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Backpacker Adventure Guide: Weminuche Wilderness

Try a stunning new hike–or two thrilling classics–in the Colorado Rockies' top spot for big backpacking adventures.

In the way out wild, irony sucks. That’s what I tell Mike as we stand atop Hope Mountain, peering incredulously at an impassable 300-foot cliff that didn’t appear so impassable on our maps. We’ve come to Colorado’s famously rugged Weminuche Wilderness to attempt an eight-day, 50-mile high route, and suddenly–it’s only day three–our whole plan looks anything but hopeful. If we can’t find a way across the ridgeline to Grizzly Peak, my brother and I will go home as empty-handed as most of the prospectors who mined this region a century ago.

“Nice going, chump!” he says, rolling his eyes. The proposed crossing was, after all, my big fat idea.

“The topos looked good,” I protest. “The aerial photos looked good. How was I supposed to know the cliff was overhung?”

Normally our bickering could be chalked up to sibling rivalry or the Lord of the Flies way that Mike and I generally deal with each other. But this col was critical to our planned south-to-north traverse of the Needle Mountains, so the sharp words that follow reflect the bigger problem we’re facing. Set on the southwest edge of the Weminuche, these peaks are said to have the highest average elevation and steepest slopes of any range in the United States–meaning our route alternatives are few.

It’s really Mike’s fault, I decide. My burly, not-so-identical twin is a professor of mathematical physics in Wisconsin–and a serious Colorado junkie. Alaska? Sierra Nevada? Glacier? Fat chance. Despite weeks off every summer, it’s nearly impossible to pry him from Coors country. I normally prefer my trail towns less swank than Colorado’s, and I’m allergic to the state’s legendary scree, but he won’t go anywhere else. So I’d caved, lured by the prospect of punching through the baddest part of the steepest range in Colorado’s biggest wilderness.

We’d decided to find a remote, challenging route–with two requirements. The first was maximum solitude, which eliminated Chicago Basin, a popular bowl with three baggable 14ers and a trailhead accessed via the quaintly historic Durango-Silverton narrow gauge railway. The second was high country–really high country. We wanted to stay above the area’s 11,000-foot timberline. Which all sounded peachy when we were plotting the route onscreen. Now, lacking rope and rappelling gear, we’re rudely reminded of the difference between maps and reality, and how that difference seems to widen the higher and steeper you go.

Hope Mountain may be an ill-named relic of a metal-mad era, but it’s also one mighty scenic relic. From its summit, we can just see the tops of Needle Ridge and Sunlight Peak, craning their necks over the massive ridgeline that drapes from Jupiter Mountain to Grizzly Peak, and on to the tortured slopes of McCauley Peak and Echo Mountain, with their huge northern flanks plunging into Grizzly Basin.

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