Dom’s Adventure Tour of Southwest Colorado (September-October 2013)

A Florida friend and I opt for an eight-day adventure tour of Southwest Colorado, a place neither one of us has previously visited. The trip will heavily focus on checking out national parks. As is generally the case with us, we have not made any lodging reservations in advance, but simply assume we will find hotel rooms on the road. That way, we preserve flexibility on where and when our trip finds us.

We drive our tiny rental car – a GM Spark – from the Denver airport on a Thursday night to Buena Vista, Colorado – a gateway for many adventures in Colorado. The beautiful view we see the next morning of the striking Collegiate Peaks to the west of town gives Buena Vista its name. Buena Vista beautiful view from town, Sept 2013 M

I have selected a hike on the Hartenstein Lake trail between Buena Vista and Cottonwood Pass. Immediately after we depart from the trailhead, we find ourselves immersed in the bright yellow colors of aspen trees changing color in the fall. Soon, we find ourselves hiking in a snowstorm that dumps six inches on us. A rude awakening for my Florida friend, but we press on to the lake. A disconcerting thought occurs to me: When we turn around to return to the trailhead, will we get lost due to the snow hiding our tracks on the poorly marked trail? Fortunately, this does not happen. A night spent in the national forest of Colorado at high elevations in the snow would have been quite grim for two hikers utterly unprepared for such a night.

Three days after this hike, we are stunned by the news that five hikers (three of whom were family members) have been killed in a rock slide on a Colorado trail. At first, we thought the trail was hundreds of miles away near Denver. But we then learn that they were hiking only a few miles to the southeast of our Hartenstein Lake trail.

After our hike, we reverse our plans. Instead of next driving to the Black Canyon National Park, we double back east. For much of the drive, I am cruising on a multi-lane highway, making for easy passing in the passing lane. Unfortunately, this state of affairs lulls me into complacency. I begin passing a large recreational vehicle and casually see a wonderful view of snow-capped peaks in my rear-view mirror. I nonchalantly urge my friend to have a glimpse of the wonderful view. Fortunately, my friend happens to be paying more attention to the road than I am, as he looks up from the map he is looking at to see that I am on a two-lane road with the other lane carrying traffic coming towards us. IN OTHER WORDS, I AM NO LONGER ON A MULTI-LANE HIGHWAY. He sees a vehicle in the opposing lane a short distance from us and rapidly closing on us for a possible high-speed head-on collision. YOU’RE NOT GOING TO MAKE IT!!!!, he shouts at me. Startled back into paying attention to the road rather than the mountains, I immediately realize that I’ve made a potentially deadly mistake. I hit the brakes and quickly drop back into my own lane behind the recreational vehicle. WHEW!!

Despite my driving blunder, we safely arrive at the Great Sand Dunes National Park, nestled against the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. The dunes are the tallest in North America. The dunes are otherworldly immense (32,643 acres in size, with another 40,595 acres in National Preserve). Most sand, we learn, comes from the San Juan Mountains, 65 miles to the west. The dunes are about 440,000 years in age. A storm is rolling in as we start out onto the dunes, and we are pelted by a cold rain. We press on, and are soon on a sand dune ridgeline. Here, winds that must be approaching 100 mph are pounding us. So this is what it is like to be caught in a sandstorm! We opt to stop in our tracks periodically while being battered, and quickly move forward only when the winds have mercifully died down. Finally, we arrive at our goal: we summit the highest sand dune peak at the park. For weeks afterwards, I am finding sand in my ears and in my clothes.

Here are the photos we shot during our first day of adventure. For the best view, after you are taken to the Picasa photos, click on “slideshow” in the upper left:

https://picasaweb.google.com/105049746337657914534/GreatSandDunesColorado

Here is a video I shot of the Great Sand Dunes:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=biHF_0lpPLE&feature=c4-overview&list=UUr3Iyrr6_pzCS56wz0_ELGA

On Saturday, we opt to visit the nearby Alamosa National Wildlife Refuge, which is 11,169 acres in size. Large areas of marsh flank the Rio Grande River here, and it reminds me of Paynes Prairie State Preserve in Gainesville, Florida, where I formerly lived. We then drive Route 160 west, an extremely scenic route that takes us along the south side of Colorado. My road map indicates which roads are considered scenic, but oddly, this section of Route 160 is not one of them. I suggest to make-makers that they add the route…

On our drive, we stop to enjoy the impressive Treasure Falls. See photo below.

Treasure Falls, Rt 160, Colorado, Sept 2013We visit the famous, acclaimed mountain town of Durango. The town was organized in September 1881 by the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad to serve the San Juan mining district. The city is named after Durango, Mexico, which was named after Durango, Spain. The word Durango originates from the Basque word “Urango” meaning “water town”. In 2010, 16,887 people lived in Durango. We find a noticeably vibrant town center here, despite being in an off-season. As an urban designer and transportation planner, however, I would suggest an important renovation to the town: Your main street is overweight. It is too big to create a human-scaled sense of place. Please consider putting your main street on a road diet by reducing it from four and five lanes to three lanes. You’ll end up being much more wonderful.

Here are the photos we shot while driving in southern Colorado:

https://picasaweb.google.com/105049746337657914534/SouthernColoradoSept2013

Late in the day, we arrive at Mesa Verde National Park. The park was created in 1906 to preserve the archeological heritage of the Ancestral Pueblo people, after being discovered by local ranchers in the 1880s. There are 4,500 archeological sites at the park, 600 of which are cliff dwellings. We hike the Knife Edge trail. On the Park Point trail, we watch the sun set over the horizon. While at Park Point, I am astonished to see that we can view the famous “shiprock” geological structure hundreds of miles away in Arizona. The views all around us on these two trails are big.

The next morning, we make the surprisingly long drive from the tiny town of Mancos to the famous Cliff Palace Pueblo ruins at Mesa Verde. The Pueblo started living in this area in 550 AD. The guided tour provided by the park ranger was exceptionally interesting. We also take a self-guided hike to the Soda Canyon Overlook nearby.

We then enjoy a guided tour of the Balcony House ruins, which is also embedded in the Mesa Verde cliffs. Both Balcony House and Cliff Palace afforded the Pueblo with astounding views into the distance, which surely provided good defense from possible invaders (although our rangers inform us that it is not clear that the settlers had to defend themselves in their over 700 years living there).Cliff Palace, Mesa Verde NP2, Sept 2013

At both Balcony House and Cliff Palace, we see well-preserved “Kiva Houses,” which are round depressions that acted as a venue for much of the life and ceremonies of the Pueblo.

After our visit to Mesa Verde, we finish our day with a short trip to hike the Pass Creek trail and Little Molas Lake. We find a room at the historic Grand Imperial Hotel in the historic mining town of Silverton, which is surrounded by impressive San Juan Mountains. Silverton is a former silver mining camp, most or all of which is now included in a federally designated National Historic Landmark District, the Silverton Historic District. Silverton is linked to Durango by the Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad. Silverton had a population in 2010 of 638 people.

Here are the photos we shot on this day at Mesa Verde:

https://picasaweb.google.com/105049746337657914534/MesaVerdeNPAndSanJuanMtns

Monday turns out to be The Day of Debacles. Our plan is to hike the highly-rated Highland Mary Lakes trail. But because trail guidebooks today place too much reliance on navigating by GPS (which we don’t own), the guidebooks deliver us a bum steer. Our drive on the very rough, narrow, steep, harrowing, rocky road has us make a wrong turn, which means we unknowingly hike a trail that we THINK is Highland Mary Lakes but turns out to be a nearby, seemingly unnamed trail. Fortunately, the trail – like most all trails in Colorado – is quite impressive. We realize we must not be on Highland Mary San Juan Mtns hike near Highland Mary Lakes trail8, Sept 2013Lakes trail when we thoroughly scope out the mountain ampitheatre at the end of the canyon we are hiking. Where are the three lakes, we ask ourselves. Nowhere to be found. Oops.

Because we had extra hiking time, we then opt to hike the Hope Lake trail from the optional east side approach. But again, the guidebook assumes we are using GPS, and leads us astray. We never find Hope Lake. Not only that. In our futile search, we actually lose sight of each other, and only discover each other hours after we split up.

Here are the photos we shot on this day in the San Juan Mountains:

https://picasaweb.google.com/105049746337657914534/SanJuanMtnsHiking

The next day more than compensates for The Day of Debacles.

On our drive to the town of Ouray and the Ice Lake hike, we notice that Route 550 from Silverton to Ouray is eye-popping in its splendor. So much so that there are groups of professional photographers with their $10,000 cameras and tripods at each of the road overlooks on Rt 550. Along the way, we are treated to several clusters of glowing, gorgeous, fiery yellow aspen tree clusters, and the bright strawberry red-streaked mountain peaks in our view.

