Elk Mountains Aerial View – from a commercial flight from Denver to LA
Thanks to my friend Todd Caudle, this is too cool not to share. I love studying the land from the air and the flight from Denver to LA is such a rare treat – Front range, Swatch Range, Elk Mountains, Colorado Plateau, Monument Valley, Grand Canyon…all in a couple of hours western tour. So, I sent Todd this photo, converted to black and white because of the overwhelming blue from so high in the sky, and asked if he could help me identify the main peaks. I knew Todd would work his annotated magic, and so this photo is much more meaningful. To see the hallowed ground of the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness that we’ve trekked a week at a time, the high passes, towering peaks, deep valleys – all condensed into a rectangular frame is pure magic. All witnessed through a tiny window.
Hiking with my friend/web guru/mountain photographer Jack Brauer, Jack asks “what do you think it is that makes aspens so brilliant in fall?” Jack has studied aspens as much as anyone I know, so I figured his query was rhetorical. But we launched into a discussion about leaves, mountain light, and complimentary colors that lasted about a half mile, everything leading to the same place – translucence holds light while letting it pass through, giving aspens a luminescence unlike anything else in our part of the natural world. Autumn is an ephemeral miracle. While we’re still gobbling up the last of Palisade peaches, aspen trees are changing to gold, orange, and deep red. Some aspen colonies (aspens are a colonial species sprouting from the same source) are withering with fungus, their leaves dropping early by our human calendar, adding a smell of pungent loam to forest walks. Songbirds are gone and we await the arrival of winter raptors and diving ducks. I look up each day, hoping for a glimpse of sandhill cranes headed south on a migration course, riding thermals to their southern home at Bosque Del Apache NWR in New Mexico. It’s a remarkable time of year alright; so predictable, yet each day holds a promise to awaken our senses, all of them. Continue reading “Autumn Coming On”→
The pass ahead is a window to a new world, one of the great gifts of exploring on foot. We ascended 1,500′ to a low point on the flank of Meadow Mountain, where Capitol Peak shone in afternoon light while clouds swirled ominously around the basin. Runoff from both sides of the pass feed the Crystal River, a tributary of the mighty Colorado. Snowfall from the spring monsoon is finally melting off, opening the mountains for a few short months of exploration, before the cycle of seasons starts anew. The brilliant green tundra and blooming wildflowers are almost an illusion, a fleeting moment of alpine rhythm.
Spotlight on Capitol Peak (14,130′) as a storm builds in the Elk Mountains. Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness Area, Colorado
Longs Peak (14,255′) and Mount Meeker (13,911′) catch morning light from Estes Cone, casting a long shadow on Longs’ flank. Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado.
Alarm and coffee pot spring to life at 1:30 a.m., an uncivil time of day by any measure. Grumbling and light-headedness aside, backpacks are tossed in the car for a drive amongst folks just trying to get home. It’s exhilarating to reach the trailhead a few hours before dawn, before birds wake, and set out to follow a cone of light through a black forest. Our destination is Estes Cone, an 11,002′ bump on the Estes Park skyline with a commanding view of Longs and Meeker. A nearly full moon barely penetrated the dense forest as we trekked on good trail that split from Longs’ standard climbing route. The finishing ascent rose 1,000 feet to lichen-covered stone just above the forest canopy, revealing Longs’ eastern face. Rising above a low cloud bank, the sun graced Longs and Meeker in warm light, showing features of the main climbing route, The Trough still clogged with deep snow, guarding the highest peak in Rocky Mountain National Park. First climbed by John Wesley Powell’s group in an 1868 expedition, Longs is a sentinel in stone that can be viewed from many angles and worthy of a photographic study – and an alpine start or two.
Just a week after the last post, we spent an evening at 13,000 feet on the high ridge that towers over Loveland past on the east side. We trekked to Mount Sniktau (13,234′) for the first time and hoped for golden light to break beneath a thick cloud bank, lingering after a passing storm. With temps hovering in the 50s, the sun dipped and the landscape took on a new glow, with forms and layers of mountains in all directions. A small group of climbers set up tents on the edge of the ridgeline, later telling us of their plan to climb Grizzly Peak and two fourteener’s – Torreys and Grays the next day. Camping close to 13k is often a very bad idea, but not on this evening. I liked this image best for the snowfield clinging to the ridgeline, and together with our trail, leading the eye to an unending vista of the Rocky Mountains at sunset. It seems winter will depart at last.
