Old mountain goats go high…

There shall be no settling down for these old dudes.   For once you suck the sweet high-alpine nectar, the idea of “acting our age” is really not an option at all!  So, we press on and up and quickly forget the suffering that climbing brings as we seek new terrain here in the Colorado Rockies.   Well, sometimes we forget.

Last time that I had attempted to climb to the summit of Mount Lindsey (14,048′) last year, I was met by an astonished young climber who said to me…

“Sir, when I am as old as you are, I sure hope that I’m also still climbing!”

Ok, I suspect that was a compliment, and I was too tired to read too much into it!  Besides, the profile of the peak past the saddle at 13,000′ looked downright scary to me at the time.   Truth be told, I had blown past the trailhead that led to California Peak, a far more modest peak I had meant to climb, and had impulsively decided to go ahead and climb this one located farther up the road.

From what I’ve learned from reading a couple of hundred accounts of mountaineering accidents, it is the accumulation of small errors in judgment that frequently account for tragedy in the mountains.   In my case, it would have gone something like this:

  1.  Failed to research and study the routes to the summit,
  2. Started late in the day (risking lightning strikes),
  3. Climbed solo.

The hike up to the saddle was mostly steep, involving a couple of nuisance stream crossings at the beginning, but nothing risky.   At the saddle to the peak, the last 1,100′ of climbing to the top looked much more “interesting”.   Since I had not researched this peak prior to climbing, I found myself relying on the few climbers coming off of the mountain for information.  Not a particular fan of exposed, Class three scrambling, I chose the NW Gully (as depicted in the main photo), but was driven back when dark clouds engulfed the mountain and hail began to drop.

My instincts instructed me to haul my old butt off of this mountain … NOW with my cowardly self quickly complying as I returned safely to my cozy home last year.

But… I simply had to return to step on the top of this glorious peak.   Having sipped from the chalice the year before, I was determined to revisit this, as I had come tantalizingly close to her pretty summit.

And this time, I had done the research and had found a great climbing partner in my new friend, Ed, a retired National Park Service Ranger with 35 years of experience in some of our country’s wildest places.   I had joined our county’s mountain Search and Rescue group a few months back, and had come to enjoy Ed’s company and trusted his judgment; the kind of climbing partner that infuses confidence with every step up the trail.

Lindsey 1
Hiking up past the boulder field with the promise of great peaks in the distance!

So off we went to find our start in the early morning in August.   Passing the large boulder field, we made our way up to ever more glorious views of this pristine wilderness.   And up we went, slowly… surely, possibly even elegantly, but that would be for others to judge.   Ok, likely not elegantly.

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Hiking the switchbacks to the saddle.

At the saddle (main photo), we stopped to reassess our route options and chose the same one as I had come to know the year before.   Now, mind you, at 58 and 68, our options were not quite what they may have been 40 years ago…, but young spirits prevailed and after a good break, we made our way up the final 1,100′.

Class three climbing in this setting required helmets and three points of contact as we carefully wound our way up.

“Ed, I’m seeing leftover snow, ice, and probably mud on our route.   Your thoughts?”

In his typical manner, Ed quickly quipped,

“Hey, it’s your climb.   You make the call.”

So I did and slowly, we traversed along the rocky and ever faint path to the bottom of the gully, carefully placing our feet and hands and testing our holds.   Frequently, we stopped and rotated lead positions always mindful of rockfall, snow, mud, and ice.

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Ed, having climbing up a few hundred feet up past the saddle.

Three years into my early retirement and now I find myself on this insane (by my standards) route up one of Colorado’s 53 14ers with a much more experienced mountaineer and I begin to ask myself how wise it is to proceed.  But quickly, I mute the voice of doubt.

And up we go, carefully maneuvering past the crux of the route, a deep V-shaped line where we calmly find our way along the side of the gully for sound purchase of footholds along thinner and thinner ledges, I notice the quickly moving and darkening clouds and my heart sinks.

“Crap, Ed!   Looks like ugly weather making its way behind the mountain again this year!”

“Yup.   And we don’t want to have to call our Search and Rescue friends!   I would rather die here before I ever make that call!”

“Agreed.   Let’s break here and have lunch, enjoy the view, and wait this out for a few minutes.”

