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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!

 

Keepin’ it Simple…

Sitting on our back porch here in the high mountains of Colorado, a gentle breeze kicked up bringing closer the sweet tunes of an old favorite Zac Brown Band melody…

“I got my toes in the water, ass in the sand
Not a worry in the world, a cold beer in my hand
Life is good today Life is good today”

And as we rocked and forth gazing out to the endless horizon, minds sweetly drifting far away and reflecting on the good moment, it occurred to me that life really ain’t gotta be complicated at-tall (that’s “at all” in Southern…).  Goodness, why would you ever want to complicate it?

Yup, there’s great wisdom to be learned from those who live this simple lesson.  We can choose to be crazy-busy bees and never see just how quickly the sand drains down the hourglass …  or, look for easy ways to slow things down a spell.

Whether it’s a slow hike up into the mountains or an easy walk along a pretty beach, the people you find there are likely thinking along the same lines as you.

Oh, is that Alan Jackson with another great song winding its way to us…

“Two old people, without a thing
Children gone but still they sing
Side by side on that front porch swing
Living on love

Soon, though not soon enough, we’d be sitting on our favorite front porch with old friends who’d learned this lesson long before we ever did.   Better late than never… and life is good … no, make that: life is great.

Chasing the Horizon

My wonderful soul mate had once again cut me free to explore this magnificent place here in the high mountains of Colorado.   Feeling thankful that I had the privilege of another day on this beautiful planet, the sun winking over the low ridge line over to the East, tickling the tops of the tall, swaying grasses as the world around me began to stir.

And as the dueling fiddles played out their joyful notes over the radio, like playful birds on a Spring day, the dust beginning to kick up behind me as I drove across the valley, I could feel the energy of the early morning build.

It’s not easy to convey what it’s like to live out here, in big sky country where noble game outnumbers busy people, where the early rays light up the belly of a hawk sitting up high on a telephone pole, where the Antelope run freely and the Bighorn dance so gracefully upon the granite walls…

It’s a place that reaches deep inside of you, Mother Earth’s gentle hands cupping your hopeful soul with promises of a big day whispering in your ear if only you’ll surrender to the call.  You’ll find that when your bars vanish from your iPhone, that you’ve very likely stepped into an awe-inspiring valley or found yourself under the shade of the mother of all mountains, and now you feel the bars inside you multiply as you feel small and somewhat vulnerable.

Travel slowly on foot, solo, and your senses will awaken for you to see and hear things you may never have before.   Now you find yourself high up in a valley that makes you want to drop to your knees and pray to ask, “Am I really here?”, or have you not quite yet stepped out of that wonderful dream…

You’ve not seen a soul all day nor has your peace and tranquility been interrupted by a human sound since you’ve quieted the engine that brought you here hours ago.  And as the gentle, mountain air begins to heat up and rip through that unbroken Aspen grove, their wonderful leaves dancing before you, an irrepressible smile wells up.

To once again see this world through youthful eyes as you step ever higher on the fading trail, a glorious alpine valley that asks nothing of you but an open heart and a good spirit.

And you know that you’ve finally broken free and you wonder how you could have ever followed all of those red lights for so many years.

Up high on the rock pinnacle standing sentry, a lone Bighorn Sheep turns to look down upon you, it’s kindly face seemingly inviting you higher.   You keep trusting your instincts as your labored steps take you high above the alpine lakes, to the summit now lit up with the full force of the late, morning sun drawing you to it.

Up onto the last of the steep switchbacks, looking up to the high ridge line that promises you endless views and you hear it, now faintly for the first time…  a pair of fiddles playing a soulful melody and you again look up to find a mother and child swaying freely, the little girl’s hair blowing in the wind.

Now you surely know that your last heartbeat happened way farther down and this is where your contented soul shall rest, for this is what Heaven on Earth must surely be.

