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Climbing Turkey Rocks, Post-Hayman

 Climbing Turkey Rocks, Post-Hayman

by Kelly Bates

June 25, 2003

Foreword: It is taking me significantly longer to write this than I had planned. I expect that I don't really want to. It needs to be shown, and told, though, and I've committed myself to writing and showing it. If I could take back what happened last year, I certainly would. It's not in my power, though, and the best I can do is show my sadness and some thankfulness at what the fire has left us, still.

The opportunity opened and presented itself in the usual manner. An email one afternoon after work, from a local climber that I know, passed along a link from the Forest Service about the partial reopening of the Hayman Burn area to limited usage. I was immediately compelled to find a partner for the hike into, what I didn't know, and could only imagine the worst of. It's now a couple of weeks later, and I'm hoping that I've sorted out what I wanted to show and say about hiking through the wreckage.

The Hayman fire, the worst in Colorado recorded history (but not nearly so large as the Big Burn circa 1847 - the reported dates are inconsistent), consumed upwards of 137,760 acres in the Pike NF last June. Smoke and ash fell over Denver and the Front Range for weeks during the burning, changing day into twilight in mid-summer. Particulates from the fire were blamed for respiratory problems and deaths downwind; several firefighters were killed and injured coming to and fighting the monster. Early speculation had been that a campfire had not been extinguished and escaped, despite the long-standing fire ban and the several months without measurable precipitation in the forest; a few weeks later we were all stunned to find that it had been set, possibly intentionally, by a forest service employee whose job was partially to enforce the fire ban.
Burned out land north of Turkey Rocks

It was a miserably hot and dry summer, and the misery was exacerbated by not being allowed to even set foot in the forest for several months - an unprecedented complete forest closure. Climbing trips had to go elsewhere, to Boulder and RMNP, out in the desert, anywhere but the cooler air up at the forest's higher altitudes. I was severely bummed out and spent a lot more time alpine climbing than I'd intended. I missed the cool forest, the breezes with pine and fir smells, the near-solitude of some of my favorite crags. And, after the fire was extinguished, the forest remained closed. Citing primarily safety for users, the NFS deemed it too dangerous to go into the burn area unless one lived there.

The beginning of FR360

Rob and I set out, not sure what to expect on the hour hike down the road I used to so often drive into the climber's lot on. The drive from Woodland Park northward into the burn zone was quiet, and unusually somber for me; the ridges alongside the road were obviously burnt, but mostly brown - not the black and gray that I had feared might be consistent throughout. It seemed that the fire crews had had more success along the established roads, where they and their vehicles could get rapid access to establish breaks. Westcreek, the largest established settlement in the area, had had mixed results - new construction was evident on the fringes, and where the forest encroached on housing properties - but, in general, the hamlet seemed spared. Trees to within only a few yards behind the fire station were burnt black, or felled, and many were marked with the blue paint that marked them for later cutting for safety reasons.

A less-burned patch of FR360, with RobParking at the junction where FR360 formerly led down into the valleys and onward to Big Rock Candy Mountain, Rob and I decided what rack assortment we should bring. We were the only vehicle there, at the only legal access point for Turkey, and we thought we'd probably have our choice of routes. So thinking, I took doubles of .75 to 3s, and the offwidth gear for whatever else we might want to play on. The gear is heavy, but worthwhile for those of us with smaller fists. I guess I can say that I wouldn't trade my small frame for a larger one most days, even if it means having to carry around extras in the 3-4 range to protect what I can't fist-jam. The immediate parking area looked benign, almost healthy; within a hundred yards some of the nastiness that we'd predicted hid, just beyond the crest of a hill, dashing my hopes that the extent and seriousness of the damage was overstated.

At the closure gate and for the next hundred meters, nothing lived. Nothing could, and nothing will for a long time. The reclamation equipment has cleared out a lot of the deadfall and dangerous standing wood, and the heavy tracks have destroyed the surface. The downslope looks like cluster bombs, followed by a brigade of armored tracks, has been through it, not caring what they went over. Still, it wasn't the worst we were to see that day.

Portions of the road down to the campground aren't completely burned. It's more the exception than the rule, though, and except in the campground itself we were not ever anywhere that signs of the fire were not visible - spotty burning of trees at either a high or low level, or ground-burn that missed hitting the trees' branches was persistent through the trip. When I looked at my shots afterwards, I just wanted to focus on the nicer ones, the ones that showed the still-green trees and some healthy ground cover. The others, much more detailed than the crude representations here, overpowered the few that presented a pleasant view of the forest, though.

