elevation

i was supposed to be in spain, and then on to lebanon.  but i wasn’t.  and i have to admit, i was a little upset about it.

i have always loved colorado though.  what texas-born guy doesn’t.  twice a year, every year, as almost some kind of required activity, all texans exodus to their playground state to the north.  more often than not, we are an unwelcome sight by locals.  but when you’re a kid, you never pick up on that.

so we left 100 degree heat in dallas, and headed for the mountains.  six guys from texas.

there’s not much to look at on the drive from dallas to amarillo.  it’s 5 or 6 hours of plains, trains, and other automobiles.  lots and lots of 18 wheelers.

but somewhere in new mexico, you begin to see the foothills of the rockies.  rising up from the desert floor like an impenetrable fortress.  you begin to lose track of the time once you see your first mountain on this drive.  thoughts start to race around my brain, and i begin to get giddy like a child on christmas morning.  “what is this trip into the wild going to bring??”

we didn’t get to the cabin outside of boulder, co, until late.  we were all excited, but road weary… and after a few beers and some surprisingly good mexican food, we hit the sack.  

i woke early sunday morning to a beautiful mountain day.  just outside of the open-air room where i slept, the constant buzzing by of hummingbirds lured me out of bed.  i spent a good portion of the morning sipping coffee and photographing these amazing creatures… my kind of quiet time!

that afternoon we took a quick hike to “inspiration point”.  i kept feeling like i should be in a ’57 chevy making out with a girl in a poodle-skirt, each time i heard that name.  but it actually was quite a nice view.

ruby was the group mascot, entertainment of sorts, and scapegoat.  she’s a sweet six-month-old border collie.  but, partially because she’s young, and partially because she’s untrained and spoiled, she was a little bit of a pill to have on a wilderness backpacking trip.  she sure is cute though.

the reservoir near the cabin provided a nice day hike.  getting acclimated is absolutely essential when preparing for an extended high country hike.  so drinking insane amounts of water, exercising at mid-high altitudes, and time in higher altitudes, are all necessary to getting a body acclimated.

monday morning came, and it was time to get going.  just outside of nederland, co, is the hessie trailhead.  this is where we were to set off.  it’s also where we should come out after five days and nearly fifty miles in pristine wilderness.  the weather was amazing, and the forecast appeared as if it might hold.  we were optimistic.  

the first great view came a few hours into the hike.  ben admired creation as we took a breather.

about five or six miles in, and many thousands of feet of gained elevation, we came to a high alpine meadow.  it was late in the afternoon – the worst time in the mountains to be above tree line.  summer storms are almost daily at these high elevations, and tend to involve lightning and violent winds.  so we pushed hard as the wind picked up.  we crested the divide before the worst of the storm, and we made camp just as dusk arrived.

we comforted ourselves that night with the knowledge that tomorrow would be easy.  just a few miles of hard elevation gain, but then we’d be done by lunch.  our planned campsite was to be at high elevation, near fourth of july mine.  we would have the afternoon to take a side-hike to a nearby glacier if we wanted.  it sounded intriguing.

tuesday started with a creek crossing, and a fantastic view at diamond lake.  but we were anxious to get to our next camp.

we made it to fourth of july mine just after noon.  we found a spectacular spot, and made camp.  bart, patrick, and i decided to take the two mile (round-trip) hike up to arapaho glacier.  distance wise, the hike was no problem, but the amount of elevation-gained within the one mile up to the glacier was killer.  but it was well worth it… if only for the images i had the chance to capture.  i quite enjoyed myself.

bart and patrick weren’t done though.  they both decided to climb a 13,000 foot peak to end the afternoon.  i would not be joining them…

that night, we all slept quite well.  the stars were fantastic.  tomorrow was going to be our toughest day of the trip.

  


dorothy lake, a welcomed sight.  it made me think a while of my good friend dorothy from el paso.  she passed away when we were in college in austin.  this place seemed like a place dor would like.  a monument to a beautiful girl.

  

day three was definitely tough, but the views made it completely bearable.  the first mile was 2,000 vertical feet up, but the rest was more gradual, and quite a bit of downhill.

