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.

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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?

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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…

 

 

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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.”

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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!

 

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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!

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

 

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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.

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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?

 

 

 

Next Stop: The Summit of Missouri Mountain! (Elevation 14,067′)

How do you stay awake, after the alarm comes to life at 0300 hours?   After a couple of cups of coffee, an omelette prepared by my loving wife at 0330… why it’s all about some loud (inspirational) music blaring in the truck as I motor on out to climb another of Colorado’s famous “14ers”, 54 defined peaks in the state that rise above 14,000′.

With four bars present on my iPhone, I dial up some fiery Louisiana Blues and on comes Clarence Frogman Henry wailin’ on some tune called, “I Ain’t Got No Home”:  perfect.

So while a lonely pair of headlights makes it way along remote dirt roads to a trailhead some two hours away, I’m mentally preparing for a very long, long day.   The plan unfolds:

0300:  Wake up your sorry 58 year old butt,

0400:   Drive off for a two hour’s drive through the Colorado Rockies

0600:   Arrive at the Missouri Gulch Trailhead

1100:   Summit

1430:   Return to the Trailhead, open up cooler, savor one tasty IPA

1500:   Drive back home

1700:   Arrive back home and stumble on in to regale wife with heroic tales of mountaineering…

Yeah, plans.   At least it’s a nod to some serious and responsible planning, but things always slip.  And so, as the sun began to rise, painting the the tips of the pretty mountains surrounding me on all sides, so my mood and anticipate rose as well.   It was going to be another fully-charged, great day to be alive!

Pulling into the parking area on time, I had expected to see a good number of cars.   Most serious hikers and climbers arrive well before sunrise so that they can summit and come down before the expected early afternoon thunderstorm unleash their fury (lightning, hail, rain…) .   Missouri Mountain was my sixteenth attempt, having summited on the prior 14 of 15, the latter unsuccessful due to a nasty hail storm near the summit! (Mt. Lindsey).

 

Over the pretty bridge over the creek I went, hoping not to encounter any enterprising, toll-taking Trolls, a gateway to the upper basin on a perfect day!   From the research, I knew I’d be in for a good 10 miles (16 km) of hiking (roundtrip) with a total elevation gain of 4,712′ (~ 1,420 meters).  Barring any ugly weather or surprisingly challenging terrain, this could be reasonably done at my slow pace.

Clear Creek
Crossing Clear Creek by the parking lot.

And up I went; over the wobbly, skinny logs over the upper creek, up the steep trail, past the remnants of an old log cabin and them up onto an amazingly beautiful basin with a clear and robust creek flowing down in the middle.  Frogman Henry’s catchy, little blues tunes were still ringin’ in my old ears when I came upon another hiker, a guy originally from Louisiana stopped at a fork in the trail at around 12,600′:  Dave.

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Breaking up above tree line, with Missouri Mountain just coming into view (center).

“Hey!   Fantastic morning to be alive, ain’t it?”, I said to him enthusiastically

“Heck yeah!   But, I’m totally gassed.   Not sure I want to continue.   Climbed a 14er yesterday…”

“Oh man!  Two in two days?”

“Yeah…”

I’ve found that there are typically two types deep in the wilderness; those who really want to be left alone… and then… people like Dave and I who enjoy the surprise of finding like-minded people with stories to share along the trail.   And so, having planned to drop my pack at this point for a decent break before heading up the steep wall to the saddle above, another good 1,300′ or so on slippery scree and rock trail, I spent time to chat with Dave.

After about 10 minutes, I politely broke and told Dave that if I did not keep on truckin’, I’d be doomed… a mental thing.   He laughed and waved me on, wishing me well as I did him.

After about 10 minutes of pure “Hell on Steep Scree”, something told me to look back; and there slogging up the mountain was my new buddy for the day, Dave!   I did not want to get into his personal space so I kept on my pace up the mountain and planned for another decent break at the saddle.   Only a couple of minutes behind, Dave crested the ridge and once, again, we picked up our effortless conversation from our point about 1,300′ below in the valley!   Next stop: the Summit of Missouri Mountain!

