Running the Heart of the Caldera; It’s about joy not genetics

I am glad I will not be young in a future without wilderness — Aldo Leopold, scientist and author, New Mexico Forester, and architect of the modern Environmental Ethics movement.

RunningPeaks

A romp through the San Juans – three 14ers and a collapsed caldera. The run started at the Silver Creek Trailhead, up to Redcloud, over to Sunshine, back to the Trailhead and then looped around Handies Peak. A figure-8 course of high altitude bless. click on pictures to make them large format

“Why do you like to run?” – a question I often get asked. I usually make up some answer to steer the conversation back away from emotional strands to more comfortable analytic themes. In fact, I don’t like to just “run” – I am not really very good at it (if being good is measured by being speedy), and although I run most every day, my joy is found ON the run, especially along rough and rocky wilderness trails where the enormity of nature overwhelms prosaic modern life. The irresistible forces of geology, the incredible delicate touch of nature that can make even the smallest flower bloom with perfectly symmetry, winds that carry no smells made by man – these are the things that unleash astounding joy. At the end of the day I like having accomplished something difficult in a run, but that is more about being a driven personality; it is the joy of nature that makes running so essential to me.

Most any trail can unleash nature, but there are some very special places for me that are beyond the pale.  The San Juan Mountains are my personal enchanting wilderness; not only are the mountains and geology stunning, but rich history of minerals and rugged miners are backdrops to a place that I have visited for more than a half century.  The wilderness here is stark – miles and miles of exposed ridges and peaks far above timberline.  But surprisingly, there is evidence everywhere that prospectors touched and turned over rocks in the most inhospitable places; nature is supreme, but the San Juans have been a siren for hundreds of years for people like me.

Covershot

Top of Handies Peak (9/6/15) looking north after a brief storm. The San Juan Mountains have miles and miles of rugged peaks above tree line. Near Lake City, the Red Cloud Wilderness Study Area is nearly 40,000 acres with 34 peaks above 13,000 ft.

Despite my motivation of joy of running in nature and an espoused aversion to “racing”, I do seek out and enjoy organize ultra trail runs.  I choose interesting places – mostly based on geology or history – and toe the line on a half dozen 50+ km races per year. I try to run fast, but in reality, I am a jogging geoscientist.  I am happy with that, but hate failure nevertheless.  Earlier this year I stumbled and fell during a glorious race in the San Juan Mountains known as the San Juan Solstice 50 miler (SJS50).  I have unfinished business with this race, and have focused training around next year’s event.  Of course, this means “training” by returning and running often in the San Juan Mountains.

HC2

Summiting Red Cloud, day II of the Heart of the Caldera. This picture is about 35 minutes after first sunrise, and about 13,500′ in elevation. Fantastic terrane!

The Runs:  Familiar mountains, but a long journey

I decided to set up a trail run(s) within the Lake City Caldera and enjoy the high San Juans before winter once again shroud the peaks in impassable snow.  Labor Day weekend traditionally marks the change in session in the San Juans – although it is quite common to have great weather into mid-October, it is also not usual to get freakish September snows, making running above 13,000 feet a Darwin-Award type event.

Day I of the Heart of the Caldera was a modest 16 miler in the northeast part of the Lake City Caldera.  The route was inspired by the San Juan Solstice 50 M; the path follows Alpine Gulch (a major north-south drainage into Henson Creek) to a pass between Red Mountain and a peak known as 13,881 (many unnamed peaks are only denoted by their elevations).  From the pass, which has an elevation of approximately 11,770 ft, the route climbs and then follows a ridge line to 13,811.  It is a scrabble of about 700 feet to the smooth summit of 13,881 – it is also incredibly peaceful and isolate.  No trail, no people!  From the summit of 13,881 the route is a backtrack with a side scrabble up another prominent peak, Grassy Mountain (elevation 12,821 ft).

The weather forecast for September 5, called for significant rainfall starting at about 11 am.  There had been plenty of rain the previous couple of days in the area, and when I started the run at 6:30 am it only took 1 mile or so before I was soaked to the bone from the dew provided by the heavy growth of the underbrush.  Compared to the SJS50 in late June, the Alpine Gulch Trail was barely passable (or even visible!) due to the summer growth.  The stream was running with less volume than in June, but the 7 crossing required during the climb still meant wadding in ankle deep water.  About 2 miles up Alpine Gulch the drainage splits into an East and West Fork; the East Fork leads to the pass and peaks beyond.  Somewhere around 10,000 ft elevation, there is no sign of the trail, but a runner knows that you must keep heading upward.  There are a number of mines (mostly small spoil mounds) along the valley that I did not notice during the SJS50.  The stream meanders through the spoils, and obviously collects discharge from the old underground workings.  The water is crystal clear, but the channel has a thick orange mud coating.

waterEF

East Fork of Alpine Gulch. The water is clear, but there is a mud that probably represents iron minerals that flow out of the old underground workings of mines in the area.

Above 11,000 feet elevation it is possible to rediscover the trail, and running is easier (actually that is a mis-statement, running is never easy above 11,000 ft).  Clouds begin to roll in, and I fear that storm is due any moment (my fear is for lightning, not rain – I can get no wetter…).  A mist descends, and lowers the visibility, but no heavy showers or hail. I pass the saddle, which serves as the first aid station in the SJS50 at 1 hr and 40 minutes (4.8 miles).  I had hoped for views, but all horizons look gray and wet.

RedMtn

A view of Red Mountain, home of some of the richest mines near Lake City. The view is from the ridge line on 13,881 looking due north. The iron stains are eponymous hero – signaling that hydrothermal solutions surged through the collapsed Lake City Caldera 5-8 million years ago.