Lindsey 5
Close to our highpoint on the north slope of Mount Lindsey, clouds teasing us as if to say “go ahead, climb on”… only to watch things close up quickly!

So, it was that we sat on this gnarly slope, goofing off, trying to keep warm as the first of the grapple begins to hit our helmets.

I look at my Garmin GPS and note that we are at 13,812’… about 200′ from the summit.

Without much conversation, we decide we’d prefer to live and so we grab our packs and ever so carefully retreat off of this glorious mountain to give it another shot next year.

200′ from the top; the Tortures of Tantalus.

But it was a wise call as we turned around once more to see the entire peak being hit hard with hail.

Back at the trailhead, I reach in for a couple of tasty IPAs, pop them open and hand one to my climbing partner.

“Well Ed, I think we made a good call.  What do you think?”

“Hell yeah, we did.   AND… we didn’t have to call Search and Rescue to get our sorry asses off of this mountain!”

Yeah… bonus.   Maybe next year.

 

 

 

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Ghosts in the Old Tunnels…

As I caught sight of the young family at the end of the long, cool rock-blasted tunnel, my mind drifted back about 90 or so years to a time when there must have been a narrow-gage train bringing miners and supplies to and from the area’s mines back in the day.

I imagined a weathered old soul, on the back-end of the tiny caboose, strumming some Mississippi delta blues as they chugged their way slowly up and down this fantastic gorge.

“I’m a leavin’ dis mohnin’…,

You’d bettah come ‘n leave wid me”

I could see in my mind’s eye this old chap playing with his scratched-up guitar, laying it flat on his knee, like a Dobro.   Could hear and see it as clear as day as I began my quiet walk along the pretty trail leading deeper and deeper into the impressive gorge beyond.  Feet tappin’ out the steady beat in shoes that had surely seen some miles in their day, the sounds echoing clearly along the tunnel’s walls.

No Starbucks along this path: zero modern amenities here!   Just an occasional river runner or adventure-seekers in rafts and the occasional vulture circling above.

TunnelTrail2
Getting a wave back as a couple of rafts drift along the swift currents of the Arkansas River heading into Canon City.

And as the sun dialed up its intensity along this peaceful scene, I wondered what this place was like in the 1920s.   Coal-fired locomotives running up and down, interrupting the sound of the Arkansas River…   What a tough life this must have been.   The scrappy, hardscrabble souls all in search of the precious ore, the promise of a golden ticket out of their daily labor.

Lord, please let me strike it rich today.

After walking two miles along the trail, I encountered a locked gate with a sign indicating that this was the end of the line; stepping past it meant trespassing on railway-owned property.   Just as well, I thought.  It was oppressively hot and I was certain that there would be no breeze coming along anytime soon in this deep canyon.

I dropped my backpack, grabbed some water as I surveyed my surroundings.  Spying a route up to a sweet overlook, my spirits lifted at the promise of some elevation gain and up I went, taking great care not to step on any Rattlers!  Boy, they sure do blend into their environment.  The route up was agonizing given the density of cacti, the loose rocks, the increasingly oppressive sun, and the threat of a lethal and sudden bite on my calf!

By the time I was up on my perch over the Arkansas, I spied a gnarly old Pinion tree under which I sat digging into my pack for my modest lunch.   At this point, I felt quite satisfied that I’d encounter no other people.  I mean, who the hell in their right mind would detour up this insane terrain in the high heat of the day?

And, after all, are not some of life’s sweet gifts best savored after a period of sustained suffering?

TunnelTrail1
Looking down on the Arkansas River from my perch in the rocks above; about 600′ up.

My old doggies soon weighed heavy on my mind and I knew I had to make my way back home, so I packed things up and headed carefully back down the steep incline to the trail by the pretty river.   A slip, an injury…  not a good idea here!

As I found myself back on friendly ground, I stopped to gaze at the folded and tortured looking rock, by some estimates, 1.7 billion years old.   I laughed quietly at how insignificant we humans are in the grand timeline.

Passing through the last of the tunnels, I swore I could hear some melodious blues being strummed as the little imaginary caboose made its way back into town… a harmonica coming to life as well.

