Monthly Archives: August 2015

Backpacking in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains

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Lately it feels like nearly every article I read about personal growth mentions something about getting out of your comfort zone.  It makes sense, as getting out of our comfort zones forces us to learn new skills, see things in a different light, and keeps us in the habit of expanding our horizons.  One thing I had realized, though, is that many of us often equate leaving our comfort zone with trying something new.  While they often go hand and hand, they are not completely equivalent.  I would argue that, for someone who parties every weekend, trying out a different bar, while a new experience, is not really stepping outside their comfort zone.  Likewise, it takes significant courage, and takes one a significant distance outside their comfort zone, to stand up to a boss or an office bully, despite the fact that they are sitting in the same desk they have sat in every day for multiple years.

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My first backpacking trip would be my first time in the wilderness, completely away from any buildings or vehicles, with no amenities, and no access to supplies other than what has been packed.  Anything forgotten cannot be retrieved.  There is no going back to the car to escape inclement weather, and no town to purchase replacements for any camping gear that may malfunction.  We are completely on our own!

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Because this is my first time backpacking, we kept it simple, doing a loop of only 13-14 total miles up the Comanche Trail, over the ridge, and then back down the Venable trail.  I wish to try new things, expand my horizons, and step outside my comfort zone, but I want to do it in a manner that is smart.  I am accustomed to carrying little more than an extra layer or two, water, and some snacks when I hike.  Carrying a backpack, which probably weighed at least 30 pounds, is significantly more intense.  Not leaving some wiggle room in case something goes wrong, could be potentially dangerous.

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And, well, something did go wrong.  After an exhausting 2600 foot climb from the trailhead to Comanche Lake, where we set up camp for the night, the stove malfunctioned halfway through cooking dinner.

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We watched the sun gradually descend below the mountains, shinning only upon the higher terrain toward the end of the evening wondering what we were to do next.  Could we subsist the next couple of days, along our planned route, without any more cooked food, using only the cold food we had packed?  Would we have to cut any aspect of our trip short?  Was my first backpacking trip turning into a disaster?

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After reasoning out in our heads that we technically could make it on the remaining cold food we had brought, we luckily found this rusty old pot just sitting there by the lake.  This pot saved the day, as we had no qualms putting it directly into a campfire.

Trips like this definitely help us see our lives from a different point of view, and force us to re-evlauate what a “necessity” really is.  Case in point, Saturday morning (second day of the trip), we had Zatarains’ Red Beans and Rice, and very much appreciated it.   This is a dish I will periodically make at home when cooking something “simple”.  When I cook red beans and rice at home, I, by default, add some kind of meat to it, usually sausage.  I behave very much as if it were a necessity to “complete the dish”.  But, in many parts of the world, where people are poorer and life is simpler, rice and beans is a common dish.  Going on trips like this serves to me, as a periodic reminder that many of the things we consider “necessary” for life are not really necessary for life, they are only necessary for the lifestyle we have chosen.

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After a late start, we climbed, once again, from our campsite, at an elevation of roughly 11,600′, to the top of Comanche Pass, at roughly 12,800′.  Near the top, I suddenly realized that I was in an altered state of mind.  It felt almost surreal, and almost as if I had indeed taken some sort of mind-altering drug.  But, I hadn’t.  Some kind of combination of exhaustion, high altitude, and being outside my comfort zone had put my mind in a place where everything was both clear and blurry at the same time.  It’s hard to describe, but I am guessing that is why many yoga classes involve both an exhausting workout, and altered air conditions (heat, humidity), alongside its’ spiritual aspects.

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All this made the view at the top, of nearby Comanche Peak, looking Eastward toward the Wet Mountain Valley we hiked in from, and over the mountains toward the Upper San Louis Valley, even more spectacular!

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And, after a mile or so with little elevation change, we climbed back up onto the ridge at a place called Venable Pass, where we would complete our loop.  Here, we stopped to eat lunch before beginning our descent through an area known as Phantom Terrace.

