Category Archives: backpacking

Backpacking in Northern Colorado’s Rawah Wilderness Day 2: Lakes and Moose

Day 2 was the day I was not necessarily looking forward to. Weather predictions indicated a strong possibility that conditions will be cold and rainy for much of the day. When it comes to outdoor activities, conditions matter. What is fun and pleasant one day can be unpleasant another. This is part of the reason it is hard for outdoor enthusiasts not to obsess over the weather.

The morning was a tease. About half an hour after the sunrise, the fog that had spread across the area the prior afternoon appeared to be dissipating.

Only for it to return.

Leaving the campsite was like stepping into the unknown. In the wilderness, there is no access to weather reports. With how much the weather can vary from place to place, from minute to minute in areas with this type of terrain, there was no way to know how this day would play out. There’s little choice but to embrace the unknown.

These trips always seem to bring up thoughts of the past. Of a time when it was much harder to know what to expect. Of a time when there was no internet, no television. A time when the morning newspaper, or some other form of transmitted information was the only information anyone would have to go about their days. This was a time when embracing the unknown was the only option.

Often, the only way to embrace the unknown safely is to be knowledgable and prepared. We knew not to get too close to the moose we saw only about a mile into the hike, also wandering through the fog.

As we climbed, up towards tree line, towards a pass known as Grassy Pass, we actually walked away from the fog.

For the entirety of the morning, it was likely that the valley where we had camped the previous night was still in thick fog.

When we reached the pass that whose natural features were consistent with its name around 10 A.M., it suddenly appeared as if our time in the fog was actually done.

Anyone who spends a lot of time in the mountains knows how much the weather can vary from place to place due to the complexities of the terrain. But, how often do we see it right in front of us? One side of this pass was still engulfed in fog while the other was basking in sunshine.

Places like this are some of the last places where we can truly embrace something quite human. Here, there is no way to know exactly what to expect.

To know what is going to happen at a specific spot, given the wind direction and every small-scale geographic and terrain feature is pretty much impossible. Each cloud represents a small scale current of wind, a moisture profile and subtle differences in the land with so many components it becomes more of a headache than it is worth to try to determine how every minute of every hour is to play out.

In a world where so many lives have become orderly and predictable, trips like this force us to embrace variety and surprise. They force us to release control. Perhaps, after decades of chasing after inventions and policies designed to enable us to track every development, predict and control outcomes, this is exactly what the world needs.

The defining feature of this section of the trip was alpine lakes.

We passed several of them as we descended into another valley, some close, some far away.

We set up camp at Lower Camp Lake.

And hiked up to Upper Camp Lake.

By the way, when backpacking, one of the greatest feelings is setting down your pack and hiking with nothing on your back. Backpacks weight quite a bit and it is a relief just to walk, or exist in general, without all that additional weight.

That afternoon I was back at the camp site, looking at trees full of pine cones and incorrectly speculating that there were families of birds in them.

In this moment, it suddenly dawned on me that the weather I had been experiencing all afternoon, along the Rawah and Camp creeks, at elevations of around 10,800 ft. (3300 m), was very likely better than the weather back in Denver. The sun was shining and the temperatures were actually quite pleasant. It felt like it was around 60°F (15°C), likely warmer than what was occurring in Denver. Out of the embrace of uncertainty can come some truly beautiful experiences. Sometimes things can work out for the best even when it feels like they might not.

That evening would end with another moose sighting.

Followed by a full moon whose light reflected along the lake.

A chill came into the air as the sun went down, but we still laughed. Some of the laughter was indeed at my expense for thinking that all those pine cones in that one tree were actually birds. Still, the laughter, shared experiences and embracing uncertainty made this experience truly human.

Backpacking in Northern Colorado’s Rawah Wilderness Day 1: Bracing for the Weather

The weather does not always cooperate. It does not always work out the way we hope it will to optimize our experiences. On the two days prior to this backpacking trip, the temperature reached 99°F (38°C) in Denver. During heat waves like this one, it is desirable to get up into the mountains.

However, the evening before the trip, a cold front came through, cooling temperatures at all elevations, and making the weather conditions a bit more variable in the mountains.

