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.


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.


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.


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…



All in a Day

38°38’49.53″ N   106°20’39.76″ W     –     Elevation:  12,046′

There are still places where few humans go.  And in these places, if you dare, you wander into solitude and you realize that before long, you are all alone in a glorious landscape.   Prepare to hike up far away from the last road, through frozen forests, and you will be at the shores of a remote lake.  And as the cold wind howls through you like a tortured ghost you feel alive like you have not felt in years and you are exactly where you should be at this point in time.

Most of mankind is trained to seek the opposite and this to the lone adventurer works beautifully in the grand design.  So many of the cues would direct people here and there when a lonely path exists here, in plain sight.   But in the rush of our modern ways, we brush by these quickly, hardly noticing their quiet invitation to a far more interesting world.


Photo 1:  The approach into the Collegiate Peaks from Rt. 162.

Since retiring early two years ago (at 55), I’ve impatiently waited for this chance to immerse myself into a routine of exploring these natural landscapes on foot.   So often our world passes by at 60mph when 2.6mph yields so much more of the fine detail of our surroundings.


Photo 2:  Brilliant Fall colors on roads leading to St. Elmo’s.

Traveling virtually via Google Earth, I discovered some interesting ruins (The Mary Murphy Mine) and a pretty high-alpine lake and so I went.   Leaving well before the sun rose (~ 4:30am), I drove a little over an hour up Rt. 285 until I reached my turn off to the Collegiates; what a dramatic approach!

It was overcast with the sun peeking through, intermittently.   With the fall colors in their magnificent peak, the effect was visually arresting.   Quickly, I ducked off of the main dirt road and went higher into the mountains, up scarier switchbacks.   As the early snows got deeper, the humans became fewer.   Yay.


Photo 3:  The ruins of the Mary Murphy mine.

Now up at around 10,000 feet, I thought I’d park and hike up the last six miles and 2,000′. Good call (rare, I confess).  And up I went in the thick overcast knowing that I’d pass the ghostly Mary Murphy Mines, the creek waters still green from old mine tailings and now deep into the dark and foreboding forests.

Isn’t this where Hansel and Gretel had become lost?

And higher up I hiked and now the trail was getting steeper and then the faint noise of Jeeps slowly crawling up this insane road grew louder.   Young guys in an open Wrangler.   Looked desperately cold.   Who, in their group planned this brilliant adventure?   Saw them later up at 12,000′, when the snows were blowing horizontally.   Now really unhappy, one turned to ask, chattering, “Dude, how far are you going in this weather?”   I smiled and we talked a while before they continued down the rutted downs, Jeeps bouncing along, one by one.


Photo 4:  An old mining cabin below the Mary Murphy mine.

Then two hunters in camo following each other also crawling up the rocky terrain, this time in open ATVs.   But they were experienced and properly dressed and they asked if I needed help.   “No.  I’m good.”, I responded, assuring that I was in my element.   Tough looking chaps, but with warm expressions and they disappeared up and into the thick fog.   Soon, their engines faded and I was back alone in my quiet mountain paradise, feeling alive and energized.

Then, as the last of the steep portion of the trail leveled-out, I could sense the presence of the lakes.   Obscured by dense fog, I followed the serpentine path that faded into obscurity.  There, like an infinity pool over to the valley below, the strong winds blasted up and over the lip and across the waters, white caps dancing like a whip, the lake at last revealing herself.

I was all alone.

Now I was feeling colder and knew that it was time to come down.  A couple of hours later, I found my trusty adventure vehicle and came back into civilization, turning left for a quick detour into the old mining town of St. Elmo’s.   I hoped that a large cup of hot coffee would be waiting for me at the country store on Main Street.


Photo 5:  Main Street – St. Elmo’s; an old mining town with a dwindling population.

Sitting on a log bench, I watched a little girl feeding the happy chipmunks.   The coffee and her smile warmed my core.   And just as I was getting ready to drive back home, there they came, one by one, a column of restored WWII Willies Jeeps!