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This descent was tricky enough that my exhaustion, and the altered state of mind associated with it, continued.  All sorts of crazy shit was on my mind as we descended towards the Venable Lakes.

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Of course, it was on this descent where I saw the highest concentration of my least favorite plant ever.  I really do not know what they are called, but they look vicious.  They remind me both of the flesh eating plant in the movie Little Shop of Horrors, as well as the plans that try to bite in Mario Brothers.  In fact, in my altered state of mind, I actually felt as if these plants were trying to bite me as I walked by.  It was freaky.  Maybe, despite the Red Beans and Rice, I still did not eat enough, or drink enough, I don’t know.

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We camped the second night just below Venable Lakes, as we had to get back down to the tree line for access to firewood.  We had become pretty well versed in the process of starting a fire and using it to cook our food using that rusty old pot we found (and kept after the trip).

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The next morning, we woke up early to view the sun rise.  We also saw some cool wildlife, deer, grouse, and marmots, which we had been viewing on and off for the duration of the trip.  However, particularly with deer, first thing in the morning is often the best time for wildlife viewing.  We also gazed upon the muddy puddle I had stupidly jumped into the prior afternoon, having wanted to cool off as it got quite warm for elevations in excess of 11,500′.

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Before leaving the last campsite of my first ever backpacking excursion, I paid homage to one of my favorite songs out right now Cool for the Summer, as, well, this summer has been awesome, and, is now coming to an end.  On the car ride back to Denver, we had a conversation about whether or not songs like this, geared towards high school and college students, apply to people who have graduated, joined the adult world, and no longer have summer break.  However, despite the fact that nothing about my job, or my role in life, automatically shifts for summer (to an internship or summer job), I do feel something magical about this season.  There are so many things one can do in summer that they cannot in other seasons.

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The final descent, back to the trailhead along the Venable Pass Trail, is highlighted by a series of waterfalls, as well as a large number of Aspen trees.  At the biggest water fall, Venable Falls, I actually dunked my head into the water to cool off.  The lower part of this trail would be an amazing day hike sometime around a month from now, when the leaves on the Aspen trees are changing colors.

In the end, my first backpacking experience was quite the trip, and a memory that will last a lifetime!  I came away from this trip confused.  Backpacking is a strange activity.  It is both simple and complex.  It is both exhausting and relaxing.  Never had I been farther away from civilization, having interacted with a total of three people prior to the final day of the trip.  Having experienced additional complications, I am glad to have chosen something modest, in both size and scope, for my first trip.  And, I am glad to have gone with a group large enough to make the experience both efficient and enjoyable, but not too large, as to add additional unnecessary complications.

Back on Top of the World

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Four in the morning is such as strange time of day.  It feels almost surreal.  Everything around you is so much quieter than we all have become accustomed to seeing it.  It is a time when the streets of your home town, even the blocks surrounding your home, feel strange and distant.  For many of us, it is the only time that our surroundings appear restful, as nearly every other time of day, the streets are full of people; people in motion, with agendas, and tasks to attend to.  It is almost as if you are experiencing a completely different place than the one you experience on a day-to-day basis during normal waking hours.

The few people you do see out and about at this hour have widely differing experiences.  There are some for which it is still last night.  The parties, after parties, drama, and other events that had been unfolding since the previous evening are still unfolding.  They have not transitioned to the next day yet.  For others, though, the new day has already begun.  They are starting some sort of project that has already carried them into the new day.  Basically, although the calendar says Sunday, some people are still on Saturday, while others had moved on to Sunday.  It very much reminds me of the International Date Line, which physically separates one day from the next day.  Only here, it is much murkier.  And having been on both sides of this line, it is definitely a challenge to make sense of everything I see around me.

