Monday, August 10, 2020

Dystopian paradise

You know you've had quite the weekend in the mountains when you wake up and feel like you've smoked a case of cigarettes.

I had a lovely weekend: explored more than 50 miles of gorgeous alpine landscape, ascended more than 12,000 feet of vertical gain, sharpened my ever-dulling skills on challenging but less consequential technical terrain, and dipped my filter bottle in a half dozen sparkling mountain streams. But on Monday morning I'm experiencing physical fallout one might not normally expect. My legs are streaked with itchy heat rash from exceedingly hot temperatures combined with all of the protective clothing I need to wear when spending a full day in the sun at 11,000 feet. My airways are burning and breathing is labored from the high volumes of smoke I drew into my sensitive lungs. My muscles and even my Achilles tendon are fine, but my lungs will probably need at least a couple of days of recovery, especially if the outdoor air quality doesn't improve. 

For me, the Colorado summer has a strange dynamic of beautiful and terrible. Feeling drawn to mountain adventures that are both exhilarating and terrifying. Crossing clear mountain streams and pristine tundra while baking in 90-degree heat. Joining an almost ridiculous influx of traffic and crowds for a rare patch of peaceful solitude. Racing the clock of afternoon thunderstorms — the lackadaisical weather that can become deadly in a heartbeat. August often brings wildfire smoke, blue skies choked with haze, and outdoor air I can't breathe. This year we also have the weirdness of the pandemic: limited entry at trailheads, shying away from travel, hiking while hiding our faces, and looking away while passing others.

In past years, I worked through the August doldrums by looking forward to adventures in the Alps and training for upcoming winter races. Since I don't have that this year, I am hoping to squeeze in as many local mountain adventures as I can justify — within the constraints of trailhead access, time, and apparently my lungs. On Friday I scored a timed entry permit into Rocky Mountain National Park. I decided to spend the day in Glacier Gorge, the stunning granite gorge I'd viewed from above while perched at Keyhole. It is, of course, one of the most popular attractions in the national park. But some places are worth showing up precisely at my allowed 8 a.m. entry time, parking four miles away, and standing in the sun for 45 minutes while waiting for a spot on a socially distanced shuttle. 

The trail is lined with scenic waterfalls, and for the first two miles was predictably crowded with a near-constant flow of hikers. I wore the cotton face mask I use for shopping, which caused me to feel increasingly desperate. I know, the current research on COVID-19 points to an infinitesimally low chance of outdoor transmission, but I do care about optics and decided to stick with it. Once I was past Mills Lake, I could finally rip that thing off my face. The beauty of the day finally started to open up. 

I passed my second alpine Lake, Black Lake, where the trail became faint. I clawed my way up the steep drainage of Glacier Creek. Above the cascade was the most lovely alpine basin. If there was a trail to follow up there, I didn't find it. I hopped between granite slabs and balanced on spongy tussocks, working my way to the head of the gorge at Green Lake.

Green Lake was a lovely spot, and I had it all to myself. I sat down for a snack and spent most of my visit staring at Pagoda Mountain, tracing lines in the rock and chossy gullies that might be in my abilities to ascend. Even though I am a scaredy-cat when it comes to mountaineering, it's still a fun puzzle for me to work out. It's even more fun when I don't intend to make myself do it ... not on this day, at least. On this day, I decided, I would visit every alpine lake I could manage in the amount of daylight I had left. 

I picked a different line across rock slabs and tundra to Frozen Lake as the heat of the day started cranking. Lake number five. I passed a few lovely tarns along the way, but decided that if the lake didn't have a name on the map, I wouldn't count it. 

The upper gorge had an impressive view of the west face of Longs Peak. I spent a little too much time staring at it, trying to find Keyhole, and marveling that crossing below this face this was a thing that casual hikers did every day. 

Dropping back to Black Lake. The granite shelf just beyond the lake holds two more lakes with no access trail. My GPS showed a "Shelf and Solitude" route, but it didn't seem possible to ascend those cliffs. Still ... worth checking out, right? I can always descend if I can't find a way up. Where the route cut off trail was right in the middle of a swamp, scrambling over tree snags and crossing the braids of Glacier Creek. I was skeptical, but just beyond the creek, I found a faintly beaten path that jutted directly up the slope, into the thick pine forest. 

The Shelf and Solitude Route was amazing, really. The dirt path was so faint that I couldn't be certain it wasn't an animal trail, and it was littered with fallen trees that were often not trivial to climb over or around. I veered off of the route frequently, dead-ending at another rocky outcropping that couldn't be climbed without ropes. But if I came back to the route, I'd see it again — an almost imperceptible ribbon of dirt winding through a narrow notch and continuing up an almost vertical ladder of roots and deadfall. It was terribly strenuous, gaining 1,000 feet in 0.3 miles. But it went! I arrived at the shoreline of Shelf Lake, exhilarated to be there.  

From Shelf was a perfect granite slab to ascend to Solitude Lake, where I planned to enjoy what would clearly be a deserted shoreline and eat my lunch in solitude. 