I must say that in this section of my driving that unlike my near head-on collision, I was forced to pay close attention to the road, as the drive on Rt 550 from Silverton to Ouray has many more sharp hairpin turns than any road I have ever driven on.

In 2010, Ouray had a population of 1,000. Originally established by miners chasing silver and gold in the surrounding mountains, Ouray at one time boasted more horses and mules than people. Prospectors arrived in the area in 1875. At the height of the mining, Ouray had more than 30 active mines. The drive along the Uncompahgre River and over the pass is nicknamed the Million Dollar Highway.

I suggest we experience the Ice Lakes trail. It turns out to be one of the best, most gorgeous hikes we have ever done. Simply spectacular! Early in the hike, we unintentionally take a diversion side trail off the main trail in order to cross at the top of a very tall waterfall off to our right. It was a very steep climb to arrive at the precipice of the falls. Over the precipice is a wooden log structure. Logs are lashed together facing in the direction of waterfall movement, with another set of logs running perpendicular to the lashed logs. I arrive first, and notice that one side is ponded water and the other side of the wood platform is relatively dry logs (the relatively dry side, however, is unprotected, as the perpendicular logs are not between the falls and the hiker. Nevertheless, I foolishly decide that the exposed, dry logs are the place I will cross. I’m holding the trail guidebook in my right hand as I tentatively cross a section I presume is adequately safe. But I slip on an incredibly slippery log. In an instant, I am on my butt, only a few feet from surely falling to my doom over the falls. As you will see in the photos below, my hiking buddy had his camera ready and shot a photo of me only feet from my death. I jokingly tell him that it was good he got a photo, rather than doingn something to save me, and that I would return the favor if I see him plummeting over a cliff to his demise.

Overall, a VERY close call.

Ice Lake turns out to be, by far, the bluest lake I have ever seen in my life. So blue that it does not look real. It looks more like a Dr Suess cartoon. I could not stop taking photos of it.Dom on Ice Lake hike41, Oct 2013

We also hike to the nearby Island Lake, which was nearly as spectacular as Ice Lake. I also opt to hike to Fuller Lake. We then notice that the stream near us is a bright white color in its bed. Is it the “glacial till” (“white flour”) I had heard about in my geology classes in college?

Here are the photos we shot on this day in the San Juan Mountains:

https://picasaweb.google.com/105049746337657914534/IceLakeHikeOct2013

On Wednesday, we hike the Bear Creek trail, said to be the most spectacular of all four of the Bear Creek trails in Colorado. The trail has two very interesting mine site ruins: Grizzly Bear Mine and Yellow Jacket Mine. Near Grizzly Bear, we enter and explore a long mine shaft adjacent to the trail. At both mines, we puzzle over how on earth the original miners were able to haul in large, very heavy iron to build their mine processing machines. Mules? Trains?

I find myself laboring and gasping for air as I ascend the steep switchbacks of Bear Creek. I tell Mike that these miners were surely in top physical condition by having this sort of daily commute carrying their heavy pick axes up these steep trail sections. The views along Bear Creek are astounding. Did the miners even notice the views?

The Bear Creek trail is “infamous” largely because it has trails that are noticeably narrow, are often skirting along rock walls, and have a tremendous amount of exposure to very scary and enormous cliff drops. One misstep and it is all over…For us, however, while these frightening trail sections look worrisome as we come upon them, hiking on them is less dangerous than we expect.

Yellow Jacket Mine ruins, Bear Creek hike58, Oct 2013We end our day by visiting Box Canyon Falls and Cascade Falls – both of which are on the periphery of Ouray. Box Canyon Falls have a VERY loud roar. The roar of the thundering hoof beats of a huge herd of horses. We read an interpretive sign that informs us that if the energy of the falls were harnessed by a hydroelectric plant, the falls could supply nearly all of the electrical needs of the Town of Ouray. The deafening sound of the falls makes me believe it. I decide that the falls are so powerful that it would be impossible for a human to stand in them. It would be equivalent to being shot at by a machine gun spray of bullets.

Here are the photos we shot on this day in Ouray and the Bear Creek trail:

https://picasaweb.google.com/105049746337657914534/BearCreekHikeOct2013

On our final day of adventuring, we opt for a 14-mile paddle in inflatable kayaks (commonly called “duckies”), which takes us through the northern section of Gunny Gorge National Conservation Area and Wilderness on the Gunnison River. The Gunny Gorge area is 62,844 acres in size, and was designated in 1999. As I noticed during a canoe trip through Escalante Canyon on the Gunnison River, the canyons which the river passes through is a treasure trove for geology class field trips. Indeed, the geological history for these canyons is said to span 1.7 BILLION years. The Gunny Gorge has been inhabited by humans for at least 13,000 years.

During our kayak paddle, we come upon a sign that reads: “EXTREME DANGER!!!! WATERFALL AHEAD!! EXIT IMMEDIATELY!!!”

Of course, we ignore the sign – partly because our kayak rental manager had told us to do so. But then we come upon a second warning sign, and soon we are upon a river that is nearly entirely roped off by warning signposts for the falls. Did the manager lie to us? We carefully navigate to the western side, and are disappointed to see that we have therefore paddled past what looks to be a wonderfully enjoyable Class II-III sluice where the dam used to be. Damn!

Fortunately, we had previously enjoyed several Class II ripples and whitewater wave trains upstream.

In the middle of our adventure week, the dysfunctional U.S. Congress has created yet another fiasco: For the first time in 17 years, congressional fighting forced a Federal Government shutdown. The result, for us, was that our final destination – the Black Canyon National Forest – had closed and locked its gates. We surprisingly did not “stand tall for freedom” by running over the gates with our car to enter…

We were, however, one of the few Americans this past week who had not only visited three federal parks in the past few days, but had hiked on federal forest lands for many of those days as well. HMPF!

After our paddle, we drive through – for us – the previously unheard of Curecanti National Recreation Area, which is an extension of the Black Canyon adjacent to the east. Here we enjoy STUNNING fall colors. Some of the best fall colors I have ever seen. I need to return for fall colors here in future years.

A fitting conclusion to a week of adventuring in Southwest Colorado.

Here are the photos we shot on this final day on the Gunny Gorge and Curecanti NRA:

https://picasaweb.google.com/105049746337657914534/GunnyGorgeKayakingCurecantiNationalRecreationalArea

 

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Categories: 2011-Present, Colorado, Hiking, Miscellaneous, Paddling | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Summiting Longs Peak

Standing boldly, the mountain dominates the sky at 14,259 feet. Its prominent size means that it attracts dangerous Longs Pk in Rocky Mtn National Park from Knobtop trail July 2012thunder- and hailstorms nearly every day in the summer. About half of all those who attempt to summit this monster fail to reach the top. On average, two climbers die in their attempt to summit this massive mountain each year.

Longs Peak is the tallest mountain in Rocky Mountain National Park, and perhaps the most infamous, fearsome and dreaded fourteener in Colorado. A popular goal for Colorado mountain climbers is to summit “fourteeners” (mountains over 14,000 feet in elevation). And Longs, despite its dangers, is the most well-known fourteener in Colorado.

In December 2014, this danger was proclaimed by Outside Magazine, which listed Longs as one of the 20 most dangerous hikes in the world.

For several months, I had felt some anxiety about summiting Longs. A friend down the street had told me he had run a marathon, but summiting Longs was the hardest thing he had ever done in his life. Would I be in good enough shape to do it?

Each time I hiked in Rocky Mountain National Park, Longs loomed menacingly on the horizon. Could I actually climb that angry beast? And what about all of the scary lore surrounding the mountain?

On Friday, July 26, 2013, I meet a group of adventurers at the crazy hour of 3 a.m. at the “Bustop,” a “gentleman’s club” located next to a major Boulder bus stop on North Broadway. We meet to take on the mountain, and like most climbers of Longs, our plan includes meeting at this early hour to reduce the likely chance of getting caught in a dangerous storm at the summit.

Our carpool reaches the Longs Peak ranger station and trailhead at the very early hour of 4 a.m. Already the parking lot is filled almost to capacity with climbers. “Are we starting too late?” I think to myself. Indeed, in 2014, an employee for Old Town Outfitters in Longmont CO recommended starting at 2 a.m. The weather forecast, which I had checked a number of times over the past few days, has gone from a 40-percent to a 50-percent chance of afternoon thunderstorms. Would they be early afternoon storms? Or late, after we have escaped the mountain?

My group starts heading up the mountain at 4:20 a.m. In front of us is 7.5 miles of rugged, sometimes treacherous trail. Our pace is torrid, as each of us is well aware of the importance of being off the storm-battered summit as early in the day as possible. Our anxiousness is heightened by the fact that NONE of us have ever summited Longs before, which I must admit seems troubling to me.

