“Uncompahgre” – From the Ute word for “red water spring” or “red lake” or “dirty water”, take your pick–or ask a Ute elder, to be sure.
After a day of resting our bones (see the September 15, 2017, Handies Peak Report) and checking our phones in the bustling berg of Lake City (population 500, counting dogs and cats), Rik Fritz and I were ready for our next 14er objective. Again, we talked of Wetterhorn, but yet another brief dusting of snow up high the night before made us reconsider. Fickle autumn! So, to avoid any chance of a Fritz-Joder epic (see my post “The Fall” for an extreme example of just such an “epic”), we chose the relatively easy trail up Uncompahgre Peak for the adventure o’ the day.
If you happen to be in this area in mid-September, by the way, plan for a day of hanging out in Lake City as their Lake City Uncorked Wine and Music Festival takes place then. A fun event! Also, the leaves will likely be changing (as they were for us), so it is a fine time to be there. Bring both a jacket and short sleeves–it will be chilly in the shade, but hot in the sun!
Also, of historical and, perhaps, gastronomical interest in this land of many gold and silver mines, is the strange 19th century tale of Alferd G. Packer. He and five prospector companions found themselves snowbound here in the San Juans one winter and only Alferd came out alive when the storms cleared–apparently, thanks to a bit of cannibalism on his part. He was eventually convicted of murder for his acts, although there is a good chance he was railroaded and was simply a “creative survivor” of a tough situation (not unlike the Donner Party (1846-1847) and the Uruguayan rugby team (1972).
Some morbidly humorous Alferd Packer trivia: I remember eating at the Alferd G. Packer Memorial Grill at the University of Colorado back in the 70s (Since renamed the “Alferd Packer Restaurant and Grill”, apparently–spoilsports!). I think they had a “Cannibal Burger” on the menu then. Some of the slogans I have heard related to this eatery…”Have a friend for lunch!”…”Serving humanity since 1874″…and, “He ate the only two Democrats in Hinsdale County!”
But enough raucous levity. Let’s get back to the topic at hand–the trip report of our ascent of Uncompahgre Peak in late summer/early fall/light snow conditions. May you find it useful and/or entertaining.
“Memories made in the mountains stay in our hearts forever.“
With a pending move to Barcelona this year, I thought I might get motivated and finish the basic list of 58 14ers this year but, alas, ’twas not to be. Rock climbing seemed to be the outdoor priority for me this year. So, I guess I’ll be back from Spain for a month or two next year with the remaining 14ers in my sights! Who wants to join me?
This particular trip up Handies (and the one to follow, up Uncompahgre) was special in that I was able to team up with a very close friend from way, way, waaay back in junior high and high school days–Rik Fritz. In fact, he called me up and got me going back to the big mountains on this trip instead of the local rock climbing crag.
Rik is an amazing guy and really needs to write a book about his exploits with rattlesnakes, on Yosemite big walls, on long, high altitude, cross country flights in his hang glider, and on his seriously salty sailing adventures. He is definitely a man who has lived life to the fullest–and continues to do so. (See my near-death blog post from June 27, 2017, “The Fall” to catch a bit of what I mean.)
It was great to catch up with him and talk about all that “Back In The Day” stuff! Ahhh…the stories…the stories…and all included at least 10% truth!
Our initial goal for the 3-4 days we had available was to haul our fannies up Sneffels, Uncompahgre, and Wetterhorn, starting with the Class 3 scrambling route on this last one, “Weather Peak”. Handies wasn’t even on the list. But, ah, the best laid plans…In mid-to-late September in the Colorado Rockies, weather can be tricky and fickle pickle, as we quickly discovered.
A pounding, hours-long, cold rainstorm the night before–as we camped at the Wetterhorn/Matterhorn Trailhead–made us rethink things. There would surely be snow above and, sure enough, morning revealed a heavy coating on the high peaks tapering off finally at about treeline. Hmmm…best not to do exposed Class 3 scrambling on icy and snowy rock without the proper gear and attitude, we both said. So, instead of Wetterhorn, off to Handies we bounced in our 4×4 pickups–Handies would be a much easier peak, even with a wet, white blanket o’ schnee.
What follows, then, is what eventually transpired, to the best of my sometimes-faulty recollection, along with my usual merry montage of inspiring images…
With the latest storm moving out yesterday, I thought it might be an opportune time to hike up Sugarloaf Mountain. The idea would be to catch sunrise on the Continental Divide, maybe see the trees plastered with snow, and hopefully even get a nice undercast layer of writhing fog fingers caressing the low mountain valleys.
