Author Archives: Stephen Jaye

About Stephen Jaye

My name is Stephen Jaye, I currently live in Denver, CO, but have lived in New York, Chicago, Indiana, and Wisconsin. I love the weather, I love getting out, being active, and I love exploring places. In this blog are my travel writings.

Flagstaff Hill: A Quick Intense Ride

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Before embarking on this journey, I was told that Flagstaff Hill was one of the most intense bike rides in Colorado’s Front Range. The full ride has a vertical climb of just over 2,000 feet and an average grade of 11%! This makes it slightly more intense than Lookout Mountain near Golden.

Most cyclists follow Flagstaff Road from Chautaqua Park. This is the ride that has earned a reputation as “quad-burning” and “lung-busting”.

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However, there is an alternate route up, one that is slightly less steep, but also a bit less paved. It begins with a ride up Boulder Canyon.

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This part of the ride is not too intense and serves as a reminder of how easy it is to get into the mountains from Boulder. Even from the Eastern part of the City, it is only 20 minutes by bicycle to arrive at a place where the city feels completely left behind.

We did this ride on an early October day after work. So, it wouldn’t be long before the sunlight started to fade behind the mountains.

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Turning off Boulder Canyon Road on Chapman Dr., the road quickly turns into an unpaved trail. The trail is not too rocky or sandy to pass on a road bike. Still, not being on pavement certainly adds an additional challenge. This part of the ride is likely as steep as any, with wide curves rather than tight switchbacks.

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We huffed and we puffed. We burnt out our quads- just as had been promised. At times I felt as if this route may have even been slightly more challenging than the road route.

Less than an hour into the ride, we had reached a place where we had not only left the city limits, but felt as if we were completely in the middle of the Rocky Mountains.

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Most people have to travel further by car to get a a place that feels even remotely like this!

The top of this ride is at a place called Realization Point.

With limited daylight, and the Nature Center not being open, we opted out of this last part of the ride. Apparently, we missed out on the final 100 feet of climbing, but still faired quite well (I’m still certain we ascended at least 2,000 feet).

We retuned to town via the paved road, where we were able to relax, let gravity do the work, and overlook the town.

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It was one of those moments of pure joy we are always seeking after in life. It reminded me of scenes from movies such as The Secret Life of Walter Mitty and Flashdance, or looking on as groups of children play in the park, good friends laugh over a great meal or that one daring snowboarder jumps off the ten foot cliff. At that moment, nothing else matters. It is a moment of pure joy. Often times in these moments, we weren’t even necessarily intentional about setting aside our worries. The experience, the sense of accomplishment, wonder and excitement has this way of overwhelming us, leaving us with no choice but to fully immerse ourselves in what is happening here and now.

Cycling is an individual experience that we often share with others. At the Adventure Cycling Association, I was told that a bike ride with n people has a total of n+1 experiences; each person’s individual experience and then the group experience. On rides like these, even among similar people, each person experiences it somewhat differently. The amount of huffing and puffing on the uphill part, which individual groves in the surface we encounter with our tires and the strength of the adrenaline rush on the descent all vary enough to make individual experiences unique.

I cannot tell you if this is the most intense ride I have ever done. My day in Yellowstone was definitely far more exhausting, and I do recall being on steeper sections of road for shorter periods of time. All I can say is that I am grateful to be in a place where this type of experience is readily accessible and to have the means by which to make it happen. I ended the day not focused on who has more money, who is in better shape, or who has more fulfillment in life. That is always a good thing.

The Next Three Months

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It is hard to believe we have already reached this point. There are only three months left in this decade! Soon, it will legitimately be the “20s”. Although there is a reasonable argument to be made that there is nothing special about milestones somewhat artificially created by our calendar, there are seasons and cycles to life. This one happens to correspond with a need to reflect. At least that is how I feel about my own life as well as our culture as a whole.

My Personal Story

Saying my life has undergone some major changes over the past decade would be a rather generic statement. It’s ten years! Of course life has changed. The idea that someone is living the same life they were living at the start of 2010 indicates a level of stagnation that would make my head spin!