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Summit! Ok… Dave’s sign is a few feet off. No sweat. Close enough!

“Hey… why don’t we hang together on this last 0.7 miles (1 km) to the summit.   Looks a little sketchy.”, I suggested

“Sure!”

And for the balance of the climb and the descent back down to the trailhead, we teamed up for an epic day on top of the world!   Dave told me that he was an EMS Tech and I tried to impress him with my having recently joined my county’s mountain Search and Rescue!  All good along the ridge.

On the way down was a dude in his late 50s or so, with a smile that seemed to stretch from one end of the horizon to the other.   Mental note that would serve me well later that day…

The photos included pretty much speak for themselves.   It was a fantastic day and we were mildly delirious to return to our respective vehicles in the parking lot after a long day, particularly for Dave who had bagged two 14ers in as many days!

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Dave, negotiating a Class 3 portion of the trail at the ridge line.
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Portions of the trail along the ridge (13,700′ to 14,067′) were a bit sketchy, requiring some careful placement of hands and feet.
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Back down in the valley at the approximate place where we had met earlier that day. Dave (at left) pointing back at the Fear-Factor ridge line from which we had just descended!

After crossing the bridge, I had the pleasure to meet Dave’s wife and friendly Lab, both who had climbed with him the day before.   Then, perhaps the funniest part of the day unfolded.

Sitting behind my pickup truck in the parking lot, flip-flops on instead of boots (!), one IPA going down the old gullet, a lady’s voice calls out from across the lot…

“How was your climb?”

“Uh… great!  Thanks!”

“Mind if I ask what mountain your were on?”

“Missouri”

“Did you happen to see a guy with a bushy, red beard (not her words exactly)?”

“Yeah!   I saw him!   He looked very happy to have summited!”

So we began to chat and realized that he should have been down before us.   We had not seen him along the one trail heading down and I got a little concerned… as I realize, in retrospect, so was she.

Something dogged me as I bade her farewell and drove off; a feeling that I should not have left before her husband returned.   Darn…   bad call.  Lesson learned.

Then, about six miles farther down the dirt, forest road I see him under a tree!   Without looking in my rearview mirror, I instinctively (and rather dramatically) slam on my brakes effecting a massive dust storm behind me…

“Hey there!   Your wife is waiting for you at the parking lot!”

Ha, ha, ha…   life is funny, eh?   “PJ” jumps into my truck for the ride back to the trailhead.  Turns out, we both fled Maryland for Colorado and are both now hooked on climbing!   PJ, looking very relieved, kinda looks like a more fit and outdoorsy version the bearded fella of the Grateful Dead.

I laugh all the way home, reflecting on this hilarious and satisfying day, set in a dramatic terrain filled with like-minded explorers all drawn to the beauty of this magnificent landscape.

… another day not wasted.  Check.

“I’m a lover not a fighter…”, the Louisiana Blues lyrics carry me all the way home to my loving wife.

 

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.

 

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.

High Alpine Lakes & Glorious Summits

Alas, the sand that has accumulated in the lower chamber now exceeds that of the upper, but that has only motivated me to squeeze the most of my remaining days.   And maybe, if we “adventure” more, we may in fact find ourselves scooping some of the sand back to the top!   It’s a nice thought, yes?

I returned to mountaineering ten years ago.   My mother had died recently and she reminded me of her technical climbing days in the Austrian Alps back in the late 40s and early 50s.   Carefully, we turned the pages of that treasured photo album of her youthful adventures.   I often think of her when I climb.

These day hikes to high peaks are a bit insane at this age, but so worth it in the end.   For something like this, I awake at four in the morning, grab my prepared gear, a cup of coffee, and go.   The billions of stars overhead, where I live at almost 8,000′ (2,438m) are so brilliant given the lack of light pollution, that I might almost drive without my lights.   Sometimes, I simply gaze at this in silence and wonder how gravity keeps me from drifting up into space.  Have you ever had this sensation?