These photo trips never really pan out like you expect, though. On this morning, for example, there was no undercast and the Continental Divide peak tops were mostly obscured by cloud remnants from the recent storm. At least there were lots of snow-laden trees.
What really attracted me, though, were the huge snow sculptures and drifts at the summit–some of them hip deep. The driving wind, and thus blowing snow, helped give the images some unusual movement effects, even if it was difficult to keep the lens relatively spot-free. (Forget trying to actually change lenses!)
The hike up was through a smooth, fluffy coat of shin-deep powder snow.
First tracks are the best!
On to the images…
The magic moment. Another day quietly begins with orange plasma on the horizon and light pink on the snow at my feet:
Then the wind woke up and the early morning went full-on, roaring orange:
This was my favorite photograph of the day, a portrait of Longs Peak as the first rays of the sun hit the mountain. The wind was blowing directly into my lens, which made for some wonderful blurring and subtle colors in the foreground…but the flakes would quickly start filling up the spaces around the inside the lens shade. I cloned out a number of inconvenient spots from flakes that stuck themselves to the glass:
…so why not head off to my favorite local sunrise photo op spot: Sugarloaf Mountain (8,917′). [NOTE: Use the SEARCH box on my site to find the myriad other Sugarloaf blog entries and images from every season of the year.]
It would certainly be a refreshing way to escape the constant toxic rain of post-election nuclear fallout still streaming down on to our aching craniums from the airwaves above.
The full super-Moon had risen dramatically over the plains last night, so it prompted me to ponder how it might set this morning behind the Continental Divide. I was skeptical though, as The Photographer’s Ephemeris indicated that Ms. Luna would be setting at 6:35a.m., ten minutes before sunrise. This would mean the landscape would still be quite dark while the Moon was still very bright–and very low in the sky, maybe even behind the clouds or mountains.
Sure enough, this was my view of the Divide as I gained Sugarloaf Mountain’s summit at around 6:00a.m. That bright glow at the top right, behind the thick clouds, was the only evidence of Sister Moon:
For one brief instant, though, a silver-white sliver of the Moon lit up a very small space between the low clouds and the mountains. There just happened to also be a small cumulus cloud just above that slit that makes it look even more odd. The moment only lasted thirty seconds or so. On the far left are the South/North Arapaho Peaks and the Arapaho Glacier:
A closer view of James Peak. To the right, it looks like they are starting to pile up some artificial snow on the slopes of the Eldora Ski Area. The dry, warm autumn is certainly not giving them any quarter:
Oh, how I love it when there are interesting clouds in the sky at sunrise! In this case a very low, hovering, glowing, glowering, lenticular:
Yes, Sugarloaf Mountain is one yuuuge pile o’ scree. Camp Counselor Carl used to have his camp kids run 100-yard dash races across that stuff! But, it was the proud pine tree that pulled on my eyeball:
And, here is a nice monochrome view for the B&W fans out there. From left to right: Old Baldy (13,038′), South Arapaho Peak (13,397′), North Arapaho Peak (13,501′), Deshawa (12,820′), Arikaree Peak(13,150′), Kiowa Peak (13,276′), and a bit of Apache Peak (13,441′) on the far right:
This place never ceases to astound me as a photographer. On the face of it, it is really nothing more than an old, somewhat dumpy, quarry area with a collection of shallow, swampy, ponds–but time has started to smooth out the scars and I almost never seem to go away from a photo visit without creating at least one good image, no matter the hour or the light.
A few days ago, we went for an afternoon walk around the ponds. The sun was still rather high…the light harsh. I had few expectations so didn’t bother with hauling the tripod along.
Still, Sawhill Ponds managed to rise once again to the occasion and show me something I had never seen before in my many, many trips out there.
Or is it that my creative eye is slowly maturing and is beginning to pick up on more sophisticated scenes?