Turkey from the turn-in to the campgroundRob and I hiked down the road, around a mile and a half, towards the valley where the Big Turkey campground sits in a wooded basin. As we neared the turnoff, I spied a jeep wrangler, driving up the road and towards us, turning off into the campground entrance. I was perplexed, and angry. The roads were closed, and if someone had driven around a closure gate, particularly a climber, it could jeopardize any future access here for a long time. We cut through a meadow, unburned, towards the camp and discussed how we might handle a possible confrontation. I had in mind to take photos of the vehicle, the plates, and the offenders if we had the opportunity. As we approached, the jeep was parked in the same campsite that we typically begin the uphill hike from the campground in (when we don't drive all the way to the climber's trailhead). A middle-aged man was taking equipment out of the back of the jeep, and setting it on the ground; as we got within fifty yards, he closed the vehicle and backed out, leaving the gear on the ground. He stopped the jeep 20 yards away, got out, and walked back to the campsite as we approached.

Our thoughts had been incorrect. This guy was certainly not a climber. Wearing stained and dirty work clothes, he was a member of the reclamation team cutting down blue-marked trees next to the campsites, so that the dead wood wouldn't have a chance to fall and injure anyone when they did reopen the area. We stopped and talked with him a bit, and asked him what he knew of plans to reopen the area; not much, unfortunately, but he did say that he planned to have all of the dangerous deadfall gone by the end of the next day, and was working back towards the gated closure. We parted well, and the loud chainsaw started up as we walked up the hill. It was a sad noise, the only one we really heard all day, so far from the formerly normal noises of life I remembered from this part of the woods.

Further up the gradually steepening hill, we made out the path of a dozer along the faint (lightly used) trail, apparently making a small firebreak in the pebbly granite dirt of the hills and ridges. The trail, unused in over a year, was still easy to track, and the woods in decent shape most of the way up. Some signs of fingers of the fire were there, some burnt timber, some trail-edge markers now only black ash, but up until the dark side of Turkey Tail even some duffed soil and low greenery survived. On the traverse under Turkey Tail's north side, there had been more damage; some rocks were scarred with smoke, and granite exfoliated and broken. The soil under a number of the partially-buried boulders was turned black, and a number of the rocks moved, shifted, or simply collapsed as we climbed across them, the soil and roots now gone and replaced with airy ash still damp from more recent snows.

First look from the Perch, south

The first good vantage of the scope of the damage was from the slight saddle near Quivering Quill; and even it looked south, where only a few square miles of lightly burned land was visible. Seeing nothing but small swatches of green amongst large tracts of brown and black made us very quiet. We stood and just looked at it for a long time, the scale too large to really comprehend. And still, we were just on the southern edge. The valleys north had burnt for another thirty miles, in the middle of the inferno on its fastest days.

Amazingly, thankfully, the southern facing crags seemed to be mostly untouched. The fire had rushed over the Turkey Rock Estates just below the rocks, and many new houses were visible through the lack of evergreen concealment; one abandoned site was a pile of burnt rubble.

Our day was about climbing. We climbed. Without any competition for routes, we knocked off everything on the face harder than a 5.6 and easier than a 5.11; a couple on the fringes didn't look good enough to even bother with, but it was Rob's first trip here. I wish he'd see it before the fire. My little hands and ankles bled, even with the tape gloves, on the mandatory (for small hands) offwidths and finger-to-fists cracks. It was a stellar outing. Another group joined us from the hike an hour or two in, late in the day to be starting, and ate up the rock as well. Finally, we were tired, and decided to head out, but this time over the rocks and down the climber access road. I wanted to see the whole scene, to be able to tell others what to expect.

Turkey Rock estates, deforested

Except for the very initial part of our hike, not too much was beyond recovery within a few (dozen? twenty? I've no idea.) years. The hike back down towards the climber's lot was much scarier. Trees, burned from the inside out, left standing (and fallen) shells of bark, nothing more. Holes in the black and gray ground where root systems of hundred-year old trees had burnt underground and collapsed were everywhere. Even the trail, so recognizable, was a chore to find, only a series of flatter ramps switchbacking down the steep hillside. I've been here a number of times, and I started to get disoriented; nothing looked the same, the landmarks were gone.

The climber's trail, north side of Turkey RocksI wasn't able to visit Mount St. Helens until twenty years after the eruption. Hiking up the south side to the rim was fascinating; the view down into the caldera and further onto the former interior of the mountain, now splayed across square miles of former forest was unbelievable. I hiked out into the northern side of the mountain afterwards, where only here and there was there even a small weed or wildflower making progress back towards life. I am intensely happy to see the progress that the pockets of surviving forest in the Pike are making towards bringing back the greenness and life, after so short a time. Completeness is going to take a very long time.

