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!


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.

Erasing History – The Yom Kippur War

When you are a 15 year old kid (1975) and desperate to record your ‘fine’ rock and roll music, you hunt through your dad’s stuff, find a cassette tape (remember those?) and of course, tape over the existing recording…   except that, what was on that tape was far more interesting than the horrid, out-of-tune rendition of Honky Tonk Woman that followed.

34 years later, as my driver followed the Jordan Valley Highway south to drop me off for the tour of Jesus’ baptismal site, I thought back to that fateful day when I wiped out some interesting history on tape.

I wasn’t close to the old boy, but I can’t deny that he had a great go at life.   As a US diplomat stationed in Ankara (Turkey), he’d be called on to handle various assignments; one of which was to assist Henry Kissinger in his shuttle diplomacy during the early 1970s.  On one such assignment, during the Yom Kippur War, he found himself shuttling between Syria and Israel, the details of which I found in his journals and I’d rather not share.  But the tape he brought back of his time with the Israeli Army was surely fascinating.

While that conflict raged on, he found himself inside a mountain bunker with US and Israeli military officers and NCOs while the Syrians were hurling artillery and vectoring closer to their hardened site.   And as the incoming barrage intensified, one could clearly hear the tenor of voices, the back and forth over radio, and most of all the increasingly terrified voice of the civilians inside; my dad, included, though I could tell he was working hard to be brave.

I can still see, in my mind’s eye, the day my dad came into my room and asked, “have you seen my cassette?” and of course, seeing it on my desk, his heart sinking as he realized that I had taped over a good portion of his prized piece of history.  To his credit, he never lost his cool.  He just laughed, walked out, and closed the door behind him.

Cresting the rolling mountains overlooking the Dead Sea, passing Jordanian military check posts every few kilometers, I thought back to those earlier years and wondered what the old boy really did see in the desert so long ago.

My driver dropped me off under what looked like a crude, bedouin tent with the deuce and a half parked next to it (military truck w/canvas top).   There were a few other tourists assembled and we all hopped into the back of the truck for our visit to The Jordan River Baptismal Site of Jesus Christ.   It was a fascinating walk to the famous river, the Israeli flag snapping in the wind across the way under the unrelenting high sun.   Surreal, in a way.

Sitting on a rock by the site, random thoughts coursed through my mind that afternoon.   If only my devoutly catholic grandmother and great-grandmother could have joined me on this pilgrimage; though, I swore I felt their presence…

Making Contact with the Very Large Array, New Mexico

My mind was still processing the four days I had experienced participating in the Bataan Memorial Death March at the U.S. Army White Sands Missile Range with 7,199 others when I spied the large sign for the Very Large Array (VLA) traveling north on I-25 in southern New Mexico.   I almost rammed the unsuspecting car to my right as I made desperate haste to the exit.   Like many others, I’d first learned of this incredible place watching the movie, Contact (1997) starring Jodie Foster but had thought little of it since.

Once off of the highway, I realized that to get there from the town of Socorro, I’d have to drive another 50 miles each way!   Geez, I was so wasted from the 26.2 mile run/walk in the hot New Mexico desert the day before that to add this detour would make for a very, very long day, indeed.   Yet, there are times in life, I’ve found, that cool stuff simply can’t always wait until it is convenient.

On the way to the VLA with a sign “just to remind”…

It was about 8:15 in the morning as the early rays raked over the arid landscape and though my wife and I live in a similarly desolate landscape farther north in Colorado, I could already tell that this area was far more remote.   Like many places in the southwest in the US, the two lane road through these grasslands was lined with tired and forgotten structures that had once been filled with life.

Over the years of traveling around this world, I’ve come to appreciate and savor the beauty that exists in all types of landscapes.   Here, the prairie grasses were still a light brown waiting to green up in the later spring, providing a calming and visually pleasing offset to the dark brown rock formations of the faraway mountains ringing this altiplano.  The two lane road undulated up and down and disappeared through the heat of the day as I began to feel a bit vulnerable.  It almost felt as though I were driving on a vast sea, the oncoming stripes in the center of the road lulling me into a sort of trance.

Through the last town then, and the final stretch lay before me.   I’d be making the left turn south in about 20 minutes but way before that, the magnificent array of large antennae were just making their first appearance.   My God, what an unexpected bonus to this four day expedition and the anticipation grew as I neared the site.

VLA array, tightly grouped during my visit. As seen from the approaching road.