For the best possible combination of weather experiences, it would have been ideal for the heat wave to have lined up with the period of time we had already set aside for the trip, as opposed to the week before it. However, we can’t always get things like this to line up exactly with how we want them to. As long as we live in a world where we keep schedules and plan activities like this one around our other responsibilities (as opposed to just responding to conditions last minute) we will always have to contend with situations where things don’t line up as we had hoped.

The weather conditions were not even hazardous. It was actually pretty nice most of the day.

It was just not the ideal setup for us to have experienced a maximum amount of comfortable temperatures, something not worth getting too upset about. As has been the case with other backpacking trips, we were in a beautiful environment.

On this first day of the trip, while ascending along the West Branch trail, we unexpectedly encountered some large hoofed mammals, traveling alongside the few other hikers we encountered along the journey.

The Rawah wilderness is in the far northern part of Colorado. It’s part of the Southern Unit of the Medicine Bow- Routt National Forest. The northern part of this National Forest is in Wyoming.

The trail network here is generally well marked, which is reassuring on trips like these where going the wrong way can lead to some bad results.

After several miles on the West Branch Trail, we turned onto the Rawah Trail, to follow our loop. The trail began to ascend even faster.

When backpacking in this general region of the country, it is quite common for the first day to be the most challenging. Through the course of the day, we would climb a total of around 2,500 feet (760m). While climbing, we would first encounter a waterfall.

And finally got to where the surrounding mountain peaks began to appear.

Hikes in this region (Rocky Mountain National Park is actually only about 25 miles away) are generally full of alpine lakes. This one is no exception. Our final destination for the day was Twin Crater Lakes, two amazing alpine lakes tucked away in the mountains.

At this point the weather was actually close to perfect making for a pleasant afternoon.

We set up camp at a beautiful site in the trees about 3/4 of a mile down the creek from the lakes.

Overall, the day was relatively balanced. We hiked a total of about 9 miles (14.3 km), but were able to set up have camp set up by mid afternoon.

This gave us the time we needed to do the typical camping activities like set up a fire, pump water from the stream and cook dinner before dark without having to feel in a hurry in any way. It also balanced out the day a bit, giving us time to just hand out and be in nature.

My thoughts also felt quite balanced, possibly as balanced as they had been for a long time. I am guessing this is due to a combination of being away from the constant distractions of every day life, not being rushed, having the hike be exhausting but not too exhausting and recently reducing my exposure to news and certain topics that were making me unhappy.

Then, around 4 pm, the weather turned. Suddenly the forest looked like a spooky meadow where anything and everything could emerge from and vanish into the trees, much like the baseball players in A Field of Dreams. This was especially true as day gradually descended into night.

It was damp. None of us knew if it was going to rain. Thinking about the potentially unpleasant conditions brought back a feeling that I tend to get on many of these types of trips. It reminds me to appreciate the shelter we often take for granted, our homes with heating and air conditioning. It’s only relatively recently in the course of human existence we have had this. For almost all of the history of humanity, how comfortable we felt, and how challenging life was depended so much more on things like weather conditions and the cycles of the sun and moon. While it does not sound fun to go back to a world where we have to work harder to meet our basic necessities, sometimes I wish more of us could live our lives in manners that are more connected to these things.

Backpacking the Holy Cross Wilderness: Day 3 Nature and Spirit

I became fascinated with weather as a fairly young child. While looking into weather, I would often find old books, written long before people could look up a weather forecast on the computer or even turn on The Weather Channel. These books would describe how sky and wind conditions indicate likely changes in weather. This knowledge seems generally obsolete. However, the combination of knowing how weather patterns typically shape up in late August in the Rocky Mountains and observing the morning sky lead us to expect to be able hike the final 6.2 miles back to the trailhead before encountering rain.

One thing that did get somewhat frustrating on this and other recent camping trips, is the equipment. It is common for people to buy equipment for activities such as camping or hiking and feel as if they are done making purchases. However, on this trip, it became apparent that this tent was going to soon need repair or replacement.

The same can be said for my hiking pants and spork.

It’s taken me a while to realize how warped most people’s view of money and finance is. It seems common to focus only on expenses we can psychically see and on the short-term. When it comes to outdoor and sporting equipment, the line between renting and owning feels quite blurry. The more one uses an item, the sooner it needs to be replaced. So, with certain variance for the quality of the item and how well we take care of our things, even when we buy our own equipment, we are still sort of paying per use. The first dozen or so times anyone uses something like a tent, they rarely think about the cost of eventually replacing it and how those trips are taking them closer to that inevitable expense.