  

we made it down from the high country, but somewhere we made a wrong turn.  thus turning a 7 mile day into a 10 miler.  we were all exhausted when we reached camp that evening.  bart found a great spot in a clearing.  and as the sun fell, it became apparent that this was the prime spot for seeing wildlife.  first we noticed a moose across the creek from us.  then came a bull and cow elk through the trees.  all were welcomed visitors… until night fell.

  

most of us had gone to bed because with the darkness that night came a major chill in the air.  our thermometers read high 30’s.  bart was the last one up, tending the fire.  around 11 p.m. he started for the tent, his headlamp scanning the black horizon.  he heard a rustle in the creek twenty feet from our camp.  just as his lamp pierced the darkness in the direction of the noise, a big bear head popped up out of the willows.  “we got bears in camp,” he strangely whispered and yelled at the same time. the tone was such that we all knew this was no joke.  

i heard him immediately, but froze with fear.  in all the times i’ve slept beneath the stars in bear country (the majority of those nights were in grizzly country, no less), i’ve never had a bear visit my camp.  it is exactly the stuff that our primal nightmares are made of.

so after flashing our lights at the bear(s) (bart claimed he saw two together) and banging pots and pans together, it seemed the ordeal was over.  however, sleep would remain elusive for most of us the rest of the night.  and rightfully so.

around two a.m., we heard wade, one of only two brave gentlemen that was not sleeping in a tent (funny how a 1/8 inch nylon inclosure makes one feel safe), inform us that the bears were back.  it was in that same spine-tingling whisper-shout.  i jumped up, somehow angry.  this time it was patrick and i who had bear duty, in some sort of unspoken rule.

we yelled and banged the cook pot for a few minutes.  this time very loud, and a bit longer than before.  i never saw a bear, but i believed it had come and gone.  the nature of black bears is such that they really are more scared of us than we of them.  but their curiosity, and insatiable appetite, are what get them into trouble with humans.  

i was pretty sure that their fear of us was in this case stronger than their curiosity or hunger, so, we all finally caught a little shut-eye.

the next day, i think we were all thankful.  thankful that nothing else bear-related occurred the night before.  but we were all sore… and today would be another back-breaking hike.

we had come down from the high elevations only a day before, and now we embarked on a journey back up.  this time to our highest elevation yet.  up and over a place called devil’s thumb.  foreboding?  it absolutely sounded that way.  plus, we got started very late.  i think we finally set off just after 11:00 a.m.

we once again broke out above tree line at the worst time of day.  the ascent took us longer than expected… and it was hardcore.  so when we came out to the high alpine meadows, the storms began.  and this time we were in trouble.  the wind was unrelenting, and our trail seemed to just disappear.

we could see where we needed to go, but there was a 1,000 ft shear cliff between us and our next camp.  after scouring the landscape with six sets of eyes, we finally met back up with our trail.  but it took us up another steep incline, to a shale covered hill over 12,000 feet up. 

our trail then led straight into a huge snow bank.  it looked impassable.  but the storm was creeping up behind us.  so we hiked yet higher, to see if we could follow the shale up and over this massive bank.  bart again came through and found our northwest passage.

  

almost immediately, on the other side of the divide, our view shifted from dark and ominous, to bright and beautiful.  seriously.  this was one of the most beautiful valleys i have ever seen.  we were greatly encouraged by this surmounted challenge and ensuing reward.

  

  

we camped at devil’s thumb lake that night.  we enjoyed scenery and fishing, and a warm campfire.  a deep fog rolled in that evening that kept the temperature moderate, but it brought rain. 

it rained most of the night on into the morning.  so it was by far the most unpleasant morning of the entire trip because we woke up wet and cold.  not a bad motivator for the last day of a trip though.  we still had a good 6 or 7 miles left, and we were all ready for a warm bar, with a burger and a beer.

when we made it back to the cars, we were exhausted.  but the reality of this experience, and the raw nature of what we felt we accomplished was fresh on our hearts.  we smelled worse than we looked.  so when we made it into nederland, and set up camp at a table in the local bar & grill, a table of neatly dressed and freshly moussed tourists had to uproot and move across the room.

they had no idea.  they didn’t know what we had just been through and what we had seen.  they didn’t know how badly we deserved this warm seat, and the burger, and especially the beer.

all images © andrew r. slaton | photographer 2008