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.

 

Taking the Back Road Home

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Healing in Nature

37°45’12.03″ N   105°32’06.39″  W   –   Elevation:  8,576′

The naturalist, John Muir, told of the wonders of nature and the magic that happens when we simply take a long, deep walk into it.   Ever watch the expression of a child on a trail…?

Somewhere along the way, we’ve become distracted, anxious, and worried when the simple way is right in front of us in plain sight.  Somehow, the grip of the screen turns us away from a much larger and far more inspiring one:  nature.

Whether it’s a kayak ride along the Intracoastal waters in Florida, a gentle hike up to Cadillac Mountain in Acadia Park in Maine, or an extended mountaineering expedition to South America, the world is waiting for you.

And a wonderful thing happens when you wander into nature, your soul begins to smile and as corny as it sounds, you begin to hear the birds and the gentle winds through the trees and you realize that you are free, at least for today.

Along the trails are others.   Others who have found the way.   Others who are re-learning the joy of simple discovery once again.

No screens.   “No service”   And that’s just fine.

Walking up the sand dunes that day, I found myself all alone in this grand space, save for just one other hiker.   Each step up required a calmness, lest you sink back down; itself a call to surrender to the moment.

Up over the surrounding valley, about 750 feet of sand below me, I unpacked my lunch and took in the glorious views… all alone but certainly not lonely.

Was that John coming over to visit for a spell?

The old Scotsman smiled as he looked down at me, put his hand on my shoulder and whispered…”Is it not a most beautiful morning?”

 

 

 

 

Slowly up and into the clouds

39°21’05.87″  N   106°06’40.93″  W   –   Elevation:  14,282′

What is the allure of the high mountains?   Why, at 57, do I still climb?  Maybe, these are questions better left unanswered…

The iPhone vibrates at 0400 hours and the time comes to move in the dark to grab my food, gear, and keys for the two-hour drive north to climb another 14er (in Colorado mountaineering parlance; a peak that rises above 14,000′).  It’s a growing obsession that I can’t seem to shake and a mysterious force pushes me from behind.

Quietly I go about the house trying not to wake my large, hairy dogs or step on a cat.   Like a clumsy burglar, I try not to wake my wife as I make my way to the front door.

“Did you remember your sandwich?”, comes the sleepy voice from through the dark entry the second I grab the door handle.

“Yes.  Thanks.  Got everything.   Go back to sleep.  I’ll text you when I get to the trailhead.”

It had been 10 years since we bought the land in this remote part of Colorado and as far as lifestyle changes go, I can’t think of anything more radical than moving from a run-of-the-mill suburban setting out East to where we are now, at 8,000′.   It’s one thing to rent a cabin for a week, but to actually live here year-round?   Hardly anyone we told understood…

“But there are no evening lights out here!?”

Exactly.  The Milky Way does that and it was still out in full force when I made my way to my truck in the pre-dawn hours that morning.

It was a long drive to get to Kite Lake and the trailhead to Mt. Lincoln.   First down about 3,200′ into the gorge where the Arkansas River flows, past herds of Bighorn Sheep, then up to the high plateau I drove.   Past the large herds of Buffalo by 11 Mile Reservoir and onto truly desolate open, grasslands, the early rays starting to light up the surrounding landscapes.   40 miles away, the early sun’s rays graze the tips of Collegiate Peaks, a glorious wilderness I had explored the year before.

Sipping the last of my coffee as I entered the town of Alma, I knew I was getting close now. The town was just an odd collection of late 19th century structures left over from the early days, with the occasional log structure set in-between.   I missed my turn only to realize that someone had removed the sign.   Really?  Then it occurred to me that the small, ramshackle homes with their jacked-up Jeeps and big-tired trucks likely housed young families and that they had probably grown tired of the big city yahoos tearing through their little street on their way to the mountains.

With the last of the little homes in my rear view, I was all alone on the deeply rutted forest road when nature’s call could wait no more.   Quickly, I ducked past the second row of trees, now freezing in odd places here up at around 11,000′!  Quickly, I must complete my business before I am found out…   Sweet relief and back into the warm truck I go.