Patterns of snow fill every couloir while stoney ridges protrude like ribs on (L to R) Torreys Peak (14,267′), Grays Peak (14,270′), and Grizzly Peak (13,428′). Colorado’s wet spring raised the late winter snowpack on the Front Range from around 50% in April to 300% in some areas. We hope it predicts an amazing wildflower season.
We have so much snow! The south and east facing slopes are holding deep snowpack that supplies all of thirsty Denver’s water supply for the season. This view is to the northwest across Loveland Pass to Mount of The Holy Cross (14,009′) named for the cross couloir on the rock face. Will Denver residents become complacent and forget the recent decade of drought? My brief prediction is an unfortunate yes.
Loveland Sunrise – warm morning light paints the high ridge above Loveland Pass from Point 12,915′ where a lingering snow cornice leads to Lenawee Mountain (13,204′). Marla says the mountains will “officially open on July 4 ~ just like they always do”. 🙂
Little Bear Peak (14,047′) From Blanca Peak Summit (14,345′), Sangre De Cristo Wilderness, Colorado
Depending on how you count them, Colorado has between 54 and 58 peaks over 14,000 feet and it’s a big thing for adventurers to climb them all. There are main peaks and sub-peaks, and there has to be a 300 foot drop between the main and sub-peak for the smaller mountain to count as a fourteener. Mountain geek stuff. Marla and I have been plugging away on the list for over 20 years and have summitted 45 fourteeners now, some more than once, so we have nine or ten left. Each peak has its own special challenges – distance, remoteness, weather on a given day, route-finding, altitude fickleness, fatigue, etc. It’s inevitable to climb the easiest and close to home peaks first, then gradually spread your wings until you’re left with ten technically challenging peaks, the ante upped, with enough risk to question commitment. That’s where we’re at. On our recent climb of Blanca Peak, Colorado’s 4th highest at 14,345′, and one of the four sacred peaks to the Navajo, we studied Little Bear Peak. Despite it’s gentle name, Little Bear has a bad reputation, randomly taking a life with rockfall or some other twist of fate. The only good route passes through the hourglass, a narrow class 4 bowling alley of loose rock. Guidebooks suggest avoiding weekends and climbing early, so no one is above you in the hourglass. Rockfall is never good, especially when there’s no escape. As we studied Little Bear from Blanca’s glorious summit, we asked ourselves why? Do we need to climb that mountain and take on unnecessary risk? What’s this quest about, destination or the journey?
A little digging led me to this panorama of the high Sangre De Cristo Range. I’m not sure what took me so long, it’s what my friend Todd Caudle calls a “hard drive treasure hunt.” The cool thing for me is the memory of climbing Humboldt, a pretty “easy” 14er, with friends in the dark, then watching a gold sunrise followed by an amazing cloud show. It was of our most memorable days in the mountains, anywhere. The Sangre De Cristos hold a special attraction, blocks of stone that you can see from many viewpoints in the valley far below, but you have to earn each summit. It feels special and rare to stand on one of these majestic peaks. When you click on the image, be sure to click on the larger view option below the photo to see it bigger. With mountains, bigger is better. Continue reading “Sangre Skyline”→
Startled by a gnawing, scratching sound, I’m awakened from a dream of home in pitch darkness on a moonless night. I sit up and listen for a moment before realizing I’m in the tent next to my wife and we’re at Crater Lake in the Maroon Bells Wilderness. With that that straight in my head, I reach for my headlamp and am pretty sure I’ll see a porcupine, we have a history. There’s a smell in the air like rotting bacon fat, very weird. As the light hits the intruder, still scratching the ground where I took a leak an hour ago, he turns his head that seems too small for his body and reluctantly retreats just a few steps. I hold the light on him until he disappears in the forest, ending the first of two run-ins we’ll have with these peaceful, salt-seeking creatures of the night. It’s the first night of a six day trip over four 12,000 foot passes (we turned it into six passes). The Elk Mountains are so spectacularly rugged and beautiful, they draw us back every year. We failed on our first attempt of the Four Pass Loop; burdened with heavy packs while cajoling our chocolate lab Toby – who carried his own pack – we simply weren’t prepared. We still carried weird loads the second time around when we completed the loop in 2004. I wrote an article for Crested Butte Magazine (in ’04) about “Colorado’s Best Alpine Hike”, and we’ve wondered ever since whether it’s as good as we thought back then. My photo essay follows: Continue reading “Four Pass Loop – Around The Bells”→