 

Taking the Back Road Home

Always play it safe in life, and your outcomes are likely going to be fairly predictable.   And though it took me a while to finally believe it, my wife is the true risk taker in our family.   So I was not really surprised when she turned to me earlier today and asked if we could take the more “interesting” (read, untested) way home.

“If the snow is too deep or it looks too crazy, we can always turn back”, she said calmly, her devilish grin betraying her concern.

Still unable to drive for another week due to foot surgery, I was her hostage and had no real voice in the matter.   Well, in-fact, I too was itching to explore this high mountain pass, but quietly had visions of hobbling 20+ miles back to civilization had we experienced a problem.   But I kept my unmanly worries private.

Since our move to rural Colorado in May of 2015, we’ve fanned out all across our area to find interesting and challenging routes into the mountains.

And off we went, deploying our two cell phones as navigational aides (Google Maps and Viewranger apps).  We had become familiar with the terrain, the landmark peaks, and so the risk was somewhat minimized. A quick scan of the north-facing mountain sides revealed that snow had largely melted above 10,000′ and the last two days of sunshine would have dried-up much of the dirt roads.

And up we went.   Up above the hippy-artsy town of Salida, up on exposed roads with undiminished views over to the Collegiate Peaks, and then up and into the deep woods, still hibernating from Winter.   Only one pickup truck passed us going the other way in the two hours of driving the 43 miles of road.   But there was plenty of wildlife to see; wild turkeys, mule deer, a magnificent hawk, and even a couple of curious horses and a mommy and baby cow.

As with anything that involves absorbing a bit of discomfort, the end result is almost always satisfying.   We’d pulled off a couple of times to listen to the perfect stillness and much of my joy was in watching my wife enjoy this crazy drive.

The deep mud ruts promised to suck us in a couple of times and the steeper, muddy switchbacks got a bit insane near the top, but it was all worth the extra hour-plus that it had taken on the way home.

Absolutely… slow down and take that interesting road you’ve always passed on by.   Who knows what joy and freedom await you?

Waiting on a Second Life

He wondered what it must have been like back in the day.    Rolling off of the assembly line and into the shiny showroom,  buyers admiring her graceful lines, ladies in fashionable dresses and wearing white gloves, men in proper suits and sporting their fedoras.   Who would have been the first to drive her off of the lot?

Duke Ellington is playing on the brand new radio as his mind drifts.

And he wonders what places this forgotten automobile had seen in her long life?   Had it been an ordinary one, going to and from home and work, or had its first owner had the luxury of time, energy, money, and a romantic eye to the horizon?   What had been this car’s fate back in 1938?

His thoughts travelled to a world long faded from view and far away that evening in the empty car lot.

He could begin to see the older man shaking hands with the new buyers of his modest home, somewhere near Taos, New Mexico.   Yes, that’s it.   Now, his wife is smiling at their fresh possibilities, their  Airedale Terrier jumping willingly into the back seat as they drive off into the dust and on down to places yet to be discovered.   He’d deposited the royalty check from his last novel and now it was time for the two to explore.

Finally, the line approached and off they were, unencumbered with regret, second thoughts, or the slightest doubt.  Dues had been quietly paid over the years and no-one had been betrayed in their quest to live free.  Oh, certainly, there were times when the floor seemed soft like quicksand and their vision obscured with distraction, but somehow, they found a way to lean forward in the direction of their dreams and the day had finally come.

Reaching in the back seat, the woman opened the case to her prized violin, brought it to the front and began to play an inspiring melody that seemed to match the moment perfectly.  Looking to her, he noticed tears running down her cheek as she settled in to her instrument, her white scarf flowing in the wind along with the notes in the air.  Rare, they knew, that such freedom could lift their souls so effortlessly.

“Hey there, she’s a beauty isn’t she?”, exclaimed the salesman.   “Sure is.   I’ve just got to wonder what she’s seen in her long life.”

“An old lady called me a few weeks back and said she had something she thought I might be interested in, something that had been gathering dust for years.  Imagine that!  I’m closing up, but you’re welcome to stay.  Just shut the gate behind you when you leave. Oh!  And here’s my card.”

