Last Friday morning, Kim and I were backpacking up a steep slope on the Blue Lakes Trail in the San Juan Mountains of Colorado. We’d spent two days doing short day hikes and getting acclimated to the elevation, but now were embarking upon an overnight trip as part of the ultimate goal of our trip – climbing to the the top of Mount Sneffels. Kim had done extensive research and had these last two days well-planned. We were going to backpack up to Upper Blue Lake and camp at about 11,700 feet, leaving us in good position for the remaining ascent (with day packs only) to the top of the 14,150 foot peak on Saturday morning.
As we hiked up the trail, we met and had a short conversation with a couple other backpackers on their way down. They said they’d camped at the lower lake and that it was beautiful. We asked if they’d been up to the upper lake too and they said, “yes, but it’s not as nice as the lower lake.”
“You wouldn’t want to camp at the upper lake,” they said, “there’s nothing up there but tundra.”
Kim and I shared a quick look and then politely thanked the backpackers and continued out trek. What those other backpackers didn’t understand is that their idea of “nothing there” was exactly what we were hoping for.
…But let me back up a little. This post is taking the place of the usual ‘Photos of the Week’ post I missed last week because Kim and I were on vacation. As I said above, we spent our first couple days taking short hikes to get used to the elevation. Because I’m married to someone nearly 10 years younger than me who runs about 25 miles a week, those ‘short’ acclimation day hikes ended up covering 18 miles in two days. Yeesh.
Fortunately, Kim was pretty kind about pretending my ‘photo stops’ weren’t just excuses for me to bend over and pant loudly for several minutes until I could resume stumbling up the trail behind her. There were a few times when I think she needed to catch her breath too, but it was usually me who called for a stop.
Despite the wheezing caused by a combination of age, fitness and elevation, those first couple hikes were fantastic. Portions of the trails cut through dense woodland, where I couldn’t help thinking about the likelihood of catastrophic fire, given the number of dead and downed trees and the current drought conditions. However, we also planned our routes so we’d be out in the open quite a bit – either traversing south-facing grassy slopes with scattered aspen or above tree line altogether. While hiking the wonderful Bear Creek National Recreation Trail, we admired a high steep ridge covered in grass and made the decision to leave the trail and climb 1,000 feet to the rocky ridgetop. It took a while, but was definitely worth the effort.
After two days of day hikes and hotel stays, we set out on the main event of the trip. Kim had her heart set on reaching the summit of Mount Sneffels and I was happy to go along with her. We wanted to camp within a reasonable distance of the peak to shorten our ascent, so that’s why we decided upon the Upper Blue Lake as our campsite. The fact that it was high above treeline (and not favored by most others, apparently) was a bonus, especially since the forecast called for pleasant weather. It turned out to be everything we’d hoped for.
When we finally reached the upper lake, there was some traffic – people hiking up to see it from below, as well as some people coming back from climbing Sneffels. No one else appeared to be planning to camp, though, and after we set our tent up out of the way, we watched the others warily, hoping we’d be the only ones to stay. I got nervous when I saw a group of backpackers approaching from far below us, but they decided to camp at the middle lake, which worked out well for all of us.
I spent quite a bit of time sitting quietly in the middle of several pika colonies near the lake, letting them get used to me and eventually getting a couple decent photos. One of those colonies was right by our tent, so we listened to their calls while we ate supper. Suddenly, a gray fox appeared and meandered through the pika colony within 30 yards of us. It nosed around, but didn’t seem to find anything worth stopping for. I can’t imagine a fox would have much luck catching a pika in those rock piles, but the chipmunks and voles we also saw are probably easier prey.
After the sun went down, but before the moon appeared over the mountain ridge, I played around with photographing our tent and some of the scenery around us. Then, I woke up well before sunrise on Saturday morning and wandered around in the light of the nearly-full moon, until it got light enough to eat breakfast and prepare for our ascent.
Soon after sunrise, but before we actually saw the sun, Kim and I struck out toward the mountain. We had to first climb 1,000 feet to the top of the Blue Lakes Pass – you know, just to get our blood pumping… That took us to about 13,000 feet, leaving about 1,200 more feet of climbing. That last stretch, though, was not anything like the narrow switchback trails to the pass. It was a lot of scrambling and climbing over boulders and up steep slopes.
Kim was having a great time. I was doing ok, but the elevation really started to get to me as we continued to climb. By the time we got above about 13,500 feet, I was getting a little light-headed and my stomach wasn’t right. At that point, though, it was a lot harder to go down than up. Once we reached the summit, we were planning to descend through a steep boulder field, where footing could be tricky, but there wasn’t the risk of falling straight down like there was where we were climbing. I gritted my teeth, forced myself to be very conscious of every movement, and kept going up.
We did eventually reach the summit and the view was absolutely spectacular. Since I wasn’t feeling great, I didn’t get to appreciate it as much as I would have liked, but I was aware enough to notice that everyone else we met on the way up (and down) was considerably younger than me. That made me feel a little better about myself. I then started to feel physically better as we started descending and eventually got back to a more reasonable (?) 12,000 feet or so. We packed up the tent and trekked the four miles back down to the trailhead (5,000 feet below the peak of Mount Sneffels).
I’m clearly a prairie person, and don’t expect to change. I like living at a nice tame 1,800 feet above sea level where a big hill is a hundred feet high. However, I also do enjoy getting up in the mountains now and then, just for a change of pace. I’m not a big fan of hiking through trees where I can’t see past the firs, pines, and spruces, but if I can find places where the view opens up, I’m happy. Aspens in full golden color are pretty sweet, too. I’ll probably let Kim talk me into going back again next year…