Interestingly enough, there were two other people at Solitude Lake. I found a spot to sit near the opposite end of the lake. I sat and nibbled on my sandwich as I observed the gully winding toward the sheer walls of Powell Peak and wondered at the crazy routes that might lead there. As I was packing up, a man started walking toward me. I'd put enough distance between us that it took him about five minutes, so I waited because I figured he needed something. 

"How did you get here?" he asked as soon as I was within earshot. He was young, probably still a teenager. 

"I took the trail," I said. "How did you get here?"

"We climbed the drainage," he said. "It was crazy. There were waterfalls; we were scrambling up these rocks." I imagined the sheer waterfalls I'd observed above Black Lake and shook my head in disbelief. "Where's the trail?" he asked. 

"It's over there, left of the creek," I said, pointing beyond a knoll that blocked any view of the route I came up. "It's faint and there's deadfall and it's not that easy to follow. I have the route on my GPS. Do you want to follow me?"

"My girlfriend's tired; we're going to rest longer," he said. 

"OK. Well, if you go behind that knoll, you'll see this gully with a bunch of yellow wildflowers. If you start down that I think you'll find the trail. Good luck."

As he walked away, I felt envious about the brazenness of youth for climbing straight up a waterfall, as well as gratitude for the wisdom and patience of age that allowed me to find a safe route. I hope they found it for the descent, which proved difficult, even on the trail. 

With the continued nice weather and pep in my legs, I decided to descend to the main trail and take another spur toward more lakes — The Loch and Icy Brook drainage. Icy Brook was a series of waterfalls, and the ascent actually did require scaling them. But it was a more established route, and while strenuous, at least it wasn't dangerous. 

Lake of Glass in the late afternoon. For this part of my route, I hadn't looked too closely at a map and neglected to notice a lake called "Sky Pond" on the shelf above this. A missed opportunity. Next time. 

The sun was sinking lower on the horizon, but I was intrigued by the views down the canyon and thought I'd have the daylight for one more drainage and a tenth lake for my alpine lake extravaganza.

Views downcanyon toward The Loch. The last diversion veered left, up Andrews Creek.

The climb to the end of Andrews Creek proved to be the most strenuous part of the day. After a short section of loamy trail through the forest, the route shot straight up a talus slope on big, blocky boulders. I'm so slow on this type of terrain, employing all of my limbs as I strain sore shoulders and battered quads. After a 49-minute-mile that I was pretty sure was going to cause me to miss the shuttle, I arrived at the shore of Andrews Tarn. Behind it was an impressive-looking Andrews Glacier. So many Colorado landmarks that are still marked as "glaciers" on maps are little more than thin snowfields if not bald scree slopes. Andrews looked like it might actually have a crevasse or two. 

The talus descent was just as slow as the climb, and evening shadows were growing long. But it was a gorgeous and peaceful place to spend the evening hours, and the air had become almost cool. Worth it. 

The last light of evening over The Loch. 

While descending from The Loch, I encountered a herd of cow elk all over the trail and uninterested in moving out of the way for me. I cut the switchback to get around this cow. About a half-mile later I passed another young couple who asked me if I saw the "deer" and how did I get around them? They had been hiking up the trail in hopes of watching the sunset over The Loch, but the elk scared them away. 

"They're definitely not shy but you can just walk around them," I suggested. "They're pretty docile."

At this point, I did the math and decided if I could log three 15-minute miles, I could reach the trailhead by 8. My quads were aching and I don't run all that well on rocky trails, but I managed to keep my timeline, arriving at Glacier Point at 7:57. Unfortunately, I learned there that the shuttle stopped running at 7:30. It was 3.5 miles to my car, and I thought if I could log them as 10-minute miles, I could get there by dark. Pounding pavement for a half-hour at the end of all that was painful, but satisfying. 

For Saturday night-Sunday, Beat planned an overnight 50K on the Pawnee-Buchanan loop with his friends. I went to sleep after checking his tracker, which must have kicked the old "dot-watcher insomnia" mentality into gear because I woke up a couple of hours later and could not fall back asleep. Finally at 3 a.m. I decided that perhaps I should just motivate for my own mountain adventure. In hindsight, I should have taken advantage of my early start to grab a weekend parking spot at one of the more popular trailheads. But weirdly I picked one of the more obscure places to start a long mountain hike, the CU research center below Niwot Ridge.

When I left the house in quiet darkness, I didn't notice the smoke. A massive wildfire is burning on the western slope of the state, and amid a high-pressure system and record heat, the smoke has spread far and wide. Perhaps it was worse at higher altitudes, or perhaps I was just oblivious when I left the house. But as soon as I hit the trail at 5:15, I knew it was going to be a rough day. The acrid aroma of wildfire smoke permeated the air. A burning sensation seared my lungs with every breath. I'd made all of this effort to put myself together and drive out there, so I decided to stick with it at least to the ridge.

