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A mountain of meaning in a relative molehill

Article by George Sibley

Geography – December 1995 – Colorado Central Magazine

Last spring, Colorado Central issued what sounded like a challenge: to find some meaningful “mountain conquests” that involved something more than trudging up big mountains just because they are “Fourteeners.” So here is a candidate for the category of “mountain adventures that require more research than muscle.”

As cordinator of the annual Headwaters Conference at Western State College in Gunnison, I’ve been starting the conferences by referring to “a mountain somewhere to the east, from whose slopes the waters run off one side into the great Mississippi Basin via the Arkansas, off another side into the Rio Grande Basin, and off yet another into the Colorado River Basin via the Gunnison River.” Thus do I establish the claim of this area to the title “Headwaters Region of the Southwest.”

Grand as this sounded, I’ve been nagged by the realization — never publicly confessed, of course — that I didn’t know for sure if such a mountain existed. It seemed mathematically and topologically probable that it would — but these are the Rockies, after all, where million-dollar gold veins get lost in the faults, and where the water gets so pushed around by natural as well as cultural forces, where nothing should be presumed true just because it should be so.

So last summer I decided to find this mythical mountain. It turned out to be disgustingly easy. There it was, on the very eastern edge of the Chester Quadrangle of the USGS 7.5-Minute Series Topographic Map. True to the nature of USGS maps, I had to buy two other quadrangles to figure out how to get there — and then I found out that the best guide was Randy Jacobs’ “Official Guide Book” to the Colorado Trail. (The Colorado Trail, along with a lot of other things, isn’t on the quadrangles, which were last field-checked in 1967.)

By Colorado standards, the mythic mountain is not really a mountain at all. It is just a large bump (11,862 feet) on a rambling ridge running between a slightly larger bump named “Windy Peak” (11,885 feet) and the very respectable Antora Peak (13,269 feet). But the geography is perfect:

Off the east-northeast side of this nondescript hillock, the water flows — or trickles, dribbles and percolates — into Silver Creek, and eventually makes its way into the Arkansas River just east of Salida.

Off the north side, the water finds its way down a handful of intermittent drainages to Marshall Creek, thence into the Tomichi and then the Gunnison.

Off the south side, the water goes — mostly underground, traceable only in brilliant green bottomlands — into the Middle Creek drainage, and thence into the Closed Basin, which, by nature or by federal edict, eventually contributes to the Rio Grande.

Why a triple divide at this little hill? Why not some mighty peak like nearby Antora, or imposing Mount Ouray? I wouldn’t presume to know.

I am, however, personally grateful. My appetite for climbing those big walk-up rockpiles in the Central Rockies is considerably diminished, but the hike into, and up, this “headwaters hill” is a rather leisurely day trip.

The best access is via the Colorado Trail, where it goes south from the top of Marshall Pass. Windy Peak and our “headwaters hill” are visible from the Marshall Pass parking area — mostly-wooded peaks just to the west of south in the distance. It is a four-mile hike to the “headwaters hill” along the Colorado Trail, which is also the “National Divide Trail” in that section.

Parts of the trail are right on the divide, with magnificent 50-mile vistas off into the Gunnison and Arkansas basins; other sections take you through stands of spruce-fir and lodgepole; and for those who like a little cultural history, you also get to go through some logging terrain, both old and recent.

Most of the last mile crosses open alpine meadow. The top of the “headwaters hill” itself is relatively flat and open, with a great long view of the northeastern San Luis Valley — a good camping place if you’re prepared to camp dry. There is no reliable water along the entire route — a muddy little spring about halfway along, but nothing to depend on.

The map indicates no name for the hill, and the Colorado Trail book refers to it only as “Point 11,862.” That seems unfortunate, for however unprepossessing the hill might be to those attuned only to Bigness in mountains, any hill that feeds three great and distinct river basins — a hill that sits at the center of a huge and diverse geographic and cultural region — has a richness and stature independent of size obsessions. Such a hill deserves a name, not just a number.

But what should it be? Sitting on the hill Labor Day weekend, we thought of a few possibilities. The obvious: Headwaters Peak (Hill? Hump? Hummock?). Convergence Peak? No, Divergence Peak? Mother of All Waters Mountain?

Well, there’s no hurry. A few more people should visit it, conscious of where they are, and the name will come.

George Sibley teaches English and journalism at Western State College in Gunnison; he once earned an honest living operating a sawmill when he wasn’t fighting fires.