Throughout the trip, we continued to encounter deer up close. We must have chosen to set up camp in their territory or something. Once, when I left the tent to go to the bathroom before going to sleep, I encountered a deer and got startled. By Sunday morning, with clear weather, it almost felt as if we were hanging out with them!

Looking at us, I was wondering if the deer were having their own “Low Key F2020” type of experience. I can imagine them thinking….

Ugh! First there is all this smoke, then this hailstorm comes through, and now these humans are in our way! Can we do like the bears, hibernate and skip to 2021?

Heading back across the valley, the sky continued to point to a more typical late August scenario and the expectation that rain and storms would come, as is more typical, in mid-afternoon.

Heading across the rocky area, we encountered some more furry creatures.

Then headed up fancy pass, a slightly higher pass than the one we had trekked in on Friday.

Heading up the pass, it got kind of windy. I wonder how the people who set up camp closer to the pass, in an exposed area, had fared that morning.

This was the challenging and exhausting part. First there was the nearly 1000 foot climb up Fancy Pass, where we could clearly see that Missouri Pass was lower.

Then, the other side was a steep, rocky downhill, which can be just as tiring as the uphill.

The Fancy Pass Trail experience was a bit more pleasant than the Missouri Lakes Trail experience two days prior. There was no crazy avalanche area where the trail was covered with downed trees and difficult to pass. Also, all of the trail’s features were quite exquisite in the morning sun.

First, Fancy Lake (okay, maybe the names of these things need more variety)

Then, just below the lake, the water funnels into an amazing tall, skinny waterfall.

The final three miles trail is pretty homogenous: a gentle downward slope through a pine forest.

It was in this section that I had a spiritual experience!

As I walked through the woods for what was the final hour and a half of this journey, I suddenly felt as if I was getting some deeply profound messages about my life. They were the kinds of messages that gave me clarity about what I am meant to be doing, confidence in who I am supposed to be and context around some of my more unpleasant past experiences. It was like nothing I had ever experienced before.

It felt like the result of a confluence of several circumstances.

  • I was tired enough to slow down my mind typically very active thought process. Yet, I was not so exhausted that it was all I could focus on.
  • There were not too many distractions in that section of the trail (i.e. fantastic panoramic views, wildlife, waterfalls, etc.)
  • My mind was somewhat de-cluttered from having done no-news August and having spent three days without access to Wi-Fi

While people believe different things, I genuinely believe that I received messages from either God or some kind of guiding spirit and came away from it with an unexpected boost.

It also gave me that answer to a question that had been looming on my mind for years. There is no question that our modern technology and conveniences have made our lives better. People live longer, are healthier and have more free time and other fun experiences than they did before we had all of our modern technologies. Yet, some chose to forgo conveniences like running water, electricity and computers for periods of time to take part in activities like this one. Regardless of whether or not one believes God speaks to us through nature, taking a break from the modern world gives us the opportunity to connect with something we don’t typically connect to.

Backpacking in the Holy Cross Wilderness: Day 2 The Storm

We woke up to a light rain tapping on the tent. The tiny amount of blue sky present in the morning quickly disappeared. While some days start off rainy only to quickly give way to sunshine, it was obvious this would not be one of those days. It would not be an optimal day for adventure.

Still, we tried to do our previously planned day hike to a couple of other alpine lakes. The rocks and lack of trees in the areas, combined with the cloudy skies, breeze and chilly rain made me think of the Scottish Highlands. I’ve never been there, but have seen photos which always make them appear something like this.I kind of always imagine cloudy weather as well.

The rain started to pick up as fog made previously visible mountains disappear in the background. We retreated to the tent.

As the rain picked up, the cold rain, along with a moderate, started to remind me of how it often felt walking down 5th Avenue (in New York City) during Christmastime. At higher elevations it snowed.

We would spend several hours inside the tent, trying to warm up and dry off. I kind of enjoyed having a chance to relax a bit and read (once I was able to dry off). There is something about having no other options, being stuck, that liberates us from this drive (or expectation) to make the most of every day we have. It feels like a modern day American obsession. I’m not sure if it is our work culture, competitive nature or something completely different that makes it hard for us to just relax. I’m probably even worse than most Americans. Sometimes I wonder what it would be like to waste and entire day, not doing anything interesting or productive, and be okay with it. However, every time I try to do that, I get jittery sometime around 10 A.M.