He smiled and turned away as the salesman returned back to his office in the warehouse, turning off, one by one, the bright lights outside.  The breeze picked up a bit and there was a sudden chill in the evening air.

Returning to his daydream,

The young, Bolivian child looked up and turned to see a plume of dust winding its way across the altiplano.   Cars were rare in 1938 and the sound it made was quite unusual.   The closer it came, the more excited he became.   And as it neared, it slowed down and stopped along the old, dirt road.  Roosters fluttering their wings by the mud brick hut near the road.

He could see two people in good spirits with a large piece of paper in hand.

“Excuse me please, child, could you tell me in what direction the village of Challapata may be?”

The excitement in the little boy was contagious as he pointed with great enthusiasm in the general direction of where they would need to go.  Mount Sajama was beginning to reveal herself in all of her glory as though rising magically from the far-distant horizon.

Bidding him farewell, they continued down the primitive, lonely road to their next day’s paradise and before long the land was once again still, save for the sounds of crows above.

“She’s had a great life”, came the voice from behind.   Turning around, he found a beautiful older woman, half sad, but somehow come alive, her long, gray hair flowing in the gentle breeze, a note clasped in her hands.

“I can only imagine”, he said as he walked slowly over to her.   “Did you know the owners?”

“Yes, I certainly had.   They used to live in New Mexico years ago, when they decided to sell it all and travel down to South America.  Had a wonderful, carefree time for almost a year.”

Stumbling back as he felt himself get a bit dizzy, recovering quickly to see if he wasn’t dreaming.

“My word…  really?”

“Yes, dear.  I can tell you all about it if you have a little time”, the evening sun revealing a weathered face filled with stories to tell, sad eyes almost, but a gentle and inviting look to the old woman.

“Of course!   Please do.”

And in her wistful way, she began to unfold a wonderful story of exploration, of dreams, of writing poetry on the beach, of quaint villages and wonderful, simple restaurants along their route to the tip of South America.    He’d been the love of her life and theirs had only grown sweeter with time.  Rare, she knew.

So when the illness was diagnosed the year before, they understood that they had little time remaining and so it was that they had embarked on their grand adventure to the end.

The old woman’s voice was strangely comforting as she told her story.   The sun was getting ready to disappear, casting its growing shadow on where they stood.  Turning to the old car, he asked her,

“It must have been a magnificent chapter in your lives…”

No response.   And as he turned around to ask again, she was gone.  Disoriented, he looked everywhere and could not imagine how she could have vanished so quickly in the open space and then he noticed a piece of paper left under the left windshield wiper; something not there the moment before.

Carefully unfolding the note, it read,

“When the sun has set, no candle can replace it”, a serpentine line drawn from the words into a violin being lifted by two hearts.

Leaning on the old car, he wondered what had just happened.  Had he imagined it all? Maybe though, perhaps… maybe not.   More and more, he was surrendering to the notion that there were no coincidences in life, just the occasional guides along the way if we should ever slow our thoughts and open up our minds.

[Image:  Icon4x4.com and filtered through the Prisma app for artistic effect.]

A Well-Deserved Lunch at the Grand Khan Irish Pub in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia

At last, my long-awaited meal came to me as I listened to a sultry Lily Marlene playing over the loudspeakers.   The booth next to me was filled with loud and exuberant young, Russian males regaling each other with tall tales.   The impressive bratwurst and mountain of sauerkraut before me was nicely paired with a towering, Mongolian Tiger Beer and my early afternoon was simply perfect at this point in time.  At any moment, I expected Indiana Jones and his entourage to come through the door and for all of us to be transported back to a time in the 1930s.   The music… was I in pre-war Berlin?

There is something alluring in traveling to the far ends of this planet; places not yet made comfortable for tourists.   Thankfully, many still exist for the lone traveller,  those of us whose souls hail from the Black Sheep, those of us who yearn to break free from the bright lights and vexing stimuli of our ever rushing world.

