Peak(s):  Thirsty Pk  -  13,213 feet
Date Posted:  06/24/2015
Date Climbed:   06/14/2015
Author:  gore galore
 The Meaning of Thirsty Peak  

The Meaning of Thirsty Peak
Thirsty Peak, 13,213

by gore galore

Thirsty Peak in the northern Sangre de Cristo Mountains looms large above the San Luis Valley just as the story of this peak I am about to relate looms large in the words of this trip report.

I am at the Garner Creek Trail head in early morning after a previous day drive through a canyon, across a mountain pass, into a long river valley with a stop sign and then to another mountain pass descending into the San Luis Valley for an approach drive across the flats where I bump into the trail head at the foot of the Sangre de Cristo mountains.

I am hiking the trail toward the crest of the range on which Thirsty Peak is located. I'm actually hiking back into time because I intend to intersect with three other hikers from the past who began their hike along the crest of the Sangre de Cristo Range from Poncha Pass on August 19, 1961 and ended their saga nine days later at Music Pass.

But before I can relate something of the story of Bill Arnold, Lester Michel and 15-year-old Jim Michel and their lack of water and quest for thirst on the part of the traverse of what later would be named Thirsty Peak, I must think of my own planning and preparations and background in regards to carrying water and water use when tackling such a mountain with the name of Thirsty Peak.

I began hiking and climbing peaks in an era when water bottles were known as canteens. In those days you wore your canteen rather than carrying it in your pack. Mine was a metal canteen with a chain around a narrow neck that was attached to the cap. My canteen fit into a pouch that was attached to a wide belt buckled around my waist. If you have ever seen, a Grade B black and white rerun of a John Wayne WWII movie, that's my canteen.

I wore that canteen proudly on my waist in a picture on the summit of Mount Whitney the first mountain of any consequence that I hiked. A few years later at the bottom of the Grand Canyon I knelt down to refill my canteen when the torrent of water in the creek tore it from my grip to be lost forever.

Although I regretted my carelessness, I also had a backup canteen in those days. It was a metal gallon canteen covered in felt attached to straps that hung over my shoulder down to my waist. If you have ever read one of those western history magazines say like "Frontier Times" where there is a picture of a prospector standing next to his burro with a canteen strapped over his shoulder, that's my canteen.

My shoulder length canteen was good for hiking trails in canyons but was something of a chore to wear when climbing peaks. At about the time the straps wore out and broke on my prospector's canteen I bought the first of what might be called a water bottle. It was plastic with a wider neck but not quite what you would call a nalgene type. It had a plastic ring around the neck attached to the cap. When the plastic attachment broke and the cap was lost, I briefly thought about buying a piece of cork to plug the opening or perhaps even buying a new water bottle.

It was during this time though that I discovered the truth about water bottles. Nobody anywhere has to ever buy a water bottle. For instance, if you stay working with an employer long enough water bottles and coffee mugs are at the top of the swag list. Absence of this situation if you go to enough trade shows or participate in any number of outdoor events you are certain to eventually score a water bottle.

This leads to one other thing about water bottles that I should mention in my preparations and that is I don't drink much of the water from them unless I have to when I am hiking. In the Colorado alpine away from Fourteener valleys I rely mostly upon natural sources of water without the trappings of filters and pills or the belief in the wilderness myth of the dead animal in the water supply.

In this respect I have developed the mathematical principle over long years of use that if it is about a mile from the trail head and the water source is flowing at right angles to the main stream in the valley it is drinkable water. Most of this water is spring or ground water and higher up as snow melt. The most refreshing water to my taste is in the talus of the higher cirques.

So with this short background of preparation and planning in regards to carrying water and water use I am set to tackle the likes of Thirsty Peak with a recent score from my employer, a slender nalgene water bottle with a screw top with a pop up nozzle attached to a straw and filled to the brim with refreshing cool tap water.

I begin my hike through two easement gates and then onto the trail where within a mile there is water everywhere. The trail parallels the creek and Garner Creek is overflowing its banks with spring runoff such that the trail is now a branch of the creek. I splash and dodge through the watery and muddy mess until the trail dries out with some welcome elevation gain.

My hike is quite pedestrian other than the snow streaks on the slopes of the high ridges ahead of me that I can see through the tops of the timber which propels me onward. I have some log crossings across the creek to contend with and a faint trail in the meadows near timberline. As I ascend the low ridge that abuts against the peak the trail is marked by wooden sticks held in place by stacks of rocks or ducks.

The trail heads off left onto those snow streaked slopes ascending toward Garner Pass. I bypass the snow and climb directly up the rocks onto the higher corniced ridge and onto the summit. My water bottle is two thirds full as I drink in the scenery that surrounds and engulfs me.