Some aspects of my life were quite different at the start of the decade. I was living in Chicago working at my first “real job”. At the surface, I was living the life one would expect a 20-something in Chicago to be living.

I also, for the most part believed in the system and the institutions that we had put in place (mostly over the 20th Century). I was fortunate that the 2008 market crash had remarkably little impact on my life.

It wasn’t perfect, but I was riding high. A couple of years later, I would move to a a different part of the country. I suffered a series of disappointments, primarily related to jobs. It caused me investigate and take a more critical view of the current state of our culture.

I still love to goof off and have fun.

However, my attitude towards a lot of things have changed.

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I see our established institutions, such as work, education and social expectations as in desperate need of an update.

I started spending far more time traveling and seeking experiences, particularly in the outdoors, as well as attending the types of events that inspire people to buck the trend and seek out something more from life.

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The 2010s

I can’t help but feel like when I think of the culture of the 2010s, the first thing that will come to mind will be a bunch of people staring at their phones.

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Social media and smart phones were a major disruption to our communication and social patterns we have yet to fully process. Over the course of the decade, we continued to embrace these technologies while simultaneously worrying about the consequences. We observed some alarming trends such as increases in suicide rate, opioid overdoes and violence, and have wondered whether loneliness and depression related to social media and smart phone distraction have played a part.

Our political discourse certainly went downhill. Despite a few trends here and there I find promising, I all but completely lost interest.

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The 2010s have, in many ways, brought some level of awareness. The sad part, for some, was the revelation of truth around people formerly regarded as heroes, like Bill Cosby and Lance Armstrong. Of course, this does mean a lot more people will get treated more fairly in life.

Also, in parallel with my own personal journey, a lot more people have come to the realization that many of our institutions, from work to education and social structures, could be improved upon to create a better human experience. In arenas such as TED talks, people are discussing what that future could look like.

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The Middle of an Uneven Transition

At this moment in time it feels like both my life and our culture as a whole is in the middle of a transition, with a result yet to be determined. New enterprises are re-imagining systems such as education, healthcare and transportation. More minor adjustments like flexible hours and married people maintaining separate bank accounts are more common. In general, though, we are still trying to define this transition, what the future state will look like and how we get there.

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My life’s path is in a somewhat similar place. I’m trying to get my life in alignment with my personality, values and interests. I am only part of the way there, and have encountered resistance of my own.

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My Plan For the Next Three Months

The last 12 months of my life have been exhausting.

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With the 2020 milestone coming up, and a need to better define the direction my life needs to take, now is a good time to stop and focus on the following.

  • Slowing down
  • Processing ten years worth of events
  • Meditation and Mindfulness
  • Reconnecting with my true authentic self
  • Gratitude and atonement
  • Finding some direction
  • Personal development
  • Determining how to help bring about the changes our culture needs
  • Being there for those that matter

This unfortunately means less travel and activity. However, I am hoping it sets me up for an amazing new decade and even better adventures to come!

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A Mid-September Backpacking Trip to the Flat Tops Wilderness: Day 3 Sunrise on Devil’s Causeway

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“It’s gonna be so cold leaving the tent before sunrise.”

“The sunrise will look just as nice from the comfort of my tent.”

“We already saw the Devil’s Causeway on Friday.”

“Look at all the distance we’ve already covered.”

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These are all the things my inner dialogue told myself, to stop me from going the extra mile Sunday morning. And, it literally was an extra mile (two round trip).

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We all experience this from time to time. That voice in our heads is most often referred to as the inner dialogue or inner chatterbox. Its goal is to protect us from discomfort, failure, embarrassment and the like. It is the voice that once told an 11-year-old version of me that nobody wanted to talk to the new kid in town and subsequently told a 15-year-old version of me to avoid the embarrassment of asking anyone out. In both situations, that voice was dead wrong. Yet, it continues to plead its case in situations like these, pushing for its own version of comfortable stagnant mediocrity.

Perhaps the best decision I made on this trip was to ignore that voice, which actually took some mental energy given how exhausting Saturday was. That extra hour of rest in the morning was quite enticing.

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These photos don’t do justice to the gradual turning of the sky in anticipation of a new day, or the still lit full moon on the other horizon at dawn.