I woke up at four in the morning in order to climb Quandary Peak, one of Colorado’s “14ers“, located in Summit County, just under two hours from Denver.  Climbing “14ers” is one of Colorado’s pastimes, and a rite of passage I first accomplished just over two years ago.  Unfortunately for anyone that hates early mornings, those climbing these peaks are generally advised to get an early start for safety reasons, as the weather here can be somewhat chaotic.  Sometimes unexpected weather here can lead to horrible results, even on days when inclement weather was not expected.  It is recommended that most hikers begin these climbs by 7 A.M. to minimize such risks.  So, I woke up at 4, to get ready, and get to the trailhead by 7.

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I have only climbed three other 14ers, so I have little experience to compare this particular hike to.  But, from the very beginning this hike seemed anomalous.  Most hikes, particularly Mount Bierstadt, begin relatively flat, with steeper grades coming farther into the hike, and closer to the top of the mountain.  This hike, however, had some fairly intense grades right at the start of the trail.

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Still, it felt like we spent a considerable amount of time, 40 minutes or so, hiking before we got above the tree line.  There is some variance as to the elevation of the tree line in Colorado.  On this hike, it certainly felt like I climbed to nearly 12,000 feet in elevation before getting above the trees.

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The other aspect of this particular trail that sets it apart from nearly every hike I have ever undertook is how much of this trail is covered by rocks.  The portion of the trail above the tree line, which is most of the trail, is more than half covered by rocks.  This is well more rock coverage than I remember from the other 14ers I have climbed.

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And then there were the mountain goats.  I probably encountered roughly a dozen of them today.  Most of them hung out a little bit above the tree line, but there were a couple of them that were actually spotted closer to the summit. I was surprised to encounter the first mountain goat I came across today.  I was even more surprised to keep encountering them, sometimes in packs.

Unlike many other mountains, Quandary Peak’s “intimidation factor” actually slowly builds up as one approaches the summit.

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While the mountain does appear big from the start, it appears somewhat gentile in nature when compared to some of the other mountains I have hiked.  From this vantage point, still below the tree line, it almost feels as if there will be a slow, steady, and merciful climb to this peak.

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Just above the tree line the mountain’s summit comes into clear view, appearing significantly less gentile than it did just 30 short minutes ago.

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The closer I got to the summit, the more I realized that the last 1000 foot climb would not be gentile at all.  In fact, this final stretch resembles any other 14er I have experienced or seen posts about.  This final section, leading up to the summit, will be a place where I will trudge to the top, focusing one exhausting step at a time.  This is the way it always goes down.

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Despite the fact that I have already successfully hiked to the top of a mountain that is technically a few feet taller than this one, it was hard not to feel a sense of accomplishment when reaching this summit.  Looking down on the intense terrain I had just navigated, and the mountains that surround me, all of which are below me, I was once again on top of the world.  And, once again, I had earned it.

As the day progressed, I saw more and more of two types of people on the trail.  First, large groups of either high school or college aged people.  But, also, I began to see more people wearing headphones on their hikes.  And, unlike the trail runners in headphones I encountered on Bierstadt, the people wearing them were not all trail runners.  Or, well, they were not all running.  Some were climbing the mountain at a fairly leisurely (for an intense climb like this) pace.

It made me wonder what this experience was about for these particular individuals.  How does having music on change the experience of the scenery around you?  I can imagine it having a negative impact on the connection one can make with nature at a place like this.  I am for certain that it would have a negative impact on one’s ability to share experiences with others.

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As was the case with the other 14ers I had climbed a couple of years ago, I was fortunate to have good company with me for the journey.  The experience, like many of the others I write about, would not have been the same had I taken them on alone.  My friend and I were discussing a mutual acquaintance who was hiking one of these 14ers solo.  I know that I would have significantly more trouble motivating myself to get up at the hour of 4 A.M. for a solo excursion.  For me, connecting with others plays a significant role in a lot of what I do, and I would have a hard time finding myself wearing headphones at a place like this.