Sweet sounds carry me back to my truck…

 

 

Fly Fishing Paradise at 11,435′

There are an estimated 80 high alpine lakes spread across the Sangre de Cristo mountains here in Colorado.   For those who enjoy solitude and, particularly, for those inclined to hike a few miles in and a couple of thousand or so feet up, there are some magnificent fishing spots that await.

I had been sending tantalizing photos to my son, Anthony, for months now, wetting his appetite for a hike up to a mountain lake to try his hand at fly fishing.   He had served our country in the Navy for four years and was looking forward to returning to civilian life and the time had finally come.

“Here.   This really belongs to you”, I said as I handed him a very high-quality, Orivs fly fishing rod that my wife had bought me for my fiftieth birthday, now eight years ago.

“Wow.   Thanks, Pops!”

“No sweat.   I’ll never find the patience to actually try my hand at it.  How about we get up to one of the lakes across the valley and you see what you can do?”, I suggested.

And so the wheels were put in motion for another great day in this off-the-beaten part of Colorado.

Yesterday’s alarm roused us at 0400 hours when we dragged ourselves to the table for a hearty breakfast prepared by my angel of a wife.

“Here you go.  Eat up.  I’m going back to bed”, said she with the qualities of a saint.

With our gear ready to go on the bench by the front door, we finished up and made our way into the darkness, only made bright by the setting Moon over the mountains to our west…  The brightening Milky Way seemingly guiding us to our trailhead across the valley.

“Ohhh, nice.   Look, Anthony!   We’re going to begin our hike going up into the fog!”, forcing one eye open as we made our way across the beautiful and undeveloped valley before the mountains, he managed a quiet grunt.

The 45 minutes that it takes for a drive up to these glorious mountains fuels the growing mood of anticipation, something almost impossible to describe in words here.

At the trailhead’s parking lot were only two other vehicles!  No crowds.  Yay!   Taking no time to gather our packs, we were off to a five mile hike up to the Goodwin Lakes, set about 2,600′ higher.   As we made our way up, we spied a couple of young bucks frolicking in the woods by our trail as the thick fog began to obscure the tips of the grand evergreens all around us.

“Pops.   Is this what the Black Forest looked like when you were in Germany?”

“Yup.”

Fishing1
The early part of the trail before the spur leading to the lake, higher up.

Over the bridge and onto the Rainbow Trail we hiked, not a human made sound to be heard.   By the pace Anthony was keeping, I knew I’d be left behind; no problem.  About halfway up, we came upon an open meadow and a meandering stream fed by the upper lakes.

“Hold on.   I want to take a look.”, my son said quietly as he ventured through the tall, still-wet grasses to inspect the creek for fish.

“Nice!   We’ll have trout up the lake, Pops!  I see plenty here!”, came the report back and just as suddenly, the collective mood spiked, forcing uncontrolled grins on our faces!

 

Fishing2
A pretty, open meadow about halfway up the trail to the upper lakes. The thick fog muted any sounds…save for the creek running nicely that early morning.

 

And up and up we went until finally, at around 0830, we found ourselves at the lake!

Reward for the two-and-a-half hours of slogging up a long trail!

Fishing4
Wildflowers welcome us to the shore of the lower Goodwin Lake… not another soul around!

It was particularly cold and windy that morning as we crested the trail and descended to a nice, grassy spot by the south side of the lake.   The tall grasses were swaying with each burst of wind, with the surrounding peaks being lit with the morning rays making for an astounding setting, one that people relying of guides would pay a small fortune to see.  Quickly, Anthony dropped his pack, ate a sandwich, and made his way to the shore with his rod.

“Got one!”, came the happy cry within about five minutes.

“Nice!   Let’s see!”, as I made my way along the rock-strewn and muddy shoreline.

“Ahh, momma’s gonna be very pleased.   Just a couple more, and we got our quota for dinner”, I said retunring to my spot farther down the shore.

“I’m going to switch to the fly rod, Pops.”

“Ok.  Have fun.  We’re in no rush.  You take your time.”

A bit restless, not being a fisherman of any type, I decided to climb up above the lake to get a better view the surrounding environment.

Fishing3
Anthony at one with his environment, Eureka Mountain (Elevation 13,507′) visible in the background under clouds; 2,072′ higher than the lake.  Before switching to his Fly Rod.

