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Saturday, September 5, 2009

Sojourn in the awesome high mountains

K and I spent yesterday up high in our mountains, living in the raw alpine world on that knife's edge between fun and disaster. My hiking buddy, K, and I set out from a trailhead that sits a little higher than 10,000'. It's called "4th of July" trailhead because it's swamped in snow until Independence Day.

We started up a snaking trail that we traveled in July, when wildflowers threatened to conquer the trail, leaning over it and obscuring the path. Yesterday, flowers were rare but some still stubbornly held their heads high. Near the trailhead, berries dominated. Clusters of ruby red Elderberries (Sambucus racemosa) hung over the trail as beautiful as flowers. These succulent-looking berries are somewhat toxic to humans but the branches are known for their effectiveness in producing fire when rubbed together. The word 'elder' comes from the Old English word 'ellen' which means 'fire kindler'.
Intriguingly, as we climbed upward, more flowers bloomed than down lower. At about 11,000', fireweed brashly bloomed, daring the snow to come and spoil its party.
Just above 11,000', the conifer trees became shorter and gnarled, a type of growth called krummholz, on a broad wet plateau still covered in low leafy willows. Just a tiny bit higher, the trees vanished altogether, and expansive views opened up. The kingdom across the valley looked inviting with layers of ridges and peaks. I visualized emerald jewels of lakes nestled in the kingdom.
Our trail climbed precipitously and traversed open tundra. Many plants, including Alpine Avens and King's Crown, now had rust-colored leaves, lending the ground an autumnal hue.
I kept peeking over my shoulder to look at the path that K and I followed when we hiked here last July. The trail is etched into the hillside on the right side of the photo.Our trail climbed inexorably toward the sky. After a hairpin turn changed our orientation, I caught sight of our destination, South Arapahoe Peak. It's a peak that I've seen from afar countless times but have never explored.
We now stood at almost 13,000' on a wind-exposed and cold mountainside. Despite the harsh conditions and early fall weather, some flowers still flourished. How, I don't know.

Despite having bright red leaves, a yellow Alpine Avens stood tall.
A puffy-headed bistort swayed in the breeze.
Arctic gentians, masters of living in cold conditions, opened their petals to the sky.
Before climbing any higher, I looked at the route that K and I took in July, and I could see the mountain lake where K swam nestled below a sawtooth ridge with a snowfield still reaching its finger down into the lake.
We turned back to our trail. We were almost to a saddle where I suspected that a new world would open up below us.
But, I didn't imagine how astonishingly wild the view would be. A basin yawned open below us surrounded by the serrated gray rocky ridge that we stood on. A glacier lived in the basin, with melting mineral-laden snow feeding a turquoise glacial lake.
K seemed as enthralled as I was. I think that she wanted to go play in a part of the glacier sitting a mere 10 yards below us near the rim of the basin. I couldn't let her play because the slope was so steep that she would've slid all the way into the lake in an instant.
We paused here a long time, ate a snack, and gazed at the intricate terrain surrounding us. I find these high peaks and their valleys to be truly 'awesome'. The beauty overwhelms me, and I wish that I could live among them. Some people find their starkness to be ugly - but not me.
The storms still seemed to be stalled on nearby mountain ranges so I decided to scramble a bit higher. We weren't far from the top.
Alas, shortly after we started to clamber upward, snowflakes began drifting from the sky. I looked behind me and the view panicked me. In the blink of an eye, the storms had oozed toward us and surrounded us. I had no doubt - even though we were so close to the top - we needed to descend pronto. Besides, trying to negotiate the boulder-choked trail with a layer of snow would be precarious, to say the least.

Across the tundra, the storm aimed directly at us from close range.
Across the valley, at a greater distance from us, pointy peaks looked starkly ominous with clouds drifting among them.
Slightly further away, sunshine illuminated a ridge behind the cloud front, giving me hope that the storms might pass over us without any terrifying lightning.I noticed that all of the Arctic Gentians had closed shop - their petals had clenched tightly together to keep out the cold air and snow.Just as I took hold of the optimistic thought that the storms might drift over us, a stunning rumble of thunder shattered the thin air. My reaction was to accelerate downhill while K's reaction was to happily roll onto her back and wriggle. Our opposite actions led to a sudden leash jerk that launched my camera into the air. It landed with a loud clatter on the rocks. But, as promised by Olympus, the camera was unscathed. After that, I convinced K to hurry with me - even though she seemed completely unconcerned about the weather.

We stumbled and rushed downhill. My eyes stayed glued to the trail to pick my foot steps through the rocks carefully. After about 1000' of descent, the snow turned to rain, and, to my relief, the lightning never came close. We reached the krummholz and willow-covered plateau feeling confident that we'd make it safe and warm to the car despite the dark clouds closely circling us. Most of our remaining route was in the protection of the forest.
I felt confident enough to stop and photograph some harebells glistening with raindrops. These flowers seem so delicate that it's almost unbelievable that they survive so high in the mountains and have certainly already endured numerous frosts this season.We arrived at the car happy and tired. I love adventures in the high mountains with my best friend K. Up so high, the terrain is stark and conditions are harsh. I revel in the reigning strength of life shining through in a difficult world - in the flowers blooming, the birds foraging, the pikas drying out their plants for a winter of eating underground, and the marmots overeating to build a thick layer of fat for hibernation.

I also revel in the solitude and the need for self-reliance. Nobody but me is responsible for what happens to me up there in the thin air. Consequently, all extraneous thoughts are vanquished as I immerse myself in the alpine world.


  1. I do envy you the highest elevations. I love our mountains, but we hike at 5000 and 6000 feet, but nothing higher than the 6800's. Still love those cooler temps

  2. Like the Herd, we rarely get above 6,500 feet. It must feel like magic to suddenly see the snow.

    Lovely photographs. So glad K had such a good time.

  3. Hi KB

    I have come to the conclusion that in another age you would have been a intrepid explorer...
    Your pictures are great and K looks to be a strong reliable friend...

    Happy days

  4. again you wow me with such beautiful long of a trek do you and K normally take?
    some vet students i work with hiked from denver to durango this summer...i guess they did it last year too....what a fun adventure....
    have another glorious day in your beautiful world....

  5. Snow? Snow!!?! Geez - I could have used a little of that as I sweltered outside yesterday - bleh. I'm glad your camera survived its flight. I'm still shocked that I haven't tripped and fallen on mine. Yet.

  6. Catching up with you, KB, after a busy weekend. I know the sensations of high alpine storms - the adrenalin and also the eerie beauty. Glad you got down safely. Beautiful photos of the peaks and the flowers. I loved the glacial lake!


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