I can't give you the feeling, the sights, the smells that I'd like to of what we experienced. My camera is a poor substitute for the reality around us, and smell-o-vision hasn't been practical yet. You know what it's like to walk through your favorite forest. Can you imagine walking up to a small, flat outcropping of rock, and having your feet sink inches into the fine gray ash, sending up powder that feels, smells like, and gets into your eyes more than the hottest fire you've had in a fireplace? Or stepping up to the rock, that you remember and assume will be solid, because that's your experience, and it breaks into chips and dust, crumbling as you touch it? Solid inches of surface disintegrate, exfoliate, the lichens and moss either black and dead, or simply gone. Walking on the ground, what used to be inches to feet of duff, and occasionally putting your foot straight through into a cavern where huge roots used to be? Boulders, baby-head sized to car-sized, no longer anchored because there's no soil to hold them in, shift under your slightest weight, dangerously, sometimes starting their sliding and rolling slides that take more with them. Mud, two feet deep, nothing but black ash. Showering after a walk through this land takes a long time; you have to get rid of the ground-in ash, the smoke smells, the grime, and most importantly, the thoughts in your head. And none of it really comes out.

Blasted rocks at the climber's parking for Turkey

I called the Pike Forest District office a few days ago, and inquired about the conditions of FR360. Initially I didn't relate that I'd hiked the road to see the conditions for myself, or that I'd gone on a personal survey of the areas that the public land users might be most interested in visiting - the Big Turkey campground, untouched by the fire, and the road leading up to the climber's lot. They passed me along to the reclamation team's office, to discuss the current situation; a lot of BS was spewed my direction over the phone about washouts on the road (there are none for the first 5 miles, anyway) and the danger to campers from flash floods above the campground (unlikely in most of the sites, barring a deluge of biblical proportions) washing out the area. After I related that I'd hiked in to see for myself, they changed their tune a bit, and told me that the washouts were further along the road, out towards Big Rock, but that they still had no timeframe in mind for opening the area back up to the public. Probably because of fire danger or something similar, I surmise.

They're going to need to put up some new 'no motorized vehicles beyond this point' signage to keep the ATV and dirt-bike crowd from going off-road into newly more sensitive areas, for certain, but the dangerous trees in the direct user area have been cut or harvested, and I really can't see any harm in allowing limited use of the area again. The Forest Service apparently has a different opinion of the users' wants and needs, though; I encourage you to give them a call, or email, and tell them that it's been long enough. We need to go back to our forest, and see it for ourselves, and to remind ourselves not to let this happen again. Whether that entails more useless policies on forest-clearing to prevent fires, not fighting smaller fires and allowing the natural fire-cycle to take course, or other things that the rabid pro- and anti- factions haven't come up with yet, I couldn't say.

Burned out roots of a former tree, in the dead soil

Go and see it for yourselves. Make the visceral connections to the burnt-out land, that we won't be able to see again as we did last spring for years or even in our lifetimes, and learn something. Make an opinion for yourself. Enjoy that the land is still there, and that new life is coming back, even now. And make a commitment to yourself to believe in and for something.

Postscript, 24 June: Rob and I returned to Hayman today, and drove through the heart of the fire zone. The climbing was at Wigwam Creek, one of the most beautiful parts of the southern SPlatte. There was a lot of moondust/ash, lots of boulders no longer held securely in as a couple of feet of soil had been destroyed, glossy plastic-looking destroyed trees, and a full 150' of fire-exfoliated granite off the deck that needed to be cleaned. The damage is amazing, but it's not complete. For the best view of the damage I can recommend, come up to Wigwam's ancillary buttresses, and look south. Most of the major formations are visible, you're on the far northern edge of the burn; and there's a wonderful mix of green, gray, brown, and black. It's the best display of the power of the fire I've seen, and if you're climbing here you should come and see it.

The following two links include some of the extremely scarce information on the historically more significant Big Burn of the 1840s, burning hundreds of thousands of acres of forest from Cheyenne Mountain near Colorado Springs, to the Arkansas River in the south, and out westward forty miles to Wilkerson Pass. This great fire, probably set by local Indians, likely was not as devastating as Hayman was to the SPlatte valley in the Pike NF, because of the more natural fire-cycle conditions at the time; it almost certainly has given us the grand forest area that lies between the Front Range and South Park today (minus the Hayman area), though. It is unfortunate that so few records of the story exist today. - 1840s -- A trapper named George Ruxton documented a terrible fire in his journal. He described Cheyenne Mountain as being "invaded by the devouring element," of flames one night, and the skies glowed for 14 nights longer as the mountains 40 miles further west, (to Wilkerson Pass) burned.


by George Frederick Ruxton, British Royal Geographical Survey (1847?)

