The Twilight Peaks are a long chain of mountains situated directly across the valley from Purgatory Mountain Resort. I skied Purgatory every winter in high school and spent a lot of time looking at the Twilights and thinking things like, Wow, and, Damn. They’re a pretty impressive spectacle. So once I discovered ultrarunning, I immediately decided to give the Twilights a shot. And by ‘a shot’ I mean ‘try to traverse them all in a single push.’ This was in 2008. Having done maybe three big mountain runs at that point and being in possession of absolutely no beta whatsoever on the route, I was entirely unqualified to give it a shot. And that’s probably a large part of why it blew up into the biggest, most desperate mountain adventure I’ve ever had. But since I survived without serious injury, my attempt on the Twilights is a great story. Check it out.
I camped in my dad’s truck at Purgatory and started running by 5:00 a.m., faltering down the trail by the light of my cell phone. At the bottom of the valley, I took off my shoes and socks to wade through the creek. In my backpack were two water bottles, a sandwich, a sweater, full rain gear, a compass, maps, a journal, and a bivy sack. After crossing the creek, I expected to bushwhack through dense forest for miles in the general direction of the ridge, but somehow immediately found a game trail that led exactly where I wanted to go. I hiked/ran my way up the mountain and watched the sunrise while passing timberline and gaining the technical portion of the ridge. The fun part lay ahead in the clear morning light. I took a drink of water and continued onto the rocks.
The Twilights have at least three main ‘peaks,’ but are really just a long ridge with many bumps of various prominence. Below the ridge on both sides is a pretty complex amalgamation of alpine basins, lakes, sub-ridges, and plateaus. It’s intricate enough, in fact, and remote enough, that although the famous Durango-Silverton train runs in the Animas valley east of the Twilights, i.e. between the Twilights and the vast Weminuche Wilderness, the Twilights have been annexed into the Weminuche as a satellite addition to the wilderness area. And speaking of the train, as I worked my way north along the ridge, clambering up rock steps and balancing down thin rock edges, I could hear the train’s hoot like an angry recollection of civility over 4,000 feet below me as it worked its way up toward Silverton. The mountains on the right dropped off steeply to the river. The mountains on the left dropped into picturesque alpine basins. Their lakes glittered in the sunlight.
The distant mountains were obscured by a general haze in the air. But I looked more at my feet and hands than at the views as I worked my way along the ridge. The climbing grew steadily more technical. At each rock section, I navigated my way through its weaknesses with slightly more difficulty than at the last. I didn’t know what each peak held in store and the remoteness of the climb became increasingly apparent as the return route became more challenging. I wasn’t running at all by this point. Indeed, I had slowed to a walk tempered by long periods of stopping and contemplation. The route felt big. I suddenly felt that maybe I was in over my head. Nearly two hours passed before I went hardly a mile. Clouds began to build in the north.
Eventually I reached an impasse I was unwilling to overcome. The rock was too technical, the fall potential too big, and traversing around the block seemed impossible. I spent a long time going up and down trying to find a way through, but I didn’t trust the holds and didn’t think I could reverse the moves if the other side proved impossible to descend. I sat in the pass below the rock and looked around me. The mountains floated through the haze. The clouds were getting darker. Purgatory was a distant speck on the western end of the valley. Directly below me was a mountain cirque with a gorgeous glimmering lake. A creek ran out of the lake and down into the trees below. As I looked around at the scenery and the clouds and myself on this thin, rocky ridge far above everyone else, I felt deeply vulnerable. I suddenly wanted to see people, talk to someone, go home. I decided to bail on the climb.
But I didn’t want to go back the way I had come. I knew that was hard, and I wanted a shortcut. Instead, l looked down below. The lake glittered in the sun and seemed to offer ideal fishing and camping, and I reasoned that surely people knew about this and had forged a trail up to this spot. I started down. The descent was on rocks and fast. No trail seemed to lead away from the lake, so I headed down to the edge of the trees to search out a trail. I canvassed the whole edge of the forest and couldn’t find a trace of humans, and then made the biggest mistake of the day: I plunged into the forest anyway.