There is a wonderful symmetry to this part of the Sangre de Cristo Range crest. Thirsty Peak, 13,213 and Lakes Peak, 13,375 are connected by a near level ridge with lower saddles on each side of the peaks that rise to higher, further peaks, Cottonwood Peak, 13,588 to the north and Electric Peak, 13,598 on the south which block out any semblance of continuing ridges beyond them. It's as if the range gave up and quit beyond those two higher peaks.

The basins to the east of Thirsty Peak are full of snow and the white covers the big north face of Electric Peak to its top. The Brush Creek Lakes are covered in ice floes. There is even a hint of water in the clouds. There is water everywhere such that one wonders what is so thirsty about Thirsty Peak. But it wasn't like this in August of 1961.

The idea of traversing the 125-mile crest of the Sangre de Cristos appeared in an article by Bill and Eva Rathbun in the Colorado Mountain Club's "Trail and Timberline" magazine in 1957. Bill Arnold of the Colorado Mountain Club also had the same idea of a traverse of the range crest for a number of years prior but it wasn't until the summer of 1961 that he, Lester Michel and his son Jim Michel could arrange time for such a trip.

Their original intention was to follow the range crest from Poncha Pass to La Veta Pass. In this respect their preparations included caches at six passes or saddles chosen for their strategic locations.

At that time the Sangre de Cristo Range was still being mapped by the U.S. Geological Survey. The "Guide to the Colorado Mountains" only had information for the eight 14,000 foot peaks in the range. The Rathbun's article had a hand-drawn map of the range from Gibbs Peak to Marble Mountain.

The Arnold-Michel party used a Forest Service map as their reference. But Bill Arnold and Lester Michel weren't entirely unfamiliar with the range. They had made many ascents in the Crestones and Bill had climbed most of the higher peaks from Spread Eagle Peak in the north to Mount Lindsey at the south end.

In the late 1950's some of the unsurveyed peaks north of the Crestones particularly Mount Adams, Eureka Mountain and Unnamed (Rito Alto) were thought by the Rathbuns to possibly be new 14,000 foot peaks when mapped. I wrote about these peaks in my trip report "The Almost 14,000 Footers of 1957" and briefly mentioned Bill Arnold's climb of Spread Eagle in 1959 and his report that both Eureka and Unnamed "as being unsurveyed but very near 14,000 feet."

So it was with that background that the three of them left Poncha Pass on August 19, 1961 where the meaning of Thirsty Peak begins. On their first day out according to their outing report "we began to realize that our rations of water - one pint per meal per man - was inadequate. Strenuous exertion for long hours in the hot sun was removing body water faster than we were taking it in."

On their second day they found a large rock block with an angular depression that held several quarts of water. They filled four one-quart canteens. But that night "thirst and a brisk wind kept us from sleeping as soundly as we would have liked."

The next morning they reached their first cache at Hayden Pass where they gorged themselves with food "and washed everything down with the two gallons of water we had also placed there." They refilled their jugs in a little stream but "we still had not learned our lesson, however, as we left the gallon jugs behind, partially filled, and took only the water we could carry in our six canteens."

The day was sunny and warm and "thirst again began to bother us." They camped north of Cottonwood Peak where "Thirst continued to plague us and our sleep was fitful." The following morning as they continued on "we found ourselves hunting for water among the rocks, but with no success."

On they went and gained the ridge of what is now Thirsty Peak. Bob Ormes would later write in the "Guide to the Colorado Mountains" (1970) that "the trio arrived at this peak in a dried up condition and had to satisfy their thirst by gazing down at the Brush Creek Lakes."

They chose to descend a trail into the Brush Creek Lakes basin. But after ten minutes they reached a small icy stream where they spent half an hour drinking. "We must have made a comical trio as we moved gingerly back to the heights, our pockets bulging with assorted water-filled containers and filled canteen cups in our hands."

This episode ended their water shortage though for that afternoon as they approached Electric Peak, a rain and hail storm filled the rock depressions of the mountain sides. "We knew that lack of water would worry us no longer."

A day later at the jeep road up Middle Taylor Creek they sent word home with some miners that they would end their traverse at Music Pass 50 miles short of La Veta Pass. At the end of their expedition they contemplated whether they would ever complete their original plans to traverse the length of the range to La Veta Pass. I do not think they ever attempted the full traverse of the Sangre de Cristo Range again. I am not sure if the Arnold-Michel traverse from Poncha Pass to Music Pass is a well known one or that it has even been repeated.

But I do know that standing on the summit of Thirsty Peak and knowing something of their traverse I had to lift my water bottle in tribute to these intrepid and pioneer climbers of the Sangre de Cristo Range and mention something of Bill Arnold, Lester Michel and Jim Michel.

