Lunch Among the Boulders at 14,423′

The voice inside your head asks…   “Are you a Man or a Mouse?”   And it continues to dog you, shaming you to step up and answer truthfully until you can bear it no longer.

“Psst, buddy.   Hey, you goin’ to your grave without ‘adventuring’?   Gonna play it safe here on out, are you?”

The sorry truth be told, like millions around me, I’d followed the predictable script laid in front of me by family and my immediate social circle:  education, professional job, marriage, 2.4 kids, an oppressive mortgage…

How on earth do we ever train our minds to accept a 1.5 hour commute in eight lanes of traffic?  Starched, white shirts, expensive ties, a stuffy suit, a pretentious European car.   Why, yes, I sure looked the part and I was “unique”, all right, just like the thousands of other poor souls with blank looks all around me crawling at five m.p.h. towards our respective offices…   robots mindlessly obeying society’s commands.

It was one summer day in 1996, with my sunroof open, that I spotted an ultralight craft flying about 400′ or so feet above me, while stopped in traffic.   The smart-ass was flying above us, following the contour of the road.

And perhaps that’s when it hit me hard… “How can I do this for another 20 years?”

Fast-forward to 20 July 2018:  1,800 miles West, 9,820′ higher up, 1.6 (dirt) lanes as I approach the North Cottonwood Trailhead and the parking lot is filled with US Forest Service and Colorado Fouteener Initiative vehicles.   Yup, a crew of eager men and women in their early 20s have arrived to do incredibly challenging work repairing, redirecting, and building trails up to about 13,800′.  God bless ’em.  I had spent nine days building trails here in Colorado over the past three years, but the work they were gearing up to do above tree line was far more difficult.

Respect.

Having awoken at 0300, downed coffee and a hearty breakfast, I’d made my way north to the town of Buena Vista, hung a left on CR350 as the sun was just making it’s way above the mountain ridges in my rear view.

Anticipation grew as I began to visualize my day’s adventure.   The Collegiate Peaks, named after some of our nation’s more famous universities, rose in front of me like slowly waking giants looking down on my truck.

“Come on old guy, let’s see if you can muster the energy to stand on one of our heads…”

Transitioning from paved to dirt roads signals that the trailhead is nearing quickly and that, regardless of how far up I find myself today, this new day granted me by God shall not be squandered; grateful I was that I’d have another chance to walk up high into another mountain paradise.

With numerous peaks climbed over the past three years, the drill is now committed to muscle/mental memory.   Parked at 0612 and over the first bridge by 0625; no wasted motion, no second guessing.   Today’s challenge was going to require almost 4,700′ of elevation gain and 14 miles of hiking (roundtrip).   By now, I knew what I was in for and settled in to a sustainable (slow) pace.  Go too fast, hit the wall and falter.   No race, enjoy your surroundings.   The young and restless will pass you, driven by “best times”.   Not my game.   Saunter, behold, relish the beauty all around.   Why ever rush?  Did that for years in the corporate world.

Driven on by the promise of a spectacular valley, one that I had not yet discovered, propelled me on to hike up, leaving the remaining trees behind me, the large swollen creek down by the parking lot now but a small trickle as the sun lights up the craggy wall to my left.

I’m all alone for the moment, save for the sound of a gentle breeze and the awakening birds in the high alpine.

Stopping for a break at around 12,600′, hydrating and eating my energy bar, I pulled out my small spotting scope and saw only two other climbers ahead of me on trail, higher up.  Looking down, I saw no others!   This is what brings good energy into this old mountaineer’s bones… solitude in a spectacular and almost untouched alpine setting early in the morning!

Harvard1
Nearing tree line, with summer flowers in full bloom!  Mount Harvard just coming into view.    (top-left of photo)

 

Harvard3
The morning light reveals the grandeur of the world high above tree line. Mount Harvard now closer in view, behind the prominent peak in the foreground.

As I neared the high ridge before the summit, I dropped my pack and took another decent break as I surveyed the last few hundred feet to the summit.   Being a very conservative climber, I calmly scanned the remaining terrain for a reasonable route through the exposed boulders.

