Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Collegiate West: Days 3 & 4

            Sunshine, bird song, blue skies, cool air, beauty all around me, oatmeal, waiting to dry out the tent fly, mosquitoes just thinking about getting started, and some howling coyotes. These are a few words to describe the start of this glorious morning. A few miles of easy hiking brings me to Texas Creek. No rocks, bridge, or logs to cross on – so off with my hiking shoes and on with my sandals, backpack straps undone, and I slowly make my away across. Once again, I am grateful for my trekking poles. The water is cold, and my feet are aching by the time I make it across. Now begins the four mile climb to Cottonwood Pass.
           I just passed this invisible boundary. Steadily working my way up towards Cottonwood Pass, I left the perpetual sounds of Texas Creek behind and entered into a forest that is, at this moment, completely silent, save for the sounds of my breathing and footsteps. I pause and savor the magic of this place. Massive spruce and fir trees, a forest floor littered with trees in various stages of decay, the happy flower heads of heartleaf arnica. Within moments, the silence is broken by the squawk of a Clark’s nutcracker, eventually followed by the alarm of a pine squirrel. But for a moment, I was mesmerized by the absolute silence of this ancient forest.

            After a pleasant night at Cottonwood Hot Springs last night, I am back on the trail early under a gray sky that looks like it could go either way – sunshine or rain. The wind is strong, so I don some warmer headwear and find a quick pace. I meet a Dad and two older sons as I work my way up towards a 12,800’ ridge. They’ve been out for a few days and will end their adventure where I started mine this morning. Like me, they are wanting to get their miles in before afternoon thunderstorms bring the threat of lightning. I make it to the ridge and stop to enjoy a morning snack and the sunshine that has won out over the morning gray.

I make my way across several stretches of snow, move through a garden of rocks, some the size of buses, and begin another climb to another 12,800’ ridge. Today is turning into one of those days of up and down, up and down. The trail climbs to a high ridge, then drops a couple thousand feet or more into drainage, then back up again.
            I work my way down into the Morgan’s Gulch drainage and notice a marmot on a rock just off the trail. It is just sitting there in the sun, looking happy and well fed, gazing out over so much mountain beauty. What a life! My friend Scott Smith told me once that he’d like to come back to this world as a marmot. Looking at this happy marmat, I can see why.
            Another 12,800’ ridge behind me, and I am working my way towards what will be my last climb of the day. Fortunately, the trail does not appear to drop down as far; from this vantage point, it roughly contours at around 12,600’ before a more gentle approach to the day’s final ridge. As I pass through a lovely stretch of trail lined with blue wildflowers – whipple penstemons, I believe – I notice that a gray cloud up there is beginning to grow into something a bit more ominous looking. Before each ridge today, I was closely watching the sky for any potential for storms. I know how quickly a thunderstorm can build up here, and this exposed alpine landscape, with cover a good long way away, is no place to be when lightning is in the air. Before climbing each ridge, I concluded that the clouds were pretty benign before I headed up and over.

            But this cloud looks different. I decide to kick up the pace and now feel like I am in a race with that cloud, both of us heading for that last ridge. I move through a long stretch of scree, where the potential for a fall goes way up. “OK, take it nice and careful here. You are tired, you want to beat that storm, but a fall right now would definitely be bad news.”  With these words from my inner coach, I make it to the high point and begin down a long series of switchbacks, still well above timberline, down towards Chalk Creek. A clap of thunder – not loud, but thunder just the same – keeps me moving, as the race is not over yet.
            Finally in the trees, I take a sit-down break and then resume, much more slowly, the last mile or so and a place to camp for the night. As I take off my pack for the last time, I calculate that I covered just over 16 miles today. That sleeping bag is sure going to feel good tonight!


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