Savoring the Sweet High Alpine Nectar

Like the recent Solar Eclipse, sometimes life lines up nicely and you realize that it’s ok to be content.   Lord knows there is enough out there trying to bring us down.

“Deflector shields up, Scotty!” … keep it all out, I say.  Let only the good in.

Scrolling through the thousands of iPhoto shots taken within a three hour’s radius of our house, I sometimes shake my head in disbelief.   Are we really living in this mountain paradise or will the alarm soon ring and we be brutally returned to the grindstone?

No.   This is where we are now.

Hiking up above tree line, to mountain lakes surrounded by imposing mountain walls, not a soul here to disrupt your moment, save for the occasional Marmot!   And don’t you turn your back on these furry thieves for a moment… for they WILL steal your well-earned snacks!

Sitting on the grassy slopes above the lakes on a lazy summer day, looking down hundreds of feet to the pristine mountain lakes, the sun and puffy clouds dancing, casting their playful shadows all around, and you know that life doesn’t get much sweeter than this.

Way below, a hiker and his trusty hiking doggie are making their way up… and soon they will be passing by on their way farther up the trail.

And I sometimes wonder, is this what Heaven will look like?

 

 

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.

 

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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!

 

 

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.”