin-rutted path. By now leaning crazily, the spinning front tires found purchase and arrested my lateral slide into the gully, as the Ramcharger regained the shallow, muddy ruts with a final fishtail. As I began to relax, I realized that within five seconds I would have a more serious problem. I had regained enough momentum to climb back onto the gently tilted trail, but as I crested a slight rise, I stared straight down, past the adjoining main jeep trail and out into space past the edge of the cliff. While congratulating myself on avoiding one disaster, I was now rapidly speeding toward another, since I now had enough momentum to careen down the hill, shoot across the jeep trail, and fly off the cliff. Recalling my Wisconsin winter-driving experience, I shifted the automatic transmission into neutral to disengage drive to the wheels and began gently tapping the brake pedal at a furious rate. As the cliff edge loomed, I felt the truck slow and knew I had regained control. I crept down the steepest part of the rutted trail onto the main jeep road at the dizzying speed of about six inches per second. My heart was pounding, and my entire body was so tensed that I could barely command my leg to press the brake pedal, or my arm to shift into Park. I idled on the jeep road, as the adrenaline spasms rippled through my body and I tried to catch my breath. When I finally regained control of myself, I crawled along the greasy, shale-slicked road in 4-Low, and considered myself lucky to be leaving Lead King Basin.