The sun would eventually come out, sometime around 2:30 P.M.

I showed even more versatility by taking part in an activity I seldom do… fishing.

It even felt warm out for an hour or two.

We brought the fish back to our cooking area (which needs to be away from our campsite because of bears), filleted the fish and cooked our rice … just in time for another storm.

And I mean JUST IN TIME. As soon as everything was cooked, we rapidly and haphazardly put everything away in order to scurry back to the tent with our food to avoid lightning. While the cold wintry rain in the morning was just incredibly uncomfortable, the lightning in the evening was actually potentially dangerous. As summer was coming to an end in the mountains, we experienced nearly all seasons in one day.

It was the most intense thunderstorm I have ever experienced from inside a tent. It was the kind of thunderstorm where the sound of thunder follows the lightning nearly instantaneously making a startlingly loud noise! We could feel the vibration that only comes when the lightning strikes are incredibly close. It even hailed!

2020 is the gift that keeps on giving. It feels like a passive aggressive genie in a bottle, repeatedly giving me what I want but finding the most obnoxious possible way to grant the wish.

Me throughout the 2010s: Our jobs need to be more flexible. The rigid 9-to-5 schedule is outdated.

2020 (Passive Aggressive Genie): I shall create a global pandemic that will force everyone to work remotely out of fear of killing their loved ones with a really intense flu. That will lead to workplace flexibility.

Me in August 2020: There is drought, fires and smoke from California to Colorado. We need rain!

2020 (Passive Aggressive Genie): I’ll make it rain! But, I’ll make it rain on the middle day of your backpacking trip, while you are not in your home or even able to get back to your car. Oh, and I’ll give you both cold wintry rain and scary thunderstorm rain.

Maybe it’s not just me.

Countless people in the 2010s: The rent is too damn high!

2020 (Passive Aggressive Genie): An economic depression, violence and mass exodus from your city will lower your rent. You’re welcome.

Backpacking in the Holy Cross Wilderness: Day 1 Versatility

It started with an amazingly picturesque waterfall, only half an hour into the hike, before even reaching the border of the Wilderness itself.

There is no shortage of amazing natural features along the Missouri Lakes Trail in the Southern Part of the Holy Cross Wilderness about 20 miles South of Vail. In this part of the world it is hard to imagine anything different!

Many of the natural features along the first two miles of the trail were waterfalls!

This otherwise amazing experience along the Missouri Lakes trail was only interrupted by a section of trail that was quite challenging to pass and navigate due to a recent avalanche.

I was told this avalanche happened about a year and a half ago. I had never seen so many trees down in one place and could not help but imagine it being like one of those crazy scary avalanches in those nature videos. I wonder if anyone got trapped, if anyone died. Most people who travel places like this, especially in winter are smart, but there are the occasional stupid ones that end up in the news.

We spent most of the rest of the morning walking by the Missouri Lakes, the feature the trail is named after.

As is typical on the first day of a trip like this, I was trying to clear out my thoughts. Despite my decision to give up news for the month of August, I had some trouble clearing my mind. We can chose not to consciously look at the news, but unless we hide at home alone, there will be things we find out about. I heard about Hurricane Laura’s landfall in Louisiana. I also heard about something that hit closer to home for me, as I spent the first eleven years of my life living on Long Island and regularly going into New York City. Apparently, with the COVID-triggered adaptation of remote work, there is now an ongoing debate about whether New York is “dead” [1] [2].

I was in a place that could not be any more different from New York City.

Yet, my thoughts kept wandering to this debate. I wondered if the reports of people leaving New York City were overblown? Could the city really be facing an imminent decline? If so, will it be like it was in the 1970s? Could it be worse? What would the United States of America even be without places like New York City, where one can be in the middle of everything, the energy, constant movement, and economic activity?

The article claiming New York to be “Dead Forever” made a claim that sounded quite familiar… “This time is different”. I’ve heard this statement many times, in many different forms. Sure, “this time is different” events do happen, but not as often as they are proclaimed. A deep dive into history will actually reveal that in many cases, even ones of major change, a lot of things stay the same. A recent example is Google and Facebook. They changed the world in some ways, but their business model of giving away content for free and marketing to advertisers is not new at all. It started with radio and was the predominant business model of the television era. The main thing they changed was providing a platform for people to produce content for each other rather than paying actors to produce content.