Things immediately got bad. The creek steepened and then leapt off a 200-foot waterfall, while the valley around me narrowed and steepened into a deep gorge. The sides of the valley were loose and vegetated only by thin, hardy aspen trees. My feet could find no purchase on the dirt and I slid precariously from tree to tree down into the valley bottom, tearing up my hands and pants while trying desperately not to lose control and rocket to the bottom. The valley floor was as flat as the waterfall had been steep. It was an alpine wetland flooded by beaver dams and at that time of the year (late August), the flora had grown up to my height and above. I started pushing through the bushes, unable to see below my waist, and immediately tripped over a log. Got up and tripped again. I looked closer and realized that the ground was crisscrossed by dead logs, all of which were obscured by dense vegetation. I couldn’t see where I was stepping or go forward at all.
I paused to consider the situation and was immediately overwhelmed by an attack of bugs so intense that I straight-up panicked. I had never seen bugs this terrible and haven’t since. They were big, black bastards that didn’t give a damn about how much I waved my arms or slapped myself. They settled on my body in hordes and carpeted my skin, crawling on and biting every available surface. I screamed and hit myself and shook and positively freaked out. I ran forward and tripped again. I stood up and looked around wildly, scraping my arms over my body to try to un-stick the terrible crawling sensation everywhere. The only open ground was the steeply-sloping side of the valley. It was grassy and cut by ledges and small cliffs, and I immediately shot up the hillside to the first ledge and took off down the valley. My panic gave me a burst of adrenaline that allowed me to do incredible things. I ran at top speed along cliff edges that crumbled away below me, jumped deep gaps over sharp boulders, and climbed and descended rock sections that would have terrified me under normal circumstances. The valley was probably a mile long and I ran that mile harder than any other mile in my life, and at the end I felt hardly winded. I dove into the forest on the other side of the swamp and skidded down the loose dirt, slapping myself all over and scanning the area desperately for a place to escape the bugs. The only place that made sense was the creek itself. I dropped my pack, waded into the water and sat down, ready to submerge myself.
But the bugs had gone. I guess they were partial to the swamps and now that the creek had gained some speed and returned to a defined course they were not interested. I sat in the cold water and breathed in deeply. My body was shaking, from the cold or the panic or the adrenaline or the sudden realization that I had no idea where I was and no way to go but forward into the complete unknown. I considered going back up to the ridge, but rejected the thought immediately. I couldn’t go back through those bugs, and besides, I’d already lost several thousand feet from the ridge that I didn’t want to climb back up. I knew the creek would eventually dump out into the creek I had crossed earlier in the morning, what now felt like days ago. So I stood up and started off down the valley.
The creek descended steeply and the sides of the mountains were forested and steep. The forest was heavily vegetated with undergrowth and I quickly discovered that even the edge of the creek was too thick to walk through. I thrashed through a quarter mile of brush before giving up and taking to the creek. The water was freezing and the stones on the creekbed slippery, but I could at least move forward without destroying myself. So through the creek I walked.
For miles. Every half hour or so I’d have to step out of the water to let the feeling return to my toes and to assuage the sharp pain in my shins. The forest was thick and dark with pine trees. The mountains rose up on either side of the water and offered no perspective at all to where I might be in relation to the route I had taken on the way up, or to where I wished to go. The river bent and curved often. I plodded along for hours, wondering. Once I thought I heard the train again, but couldn’t be sure.
I came out of my revery when the sides of the creek grew even closer, until I could see ahead where they steepened into sheer rock faces 100 feet high. I worried about what I might encounter in a steep mountain stream with no escape to the sides, but couldn’t see a way around the cliffs. So I committed to the creek even as it dropped into a narrow gorge. I felt a sense of foreboding as the walls rose and seemed to funnel me into some unknown danger. The difficulties came after the first bend. But rather than a waterfall or some rapids, as I had feared, I encountered a large pool of dark water. The far side of the pool had been dammed by ancient rockfall and formed this pool of water, maybe 75 feet across. Beyond the pool, I could hear some rapids drop out of sight. The sides of the pool were vertical dark rock, offering no opportunity to climb around. I stood on a raised rock and considered the situation. I would have to swim.