Ahead of us is an intimidating elevation gain of 5,100 feet. This will be the tallest mountain I have ever climbed. And surely the most physically demanding.

Each of us is wearing an LED headlamp, as this early hour makes the trail corridor leading into the pine forest utterly black.

By 5:30 a.m., we are above treeline (the trailhead is perched at just over 9,000 feet in elevation). We look back to see a gorgeous, bright orange sunrise coming up over mountains to our east. Our headlamps come off.

Longs Peak climb3 July 2013Soon we reach the trail junction that takes climbers either to Chasm Lake — which I had hiked to the foot of Longs last year. Or to Longs summit. We stop at the junction to use the “privy,” and to shoot photos in the morning sun, which is making Longs a glowing giant.

Here, we are quite close to the summit, and it seems that we can reach the peak in 15 minutes. But we know from our research that we are barely into the climb. That we have several hours of arduous work in front of us to reach the top. The trail to the well-known “Keyhole” (an extremely common gateway to the summit) takes one on a circuitous, back and forth route — much of which is over the large, challenging Boulder Field.

At a little after 6 a.m., we see the “Keyhole” on the horizon. Between us is the difficult Boulder Field. For years, I had thought that a large notch near the summit was the famous “Keyhole,” but today I learn otherwise.

A few nights before, my girlfriend Ann and I were providing a farewell dinner to a woman I had been good friends with in Upstate New York 40 years ago. She was the girl I had my first crush on, and we had coincidentally chosen to live in the same town (Boulder) many years later on the other side of the country.

Like others, we heard from her that when she summited Longs many years ago, a woman with her took one look over the ridgeline of the “Keyhole,” lost her nerve, and turned back, rather than try to negotiate a trail at the edge of a terrifying cliff hundreds of feet above a rock-filled valley.Keyhole on Longs Peak climb2 July 2013

Would I find the courage and press on after glimpsing over the “Keyhole” edge? Or would I fearfully turn around, like so many others have done?

“Hell,” I tell myself as we approach it. “If lots of others can find the gumption, so can I!”

We reach the “Keyhole.” Instead of terror, I feel exhilaration. Before us is a spectacular view of mountain ranges in the Rockies. And the trail on the west side leaving the “Keyhole” (known as the Ledges) looks much less narrow than I had been warned about previously.

It is here that we first spot the “bulls eye” red and yellow circles painted on several boulders along the trail. Descriptions I had read earlier led me to believe there was only one such trail marker, and it was in a boulder field near the summit. But we thankfully find a great many markers showing us the way. Without them, it was clear to me that I would make dangerous, mistaken guesses on to which direction to head in trying to find my way.

From Keyhole on Longs Peak climb July 2013At the end of the Ledges, we reach a quite long, steep boulder field. I look up and decide the summit is surely reached just beyond this ascent. Near the top of this ascent, there is a quite steep little climb that one must negotiate. Like a number of other climbs we must overcome this day, the climb has few foot- or hand-holds. Somehow I manage to scramble up it. Once at the top, I learn that the Longs summit is NOT just ahead. Instead, we are at the gateway to the next trail section, which has the frightening name of “The Narrows.”

It is said that the final mile and a half to the summit is the most difficult part of the ascent. I soon learn why.

Instead of immediately starting on the Narrows, I must wait several minutes, as a long line of climbers are descending in the opposite direction from me, and the entrance to the Narrows is one-way in width. The group is moving exceptionally slowly, as the descent down the narrow, slick chute I had just ascended is a challenge for those going down this V-shaped passage.

Finally, the entrance is clear and I start on the aptly-named Narrows, which is quite tiny in width (only a few feet wide). And unlike the Ledges, this trail has a much more steep, almost cliff-like drop-off at its edge. It takes my breath away. “I’M GOING TO CLIMB ACROSS THAT????” Worried, I find myself deliberately leaning strongly toward the mountain to feel less like I’ll plummet to my doom down into the rocky valley hundreds of feet below.

Several times, I feel nausea. And vertigo. I think to myself about how dangerous it must be to be caught in a thunderstorm while traversing the Narrows. To top it off, I am gasping for air most of the way. Very little oxygen at the elevation we find ourselves at: well over 12,000 feet.Dom negotiating a difficult section on Longs July 2013

The Narrows turns out to be quite long. And extremely exposed (i.e., very little, if any, protection between the trail edge and the big drop-off). I had earlier convinced myself that this scary-sounding trail would be only 20 or 30 feet in length. But it actually turns out to be much, much longer than that (it seemed like well over a mile in distance to me). It is on the Narrows that one in our group of five tries repeatedly to climb a steep, slippery pitch, but is unable to do so. With deer-in-the-headlights eyes, she loses her nerve and hikes back to the keyhole. Five others could not find the courage either, as our original group of ten had narrowed to five at the trailhead.

Many of the smooth-faced boulders we climb are disconcertingly slick due to spring water issuing from the mountain. I find myself quite surprised by how treacherous some of the very tricky climbs are that I come upon during my assault. That’s me in the yellow rain jacket and Australian Barmah hat in the photo — a little worried about whether I can avoid slipping to my death.

Indeed, 20 days later, a 24-year old man plummeted 150 feet to his death during his traverse of the Narrows.

I had been ready for the tough physical exertion. But nothing could prepare me in advance for the Narrows.

Finally, I am at the end of the Narrows. Above me is about 300 feet of a very steep rock face (a section of the climb known as the “Homestretch”). But instead of feeling dread, I feel relieved. “Once I climb this, I will be at the top of Longs Peak!” I can The Homestretch on Longs Peak climb2 July 2013already see the tiny figures of climbers looking down from the summit. A photo I shot of the Homestretch is to the left.

After almost an hour of hard climbing on the face of the Homestretch, I reach the goal. I am at the summit of Longs Peak — the Top of the World — at 10 a.m.! Slightly more than 5.5 hours after starting the climb.

The views at the summit are 360 degrees of fabulous mountain ranges.

But the danger is not over, as the descent from the summit along the Keyhole route is said to be the place where most injuries occur. I learn that on the descent on the Homestretch, the steep pitch dangerously coexists with a shocking amount of loose rock and gravel. For much of my descent here, I was surprised that me and other climbers were not starting large rockslides.

A minor hailstorm begins to rain down on us. I pick up my pace as it is not clear to me that minor will not transform itself into major

We get back to the trailhead at 3 p.m.

An extremely physically demanding climb, and a number of surprisingly difficult sections that climbers must contend with. Incredible views.

An unforgettable experience.

Here is a description from Wikipedia:

Longs Peak is one of the 53 mountains with summits over 14,000 feet in Colorado. It can be prominently seen from Longmont, Colorado, as well as from the rest of the Colorado Front Range. It is named after Major Stephen Long, who explored the area in the 1820s. Longs Peak is one of the most prominent mountains in Colorado, rising 7,000 feet above the town of Estes Park, Colorado to the northeast, and 9,000 feet above the town of Lyons, Colorado to the east.

As the only “fourteener” in Rocky Mountain National Park, the peak has long been of interest to climbers.The Keyhold on Longs Peak climb5 July 2013

The first recorded ascent was in 1868 by the surveying party of John Wesley Powell. The East Face of the mountain is quite steep, and is surmounted by a gigantic sheer cliff known as “The Diamond” (so-named because of its shape, approximately that of a cut diamond seen from the side and inverted).

In 1954 the first proposal made to the National Park Service to climb The Diamond was met with an official closure, a stance not changed until 1960. The Diamond was first ascended by Dave Rearick and Bob Kamps that year, by a route that would come to be known simply as D1. This route would later be listed in Allen Steck and Steve Roper’s influential book Fifty Classic Climbs of North America.

Longs Peak has one glacier named Mills Glacier. The glacier is located around 12,800 feet at the base of the Eastern Face, just above Chasm Lake. Another permanent snowfield, called The Dove, is located north of Longs Peak. Longs Peak is one of fewer than 50 mountains in Colorado that have a glacier.

Trails that ascend Longs Peak include the East Longs Peak Trail, the Longs Peak Trail, the Keyhole Route, Clark’s Arrow and the Shelf Trail. Most days, no technical climbing is required to reach the summit of Longs Peak during the summer season, which typically runs from mid July through early September. Outside of this window the popular “Keyhole” route is still open, however its rating is upgraded to “technical” as treacherous ice formation and snow fall necessitates the use of specialized climbing equipment including, at a minimum, crampons and an ice axe.