…Landscapes that push beyond the boundaries of the traditional and the cliché, and on into the realm of the abstract…
First, here is a composition that appears quite busy at first glance, but is actually reasonably simple in terms of line, texture, and even form. Squint and blur your eyes and you might see what I mean. What caught my hairy eyeball was the way the winds were painting their way across the leaves and branches of a giant cottonwood tree–a tree with wonderful diagonals. The effect was almost surreal:
Second, here is a reflection I had never before seen nor captured in quite the same way, a nearby power pole supplying a sort of vertical focal point. The unusually low water level certainly helped by adding the many textured layers:
POSTSCRIPT: For those who are fans of the added element of color, here are the original versions of the above two photographs. I think I like them just as much as their monochrome clones. They are just different–the eye tends to move over the picture differently…notice different things. Which is better? I’m not sure…
OK, on to some practical advice for the artist who has been selected to spend a week at the famous red barn in Boulder County’s Caribou Ranch Open Space. This info is good as of the date of this post, but could easily change, so take it all with a block o’ salt.
First, though, congratulations! You are about to have a very special experience and, hopefully, it will titillate your creative right-brain cells to leap joyfully to spectacular new heights.
“I seen prettier places. Not too many.” –Camp Counselor Carl
I can’t believe I have been rooted in Boulder all these years and, until today, had never tread upon the two Arapaho Peaks. Geez, you see them every time you drive west on Arapahoe Road in traffic-choked downtown Boulder, and from most other urban points as well, you’d think I would have hoisted my fanny perpendicular and marched up there much, much sooner!
Apart from their iconic position looming over our town, the entire hike itself is spectacular and I happened to pick a near flawless, “classic Colorado”, summer day to enjoy it (as above). A whole new playground of jagged snow-blotted peaks, high mountain lakes, alpine meadows, and tumbling waterfalls has just been revealed to me–and it is just an hour from home (well, to the trailhead, anyway)!
Ahhh’ll be back!
–Hiking by 3:30a.m., I summited the Sound of Music, meadow-like, Old Baldy for sunrise photos first, then made my way up jagged South Arapaho Peak to meet up with some friendly and buena honda 14ers.com folks who were planning the Traverse (alyssacait23, WishIWasInTheMts, hilo21, and Tornadoman). I big thanks to them for the moral support and the route finding assistance!
–Some hiking times for you–if you move at least at an average speed: Plan on an hour from the Fourth of July Trailhead to the turnoff onto the Arapaho Glacier Trail (at 2 miles), another hour to the saddle between South Arapaho and Old Baldy (Arapaho Glacier viewpoint), then another hour to summit South Arapaho. For bonus points, from the saddle below South Arapaho, a 15-20 minute trip up easy terrain will get you to Old Baldy’s summit just to the east. For the spectacular South-North Arapaho Traverse itself, plan on an hour each way under dry, summer conditions. Once back to South Arapaho Peak, getting down into the thicker air to your vehicle might take 2 1/2 hours or so, depending on how badly you wish to reward your orthopedic specialist.
–See 14ers dot com HERE for more specific beta than you really need. And, I highly recommend bergsteigen’s trip report for some great photos of key areas along the traverse.
—Stats: Round trip, to climb South Arapaho, traverse to North, and return, is about 10 miles and involves some 3,300 vertical feet of climb/descent–excellent 14er prep! Add another mile and another 250 vertical feet if you include the Old Baldy option. Key Elevations: Old Baldy is 13,038′, South Arapaho is 13,397′, and North Arapaho measures 13,502′–the latter the highest peak in the Indian Peaks Wilderness and the highest point on the Continental Divide north of I-70 (Longs Peak isn’t precisely on the Divide).
–The beautiful: A wonderful, spidery waterfall that crashes across the trail maybe a mile into the hike…the wildflowers that were everywhere at nearly all elevations (mid-July)…green tundra grasses…fat, furry marmots fed by said grasses…at least three semi-frozen alpine lakes (one is below Arapaho Peaks “Glacier”–look closely off to the south for the other two!)…and, of course, the top o’ the Divide views all the way from Pikes Peak and Mt. Evans/Bierstadt to the south, through Longs Peak to the north.
—The Traverse: Follow the faded Arne Saknussemm arrows, the rock worn by many boots, and the intermittent packed dirt path whenever it appears. Also, refer to bergsteigen’s excellent report/pictures as mentioned above, along with my images. As others have noted, the slab that gets so much press is indeed a short low Class 4 crux, especially upon return as you have to scoot down to it with some exposure, but I didn’t find it particularly hard or scary. There were two other spots I would say were just as attention-getting…first, a 6-8 foot drop off right on the ridge that might catch you by surprise–just back up 20 feet or so and scramble down some short Class 4 to the west…second, a dirt chute leading up into a final notch before the summit of North Arapaho Peak (although this last can apparently be easily avoided–see notes with pictures below). This adventure would definitely be good prep for some of the Class 3 or 4 14er traverses or routes.