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Unlike in previous days where we were camping at lower elevations, when the sun kissed the sky, we were among the first to be struck by its golden rays.

It was a feeling that is hard to describe. I felt like I was receiving some kind of gift. I was recieving an infusion of energy, spirit and liveliness from some kind of abstract source. It felt almost spiritual. Regardless of what was actually behind this wonderful feeling, I was certainly glad to have ignored that inner dialogue.

The final day was the shortest of the three. We only had 6.2 miles to go to get back to the trailhead. It started out with a bit more traversing across open grassland.

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We got a couple more great overlooks before the main descent.

It was perhaps the fastest day of the three. The miles went by quickly for backpacking standards.

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We made only one significant stop, for a mid-morning snack.

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A little before 11 A.M., we saw the Summit Reservoir, the place where the journey had begun, indicating that we were already approaching the trailhead!

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There was an advantage to getting back to the car just before noon, as we all had to work in some capacity the next day. The amazing thing about this trip is that nobody involved had to take more than one day off of work.

However, to achieve this, we had to set up camp in the dark the Thursday night and felt somewhat hurried at times.  Before we even got back to Kremmling to have our first regular meal after the trip, we were all already checking our phones, checking back in with work and our day-to-day lives.

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We truly got the most out of the 74 hour period we were away. However, we didn’t really escape for too long. From the standpoint of making the most of our time it was ideal.

From another standpoint, it was less than ideal. It is not too uncommon for Americans to plan trips like this, possibly because we do not value time away as much as we should. Although there are many pointing out the follies of these too many people not taking time off, the prominent culture in this country still seems to value work over all else and expects others to as well.

Whenever I find myself shifting my priorities to match the ones of our current culture, my inner dialogue is behind it. That inner dialogue tells me to be concerned about how I will be perceived, and what negative consequences I might face if I were to act in accordance with what I value as opposed to what is expected of me.

Ignoring my inner dialogue’s demands that I stay in my sleeping bag an extra hour on a cold morning is good practice for what I know I must do in the coming years to create a life that is truly authentic and fulfilling. I need to ignore my inner dialogue’s demands that, in order to be safe, I sacrifice the individual autonomy that comes with adhering to my own set of values in favor of what is often referred to as “herd mentality“.

A Mid-September Backpacking Trip to the Flat Tops Wilderness: Day 2 Staying on Trail

Opening and closing a tent has a certain familiar look, smell and sound. Over time, our brains come to associate what our senses observe with types of experiences and often the emotions that go along with them.

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While my summer was active, it was active in a way that involved somewhat less outdoor activity than the past several year, and not much camping. It felt good to using the tent again, and having the experiences associated with it. The smell of the nylon tent and the sounds of the zipper going back and forth brought back associations with things that I love.

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East Lost Lake was perhaps even more beautiful the next morning, which was not as cold as the previous day, yet, still cold.

A lot of people fantasize about living in the mountains. I have even thought about it from time to time. Experiencing cold mornings in mid-September gave me a glimpse into one of the downsides of living at these higher elevations. Those of us that live at lower elevations come up to the mountains during the best and exciting times of year: ski season and summer. Skiing is, of course, fun and exciting. Summer days at these elevations are pleasant.

However, mornings, even in the middle of the summer are quite chilly. Morning temperatures at these elevations are 35°F to 45°F (2-7°C) in the middle of summer! At this point in time, while some towns were looking forwards towards fall festivals and the changing of the leaves, after that will be a period of time that is not so exciting, with mornings that would be cold enough to prevent me from biking to work.

We stopped at the last in the series of alpine lakes, West Lost Lake to fill up with water.

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Then we began to climb again.

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Like Friday, Saturday would feature a significant late morning climb. This one would take us up out of the woods and on top of one of a broad mesas.

We would spend most of the afternoon along the mesa, periodically gazing at the features below. At one point, we were actually able to see where we had just camped the night before.

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That afternoon, we would encounter a different issue. While in the woods, the trail was well marked the entire way. On the mesa, the trail all but completely vanished in places. We were just walking across a large grassy field hoping we were going the right way.