The mists – or clouds – temporarily rose about 13,000 ft as I climbed up the ridge to peak 13,881.  Still no great views, but I could at least gaze upon Red Mountain to the north (and know that Lake City was only a couple of thousand feet below).  The picture above is taken about 5.5 miles into the run, and sense of isolation settles on me with great comfort.  The clouds soon dropped to surround me with a thick gray curtain.  It remained with me even as I summited 13,881 – I think the visibility was less than 20 yards.  I quickly retraced the path way back, and headed for Grassy Mountain (or where I thought the peak was!).  This is beautiful running county – all above timberline, and alpine grasses.

Grassymtn

A few hundred ft below the summit of Grassy Mountain. The clouds shrouded the peak, giving the sense that perhaps this was Mt. Doom in Mordor.

I climbed up Grassy Mountain – sort of strange name for a peak in the San Juans.  On the flanks are alpine grasses, but in the clouds I only see crags.  When I reached the summit I was surprised to find a peak register.  I opened the log, and saw only 4 people had signed the register in the last 3 years.  I guess Grassy Mountain is not on the beaten path.  I was now at mile 9.2, and decided to eat some food before running back down the Gulch.  I was rewarded with a temporary rise of the cloud, and captured a panorama of 13,811 and the ridge line defining its northern shoulder.

13,881.ridge

Panorama from the crest of Grassy Mountain towards peak 13881 (on the left hand side of the photo). The distance from Grassy to 13,881 is about 1.3 miles as the crow flies.

The descent back to the Alpine Gulch Trailhead was uneventful;  for day one the mileage was just over 16 miles, and the elevation gain was 4,200 ft.  I finished in 5hrs and 50 minutes, assuring that I could brag about a trail run with an average pace of under 3 miles and hour…but that would seem fast compared to day II of the Heart of the Caldera!

The second day I had advertised through the Mountain Trail Series, an excellent resource for trail runners in Northern New Mexico.  I had proposed a run to the top of 3 14ers in the western edge of Lake city Caldera: Red Cloud (14,041 ft), Sunshine (14,006 ft) and Handies (14,058 ft).  The trails connecting these peaks are straight forward, and is quite “runnable” although there is major elevation gain along the 24 mile route.  Labor Day weekend is a great time for a trail run – but that also means there are LOTS of trail runs, and the interest in what I call the “Figure 8 of fun” was mostly cheer leading.  We started and finished the run at Silver Creek Trailhead, which is located in the center of the “figure 8”.  Silver Creek TH is at an elevation of 10,400′;  we started the run at 5:45 am on September 6, and quickly run (an exaggeration…) up the first couple of miles of Silver Creek in the dark.  The temperature at the start was 34 degrees, which is pretty nice when it is dry and there is no wind.  We pass about 10 groups of hikers that had an even earlier start on the day than we did.  Silver Creek gets its name from the stain it leaves on the rock – not from any great silver deposits in the surrounding peaks.  There are some molybdenum deposits in the valley, and these deposits carry some easily dissolved aluminum which precipitates out on the stream boulders giving them the look of the moon when it is full.

sunrise.redcloud

1000 ft below the summit of Red Cloud. The sun has risen in the east (the left hand side of the photograph), and there is a fresh dusting of snow barely visible on the summit. This photo reminded me very much of my last visit to Red Cloud with my good friend Dave Bunk, who made his first 14er summit. He was carrying an old school backpack, and plowed up the steep trail with grit and determination!

There is nothing difficult about the trail to Red Cloud, but the last mile is quite steep, and our pace slows to 40 minutes per mile.  The previous days clouds had dusted the top of Red Cloud with snow, and the trail rocks was coated with ice.  Hoka running shoes and ice are a comical mix, but with care and luck, we arrived at the summit in 1 hr 50 minutes (the distance is 4.5 miles).

RedCloud.summit

Dave Dogruel at the summit of Red Cloud at about 7:30 am. View is to the north.

It is only 1.5 miles running along a ridge to the south to reach Sunshine Peak. However, the icy conditions meant it was a bit of slog.  Sunshine peak is the lowest of Colorado’s 14ers, and the prominence along the ridge line is only 450 feet. However, this in no way diminishes Sunshine, and in fact, is one my very favorite peaks.  Once a runner arrives at Sunshine the views in all directions are stunning; but most hikers and runners just stop at the summit – a little further journey, perhaps 30 yards, leads to a most amazing view.  Sunshine towers above the Valley of the Lake Fork of the Gunnison River.  There is a nearly vertical drop of 4500 feet!

townofsehrman

View from the summit of Sunshine into the Valley of the Lake Fork of the Gunnison. The path of green in the left-center of the photo is the former sight of the mining town of Sherman – only 1.1 miles away as the crow flies, but 4500′ lower in elevation!

The view down to Lake Fork of the Gunnison River spies a flats at the intersection of two drainages.  It is green from vegetation, but even from this elevation, it looks like a great place for flash floods.  Never to be deterred by geologic disasters, miners built on that exact spot when a rich silver deposit was discovered in 1876.

Blackwonder

The Black Wonder Mine and Mill, from a stock certificate issued in the late 1890s. The mine was high up on the ridge, and ore was transported down via a tram to the mill built on the river.

There is not much to be seen at Sherman today, but I did spend time in my youth picking over the dumps of the Black Wonder.  I don’t have anything to show for it today, but the view from Sunshine floods my mind with happy memories.

townofsherman.new

Photograph of the Black Wonder Mill, and the general store next door in the late 19th century. It was totally destroyed in a flood shortly after this photo. Today this is the site of an aid station in the Hardrock 100.

The total distance from the TH to Sunshine is 6 miles, and we made the summit in just under 3 hours.  The views in all directions are wonderful, but we see lots of clouds building, and know that time is short to assure a safe Handies summit.

day1today2.x

A view from Sunshine to the northeast. The highest ridge-peak in the center of the photograph is peak 13,881. The right of 13,881 is a lower peak in the very center of the photograph, which is Grassy Mountain. Day I of the Heart of the Caldera meets Day II.

