Mason County News
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Cold Creek Combo
Outdoors Outpost
Wednesday, May 23, 2012 • Posted May 23, 2012

Well. I’m sorry to have to report that, to date, the Colorado Department of Oxygen has failed to follow up on my suggestion to pump some air onto the trails in the mountains up here. As if climbing steep trails along dangerous drop-offs wasn’t enough, you still have to do it without breathing. This can’t be good for tourism.

Paden and I arrived in Ouray last week, despite the best efforts of the Colorado Department of Working on the Roads to Keep Tourons Out. We set up camp at the KOA just north of town, barely keeping under our quota of panoramic vistas for the day. It was close. Ouray is set in just about the prettiest canyon in the country. It’s also just about the hardest to get to without driving over a cliff and killing yourself.

We planned to do some canyoning, which is traveling down creeks and streams and rivers with running water, and it requires getting very wet. This is fine, as long as you wait until the middle of August or later, when the water has warmed up to just below freezing. In May it’s kind of insane. Which is why they call people like us tourons – a cross between tourists and morons.

There was a particular book I had planned to order and read before the trip, called Ouray Canyoning, by Michael Dallin. It has all the info we needed to do the canyons around Ouray, of which there are quite a few. As usual, I procrastinated, so I intended to buy the book at Ouray Mountain Sports, where the internet told me I could get it.

Unfortunately, they were sold out. They expected to get about a thousand copies of the book the day after we planned to leave, which did us exactly no good. Fortunately a very nice woman named Tricia works there, and she offered to loan me her copy.

The book has just about all the streams that are canyonable around Ouray listed, with detailed descriptions of how to get there, how long they take, how long the rappels are, etc. Yes, you have to rappel, which means sliding down a rope, usually inside a waterfall that’s having trouble deciding whether to keep falling or stop in midair, since it’s already pretty much frozen.

Nearly all the trips listed in the book required far more experience than Paden and I have put together, and most of them required longer ropes. We finally managed to pick out a few routes on which the rappels were short enough for our rope. We decided to fake the experience.

For those thinking seriously about canyoning around Ouray, I have one piece of advice for you – don’t. At least not unless you know what you’re doing, and definitely not until late August. I think this is where they got the idea for cryogenics.

Paden and I started with a short, 3 hour trip on Lower Portland Creek called Ivan’s Tail. It had only one rappel, of about 55 feet, and was rated ‘Moderate.’ We had no trouble there, except for the frozen water, so we did it again the same day. It was a good ‘warm-up,’ so to speak, for the next day, when we did Upper Oak Creek.

Now, to get to Upper Oak Creek, we had to hike about fifty miles, or pretty close, on oxygenless trails above Ouray. We stopped frequently, sometimes every few yards, so I could check my pulse to see if I was still alive. The hike was actually about two and a half miles, the book claims, which leaves Michael Dallin’s distance-judging credibility in serious doubt, as far as I’m concerned.

There were 7 rappels on the route, which was actually only about half a mile long, but the whole trip took us about 8 hours. And that’s two hours of hiking, being so hot you think you’re about to spontaneously combust, and 6 hours of being so cold you expect to become a statue in mid-step.

For my friends, Lonnie and Gordo, who have been canyoning in Mexico with me, let me just say that, although the water in the Carrizo River is so cold it would make your teeth hurt if you drank it, the water in Oak Creek is so cold it would make your kids’ teeth hurt if you drank it. Whether they were born yet or not.

In some places the creek actually runs through ice caves that formed last winter, or during the last ice age, and have not yet melted. They may never melt, for all I know.About three quarters of the way down, Paden and I were so cold we built a fire. I’m pretty sure that wasn’t allowed, but I’m positive it was necessary.

The highest rappel on the trip was only about 80 feet, but every one was slippery, contained jagged, angry rocks, and tried to kill us. When we finally got back to our vehicle I remembered a comment I’d made to Paden during one of our frequent rest stops on the way up. I told him we seemed to be going to an awful lot of trouble in order to go to an awful lot of trouble. Which is pretty much how it worked out.

The canyon really was a lot of fun. Cold, but fun. We plan to go back and do Middle Oak Creek, as soon as we warm up. In about 10 years . . .

Kendal Hemphill is a frozen outdoor humor columnist and public speaker with a slightly used rope for sale. Write to him at PO Box 1600, Mason, Tx 76856 or

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