I have a feeling that, although some adjustments will need to be made, there will still be people who crave the energy of living in places like New York.

Going over a mountain pass is quite a different experience than summiting a mountain. Looking ahead at the ridge, it is comforting, especially while carrying a heavy backpack, to know that it is only necessary to reach the “saddle” of this ridge, as opposed to the top of a mountain. There is no chance of a “false summit”. The challenge up ahead looks real, but it is also all laid out in front of us, with no surprises.

The top of the summit would reveal another challenge ahead. The clouds were already gathering.

As we descended the other side of the pass, toward Treasure Vault Lake at about half past noon, it was almost impossible to imagine an afternoon that would not feature rain.

It would take about an hour and a half for us to reach our destination, Blodgett Lake.

Due to a very rocky section of the trail, we had to descend into the valley and climb back to the lake.

For our final ascent to the lake, we went off trail. It’s probably a place few humans venture.

We ended up getting camp set up just in time for the storms to roll in.

The hours of 2:30 to 5:30 P.M. were mostly spent inside the tent, waiting out the storm. It was not ideal, as people often chose activities like this to spend time outdoors. However, we had been outdoors most of the day, and I welcomed the chance to take a nap and do a little bit of reading.

Between the place we set up camp and the lake there was a small lone tree. The image of this tiny tree with mountains and storm clouds in the backdrop made me think of the types of photographs often featured at art galleries, or at trendy cocktail parties.

That lone tree also came to symbolize something else… versatility.

It is common for people to wait for the ideal conditions for their activities. The chilly damp conditions, and promise of more time stuck inside the tent were far from ideal. However, that evening I witnessed a truly stunning natural phenomenon that I had only previously seen in videos. Watching the fog clouds pour over two mountain passes and into the valley below I knew for sure …. It pays to be versatile!

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.

Wyoming’s Wind River Mountain Range: A Quiet Place to View the Eclipse

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Every region has its high-profile destinations, as well as some lesser known, but often just as magnificent places. When people think of Wyoming, they often think of Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons, home of some of North America’s most unique and picturesque landscapes. The Wind River Mountains, roughly an hour east of Jackson Hole Ski Resort and the Grand Tetons is one of those places.

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The jagged peaks of the Wind River Range are somewhat reminiscent of the Grand Tetons. They include Wyoming’s highest peak, and are considered an ideal setting for a true primitive outdoor experience. In fact, the National Outdoor Leadership School, where people of all ages learn about survival in the outdoors, has its headquarters in Lander, WY, and conducts many of its programs in the Wind River Mountains.

It also happened to be in the path of totality for the August 21, 2017 solar eclipse. For an event that brought hundreds of thousands of people to the state of Wyoming, the lesser known but still amazing Wind River Mountains represented the ideal place to view the solar eclipse without encountering large crowds.

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My group started our journey at the New Fork Lakes Campground roughly 48 hours prior to the eclipse. We spent most of Saturday afternoon climbing through a forest of mostly dead trees, wildflowers, and the occasional raspberry.

After stopping for the evening at one of the only quazi-flat areas we could find along the trail.

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Hiking several hours Sunday morning.

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Where we would periodically traverse alpine lakes of all sizes.

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We finally got a glimpse of the higher peaks that make up the heart of the Wind River Range.

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This was one of about a dozen “false summits” along the trail. By this, I mean places where the trail ahead appears to be reaching its apex, or a flat area, only to reveal significantly more climbing around the next corner.

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Sometimes there is a lot more climbing.

Whether hiking, backpacking, or cycling, false summits can be frustrating. Some people find themselves quite discouraged when they believe that the challenging component of an experience is over, only to find out that far more challenge lay ahead, with no known ending.

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It is also true of many of our personal challenges in life. A trail like this, with many false summits, can, in a way, be a metaphor for life. At times, it feels as if life is one false summit after another. Hopeful people in less than ideal situations will often see reason to believe better days are ahead only to have the struggle re-emerge, or the emergence of a new source of stress.

However, if hikes like this, sweat, frustration, and deceptive false summits and all, demonstrate anything, it is that climbing the mountain, both literally and metaphorically, is often worth it.

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After the morning haze finally burned off, we spent the day Sunday in an area the was simply magnificent.