Photo 6:  A fine collection of restored Willies Jeeps; parked alongside on Main Street of St. Elmo’s.

The easy thing would have been to pass the overcast day at home.   But, this was much more interesting!



“Look! They’re back.”


Just fed the last, tasty apple to the four mules by the fence when I turn around to see about 20 Mule Deer all looking up, poised all staring at me.   They visit our land a few times a week and we never get tired of having them around.  Yesterday, two came within about ten feet of my wife.

We never feed them.  Ever.

The Colorado Fish and Wildlife people estimate that about 330,000 exist in the wild here in our state.   And what an honor it is when we see them bed down for the evening within the tall grasses on our land.

Sometimes, I’m working on a woodworking project in my garage and I’ll see them approach my window or peek around one of the doors.   The little ones seem to be the most curious.  You can spot them from a distance, but only when they move.   Their funny, white butts kinda give them away!

There is a way to be careful in the tone of voice and in the movements we make, so that they don’t all run away.  And I wonder if they recognize us by now and trust that, at least here on our land, that they are safe.

Yesterday, my wife saw them just outside the dining room window and so she grabbed her SLR, sat on the rear porch in the sun next to one of our two, old Newfies, while the big herd nibbled on the grasses nearby.   She sat me down later that evening and, asked if I’d pour us a couple of glasses of wine so that she could show me the photo essay on our 60″ HD TV.  Sure beat watching the know-it-all Talking Heads…

Here is a small sampling of the photos she took:

A Brush With Death in the Austrian Alps

46°44’10.14″ N   13°26’22.67″  E   –   Elevation:  7,077′

There are experiences in life that simply tower over all others.   Such was the case that summer of 1980 in the South Austrian Alps, a period along the grand time continuum of life when Death whisked by for just a moment and then left.

Looking out my window, now 37 years later, over to the mountains here in Colorado, I sometimes think about that morning, about the time I froze in place halfway up on that 1,650 foot, north-facing, granite wall.   How did I ever power through my sheer panic that morning, I wonder? It had seemed like a small eternity as my mind shut down and I began to make peace with my impending fate.   I think back to that overwhelming feeling of sadness that had swept over me as I surrendered to the idea that this was going to be my last day.

It’s easy to take shelter within the lines, but most of us know that there’s no fun in that.   We read about the fallen mountaineer, the sailor who goes missing, or the stunt plane that crashes in the field and we acknowledge that death can find us anytime.   But the alternative?   Why, that’s death as well; just a slower and more insidious one.

Seeing the older couple in my old neighborhood each day rocking their remaining lives away on their front porch saddened me.   I wanted to walk over and show them a better way.   “Come.   Won’t you explore the trails with me? Won’t you please live before you die?”

My brother, Steve and I grew up in Eastern and Western Europe in the 1960s and 1970s, really only returning to the US when we went to college.   Moving every two to three years, we really had no home to call our own.   We lived like vagabonds.   Then out of the blue, in 1969, our Austrian mother announced to us that she had bought an old, rustic farmhouse high up in the Alps and our lives changed forever.

I can still remember the first time we drove up to the house.   As the roads got narrower and the switchbacks crazier, our spirits lifted ever higher.   Undeterred by the logging truck barreling down the steep, mountain road towards our tiny, VW bug, our stoic Viennese mother blew the horn until all we could see was the truck’s massive grill.   She had the right of way going up and she’d not back down an inch.   And so the tone was set and the locals knew there was a crazy woman in the valley.

Pavement turned to dirt on that one-and-a-half lane wide road up the mountain.   No guardrails.   And up we went until she saw the house and our otherwise reserved mother lit up.   “There!   Look up!   There it is!”   And we pressed our little faces against the window to spy a look up that steep, grassy slope to the farmhouse above.

