Sunday, September 29, 2013

Mount Langley (14,026 feet)

"Uh oh.  Too late," a Japanese hiker insisted, shaking his head.  "Very windy on top," warned a second Japanese hiker as he eyed our thin short sleeved shirts.  Sierra and I reassured the hikers that we had warmer gear stowed in our packs, then continued up old Army Pass heading toward Mount Langley.

At 14,026 feet, Mount Langley is one of California's easier "14ers," making it a popular climb.  But the many hikers we met descending from Mount Langley had all woken early for an "alpine start," and were now headed back down to the warmth and safety of their camps and cars.  Sierra and I hadn't started hiking until 9am, and had stopped for a lengthy lunch break to set up camp at Cottonwood Lake 3.  We were definitely behind schedule to reach the summit that day.

Undaunted, we pressed on, ready for whatever adventures the day would bring.  A wall of wind greeted us at the top of Army Pass.  We stopped briefly to layer up before continuing to climb the rocky, desolate ridge.  The sandy ridge held a variety of tracks from both hikers and bighorn sheep, creating a maze of use trails leading up to the final, rocky base of Mount Langley.  From there, climbers are faced with a variety of options to reach the summit plateau. 

Turning around to scan the ridge we had just traversed, I spotted a tawny shape bounding across the rocks.  As I watched, several more tawny shapes came into focus as a small flock of about 15-20 bighorn sheep crossed the ridge.  We stopped to watch them for a few minutes before turning back to pick a route up the climb.

Reaching the summit plateau, we hurried to the high point where we enjoyed a brief celebration ... Sierra's fifth 14er!  With relatively clear skies we enjoyed incredible views north to Mount Whitney and back to the southern Sierra Nevada mountains.  A cold, brisk wind prompted us to add more layers and prepare for the descent.

After a quick, Class 2 scramble, we found ourselves trudging back along the sandy ridge, which was now completely desolate, abandoned by both hikers and bighorns.  Sensing movement, I looked up to spy three bighorn ewes and one lamb traversing the ridge above.  Awestruck, we watched until they disappeared over the rocky horizon.

With daylight quickly disappearing, we scrambled down the rocky old Army Pass.  Evening shadows already cloaked the Cottonwood Lakes, but a bright golden alpenglow lingered on the rocky peaks above.  We returned to our camp at dusk, and hiked out the next day.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Bighorn Sheep on White Mountain Peak

Thick smoke from Yosemite's Rim Fire poured into the Owen's Valley, completely obscuring our view of the Sierra Nevada mountains.  Although the smoke was filling the valley and continuing east over the White Mountains, we decided to head to White Mountain Peak (14,252 feet), near the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest, hoping to climb above the smoke.

At 14,252 feet, White Mountain Peak is the third highest mountain in California.  It is also reputed to be one of the easiest 14ers to climb because there is a dirt 4WD road all the way to the top, which is a mere 14 miles round trip from the trailhead. The 4WD road is closed to motorized vehicles other than those traveling to the White Mountain research stations.  While we saw several vehicles parked at the Barcroft research station, two miles from the trailhead, we did not see any other vehicles as we hiked.

We did not see any other hikers either.  Then, about two miles from the summit, the floodgates opened as multiple groups of hikers passed by, descending from the summit.  Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, and several other princess costumes hiked by, leaving us feeling underdressed for the summit.  We later learned that the costumed hikers and many others were part of a large group of UC Davis ecology students on a field trip.

Climbing above the rapidly descending clouds, we spotted a bighorn sheep, cautiously observing us near the trail.  Continuing on we reached the summit, which was deserted.  Usually climbers enjoy incredible views of the Sierra Nevada mountains from the summit of White Mountain Peak.  But smoke from Yosemite's Rim Fire obscured our views, reducing the rugged Sierra Nevada mountains to a vague outline through the thick haze.

Descending from the summit, we spotted a large flock of bighorn sheep grazing near the trail.  A lone coyote loped along the hillside beneath them.  A few miles farther down the trail, a single bighorn sheep sauntered across our path.

The sun was low in the sky by the time we reached our car.  We enjoyed the bright red hues of the smoky sunset as we slowly drove back on the rough, dirt road, headed for home.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Day 29: Red Gate to Durango

Although we woke to clear blue skies, last night's rain had soaked everything around us.  Drops of water covered the cuben fiber material of our tent.  Water clung to the leaves of the shrubs and plants, soaking through our clothing as we brushed past.

