Feeling Alive Above Treeline

The Snows have mostly melted above 12,000′ here in the Colorado Rockies and I find that some of the most pleasing days up in the mountains come in late May/early June when the upper trails are clear, but the remaining snowfields are still present, creating a stunning contrast of dark blues, stark whites, against a texture of rock.

This is my third summer in Colorado, having spent the first two gaining skills, losing weight, and going higher and longer, mostly solo.   In the summer of 2015, I climbed for a total of 32,300′, last year for 102,000′ and this year I’m hoping to break 200,000′.  At 57, things don’t get any easier, but maybe… just maybe, an aging body’s reach can be helped with a stronger mindset and, of course, a durable sense of humor.

I had spied Mount Herard over the Great Sand Dunes back in September of 2007 when I raced through Colorado stopping off at interesting spots along a wide loop, thinking quietly as I sat on High Dune about 700′ over the trailhead… just how cool it would be to climb that magnificent mountain in the distance someday, someday.

Years later, while volunteering to build trails on the Western slope of the Sangre de Cristo mountains, I once again marveled at the awe-inspiring grandeur of this setting while touring the Baca Wildlife Refuge and saw that magnificent peak once again.

Sangre de Cristo Mountains
View over to the Sand Dunes and the Sangre de Cristo Mountains from the Baca Wildlife Refuge.

And it was during a random Internet search of things to do at the Dunes that I had stumbled by chance upon a YouTube video of a really interesting hike to the top of this mountain and so, the wheels were set in motion to get up this peak soon!  And the “Die was Cast”!

Finally, yesterday, pushing off at around 0500 hours, I drove down our wide valley in search of the Medano Pass, a rough forest service road that traverses the range through a Bison Ranch.   And as I made my turn onto the pass just as the sun was grazing the tall prairie grasses with the first rays of the day, there they were… three large herd of Elk making their way into the higher plains.

Passing them as I made my way higher to the pass, the alpenglow upon the peaks of the high mountains were like Sirens taunting me ever closer into their embrace, and willingly I went… naturally.

The drive up the pass is half the adventure and when I found my spot to park, the gentle early morning breezes picked up heralding what was to be another epic day in the high alpine regions of this incredible mountain range.

Medano Lake
Looking down from the couloir at Medano Lake below.

Having registered at the trailhead’s sign-in sheet at around 0718, I found myself up at the high alpine lake at around 0930 and up at the saddle at around 1015.   The view down to the lake and out to the valley below was simply breathtaking.  And then it was over the crux of the hike to the summit, the upper ridge to the keyhole offering passage to the final segment.

Ridge line to the false summit
The path taken to gain access to the keyhole (an opening in the rock at the false summit; allowing me access to the gentler, final slope to the true summit).

At this point, I had been hiking up approximately 3,550 feet and staring at a somewhat daunting last 850 feet and it is at this point best to rest, drink water, and survey one’s surroundings and assess one’s energy levels.   Feeling oddly strong and confident, I chose to press on to the top; something always a little riskier when going solo.

“Slow and steady”, came my inner voice reminding me that safety in the mountains always wins over a human-manufactured need to summit… always slow and steady.   And this time the voice added “and just see what happens, step-by-step”.

Looking East out to the San Luis Valley
Photo taken approximately half-way up the ridge line with a view over to the San Luis Valley.

There’s a mysterious, involuntary and almost indescribable feeling that wells up in one’s soul when alone so high on a mountain’s exposed ridge, peering down to the headwalls that only moments before appeared so daunting looking up from below!   And each slow step steadily heightens this view and you realize… just how small and insignificant you really are in time and place.

View to the Spanish Peaks
Once through the keyhole at the top of the ridge, the promised, gentle grassy slopes appear with a clear path to the summit!

Great relief to make it onto to easier terrain!   Now, up at over 13,000 feet, the mind shifts to auto pilot at seeing the faint and easy path to the summit.

The Great Sand Dunes
Looking down, from the summit of Mount Herard (13,350′).

… and there they are, the magnificent Great Sand Dunes so far below, with a number of other peaks in the distance, many over 14,000 feet high farther South.   Like a grand mirage, this rare view I had all to myself yesterday.  And I simply sat down on the grassy slope and held this view for a time thinking just how beautiful our planet is… and though I am not religious, I certainly felt humbled by it all.   Looking down at the Dunes, I recalled the day back in 2007 that I had stared up at this point wondering what it would be like to climb it … and now here I was.

Western ridge line.
Climbing down the north ridge line with a view to the east ridge below.

Of course, those of us who’ve read mountaineering literature in our comfortable, worn leather chairs during winter months are reminded that the going down is typically the most dangerous part of the day’s journey…   Easy to fall into a mindless daze and not focus.

Looking North
View over to more of the mountains (looking North) that rise above 14,000 feet.

And as I descended down through the valley to the lake below and then through the dense forests that led to the trailhead…  I turned back a few times to bid farewell to my temporary place high up… a wonderful terrain so far removed from the hectic pace of our modern world.

Ah, and of course, the prize, one cold beer waiting for me at my truck!   Sitting in my camping chair, reflecting on the day, tension largely dissipated, a smile came over me; I’m doing things now that I’d never imagined I’d ever do when I was far younger…  and life is great, each day precious!

 

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2 thoughts on “Feeling Alive Above Treeline

  1. It’s great to see you’re blogging as well as climbing Alec. 200k wow-that’s an impressive elevation goal. But there are plenty of 14’ers in Colorado to keep you busy.

    I think I know what to call that “indescribable feeling” you noticed on the precipice… I call it vertigo;)

    Gorgeous views, thanks for taking us on the virtual hike!

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  2. Hey there, Gabe! Thanks for your comment… I’ve been crazy-busy lately and hope to get back in the saddle with blogging! Hope life in Europe continues to be a great adventure. Miss it terribly… Ran into a couple of thru-hikers making their way up the Continental Divide (at Marshall Pass)… 54 days on the trail. Great conversation; they’d met on the summit of Katahdin the year before; thought of your AT reports. Cheers.

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