It is one of the most difficult Class 3 fourteener scrambles in Colorado. The climb from the trailhead to the summit is 8 miles each way. Most climbers begin before dawn in order to reach the summit and return below the tree line before frequent afternoon thunderstorms bring a risk of lightning strikes. The most difficult portion of the climb begins at the Boulder Field, 6.4 miles into the climb. After scrambling over the boulders, climbers reach the Keyhole at 6.7 miles.

The Narrows on Longs Peak climb8 July 2013The following quarter of a mile involves a scramble along narrow ledges, many of which may have nearly sheer cliffs of 1,000 feet or more just off the edge. The next portion of the climb includes climbing over 600 vertical feet up the Trough before reaching the most exposed section of the climb, the Narrows. Just beyond the Narrows, the Notch signifies the beginning of the Homestretch, a steep climb to the football field-sized, flat summit. It is possible to camp out overnight in the Boulder Field (permit required) which makes for a less arduous two day climb, although this is fairly exposed to the elements. 57 people have died climbing or hiking Longs Peak. According to the National Park Service, 2 people, on average, die every year attempting to climb the mountain. In the summer of 2005 a Japanese climber was blown off a ledge after reaching the summit. On September 3, 2006 a man fell 800 feet to his death when some rocks let go while he was descending the Loft route. Less experienced mountaineers are encouraged to use a guide for this summit to mitigate risk and increase the probability of a summit.

Here are the photos I shot during the ascent. For the best view, after you are taken to the Picasa photos, click on “slideshow” in the upper left:

https://picasaweb.google.com/105049746337657914534/DomNozziSummitingLongSPeak

Categories: 2011-Present, Colorado, Hiking | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Paddling the Gunnison River between Escalante and Whitewater (July 2013)

Ann and I sign up for an adventure company group canoe trip along the 26-mile stretch between the Escalante bridge and the town of Whitewater. This section of river is mostly class I, with small amounts of class II water. We pass through both Gunnison River canoe trip70 July 2013Escalante and Dominquez Canyons, where we find extremely impressive canyon walls up to 800 feet tall, and an arid, desert-like landscape.

The 26-mile paddle takes two full days. We tent camp along the river for two nights, with our three guides providing river guidance, water and wine, three cooked meals each day, and dishwashing.

Along the way, we stop in Dominguez Canyon, where we hike into the canyon. There, we enjoy an extremely refreshing waterfall and pool of water, spot several Bighorn Sheep, and find a number of “pictographs,” which are ancient boulder drawings dating back to 400 AD. The drawings are called pictographs because the artists picked small depressions into the rock to create relatively permanent art.

While at this canyon, we learn of Billy Rambo, who has lived alone in Little Dominguez Canyon for most all of his 93 years. The Bureau of Land Management has granted him a life-lease for the 2.5 acres he lives on. His nephew is said to deliver him supplies each week.Gunnison River canoe trip41 July 2013

The river during our two days of paddling was a chocolate brown color due to a severe thunderstorm that struck the region the day before our trip, and the many flash floods the storm created had deposited a great deal of silt into the water. Nevertheless, the water cooled us down many times as we often slipped into it for a swim.

The canyon walls are fascinating because they clearly show many layers of rock, sand dune, and sediment deposition over the millions of years of the creation of the canyon. The black gneiss rock found in the Dominguez Canyon is exceptionally rare, and both the layers and the gneiss make these canyons a superb place for geology field trips and study.

The Gunnison River is formed by the confluence of Taylor and East rivers at Almont in eastern Gunnison County.

Here are the photos I shot during our trip. For the best view, after you are taken to the Picasa photos, click on “slideshow” in the upper left:

https://picasaweb.google.com/105049746337657914534/GunnisonRiverCanoeTrip

Categories: 2011-Present, Colorado, Paddling | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

My First 14er: Mt Bierstadt, June 2013

I ascended my first-ever mountain summit that is over 14,000 feet yesterday. Mount Bierstadt is in a gorgeous setting. Long vista views of valleys and the snow-capped peaks of the Rockies. And abundant wildflowers.Bierstadt Mtn hike16 June 2013

According to Wikipedia, Mount Bierstadt is found in the Front Range region of the Rocky Mountains, in Clear Creek County, Colorado, 12 miles south of the charming little mining town of Georgetown. It is one of 54 fourteeners (mountains with peaks over 14,000 feet in elevation) in Colorado. It is located approximately 1.5 miles west-southwest of Mount Evans. It was named for Albert Bierstadt, a popular painter of Colorado’s Rockies of the 19th century.

We started relatively early at 7:50 a.m. to try to avoid thunderstorms at the summit, as had the 360 hikers who had arrived before us that morning, but our timing could not have been worse. Gasping loudly for air as I scrambled up the slope (very little oxygen at 14,000 feet!), I reached the boulder field about 100 yards from the summit. When I was about 50 feet from the summit, two very loud thunderclaps roared as they struck and shook us. The hair on my arms literally stood on end, which is the first time that has happened to me since I was a teenager. Since I was so close, I did NOT turn and scramble down the mountain to get to safety, as one must do when that happens (indeed, a large group of hikers were rushing towards me as I continued ascending). I figured another 60 seconds would not significantly add to my risk. The 14,060-foot summit was irresistible, mostly because I had never climbed to 14,000 feet before.

Summit Fever.

I had become infected with the infamous, well-known affliction of many mountaineers.

Once at the summit due to my fever, I witnessed a young man PROPOSING to his girlfriend. She threw her arms straight up in the air and yelled “YES!!!” Joyfully. Quite an unforgettable proposal at 14,060 feet in the middle of a violent thunderstorm! I quickly snapped some photos. The views were so breathtaking that I could not resist, despite the thunderbolts blasting near me.

Then, as I turned and high tailed it off the summit, a strong HAILSTORM erupted. The boulder field became very slick as I leapt from boulder to boulder. (Many of the hikers with exposed skin looked like they had the measles at the bottom due to the hailstones that had pelted them.) As I looked at the wall of hail approaching us on the summit, I Bierstadt Mtn hike36 June 2013could see that the thickest part of the wall of white was passing right over our heads. We therefore had not only awful timing, but the misfortune to be in the bulls eye center of the storm.

Rushing to escape the storm, my hands became numb from the hail and cold rain, which forced me to don winter gloves. Quite an odd experience, given the fact that I was sweltering in 97-degree weather the day before in Boulder.

The hike was a good preparation hike for what I will do in four weeks: Long’s Peak, the most feared 14er in Colorado. That hike will be TWICE as long as Bierstadt, and has almost twice as much elevation gain (5,000 feet). It will be 12-14 hours of climbing up to the summit and returning to the trailhead. We will start at 3 a.m. to avoid storms. Since Bierstadt was so exhausting to me, thinking about Long’s has me a bit worried. A friend down the street has run a marathon, but he says summiting Long’s was the most difficult thing he has ever done…

Here are the photos I shot during the ascent. For the best view, after you are taken to the Picasa photos, don’t forget to click on “slideshow” in the upper left:

https://picasaweb.google.com/105049746337657914534/MyFirst14erMtBierstadt

Categories: 2011-Present, Colorado, Hiking | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Getting Strained by Boulder Creek Whitewater

Having spent over 20 years paddling nearly all of the navigable flatwater creeks and rivers in Florida, the over two decades of kayaking experience I had would be of little use when I relocated to Boulder, Colorado, a city abutting the Rocky Mountains. Here, the younger, steep mountains deliver high velocity waters due to a more abrupt force of gravity. And when rivers delivering this water do so at high water volumes, the force can be terrifying for kayakers and canoeists.

There is very little time, unlike in the gentle Florida waters, to react when paddling in the Rockies. The often rampaging current can be quite unforgiving to those who do not make split-second decisions (decisions that must be accurate), and those who do not have the strength to battle the powerful flow of water.

But my passion for kayaking would be too high for me to be dissuaded by the more risky waters found in the Rockies, so my search began for rivers and creeks that I could run.

In my first few years trying to develop the new and much more challenging task of kayaking in Boulder, my few attempts are made much more difficult by making the mistake of purchasing an expert-level “playboat” kayak, which is faster and more responsive than I am prepared for, and which would regularly flip me upside down – even in relatively gentle waters.

Eventually, I discover on a guided trip at the Colorado River with a rented kayak that an inflatable kayak is much more forgiving, and better suited to my skill level, without compromising on my adventure and adrenalin needs. Therefore, over the course of the next year, I search far and wide for an affordable inflatable kayak to buy.