The sun has melted the ice on the rocks, and the descent back to the trailhead is pretty fast.  We retrace our steeps are reclimb Red Cloud.  One of my favorite views is to the west, and looking across the southern fork of Silver Creek.  Some hikers choose to bush whack down the steep talus, but it is strongly discouraged – both for safety reasons, and also the erosion that it promotes.  The picture below shows the steep walls of the valley and the long stringers of rockslides.

rockslides

Looking across the South fork of Silver Creek.

We arrive back at Silver Creek TH in 5 hours, and have the lunch of trail running champions – cold pizza and cheetos.  12 miles into the run, and about 12 to go. Right across from the Silver Creek Trail is the Grizzy Basin Trail, heading west-southwest up Handies.  This 4 mile trail is on the Hardrock 100 course, and is a relentless climb that averages 18% grade.  Not really runnable by the likes of me – I am in total awe of my friends like Dave Coblentz and Blake Wood that run this in the Hardrock year after year.

Grizzly.to.Handies

Mile 2 on the Grizzly Gulch trail looking up towards the summit of Handies. The trail follows the ridge on the right shoulder of the peak.

The climb up Grizzly brings our first taste of real weather.  We have hail and wind, intermixed with sunshine.  The trail is nearly empty of hikers – most day hikers chose the much shorter route from west side of Handies (which will be our descent route).  We arrive at the summit and the wind is spectacular.  Handies is a broad summit, and there is little cover from the wind.  The summit is 16.5 miles into the run, and we arrive at 7 hrs elapse.

summitinghandies

Summiting Handies – the last push before getting to the broad top.

I have been to the top of Handies many times, but never I have been there with not another hiker/runner in sight.  All around is wilderness, and although I can see the road to Cinnamon Pass far below I feel far removed from “civilization”.  Many people see marvelous vistas from Handies, but when you ask about the rocks, they shrug and mention that they are all gray and not descript.  That is not what I see – I see exploding volcanoes, the mid-Tertiary ignimbrite flare-up that shaped Colorado and New Mexico, and collapsed calderas that would someday host some of the richest mines in America.

HandiesPeak

Geology of the area around Handies Peak. Most people see gray nondescript rock, but I see the colors of dozens of volcanic eruptions and the erosion of those rocks.

I don’t see grays – I see colors of the different flows and episodes, like a geologic map.  the picture above is the geologic map of the area around Handies, and the colors represent rocks that came from different volcanoes.  A collage of violence.

back.to.sunshine

View back down Grizzly Gulch towards Sunshine – which is behind the vail of moisture falling in the distance. As a crow flies the distance is about 3 miles, but much longer when you run!

The descent down Handies is one of the best runs known to trail lovers – about 3 miles of pretty smooth trail, only a few rock glaciers crossing, and a drop of 2500 feet.  We run those three miles in about 50 minutes, and fell great coming into the upper TH in American Basin.

americanbasin

View from Handies into American Basin. In the center of the photo is Sloan Lake, a cirque basin.

We arrive at the TH in a little less than 8 hrs total elapse time.  However, all the fun is now gone.  We have 4 miles of running along Hinsdale County road 30 to get back to the Silver Creek TH.  It should be fast because in that distance it there is an elevation drop of more than a thousand feet.  We spend about 30 minutes talking to various people in American Basin – a surprising number saw us on Red Cloud and after their climb had driven over to American Basin.  I was shocked that they recognized us, but most said it was easy to remember the crazy guys running at 14,000 ft.  One person said that they remembered my shoes (Hokas) and wondered if I had a foot problem…

roadbacktoTH

Hinsdale Co. RD 30 back to the Silver Creek TH. 4 miles of hard packed rumble….

We left the American Basin TH having run 19.5 miles in 8 hrs and 30 minutes – about 30 minutes slower than I expected.  We still had 4 miles to go, and realistically, it should have taken us an hour.  However, all the chatting – and even more likely the running 16 miles the day before – meant that I was not really able to convince my body to get going.  It took an hour and 20 minutes to get to the finish line.

The Heart of the Caldera runs were a great adventure.  The solitude of the first day was perfectly blended with the challenge and struggle of the climbs of three 14ers on the second.  The total distance covered was just under 40 miles, and the elevation gain was about 12,500 feet.  But, the benefit of breaking the ultra into two days meant that I got to eat at Bruno’s in Lake City between runs!  Bruno’s is a fantastic restaurant run by Frederika & Chef Bruno with some of the best food I have ever eaten.  We always go to Bruno’s and it is so unexpected in a remote corner of the San Juans like Lake City, that it brings joy to my heart.  The downside of multi-day events – several days of 4 am starts!

readytoroll

4 am starts are the norm. Not sure if this is evolution or illness.

Running Fast?

The Redcloud-Sunshine-Handies loop is a challenging run – a geologist’s dream to be sure, but still, it is a true physical test. I have many friends from Los Alamos that have done this loop and I am always amazed how fast they can cover this geologic gauntlet.  I can’t help but wonder why are my friends and colleagues so much faster?  Do I have a poor training regiment?  Am I even less coordinated than I appear in everyday conversation?  Or, am I genetically predisposed for last place in a trail run?  Mostly on a lark I decided to have a genetic analysis based on a blood sample for “athletic genes” a few years ago.

Beginning in the 1960s a group of physicians began to look at genes as indicators of human performance – either in the classroom or on the athletic pitch.  There have been huge data bases complied that provide a statistical framework to investigate the “nature vs nurture” arguments of why some excel in particular fields.  Athletics is one of the richest data basis; there are about 20,000 human genes, and through statistical analysis there are approximately 100 that seem to be related to athletic performance.  I say “seems” because although we can understand the rudimentary functions of genes the complex interplay between all the genes is not even poorly understood.  However, in the last 4 Olympic Games, every single male medalist in distance running races shared some specific alleles!  An allele is a variant form of a gene – inherited – and there can be specific variations that are quite rare.