Surveying the terrain above the lake, I began to appreciate the objective hazards posed by attempting a climb over steep talus, and so settled in about 400′ for a sweet perch above this high alpine lake Paradise, watching my son fishing.

The waters were so clear from above, that I could see movement in the waters around where Anthony was casting his flies.   Thinking back to when he was two, I remember putting a simple, kid’s rod in his tiny pudgy hands at a similar lake in West Virginia…  21 years later, he had come into this in a very natural and calm way.  Good to see.

As I sat there that morning, I reflected on my good fortune to be here with my son in this incredible setting.   Gratitude for this gift of another day.

Fishing7
Lower Goodwin Lake from the talus field, above. Anthony out of sight somewhere along the lake’s shore…

So easy is it for us humans to become distracted with unimportant things in our modern world, so important to block it all out, if only for a day so that we can reconnect with what makes us feel great about being alive…

Later, when back at the trailhead parking lot, we deployed our comfortable camping chairs, opened up the small cooler, switched out the tasty trout for our beers.

“Cheers, Anthony!   Well done!”

“Thanks, Pops”

Sitting there, we both thought back on a perfect morning spent in Paradise, thankful to have found a way to do this at all.

Live to work… or work to live?

Lunch Among the Boulders at 14,423′

The voice inside your head asks…   “Are you a Man or a Mouse?”   And it continues to dog you, shaming you to step up and answer truthfully until you can bear it no longer.

“Psst, buddy.   Hey, you goin’ to your grave without ‘adventuring’?   Gonna play it safe here on out, are you?”

The sorry truth be told, like millions around me, I’d followed the predictable script laid in front of me by family and my immediate social circle:  education, professional job, marriage, 2.4 kids, an oppressive mortgage…

How on earth do we ever train our minds to accept a 1.5 hour commute in eight lanes of traffic?  Starched, white shirts, expensive ties, a stuffy suit, a pretentious European car.   Why, yes, I sure looked the part and I was “unique”, all right, just like the thousands of other poor souls with blank looks all around me crawling at five m.p.h. towards our respective offices…   robots mindlessly obeying society’s commands.

It was one summer day in 1996, with my sunroof open, that I spotted an ultralight craft flying about 400′ or so feet above me, while stopped in traffic.   The smart-ass was flying above us, following the contour of the road.

And perhaps that’s when it hit me hard… “How can I do this for another 20 years?”

Fast-forward to 20 July 2018:  1,800 miles West, 9,820′ higher up, 1.6 (dirt) lanes as I approach the North Cottonwood Trailhead and the parking lot is filled with US Forest Service and Colorado Fouteener Initiative vehicles.   Yup, a crew of eager men and women in their early 20s have arrived to do incredibly challenging work repairing, redirecting, and building trails up to about 13,800′.  God bless ’em.  I had spent nine days building trails here in Colorado over the past three years, but the work they were gearing up to do above tree line was far more difficult.

Respect.

Having awoken at 0300, downed coffee and a hearty breakfast, I’d made my way north to the town of Buena Vista, hung a left on CR350 as the sun was just making it’s way above the mountain ridges in my rear view.

Anticipation grew as I began to visualize my day’s adventure.   The Collegiate Peaks, named after some of our nation’s more famous universities, rose in front of me like slowly waking giants looking down on my truck.

“Come on old guy, let’s see if you can muster the energy to stand on one of our heads…”

Transitioning from paved to dirt roads signals that the trailhead is nearing quickly and that, regardless of how far up I find myself today, this new day granted me by God shall not be squandered; grateful I was that I’d have another chance to walk up high into another mountain paradise.

With numerous peaks climbed over the past three years, the drill is now committed to muscle/mental memory.   Parked at 0612 and over the first bridge by 0625; no wasted motion, no second guessing.   Today’s challenge was going to require almost 4,700′ of elevation gain and 14 miles of hiking (roundtrip).   By now, I knew what I was in for and settled in to a sustainable (slow) pace.  Go too fast, hit the wall and falter.   No race, enjoy your surroundings.   The young and restless will pass you, driven by “best times”.   Not my game.   Saunter, behold, relish the beauty all around.   Why ever rush?  Did that for years in the corporate world.