Finally, I find a Stearns inflatable being sold by someone in Tacoma, Washington. The boat arrives just as Boulder is starting to see elevated water levels from spring snowmelt in 2013. Stearns Inflatable Kayak I bought in May 2013

Here in Boulder, the most popular creek for whitewater kayaking and tubing is the relatively narrow Boulder Creek. From its source at the confluence of the North and Middle Boulder forks, Boulder Creek races down Boulder Canyon and through downtown Boulder. On the east edge of the city, the creek joins South Boulder Creek, which originates at Rogers Pass on the Continental Divide, just south of the Moffat Tunnel.

After leaving the city, Boulder Creek flows northeast into Weld County, where it joins St. Vrain Creek, and on to a confluence with the Platte River. Its waters ultimately flow into the Mississippi River and the Gulf of Mexico.

At the lower flows, Boulder Creek is a technical run with lots of boulders and eddies. At higher flows (over 400 cfs), there are waves. There are small, unforgiving, man-made holes. And there is faster water.

In my research for information about running Boulder Creek by kayak, I find one description that noted that when the creek goes under Arapahoe Avenue for the second time, the river turns into a Class I-II run (much easier than upstream of that location). The description went on to point out that the creek is not very deep, which means that when higher-velocity waters are running, less skilled kayakers will be beat up if or when they flip. The creek, as this person mentions, lacks good shore eddies for novices, especially for rescues.

Given that, I am careful to scout the creek by bicycle along the Boulder Creek path. I investigate the portions of Boulder Creek within the city which I am considering running. As a relatively new whitewater kayaker, I want to avoid any big drops or big wave rapids.

In my survey, I discover that there is a section of creek that starts at 30th Street and Scott Carpenter Park and runs to the 55th Street bridge that is free of drops (waterfalls where kayakers find more challenging, scary waters).

With my new inflatable kayak, I decide I would christen the boat using my relatively novice whitewater skills in this easier this section of the creek.

For a number of days, my plans to try out my boat keep being put off by my busy schedule. Finally, on a sunny mid-June day in 2013, the opportunity arrives.

I had earlier learned that Boulder Creek at 150-400 cubic feet per second (cfs) of water flow is the best range of volume discharge for kayaking. This generally occurs in May and June. Today, however, it was running at its highest level so far for the season: 420 cfs. A level that is a bit worrisome to me. Here are two short videos I shot of what Boulder Creek looked like during the spring snowmelt run-off in June of 2011 (to give you a good idea of what I would be up against today):

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BKtn14pe3hc

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xy3rZDikwUA

My girlfriend Ann repeatedly tries to talk me out of it, thinking this high level would be too dangerous for someone with my lack of skills on a brand new, untested boat. Not only that, but I’d be paddling a stretch of river I had never been on before. And would do so without a buddy watching my back…

Generously, however, she agrees to accompany me to scout the creek by bicycle after our Sunday pancake breakfast ritual to see what the water looks like, and whether others are crazy enough to kayak or tube it. Seeing no others, we opt to bike to a kayak and tube rental shop nearby, and learn that while the creek is running too high for tubing, the shop manager and a few others had just kayaked the section I was considering the night before, and found that it was reasonably free of “strainers,” which are low-hanging tree branches that can snag kayakers and trap [and sometimes drown] them.

He convinces us that the section I am electing to run would be a good, fun idea. Ann thankfully agrees.

Ann drives me to a good put-in spot at Scott Carpenter Park. Through trial and error, I eventually figure out how to inflate my kayak to proper firmness. I then carry my very bad-ass kayak – bad-ass because it is painted in camouflage patterns to allow stealth activity and avoid having the kayaker look like a dork — to a place under the 30th Street bridge that had relatively gentle waters. Ann and I agree that she would meet me an hour later (our wild, conservative guess as to the longest possible time it could take me to navigate the distance) at an agreed-upon take-out point that we had earlier scouted. A place that raised worries as to whether I could manage to navigate to a gentle eddie where I could step out of the river – a navigation that was questionable due to the relatively high volume and velocity of the creek water on this day, and the relative lack of eddies on this creek.

Back at the put-in point we found, I slip into my camo bad-boy kayak under the 30th Street bridge. Ann bids farewell and bicycles down the creek path, hoping to catch (worried) glimpses of me (and jealous because she can now see that the creek water looks like a lot of fun). I happily and confidently inch forward with my paddle, and the current soon grabs me.

I’m off!

Very soon, I am feeling as if I perhaps got myself into more than I bargained for. The water and waves are bigger and faster than I had anticipated. The current is so strong (particularly compared to the quiet Florida waters I was accustomed to) that I quickly realize I would have to rapidly and strongly paddle hard to avoid being sent crashing into tree branches. Two unexpectedly large S-turns require me to quickly learn how to dig in with my paddle and steer into the middle of the current. PAY ATTENTION, DOM! YOU ARE NOT IN KANSAS (Florida) ANYMORE!

My breathing is coming hard, and worry is in my head. Would the boat repeatedly flip like my earlier kayak had done – sending me into the icy cold snowmelt waters?

Fortunately, my new boat turns out to be very stable and never gives the impression that it is on the verge of flipping.

Several times, the strong current disconcertingly forces me under small tree branches that harmlessly brush over and past me. Whew! Boulder_creek_colorado

No big tree limbs yet. Nothing strong enough to catch me in a deadly strainer.

But I do find myself at this point beginning to question the accuracy of the claim that this stretch of the creek was relatively free of strainers and other obstacles. And I realize that because I am on much faster water than I had expected, I would finish running this section in what seems like 3 minutes. NOT an hour!

Another hair-raising, unexpected discovery then appears. I have not one, but two drops and big waves in front of me! I had seen no drops while scouting the section twice. What are these doing here? Am I ready to navigate over them? Probably not, I decide. Here comes trouble…

But again, my inflatable shows impressive stability and I go over both drops so free of incident that my confidence level soars.

Until I come to the next turn.

In front of me is a seemingly impenetrable wall of vegetation. I immediately spot two small gaps in the vegetation on both edges of the creek channel. Which one to take? I choose the one on the right.

Bad decision.

The “gap” is surprisingly choked with relatively large branches, and my kayak is instantly squeezed and trapped by the pushy water under one of them. I am unceremoniously dumped out of my boat and into the madly rushing current. It is my first-ever experience with a “serious” strainer.

And I must, without hesitation, decide how to save myself. Instantly. No time to think. The current is too fast and too strong to give me even a second to figure out how to solve my problem. Instinctively, I realize I must somehow stay with my boat to save myself from the furious current – a current which is a mighty force trying to tear my frantic grip from the tree branch I have grabbed in the strainer of caught branches.

I am situated slightly ahead of my stuck kayak – so stuck that I cannot budge it. With all my strength, I try to pull myself back to my boat. But after several minutes of trying, it is no good. I am not making any progress against the 430 cubic feet per second of snowmelt water bearing down on me, and seemingly fighting me to prevent me from rescuing my kayak.

The problem is made worse by the fact that I can only use one hand to pull, as my other hand must hold onto my paddle. Without the paddle, I will be utterly unable to navigate the fiery whitewaters downstream from me.

Then an idea occurs to me: Instead of working directly against the current by taking the shortest route back to my boat, I opt to GO AROUND the current by working my way into the tangle of tree branches to the left of my kayak.

It works.

After several minutes using my new tactic, I somehow manage to get alongside the kayak. But the inflated portions of my boat are tenaciously being held by the branch stubs. Nevertheless, through a series of strategic lifting of branches and pushing my boat in various directions, I free my kayak from its tree prison. Because I am now separated from my boat by a large branch, I decide I must pull myself over the branch and hop (flop?) into the kayak. I must also align myself within the kayak quickly enough to be able to immediately and strongly navigate in the angry, high-speed waters.

To my horror, a relatively large tree branch has somehow managed to perch itself across the front of my kayak bow. I realize I cannot continue with this monster log on my boat, so I take a moment to flip it off with my paddle.

Another mistake.

Not even a second is available when creek water rages below me. With terror in my eyes, I turn my head in the downstream direction and realize that I am only a few feet from ANOTHER drop. And this is the biggest one I’ve faced so far. No time to right my boat to face downstream. I immediately and unintentionally find myself going over the drop and rapids. Backwards. Not a good maneuver for a whitewater novice in a new boat. In an angry torrent of rushing water.

But again, my kayak stays upright and I am shocked to find myself passing the drop and rapid as if I was an expert.

After some worry that I have inadvertently passed the agreed-upon take-out bridge (and the thought that doing so would doom me, as I have no way to inform my girlfriend that I had passed her by), I spot the familiar bridge I had spotted earlier that would signal I was at the take-out point. I confidently and calmly steer my kayak to the eddie I had spotted while scouting.