Past the mountain shacks, past the off-grid self-built homes, past the old mine structures and the mounds of tailings, and up the switchbacks I went.   Time to shift to “4-low”, let the doubled RPMs do their thang.   Then, still about two miles from the main area, cars are parking, those who can’t or won’t test their skills in the now deeply potholed and rutted dirt and gravel roads leading to the top.   No guard rails and the ice begins to appear, dialing up the pucker factor for the uninitiated.   Past the line of cars with their city tires I drove, making my way ever higher!

The wondrously grand mountains were calling me to come closer, closer…   but the crux remained just ahead, a crazy maze of washouts zigzagging in irregular patterns across the steep section of road.   Now it was clear why the others turned around.   But I could begin to see that there were those by the lake who made it.

What the hell.   No time to shrink from adventure.   Just follow the fresh tracks, mentally “shift down” into a trance, and just do it.

What had my son’s pirate t-shirt read…  “Without Fear There is no Courage” and so it was one of those times to man up.

Kite Lake is nestled in a pretty mountain cirque, a circular wall of mountains like a giant, cupped hand.   Weather was iffy here at 12,000′   Looked like the ceiling was about another 1,000′ up, totally obscuring the peaks within a few minutes of arriving.   The sun was gone and the chill was here.  Felt as though I had been beamed over to the Lakes District in the UK, it was a fantastically barren, rocky and grassy landscape.  Just right.   Couldn’t wait to hit the trail!

“Slower and colder than you think is natural.”, rang the wise words of the mountaineers.   Always slow, lest you fight the mountain.  The heat comes within a few minutes.  I knew this now after years of fumbling my way to competency.

“On your left!”, the eager young voices call from behind.   I don’t mind being the old dog.   It has never been a race anyway, even when I was young.   Go ahead, rush through it.  Be the first.   I really don’t care.

I knew that nothing was going to be easy on this day.  Saw the quick-moving fog make its way up the slopes, like marauding banshees hellbent on disrupting anything in their path. And examining the route, I knew that the talus field was going to be a bear to climb.   Wet and cold, unless I kept moving.  Watch out for the loose ones.

Made my way up to the summit of Mt. Democrat first, another 14er.   Ran into two climbers in their 60s and 70s operating ham radios.   Everyone has their thing, I suppose.   Savored the view before descending into the saddle at around 13,200′.  Hardly a soul was going up to Mt. Lincoln.   Did they have some weather intel I was lacking?   Likely, yes.  Screw it.   I’m going anyway.

And up I went, following just one other hiker who periodically disappeared into the upper clouds; a ghostly figure…  never stopped to rest.  Never could get close to him.  Never saw him again that day.

Then onto the knife’s edge and the winds died and it was eerily quiet as is only possible in the heavy fogs and so I was lulled into a false state of comfort as I neared the summit of the second peak.   And without warning, the raging winds picked up with their deadly cargo of hail… hailing UP!   Without my rain pants, my bottom half quickly froze and I knew I needed to get down in a hurry!  No time to brew some hot tea.  Oh, this sucks.

“Hi there!   Called out the young couple heading up.   “Are we close?”

“Yeah.   Not far”, I chattered in response.   “You guys sure you want to do this?”

“No sweat.  We’re good.”, and off they quickly disappeared around the bend.

Without my micro spikes for my boots, I now faced the real danger of ice building up on the foot-squared rocks that made up the talus field below.   One sudden, false move, and things would change for me in a horrible second.

Armed with the confidence that only trial and error can provide, I made my slow descent until I was under the raging storm above.   Follow the tortoise, never the hare.

Once out of the clouds, I could see the lake down below, the grasses now glistening from the dense fog and rain.   Finally, there it is!   The start of the gentle gravel trail to the end and I’m out of the crazy talus field and all will be ok.   Looks like I’ll live another day to tell another tale…

The sun finally breaks through the clouds, warming my soaked body and I unfold my camping chair, reach into my cooler in the bed of my truck, pop open a beer with the last 2% of my energy, grab my tasty sandwich and sit a spell to take in the view by the lake.

It seems to me that the sweet moments in life always follow a bit of suffering and uncertainty.  After all, how else would we know to savor such moments?

Dozing off, I swear I hear the mountains whisper, “We’ll see you again, soon.”