Wilbur (Bill) Arnold was a leading mountaineer of his time when such persons were the mainstays of the Colorado Mountain Club. He was a trip leader and outing leader for the club while also a member of the American Alpine Club and the AdAmAn Club. He reportedly climbed Pikes Peak 18 times at New Year's.

He was also called a fine technical climber with a number of those climbs coming in the Sangre de Cristo Range. He climbed the Crestone Needle seven times by five routes. Some may recognize the name of the Arnold-Michel route on the Crestone Needle climbed by them in 1953.

Mr. Arnold climbed Pikes Peak as his first fourteen in 1948. He climbed it solo because he couldn't find any companions. It was a long day's climb and as he wrote in his outing report, "I had time to think. I had come to the conclusion that henceforth I would devote my week-ends to the mountains." He would eventually climb all the 14er's three times and many four times with several routes on some.

When William Graves published his list of the 100 Highest Summits in Colorado in 1968 Bill Arnold was one of the few persons of the time working on climbing the list. But he would not be able to finish. He climbed West Spanish Peak a month before he died in 1977 from a lingering illness at age 63. "He never quit and remained active to the end," one of his climbing friends wrote. Spencer Swanger who would become the first to climb the 100 Highest Peaks in 1979 wrote of his climbing friend as "an outstandingly tough mountaineer."

In 1978 the Pueblo Group submitted a proposal to the CMC Orotaxonomy Committee for naming a peak in the Sawatch Range for Bill Arnold. The Committee refused the request for submission to the U. S. Board on Geographic Names on the grounds that a person had to be deceased for five years before considering the name of a person for a geographic feature.

In 1982 the Pikes Peak Group awarded the "Bill Arnold Medal for Fourteeners" to the member who most recently climbed all of Colorado's 14,000 foot peaks. It would remain with that member until another member completed the Fourteeners whereupon it would be passed on. I am not aware of whether this tradition exists today.

I know less about Lester Michel and Jim Michel. Lester Michel was a Professor of Chemistry at Colorado College. His first acquaintance with the mountains came on a family vacation to Estes Park in 1931 where he became "suddenly and firmly addicted to mountains."

After moving to Colorado Mr. Michel joined the Colorado Mountain Club in about 1947 and became its President in 1960. He admitted to being a "peak bagger" and was a trip leader while finishing the fourteens in 1970. He also enjoyed rock climbing. His favorite area was the Sangre de Cristo Range. Lester Michel passed away in 1998 at age 79.

Jim Michel was 15 years of age on the traverse in 1961 and would be sixty-nine years old today.

In 1970 the U. S. Board on Geographic Names accepted the name of Thirsty Peak proposed by the CMC "commemorating the Wilbur Arnold/Lester Michel first traverse of the Sangre de Cristo Range from north to south, in 1961."

And that of course is the meaning of Thirsty Peak.

 Comments or Questions

Another great history lesson.
06/24/2015 08:06
Damn... I sure wish you’d write that book! Although I guess you are doing that a small piece at a time here. Thank you for this.


These are the best!
06/24/2015 09:24
I love these posts. I am a history AND a mountain buff and these trip reports/history lessons are simply the best. I have read and re–read many of them. Thank you once again for sharing!


I remember canteens!
06/24/2015 13:08
I had an aluminum canteen in scouts myself. Aluminum with a metal chainto keep the cap from getting lost and it slid into a cotton sleeve with a strap that I then slung over one shoulder. Can taste the metal just thinking about it. Good write up.

Rollie Free

Great Read
06/26/2015 10:04
I just returned home to Nebraska after a stay in Crestone. I drove along the Sangres several times towards Poncha and thought about what it would be like to walk along the ridgelines down to the end. Quite an adventure for sure. I love the yesteryear stories when basic survival was the only option. No GPS, incomplete maps, and sketchy information. And canteens. Thanks for reminding me. Still got one with my camp equipment. I think next time I am able to climb I’ll hang it around my neck. (Why shouldn’t my neck be invited to the soreness party) camelbacks are for wimps.I should bring along my aluminum frame green canvass backpack.

Rollie Free

One More Thing
06/26/2015 10:06
What happened to the boy?

Rollie Free

One More Thing
06/26/2015 21:04
Gore Galore, do you writes this? Do you have more stories I could read?

The Family Banner
11/27/2017 17:23
Lester Michel was my great uncle, one of the early prolific Colorado highpointers. He was past president of the Colorado Mountain Club (1960), one of the early completers of the Colorado 14ers (#109, 1949-1970), and, as noted above, had Thirsty Peak named after he, Bill Arnold, and Jim Michel's epic Michel-Arnold traverse of the Sangre de Cristo range (and possibly Electric Peak as well). His wife Martha was a badass too, walking 10,000 miles in his memory.

Found this looking for some info about him. As a peakbagger myself, I should preserve some more info about him before it's too late to gather it...!

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