Driven on by the promise of a spectacular valley, one that I had not yet discovered, propelled me on to hike up, leaving the remaining trees behind me, the large swollen creek down by the parking lot now but a small trickle as the sun lights up the craggy wall to my left.

I’m all alone for the moment, save for the sound of a gentle breeze and the awakening birds in the high alpine.

Stopping for a break at around 12,600′, hydrating and eating my energy bar, I pulled out my small spotting scope and saw only two other climbers ahead of me on trail, higher up.  Looking down, I saw no others!   This is what brings good energy into this old mountaineer’s bones… solitude in a spectacular and almost untouched alpine setting early in the morning!

Harvard1
Nearing tree line, with summer flowers in full bloom!  Mount Harvard just coming into view.    (top-left of photo)

 

Harvard3
The morning light reveals the grandeur of the world high above tree line. Mount Harvard now closer in view, behind the prominent peak in the foreground.

As I neared the high ridge before the summit, I dropped my pack and took another decent break as I surveyed the last few hundred feet to the summit.   Being a very conservative climber, I calmly scanned the remaining terrain for a reasonable route through the exposed boulders.

“Ok.  There it is.  That’s how I’ll get up.”

Experience has taught me never to rely on climbers higher up to show one the way.  Sometimes it is the proper way for me, but other times, it is not.   Had I followed the younger climber directly up from me, I would have found myself upon a very exposed, Class3 route on the spine when another, less taxing route lay to the right.

Yet, the smooth boulders with the narrow ledge leading up to the last 60′ was anything but calming!

Finally, after five hours of climbing, I was on the summit of Mount Harvard, deep inside the Colorado Rockies, with another glorious view of the world below!   The two young chaps at the summit were pleasant company as we discussed our day’s experience.

vert_angle_deg=-15.5 / horiz_angle_deg=-2.4
Peering South, with Bear Lake (elevation: 12,374′) visible from the summit of Mount Harvard, utilizing an iPhone app (Theodolite) that records certain position data at the top-left of a photo taken.

… in the back of my tired brain was the thought of negotiating the down-climb from the summit to the safer saddle below.   But, best not to let unsettling thoughts creep in too much, eh?

After savoring the hard-won views for a few precious moments, I headed down a couple of hundred feet, past the upper crux, onto safer ground, unpacked my lunch and simply enjoyed the warmth of the large rock on which I sat, as I beheld the infinite views of the world below!

How does life get any better than this?

And just who was that smart-ass in the ultralight airplane so many years ago, taunting all of us who were involuntarily stuck in that hellish traffic?   A messenger of sorts, perhaps?

 

 

 

No Rest for Old Mountaineers

The iPhone vibrated against my ribcage at an uncivilized 0500 hours on “Day 2” of our mountain adventure.   Somehow, it was a TedTalk from a couple of years ago on the subject of activation energy that infused a bolt of temporary vigor and willpower to get me to leave my cozy and almost warm sleeping bag to start our day’s adventure.

My good friend, Paul and I had driven over five hours two nights ago to arrive at a remote campsite in another high alpine valley, in fact just a  kind of flat spot next to a pull-off by a gnarly forest road at around 11,400′ to begin our weekend of “fun” with the goal of climbing two mountains.

We’d climbed a mountain in the same range the day before and now hoping our aging bodies would recover mercifully to allow for today’s hike up Uncompahgre Peak at 14,309′ (4,365m) the tallest mountain in this region and the 6th highest of the Colorado 14ers (regional parlance to describe mountains that rise in excess of 14,000′).   Having carefully examined the route on Google Earth before our departure, it seemed quite benign; almost a casual stroll in the Highlands, if you will.

But the very nature of the word, adventure, reminds us to keep a wary eye for the unexpected.   Would it come in the way of a flat tire on a steep, unpaved and deeply rutted and rocky US Forest Service road leading up to the trailhead, personal injury, or in the need to assist in helping a fellow hiker return safely down?   Never can predict.

And, once again, the cruel cycle repeats…

  •  Recover from last hike and forget the pain, close call(s), discomfort,
  • Feel a growing agitation,
  • Locate source of agitation (or not),
  • Leave impulsively for the mountains to climb again…   repeat (i.e., lesson not learned and no hope of ever learning it!)