Another unforgettable, adrenalin-pumping adventure has come to a successful end. And I can’t wait to ride that snake again…

 

Categories: 2011-Present, Colorado, Paddling | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Loving Cozumel in 2013 (February 2013)

This adventure started with an incredible family travel coincidence. Ann made reservations for me and her to spend a week snorkeling and scuba diving in Cozumel, Mexico – a paradise for water sports (particularly scuba diving). We are to arrive on February 20th and depart on February 27th.

A day after Ann made the reservations, we learned from my mom that my two sisters and one of my nieces will be getting on a cruise ship departing from Miami in the near future.

One place they will spend a day off the ship?

Cozumel.

On February 21st.

When we booked our trips, none of us knew of the plans of others.

What are the chances of this happening??

Ann and I ended up spending a wonderful week in Cozumel.

My two sisters visited us on our second day in Cozumel, and we enjoyed snorkeling and diving with them off the hotel dock. We didn’t learn until after our trip to Cozumel was booked that their cruise ship trip would be stopping in Cozumel the day after we arrived. A pleasant, astonishing coincidence.

We lodged at the Villa Aldora hotel very close to the presidential retreat (you will see several photos of Villa Aldora in my link below). The hotel patio we ate breakfast at each morning was only a few feet from a very nice snorkeling area. Waters were warm (83 to 85 degrees), impossibly clear, dazzling blue in color, and sitting atop snow white sandy and coral bottoms. Our dive operator was Aldora Divers, widely recognized as the best dive operators on the island. Each morning their dive boats would arrive at our hotel dock to take us diving (the Cozumel14dock was only a few feet from our room). My big dives were at Palancar Caves, Columbia Deep, Santa Rosa Wall, and Punta Sur – each of which provide utterly gorgeous, vibrantly colorful reef walls, tropical fish, and spectacular swim-throughs (I LOVE swim-throughs!). The following video, while not shot during my dives, shows diving at the Columbia and Santa Rosa sites I dove over the past few days in Cozumel:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=516KZ2nOCoA

I had SEVERAL eye-popping encounters with VERY large marine life: lobsters, green moray eels, eagle rays, black-tip sharks (the shark in the video is a black-Cozumel16tip about the size of the three or four I encountered), turtles, spotted eels, queen angelfish, and barracuda.

This link shows photos I (mostly) shot during the trip. Since I didn’t have an underwater camera, the shots of marine life and reef formations were not shot by me, but were shot by another diver during my dives. For the best view, after you are taken to the Picasa photos, don’t forget to click on “slideshow” in the upper left:

https://picasaweb.google.com/105049746337657914534/Cozumel2013

On Sunday night, we went to the Cozumel town center and had a DELICIOUS, authentic dinner at a restaurant that is very popular (with good reason!) with locals (we hate touristy places!). During dinner, street performers entertained us with flaming torches, as you will see in the photos. We then walked to the town square where a large number of festive locals had gathered to enjoy a very good horn band. We danced the night away on the plaza there.

Throughout our stay in Cozumel, we had the good fortune to eat at a number of great, funky restaurants popular with the local population. Our favorites were Café Indio, Del Sur, Casa Denis, and Corazon Contento. We also had lunch at a taco stand that served out-of-this-world fish tacos.

It was a four-hour direct flight from Denver to Cancun, Mexico when we returned home. Because Cozumel is relatively close to the equator, we had severe weather shock when we returned to Denver and Boulder. The morning of our departure in Cancun found us at a Cancun bus station. It was sunny, humid and VERY hot. Sweating profusely in 90-degree temperatures. A few hours later, we were walking from the downtown Boulder bus station to our house. The temperature was windy and about 15 degrees. We were so painfully cold that we opted to take a taxi after a few blocks, even though we were about five blocks from home. We had gone from “middle of summer” weather to “middle of winter” weather in four hours.

Ann and I hope to make return trips to Cozumel again and again.

 

Categories: 2011-Present, Caribbean, Diving, Miscellaneous | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Hiking and Biking Crested Butte CO (July 2012)

Ann and I depart for three and a half days of hiking and biking in the high alpine mountains of Central Colorado on a Tuesday morning. Rather than the dreaded, stressful I-70 route, we opt for Rt 285 from Denver on our way to the Rockies, passing across the magnificently expansive valley just beyond the Lost Creek Wilderness, and then through Buena Vista, onto Cottonwood Pass road to cross Cottonwood Pass at the Continental Divide. In the Gunnison National Forest, we skirt the huge Taylor Park Reservoir, and then up Rt 135 into Crested Butte.

There, in the Crested Butte town center, we arrive at our AirBnB lodging, a funky old two-story place run by a female artist, who turns out to be a very nice host. She happily takes us on a short bike ride to show us the important nearby establishments, such as the bike shop, Eldo brewpub, and a few recommended restaurants.

Crested Butte is surprisingly bustling with summer adventure tourists in July. And for good reason. I had previously researched the trails in the area on the Internet, and learned that Crested Butte is home to an impressive selection of trails. Sadly, as is common for me, I must choose one or two trails out of the many on my list, and vow to return in future years to sample the ones I will miss.

My hiking trail research goes out the window, as we learn from another guest at our lodge that we should hike the West Maroon Pass trail, which is not on my long list of trails. I agree to this with great hesitation. After all, if none of my Internet research and none of the Crested Butte hiking maps list this trail, how good can it be?

Plenty good, it turns out.

On our first morning, then, we drive up the highly scenic Gothic Road out of north Crested Butte. The road takes us by Mt Crested Butte ski area, aspen groves, and rolling yellow valleys filled with skunk cabbage – a view that reminds me of the Tuscan Valley in Italy.

After 11 miles, we arrive at Schofield Pass on the Continental Divide. We see a trailhead marker for the famed #401mountain bike trail, where I had earlier thought would also be the West Maroon Pass trailhead. But looking again at my map, it appears that the West Maroon is further down the mountain forest road. At a fork in the road, we guess that we should head toward “Schofield Park.” Fortunately, we guess right, as we soon come upon a trailhead parking lot.

The trail starts out in a pleasant pine forest. Soon the forest opens up into a meadow, where a wood cabin ruin sits. Once past the cabin, the trail takes us into a spectacular, breathtaking, U-shaped valley with wonderful views of tall mountains in several directions, along a trail sprinkled with a colorful diversity of wildflowers. While we understand that this is a “down” year for wildflowers due to relatively little snow and rain in the preceding winter and spring, Crested Butte is a world-class venue for wildflowers, so we are nevertheless treated to quite a show.

Much of the West Maroon Pass trail follows the Continental Divide on its way to the Pass. The trail generally follows a creek, and a few highly scenic waterfalls can be seen along the way. Past the waterfalls, the trail starts heading up in elevation towards the Pass. Here, the wildflower meadows become stupendous. All around us are mountain ranges, valleys, and brightly-colored flowers. I cannot stop shooting photos.

As we near the Pass, we leave the lush vegetation and enter a boulder field above the tree line. Above us is the ridgeline. The trail seems rather steep, and the hikers at the Pass look like tiny insects.

Once at the Pass, we find an amazing setting. The ridgeline is as sharp as a knife. One can tell which hikers have hiked to the Pass from Aspen six miles to our north. They are the hikers sitting facing south into the valley in the direction of Crested Butte to admire the view they did not get on their hike. Those of us who hiked to this Pass from Crested Butte, on the other hand, can be known because we sit facing north into the equally impressive mountain valleys in the direction of Aspen.

To our 10 o’clock from the Pass facing north is the world famous Maroon Bells peak.

On our descent back, we decide we shall return to do an overnight backpack hike from Aspen to what Aspenites call the EAST Maroon Pass hike. We stop for a dip in the cold, clear waters below the waterfalls on our way back to Schofield Pass. Ahhhh!!!!!!

I finish the day with a pint of “The Stout,” a delicious beer brewed by Eldo Brewpub. While doing so, I step out onto the familiar second-story deck of Eldo where, several years ago, a friend and I were standing at this very spot to watch the annual Crested Butte mardis gras parade after a day of skiing the extreme slopes of Mount Crested Butte.

To see more photos I shot during the West Maroon Pass hike, go to the following link (when the link brings you to Picasa, select “slideshow” in the upper left for the best view): https://picasaweb.google.com/105049746337657914534/WestMaroonPassTrailCrestedButteJuly2012

For dinner this night, we opt for Marchitelli’s Gourmet Noodle, which serves outstanding food in the town center.

Speaking of the town center, Crested Butte has a compact, relatively walkable grid of streets that I was pleased to see.

The next morning was one I was excitedly looking forward to for days, ever since seeing a number of sources indicate that the #401 trail in Crested Butte is one of the best mountain bike trails in North America (despite the unimaginative, boring trail name…).