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That’s the advantage, as well as disadvantage of selecting a trail that isn’t widely used. We would actually go the entire day without encountering any other people. However, that also means that there isn’t regular foot traffic to maintain the trail.

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Sometimes the most frustrating experiences are also the most rewarding. We spent the afternoon looking for the trail, often getting excited to find the sections of it where the grass had not fully regrown. We also occasionally found ourselves in some tough places like this section of shrubbery near the edge of the mesa.

At one point, we actually did make a wrong turn and went out of our way. However, it ended up adding less than a mile to our overall trip, and gave us one of the best overlooks of the day!

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By the end of the day, we had covered another 10 miles (16 km). I was exhausted.

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We camped above treeline, which was an interesting experience. I’d never thought of that possibility as we’d typically want to find campsites where we’d be able to find firewood. However, with gas stoves, it is possible to cook dinner without a fire, and we were able to find an unexpected water source.

Camping above treeline reminded me that life is not about following rules and procedures. It is about taking care of needs and solving problems. Rules and procedures can serve as a good general guide, but there are always going to be situations that require different solutions.

At this point, we were too exhausted to want to continue on to get back down below treeline. Going off trail to get into the trees would have involved carrying our heavy packs down a fairly steep area. The solution ended up working out.

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However, without a fire, it did feel cold. Perhaps the coldest hour of the day was the hour after we got everything set up, when my body was exhausted and didn’t want to move or expend the energy needed to keep itself warm. This may be the coldest hour of the day as physical exhaustion can have an impact on the temperature regulation system in our bodies.

With clear skies and no fire, it was the perfect evening to watch the mid-september full moon, or “harvest moon”, come up from behind the mountains.

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With respect to both going the wrong direction for a short amount of time and being cold without a fire, both frustrating experiences lead to something magical in the end. It was an incredible day that reminded me of several important life lessons.

  1. We are often capable of far more than we give ourselves credit for.
  2. Some of the most frustrating experiences turn out to be the most rewarding ones.
  3. It’s not about rules and procedures, it’s about results.
  4. Some years we partake in some activities more than others. That is fine, just how it goes. It doesn’t make anything less enjoyable.

A Mid-September Backpacking Trip to the Flat Tops Wilderness: Day 1 Alpine Lakes

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It started with an evening of “car camping”. Sometimes I feel like Colorado has a vocabulary that is distinct from the rest of the country. For those who rarely venture too far away from the comforts of modern urban living, this activity is referred to simply as “camping”. In Colorado, car camping must be distinguished from backpacking, bike-packing, horse-packing and all other forms of camping that take us away from our vehicles.

As we rolled through the town of Kremmling, picking up some last minute supplies and having one last comfortable meal, my mind started to become daunted with the prospect of spending three days without heat, showers and a comfortable bed.

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The part of my brain that fears the unknown, protects the ego from failure and seeks comfort at all costs filled my head with images of hot meals, blankets and comfortable sleep. Very few people are exempt from this kind of mental resistance to change, discomfort and the unknown. The key is to understand how to deal with it, welcoming when we are seriously being warned about a potentially dangerous situation and when it is appropriate to silence that voice in our heads and go forth with our intentions.

The first evening was cold!

Cold mornings on intense trips provide a challenge of their own. After leaving the comfort of a sleeping bag, the best way to stay warm is to move around. However, I knew I had 26.2 miles (42 km) to cover in a three-day period and needed to conserve my energy. Despite my love for outdoor activities in the mountains, I don’t exactly love the cold.

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Desperately waiting for the sunshine to gradually slide down the mountainside and reach the campground reminded me that no matter how hot of a summer I had just experienced, I was not necessarily looking forward to the winter chill.

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The hike began at the Stillwater Reservoir about 15 miles (27 km) WSW of the town of Yampa, CO. Day one would start with a 1500 ft (450 m) climb. It was here we would get our first view of the Devil’s Causeway, the Unique Natural Feature that draws most visitors to this specific part of the wilderness.

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Climbing can be slow with heavy backpacks on, so it took us the entire morning to reach the summit. We would spend the next hour descending back to an elevation of roughly 10,500 feet (3.2 km).