I had analysis done on 30  genes;  I had some strange vision that a secret would be unlocked by having this analysis.  However, I was mostly unsurprised.  I found a genetic makeup that statistically suggests I have a higher BMI and less VO2 max than endurance athletes (I am slightly stocky, and not quite as good a delivering oxygen to my blood as I would hope), Further, I have a “more efficient deposition of fat leading to higher BMI when consuming a high fat diet”, meaning my love for cheese should be reflected in my choice of swim ware.  But I also found a statistical cadre with powerful muscles, and a quick recovery time.  All my indicators of endurance fell in the vast middle of expected performance – I guess pretty much what I show in every race.

What the genetic markers don’t measure is will power.  Nor do they measure joy.  The lesson learned from this academic excursion – which I am prone to do – is that the mind is the organ that matters.  It is complex; but it is our mind that lets us truly experience joy and happiness.  For me, trail running unleashes something in my soul (mind), that makes life an adventure.

San Juan Solstice 50M; A most beautiful run cut way too short

“Joy to you, we’ve won”, the final words uttered by Philippides upon running from Marathon to Athens to announce the victory over the Persians, circa 490 BC.  Philippides was a professional day-long runner delivering urgent messages.  He is an inspiration for ultra runners — he ran first to Sparta to plea for help (240 km over two days), and then ran the 40 km from Marathon to Athens before expiring.

14000feetandlookingsw

Top of Handies Peak, San Juan Mountains, early June, 2009. The view is to the southeast, and you can see above timberline for 35 miles.

Calderas, collapse, karats, and cannibals, oh my!  The tiny town of Lake City in southwestern Colorado is the home to a magnificent mountain ultra, the San Juan Solstice 50 miler (SJS50).  Lake City is the epicenter of unbelievably beautiful high mountains, amazing geology, mineral and mining history, and only a few miles from the most infamous episode of cannibalism in the old wild west.  In my opinion the San Juan Mountains are the most beautiful in the world, and the mining history has drawn me to the range for 50 years; the opportunity to run a long race through the mountains I have known was something incredibly special that I just had to do (even if I was only marginally qualified for the extreme course!).

michelleonhandies

Michelle Hall, my wife, on her first 14er Handies Peak. Over her shoulder Uncompahgre and Wetterhorn (more 14ers) are visible. Handies is a couple of miles southwest of the SJS50 course.

I first visited the San Juans with my father on a mineral collecting expedition in the early 1960s.  Although I have no real memory of that adventure, I know that it was the first of more than 50 trips we would take before I left home for college.  I visited every mining camp, large and small, across the San Juans looking for mineral treasure.  I found silver, gold, rhodochrosite, great quartz crystals, galena, hubnerite, and artifacts galore. But mostly, I found a place that inspired and thrilled me, and connected with my soul.  The San Juans are no longer a “hidden gem”; they are visited by more than 150,000 people every year.  Telluride has become a major ski resort and playground of the rich.  There are dozens of companies that provide jeep tours to some of the most remote and rugged corners of the range, and sometimes in the summer there are more than 500 ATVs ferrying people to vistas they could barely imagine before they got to the San Juans.  However, despite its growing popularity, the San Juans are still a wilderness, and there are ample opportunities for solitude and reflection — along with climbing, camping, running, and yes, even mineral collecting.

lookingforsilver

Collecting minerals. My grandson’s first mineral collecting trip was to TomBoy located in the San Juans above Telluride. He was 2 and half years old, and found lots of rocks…and a taste of the world’s most beautiful mountain range.

The San Juans are where I took my then-to-become wife on our first “very serious” date.  Once she camped above timberline, and pounded on rocks looking for silver, and had to purify water before breakfast, we knew that we were right for each other.  She saw Cement Creek, Cinnamon and Stoney Pass and the ghost town of Animas Forks before she met my parents.  Years later we returned for a celebration of an anniversary and she climbed her first 14er, Handies Peak.  Later my son would also climb his first 14er there, and it transformed him into a “mountain man”.

Lake City is on the north-central flank of the San Juans, and is less well known than the “big three” mining towns that brought much fame to the area:  Silverton, Ouray, and Telluride.  However, Lake City is just as historic, and is only a few miles – as the crow flies – from 5 peaks that top 14,000 feet. The San Juan Solstice 50 started as the Lake City 50 miler back in 1995.  The terrain is spectacular, but also poses challenges for snow pack and summer lightning storms – much of the course is above timberline. In the early part of last decade the race assumed its modern name, and the goal of running close to the solstice became a mantra.  The SJS50 is extremely popular, and requires runners to qualify and signup for a lottery for the 250 available spots.  The lottery and wait list adds drama to the hopeful runners, but the real challenge is waiting to see if the snow pack cooperates with the third week in June.  In 2015 it was touch and go – an amazing wet late spring kept the high country under a thick white blanket.  Snows finally began to melt in mid-June – and boy did they melt, sending roaring runoff down the drainages.  This set the stage for a true adventure – a 50 mile run with more than 12,800 feet elevation gain and loss, a low point of about 8,700 ft elevation, and an average elevation of approximately 11,000 ft, snow fields, and 9 stream crossing with churning melt waters.  What could possibly go wrong?

