At the time, it all seemed so simple. So natural. So inevitable. How did we manage to miss Silver Plume Mountain all these years?
Most people fleeing the dusty and dissipated plains don’t exit I-70 shy of Summit County, and them what do almost never take Exit 226.
Clear Creek is definitely my favorite county, and Silver Plume is without question my favorite part of it. Seeping history and mystery from every 140-year-old plank and paver, Silver Plume is a ghost town along Casper lines – a little friendly, a little retiring, a little doughy, and, if you want to know the truth, and if I can be trusted to tell the truth, which is no simple question, a little needy. Still, little Silver Plume goes out of its way to please, and I go out of my way to be pleased, so it was fitting and proper when, one bright morning in early June, me and Iron B took advantage of Main Street’s semi-ample on-street parking and prepared to tackle the 7:30.
I can see by your familiar vacant expression that elaboration is necessary. Back in the 1880’s, Silver Plume was awash in gold and grit, and the thickly-perforated hillside at its back featured a solid dozen busy hard-rock mines employing an ethnically diverse army of hard-rock miners who spent long days spitting fist-sized nuggets down on the rooftops below and quiet evenings failing to apply themselves in ESL classes at the guild hall. Those working major bores like the Pelican and the Drift were required by management to punch in each morning by 7 o’clock. Thanks to the enlightened, or possibly apathetic, leadership of its co-owner and superintendent Clifford Griffin – a Limey, if it matters, and I think it does – those working the 7:30 Mine were granted a half-hour’s grace.
If you’re wondering why I would waste a precious portion of my limited consciousness relating that seemingly insignificant scrap of historical trivia, it’s because I care deeply about your psychological wellness. We’re in for a rough ride this morning, and it’s my hope that possessing some small personal insight into Griffin’s character will help soften the emotional traumas that lie ahead. Courage, Camille!
The trailhead is very well-marked when you’re standing in front of it. To achieve that advantageous position, saunter east through downtown and hang a Louie on Silver Street. When you run out of Silver Street, heave to starboard and behold. In point of fact, the 7:30 Mine Trail is actually the ancient 7:30 Mine Road, a steeply artifact laboriously carved, stacked, hammered and willed into the sheer mountainside. Completed in 1872 by the Brown and Republican Mountain Wagon Road Company, the precipitous toll-way served a half-dozen of Silver Plume’s most prosperous mines, and the last stop on the line was the 7:30. The trail sets out from 9,100 feet on a relentless climb through Clear Creek County’s golden age.
On every side rest half-buried vestiges of industry, rusting reminders that the Valley of Clear Creek once figured large on the national economy. Jumbled fans of tailings sweep down across the trail, and flowing pipes jutting from the dense brush still drain deep shafts whose entrances have been lost to human memory for a hundred years. And beware! Long-stilled tram cables stretching across the path present rocket-propelled hikers with a very real threat of decapitation.
Just so you know, I’ve done the 7:30 trail at least a dozen times. It’s my favorite trail in my favorite town in my favorite county because it unstintingly provides everything I want from a hike. Besides an unmatched catalog of Centennial State history and dense aspen stands, the vistas available from its sometimes-precarious trace can stand toe-to-toe with any in the Rockies. And, if you go in Spring, and I make a point of it, the way is refreshingly replete with water, crystal clear run-off trickling, chuckling, splashing and glittering all about and, at many points and for considerable stretches, directly under foot. But best of all, the 7:30 has the Clifford Griffin Memorial, and I must now ask that you bestir yourself long enough to retrieve a box of facial tissues before continuing.
We lit out at 8:30, climbing steadily through four switchbacks, one stream crossing, several lunar landscapes of processed rock, and eye-pleasing legions of aspen and bristlecone, always tending strongly toward the West. At places the antique roadway has crumbled into rubble and collapsed down the hillside, leaving uncomfortably vertical scallops in the mountain wall that can only be traversed along extremely narrow, white-knuckle tracks beaten across loose scree by the misguided feet of hikers goaded into foolish risk by people holding large insurance policies on their persons with double-indemnity clauses guaranteeing a lifetime of financial independence in the case of accidental death.