Nothing else around.  “No Service” on my cell phone.  It all appeared like a desert mirage… had I wandered into the Twilight Zone?

And like all things in wide open spaces in big sky country, scale and proportion are always underestimated.   The seemingly tiny array would still require another ten minutes of driving before the final turn into the complex.

But as I’ve come to learn, some of the most interesting and worthwhile sites require time and distance to get to.  So programmed are we in the modern age to demand things immediately, the ones who make the commitment are typically rewarded with small to non-existent crowds and magnificent treasures to behold.   This was one of them.

Tracks that allow the dishes to be moved up to 13 miles out from the center.

At a bit after nine in the morning, on this perfectly still day, there was only one other visitor; a fellow Bataan marcher as it turned out!   We gave each other our space after exchanging pleasantries as we wandered out onto the site under the massive antennae.   Each stands 90 feet tall with dishes measuring 80 feet wide.   And as the Gods smiled down upon us, they instructed the scientist to reposition the 27 dishes to a new angle … and the white giants all simultaneously moved.  I’d never seen anything like this.

The two of us stood motionless as little children would, in perfect awe – thoughts of the genius minds who conceived of this and those whose determination pushed such a grand project forward to completion back in the late 1970s.

Stacks of railroad ties used in constructing and maintaining the 40+ miles of tracks.

The Y-shaped array of the train tracks allows the scientists and researchers to reposition the dishes out 13 miles from the center, providing varying degrees of resolution on the radio spectrum; fascinating.    And, in concert with the Hubble Telescope’s capacity for visual and infrared imagery, the combined effect is for deep space imagery that it truly beyond comprehension for this tiny mind.

Photo from video referenced, below.
One of the dishes is always being serviced. This image was taken from a video, referenced in the link below.

I bade my fellow Bataan marcher a farewell and drove the 50 miles back to the highway, looking back periodically at the mirage in the desert.   How interesting to pause for a time to reflect on this incredible mission.   Someday, I suspect, we shall discover something out there that will significantly alter the way we see our endless Universe; placing our petty, man-made squabbles in their proper little box, God Willing…

I swore that I heard Jodie’s voice somewhere.

[Click on:  Very Large Array for a brilliantly-produced video tour.]

An Unexpected Detour to the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site – South Dakota (Nov’09)

Journey enough, and you’ll likely come upon the occasional surprise along the way.   The cross-country odyssey I had embarked on, across Rt. 90 on my way to Mt. Hood, Oregon featured numerous stops along the way such as Devil’s Tower, the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument and other treasures.   What I had not anticipated was a place commemorating the technology that could be used to annihilate the human race.

Bouncing along in my fully-loaded Jeep Wrangler, I spied the signs for it a few miles before the turnoff and it had me trying to visualize what the ranchers in this remote area would have seen had we ever launched our missiles…

A peaceful landscape of undulating and rolling grassy fields would have suddenly come alive as a thousand missiles rose from their bunkers; an absolutely frightful site, as they would then await the incoming counterstrike from the then-USSR.   Simply surreal.

Looked like I had just a few minutes before the place closed.   I knew I’d not be able to get a tour of the bunker, but it was still worth a detour and so I went.   Poor ranger.   It was mid-November and I likely woke the poor guy up!   No other visitors there.

Screen Shot 2017-03-10 at 3.07.14 PM

It was an interesting few minutes and when I left the trailer, I gazed out to the enclosed site where the decommissioned facility lay.   At the height of the Cold War, there were 1,000 of these sites; now, there are about 450.   I can only imagine how lonely such a posting must be and the mindset it must take to take on such a responsibility.

Let us pray that mankind continues to appreciate the implications of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD).

Returning my my overloaded Jeep, I made my way back onto westbound Rt. 90 and my thoughts wandered to my youth, to the five years spent living behind the Iron Curtain.

13 years prior, while inspecting the Krunichev Rocket Facility on the outskirts of Moscow, the USAF Colonel on tour with me leaned over and whispered, “I was in Nuclear Targeting at the Pentagon and this was one of our targets.”

Yikes…   Maybe this is why I now live in a very remote part of Colorado.

[Photos from the NPS multimedia, public domain]

Befriending a Polish WW2 Ace (Warsaw, 1971)

Józefa Mianowskiego 16, Warsaw.   Searching through an old, beat up footlocker, I found the old address rubber stamp with its ink pad now dry for many years.   The ancient memories now came flooding back and for some unexplainable reason, I thought of the day I met my bigger-than-life friend, a true fighter pilot ace from the early days of World War Two.  It was a chance encounter, one made possible by the kindness of a passerby.

