Andrew Terrill

The outdoor diary of a writer, photographer, and wilderness wanderer


DESPITE TRANSPORT CHALLENGES and family commitments I managed to squeeze in another brief foray into the hills over Friday night.

In the dampness, the fresh snow and the wandering mists of what is turning into an exceptionally wet May here in Colorado, the outing was absolutely delicious. The heady forest scents, the roughness of being far off trail on a forested slope that few people ever visit, and a spray of rain upon ‘Auld Leakie’ late into the evening, all came together to transport me to another time and place entirely… and also deeply root me into this moment itself.

Hells Hole and Gray Wolf Mountain May 12 2023

My original plan had been to follow a specific trail, the Hell’s Hole trail, for a short distance up-valley and camp near the river in the valley’s centre… but when I reached the trailhead a steep slope rising above it called out to me instead.

It was a call I couldn’t ignore.

The slope was covered in thick aspen and pine forests. Fresh snow lay upon it. The angle was unrelenting and it didn’t look especially ‘friendly’, or likely to offer anywhere decent to camp. But I had no doubt whatsoever that the right approach – a slow approach – would make it ‘feel’ friendly. And I had no doubt that a perfect spot for camp lay up there, just waiting for me to find it.

I set off, weaving through the aspen, clambering over rocks and fallen trees, picking my way gently, stepping carefully for the land’s sake as well as my own, embracing the obstacles – while the forest embraced me. A short way up, the forest opened out to give a view southward up the valley. I spotted a rare patch of sunlight surfing the forest slopes. Above it, Gray Wolf Mountain rose into sodden clouds. The sight was stirringly wild.

Aspen wood Hells Hole May 12 2023

The tightness of the forest, the lack of trail, and the soggy snow, reminded me a little of Calabria’s Aspromonte, crossed back in May 1997 at the start of my biggest walk. Back there, it had been too wild for me, too unsettling. Progress had been too hard. I’d struggled with it. I’d rushed, in fear. Now, twenty-six years later, I wonder how different it would seem, were I back there again.

Here in May 2023, I was heading through aspen woods without a map, not knowing what lay ahead. But I felt totally at ease with this, never once doubting that all would be well.

Sometimes, I forget that simply walking off trail into the wild isn’t an activity that everyone does. I’m so used to doing it now that it’s come to feel utterly normal, and completely stress free – soothing, even. ‘On-trail’ feels managed, restricted. A line someone else has prepared for me. ‘Off-trail’ has become a pathway to freedom.

Over the years, I’ve lost the need for a map. I’ve lost the need to know what lies ahead. An open-ness to the experience of simply ‘finding out’ has remade walking into something that feels far more natural than following a trail to a pre-determined destination.

Reading the land with all senses open and questing, making deliberate choices with each step, and often not even making choices at all – simply ‘drifting’, ‘feeling’ the way – has delivered an unparalleled sense of ease in the wild. Believing it will all work out, ‘letting go’ of concerns about it not working out, has led to such freedom.

Perhaps it is the relinquishment of my own wants from the land, and the acceptance of what it really is, that changes the experience. Instead of bending the mountain to meet my needs I bend myself to meet the mountain.

It makes a profound difference.

camp in Aspen wood Hells Hole May 12 2023

After an hour, or so (I really wasn’t paying attention) I found the perfect spot: a flattish bowl hidden from below where aspen stems grew far apart. The clear view up-valley to Gray Wolf Mountain settled things. I pitched ‘Auld Leakie’.

Despite appearances, the evening didn’t feel like winter. The air was cool and damp, but too warm for gloves. The fresh snow underfoot that had fallen within the last thirty hours was sugary and thawing fast. Pine boughs were dripping. Birds sang, woodpeckers drummed, squirrels chattered. The woodland scents in the air were the very scents that heaven could be built from.

When rain brushed ‘Auld Leakie’ at dusk I couldn’t have been happier. After a long-long winter up here, the season had become something else, something far, far friendlier.

trail designs caldera cone ti tri sidewinder stove May 13 2023

My new stove – a first item of new backpacking gear in a long time!

I’ve never really been ‘into’ backpacking gear. Typically, as a subject, it bores me! But in recent months I’ve been thinking about gear a little more. Partly it’s because most of my gear is old and reaching the end of its life. But also it’s because most of my gear is outrageously heavy (by modern standards) and I’ve reached an age where lumping it around on my back is becoming a bit of struggle.

For most of my backpacking life, I’ve simply accepted that carrying a fifty to sixty pound pack about was ‘my lot’. Lifestyle choices haven’t ever given me an income where I can afford or justify new gear. Becoming ‘an author’ certainly hasn’t helped with that – quite the reverse in fact!