Oh, the human mind…  you unpredictable thing!

Signing in to the kiosk that early morning and seeing hundreds of names in the register from earlier in the year, anticipation grew as we once again set foot on brand-new trail.   The weather was just right as we ascended into the higher plateaus and… soon, there she was, in full splendor; Uncompahgre Peak beckoning us, rising a good 2,500′ from where we stood.

No need for scheduled breaks for it seemed that every few minutes, we’d see another angle, a changed light, and another chance to capture this wonderful spot on Earth.

View down from the summit looking down to the trail that led up here.

Up we went to find climbers returning from sun-rise ascents, Marmots eyeing us quizzically like natives in the Peruvian Andes, tents grouped upon magnificent perches with dizzyingly stunning views of the peaks beyond, and fellow hikers way up on the mountain making their way to the summit.

And up we went with anticipation of expanding views to the valleys below.

Hiking down, savoring views missed from behind!

Stopping for a much-needed break at around 13,500′, we spied the approaching group of three climbing up at a brisk pace,

“Looks like the trail runners we saw yesterday, eh Paul?”, I remarked.   The young ladies had literally been running up and down valleys that day.

“Oh to be young again…”

“Yeah”

… except as the three passed us, the husband trailing behind stopped to chat.  They were in their mid-seventies with bodies of 20 year olds!   His wife and her girlfriend were in the process of bagging their 41st 14er and for her 70th birthday, he had surprised her with a planned  through-hike of the entire length of the Colorado Trail (486 miles with about 88,000′ of elevation gain and loss).  What a “gift”.

The old chap knew very well the effect this comment would have on us…

Mindset, reasonably healthy respect for our bodies, and a will to push through imaginary barriers largely created by society’s relentless efforts to numb us down… (nice try) and the world’s adventures await you as well.

Why, maybe in 15 years, I’ll be the 72 year old with some funny stories to share with fellow hikers…    or with some luck in 30 or, hell,  why set timid goals …in 45.   Why not?

Inspirations…

Sipping wine late into the evening, I watch the sun set behind the wonderful Sangre de Cristo mountains across the valley on this still night and wonder what my mother, a true Austrian alpinist would have thought of what my wife and I have pulled off.   My gaze drifts over to the Austrian Pine that we had planted in her honor and know that in a hundred years, others will sit here and have their own thoughts … when the young tree then towers majestically in their presence.

We don’t have forever to get in our groove in life, do we.   Best if we find a way to forgive ourselves and others and quietly move in the direction of that soulful piano player in the distance calling us to smile, dance a little, and savor our existence on this planet of ours.

Looking at these ancient photos of mom and her friends roped up high in the Alps, I’ve got to believe that these were some of her best moments; precious and uninhibited moments disconnected from the travails of humanity and its fabricated problems… a place where the views grow to farther horizons with each step up.

These shots were taken about 65 years ago, but nothing much changes on the looks of those who find themselves high up in the mountains.   The grins are all the same, the elegant and stylish clothes a little different, ok.

 

So, intuitively, we understand that we stand at a crossroads in life and the choice is ours, really; do we squander our gift of time with distraction, or… do we say “screw that” and find what makes us come alive!   The choice is ours.

When my mother died in my arms in our home that summer of 2006, she passed on to us her torch to live life to it’s extreme potential, without harm to self, to others, or to our planet.  The people she touched along the way… all felt a piece of that energy as well.  She had inspired many, many who would call me over the coming weeks to tell me how she touched their lives.

Yes, indeed.  I hear the distant music playing its soulful tune and the call is clear; waste not a minute of the time you have left.   Find and reconnect with old friends, make new ones, and go out and spread some inspiration of your own.

Tomorrow, my wife and I will take a short drive across this wonderful valley to hike at our leisure, the Rainbow Trail; what a delightful name for a trail, yes?   Later, this weekend, I pick up my good friend Paul for what promises to be another epic hike up to a remote mountaintop in the San Juan Mountains (Uncompahgre Peak) smiling on the way up, giddy at the top, and possibly skipping with delight on the way down.

It’s a great life…   Why not be an inspiration to others along life’s Grand Journey?

Cheers

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!