Well, it turns out lots can go wrong – flat tires on 4WD roads, warning for missing 25 mile/hour speed limits, and most unfortunately, a bad trip on a downhill run that ends a race early.  However,  the SJS50 is now a life challenge for me.

fromUlay

Artifacts from the Ute and Ulay mines, located just beyond Alpine Gulch. In the early part of the 20th Century there was a major struggle between newly formed unions and mine management that played out across the mining camps of the Southwest. Pictured are two union ribbons and a ceremonial “sliver slug” stamped “Ulay” (the slug is about 2 inches across). These artifacts are from the collection of a close friend, Dave Bunk. The history of the Lake City is really about the miners and mines – and what is left today are these wonderful artifacts. Jesse LaPlante photograph.

There’s gold in them thar hills (with a shout out to Mark Twain)

I have written several articles on the San Juans – some for technical journals, and some for more popular literature.  Recently, Gloria Staebler and Lithographie published a monogramThe San Juan Triangle of Colorado; Mountains of Minerals that captures the spirit of the geology and the wonderful minerals.  From my writing in the monogram I attempt to tell the tale of the 8th wonder of the world.

san-juan-triangle-co_2

Lithographie monographie on the San Juans (http://www.lithographie.org/bookshop/the_san_juan_triangle.htm)

The San Juan Mountains are a spectacular range of towering and rugged peaks that cover an area larger than the entire state of Vermont –  25,000 sq km of alpine bliss in southwestern Colorado. The range stretches from Creede in the northeast to Durango in the southwest; the San Juans are home to 14 peaks over 14,000 feet in elevation and  hundreds of peaks that top 12,000 feet.  The topography is extraordinarily steep, and much of the range is above timberline.  The imposing landscape was shaped by some of the most violent volcanic eruptions known in geologic history.  Between 35 and 26 million years ago huge volcanic centers rose and collapsed and erupted 10s of thousands of cubic km of rhyolitic and andesitic tuffs.  The scared landscape that remained was full of factures and faults that would later localize the magmatic fluids that deposited the ore bodies of some of Colorado’s richest mining districts:  Creede, Summitville, Silverton, Ouray, Telluride, Rico, and of course, Lake City.

allthecalderas

The volcanic centers of the San Juans. The western-most center is a series of calderas that formed over a 5 million year period nearly 28 million years ago. The initials “LC” denotes the Lake City Caldera, home of the SJS50.

The extraordinary episode of volcanism that created the San Juan Mountains began at the end of the Eocene (a geologic epoch 56-34 million years ago).  More than 30 centers of volcanism formed through out southern Colorado and northern New Mexico in what is known as the Mid-Tertiary Ignimbrite Flare-Up.  These volcanoes probably looked like stratavolcanos that form above subduction zones (eg, Mount Rainier and Mount Fuji) but they produced far more voluminous eruptions.  Initially, the eruptions produced andesites and explosive ash falls, but starting about 30 million years ago huge sheets of pyroclastic flows were erupted.  The pyroclastic flows are welded tuffs known as ignimbrites. These flows are unparalleled in size; within the San Juans there are at least 22 flows that are larger than 100 cubic kilometers.  The only way to explain these flows is to assume nearly continuous eruptions for dozens of years.  The eruptive centers ultimately collapse forming large calderas. The largest eruption known in the geologic record occurred in the San Juan Mountains at the La Garita Caldera north of Creede (denoted as LG in the figure above).   La Garita produced the Fish Canyon eruption 28 million years ago; the Fish Canyon Tuff was voluminous – more than 5000 cubic kilometers!  The Fish Canyon tuff could fill Lake Michigan!  Equally remarkable, after La Garita erupted the Fish Canyon tuff, the volcanic system continued to be active for 1.5 million years producing at least 7 other major eruptions.

The reason for the Mid-Tertiary Ignimbrite Flare-Up is a subject of geologic debate, but most geologists believe that the volcanism is related to the tectonics along the west coast of North America.  The Laramide Orogeny, which resulted in the uplift of much of the Rocky Mountains along an arc from Canada to New Mexico, is thought to be related to the subduction of the Farallon oceanic plate beneath North America.  The Farallon plate was quite young geologically, and thus buoyant.  This likely resulted in a shallow angle of subduction, which caused an uplift of the entire western US.  About 35 million years ago the last bit of the Farallon plate was subducted resulting in a major re-ordering of plate tectonics on the western edge of the North America.  Without subduction, the Farallon plate began to simply sink through the mantle in a process that is known as “slab roll-back”. This allowed very hot mantle to melt large regions of the lower most crust, and created the magma sources for the ignimbrites.  The eruptions of ignimbrites lead to the collapse of the huge calderas throughout the San Juans and developed a structural fabric that would localize much younger volcanic activity, which would give rise to rich mineral districts.

LakeCityCaldera

The Lake City Caldera (from Bove et al., 2001). The high peaks between Henson Creek, which passes through Lake City, and the Lake Fork of the Gunnison River are all volcanic centers that erupted about 22.5 million years before the present.  Collapse of the volcanic center produced an elliptical depression – about 1/2 the diameter of the Valles Grande Caldera near Los Alamos.

In the area defined by the San Juan Triangle (Telluride-Ouray-Silverton, and over to Lake City) there are four collapsed calderas; the Uncompahgre, San Juan, Silverton, and Lake City.  The first three were formed during a time period of 29 to 27 million years ago.  The Lake City caldera was the last to form, at the end of the ignimbrite flare up, 22.5 million years ago.  The geologic record within the San Juan Triangle is complex and difficult to interpret due to the superposition of the calderas and their structural manifestations. The Uncompahgre and San Juan calderas are the oldest; they were active at the same time, and collapsed simultaneously with the eruption of a very large ignimbrite sheet.   The ring faults associated with the Uncompahgre and San Juan calderas form an oblong structure that is about 45 km by 15 km, trending southwest-northeast. The formation of the Lake City Caldera was the last gasp of the Mid-Tertiary Ignimbrite flare up.  The rich ore deposits in the San Juan Triangle were emplaced 5 to 15 m.y. after the calderas formed. This mineralization is classified as epithermal and is associated with minor episodes of magmatic activity.   The base metal deposits contain mainly galena, sphalerite, and chalcopyrite while the precious metal deposits are mainly native gold.  Silver occurs in a suite of exotic minerals that includes tetrahedrite/tennantite, proustite, and pyrargyrite.  Gangue minerals include quartz (most common), calcite, pyrite, pyroxmangite, rhodochrosite, fluorite, and barite.