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Here, the trail goes by a series of alpine lakes, of varying sizes, each one stunning in its own way.

We didn’t stop for long at these points of interest. Most of the afternoon we spent cranking out miles at a fairly rapid pace for backpacking standards. Still, at most we were moving at a rate of 2.5 miles per hour (4 km/hour). A lot of trips include periods like this, with little stopping, where the primary objective for a period of time is to cover a lot of distance.

I’ve experienced this on road trips, bike trips, and even paddling trips. The great thing about these outdoor adventures is that we are still moving at a slow enough speed to take in nature. Additionally, we can see the creatures moving around, smell the landscape and feel the air flow around us.

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There is a true connection to nature. Unlike in some of the heavily visited areas, where tourism businesses have crafted a specific experience for visitors, the wilderness here is truly wild. It is untamed. Walking through this wilderness area, I was in the presence of one of the few places in the world that has not been boxed in by any of the standards, assumptions and paradigms we had artificially created to regulate the world to our liking.

At 2.5 mph (4 km/hr) that can truly be appreciated. I feel it can still be appreciated from the seat of a bicycle at 20 mph (32 km/hr) on roads that are far away from towns and cities. It contrasts so much from many of our day-to-day lives, where we have schedules, codes of conduct, social norms and deadlines. The word I would use to describe what I was experiencing, at that moment in time, is refreshing.

By the end of the day, we had covered over ten miles. Having passed by all of those breathtaking alpine lakes, we set up camp near one called East Lost Lake and enjoyed an evening of solitude.

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An interesting thing happens on the first day of group trips like this. Sometimes we are talking. Sometimes we are not. Sometimes, despite being so far from civilization, my mind wanders back to whatever I am concerned with in my daily life. As we slowly exhaust ourselves physically and then have to take on tasks like starting a fire, pumping water from the lake and cooking food, our minds complete a transition away from what has been concerning us the last few weeks to a focus on what is right in front of us.

With the genuine desire to take in nature, I believe my mind slowly realizes that the mental energy it takes to stress out about whatever had occurred over the past week or month is mental energy I don’t have to spare. At this point, I had truly brought my entire psyche away from day-to-day life and into a position of being fully immersed in the experience I was having.

Taos Pueblo: A Trip Back in Time

New Mexico is a fascinating place. In many ways, it feels both old and new at the same time. Santa Fe is one of the oldest cities in North America.

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From a U.S. perspective it is associated with the new. It is the 47th State, having only achieved Statehood in 1912. When the Eastern States had well established State identities and were lining up to take sides in the Civil War, New Mexico was part of a large open area thought of as the Wild West. It’s rugged terrain still suggests that to this day.

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Taos Pueblo is a part of New Mexico’s older heritage, having been around for over 1,000 years. It is here that Native American tribal people still practice the culture of their ancestors.

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Taos Pueblo is only several miles to the Northeast of the town of Taos. Admission is $16, and volunteers give free guided tours of the Pueblo (tips recommended). Visiting the Pueblo without taking the guided tour would not do justice to the experience. The tour guide on this particular day was a cheerful father of two who is currently getting an English degree from the University of New Mexico- Taos and was happy to talk about the Pueblo and answer any questions tourists might have.

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Life in the Pueblo sounds quite a bit like life in the Amish country. Within the Pueblo, there is no plumbing or electricity. Much like the Amish, they have a communal living situation that involves a lot of hard work that those outside the village have delegated to technology decades to centuries ago.

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The most significant difference between life in the Pueblo and the life of the Amish is that they do often engage with the outside world. The tour guide indicated that many of the Pueblo’s residents pursue higher education or careers in the military. Taos being a very artistic community, one of the residents became a famous artist and travels quite frequently to sell and talk about her artwork.

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While there is not plumbing or electricity within the Pueblo, cars can be seen all around, which the Taos use to travel outside the Pueblo. While the residents of Taos Pueblo practice ancient cultures, rituals and gender roles within the walls of the Pueblo, when they go forth into the outside world, they often behave quite a bit like everyone else does in the modern world.

The way of life is also distinctly Native American. The river that runs through the Pueblo is considered sacred, visitors are advised not to touch it.

