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Camping in Purgatory

Scott Staats recalls one camping trip with his family to Colorado in an area known as Purgatory

by:  - Ron Raasch

The camping season is now upon us like cold rain on an old canvas tent. Just the mention of the word "camping" takes me back to when I was a kid and my family would take its annual backpack trip somewhere in the Rocky Mountains.
   I recall one trip in an area of Colorado known as Purgatory. Or maybe that was just what my parents called every place they backpacked with three young boys. The canyon we hiked into was full of old mines and mining paraphernalia. The way my two brothers and I looked at it, one miner's loss was an inquisitive boy's gain.
   After exploring some dilapidated old cabins, we discovered an old dump site where the miners tossed their late nineteenth century garbage. Among some old rusty tin cans we found one that appeared unopened and tried everything in our little minds to pry the lid off but it wouldn't budge. We took turns banging it on rocks and sticks but the stubborn can remained closed tighter than a scared clam and wouldn't give up its secret contents.
    Finally, our dad noticed what we were doing and came over and promptly opened it with his trusty P-38 can opener. What to our surprise did we discover but several dynamite caps, carefully wrapped and preserved in oilcloth. These 100-year old caps looked brand new and our dad thought it a miracle that we didn't all go up in smoke. He hid them in a secure place so other inquisitive youngsters wouldn't happen upon them and reported the location to a ranger when we abandoned Purgatory and returned to civilization.
   As if the dynamite caps weren't enough excitement for this trip, we decided to climb up to a high mountain pass we could see from camp. My younger brother Mike was sick (maybe from altitude sickness or the thought of discovering more dangerous mining gear) and stayed in camp with our mom, while my older brother Frank and I went with dad and started our ascent the next morning.
   I'm not sure if what we climbed was a snowfield or a glacier but the surface was frozen so hard in the early morning that we literally had to chop steps into the ice in places. Near the top, we carefully eased our way along a rock face, looking down into a bottomless crevasse where the glacier hung precariously to the cliff. Soon afterwards, we reached the pass and knew there was no way of returning via the same route.
   After a brief lunch and great views into the next basin full of lakes and snow and ice, we faced the dilemma of the descent. Dad finally decided that we could slide straight down the glacier to camp. This was a scary thought as it looked pretty steep. The snow softened up in the afternoon sun and Dad said we could control the descent by sitting on one leg bent under us and keeping the other out front sort of like a break. Dad went first.
   As he stepped out, he took off like one of those circus guys shot out of a cannon. After 50 feet or so, he remembered to stick his leg out in front to slow his progress. When reaching a full stop, he shouted back up for us to proceed. It was one of the funnest modes of transportation I could remember, at least up to age 10. Sure, once in a while we'd catch an edge and tumble uncontrollably down the slope until we'd manage to stick a toe, heel, fingers or chin into the snow to arrest the fall.
   At the bottom we finally slowed to a stop, soaked from the wet snow and laughing until our eyes watered. Our mom said that she stared wide-eyed as she saw three tiny figures sliding (I believe she actually said "falling") down the glacier. After all of that excitement, there wasn't much left for us brothers to do except see how close we could get to some of the vertical mine shafts for a look-see.
   Another memorable childhood backpacking episode occurred in the high mountains of southwestern Colorado. We pitched the pup tents at somewhere around 10,000 feet, which to us kids back then equated to the altitude of the ozone layer or at least the summit of Mount Everest.
   A sudden thunderstorm rolled in that night, as they often do in the mountains, and rain began pelting our tiny tents. The thunder shook the very ground we laid on and echoed off the high peaks and down into the valleys. My brothers and I suddenly, or perhaps I should say soddenly, realized that we must have pitched our tent in a bit of a depression as our foam pads transformed into cold, soaked sponges.
   We yelled over to the parental units that we were getting chilly and damp and Dad said something like, "Don't worry about it, go back to sleep." When it finally got to the point of a potential drowning situation, the three of us bailed out of our flooded three-man tent dragging our sleeping bags behind us and headed for the momentary warmth and comfort of our parents' two-man tent.
   What a sight it would have been had it not been dark - five of us crammed into a two-man tent. It became cold and stuffy in the close quarters. As there wasn't much in the way of abundant oxygen supply in the tent, let alone at 10,000 feet, we would open the tent flap for some fresh air to prevent suffocation. Then, as the cold air rushed in, we'd have to close it before we froze to death.
   We all just sat up the entire night listening to the rain, the thunder and the complaints from us kids. I really miss those family outings. Maybe someday I'll have to return to Purgatory.
   Scott Staats is a full-time outdoor writer who has lived in Prineville for the last 10 years. His articles have appeared in local, regional, and national publications. He can be reached at: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.