CapitolCityminerals

Minerals from “Mr. Mesler’s Mine”, which was located in Capitol City, and short distance beyond Alpine Gulch on Henson Creek (about 9 miles from Lake City). From Dave Bunk’s collection (Jesse LaPlante photograph).

There were hints of the great mineral wealth of the San Juans in the earliest expeditions exploring the western US.  In 1848, John Fremont led a privately funded expedition into Colorado to scout a route for an intra-continental rail route along the 38th Parallel. The expedition was a disaster due to an exceptionally cold winter, but an unnamed member of Freemont’s party discovered gold nuggets and flakes near present day Lake City. The exact location of the discovery is not known, but it was probably the Lake Fork of the Gunnison River, and may well have been related to the future Golden Fleece mine, which would become Lake City’s most famous mine 30 years later.  This is the first documented discovery of gold in the state of Colorado, although it was largely ignored.

In 1859 gold was discovered along the Front Range, west of present day Denver. This coincided with the decline of gold mining along the Sierra Nevada of California and created a rush of prospectors to Colorado. This became known as the Pike’s Peak Gold Rush, although the gold discoveries had nothing to do with the famous 14er. The huge influx of prospectors far outstripped the easily won gold in the Denver area, and prospectors fanned out to other parts of the Rockies. In the late summer of 1860 Charles Baker led a party of gold seekers to the San Juans. Baker entered the San Juans along the Lake Fork of the Gunnison River – he walked along part of the course of the SJS50! His party eventually passed over Cinnamon Pass, and discovered gold along the Animas River near Silverton.  There was no putting the genie back in the bottle – mining became the heart beat of the San Juans for a century.  The early years were extremely difficult;  the San Juans were actually part of land the US government had agreed was owned by the Ute Indians, the area was so remote that it was nearly impossible to supply and provision, and the mining season was short and harsh due to the alpine environment.  In 1873 the Brunot Agreement opened the land to mining (the Utes in return received $25,000 annually in royalty, and the right to hunt), and  soon toll roads and narrow gage trains began to “civilize” the area.

1911mapofGF

Early cross-section of the Golden Fleece Mine.The upper reaches of the mine assayed at 125 oz of gold and 1250 oz of silver per ton.

The first major mineral discovery near Lake City occurred on August 27, 1871 Henry Henson discovered a rich silver deposit – to be called the Ute-Ulay – along a stream about 3.5 miles from the present location of Lake City. Later this stream would be named Henson Creek (the SJS50 follows Henson Creek for the first 2.5 miles of the course). Once the Brunot Agreement was signed, Henson returned and developed the Ute-Ulay mine, which was a major silver and lead producer (but few mineral specimens exist today – a pity).  This development attracted entrepreneurs of every type; one of these was Enos Hotchkiss who came to build a toll road but instead discovered gold above Lake San Cristobal, a couple of mines south of Lake City.  Hotchkiss did not find much gold at first – in fact his claim was largely based on the obvious color of the rock – anyone with a sprinkling of geologic knowledge just has to gaze up Red Mountain and see the beautiful color of an oxidized cap, and know that there is gold in them thar hills. However, the claim was enough to commit to prospecting, and Lake City was founded on this promise. Eventually the Hotchkiss claim was renamed the Golden Fleece Mine, and became one of Colorado’s most famous.  The early years of the Golden Fleece relied on telluride ores, and there are reports of individual mining carts assaying 50,000 dollars of bullion.  I have been underground at various adits associated with the Golden Fleece looking for rumored veins of hessite, one of my favorite minerals. Alas, like most old San Juan mines, the conditions are deplorable, and one is actually just lucky to get out alive.

goldenfleecestock

Stock certificate from the Golden Fleece mining and milling company dated 1896. Although the Golden Fleece produced silver, and thus was impacted by the 1893 silver crash, the steady production of gold helped the property make it through the “silver crisis”. Dave Bunk collection.

The news of the Golden Fleece started a “Lake City” rush. By 1880 there were dozens of mines in Carson (along the SJS50 course), Argentum and Capitol City.  The population of Lake City swelled to 2500, and the boom times were full steam.  However, silver soon ran into the buzz saw of politics.  The rich deposits of the San Juans began to push the price for silver bullion down, and western mining barons demanded action.  In 1890 Congress passed the Sherman Silver Purchase Act, which required the US government to purchase $4.5 million dollars worth of silver every month.  This proved to be as unpopular among the Republicans of the day as the Affordable Health Care act today, and was repelled in 1893 – and the price of silver plummeted.  In a few week period the price dropped from $1.50 per oz to 63 cents.  At the time, Colorado produced about 2/3 of all the silver in the country; within 2 years more than 1/2 the silver mines in Colorado – including those near Lake City – were shuttered.  Although the mining industry would eventually recover, the heyday had passed.  Today there is some mining in the Lake City area – for example the Golden Wonder Mine located at the head of Deadman’s Gulch – but mostly there is history of an incredible tough breed of pioneer that has long passed.

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Rhodochrosite, Champion Mine, Dave Bunk collection.  The Champion Mine is located near Cinnamon Pass – the road over Cinnamon Pass was built by Enos Hotchkiss. Jesse LaPlante photograph.