But I had a lot of stuff in my backpack I didn’t want to get wet, like my journal, my cell phone, my food and my warm clothes. Fortunately, I did have a waterproof bivy sack, so being the resourceful teenager I was, I opened it up and put my whole backpack into the bivy sack. Then I tied off the open end of the bag with two knots, called it watertight and tossed it into the pool.
Only to find that the pool was inhabited by a current with which I had not reckoned. I expected my bag to float calmly beside me while I swam across the pool. But before I could even jump in the water my bag had reached the other side and launched into the rapids and out of sight. I panicked again and launched myself into the pool. Have I mentioned that I hate swimming in cold water? I hate swimming in cold water. The water in this pool was absolutely arctic in temperature and I lost my breath the second I hit the surface. I splashed in over my head and came up to the surface gasping for air and flailing my arms while what felt like frozen knives pierced me all over. Turns out, swimming is pretty hard in really cold water. Getting across the pool took a lot longer than I expected and when I crawled out on the other side like a wet cat, my bag had already disappeared around the next bend in the rapids.
Without losing a second I splashed down the creek bed in pursuit of my stuff. Fortunately for me, the creek was not so rough that I couldn’t essentially run down the center, although I did trip more than once while trying to navigate its course. I dashed around the bend in the creek and saw my bag 50 feet away, airborne, having just launched off a particularly large wave. It landed with a splash, bounced off a rock and caught in some bushes overhanging the creek. The bag bobbed in the current, snagged in the branches. I continued racing down the creek and managed to grab it just as it let loose of the branches. I wrapped the loose end around my hand and hauled it and my poor, wet, bedraggled self onto the shore and lay down in the dirt.
I lay there a long time, looking at the sky. This was getting bad. I needed to get out of here. I couldn’t do this much longer. If I got caught out in the dark, I’d be exhausted, lost, cold, and totally out of food. But I had absolutely no idea how far the confluence with the creek below Purgatory was. Thin clouds raced through the sky and out of sight. Some birds passed through them on their own business to the south. Eventually I sat up and looked around. The creek was mellow here and wound down around another bend. The right side even seemed sedate enough that I could walk on the dirt for once. So I stood up and kept going.
But I was in bad spirits. I was not having fun anymore. I did not want to be there. My spirit of adventure had long since been put out and I wanted desperately to be at home with my family. My mood spiraled downward in the way that bad moods build upon themselves and compound their effect. I was angry; at myself, at the mountains, at the creek, at the bushes, the bugs, everything. This had no end and I would never get out. I was going to have to live here, build a house, move in, and spend the rest of my life alone in this winding wilderness. I marched along the creek and knew that there was no chance, no hope, no possibility of escape, no end to this nightmare. The end of the world had come, at least the end of my world, and… there’s a trail.
I was at Purgatory flats. I blinked in disbelief and looked around. I looked at my watch. Nine hours earlier I had crossed the creek in the dark at this exact spot, taking my shoes and socks off like the amateur I was and wading through the water so my shoes wouldn’t get wet. I looked at myself. My pants were ripped and destroyed, my shoes soaked and muddy, my legs and arms torn up and red with welts. I could feel my face sunburned and my arms sore and a deep fatigue settling over my body. All that remained of the day was a 30-minute hike up the hill to the trailhead.
And now that I was close enough to not only know that an end existed, but to be able to smell it, my attitude changed entirely. What an adventure! What a day! What a story! I looked forward eagerly to telling everyone I knew about it and recounting my big day in the mountains. And eating a lot of food and taking a shower and just putting the mountains behind me for a while. But I was hooked, and have been a mountain runner ever since. But I have never since gone off trail below treeline.
Call for Comments (from Meghan)
- Can you recount your grandest misadventure in running, an experience that turned out alright when it was all over but that was mentally or physically painful during it?
- From that misadventure, what was the mistake or series of mistakes that eventually led to your adventures demise?
- And, what were the things that you did right that allowed you to surmount the day’s challenges?