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Sunday, July 5, 2009

Alpine tundra

The mountains of Colorado blow my mind. Standing above treeline with alpine flowers at my feet, I wonder how I lived a third of my life not knowing that this high altitude heaven existed.

We're back from a camping trip where we spent almost every night over 11,000 feet, high in the sky, in the Rocky Mountains. The trip was good for our souls, after all we've been through in the past couple of months. It felt very odd to be a foursome rather than a fivesome but it's a transition that we must make. Indeed, the oddest part was that we revisited a campsite that we'd inhabited previously when K and S were our canine companions and R wasn't even a twinkle in his mother's eye yet. Visiting that same beautiful spot again reminded us that life and our family is always changing.

We spent our first night in an unimpressive campground, that felt more removed from nature than our home. However, early the next morning, K and I biked, while R and my husband ran, on a completely empty trail up to Georgia Pass, a nearly 12,000 foot pass in the Rockies. The trail wound through towering aspen groves and then pine forests, before reaching the forest-tundra transition zone above 10,000 ft. Near treeline, huge snowbanks blocked the trail, some towering over my head.
While K delighted in rolling in the snow, I hoisted my bike onto the small snow mountains and then walked gingerly across them, trying not to slide down the slopes.
Above tree-line, the dry and narrow path invitingly pulled us toward the pass. Mount Guyot towered nearby while faraway snowy mountains shimmered in the sun. K and I floated in the thin air and awe-inspiring atmosphere.A broad view missed the amazing floral display hunkered down close to the ground. The tundra between us and the nearby mountains initially looked greenish but not flashy. The craggy mountains and ridges held my attention.Then, I looked at the ground, and I saw that delicate flowers flourished on the tundra. In the tundra, the 'cushion' plants play a key role by holding the soil on the rocky terrain. These plants have broad and soft pillows of leaves, less than 2" tall, below their blossoms. Many of them require 30 years to grow a leaf cushion prior to bursting into bloom. That's why it's so critical not to tread on the tundra but to stay on the narrow paths. Some poor plant might have been laying the groundwork to bloom for 29 years, and then a careless shoe or tire destroys its chance to sing.

Many other alpine flowers, which I'll include in the next couple of posts, use the 'cushion' plants as their launching pads. These taller alpine plants literally poke up through the leaf mats of the cushion plants, sprouting from the nutritious soil held in place below the cushion plants. A great book explains the intricate plant and animal ecology of the alpine tundra (Song of the Alpine, by Joyce Gellhorn).

As K and I emerged above treeline, Moss Campion (Silene acaulis subacaulescens), a cushion plant, seemed to carpet the ground next to the path. This patch stretched more than a foot across.While K watched over me, I delighted in each tiny flower of the Moss Campion. Every blossom seemed like an intricate miracle of nature.Alpine phlox (Phlox consensata) also covered much of the rocky tundra surface. My close-up photo doesn't reveal that each flower measures less than a centimeter across.
Next, I noticed Dwarf Clover (Trifolium nanum) lining the path, another cushion plant that provides the environment for other alpine flowers to burst into life. Poor K started wondering if we were going to ever start riding again as I practically lay on my stomach to look at these diminutive blossoms.My favorite cushion plant is the Alpine Forget-Me-Not (Eritrichum aretioides) whose flowers are eye-catching jewels that measure less than a centimeter across.
That afternoon, after riding and running to and from the alpine tundra, we decided to find a quiet and isolated campsite above treeline, far away from the hub-bub of the campground. The view from our chosen idyllic spot amazed me.As we walked into our campsite, a fox watched us from the edge of the clearing. We debated what species he was because he looked rotund and oddly colored for a fox but we finally settled on a gray fox. We surmised that he didn't like our presence, as fox scat appeared on our kettle during the first night. The next night, we brought the kettle inside to prevent a repeat performance, and his scat appeared atop our closed camp stove. Sorry, Mr. Fox, the campsite is all yours now.
Camping up so high made awesome routes possible for my biking and my husband's running. I'll write more about our days at 11,800 feet near Georgia Pass tomorrow.

This panorama shows why I love being 'on top of the world'.


  1. so glad to see that you are back! what a beautiful fox sure is rotund...lovely shots as always..

  2. So beautiful. Our eastern mountains are very intriguing and fun to explore, but we never cross above a treeline (though you certainly cross above lines where certain type of trees and flora may exist). I have enjoyed my all to few trips to the Rockies and the hikes in the high elevations.

  3. Hi KB,
    Years ago, I biked from Como to Breck across Georgia Pass. I haven't been there since, so seeing your photos was lovely. Hope you didn't get any storms up there while you were camping.


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