But the time has finally come to change everything that I carry. A winter of snowshoeing through deep snows, feeling compressed by the ridiculous load on my back, becoming weary in a way that is no longer quite so easy to shrug off, has woken me to what’s needed. Quite how I’ll upgrade and lighten my tent, rucksack, sleeping bag, pad, and everything else still remains to be seen… although I have some hopes… but I have at least upgraded my stove.

For thirty-five years I’ve been using a heavy old Trangia stove, a truly reliable piece of equipment that has never given me issues. I’ve cooked with it at altitude, in all weathers. I’ve used it safely even inside a small tent. But the trouble is, it weighs well over two pounds.

Happily, a blog by my friend Chris Townsend pointed me in another direction (Stoves I’ve used for long-distance walking over the decades) and happily, the manufacturer of this ‘other direction’ were amenable to talking, and offered a special price. I’m now the owner of a stripped down version of the Trail Designs Caldera Cone Ti-Tri… a stove that I believe I am going to LOVE as much as I’ve loved my old Trangia. After the first couple of uses, it appears to work faster than my old stove, and uses far less fuel. Plus, it only weighs 6oz.

If I can lighten everything I carry by a quarter, backpacking for me will truly change! The infamous ‘Ten Ton’ will become a thing of the past…

(Trail designs)

Aspen wood and mist Hells Hole May 13 2023

The temperature barely dropped to freezing overnight, a treat that made camping feel shockingly easy. With dawn arriving so early I was able to relax in camp and take my time over breakfast and packing up, even though I had to be back home by mid-morning.

The time between waking and leaving was only two and half hours. But the gentleness and ‘rightness’ of it – of being where I was – stretched the time out. Time really does move more slightly in nature.

The morning’s highlight came when mist formed lower down the valley and began drifting through the trees.

Aspen wood and mist Hells Hole May 13 2023

Colorado is dry. Dampness is such a treat… such a gift to treasure, to savour.

Aspen wood and mist Hells Hole Gray Wolf Mountain May 13 2023

The view up the valley toward Gray Wolf Mountain.

Gray Wolf Mountain was named in the early 1900s by a Dr. James Grafton Rogers and two acquaintances who spent some time wandering across the area’s mountains, trying to bring order to the many names that early settlers had used. A transcript from an interview with him in 1964 records: “… We also added the name … of the mountain called Gray Wolf, because one day in scrambling up there we came on an animal we thought was too big to be a coyote and called it a gray wolf …having seen him up on top of the peak …”

From such fleeting moments can entire mountains be named!

wild camp Aspen wood and mist Hells Hole Gray Wolf Mountain May 13 2023

It was a ‘stand and stare’ kind of a morning. Yes, it was also a ‘take some photos’ kind of morning, too… but mostly a ‘stand and stare and experience-it-to-the-full’ morning.

I pulled it deep. Stored it away. Now, on Monday as I write this, it still feels joyful. It still feels sustaining. It still makes me ‘feel’.

Aspen wood and mist Hells Hole Gray Wolf Mountain May 13 2023

The view from camp.

Aspen wood and mist Hells Hole Gray Wolf Mountain May 13 2023

Eventually I packed up and wandered back down through the forest, stepping gently again, following my weaving trail in the snow. But I paused for a while when the view to Gray Wolf and Hells Hole opened up.

mist Hells Hole Gray Wolf Mountain May 13 2023

The basin beneath Gray Wolf sees few visitors. The main trail curves right, away from the wild heart of the valley. It’s a special place in there.

mist Hells Hole Gray Wolf Mountain detail May 13 2023

A zoom lens shot into the heart of the ‘other’ Hells Hole.

IF you visit this special place yourself, please visit gently. No fire rings, no careless steps, no rocks moved, no traces left. Make no changes to it for your convenience. Leave it as it is: rare and wild.

mist hells hole May 13 2023

The unnamed mountain rising above Hells Hole – ‘Hells Hole Peak’ as I think of it. I’ve been up there. It’s profoundly satisfying to look at a landscape like this and think: ‘I’ve been up that ridge, over that summit, down that slope, camped in that bowl, and that one, and weaved through that forest, over there, and there, and sat on that boulder for an entire morning, and, and, and…’

This deepening knowledge through direct experience is what makes a place home, what makes it real.

It’s why the superficial names that surveyors and politicians give mountains mean absolutely nothing. I think that I finally have a name I like for the largest hill in this area – something that I’ve been pondering for quite some time and that is linked to a project I’ll announce soon. It’s a name that really sums the mountain up. Or sums it up for me. It sums up what the mountain IS and what I believe it does to those who visit it, the effect it has. But for now I’ll keep the name to myself. Why should I push my name for this mountain on others?

After all, everyone experiences it – and all these places – so very differently… which is why we all come. To experience it for ourselves.

Scroll to Top