“Ok.  There it is.  That’s how I’ll get up.”

Experience has taught me never to rely on climbers higher up to show one the way.  Sometimes it is the proper way for me, but other times, it is not.   Had I followed the younger climber directly up from me, I would have found myself upon a very exposed, Class3 route on the spine when another, less taxing route lay to the right.

Yet, the smooth boulders with the narrow ledge leading up to the last 60′ was anything but calming!

Finally, after five hours of climbing, I was on the summit of Mount Harvard, deep inside the Colorado Rockies, with another glorious view of the world below!   The two young chaps at the summit were pleasant company as we discussed our day’s experience.

vert_angle_deg=-15.5 / horiz_angle_deg=-2.4
Peering South, with Bear Lake (elevation: 12,374′) visible from the summit of Mount Harvard, utilizing an iPhone app (Theodolite) that records certain position data at the top-left of a photo taken.

… in the back of my tired brain was the thought of negotiating the down-climb from the summit to the safer saddle below.   But, best not to let unsettling thoughts creep in too much, eh?

After savoring the hard-won views for a few precious moments, I headed down a couple of hundred feet, past the upper crux, onto safer ground, unpacked my lunch and simply enjoyed the warmth of the large rock on which I sat, as I beheld the infinite views of the world below!

How does life get any better than this?

And just who was that smart-ass in the ultralight airplane so many years ago, taunting all of us who were involuntarily stuck in that hellish traffic?   A messenger of sorts, perhaps?

 

 

 

Advertisements

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

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

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

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

0300:  Wake up your sorry 58 year old butt,

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

0600:   Arrive at the Missouri Gulch Trailhead

1100:   Summit

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

1500:   Drive back home

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

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

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

 

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

Clear Creek
Crossing Clear Creek by the parking lot.

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

2
Breaking up above tree line, with Missouri Mountain just coming into view (center).

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

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

“Oh man!  Two in two days?”

“Yeah…”

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

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

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

3
Summit! Ok… Dave’s sign is a few feet off. No sweat. Close enough!

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

“Sure!”

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

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

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

4
Dave, negotiating a Class 3 portion of the trail at the ridge line.
7
Portions of the trail along the ridge (13,700′ to 14,067′) were a bit sketchy, requiring some careful placement of hands and feet.
8
Back down in the valley at the approximate place where we had met earlier that day. Dave (at left) pointing back at the Fear-Factor ridge line from which we had just descended!

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

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

“How was your climb?”

“Uh… great!  Thanks!”

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

“Missouri”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

… another day not wasted.  Check.

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

 

Good Karma Way up High

Why not see what is possible in our short lives…?  I’ve found that some of the great pleasures of discovery await only when we quietly slip away from the noise and make our way into wilderness.

Upper South Colony Lake
Early morning rays light up the grand headwall of Crestone Peak.

I’d been climbing up into the Sangre de Cristo mountain range for a couple of years now, ever since retiring early to Colorado from the Washington, DC area.   Thankin’ me lucky stars that I’d thought to spend the time to craft a simple plan to break free before we were too old to enjoy our freedom!

And so here now was a chance to return the good Karma that I’d felt when I had gone down to climb in Ecuador shortly after my mother’s death.   Reminded me how fleeting life was…   Ten years had passed since I had seen Roger.   He had led our small group of eager mountaineers for a glorious tour of some of Ecuador’s high volcanos, some of which we managed to summit.   Now, it was my turn to repay that favor!

Joe and Emilie and their fun dog, Uschi came rolling up in their customized van, having recently ditched their jobs in Ohio in favor of living on the road!   That evening at the house was wonderful, as the wine flowed and the tasty fish sat sizzling on the grill.   Great times that, at this age, we knew were precious and certainly worth savoring.

And as the sun set and the Milky Way rose, as it were, anticipation grew as we plotted our upcoming adventures in the mountains across the valley, 18 miles away.  Rocking on the chairs on the front porch, I pointed out certain peaks and described the characteristics of each of the valleys, lakes, and cirques.  I knew that there was simply no way of making a bad decision!

