“Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out going to the mountains is going home; that wilderness is a necessity…”
― John Muir
Going to the mountains is certainly like going home for me. I lived in the Colorado Rockies during the 1970s. Those were socially colorful times. It has been 5 or 6 years since I had been back to Colorado and even longer since I had seen some of the friends there. To keep a meaningful lasting relationship with a friend you need to spend a little one on one time together every now and then. Same thing with climbing mountains.
Towards the end of July this year I enjoyed a week hiking on the Front Range of Colorado with old mountain friends.
Visiting an old friend or a mountain is like standing in front of a mirror. They reflect back memories of what we once where, at the same time they reflect what we have become and are possibly capable of today. It’s a pleasure to go visit such friends, especially after a long absence. It gives one a chance to re-evaluate one’s self. Same thing with climbing mountains.
The natural history of the Rocky Mountains began over 170 million years ago and has followed a repeating cycle of land upheaval followed by thousands of years of erosion. The western United States and the Rocky Mountains took shape during three major mountain building episodes between 170-40 million years ago, the last of these (70-40 MYA) formed the fundamental structures of the modern Rocky Mountains.
The Rocky Mountains extend three thousand miles across the continent through two countries, from British Columbia, Canada, to New Mexico in the United States. The Rockies comprise over 40 distinct mountain ranges and bulge 70 to 300 miles wide. To the west of the Great Plains of Colorado rises the eastern pitch of the Rocky Mountains, geographically referred to as the foothills of the Front Range. That was my home 40 years ago.
Colorado is one of the most geographically diverse places in the country often divided into several physical regions such as the Western Slope, Front Range and Eastern Plains. The Front Range is the eastern most mountain range of the Rocky Mountains stretching from Pikes Peak near Colorado Springs to the Colorado/Wyoming state line. Generally the foothills are considered the higher terrain between 6,000 and 9,000 feet that parallel the Front Range mountains.
My friends, where I was staying outside of Nederland, planned a hike to Arapahoe Peak the first morning after I arrived. The jagged ridges of the Indian Peaks Wilderness is nearby with a familiar network of trails. The trailhead at Buckingham Campground begins at a 10,120 foot elevation and climbs to 11,906 at Arapahoe Pass. North Arapahoe Peak is the tallest in that wilderness area at 13,502.
Having just arrived from sea level I knew the altitude would affect my breathing and performance. I advised my friends to go ahead of me and not wait round every corner. I was satisfied just being on the mountain surrounded by wilderness, it was not important that I reach the summit this time. For me it was the journey and not the destination that was important. I’d take my time and enjoy the day.
The trail starts in the spruce/fir forest at the Fourth of July Trailhead in the Arapaho National Forest. After fording several small streams, you boulder-hop across a larger creek, the run-off of snowfields and glaciers above. Scarlet paintbrush and blue columbine line the path at mid-elevations. Yellow monkey flowers and purple monkshood mass along creek crossings.
Colorado’s alpine meadows are home to some of the country’s most vibrant and colorful collections of wildflowers. A hike through these meadows can be one of summer’s most serene adventures. In this beautiful high country, blossoms start to emerge in mid-June and last through September. The peak of the wildflower season is generally acknowledged to be the third week in July. That’s when I was there this year.
Our destination of Arapahoe Pass is well above timberline. Timberline is defined as an imaginary boundary above which trees will not grow. Strong, frequent winds and cold temperatures limit what plants can grow there. The exact elevation of treeline is determined by climate, slope aspect and the species of tree. The timberline is at about 2,500 ft on Mt. McKinley, Alaska; 6,500 ft on Mt Shasta, California and varies from 11,000 to 12,000 feet in Colorado.
The adaptations for survival of drying winds and cold may make tundra vegetation seem very hardy, but in some respects the tundra is very fragile. Repeated footsteps often destroy tundra plants, leaving exposed soil to blow away, and recovery may take hundreds of years. Please tread lightly.
Snowfields linger for a long time here. Even though you may hike in the middle of summer, this area can still get chilly and cold, so make sure to bring warm gear and a rain jacket. Another wary consideration when hiking the high country is altitude sickness. Altitude sickness and dehydration are common ailments, especially among those climbers coming up from lower elevations. If you have altitude sickness (symptoms include headache, nausea, and dizziness) the best cure is to descend to a lower elevation.
Up there above timberline, the barren land where no trees grow, the weather can be very severe as well as unpredictable. In summer, heavy thunderstorms accompanied by dangerous lightning occur almost every afternoon like clockwork. Most savvy mountaineers plan their outings so they are safely off the summit and high ridges before the storms begin building.
Noticing the rapidly changing weather, the drop in temperature and a slight sense of vertigo and nausea I decided to play it safe. Time for me to descend to a lower elevation.
I didn’t make it to Arapahoe Pass or the top of Arapahoe Peak on this trip. I made it back to the Fourth of July Trailhead and the comfort of the car just as the rain started. My friends did make it to the summit and when they returned they were excited, but wet and cold, very cold. It was a great adventure. I took in the clear crisp high mountain air, the woody aroma of spruce and fir, the fragile beauty of alpine flowers and had a chance to re-evaluate myself amongst the mountains and friends. The mountain will still be there like a mirror waiting, next time, for another hike. Like Muir said, Going to the mountains is going home; wilderness is a necessity.
Happy Trails, Dohn