You come even with Clifford’s lonesome cenotaph 1.8 miles along and 1,180 feet above. To pay your respects intimately, a small cairn opposite a gated shaft is the only clue you’ll have to the monument’s access. The way is short, and bouldery, and dumps out on a high shelf far above the interstate. Time has been stern toward the stout granite monolith, but discerning eyes can still read Clifford’s nicely formal ciao-for-now more than 125 years later.
Son of Alfred Griffin Esq of
Brand Hall, Shropshire, England
Born July 2, 1847
Died June 19, 1887
And in Consideration of his Own Request
Buried Near this Spot
Legend has it that Clifford, desolated by his lady-love’s callous indifference, spent most of that warm July evening atop the rocky prominence, sawing sorrowfully away on his violin and contemplating the heart’s terrible fragility. Then he shot himself in the pinto-bean with a .38 caliber revolver. The good people of Silver Plume will tell you that sometimes of a warm summer night the mournful strains of Clifford’s violin can be heard echoing softly down the canyon. Of course, there’s not a lot to do in Silver Plume of a warm summer night except drink, and consequently they tend to say a lot of things that defy empirical review.
The 7:30 Trail ends maybe a few hundred yards up farther along amid a litter of rusting boilers, tumbled structures and tetanus. The humble wreckage of the once-prosperous 7:30 Mine had always been sufficient reward for me in the past, but not now. Brown Creek washes through the gulch from higher parts, and if we wanted to plumb Silver Plume Mountain’s secrets we would have to follow it to its source. On a topographical map it’s an unremarkable two inches of crisp, clean, water-repellent paper. A cake-walk, surely, with but a single barrier to success.
Immediately adjacent the 7:30, the way is barred by a picturesque waterfall that, in season, is swollen with ice-cold snowmelt and hot malice toward all who go upon two legs. Iron B and me go upon two legs, and weren’t looking for trouble, but we had a job to do. Peering ahead and attempting to divine the trail’s character above the falls, it seemed to my hopeful eye that the gulch opens into a broad and gentle way just ahead, and I announced that conclusion with completely unwarranted certainty. A modern Lancelot, I allowed Iron B to precede me, and she quickly – and, I think, too harshly – disabused me of my innocent misapprehensions.
“Wrong again, Nimrod!” she shouted. “It gets worse! A lot worse! We have to cross over!”
Crossing over Brown Creek was precisely what I’d been hoping to avoid. On the other hand, I knew only too well that if Iron B wasn’t interested in pursuing the east bank, I wouldn’t be, either. I clambered up to her precarious perch above the falls and quickly deduced that the crossing would be several times more difficult from that location than the same maneuver just below at the 7:30.
“I didn’t say you should come up here,” she smirked.
Yeah, thanks B. We managed to get across the creek with only a thorough soaking, and bulldozed through the dense vegetation on the west side to discover a trail heading in our direction.
I call it a trail because I don’t know what else to call it. It was, for the most part, indistinguishable from Brown Gulch’s steep and thickly forested walls. It was, more than anything, the hollow promise of a trail, composed mostly of intermittent traces inscribed by lost hikers whose bleached bones must have long ago been swept into oblivion by the remorseless cataract sharing its knife-edged bed. It was, for more than half a mile, a close and noisy horror without a square foot of level relief to its credit, a nasty and precipitous track less interested in providing access to the mountains than in spilling everything upon it into the roaring creek.
It was a long 45 minutes, I can tell you, and a desperate six-tenths of a mile. If there’s a moral to this story, and I think we both know you could stand to absorb a few morals, it’s that if you can’t find a single word on a mountain’s approach in all the vast informational landfill that is the Internet, there’s probably a good reason for it, and you might want to pick another mountain.