The initial climb was not fun. Within a mile, I felt sick to my stomach, although I couldn't tell if the nausea was caused by the heavy smoke or just the usual morning malaise. But I did notice that I had no oomph at all. If I boosted my heart rate above 110 — pretty much the upper end of zone one — my airways tightened and I started wheezing so much that I had to take a puff of the inhaler. I still can hike uphill in zone one, but it's not my briskest effort. And I felt pretty terrible doing it. 

Smoke filled the sky above Lefthand Reservoir. This is the view east from 11,000 feet. One a clear day you can see a hundred miles across the plains. On this morning, I could barely see the foothills. 

I had already resolved to tag Niwot Ridge and head down. But the rising sun brought a breeze that aided my breathing, probably by clearing out some of the smoke that had settled overnight. There was still a surprising amount of smoke in the air for such high altitudes. One has no hope of escaping noxious air when it's wafting in from hundreds of miles away. I'll concede — I'm not a summer person. But what is there to like about a season that can render the entire outdoors into something toxic? 

Still, I took heart in that breeze. And I'd enjoyed the solitude and diffused light of my morning wheeze up Niwot Ridge. And with easier breathing, I began to feel better. I decided to descend toward Long Lake and make another climb to Pawnee Peak. 

The air became less hazy just as the heat started cranking. Brainard Lake is another popular destination, and I thought these trails would be inundated with humans. Surprisingly they were not that crowded on this Sunday morning. I wonder if it's because people hiked about a mile before deciding it was too hot and smoky. 

I enjoyed the relative solitude on the climb to Pawnee Peak. This is a view of Shoshoni Peak, which I find to be humorously ungainly for a craggy mountain. Perhaps I'll ascend this one next time. 

I crested the Continental Divide at Pawnee Pass. The views to the west were completely shrouded in brown pollution. Gross.

Pawnee Peak — not quite a 13er (12,943 feet.) On this day I packed a peanut butter sandwich that I was really excited to eat. But my water, which I hadn't frozen overnight as I usually do, had the mouthfeel of lukewarm coffee. Gross. I also took out a tissue to blow my nose and extracted gobs of smoke particles and snot the color of black coffee. Double gross.

Even at nearly 13,000 feet, the wind was still barely a breeze and the temperature felt oppressively hot. I even rolled up my long sleeves to enjoy my lunch. But I can't expose my skin to the sun for long, not with the harsh UV at 13,000 feet. Even sunscreen isn't effective enough for me, so I have to cover up. Long sleeves, long pants, cap, and the neck gaiter that now doubles as a face mask. I wouldn't choose this if I didn't have to, believe me. 

I was all but begging for wind as I headed down along the craggy rim of the Divide. It never came. I am going to remember this day, come winter. 

The wheezing started again as I descended. Not a great sign. But I still had to make my way up and over Niwot Ridge, and it was only slightly longer if I explored a new-to-me route up Niwot Mountain. Okay, it was five miles longer. It meant another 25-mile day. Why do I make these choices? I crawled along Little Raven Trail, which is a ski trail in the winter and represents happy memories of being flattened by icy gales while fat biking around Brainard Lake. That's all I could think about as I picked my way through the dappled shade, sweat-drenched and slightly delirious, stumbling over every other rock. I passed Lefthand Reservoir and started up the steep slope — no trail to speak of, just rock piles and grassy tundra with stunted coniferous trees providing no shade. I sucked my water bladder dry — even though I'd refilled it in the creek above Lake Isabelle — and turned to the dregs left in my water filter. A half-liter left. That wouldn't take me far, but it would have to.

My lungs were burning, my breathing had again slowed me to zone one plodding, I was thirsty and nearly out of water, and roasting in the sun. It must have been close to 90 degrees at 11,000 feet (it actually was 88 degrees at 9,000 feet when I returned to my car two hours later.) I stopped to pull a rock out of my shoe and noticed that my lower calf looked swollen. When I pulled up my pant leg, I saw the blotchy, swollen red welts that signify heat rash. This was going to haunt me later tonight. And why can't I be nicer to my lungs? I understand the price I'll have to pay for that burning feeling as well. This was my fault, of course. I made these choices. And yet ... I couldn't help but look out over the snow-streaked slopes of South Arapahoe Peak and smile. 

"Niwot Ridge," I thought. "I love this place."


  1. :) subtle irony in your post title. Mountain lakes are so mesmerizing, I had to open your pictures on a big screen! Enjoyed your tour and it's a bonus to start the week with mountain beauty like that.
    Have you tried one of those activated carbon sports face masks with the double exhaust ports? Hirschfields paint had gotten some in and I used them when sanding by hand over head in a hot vaulted ceiling area...still sucked but was survivable. Maybe just using it on the decent would cut your exposure almost in half. Seems exposure level and time are the main determinant to partical overloading and reaching the limit of what one can capture in your nasal and bronchi. By the time dust hits the alveoli and the macrophages kick in O2 uptake starts to fall...just throwing thoughts out.

    Jeff C

  2. "At this point, I did the math and decided if I could log three 15-minute miles....." There's nothing like Colorado in August to bring out your inner mathematician!


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