The manner in which the shadows of the clouds shifted along the panoramic horizon was often breathtaking to watch.

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We got to enjoy ourselves in lakes that belong to nobody.

The campground we stayed at was great vantage point to watch, the sunset.

As well as the sunrise.

On a day when many were fighting crowds, and struggling with numerous hours of traffic to get a view of this eclipse, we were on top of Doubletop mountain, at roughly 11,000 feet in elevation, enjoying the eclipse with plenty of space.

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The eclipse itself, like the breathtaking jagged peaks of the Wind River Range was beautiful beyond words.

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The event lasted a total of nearly three hours, most of it with the sun only partially blocked by the moon.

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The previous four eclipse photos were taken by Jim Budde who got better photos of the event.

A little bit before “totality”, it began to noticeably feel cooler, even though it did not seem too much darker than usual.

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Right before totality, the darkness becomes noticeable.

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Totality is kind of like a two-minute-long strange dusk-like period. It does not feel like nighttime. In a way it feels like that time of the evening roughly twenty minutes after sunset, with the day that had just occurred gradually descending away to the west, enough residual light to make out surrounding objects, and the promise of the night ahead beginning to enter the collective consciousness.

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Only, everything is, like, sideways, rotated or something.

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While there was plenty of time to goof off, swim, watch the eclipse, it still was a physically challenging experience, as is any trip involving carrying heavy backpacks up steep hills.

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Backpacking is work too. There are chores to be done; setting up tents, starting fires, cooking, pumping water, etc.

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That which is more challenging, requires more effort, or taking some kind of risk is almost always more rewarding than that which is easy. This backpacking trip, the beauty of the Wind River Mountains, the experience of viewing the eclipse, such a rare event, in all its glory, served as a reminder to me of something I have always known but can at time lose sight of. Human beings, by our nature, were meant to “work” in some capacity. Sitting around and playing all day, or having everything done for us will naturally lead to a life that is empty. Working hard and receiving a reward of some kind after that hard work is complete, whether that be backpacking to see something beautiful or starting a business that impacts the world positively, leads to fulfillment.

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The final struggle of this trip is one that I can sometimes have a harder time dealing with than others- cold. Dry weather is convenient because it means no rain. However, it also commonly means large daily temperature swings. Each day, the temperature probably reached or exceeded 70F (21C), warm for physical exertion such as carrying a heavy pack uphill. Each morning was chilly, with Tuesday morning being the coldest – frost covered the ground.

The final day’s hike, and descent back to civilization went by surprisingly fast. With an early start, and few stops, we were back into civilization before noon, ready to return to “regular life”, and tackle the challenges that lay ahead, including whatever metaphorical “false summits” we would encounter next.

Backpacking in the Weminuche Wilderness: Day 3

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The Weminuche Wildreness appeared to be particularly devastated by the recent Mountain Pine Beetle epidemic.  While a portion of the second day was spent above the tree line and in storms for much of the journey, we wound our way in and out of the forest, alternating between hiking through the forest itself, and hiking across an open meadow where we could gaze upon the forest to both our left and our right.

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Throughout the State of Colorado, and throughout the West, I observe areas where the Pine Beetles have decimated the forest, changing the ecosystem forever.  Nowhere, though, have I seen a higher concentration of dead trees.  I would estimate that, over the course of the trip, some 70-75% of all the pine trees I saw, were, in fact, dead.

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But I did notice some signs of life, particularly at the campground Sunday (Day 3) morning.  Tucked away amongst the densely pack forests of decimated trees, little signs of life seemed to appear.  It reminded me of many American cities, circa 1982, decay being the overarching theme but, signs of life and pockets of hope beginning to appear here and there for those willing to observe.  Maybe indeed, the worst has now passed for this particular forest.  As was the case for many of our cities, it is possible that in a decade or so, we will revisit areas like this, and see once again a thriving forest, albeit, as was the case with our cities, with a different character?

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As is typically the case on a three day excursion like this one, the last day was primarily a descent.  As we descended, we quickly reached elevations where Aspens, rather than Pine trees made up a significant proportion of the forest.

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Maybe it is different at this latitude, farther South than the Denver area, where I live and spend most of my time.  But, it feels as if in this wilderness, Aspen trees are able to grow at some pretty high elevations.