I loved the Poles.  It was something in their undying spirit, their ability to suffer and to come back to life; maybe a learned, fatalistic view, one fortified by centuries of war and of shifting political boundaries; The Germans to the West, the Russians to the East – surely not an easy place to call home.

I was about ten when I met my Ace.   My younger brother and I had been given Polish bicycles in the days before iPhones, the Internet, and Cable TV… and how fortunate we were to be so deprived!   In fact, the little 10″ black and white TV rarely came on.  You see, there was only one channel back in 1970 and it only broadcast between three and eight, or something like that, and let’s not even talk about the quality of the reception!

So we were always outside doing something and the day my bike broke, I slumped down to sit by the road, the chain off the thing, dangling when a kindly, older woman came up to me and placed her hand on my shoulder.   I looked up to see a genuine smile of concern when she placed her purse on the ground to sit with me.   Reaching into it, she tore off a scrap piece of paper from her journal and wrote down the address and name of an older man who might be of use.   Motioning down the curved street, she made a gesture to the building’s location.

Screen Shot 2017-03-07 at 7.22.38 AM

Certainly not fluent, I spoke enough Polish to make sense of the kind lady’s directions and so I thanked her and began to walk down the old street.   In this magic age of Google, I see that my old home has had a tremendous facelift, for almost all of the buildings that survived the war had been hastily patched, leaving the bullet holes around the windows and doors still visible under the mortar.  There’s a wonderful photo of my mother standing on that balcony (left; 2nd floor; photo above).

The chain kept wrapping around the gears, making the short walk quite difficult.   But something in the woman’s way left me feeling hopeful and so I continued until I found the building and number.   It must have been one of these (photo below) and there, after 46 years, the bullet holes remain (upper, center of photo, below).   I see that there are now modern shops at street level, something I know did not exist back in the day.

Screen Shot 2017-03-07 at 7.23.33 AM

Approaching the entry, I grabbed the handle to the massive, ornately carved wooden door that opened into the sad and dilapidated foyer, lit only by a dangling, exposed light bulb from what was at one time an elegant chandelier.   The old building now housed many more families than it had before the war as evidenced from the rudely inserted bank of mailboxes into the fine, wooden paneling.   And over there was the door to the basement, as the lady had told me to find.

Down the stairs I went, again lit crudely by a lone light bulb in the lower level.   The smell of the soft, brown coal dust was in the air of the dimly lit room.   Looking left, I could make out the small, sooty windows and the large pile of coal by the furnace… and there he was, watching the ten year old kid struggling down the steps with his bike, the dangling chain hitting each tread as I descended.

Before I could come to the last step, the gentle looking man had met me half way to take the bike, motioning me to sit a spell at the old worktable.   There were other bikes in various stages of repair and he placed mine next to them.  Somehow, we had no problem communicating and in his way made me feel relaxed and welcome and so we talked.

“You are from America, yes?”

“Yes sir, I am.  And you speak English?”

“I do, but not well.”   Studying me, he relaxed into his simple, wooden chair hesitating for just a minute before he pointed up to the wall over the work table.  As I slowly looked up, I could not believe my eyes for on the wall was a collection of dusty black and white photos of the man’s days in the Royal Air Force.   It was a marvelous collection of old photographs, undoubtedly of his comrades, many of whom would have given their lives to the cause.

He stood up and pointed to the one photo in the center, the one of a young aviator wearing a parachute on the front side, standing proudly by the old Spitfire.

“This.   This is me.   I flew with the RAF.”, placing his open hand to his heart.  The man, my age now come to think of it, looked wistfully at the image and turned back to what had to be a kid in awe.   Who can say how long I visited with my new hero-friend.  It is a memory that I’ll keep to my dying day.   What an incredible moment in time.

Why I never thought to make more visits to the Ace, now a janitor in charge of keeping the old building warm in the winter months, I will never know.  The distractions of youth, I suppose, and I know now that the old chap would have understood.

Funny who the people are that we meet along the way.   Many, as I have come to learn, are the plain looking quiet ones, you know, the ones with the great big stories to tell if only we slow down a bit to sit and visit a spell.


[Main photo; from blog post:  Polish Greatness}