Spellbinding.   Nothing seemed out of place in this magical, high alpine valley; immaculate structures, grazing cows with cowbells, old farmers still cutting the hay by hand with scythes.   Sure was a contrast to our current lives in still war-torn Warsaw, the old buildings scarred with bullet holes around the windows and doors.

The promise of summers here was emotionally overwhelming to us.   And as the little VW ground its way up the last few hundred meters of rough road, each jarring bump seemed to signal that we’d have a place to truly run wild and to explore.

And the summers passed, year after year, and our parents’ marriage began to fray.   Sadly, my brother and I could sense that the summer of 1980 was to be our last at our precious farmhouse.   Life was changing for us all.


Out of our kitchen window was the Staff, a mountain whose summit seemed to tower over us.   Its lines were so very pleasing and I’d gaze out and imagine the path I’d take one day to the top.   Looked like an easy route along the high ridge to the left, above the trees.   Yes…

Who knows how things come to be.   I probably mentioned this at dinner and my brother talked to Hans, the neighboring farmer’s older son who was Steve’s age and so the die was cast.

I’m older now, but my spirit is still 20.   Last year, I had a couple of 4,500’ climbing days.   Sure, the sight of my truck through the pines at the trailhead turns my legs to jello after a long day.   But I always find enough energy to stumble to my trusty camping chair, reach in for a beer, and break out some good cheese and chorizo as I bask in the warm sun recalling my grand adventures.   Last year, I went up a total of 102,542’. No rocking chair for me.   No way.

And all of this drive to live out my days in the mountains, I know, began decades ago in that wonderful valley in southern Austria.   Funny what the mind wants to remember and repeat.

Death has buzzed me a few times; close enough to feel the Grim Reaper’s wind blow past me.   But the one time he lingered was on the North Face of the Staff.


(Me and Steven, the Staff at left)

Going ultra light, the three of us hiked up in the late afternoon to Hans’ family hunting cabin on the other side of the valley, up a couple of thousand feet over our house.   With a perfect view of the wall the night before, we naturally thought it wise to finish off a complete bottle of his family’s schnapps and to see which of us could tell the most bad-assed tale that night.

Oh, the temptations to sign the Faustian Contract to, once again, regain my youthful body…but keep my wiser mind.

Something woke us up early the next morning. Dragging ourselves to the table, Hans pointed to his family’s homemade bread and speck (thick, uncooked bacon) and butter and encouraged us to dig in.   It was a simple, log cabin.   Unheated.   But nothing more was necessary.

And as we made our way down the steep, grassy hillside to the base of the mountain a lone sheepherder slowly made his way up into the same valley and past us.   Dressed in the traditional lederhosen, the old boy really looked his part.   Tipped his hat and smiled when we told him of our grand plan that day.

As we approached the base of the wall and looked up, I wondered what route Hans would find for us.   Surely he wasn’t going straight up, my head was still swimming in the schnapps from the night before.

Examining the wall, Hans turned to us and said, “Wir gehe auf diese weise.” and off we went.

The steepening grade was imperceptible at first.   Maneuvering through the boulder field and through the tall pines seemed pretty straightforward and I gave no thought to any of it.   And then things got more interesting as Hans pulled into the chimney and now the rocks, still cold and moist from the morning dew, got steeper in a hurry.   Like a mountain goat, Hans had been climbing since he was two and his movements came naturally… but increasingly, not for me.

Who knows how long we took to get about half way up.   The morning’s sun had begun to light up the valley below  as the momentum slowed while Hans stopped to find his next hold and it was then that I realized he really was taking us straight up the face!

No way…   With my brother about ten feet below, I quickly lost confidence and told him that I needed to get down quickly!

“Sorry, big brother, but the only way is up.” And it was then that I knew that this was going to be it.   They waited for me to gather my thoughts and courage and reach for the next hand and foothold, but I did not move. Shaking with complete fear, it was all I could do not to fall.   And then, as though my little brother had just waved Death away, he said, “Hold on. I see a way around.   Let me show you.”   And then it was all ok; strange, as I think about it now.