Ulaanbaatar was still such a place in the Fall of 2012.

Early that same morning, in the intimate restaurant of the Hotel Kempinski, my wife and I enjoyed an unhurried breakfast.   Subtle pleasures come from quietly observing the other visitors.   Slowly streaming in were mostly geotechnical and other types of engineers on assignment to Mongolia to consult with those running the country’s mineral extraction industry.   Building was booming in town and the young people were enjoying the long reach of western fashion and style that was now finding a foothold in this place.  Oh, and there were a few travelers as well, mostly fit and healthy retirees dressed in khaki and kerchiefs; quiet, assured, though ever so slightly betrayed with their eagerness to explore.  Their studied look was otherwise, impeccable.

Bidding my hard-working wife “adieu” that morning as she went off to inspect operations in Mongolia, I took a long walk through town, to the outskirts at the base of the mountains in the south.   With no real idea of what I was about to discover, I simply walked for hours, crossing the main rail line cutting through town, then over the long bridge with the gentle flowing Tuul Gol River below, and then finally up into the foothills.

I desperately wanted to climb the conical mountain I had spied earlier that morning and so I simply walked in that general direction.   A taxi would have been easier, but I find that there is no substitute for what we encounter on foot.  Suffering a bit makes the end of a day’s (first) beverage that much tastier.  And so I continued along, at times on well designed sidewalks, but more often on deeply rutted, hardened muddy surfaces.

Over the bridge and I was almost there until I realized that this part of Ulaanbaatar was ringed with a tall, barbed wire fence.  “Merdes, alors!   Vraimant?”   Searching and searching in vain for an outlet to the mountain, I decided to enter the gates of a military compound. There was no guard, so I continued.

“Haaallo.   You!”, turning around, I saw the massive, Mongolian soldier approach, but he was smiling.  Decades of hard-won instinct commanded my subconscious brain as I became strangely calm.  Returning his warm and curious smile, I asked.  “Please, I am interested in climbing to the top of that mountain.   Is there a way?”  I must have seemed quite odd to him.

His burly and rather large hand was generously extended and I shook it.  After all, how often do we in our pampered environments ever have a chance to visit with a Mongolian on his land?  Looking back years later, this was the day’s finest moment.  I just did not know it at the time.

“I have had much to drink, my friend.   Japanese soldiers visit and we drink until sun comes up.”, confides G. Khan’s modern variant.   Brilliant, I thought.   So now I have this impressive soldier confessing to me of his excessive drinking.  Brain blank, I respond, “Very nice, very nice” as I continue to smile.   All instinct at this point in life, eh?  Placing his very heavy hand on my shoulder, now leaning a bit looking up to him, he points to some yurts about three blocks to the southeast, high octane breath explaining, “There.   But many hungry dogs.”

Parting ways with my new friend, I shake his hand, grinning at the wonderful super-collision of unlikely cultures and bid him a warm farewell.  Life is unpredictable that way, thank goodness.

But now another sense, one not so safe, begins to infiltrate my mind.   Dogs, many dogs. And desperately I continue through the mud streets with the sad looking concrete homes and battered doors, the lace draperies hanging lifelessly inside the small windows.   Past the old people casting their defeated eyes upon the stranger, clothes hanging on the line to dry, swaying in the gentle breeze.

Oh, why must there be hungry dogs?   Explains why I saw no one hiking up the vertical path up to the top of the mountain that morning.

Reminded me of places behind the Iron Curtain where I had grown up in the 60s and 70s.  Grim, Soviet Era housing constructed in haste, but devoid of song and color.  And around the last house on the street, there they were, a group of three dogs as promised; not the friendly ones either.  Small, but they had a certain desperate look.   And in these quick moments of truth, I’ve learned a certain way to walk and look.   No eye contact, stride with purpose, intensity.   Intensity, impatience; that’s it… and be prepared to bluff at a moment’s notice, for this is today’s crux.  Hope my animal smell of desperation does not betray me now.

