From “Reaching 12K” - Day 8 - July 31, 2011
A morning with little mosquito interference was a pleasure on this beautiful day. Ahead of us rose Tenmile Range whose heights rose over 13,000'. A fabulous sight greeted us as we gazed at the strip of pure white snow illuminated by the early morning alpenglow along the top of this steep range. What we looked at in the distance comprised tomorrow’s hike, stretched out clearly for us.
Underfoot, today may have been the best day yet for wildflowers; they were profuse and we frequently stopped to take photos of those we hadn’t captured yet. Some such pictures included mountains as a backdrop, making an ideal postcard scene. Fields of columbine, the state flower, were supplemented by harebells, blue flax, orange sneezeweed, and asters. Others making their first appearance included lupines and fireweed.
My best intents at describing the wondrous beauty of the colors fall short. Does bright blue—not pale blue, not bluish purple, but blue with the intensity of an autumn sky—really complement yellow with an orange tint? Likely not in human-constructed works. But place blue flax next to orange sneezeweed, add an array of other grasses, flowers, evergreen trees looming behind, and snow-capped Rocky Mountains in the background and you have perfection. Formal gardens are beautiful in their own way but they can’t approach Nature’s mixing and matching. Writer and social activist Victor Hugo stated it well when he wrote, “What would be ugly in a garden constitutes beauty in a mountain.”
From “Rocks of the Rockies” - Day 15 - August 7, 2011
SO ON SUNDAY MORNING, August 7, 2011, two weeks now into the hike, we finally awoke having experienced a totally dry night. That’s right: no rain at any time! Even the inside of the tent fly was dry this morning. And cold! The stars were magnificent and still quite prominent when I emerged from the tent to begin the morning rituals. Brrr! It felt to me like the coldest morning of the hike thus far until Northern Harrier reminded me of the frost that we endured in the Lost Creek Meadow way back on Day 4. Quite true. Remembering my frozen hands, I agreed that the discomfort of that morning was worse. The drier atmosphere here was friendlier to the body.
And the dawn scene was friendly to the eyesight. In particular, the morning sunlight glowing on the aspen trees was enchanting. No two trees assumed the same coloration or brightness. It all depended on what tree and what part of each tree the sun’s rays struck. Aspens exemplify the uniqueness of the western deciduous forest. A quick superficial glance reminds one of birches in a Northern New England hardwood zone. However, a closer look reveals that aspens’ bark doesn’t peel, the leaves are different, and at times, the famously reputed “quaking” readily confirms their identity. Aspens are just one more enjoyable feature of this magnificent trail.
From “Steep and Steeper” - Day 16 - August 8, 2011
The ascent was quite laborious. We made it to the undistinguished ridgetop by 1:00 pm, stopping partway up for lunch. Even though the slope was forested, the thin and narrow foliage of Western trees permitted plenty of penetration from the sun’s rays. I couldn’t believe how hot it felt at an elevation exceeding 11,600'! As expected, no vistas presented themselves—not much in the way of a payoff for our slog except for the satisfaction that we had conquered our first summit in the Collegiate Peaks range. But the high point did bless us with one thrilling reward: the trees at this level included bristlecone pines, the sight of which made for quite an awesome thought when you realize that these trees have been around a few thousand years.
This dearth of sweeping, or any, views as a reward for our 3,000' slog reminded me of typecasting regarding eastern vs. western hiking. More than once, I’ve heard westerners assert that their disdain for eastern hiking is all those trees! The trees obscure views in such a way that the East doesn’t feature the expansive, wide-open vistas of the West. In one particular such dialog with a former colleague who lived in Las Vegas, I suggested that he hike the White Mountains of New Hampshire, whose views might remind him at least a tad bit of the West. I’m not sure he believed me. In any case, this first ascent of the Collegiate Peaks belies the whole stereotype of the West’s breathtaking vistas; here we were at 11,600' in a picturesque and lovely forest to be sure, but devoid of views. Not a complaint, just an observation...
From “Dry Heartland” - Day 25 - August 17, 2011
TODAY’S HIKE HAD PUT US over the 300-mile mark. On the whole, we agreed that the hike was going very well, but lately the rocks had caused constant pain on the ball of my left foot. Taking more ginger and even some Ibuprofen (known as “Vitamin I” in hiking circles), which is usually a last resort, I eagerly looked forward to the next day’s foot soak in Cochetopa Creek on what we expected would be our last day of hiking in this area of water paucity. And although we planned to hike 19 miles, we anticipated one of our easier days, given the flat-looking elevation profile of Segment 18. Little did we know...
We got out-of-the-box in short order and hiked rather strong and fast on the gentle uphill grade through the dry forest. Last night’s campsite was at Mile 1.8 of Segment 18 so when we passed a gate marking Mile 8 in a few hours, a feeling of satisfaction swept through us. I soon forgot this morning’s frustration that occurred during the 15 extra minutes it took me trying to extract a recalcitrant tent stake out of the rock-hard ground.