In 1911 Irving et. al published Geology and Ore Deposits near Lake City, Colorado.  In the text is a haunting statement: “Secondary enrichment…led to the formation of the rich bonanzas of ruby silver found here and throughout …”  Oh, to find a pyrargyrite or proustite from Lake City! I have not in 50 years, so I suppose I am happy to run the San Juan Solstice instead.

googleLC

Google Earth Image of various points along the SJS50. The course starts in Lake City and head west on Henson Creek, then south up, way up, Alpine Gulch. The course turns towards Redcloud Peak, a 14er, but before arriving there descends into the Lake Fork valley. After crossing the valley the course climbs steeply up to the continental divide, and has 15 miles above timberline.

50 Miles, a clock ticking, and then a trip

Lake City is a small town, and every resident seems to be involved in the race.  The Lake City of my youth was a decaying frontier mining town; like nearly all Colorado mountain mining communities it has been gentrified and is now a destination for outdoor enthusiasts of all sorts. Gentrification came decades later than to Aspen or Telluride, so it is still has the rustic flavor of the early part of the 20th Century.  But make no mistake, expensive vacation homes and a very fine French Chef are now part of the Lake City landscape.  The SJS50 checkin is most of the day before the race – lots of hard core trail runners from all around are wandering the small town park that serves as the start and finish to the race.  It does not take insightful self awareness to immediately recognize that I am not really “like” most of the runners.  However, that is not why I run, and I am truly excited to be in the San Juans.

The final checkin for race begins at 4 am on Saturday, June 27.  I put my drop bags into the piles for a couple of the aid stations, and begin to get nervous.  Visiting various parts of the course the day before I know that it will be wet and muddy, so I have a couple of extra pairs of shoes, lots of socks, and of course, my special energy supplies tucked into my drop bags that proudly displace my name and bib number.  In ultras your bib number is aways assigned alphabetically, so my bag is pretty easy to find (although not as easy to find as my friend Dave Zerkle from Los Alamos….).  At 4:55 a soft bull horn announces that the race will start in 5 minutes.  I hustle into position, but it seems strange to me that runners are still milling around the park or standing in line at the port-a-potties.  Suddenly I hear, with no warning, a growled “GO”, and people are off running.  There are also runners running from the port-a-potties.  I realize that 13 or 14 hours running will not rely on a punctual start.

startinginthedark

The glint of reflective tape and headlamps at 5 am start of the San Juan Solstice. A bit of a chaotic beginning, but a perfect morning.

The first 2.6 miles of the race are up a gravel road along Henson Creek.  There is not much chit-chat, and the sounds I hear are the crunch of 500 feet on the road gravel and mixed with the turbulent roar of Henson Creek bringing snow melt down from the high country.  Dave Zerkle and I settle into a very agreeable pace of a little better than 11 minutes per mile (the specter of 50 miles looms large).  When we arrive at Alpine Gulch we start the real race.  Although we have climbed 500 feet thus far, in the next 6.5 miles we have nearly 4000 feet elevation gain.  The sun is still an hour from lighting the narrow canyon, but there is enough glow to switch off the headlamps.  The creek in Alpine Gulch is churning, but the water is much lower than just a week before. At mile 3.75 we come to the first of 7 (or 8, 9, or 10, but who is counting) crossings of the creek.  The crossing has a rope for assistance, and a number of volunteers to offer advice.  The runners stack up waiting for their chance to jump into the frigid waters…the first step is a doozy, although the water is only a bit above my knees.  Cold, but I am surprised how good it feels!

river.crossing

The first river crossing along Alpine Gulch. This photo was taken the day before the race, scouting the various segments. The picture does not give a great sense of the water depth, but it is about 2.5 feet here. At some of the higher crossing the water is definitely crotch level.

The course criss crosses the gulch many times, and at each water entry there are volunteers and a rope.  Some crossing are more challenging than others, but every time the runners emerge with soaked shoes, socks and compression sleeves.  I really enjoy the crossings, except they continually bunch the runners.  Dave Zerkle and I are trying to maintain a 20 minutes per mile or better (the average grade on most of the climb is 17%).  For the most part, the running dynamics are such that we can pass the slower runners, and get passed by the occasional faster runner (probably the people that were in the port-a-pottie when the race started).  However, around mile 6 I become quite impatient with the “group-pace” and ask to semi-sprint past a dozen runners.  It is hard work, but rewarded with open trail. A downside is that I lost Zerkle.  The first aid station is located at a small saddle at mile 7.6.  The cutoff time for this station is 7:45 am – in other words, 2hr45min from the start.  Sounds easy, but the climb is tough.  I planned on arriving at 7 am, and I am 6 minutes early.  I feel fantastic, and have visions of a sub-13 hr race.

redmountain

View of the south side of Red Mountain from Aid Station #1. The red color that is usually so distinctive is muted in the early morning sun. However, on the ascent up the gulch there are many old mines and the cabins of prospectors past.

Although the aid station is at a saddle, the climbing continues.  I am still moving well, not really tired, and hypnotized by the scenery.  I feel like I am home.  Shortly before summitting at the high point of the first part of the course I catch up to another runner from Los Alamos, Sarah Thien.  She has been battling an injury, and is not her usual rapid self.  We do get to chat a bit, and both marvel that the mountains surrounding us.

terryontop

The first climb is nearly over – a pass on the shoulder of an unnamed 13,600 foot peak visible over my left shoulder. The day is spectacular! In the distance I can see Handies and Sunshine Peaks.

Once on the divide I know that the course is going to descend nearly 3500 feet in the next six miles.  All those hard earned feet and inches of elevation gained are soon to be lost, and gravity wins again.  I always have a difficult time shifting gears from climbing to running downhill.  I suppose it is the stiffness of age, but my hips always have to be convinced that it is okay to have strides longer than 10 inches.  After a mile or so I am beginning to hit a stride of 11:30 minutes per mile;  I had hope for 10 minutes per mile, but I am ahead of schedule never the less!

sarah.top

Sarah Thien running across the divide. The view is towards the west, and the high peaks of Uncompahgre and Wetterhorn can be seen in the distance.