Ann very generously gives me a ride up to Emerald Lake on Gothic Road near the #401 trailhead fairly early in the morning (she is not a morning person, which adds to my appreciation). Most mountain bicyclists – impressively – actually ride up from much further down the mountainside on Gothic Road (typically starting at the Jud Falls trailhead). But even starting at Emerald Lake, the 10,000 feet of elevation finds me having to walk up much of Gothic Road to get to the Schofield Pass trail start.

And it is no picnic for the rider even starting from the Pass, as the first few miles of the single-track trail climb fairly steeply into the Continental Divide ridgeline. I end up walking for nearly all of this ascent, but do so happily as I anticipate the joyous ride that awaits me.

The forest opens up at the top of this section, and I can already see the stupendous mountain and valley views all around me, not to mention the lovely wildflower meadows. In front of me is about nine continuous miles of unparalleled downhill on mostly smooth, high-speed single-track. While I anticipate future rides at much higher velocities, on my first ride I find myself being compelled to stop every few hundred feet to shoot a photo of a seemingly endless series of breathtaking views.

For many sections, however, I do reach rather high speeds, which elicits from me occasional loud whoops and hollers as I enjoy the exhilarating experience of riding in such a gorgeous alpine mountain setting.

I am riding alone, which in its own way is quite pleasant as I have no need to feel rushed when I frequently stop to shoot another photo, and no need to feel as if I’m slowing down others when photo ops turn up.

Overall, the #401 trail is one of the best mountain bike rides I have ever ridden, and possibly THE best ride I’ve ever done. But while the trail is somewhat technical in a few spots due to some steep creek return valleys, some tight turns, and some rocky areas, the greatness of this trail is much less due to the adrenalin rush of screaming downhills and turns. The unforgettable nature is much more due to the world-class mountain and valley surroundings.

Granted, the trail does allow me to feel high-speed, plummeting joy, but more often than not, I find myself being too distracted by the incredible views to stay focused on the trail in front of me (a focus that is certainly needed if one seeks to bomb down a run).

On this day, I am not only riding without companion riders, but I only come across one or two riders all day, which gives me the sensation that I have the entire mountain range and valley to myself.

This ride feels lush not only due to the thick meadows of wildflowers, by the way, but also the dense growth of green and yellow skunk cabbage found throughout the meadows.

To see more photos I shot during this ride, go to the following link (when the link takes you to Picasa, select “slideshow” for the best view): https://picasaweb.google.com/105049746337657914534/MtnBiking401TrailCrestedButteJuly2012

My ride ends all too soon on #401 (but I know I will be back again). Riding down Gothic Road back to Crested Butte, I stop at the horse stable near Mt Crested Butte and am happy to see that I am at the trailhead for the Snodgrass Trail, a mountain bike ride I have on my list. I call Ann to confirm that she is okay with my being delayed because I am riding Snodgrass, and get a green light.

Snodgrass, at least from the east trailhead, features a rather long uphill climb. But soon I find myself on excellent single-track – much of which meanders through gorgeous aspen groves. Adding to the fun on Snodgrass is how the trail has a weaving-through-trees slalom pattern.

Ann and I depart Crested Butte. We stop at Lake Irwin where Ann goes for an enjoyable swim. In the forested mountains, we follow several miles of the dirt road known as Keebler Pass Road. At Paonia Reservoir, we head north on Rt 133 on our way to Redstone. Along the way, we stop to admire Hayes Creek Falls. That night in Redstone, we enjoy a nice outdoor café dinner, and have the good fortune of having Peter Karp and Sue Foley serenade us with their blues and folk guitar (http://www.karpfoley.com/).

We depart Redstone and head north for I-70. Heading east, we stop at Hanging Lake, a highly popular spot. But we decide not to have a look as the place is full of cars and people.

Instead, we choose to hike the North TenMile Trail for lunch.

Heading east again on the Interstate, Ann decides the drive is too intolerable, so we opt to divert off onto Central City Parkway. The Parkway utterly shocks me for its extreme wastefulness. We find ourselves on a four-lane divided highway that is EMPTY of other cars. It is the most over-capacitied road I have ever seen.

The gambling towns of Central City and Black Hawk are charming old (former) mining towns, with charming little streets and historic buildings.

Our total mileage driven was an eye-popping 550 miles. Our plan is to return in the future to Crested Butte for more hiking, biking and paddling in that world-class summer playground. But this time, we plan to stay put in Crested Butte. And hope to arrive by train or bus…

Categories: 2011-Present, Bicycling, Colorado, Hiking | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Hotpooling & Hiking Steamboat Sprgs, Then Kayaking the Colorado River (May 2012)

Ann and I decide to initiate the summer 2012 adventure season with a multi-day and multi-sport trip to northern Colorado. Sounds very good to me, I tell her appreciatively.

First stop: Steamboat Springs. Never did I think that this small skier paradise town would be of any interest in the warm months. I soon discover how wrong I am.

We drive through town and follow a long dirt road seven miles upslope into the mountains. My first thought is that this road must be impossible to navigate in winter with anything less than a large snowcat mountain vehicle. A steep, unpaved road like this would be unthinkable to drive in a passenger car when the route is buried in several feet of winter snow – as it surely must be for much of each winter.

Our destination is Strawberry Hot Springs. Ann has been here before. Her last visit was on September 11, 2011, the day of infamy where she first learned of the plane attack on the World Trade Center towers.

The hot springs were long ago used by the Ute Indians, who believed that the steam rising from the Strawberry Park Hot Springs contained their creator’s essence. The Utes soaked in the springs to rejuvenate their soul.

The area surrounding the hot springs was eventually settled by Europeans around 1870. The first owner grew tired of chasing off trespassers, and sold the springs to the city of Steamboat Springs for $1 in 1936.

In the 1970s, neighbors regularly complained about loud, wild parties at the springs, which contributed to the City deciding to sell the property to a private owner.

During our day and overnight camp at the hot springs, we are to learn that private ownership has resulted in an impressive, luxurious, classy restoration of the springs.

Today, one finds high-quality tent camping, “covered wagon” cottages, cabins, a clean and pleasant bathhouse (containing showers, sinks, and toilets), stone masonry walls forming edges for walkways and the numerous hot pools, created waterfalls, very warm mineral water pools, sandy pool bottoms, and pine lounge chairs. Overall, the park is very well done. I am particularly impressed by the fact that unlike so many of the hot springs found in Colorado — which tend to be little more than artificial, concrete and hokey swimming pools – Strawberry Hot Springs is rather charming, romantic and tasteful.

While there, I am amused to learn that after dark, clothing is optional, which apparently explains why I notice such a large group of pool users arriving as the sun sets. The next morning, we find a bra hanging from a shrub near a pool, which leads me to speculate that at night, the pools are not only populated by nudists, but also by, shall we say, “adult activities.” I was sorry to have turned in to our tent too early on our night at the springs…

At our arrival, the first order of business is not to set up our camp, but to get into the soothing warm mineral pools. We relax in the pools for hours of therapeutic soaking. We feel our stress and worries (and the soreness of my muscles from just having run the Bolder Boulder 10-kilometer road race) melting away.

We set up our tent, which is on a wonderful unpaved pad sitting next to the hot springs stream. I chuckle at the swinging wood door that sits alone without connecting walls at the “entrance” of our camp site. First time I have ever camped at a site with a wooden “front door.”

After our tent is up, we quickly head back for another leisurely soak in the pools. AHHHHHHHHHHH!!!!…

The next morning, we make oatmeal and tea. We then take our third soak in the pools, and then break camp.

On this sunny Wednesday morning, our plan is to hike all day. We’ve been told that there are many wonderful trails in the Steamboat Springs area, so Ann decides to randomly stop at a trailhead just down the road from the hot springs park entrance. At the information kiosk, a map of the “Bear Creek Trail” is posted, but it is the most uninformative trail map I have ever seen. All one sees is a crooked dashed line from the “you are here” arrow to some destination off to the right edge of the map. There is no distance stated. No elevation profile or gradient mentioned. No natural or human features noted along the trail.

Since our intended hike for the day is relatively short, we opt to add this rather unknown, featureless trail to our day hiking. “There must be at least a Bear Creek along the way,” after all.

As I expect, for our few hours of hiking on the trail, we come across no features of note. The trail is almost entirely uphill from the trailhead. It follows pleasant forest and low-lying scrub trees and sagebush. Perhaps the leading reward for the hiker on Bear Creek Trail are the expansive, impressive views of hills, valleys and ski mountains in the Steamboat Springs region.

Each of the stream beds that we find along the way are dry, by the way. Perhaps they are intermittent streams. But perhaps we are seeing the effects of a winter snowpack that is only seven percent of normal levels for the winter that has just passed…

We drive down the road, where we find the highly touted Fish Creek Falls Trail, which is also north of Steamboat Springs. This trail is highly touted for good reason, we are to learn. There are two major falls along the trail. Lower Falls is a very short walk on a smooth path from the trailhead parking. Perhaps the most spectacular falls in all of mountainous Colorado. This is a big WOW falls. Don’t miss it.

