Once the bickering flames out, we start thinking about solutions. The plan–if we can find a detour–is still to forge north along the Needles, then cross the steep Grenadier Range beyond them. From the Grenadiers, we’ll drop into the deep Elk Creek Valley, climb back to the Highland Mary Plateau, then turn northwest and beeline across three more alpine basins before plunging from the ridgelines straight down onto Main Street in the newly hip mine-era hamlet of Silverton.
Seeking to avoid a descent to the loathed lowlands, we look for hope in our topos, but there is none. Folding the maps with a sigh, we turn east and pound 3,600 vertical feet down the Johnson Creek Trail to Vallecito Creek.
There we receive a pleasant surprise. Spring snowslides have wiped out the horse bridge at Vallecito’s southern end. The normally bustling trail is deserted. We enjoy the luxurious solitude and the primo streamside track through deep pine forest. But our return to the alpine zone looks intimidating. The quad shows a series of steep valleys climbing back toward the ridgelines towering overhead–but no relevant trails. Yet from somewhere in my addled memory comes a vague rumor about a track up Sunlight Creek.
With little to lose, we poke around and discover an old climber’s rope strung across Vallecito Creek, probably from some high-water epic. Clue enough. After a 30-yard, knee-deep ford, we strike a well-engineered but long-forsaken trail. Almost immediately, the track disappears beneath a half-mile swath of avalanched timber–karmic payback, perhaps, for our gloating about the bridge washout. For hours, we scramble over, under, and across a jackstraw pile of shredded pine and aspen, finally breaking out onto sweet trail again. Dusting ourselves off, we switchback upwards through shoulder-high wildflowers to Sunlight Lake.
The lake proves to be an idyllic pool set beneath appropriately named Jagged Mountain, and our campsite comes with aerial views back down the valley. It doesn’t take long to settle in and kick back. But later, when Mike’s off on an evening constitutional, I hear him squeal, high-pitched, like some school girl at a Ricky Martin concert. Then, from the same direction, a snow-white mountain goat suddenly appears over the ridge. It seems my erstwhile hermano was in full squat over his appropriately LNT cathole when he spun to find the mature billy five feet away.
I’m not gloating–much–since an identical scenario befell me once in the Sangre de Cristos. Mountain goats don’t have many natural enemies; no predators can handle their vertigo-inducing habitat. Consequently, they often approach people, even licking them for the salt in their sweat.
Up close, which can mean right in your face, mountain goats look unbelievably powerful, like a cross between a cathedral gargoyle and an albino gorilla, all rippling muscles and spiky black devil horns, with dark, inscrutable eyes that hint at chaos. They’re usually peaceful, thank goodness, although people occasionally get gored or humped. Fortunately, this particular billy seems more curious than amorous, staring silently as we pitch camp, then clattering away into the high cirques.