Loading up my adventure-rigged F-150 the following morning, the four of us piled in for a gnarly ride up a remote forest road to a trailhead up at 9,850′.   We’d disembark, grab our heavy packs, and hike up about five miles up to about 12,000′ at the upper South Colony Lakes, spend the night, and then press on for a sweet climb up to the summit of Humboldt Peak, one of Colorado’s 14ers (one of 53 peaks that rise above 14,000′).   The promise of blue-bird skies had us on a natural high as we made our way up into the mountains.

It had been ten years since we’d climbed together and back then, I was certainly the weak link, but no more.   I’d logged in almost 162,000′ of vertical gain since January and I felt worthy to hang with my bros and sistas.   Felt great, both physically and mentally!

Having been up here a few times before, I knew this trail would be a guaranteed hit and, judging from the widening grins of my climbing partners, I could see I had made the right call.   With the sun now set well behind the imposing headwalls, it was getting cooler and we quickly deployed our tents, grabbed our fishing poles and made our way to the lake to fish.

Campsite
Hasty tent deployment!

While I must admit that my fishing skills lacked in a big way, thankfully Roger (pictured at right of photo, above, snagged a sweet trout within the first couple of tries!   Bonus!   We’d grill her up and split the prize among us, making a rather Spartan meal of mashed potatoes topped with fish!

Simple Pleasures!
Joe, Roger, and me, savoring our first trout from the upper lake!

Despite the great weather and it being Labor Day Weekend, we found ourselves all alone at the upper lake!   Incredible, but we’d happy for that.   And so the evening’s conversation flowed effortlessly as we enjoyed great company, our day’s accomplishment, and the glorious scenery around us.   Perched high on a rock outcropping, we each silently thanked our good health and good fortunes.

Dinner, lakeside
Roger, Emilie, and Uschi relaxing by the lake.

It’s funny how the simple things in life give us the most pleasure.  For me, some of the best moments come after struggle and discomfort, being far from “civilization” for a spell, so that we may regenerate our tired souls…

Once the sun set, we found ourselves eager to retire for the evening in anticipation of tomorrow’s climb to the summit of Humboldt Peak.   The setting was indescribably awesome in the purest sense of that overused word.

Rising the following morning at 0400, I caught sight of the headlamps following the trail up across the way to the more technical Crestone Peak and Needles.   Spaced apart, the climbers made their way slowly up the talus sloped terrain, gaining the upper couloir then over to the ridge.

Moon Setting
The moon setting over the Ridgeline.

Firing up the camp-stove for a quick breakfast prior to our climb, each of us sat in awe of the alpenglow that was lighting up our high alpine world…   Nourished, inspired, and ready, Joe, Roger and I set off for the summit, leaving Emilie and Uschi behind.   After some debate, we had decided that the large boulder field up higher as well as the 40-50 degree pitch would be a bit much for our four-legged partner.  With some sadness, we all turned back to wave back at Emilie and Uschi, promising a safe return!

And up we went…

Upper South Colony Lakes
Joe, looking down on the upper lake.

What fun to be climbing again with my old friends!   This time, it was my turn to guide, though Joe quickly like a mountain goat, blasted up way ahead, Roger and I took our time, savoring the unfolding scenes all around us.

Humboldt Peak
Nearing the summit.

As is typical of the upper trails near the summits, we found ourselves in boulderfields marked (thankfully!) by rock cairns.   And up we went, slowly, determined.

View to valley below
Looking down to the Wet Mountain Valley from near the summit of Humboldt Peak.

With the summit in view, we found a swarm of dark clouds making their way up from the south and knew that we’d have a limited amount of time to linger.   Views from up here are absolutely phenomenal!   Otherworldly, almost, with the dramatic headwall of the Crestone Peaks on the opposite side of the cirque, we savored our hard-won prize, sipped some Spanish wine from our bota, and traded tasty treats to regenerate our tired bodies.