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They also all use the traditional stove, called the Horno (pronounced like the Spanish word orno), to cook their food

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With everyone’s horno outside, it suggests a lifestyle that involves much more time outdoors.

Spiritually, they practice a hybrid faith between the ancient religion of the Taos people and the Catholicism that was forced on them by their Spanish conquistadors.

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As is the case with many Catholic communities, the church serves as a community center. However, rather than Jesus, they place the Virgin Mary at the altar. Their patron Saint is St. Geranimo, a man who refused to join the Catholic church until he was permitted a certain amount of individual autonomy behind his methods of worship and study. One of his oddest preferences; He preferred to pray and write naked.

The traditional indigenous religion is something the villagers do not talk about outside the tribe. The tour guide did indicate that it still played a major role in the lives of the Taos tribe, and that it was “nature based”.

Discussions of history naturally came up. Part of the tour is a visit to the remnants of the first church, which was destroyed in the 1840s by the U.S. military.

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When the United States defeated Mexico in the Mexican American war, there were a lot of people in Taos, both Mexican and Native American who did not want to be part of the U.S. U.S. officials tried handle this known resentment by appointing Charles Bent as the first territorial governor. It seemed like a logical choice. He was a successful businessman who was known for having good relations with people of Hispanic and Native origin. However, it did not end well for him. He was eventually murdered by the Taos, with support from Mexicans, both resentful of the prospect of being ruled by the United States.

The gripe that his assassins had with him was not about his personality or actions, it was about the sheer fact that they resented being conquered and ruled.

I personally struggle with this situation because I see a lot of myself in Governor Bent. Charles Bent was a very ambitious and successful person who was also cheerful and well liked. As was indicated by the account of his assassination by his five-year-old daughter at the Governor Bent Museum, he was willing to lend a helping hand and go out of his way to understand people from different cultures- even embrace them.

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Ironically had he been a stereotypical business tycoon with no regard for others, he would never had been appointed as Governor and never would have been assassinated. He also could have avoided his fate by turning down the position, which would have required putting concern for others over his own ambitions. Many suggest this course of action, but, like Charles Bent, I am not convinced it leads to true happiness.

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While many of the Pueblo residents pursue higher degrees and career opportunities elsewhere, all indication is that they “always come back” to the Pueblo. The Amish cite preserving their community as their primary reason for rejecting certain technology. The Taos similar rejection of technology seems to have produced a similar result. People here feel a much deeper tie to their community than most of us 21st century Americans. Many of us gladly leave our hometowns for whichever city provides us the best opportunity. Some of us never look back.

Maybe the Taos, in New Mexico, have the right balance, between the old and the new. There is a place for high-tech life and there is a place for low-tech life.

The Highest Point in New Mexico

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Not too many hikes begin at a ski resort. In fact, many ski resorts have begun to incorporate summer activities; mountain biking, festivals and other attractions. However, that is exactly where the journey to New Mexico’s highest point, Wheeler Peak, begins, at Taos Ski Resort.

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Wheeler Peak is not nearly as high as Mount Elbert, or many of Colorado’s other high points. It is a strange accident of geography that Colorado is home to 58 peaks that exceed 14,000 feet in elevation (referred to as “14ers”), while the highest point in neighboring New Mexico is only 13,167 ft.

As was the case with many State borers set at the time, a line of latitude (37ºN) was selected to form the border between Colorado and New Mexico. The same line is used for the borders between Arizona and Utah, and Kansas and Oklahoma.

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All of Colorado’s peaks >14,000 feet in elevation

Yet, all the tallest peaks are contained within Colorado’s borders. Colorado’s Southernmost “14er”, Culbera Peak, is less than 10 miles north of the New Mexico border! Was it sheer luck, or did some sort of force will all the highest peaks be in Colorado?

Despite it not being a “14er”, the hike to the top of Wheeler Peak is actually quite similar. The vertical gain from the trailhead is just shy of 3,000 feet, and the threat of afternoon storms makes it advantageous to start the hike early in the morning.

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Much of the ascent felt like chasing the sun. We were hiking up the mountain, while the alpenglow would slide further and further down.