Grand spaces make us feel small and temporary and restore a childlike awe and respect for our surroundings.  The big, light-filled cities have so many sensory distractions that we forget.

Here, the Sangre de Cristo mountain range rises about 6,000′ (1,828m) up from our valley floor to 14,000′ (4,267m), in a few areas.   Extreme forest roads allow us to gain access, but they require 4WD, high-clearance vehicles to properly navigate.  In some portions, the grade is 20° and driving up is assuredly not for the faint of heart.

And as the pirates exclaim… “Without fear there is no courage!”, of course, I’ve not quite learned where courage ends and stupidity begins.   Perhaps, the answer is found in the risk-reward formula?  I never pause long enough to think, because when we overthink we often don’t “do”.

So the first phase of this type of adventure is a drive up one of these roads in the dark.  Best to have a cover to the thermos.   And you turn off from the open valley and onto increasingly bumpy and rocky roads and the silhouette of the peaks is now barely visible with the early rays of the sun.  You finally meet the end and park, exit and now you are in the  thick forests and you begin to wonder who is watching your every move.  Mountain Lions are quite crafty.

Over the rushing creek, you are cold, a little tired, but you press on, knowing that soon the warm sun will light up a fabulous high alpine setting, one that will provide a surprising surge in your spirits and energy.   And you follow your headlamp faithfully until that happens.

Soon, you find ourselves above tree line, the glorious cirque (a circular formation of mountains) now suddenly alight with the early alpenglow and an unbelievable feeling washes over you, reminding you that this is all worth doing.

And up you go, now climbing the magnificent path before you and you look up and simply cannot believe your good fortune; to be alive, feeling alive, and no one else is here to disturb the moment.

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Now the mountain lakes are to your left, their waters perfectly still in the early morning, and over there… is a lone sentry on a rock outcropping; a Bighorn sheep looking down at you.   Quietly and gently, you continue your journey upwards, periodically looking down to see that the peaks that had previously towered above you are now below.  This is incredible.  Where are you getting your will to continue?

The early breezes begin, rippling the waters at the lower lake as you approach the upper one, creating moving patterns.   A waterfall connects the two and you look at the snows still remaining from the winter before.   Suddenly, more of the magnificent creatures appear out of the willows and you look up to see eight of them, all stopping to gaze at the human in their alpine valley.

Not a sound to be heard… save for a gentle breeze.

Up higher now, as the sun begins to bring light to the entire cirque, now looking down on the upper lake as you find the trail to the ridge line and you see the final 45° segment to the summit.   Up high now, you have a view over to the valleys below;  the San Luis Valley to the west, the Wet Mountain Valley to the east.

Looking up, the final push to the top comes into view and the worn trail now disappears into the large, steep boulder field, marked occasionally by a rock cairn, but you continue.   Up a few hundred feet with the sheer, north facing slope dropping off thousands of feet to your left, you do not allow yourself bad thoughts.  You know what happens if you do.

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You look up to find an older climber heading down.   Incredibly, you find that he is in his mid-70s, yet seems quite natural in this setting.  You exchange brief comments, he turns to point out the way up and you pass wishing him well; he descending and you finding the last few hundred feet to the top.   Something in the old man reassures you that you have a few more years in the high mountains.

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Finally, you find the upper rock-strewn plateau and you are so close.   There!   There it is; the high point.   Happy to drop your pack, you find a flat rock on which to sit and you take in the precious and hard-won view.   Now the upper alpine lakes are so far down below.   Not a cloud in the sky.

For a few minutes, you have this entire summit to yourself.  The two women who have tailed you up for the past three hours arrive and more pleasantries are exchanged, and you give each the quiet space; the code of the mountaineer.

The day has been a long one; 4,464′ feet of climbing (1,361m) to 14,070′ (4,289m) and 14 miles roundtrip (22.5km), but no gain without a little pain.

Way in the distance, I’m sure that I can see my wife sitting on our front porch, our old Newfies by her feet…