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We figured out the tree line here to be somewhere close to 12,000 feet in elevation.  When looking upon sections of forest from afar like this, it is easy to picture some of these Aspen trees living at elevations close to 11,00 feet.  Over the course of my four years in the Denver area, I had grown accustomed to them disappearing between 9,000 and 10,000 feet.

Sunday’s hike was a 7.3 mile trek along the Ute Creek trail (the East Ute Creek trail we had followed the previous day merged with the main Ute Creek trail).  The trail alternated a bit, climbing up and out of the valley formed by the creek for some sections, and descending back toward the creek for others.  Due to the previous night’s onslaught of rain, which likely impacted the entire valley, the trails on this, the final day, were at times even muddier than the were the prior two days.  At the end of three days, our total distance came out around 25 miles.  I speculated as to whether the extra distance we traveled stepping around puddles, and veering left and right to avoid some of the muddiest sections of trail, over the course of three days made this a mile or so longer than it would have been had the trails been completely dry.

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I personally added some distance on top of that.  I love side excursions, whether hiking/backpacking, cycling, or on a road trip.  And, in addition to the side excursion to the feature known as “the window” the previous day, I took one completely on my own the final day.  Roughly halfway through the hike, I saw a place where I could cut down to the creek, and see a mini-waterfall.

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The final part of the day consisted of a small climb out of the Ute Creek valley, followed by a descent back towards the Rio Grande Reserviour.

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It is inevitable that, on the last day of any trip, we all begin to ponder our return home, and a return to our “normal lives”, whatever they may be.  This return, though, is somewhat unique, as a trip into the woods is not just a journey away from our jobs, or certain responsibilities, it feels more like a complete separation from the modern world, or as some people refer to it, the “real world”.  All of us were separated, not just from work, but from TV, from the news, from Twitter, and even the manner in which society is structured in the 21st Century.

Since my return to Denver was a return to, after being completely separated from, the “real world”, I started to contemplate the “real world” as one big entity, which, even for a big-picture abstract curious minded thinker like me, turned out to be strange.  I feel like we often compartmentalize the “real world” into buckets; the working world, the relationship world, the school world, etc.  We will write blogs, have conversations, confide in others about our hardships, or celebrate our successes, with respect to one specific bucket of the “real world” at a time.  Some people will even chose to accept or rebel against the modern world on a bucket-by-bucket basis.  “I’m a freelancer, happily married with two kids and a picket fences house.”  “I work 9-to-5 for a large corporation, but I only eat organically certified food.”

I’m not saying there is anything wrong with any of the partially-rebellious lifestyles I am describing here.  We often try to oversimplify the actions and lifestyles of others as being either “conformist” or “rebellious”.  When I thought about life in the woods, and the few people that actually do it, live off the grid, and off the land, I think of those people as “rebellious”.  But, then I thought of human beings as part of the animal kingdom, and thought about what all non-domesticated animals do.  They live in the woods.  They hunt their food, many wandering around nomadically.  When thought of in that manner, it is us human beings, and our domesticated cats and dogs, that are rebelling against the way the rest of the animal kingdom works by farming our food and setting up permanent shelters.

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At the conclusion of our journey, we had to actually wade across the Rio Grand River to get to the car, as the trail ended abruptly at the river.  This likely explained why we did not see any other people the entire time we were on the East Ute Creek and Ute Creek trails yesterday and today.

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Shortly after leaving the trailhead, I saw what looked like baby mule deer living along the steepest part of the hill.

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Like the journey to the Wilderness, the journey home took us by some of Colorado’s highest peaks and most stunning mountainous features.  I thought of the “real world” I was gradually re-entering, the life I live and the journey I just took.  It is not important whether we are “conforming” or “rebelling”, because, like life in the woods, it can be thought of as conformist or rebellious depending on perspective.

Those of us that are honest with ourselves, and with those around us, will undoubtedly find ourselves in both situations.  We’ll find ourselves in a place where our choices are the same as those around us, and be suseptable to being labelled “conformists”.  We’ll also, at some point, find ourselves in a place where our choices are not those of the majority, and be met with skepticism, hostility, and possibly even pressure to change.  What matters most, is not fitting into an image we may have of ourselves, whether it be the upstanding citizen, rebel, outcast, or whatever, it is that we have the courage to be all things, depending on our setting, in order to be true to ourselves.