Then we missed a turn.
It’s uncertain when we discovered such; it wasn’t a sudden “aha!” We were hiking in a steady and steepening uphill which didn’t mesh with the book or pocket guide for this nearly “flat” segment. After a steep ascent on an old road in a forest of aspens, we realized with a sickening feeling that we must have gone wrong and turned back. So retracing our errant steps found us at a signed trail junction which we had recalled passing but at this point, we were completely befuddled. Did we come straight up that hill, or from the right side? I remembered this junction, but coming back 180 degrees made everything seem different.
From “Alpine Again” - Day 31 - August 23, 2011
...Wildlife sightings included more ptarmigan, but the prize came in the morning’s first half when sounds and movement ahead and to the right caught our attention. A faint rumbling became louder, almost like the sound of horses. And then we spotted them: elk. We watched in fascination as a herd crossed a not-too-distant ridge. I counted at least 30 of the large ungulates tromping up-slope in an orderly procession before disappearing over the other side. It is true that many mammals flock together, often for safety from predators. But deer, sheep, and bison are more spread-out and seemingly random as they traverse the range together. Why is it that only elk, apparently, march in such a structure, with a leader setting the pace ahead of columns of two? It was almost military precision. While sighting elk is not rare or unusual in the Rocky Mountains (indeed, they’re a “nuisance” in Denver’s western suburbs), encountering them in their natural element was a thrill. As I told Northern Harrier, the only other sighting that would make this hike complete on the wildlife front was bighorn sheep. Unfortunately, the only photo of the elk that I was able to snap turned out blurry.
From “A Southwestern Feel” - Day 34 - August 26, 2011
...In most places, the trail had become a river as we descended down the rocky slope. Impromptu rivulets in normally-dry streambeds crossed the trail such that a few fords were necessary. Before long my feet were soaked through, but they weren’t as uncomfortable as my frozen hands.
Northern Harrier’s advice: “Put your gloves on!”
“It’s not going to help now. Hands are already frozen. Gloves will just get wet and be useless.”
“They’ll still give you insulation”
“Once my hands are frozen, they won’t help at all, until it stops raining. That’s the way my hands are.”
For whatever reasons my fingers, starting with the two index fingers, are very susceptible to frostbite. They’ve been known to turn white in damp conditions even when temperatures are in the 50s. It’s just something I’ve had to live with. However, I suppose having better gloves than my thin fleece pair would have helped. Nothing could be done now except putting things in perspective: the rain would eventually end, we’d arrive at a campsite, cook a hot meal, sleep in a warm bag, and my hands would warm up.
We forded a raging tributary of Cascade Creek, the color of which resembled a root beer float. The rain had stopped but everything was wet. In spite of the sun’s valiant effort to break through, skies remained predominantly cloudy. Crossing a bridge over Cascade Creek, we decided to move on because it was still relatively early in the day. While hiking in wet conditions might be uncomfortable, it does not necessarily slow you down; sometimes, you actually hike longer and faster because you’re less likely to pause for views, photos, snacks, long lunches, etc. Before long though, we observed some inviting campsites partially protected under spruces, a consideration in case the rain should resume. So we stopped for the night. As it turned out, hiking 15 miles for the day was the exact pace we needed to reach Durango in five days.
From “Reflections on the Experience”
And then there’s the mental and emotional aspect. Like the changing terrain (up, down, up, down, occasional-but-brief level, up, down), emotions range high and low. It always feels satisfying (and a relief!) to reach a mountain top (even those bereft of views) where a “high” is experienced in more ways than one. Many descriptors are apt: feeling jubilant and on top of the world (not just a mountain), self-satisfaction at your physical ability to ascend several thousand feet, and confidence that you’ll conquer what lies ahead. There’s joy from partaking of views and scenes that are only attainable by sustaining the sweat and strain of the ascent. There’s even a bit of elitistism in knowing that you’ve done something that (sadly) few Americans are capable of.
Other “highs” followed a drink of fresh water from a mountain stream, hiking through and admiring the splashes of color from the alpine flora, observing animals in all of the trail’s ecosystems, finishing a segment or attaining a milepoint (100 miles, 200 miles, etc.), feeling the sweat dry from cooling breezes, and interacting with the Trail Angels who helped us in so many way. The completion of a day’s hike, preparing and enjoying dinner, viewing the alpenglow of dusk, crawling into a warm sleeping bag, and simply breathing the fresh alpine air—these all led to feelings of satisfaction, joy, contentment, a sense that “I’m where I want to be!” and an awed, humbling reverence for the sacred and divine. Such “highs” more than compensated for the misery of being soaked from a cold rainstorm or encountering an unexpected PUD or grimacing through sore feet or feeling down on yourself for not being as well-conditioned as you’d like.