It’s a 2.2 mile hike to Williams Lake, the destination for most hiking the first part of this trail.

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This lake was not that crowded at 7:30 in the morning. Later in the day, it would become packed. Also, for those looking to hike to Wheeler Peak, the turn off is before the lake.

The marking for the Wheeler Peak turnoff at 7:30 A.M. and Noon

It is marked by a carving in a wooden stick, which is clearly labelled but easy to miss first thing in the morning.

For those who miss the turnoff, or decide to head to the lake, there is an alternate route. Good luck locating it.

I spent much of the second hour of the hike wondering both where the treeline is, and when I had reached it.

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The term “tree line” makes it seem like hikers will reach a certain elevation and suddenly leave a dense forest for wide open alpine tundra. However, there are elevations where the trees thin out a bit but do not completely disappear. So, the elevation of the “treeline” is more of a guideline, or an approximation. The Alpine Visitor’s Center at Rocky Mountain National Park indicates that the treeline there is about 11,500 feet in elevation. In Northern New Mexico, that elevation is likely closer to 12,000 feet.

Just above the treeline, we had multiple close encounters with wildlife. First, the marmots chirped at us, as if to say “get off my lawn”.

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Then, a surprisingly close encounter with bighorn sheep.

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At first I wondered whether these animals were staying away from the busiest trails. However, someone who hikes this trail quite a bit indicated that wildlife encounters this close is actually quite rare on this trail. On any of these trails, encountering wildlife is likely just a matter of luck; whether or not certain creatures happened to be roaming the area at a certain time. After all, last summer I saw mountain goats up close on a very busy “14er” near Denver.

After this, there was a section that is quite challenging. Steep rocky switchbacks quickly ascend the final 1000 feet of elevation gain.

This challenging section ends suddenly with a view over the ridge, overlooking the rugged terrain of the Carson National Forest. The exhaustion that had lead to this point made it even more breathtaking.

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A quick turn to the right, and the final ascent is made to the highest point in the State of New Mexico.

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A plaque at the top reveals that the mountain is named after the surveyor who identified this point as the highest in the State.

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I only imagined what it must have been like to be Major George Wheeler, charged with this task, especially at the very beginning. One look around the area, in most directions, revealed dozens of candidates for which peak could indeed be the tallest one in the State. He likely had to scale all of them to determine the true highest point. It reminded me of a situation we all find ourselves in at one point in our lives,. We agree to take on a project or endeavor. Getting started, me suddenly come to the realization that it is going to be significantly more work than anticipated.

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Having many other peaks in the area that are nearly as tall gives it a pretty unique feel at the top. The plethora of similar peaks may have also contributed to the pleasant conditions at the top. There was surprisingly little wind at the top of Wheeler Peak that day (August 31, 2019).

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The descent is also an interesting experience. Some of the steepest parts of the trail can be downright scary, and just as challenging as it was on the way up. It is also interesting to encounter the people that are still trying to reach the peak.

This aspect of the hike is a strange and somewhat depressing transition. At the start of the descent, still only a couple of hundred feet from the summit, it feels great to give hikers, often exhausted, encouragement and reassurance that they are “almost there”. Continuing downward, this transitions to having “a little bit to go”, to either no comment or vague encouragement.

If there is a depressing time of day on an amazing hike like this, it is 11:15 A.M. This is the time of when I start to realize that those that those still trying to get to the summit are probably not going to make it.

There is a safety concern behind this. Lightning is quite dangerous, even more so above treeline. Lightning is always looking for the fastest path to the ground. Regardless of where you are, if you’re outside, there is always a chance this can be you! Above treeline, without tall trees to theoretically provide that path, hikers are even more likely to be struck.

Surely enough, at 11:45, I heard thunder, and saw the convective clouds starting to build.

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I just hope that everyone in danger got off the mountain and stayed safe! While policies, attitudes and even the height of the peaks may be different on either side of the 37th parallel, some things are the same. This includes how mountainous topography creates thunderstorms, how lightning behaves and how our bodies react to being struck. Danger aside, it is refreshing to know that regardless of boundaries created by humankind, there are things we can always count on being true.