Tag Archives: Flat Tops Wilderness

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.