Just a nudge from a more confident voice is sometimes all it takes to press on past life’s cruxes.   Later, we find a way to pay it forward.

And up the three of us went to the summit, free soloing up a class-4 and 5 granite wall gaining a sweet momentum now to the summit, but not before I was eye-to-eye with a curled up, black viper on the final ledge! Oh, the cruel mountain gods.


(Summit!   Hans and Steven)

The Italian Alps were only about 10 miles to our south, that morning as we took in our magnificent, summit views.   I’m sure I wrestled that smartass Austrian for a couple of minutes, expressing my displeasure.   But the grins on our faces pushed the unpleasant moment behind us as we made our way down the wide- open slope to the alpine lake below.   The beers at the tavern never tasted so good.   Glory days!


(Steven.  Returning to the scene of the climb.   2004.  Route in red is approximate.)

I recently examined this route on Google Earth, just shaking my head.   Ran out an elevation profile and sat back and laughed. 84 degrees at its steepest.   No wonder I froze.

How I ever made it up that insane, big wall with zero climbing experience, I will never know.

There are plenty of walls up above tree line up in the high valleys in the mountains across the way, many with eerily similar profiles.   But I like to think that I am a wiser, old mountain goat now.   Nothing extreme left for me to prove.   Happy to leave that glory to this batch of young ones.   But don’t you write me off too soon.

Pass me up on the trails you will…, but I shall always find you at the top.


(Humboldt Peak in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, Colorado; September, 2016)

Building Trails in Colorado

38°19’26.31″ N   106°16’23.61″ W   –   Elevation:  9,936′

They say that “Beaten paths are for beaten men”… sounds true enough; however, there’s nothing quite as pleasing to this older hiker as a well-designed and maintained trail through the wilderness.

So, naturally (ok, impulsively), I signed up for a five day expedition to help other volunteers work on trails and bridges on the western slope of the Sangre de Cristo mountains in south-central Colorado.   The description of this work sounded great; we’d assemble in a campsite near the little hippy town of Crestone, then hike up to an alpine lake at around 12,000′.   Once basecamp was established, we’d survey the area and prioritize the work to be done.

Heck yeah!   Why not?   The US Forest Service would supply a mule train to transport the cooking station, supplies, and tools.   A cook would be provided as well.   Sounded like great fun…  and I eagerly clicked “register”, having long ago learned to ignore those nasty, little voices of doubt

But, darn, I was too late and the email said I’d be wait listed.   Well, gee, at least there’s great volunteer support in Colorado and that was a good thing, I suppose.

Ah, but an email came a few weeks later to inform me that cancellations had been received and that I was in!   Oh, now, it’s adventure time once again!

I wondered what the group would be like.   Would I be the oldest at 57?   Would I fit in?   … or, would my “Easterness” bleed through?   A couple of glasses of cheap wine out of my Bota Box quickly put these worries to bed.

The drive up and over the mountain pass to Crestone was just plain fun.   With each passing mile, my smile grew wider as I thanked my lucky stars that my wife and I had planned so many years ago, allowing for a clean break from the busy work world to retire at 55;   Learn to need less stuff and the big life awaits.

It was still early in the morning as I made my way down the straight road south with the mountains now to my left, rising a glorious 6,000′ over the high plateau.   So entranced in the moment, I almost missed the sign.  There, the tilted roadsign read, “Crestone 8.5 miles”   Cattle grazing on light brown grasses and the early light raking its magical rays.   The day is fresh with possibilities.

Had to stop for a rooster on Main Street, but that was ok.   I had plenty of time to make it.  Laughed.   Thought just how different this was to downtown DC.   Looked around at the funky architecture, much of it curving and colorful.   Tibetan prayer flags fluttering in the courtyard of a cafe.   Empty.   Just the rooster staring at me over the hood of my Jeep.