We eventually, and thankfully, rose up out of the woods like Lazarus from his grave and stepped into a great shaven bowl rimmed by 210 degrees of sheer majesty.
This, at last, was the hike I’d signed on for. The faux-trail vanishes about two steps beyond the last stunted pine, so you can pretty much pick your route thither. We took a hard left and started climbing.
The last mile of Silver Plume Mountain is a pretty straight-forward tundra-walk up the peak’s broad eastern shoulder. Smooth as green velvet, mild of grade and hospitably inclined, it’s fit recompense for the heavy toll paid back in the gulch.
As it happened, no sooner did we break out under blue skies than those skies began filling with dark clouds and menace. I barely noticed. I was just glad to have friendly ground back under foot.
We topped out at 10:55 and 12,477 feet amid spitting snow and the grumble of distant thunder. Due east, 12,386-foot Republican Mountain presents a dignified profile. To the north, un-ranked Sherman Mountain, 12,287, offers an easily plucked 107 feet of prominence. Hard-by on the West, the imposing bulk of 13,641-foot Bard Peak dwarfs everything else in the vicinity. And, off south-a-ways, the whole of the Front Range from Mount Evans to Loveland Pass stretches out before you like a Motel 6 landscape painting.
Curiously enough, in the case of Silver Plume Mountain, “X” actually does mark the spot, with a Chi-shaped jumble of native granite occupying the mountain’s wide, bald pate. A long scythe of gentle ridgeline connects Silver Plume, Sherman and Republican, and Iron B and me had discussed the possibility of snapping up those two tempting prizes before heading down. In the event, however, worsening weather conditions and dreadful prospect of returning down Brown Gulch in rain made the decision for us. We started down.
It is my good and right and commendable policy to present these thrilling accounts in as true and unvarnished a manner as possible, or at least those parts of them that can be easily corroborated. In that laudable spirit of conditional Glasnost, and before the gloating Iron B has a chance to, I will courageously divulge to you that I took a pretty good spill at the top of the gulch. For a fearless and free-wheeling adventurer such as I, the occasional oopsy is all in a brave day’s work, but this was a bit more awkward. While navigating the 45-degree track just within the gulch’s choking grip, I sat down, suddenly and without ceremony, my full and considerable weight applying directly onto my right foot, which was tucked underneath and pointing behind me at the time, nearly tumbling into white pandemonium of Brown Creek in the process
If there is any place further removed from human commerce, or less convenient to a medivac landing site, than the tip- top of Brown Gulch, I haven’t been there. I imagined nursing a broken ankle for 24 hours while mocking rescuers tried to devise a way to get me back to civilized parts, and Iron B did nothing to allay my anxieties. Fortunately, and in testament to my superb physical condition and Olympian resolve, I was able to creep, hobble and whine my way back down the 2.3 miles to the antique Town of Silver Plume in a mere two and a half hours. Never has a $15 Walmart hiking pole been used more gratefully, or been put to such noble purpose.
However it ended, Silver Plume Mountain was a good hike, if one takes “good” to mean “not fatal.” For the most part, I enjoyed it, if one takes “enjoyed it” to mean “was not utterly wretched for a statistically significant percentage of it.”
And, as an homage to my favorite town in my favorite county, it simply had to be done.
But I won’t do it again.
I’ll still visit with Clifford every now and then, particularly in autumn when the hillsides once more flow with gold. I’ll still stop for a pastie at the Silver Plume Tea Room, and pick up an apple-walnut pie while I’m at it. And I’ll still look up toward that big granite X and brag about the most miserable .6-mile I ever knew. But it’s plain to me that Silver Plume Mountain, a modest summit resting quietly between more flamboyant neighbors, doesn’t really want to be climbed.
Iron B thinks I’m crazy, but she also listens to books on tape, so her opinions can be safely discounted.