Burned out forest from Turkey Perch

A little before sunrise I descended the mountain to the springs, and, being very tired, after taking a refreshing draught of the cold water I lay down on the rock by the side of the water and fell fast asleep. When I awoke the sun had already set; but although darkness was fast gathering over the mountain, I was surprised to see a bright light flickering against its sides. A glance assured me that the mountain was on fire, and, starting up, I saw at once the danger of my position. The bottom had been fired about a mile below the springs, and but a short distance from where I had secured my animals. A dense cloud of smoke was hanging over the gorge, and presently, a light air springing up from the east, a mass of flame shot up into the sky and rolled fiercely up the stream, the belt of dry brush on its banks catching fire and burning like tinder. The mountain was already invaded by the devouring element, and two wings of flame spread out from the main stream, which roaring along the bottom with the speed of a racehorse, licked the mountain-side, extending its long line as it advanced. The dry pines and cedars hissed and cracked, as the flame, reaching them, ran up their trunks, and spread amongst the limbs, whilst the long waving grass underneath was a sea of fire. From the rapidity with which the fire advanced I feared that it would already have reached my animals, and hurried at once to the spot as fast as I could run. The prairie itself was as yet untouched, but the surrounding, ridges were clothed in fire, and the mules, with stretched ropes, were trembling with fear. Throwing the saddle on my horse, and the pack on the steadiest mule, I quickly mounted, leaving on the ground a pile of meat, which I had not time to carry with me.

The fire had already gained the prairie, and its long, dry grass was soon a sheet of flame, but, worse than all, the gap through which I had to retreat was burning. Setting spurs into Panchito's sides, I dashed him at the burning bush, and, though his mane and tail were singed in the attempt, he gallantly charged through it. Looking back, I saw the mules huddled together on the other side, and evidently fearing to pass the blazing barrier. As, however, to stop would have been fatal, I dashed on, but before I had proceeded twenty yards my old hunting mule, singed and smoking, was at my side, and the others close behind her.

On all sides I was surrounded by fire. The whole scenery was illuminated, the peaks and distant ridges being as plainly visible as at noonday. The bottom was a roaring mass of flame, but on the other side, the prairie being more bare of cedar-bushes, the fire was less fierce and presented the only way of escape. To reach it, however, the creek had to be crossed, and the bushes on the banks were burning fiercely, which rendered it no easy matter; moreover, the edges were coated above the water with thick ice, which rendered it still more difficult. I succeeded in pushing Panchito into the stream, but, in attempting to climb the opposite bank, a blaze of fire was puffed into his face, which caused him to rear on end, and, his hind feet flying away from him at the same moment on the ice, he fell backwards into the middle of the stream, and rolled over me in the deepest water. Panchito rose on his legs and stood trembling with affright in the middle of the stream, whilst I dived and groped for my rifle, which had slipped from my hands, and of course had sunk to the bottom. After a search of some minutes I found it, and, again mounting, made another attempt to cross a little farther down, in which I succeeded, and, followed by the mules, dashed through the fire and got safely through the line of blazing brush.

Once in safety, I turned in my saddle and had leisure to survey the magnificent spectacle. The fire had extended at least three miles on each side the stream, and the mountain was one sheet of flame. A comparatively thin line marked the progress of the devouring element, which, as there was no wind to direct its course, burned on all sides, actually roaring as it went.

I had from the first no doubt but that the fire was caused by the Indians, who had probably discovered my animals, but, thinking that a large party of hunters might be out, had taken advantage of a favorable wind to set fire to the bottom, hoping to secure the horse and mules in the confusion, without the risk of attacking the camp. Once or twice I felt sure that I saw dark figures running about near where I had seen the Indian camp the previous day, and just as I had charged through the gap I heard a loud yell, which was answered by another at a little distance.

Singularly enough, just as I had got through the blazing line, a breeze sprang up from the westward and drove the fire after me, and I had again to beat a hasty retreat before it. (This fire extended into the prairie, towards the waters of the Platte, upwards of forty miles, and for fourteen days its glare was visible on the Arkansas, fifty miles distant.)

I encamped six or seven miles from the springs, and, whilst proceeding down the creek, deer and antelope continually crossed and re-crossed the trail, some in their affright running back into the very jaws of the fire. As soon as I had secured the animals, I endeavored to get my rifle into shooting order, but the water had so thoroughly penetrated and swelled the patching round the balls, that it was a long time before I succeeded in cleaning one barrel, the other defying all my attempts. This was a serious accident, as I could not but anticipate a visit from the Indians if they discovered the camp.

All this time the fire was spreading out into the prairies, and, creeping up the "divide," was already advancing upon me. It extended at least five miles on the left bank of the creek, and on the right was more slowly creeping up the mountain-side; while the brush and timber in the bottom was one body of flame. Besides the long sweeping line of the advancing flame, the plateaus on the mountain-side, and within the line, were burning in every direction, as the squalls and eddies down the gullies drove the fire to all points.

The mountains themselves being invisible, the air, from the low ground where I then was, appeared a mass of fire, and huge crescents of flame danced as it were in the very sky, until a mass of timber blazing at once exhibited the sombre background of the stupendous mountains.

by Kelly Bates

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Live To Climb