The trail then becomes a 2.5-mile hike up a rather steep incline to the second Upper Falls. This trail alternates between being smooth and level, and somewhat rocky. Great views of the valley and canyon are found along the way. Much of the trail follows pleasant aspen and pine forest. We spot a gorgeous, extremely colorful small bird along the way that we have never seen before (later, I learn it is a Western Tanager). The Western Tanager sports a dayglow fire engine red head, and a black and yellow body.

Midway up the trail, a woman on her way down the trail approaches me and asks, “Are you from Gainesville FL?” She informs me that she remembers seeing me working out at a fitness center in Gainesville. It occurs to me that Gainesville is 1,750 miles from this remote northern trail in Colorado, and I have not worked out at the Gainesville fitness center for at least 8-10 years. We live in a small world…

Our final adventure for this late May excursion in central Colorado is a half-day inflatable kayak trip from the Pumphouse Recreation Area put-in to the Radium Recreation Area on the Colorado River. This will be my first-ever taste of paddling the mighty Colorado River and it will be my first experience trying to shift from 20 years of rigid-body kayaking to an inflatable kayak.

During our drive down to Kremmling CO from Steamboat Springs, we pass by several antelope grazing near Rt 40, which I have never seen before in the wild.

I am excited because I have never been on the Colorado, and because I have recently learned that the inflatable kayak (IK) may be just what someone with my skills and paddling needs requires to enjoy kayaking in Colorado (given my being an adrenalin junkie who has spent his kayaking career on the relatively placid flat waters of Florida).

The start of the paddle finds me feeling surprisingly uncomfortable, despite the gentle ripples I am floating over, and despite my handful of prior experiences with some whitewater paddling last year. The IK is relatively short and rounded, which means I find great difficulty remaining stable, holding a straight line, or guiding the boat in directions I desire.

But not for long.

Soon, I am confidently and comfortably paddling. I am no longer timidly following our trip leader to know where to safely paddle. Instead, I am strongly and purposefully out front, picking good lines and enjoying the wave trains – gentle as they may be (but just right for a Florida flatwater kayaker out for his first time of the season). I quickly vow to seek out more in the way of Class II+ and Class III water, and on an IK of my own.

Also helpful in reducing my embarrassing anxiety on this day is that the Colorado River is a very, very low 330 cfs (compared to over 1500 cfs this time last year). As I noted above, the very tiny snowpack from the recent winter season is creating quite disappointing conditions for paddlers throughout the state as we head into the summer whitewater season. Another comparison of how 330 cfs is bone dry for this stretch of the Colorado: The record volume for this location at the Pumphouse was 11,400 cfs in 1984.

Our river section turns out to be rather scenic. We pass through the impressive Little Gore Canyon (the more tame and doable version of the forbidding, Class V Gore Canyon just upstream, which hosts the national whitewater kayaking championships). We stop for a quick soak at a lovely little hot spring that borders the river along the way.

Because we are out of the water earlier than expected, we opt to drive Trail Ridge Road through Rocky Mountain National Park on the way back to Boulder. This is the highest continuously paved road in the United States. From Kawuneeche Visitor Center where we start our drive at the park’s Grand Lake Entrance, Trail Ridge Road follows the North Fork of the Colorado River north through the Kawuneeche Valley. There are several trailheads along this section of the road, notably the Colorado River Trailhead, which is the western terminus of the road segment closed during the winter.

The road crosses the Continental Divide at Milner Pass (elev. 10,758 ft) and reaches a maximum elevation of 12,183 ft, near Fall River Pass (elev. 11,796 ft).

Near the start point of our drive at Grand Lake, we encounter a pair of enormous moose which are feeding on the tender spring leaves of brush near us. The males sport their young, fuzzy antlers.

Further down the road, we drive sections that induce vertigo, as the narrow road drops several hundred feet abruptly on both sides of us. The snow-capped mountains standing at over 12,000 feet in elevation on either side of us are awesome as they jut into the sky they dominate.

Our final taste of the National Park is our encounter with a large number of elk, which we find lazily grazing alongside the road in several locations.

This YouTube video consists of photos I shot during this trip: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DKeNQAir1Hs

Categories: 2011-Present, Colorado, Hiking, Paddling | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Hiking Twin Sisters, Rocky Mountain National Park (May 2012)

Long on my list of hikes I’ve been wanting to sample, I was glad to sign up for an opportunity to join a group hike on a Saturday morning in late May to summit Twin Sisters in Rocky Mountain National Park.

My calendar reminds me, however, that Saturday is my last training run for the 2012 Bolder Boulder 10-kilometer run. I’ve been training for five continuous months, and on that Saturday I am supposed to continue to “taper” by running an easy 20-minute jog. Would a five-hour hike – steep enough to be rated “difficult” by hiking maps – be a suitable replacement for the jog? I decide to opt for the hike as a form of “cross-training.” And even if the hike is not suitable, I could always run for 20 minutes after the hike…

The morning features skies that are clear of clouds. But our skies are not the deep blue clear I’ve come to love and expect in Boulder. There is a noticeable haze blanketing the Rockies. We soon learn that the enormous 100,000-acre wildfire currently raging in New Mexico to our south is creating a smoky haze in the Rockies.

At first, I’m disappointed, as this means an obscured view of the snow-capped mountains. But later, halfway into our hike, we cross a hiker coming down from the summit. We ask if the views are substandard, given the smoky skies. He informs us that even if he had knew in advance what kinds of views he’d have with the smoke, he’d still opt to do it, as the views are spectacular.

Even with the smoke.

Twin Peaks is a “double summit.” The “difficult” rating for the hike is that the 3.9 miles from trailhead to the summit is all uphill. And rather rocky near the summit. The trailhead is relatively close to the summit, but when we glimpse at the summit from where we start the hike, it appears that the hike will be straight up a sheer, vertical rock face. There is a 2,340 ft elevation gain from trailhead to summit, but looking up at the summit makes it seem like a lot more.

The trail surface, for the first three miles, is relatively smooth and softened with a pine needle duff as it passes through a pine forest. As the trail goes above the tree line, the last quarter mile of the trail crosses a rocky scree field to the summit.

And at an elevation above 11,000 feet, even those of us who have trained for Bolder Boulder are huffing and puffing given the scarcity of oxygen at this altitude. The sister we choose to summit stands at 11,428 feet. The “sibling” is close by, but I decide not to engage in a twin summit, as I am concerned about over-exerting just before the 10K. And the lingering concern that I might twist an ankle while doing so, and thereby throwing away five months of difficult training for the 10K.

At the summit, we are rewarded with stunning, 360-degree views of surrounding Rockies – particularly awesome are the views of Longs Peak, which dominates the sky for much of this hike.

Joining us at the summit are two well-fed marmots, which aggressively beg us for lunch food.

I decide after returning home from the hike that I don’t have the energy to run for 20 minutes. The hike was more than enough. “Tapering,” though, it was not.

This YouTube video consists of photos I shot during this hike: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2rtgWiwR7Ck

Categories: 2011-Present, Colorado, Hiking | Tags: , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Hiking Coulson Gulch Trail in the Roosevelt National Forest (May 2012)

Under crystal clear, 80-degree noontime skies in mid-May 2012, we set off on the Coulson Gulch trail (known as the deadly sterile and utterly unromantic “916” trail by the bureaucrats at the National Forest Service). Easy, often level, sandy trail hike with several moderate ups and downs, as it crosses several dry stream beds through a relatively narrow, wooded valley. Nine miles round trip but could be easily made shorter as this is an out and back spur trail, not a loop. The first portion of the trail takes the hiker through a quiet pine forest. Eventually, the path joins the very pleasant North St Vrain Creek, which is a highly scenic whitewater creek passing through a very photogenic canyon. The creek provides many secluded swimming holes of ice cold, clear water — great for skinny dipping after a hot day of hiking (which, of course, we did). The trail passes a historic old, roofless cabin still containing a rusty old bedspring and stove. Big Elk Meadow is another highly scenic meadow that this trail passes through.

The trail is west of Lyons off Hwy 36. The trail gets very little use, which provides for a quiet, secluded experience.

Dispersed camping is allowed along the trail, and many nice campsites can be found on the south side of the creek and along the trail.

The trailhead starts at 7,700 feet of elevation.

This link is a YouTube video of the photos I shot during our hike:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Sml-FHM_SLk

Categories: 2011-Present, Colorado, Hiking | Tags: , , , | 1 Comment

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