We kept up a good pace, but stopped frequently to investigate interesting sites along the way: large, tan-colored fungi growing from a dead log, a blue spotted beetle, a marshy pond with tall, deep green reeds.  We also stopped to relax and enjoy the view at Gudy's Rest, a scenic overlook (pictured below) on a sandstone cliff.  Numerous day hikers and mountain bikers passed by, enjoying the sunny Saturday morning before the thunder showers sure to strike later in the afternoon.

We continued down the trail parralleling Junction Creek.  Catching a glimpse of cars through the trees ahead, I knew the end was in sight.  And then we were there.  The Junction Creek Trailhead in Durango, Colorado.  The official southwestern terminus of the Colorado Trail.

My father had graciously offered to pick us up and drive us back home to California, but his familiar white truck was not among the many vehicles crammed into the tiny trailhead parking lot.  We spread out on a comfortable, flat rock to wait.  Many hikers and bikers stopped to congratulate us or to offer rides into town.  The family of Joe, the 79-year-old hiker we had met yesterday, stood and talked with us while they waited for him to arrive.

Dark thunderclouds began gathering over the mountains.  As they slowly moved toward us, my father's truck pulled into the lot and we piled in, heading for home.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Day 28: Ridge to the Red Gate

"Last reliable water for 20 miles."  Somehow I had missed those six very important words as we passed the last mud-filled creek yesterday afternoon.  In my efforts to keep my Data Book from getting soaked in the storm, I had kept it safely tucked away in a Ziplock bag, consulting it only occasionally.  Now we studied it religiously, searching for a potential water source in every seasonal seep or stream listed.  Despite the recent storms, they were all dry.

We climbed from one ridge to the next like stepping stones, each successive ridge climbing higher and higher.  Tall fir and pine trees were soon replaced by hardier, scrubby alpine varieties.  Then the trees disappeared altogether, replaced by colorful meadows filled with wildflowers.

With one high, alpine ridge left to climb, a loud boom of thunder shook the hills followed by a sharp bolt of lightning ahead.  Raindrops began falling, slowly at first, but steadily picking up speed.  We stopped to put on raingear and consider our options.  But from where we sat, high on an exposed ridge, none of the options looked good.

As the wind shifted, we decided to press on.  Lightning could easily reach us anywhere on the ridge, and moving on over the final climb would bring us to the safety of treeline more quickly than if we chose to retreat.  Thunder rumbled all around us as we pushed up the final climb, but the lightning stayed comfortingly in the distance as we climbed the final ridge, then descended to treeline.

Stunning red rock cliffs and spires greeted us on the other side of Kennebec Pass.  The rocky red walls rose straight up the canyon, as majestic as the walls of any palace, as sacred as the most revered cathedral.  Our pace slowed to a crawl as we stopped to examine the richly colored variety of rocks that had eroded and fallen from the cliffs over time.

Descending into the canyon, we soon reached the Gaines Gulch waterfall.  A sheer red rock cliff wall rose up several stories tall.  Water spilled over the edge, running down the cliff face and pouring into a large waiting pool.  From there, the water flowed into Junction Creek, which we followed down the canyon.  Water, at last.

After crossing Junction Creek several times, we began to climb, steeply at first, then gradually as we traversed the hillside.  We planned to camp at a site noted in the Data Book, passing several other nice camps along the way.  As dusk approached, we spotted two tents ahead on a wide section of the trail.  Joe (age 79) and his friend Dave (also in his 70s) were finishing the last 50 miles of a Colorado Trail thru-hike started years ago.  The seasoned Colorado Trail hikers informed us that we had inadvertently missed the camp noted in the Data Book over a mile ago!

Hiking on, we began searching for camp, any camp.  Finally, we spotted a flat space near the trail.  We set up quickly to minimize the rain drizzling into the tent.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Day 27: Unnamed Creek to Ridge Near Salt Creek Junction

The sun's warming rays had not yet reached our cool, damp canyon when we slipped out of our warm, down sleeping bags. With frigid fingers clumsy with cold we packed up. Sierra hiked ahead to warm up as I finished stowing the tent.