There are a number of snow crossing, but the elite runners have post holed a pathway.  The snow is soft and wet — and slippery – but mostly enjoyable.  At mile 10.5 the snow is behind me, and the steep descent begins.  I am excited and begin to try and sprint.  Disaster strikes at mile 11 – I trip.  I am on a steep trail section and tumble head-long downhill. I land hard on my artificial knee and my right forearm.  The trail is rutted, and I am facedown, feet above my head, unable to get up.  I realize this is bad, but I hope that it is a typical trail run trip where the blood is always worse than the damage.  My dignity is challenged as I try and right myself – a woman runs past as I am still down and asks “did you fall?”  Oh, if only I could have actually answered that question with a response it deserved!

I get up, and start downhill knowing that the Williams Aid Station is only 4.5 miles ahead.  I can’t really run, but I am moving.  Lots of runners now pass me, reminding me that hubris is a nasty sin. I am worried about my knee – being an artificial joint I imagine some horrific breakage.  Hardly likely, but a concern nevertheless. My right foot (below my artificial knee) is totally numb.  Every step feels like I am swinging a club attached to my knee.  Before the fall I was on pace to arrive at the Williams Aid Station at 9:05 am.  Instead I arrive at 9:32.  I check in, and then very reluctantly, drop the race.

cuts

After clean up – once the blood and grim is removed, it does not look so bad. Well, at least the knee. Unfortunately, the day is done.

The medical staff help clean up the wounds, and I get bandaged up.  My wife is at the aid station, and provides the sad sag-wagon ride back to Lake City.  After only finishing 16 miles I am quite depressed.  I look up on the ride in and see two parts of the course I very much looked forward to: Slumgullion and Vickers.

slumgullion

Michelle standing at the Slumgullion pass point of interest. Over her head is the scarp of the repeated Earthflows.

The Slumgullion Earthflow is one of the most interesting and odd geologic features on the entire run. In the 1870s this strange tongue of yellow chalky debris was identified as a landslide off Mesa Seco (the map below shows the geography of the slide).  It was later recognized that the Slumgullion was not “a landslide” but a series of large scale debris flows that have been active for hundreds of years.  About 1200 years ago the competent rocks on the top of Mesa Seco began to slide down towards the river valley because the underlying rocks, which are heavily altered ignimbrites from the Lake City Caldera complex, were exposed and rapidly eroded.  The first flow damned the river and formed a prototype Lake San Cristobal.  Eventually the river cut through this old debris flow and drained the lake, only to see two other episodes of mass wasting, one 700 years ago, and most recently, 300 years ago (and this flow is still active). The distance from the head of the flow – the scarp on the cliffs of Mesa Seco – to the toe is about 7 km, and 170 million cubic meters of material are contained within the scarp.

fig1

The Slumgullon – a large landslide due to the collapse of steep cliffs of decomposing volcanic tuff.

There is a section of the slide that remains active.  At one time it was a standard geology student training exercise to measure downward movement with seasonal surveys.  Today the movement is measured with SAR (synthetic aperture radar).  The image below is from a pair of NASA overflights, and is colored to show the motion over a one week period in 2011.  The red/purple colors show the most rapid motion, about 4 inches per week.

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SAR image of the Slumgullion Earthflow. The slide is outlined in red, and the colors are constructed from the fringes of the differences between two radar images. The slide a few hundred meters above the SJS50 crossing is slowly moving downhill.

Although the Slumgullion slide is strange, it pales in weirdness to the last section of the course – the climb up Mesa Seco.  The SJS50 course is very close to the Alferd (sometimes written Alfred) Packer cannibalism site – in fact we are probably running on the very ground that Packer’s victims camped on at back in 1874. Packer – with no real experience, but a gift for tall tales – guided 5 men to the area in February (the middle of winter!) to look for gold.  It seems they were prospecting very close to the future Golden Wonder Mine (it is in Deadman Gulch, named for the Packer victims), but they became snow bound and quickly ran out of supplies.  There are many versions of what happened next, but it is clear that Alferd killed and ate his companions to survive.  For this reason I believe that the final aid station, named “Vicker’s” for the nearby ranch should actually be called Packer, and there should be bacon there…. I ponder what it must have been like to be in the San Juans 140 years ago.  I often think I was born 100 years too late, and could have been a naturalist.  Then I recall the amusing tale of the Hinsdale County Judge that presided over the trial of Packer and sentenced him to be hanged (the sentence was eventually overturned because Alferd ate his victims while Colorado was still a territory, and cannibalism was not a crime in the territory….really!); was reputed to have said: “Stand up yah voracious man-eatin’ sonofabitch…. When yah came to Hinsdale County, there was siven dimmycrats. But you, yah et five of ’em, goddam yah….Packer, you Republican cannibal, I would sintince ya ta hell but the statutes forbid it.”  Ah politics, they have not changed in 140 years.

After I get cleaned up and rebandaged, I go to the finish line and wait for all my friends to finish.  As the first runners come in I am struck how most look very different than runners after a 50K race.  Here they are far more tired, looking thankful for the finish instead of happy.  Nearly every runner I know tells a tale of how difficult the conditions were this year and how hard, very hard, the run was.  I think of Philippides who’s legend inspires ultra runners — giving it all, raising their arms in victory as they cross the finish line, and crumpling to the ground in exhaustion.  I suspect even Philippides would find the SJS50 challenging.

theend

A butterfly at Alpine Gulch. Simple beauty everywhere.

My morning after the race I have come to grips with my race-interupted.  I have decided that this is something I can not leave undone. I will return in 2016 – in fact, it will be the focus of all my training for the next year.  I also wonder how I can make the San Juans my home.