All in all, it was a grand adventure worthy of inclusion in my blog!   Not unlike Napoleon’s retreating army from Russia, we eventually dragged our way back to the truck, drove the insanely-rutted forest road back down to green valley below, returned to basecamp back home, dropped into comfy chairs around the fire pit, and poured more than a few glasses of wine as the sun set on the mountains across the way.

And, once again, life is great and spirits renewed!

 

No Rest for Old Mountaineers

The iPhone vibrated against my ribcage at an uncivilized 0500 hours on “Day 2” of our mountain adventure.   Somehow, it was a TedTalk from a couple of years ago on the subject of activation energy that infused a bolt of temporary vigor and willpower to get me to leave my cozy and almost warm sleeping bag to start our day’s adventure.

My good friend, Paul and I had driven over five hours two nights ago to arrive at a remote campsite in another high alpine valley, in fact just a  kind of flat spot next to a pull-off by a gnarly forest road at around 11,400′ to begin our weekend of “fun” with the goal of climbing two mountains.

We’d climbed a mountain in the same range the day before and now hoping our aging bodies would recover mercifully to allow for today’s hike up Uncompahgre Peak at 14,309′ (4,365m) the tallest mountain in this region and the 6th highest of the Colorado 14ers (regional parlance to describe mountains that rise in excess of 14,000′).   Having carefully examined the route on Google Earth before our departure, it seemed quite benign; almost a casual stroll in the Highlands, if you will.

But the very nature of the word, adventure, reminds us to keep a wary eye for the unexpected.   Would it come in the way of a flat tire on a steep, unpaved and deeply rutted and rocky US Forest Service road leading up to the trailhead, personal injury, or in the need to assist in helping a fellow hiker return safely down?   Never can predict.

And, once again, the cruel cycle repeats…

  •  Recover from last hike and forget the pain, close call(s), discomfort,
  • Feel a growing agitation,
  • Locate source of agitation (or not),
  • Leave impulsively for the mountains to climb again…   repeat (i.e., lesson not learned and no hope of ever learning it!)

Oh, the human mind…  you unpredictable thing!

Signing in to the kiosk that early morning and seeing hundreds of names in the register from earlier in the year, anticipation grew as we once again set foot on brand-new trail.   The weather was just right as we ascended into the higher plateaus and… soon, there she was, in full splendor; Uncompahgre Peak beckoning us, rising a good 2,500′ from where we stood.

No need for scheduled breaks for it seemed that every few minutes, we’d see another angle, a changed light, and another chance to capture this wonderful spot on Earth.

View down from the summit looking down to the trail that led up here.

Up we went to find climbers returning from sun-rise ascents, Marmots eyeing us quizzically like natives in the Peruvian Andes, tents grouped upon magnificent perches with dizzyingly stunning views of the peaks beyond, and fellow hikers way up on the mountain making their way to the summit.

And up we went with anticipation of expanding views to the valleys below.

Hiking down, savoring views missed from behind!

Stopping for a much-needed break at around 13,500′, we spied the approaching group of three climbing up at a brisk pace,

“Looks like the trail runners we saw yesterday, eh Paul?”, I remarked.   The young ladies had literally been running up and down valleys that day.

“Oh to be young again…”

“Yeah”

… except as the three passed us, the husband trailing behind stopped to chat.  They were in their mid-seventies with bodies of 20 year olds!   His wife and her girlfriend were in the process of bagging their 41st 14er and for her 70th birthday, he had surprised her with a planned  through-hike of the entire length of the Colorado Trail (486 miles with about 88,000′ of elevation gain and loss).  What a “gift”.

The old chap knew very well the effect this comment would have on us…

Mindset, reasonably healthy respect for our bodies, and a will to push through imaginary barriers largely created by society’s relentless efforts to numb us down… (nice try) and the world’s adventures await you as well.

Why, maybe in 15 years, I’ll be the 72 year old with some funny stories to share with fellow hikers…    or with some luck in 30 or, hell,  why set timid goals …in 45.   Why not?

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!

 

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.

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.

img_2041

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.

img_2054

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.

img_2069

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.

img_2108

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.

img_2122

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!

img_2125

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!