Two mountain bike packers politely stopped and stood aside, waiting for me to pass. Although we have not met many people thru-hiking or riding the entire trail, we have probably met as many riders as hikers. Most carry customized, lightweight luggage that fits inside their bike frames, attaching additional gear to handlebars and seat posts. Space is at a premium in these tiny bags, but the bikers are able to travel many more miles each day and therefore do not need to carry as much food in between resupplies.

With blue skies, fluffy white clouds, and golden rays of sunshine, the trail seemed magical. We passed through colorful meadows dotted with lavender, yellow, white, magenta, purple, and red. Rugged mountains streaked with colorful minerals towered over us as we traversed several ridges, all over 11,000 feet.

Fluffy white wisps were soon replaced by towering, dark thunderheads. As the dark clouds gathered, we stopped for lunch in a small grove of trees. The storm hit before we were through.

Thunder cracked loudly overhead, fading to a rumble as it rolled across the sky. A sharp bolt of lightning lashed against the ridge we had just traveled. Then, with the suddenness of a dam bursting, the sky unleashed a torrent of water and icy, pea-sized pellets of hail. We huddled in the shelter of two trees with full branches, waiting for the danger of the lightning to pass.

As the thunder quieted, we swung on our backpacks and headed out into the pouring rain. Muddy water coursed down the trail like a deep, reddish brown ribbon of hot chocolate.  On the other side of the pass, many of the streams and creeks swelled with fresh rainfall, spilling over onto the trail.

Bright-red, heart shaped berries dangled from short stems near the trail.  Although these tiny wild strawberries were no bigger than the tip of my little finger, they were packed with flavor.  We stooped over to pick countless tiny berries, savoring their sweet, juicy flavor.

We climbed from one ridge to the next, just below treeline.  We interrupted a male elk as he grazed peacefully in a meadow.  Sensing our presence, he quickly loped out of sight.

With bright flashes of sheet lightning off in the distance, we set up camp in the shelter of trees, carefully selecting a low point on the ridge and avoiding the tallest trees.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Day 26: Molas Pass to Unnamed Creek Beyond Cascade Creek

We luxuriated in the warm sheets before finally rolling out of bed. Sorting through our ample resupply indoors on a dry surface also seemed a rare treat. And after a delicious hot breakfast at the Brown Bear Cafe we were finally ready to return to the trail.

We navigated a confusing maze of use trails near Little Molas Lake, then began to climb the grassy hillside.  Reaching the ridge, we enjoyed incredible views back to the forested valley below.  Although we hiked under a patchy blue sky, dark clouds shrouded the mountains and threatened to close in.  We resolved to enjoy the blue sky while it lasted, knowing the rains would come later in the afternoon.

We are beginning to understand Colorado's weather forecasts.  Back home, when the forecast calls for a 30% chance of rain we know this means there is a 70% chance we won't feel a drop.  But when a 30% chance of rain is predicted in Colorado, we are beginning to realize that this means there is a 100% certainty that it will rain for some part of the day, and that it is more likely than not that it will rain at least 30% of the time.

We hiked through countless fields of wildflowers, passed through beautiful grassy meadows, and traversed below rugged red sandstone mountains.  A rich variety of wildflowers, including tall cornlily stalks, white cow's parsnip, bright red lupine, goldeneye, sunflowers, daisies, monkshood, and vetch, lined the trail.  Small seasonal streams carved deeply sculpted gullies in the soft, red rock.  Above, towering red rock cliffs and spires capped the mountains.  A picture may be worth 1,000 words, but even as I snapped my photos I knew that neither words nor pictures could adequately describe the beauty of the mountains here.

Right on cue, the rains began in early afternoon.  The thunder reached its peak just as we were approaching the ridge of Rolling Mountain.  We took time to explore a small cave, likely carved out by a nearby underground spring, before scurrying over the pass and down the other side.

Reaching treeline, we breathed a sigh of relief at having successfully dodged the lightning once again.  We stopped to enjoy the White Creek Cascades and the Cascade Creek Waterfall before continuing down the trail to a smaller creek to camp. 

We cooked dinner during a brief respite from the rain.  Just as we crawled into the tent, we began to hear the slow, rhythmic tapping of raindrops.  More rain.  Then the rumbling of thunder over the ridge, accompanied by several bright flashes of light. I closed my eyes, shut out the thunder, focused on gentle staccato sound of the rain against the tent.