—Arapaho Glacier: It is shrinking rapidly. One hundred years ago it was twice the size it is now.
—Human beans: I stopped counting beans after I hit one hundred folks while on my way down–grand total was likely around 150. The vast majority were to be found down low in the first 1-2 miles of the hike. Up high on the mountain, as far as I could tell perhaps 20-25 folks did the traverse, or were planning on it, on this day (a Saturday). Eight of us collected at North Arapaho’s summit cairn at once and we were the earliest bunch there at around 9a.m.
–Your vehicle and parking: I saw mostly trucks and Colorado-issue Subarus at the end-of-the-road parking areas, although there were a surprising number of standard 4-door sedans mixed into the crowd. Just go slow and be careful with your Mom’s Honda Civic on the rough road! I had no problem parking right next to the trailhead signs at 3:30a.m., but the lot and the road were packed when I returned later in the day. Maybe try a weekday if you prefer solitude on this route.
—Photography: I carried my three Nikkor lenses (14-24mm f/2.8, 24-70mm f/2.8, 70-200mm f/4), Nikon D800 body, tripod, and also the small-but-awesome Sony RX100iv–a good 12 pounds of photo gear in all. The idea was to use all the heavy, nice gear for sunrise and up to South Arapaho’s summit. For the traverse, I left my big pack and just carried the small Sony (24-70mm equivalent) around my neck/shoulder and, in a small daypack, the D800 with the 70-200mm attached. Online, you probably can’t tell which images were made with the big Nikon versus the tiny Sony–photo machines are pretty good these days.
It has been awhile since my last visit to my favorite local area sunrise perch, Sugarloaf Mountain…but the unstable weather conditions were calling.
In Boulder, the previous day there were lots of low clouds with a small cold front moving through, with this particular morning (27 April) forecast as clearing. The possibility of some nice cloud layers below the Sugarloaf summit was there–and so it was. And so was I (despite the 4a.m. wakeup!)
A handful of images…
The pre-sunrise light up here always seems very blue, a color that also communicates the cold temps of this particular morning. That’s Denver off to the right in the distance and probably Louisville on the left. Boulder is buried under cloud. From left to right you can also see the profiles of the First Flatiron, Green Mountain, and Bear Peak. The lights from a couple of mountain homes can also be seen between Green and Bear, and in the very near foreground:
Moving from a telephoto shot (above), I switched to the 24-70 and tried to work with the sculpted summit stump. The elephant-shaped cloud helped fill in all that negative space in the sky. It snowed about an inch up here last night:
Back to the 70-200 telephoto for a closer view of the cloud layers and the mountain profiles. I liked the line of cloudlets marching across the sky and, in the foreground, the silhouettes of the trees, some burned in the last fire a few years ago:
For sunrise, I changed perspectives radically, going for a 14mm view of the giant, scorched, tree I call “Old Grandpappy”, along with his forest fire-veteran companions.
On the descent, Sugarloaf’s shadow led the way with a three-quarter Moon looking on. The clouds were layered, with low, fast-moving cumulus blowing by in the cold wind and a massive lenticular starting to form at high altitude, and some light cirrus up even higher:
It all depends on the season, the foliage, the weather, the clouds, the wind, the time of day, the light. It is always different.
Yesterday, as the storm started to clear, I didn’t get the views of a snow-covered Continental Divide I was hoping for. Still, it was a joy and a challenge to photograph my usual friendly landmarks on the peak, dressed as they were in yet another set of unique costumes.
Here is a quick tour of a few of my key photo op stops. If you have ever been up there, you will surely recognize these scenes.
The baby aspen grove on the way up:
Looking back down the trail, the big, proud, “Lone Pine” up on the right slope:
The burned and scarred “Patriarch of Sugarloaf”, standing guard on the upper mountain:
The “Fraternal Twins” snags up on the left, one of which resembles a goalpost:
The Burn, on the north slope, a nest of spiked pinnacles:
The small grove of low trees hanging on by their rooted toenails on the windswept summit:
The slowly shrinking summit stump:
2016 Black & White Magazine, Spotlight Award Winner! (Issue: June, 2017, #121)
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