How would any of my old friends understand any of this?

Finally, allowed to pass and off I drive, now up dirt roads and there they are; A nice mix of old, young, private, extroverted; but all with a commitment to the outdoors.

1.22 billion mosquitos buzzing around, literally sucking us dry and now we decide on a Plan-B and nine vehicles caravan back across the open plains, through the outpost town of Saguache along Route 114 an into even more remote, arid valleys and up to the surrounding mountains (mental note to return to that place with the Willies Jeeps for sale).   Turning off and now onto dirt roads, dust kicked up as we made our way.

img_0500Finally, we all re-assembled in the parking lot by the remote trailhead and I began to appreciate that I’d probably never be here if it were not for these people and this chance.   New experiences widen the mind, eh?

Time to wait for the USFS people to arrive with their trucks and horse trailers.   So we all pulled out our camping chairs and sat a spell, getting to know each other.  Had my ears deceived me, the older gentleman to my right was 81?

Volunteers for Outdoor Colorado (VOC) has thousands of dedicated people who make sure that our trails are attended to.   And there are many other fine organizations as well; the Sierra Club comes to mind.

img_0553My pack weighed about 40 pounds.  Not too bad.   And one by one, we began the trek into the wilderness along the existing trail to our intended site about 4.5 miles away.   Encountering a quick-response fire crew heading our way, we asked if all was ok.  It was, they assured us, as they hustled on back; yellow shirts, scratched helmets, axes and all.

Past wonderful aspen groves we hiked, stopping to remove fallen trees we’d encounter along the way.   Spied the impressive gnaw-marks of some industrious beaver.   How was that big tree still standing, we all wondered?   It’s four foot base only had about three inches left!

screen-shot-2017-02-15-at-9-37-48-amWell, I could probably write an easy 10 more pages on this wonderful experience.   Probably the toughest thing I had to do, but well worth it.  The 81 year old chap never slowed down!   Humbling…  The visits by the moose as well as the evening fire drill when a bear came through our site; well, that was not mentioned in the brochure.  Bonus!

Two young girls and their grandfather had approached us as we were putting the finishing touches to the three-log bridge.

“May we cross?”, one sweet one asked

“Of course you may!   You are the first!”, and she beamed and danced to the other side.   Priceless.

Turns out that the 13 volunteers came from very different backgrounds but all with a common love for our trails and public lands.

Life would be so bland if we only did familiar things.

There’s a remaining lifetime of work for me to help with on our side of the mountains; lord knows I’ve had some close calls on some stream crossings last year!

An Elk Walks By

38°14’36.66″  N  105°05’23.97″ W   –   Elevation:  6,097′

Life sure has changed for us.   We’ve gone from living with 1,362 people per square mile to … three.   Maybe a more appropriate statistic is the number of big game per square mile, something only we humans would distract ourselves with.

It’s been almost two years now that we’ve moved from the DC area to south-central Colorado and in that time, my wife and I have seen thousands of wild animals; mule deer, elk, bear, antelope, mountain goats, bobcat, mountain lion, and bighorn sheep.  We’ve essentially stepped into a nature screensaver.

We recently spied this stately male on our weekly pilgrimage into the “big city”.  Of course, we just had to find a pull-off and grab the SLR with telephoto that now rests in the front seats between us.

The old cowboys in their ancient pickups smile at us, at our fresh eyes and we know we must look a little silly.

“Did you get it?”, I ask as though it were life and death.

“Hold on.   Let me check.   Yes.   Look.”

There’s a code out here, you know.   More often than not, we stop and put on our hazards  when the herd is nibbling the tasty grasses on the side of the roads… then comes another from behind and they stop and we go.   It’s kinda how things are out here.

No rush.   No fuss.   The animals remind us to slow down a little and see.   Just maybe, these humans can be trained after all.