The Sentinel of the San Juans
Updated: Nov 1, 2020
I stared through The Window, the legendary 600-foot notch in the Rio Grande Pyramid’s southern flank. I’d seen The Window from the highest summits in the San Juan Mountains, and over the years, I had gathered some local folklore. I’d heard that it was the site of lost Spanish treasure, it was spiritually significant to the Utes, and was also prone to lightning. Fortunately, the cobalt sky was clear, but the October days were getting colder and shorter. Our journey started in the dark, and unless we turned around soon, it would end in the dark.
Five hours into our journey, we paused to catch our breath on a grassy, windswept bench beneath the Continental Divide. The 13,900-foot summit of Rio Grande Pyramid was within reach, but over 1000 vertical feet of snow-covered talus towered above us. The Army Ranger-turned-Colonel was quietly calculating if we had sufficient calories in our packs to reach the summit, and more importantly, get us back to the trailhead, which was over 18 miles in reverse.
A few weeks prior, the Colonel and I swapped adventure stories as we stared at the San Juan National Forest map that decorates my classroom wall. The Colonel had recently become interested in ultrarunning and had been linking together some impressive routes through the surrounding high country.
I told the Colonel that I’d always wanted to climb the Rio Grande Pyramid, but the peak had always seemed too far for a day trip. Using the small scale map, we roughly estimated a 26-mile round-trip route from the Poison Park trailhead. We knew our estimate could be wrong, but we both agreed that it was doable in a day so we blocked out the first Saturday in October.
Lacking experience in ultrarunning, I followed the Colonel's advice and stuffed a long sleeve shirt, gloves, a winter hat, a headlamp, and lots of food into my 2-liter hydration pack. I was going to bring my water filter, but the Colonel told me it was too heavy and assured me that the giardia threat was overhyped (advice from the Army Ranger rather than the Colonel).
Unlike his water source, the Colonel was picky about his caloric intake, which was a regimented 100 calories every half hour. He told me to pack 2000 calories consisting of mostly carbohydrates and a bit of protein. The Colonel’s choice of protein was lunch meat and cheese. Never in my 25-year running career had I ever consumed meat and cheese during a run, but the Colonel was the ultrarunner so I followed his advice in essence. I decided that 4 pre-cooked, cheese-filled hotdogs would be more efficient to consume than lunch meat and cheese.
At 6 am sharp, two beams of light left Poison Park and descended the rocky trail into the Weminuche Valley. Since this was my first ultra run, I was curious to find out how much of the rugged, high altitude terrain that ultrarunners actually ran. For all but elite athletes, power hiking becomes more efficient than running on steep, rocky terrain. The Colonel used his heart rate to determine when to make the run/hike transition. We ended up jogging the downhills and flat sections and power hiking the steep sections.
We gradually climbed from one golden aspen-lined bench to another as we gained the Piedra/Pine Divide. As we descended into the Pine River Valley, I was reminded of Yellowstone. The willow-lined Pine River is a moose haven as it meanders through the broad pristine, glacial valley.
We waded the frigid Pine River and then approached a notable break in the continent’s backbone. The Continental Divide leaves the imposing cliffs on either side of the valley and subtly separates the water emerging from a saturated wetland.
As we neared mile 14, we kept our eyes out for La Vaca Creek, a tributary to the Pine, which drains the eastern side of the Rio Grande Pyramid. Shortly after crossing La Vaca Creek, we were surprised to cross a man-made irrigation ditch in the middle of the wilderness! In the early 1900s (decades before the Wilderness Act), industrious, water-thirsty San Luis Valley farmers took advantage of the breach in the Continental Divide and built several irrigation ditches, which intercept water destined for the Pacific Ocean and redirect it across the marshland and into the Rio Grande watershed and ultimately the Atlantic Ocean.
The La Vaca Valley offered us the first glimpse of the Rio Grande Pyramid and The Window as well as a majestic bull moose. Shortly thereafter, the meadow transitioned into a relentlessly steep climb covered in crusty snow. After about 15 miles, we were nearing the last remaining water source, and my pack was nearly empty. I submerged my 2L hydration pack into a pristine pool emerging from a wetland. The water was cold and clear and hopefully clean.
Slowly, the trees relented and offered us a clear view of the Continental Divide, which had regained its prominence and became one with The Pyramid. At treeline, we left the trail and gained the high, windswept bench on which we pondered whether to continue to the summit.
The Pyramid was nearly 5 miles further than we had estimated. If we turned around now, it would be a 10-hour, 37-mile day. Even though the summit was less than a mile away, it would be slow scrambling across the sea of snow-covered talus.
As I choked down my second cold cheese-filled hotdog, the Colonel concluded that calories were our limiting factor. We had warm clothes, headlamps, and plenty of stream water to get us back, but we had only packed enough calories for 10 hours, rather than 12. After coming so close, it was disappointing to turn around, but the Colonel hadn't become a colonel by exhibiting poor judgment. After all, winter had arrived in the center of Colorado's largest wilderness, and we were as far as you can get from civilization in our state.
The downhill miles passed quickly but were not without pain. My joints weren't accustomed to so many miles of continuous pounding and I’d developed a piercing pain in my right foot that screamed with every step. As we plunged across the Pine River, it was daunting to realize that we still had over a half marathon to go. With about 5 miles remaining, either the cumulative exertion or the cheesy hotdogs (or some combination of both) wreaked havoc on my digestive system. I interrupted our steady pace with multiple pitstops that quickly depleted my small supply of TP. Fortunately, the Colonel offered a relatively sizable TP stash and some extra calories that were easier on my intestines.
As we neared the familiar Weminuche Valley, we dropped into the shadows as the sun sank behind the western ridge. We would need to keep pace with the receding rays as they climbed the imposing 600-foot hillside that separated us from the trailhead.
As we began the cruel 2-mile climb to the trailhead, I entered survival mode while the Colonel appeared energized by the extra suffering. The last mile felt like 10, and as I stumbled into the parking lot I found the Colonel unsypathetically smirking at my exhausted state. Based on my incoherent condition and the waning light, the Colonel had made the right call to turn around. Fortunately, the Pyramid would patiently await another attempt.
This past August (six years after the unsuccessful summit attempt), I invited Colonel Jesse Morehouse to join Silas Thompson and me on another summit attempt. Unfortunately, Jesse couldn’t make the trip because he was serving with the United States Space Force. Silas and
I successfully summited the Pyramid from the Poison Park trailhead, but we dropped a car at the Rio Grande Reservoir the day before which allowed us to do a 30-mile point-to-point run instead of the 37-mile out-and-back option that Jesse and I did. After coming so close the 1st time, it was rewarding to finally stand atop the Sentinel of the San Juans and enjoy the sweeping views of familiar summits in all directions. While it’s not the most technical peak in the San Juans, it’s one of the most remote and recognizable. If you’re ever enticed to climb the Rio Grande Pyramid, be sure to bring a water filter and steer clear of cheese-filled hotdogs!
From Pagosa Springs, you can see the Rio Grande Pyramid and the Window on the horizon if you're traveling toward town on Highway 84 just before you reach Echo Lake. Another good spot to see it is from North Pagosa Boulevard as you’re traveling north near the fire station. You can also see it along Piedra Road near the Ant Hill and also from Deb's School House.