Dancing with the Devil
Newcomers to Flat Tops call Causeway a heck of a hike
Steamboat Springs — Beware of tempting Mother Nature and the Devil.
That was the lesson I walked away with after a six-mile hike to Devils Causeway in the Flat Tops Wilderness.
I knew the hike was a challenging 2,000-foot vertical ascent over rough terrain. That much was clear after my colleague Mike Lawrence and I flew over the Causeway during an aerial tour of Routt County’s backcountry the previous week. During the tour, we saw the narrow ridge and were told the Causeway is a popular hike. It was later explained to me that taking on the Devils Causeway, the name given to that particular stretch of the Chinese Wall, is a rite of passage for newcomers to this area. The drop on one side of the narrow causeway is about 80 feet and about 400 feet on the opposite side.
There was not a cloud in the sky during the flyover and nothing too threatening when we started the hike mid-morning Friday. It hadn’t rained in weeks, but we were due. Lawrence and I, along with fellow staffer Mike Hart, were about to learn our lesson about how quickly weather conditions can change in the mountains.
From Steamboat Springs, it is about an hour drive through Yampa to the Flat Tops Wilderness. The path begins next to the parking lot at Stillwater Reservoir. Take the first two right forks in the path for the most direct route to the causeway.
About the first third of the hike is along the reservoir and through the wooded area.
Half an hour into our hike, we heard a large clash of thunder from the southeast. A small storm had formed in the distance, and it was unclear which direction it was heading. We decided to keep our eyes on it and continue forward. A few minutes later, a small boulder came tumbling down the hill.
As we hiked, the sky grew darker, and clouds appeared to be closing in on us from all directions except the northeast, the direction we were heading. It was difficult to tell though, because you can’t see behind the ridge.
We crossed Little Causeway Lake on the left and began the steep ascent. We hiked through some light rain, but lightning and thunder still seemed to be in the distance.
At this point, we were all gasping a little for air. This should not be this difficult for three men in their 20s, we thought. As we neared the top of the 11,800 foot ridge, we blamed it on the altitude.
Then, a man who appeared to be in his 50s ran by and continued up the final slope.
We stopped to rest and talked to Lisa McDonald, who was staring at the storm to the southeast. The rest of her group, which included her mother, Karen Bennett, already was up near the causeway.
“It’s a great hike, but I’m a little nervous about the weather,” she said. “I thought it was going that way, but it seems like it’s coming this way.”
Bennett then came down from the causeway.
“I’ve known a lot people who have gone up and said, ‘O.K., that’s close enough,'” she said. “If you go on up, it’s a challenge, but it’s great.”
It was decision time. It seemed to be clearing up, and the most threatening cloud still was far southeast.
We continued up the slope and arrived at the causeway, took a few pictures and began crossing the uneven ridge.
It narrowed to about six feet wide and wind funneled thought the narrowest area. I’m not afraid of heights, but looking down either side made my legs shake.
When we got to the other side, we decided there was not much time to look around and came back over Devils Causeway. The sky had become much darker.
I made it across, and Lawr–ence and Hart followed. A loud clash of thunder filled the sky, just as Lawrence reached the narrowest section. He went to his hands and knees. I packed up and decided it was time to leave.
The wind picked up, there were more claps of thunder and lighting spreading throughout the sky above. The hair on my arms was standing up, and I considered dropping to the ground. At 6’3″ it appeared as though I was the tallest object in miles. Yes, I was scared. I was a human lighting rod. So, I ran.
The other members of my group fell in behind me.
It started to hail, and the thunder and lighting continued. I took shelter for about 10 minutes and waited to regroup. We made it to the woods, and the weather cleared up.
Our dance with the devil was over, and we were alive.
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