Through the opening to where the soldier had pointed, I found my escape!   Making haste deliberately, I finally found my way to the other side, to the sea of light brown grasses that lay upon the steep mountainside, to the one path that I could see that led straight up to the summit.   Up I went, looking back occasionally to see the three dogs scavenging through trash, over the bunker-like workers’ homes and yurts.   Now, halfway up, I could begin to make the landscape of the city, the smokestacks belching out their toxic fumes all of which remained captured in the larger valley below.   I saw this vividly as well, when we lived in Ankara in the mid 1970s.

And then, finally to the summit.   A massive rock cairn contained the one leaning, wooden pole on which were tied many colorful streams of cloth fluttering in the breeze; a gift to the mountain gods?   All alone, I enjoyed the expansive view and the thought that I was half-way around this planet and in a place so unfamiliar but fascinating.

From the mountaintop, I looked for another path, one that might take me to another opening… one without hungry dogs.  Over there.  Yes.   Another trail led to another opening through one of the city’s vocational colleges.

It is a comforting feeling when we can relax to the idea that we’d now likely see another day.

“Is there anything more for your, sir?”, asked the slender waiter with the quiet voice.

“Another of your Mongolian Tiger Beers, please.   And the check when you can.  Thank you.”

On the coaster was inscribed an old Mongolian proverb,

“There are men who walk through the woods and see no trees.”  Oh my, how true that is.

And as I savored my exotic beverage in this land so far away from home, a quiet feeling came over me that though the streets were at times quite grim, there were plenty of trees if only we would bother to open our eyes to see.

 

Oregon: Instilling Respect for Grand Spaces

I can still remember the day that I took my son Anthony and his cousin, Sean, climbing up on Mount Hood.  It was a glorious day, the sun shining, the skies a dark blue against the bright snow and ice above.   Strange as it is, I can almost look left in my mind’s eye and see the two of them grinning ear to ear as we went higher and higher up above the clouds that morning in Oregon.

Disguised as “vacations”, we would organize our family trips to look for potential places to retire and Oregon held a certain allure to my wife who had lived there years ago.   There was so much to explore in such a short period of time, and as usual, she had us superbly organized.    Leave things to me, and I’d likely have us camping on the beach out of a 1967 VW Hippy Bus…

Seems to me that it was our turn now to show the kids the wonders of our beautiful planet and to instill in them a profound respect for our wild spaces.  We’d been camping with them for years, but Oregon was truly grand!  The approach to this was fairly simple, just bring them there, let it all soak in at an early age, and they’d never, ever be satisfied to live an ordinary life again.   A curse, perhaps, but a spell worth casting.

I’ve come to understand that the best remedy to our man-made ills is to simply drive far away to grand, natural spaces.   To stoke up that wonderful and magical feeling of awe as we stand before treasures such as Crater Lake, the Grand Canyon, and the Impact Crater is to imbue within us an undeniable feeling that we are small and fleeting in the grand scheme of things and this, I have found, is a great relief.  None of us is really important at all.   Trade the BigFootprint McMansion, ditch your rarely used yacht, and live in the footsteps of John Muir!   Simple is good, and hey, pretty affordable to boot!

So many of our worries and ills are unnecessary if we would simply remember to leave the man-made chatter in our rear view mirrors.   There’s a James Bond type red button in your Austin Healy labeled, “Screw the drama”.   Press it now!  And as in his movies, your vexing villain will soon be ejected out of the sunroof never to be seen again.

The other day I dropped off my old hiking boots to get resoled.  It was almost as agonizing as dropping of my little ones at day care years ago.

“Three weeks or so?”, I asked.

Smiling, the healthy and fit woman in her late sixties with the long, grey pony tail, smiled a bit and answered with her eyes.  It was clear, she’d kick my ass up any mountain around here.

Two weeks to go while my right foot heals from surgery and my old hiking boots get a second life.  Can’t wait.   My son will be home on leave and maybe the four of us can take a slow, long walk into the wild.