The Two Mile High Club: Wanderings Above the Timber Line
For the uninitiated, Denver lies flush against the eastern slope of the Rocky Mountains, perched on the high arid plains that rise nearly a thousand miles from the major river basins of the mid-west. It's hard for first timers to comprehend that standing in the center of downtown, surrounded by endless plains on three sides and looking west over the suburbs toward the mountains that you are already higher than most of the highest mountain peaks along the Eastern seaboard. One of the biggest surprises for first-timers is that Denver is not in the mountains at all, a common misconception.
Left: Looking back towards Loveland Pass from Grizzly. Right: View from the Top
Having spent my high school years in the dusty western suburbs of this fair city, your humble Booktraveler was already familiar with the geographic particulars of the area. For weeks I had been dreaming of the drive west, up and out of the city on I-70, heading up to the the thin air of the Continental Divide. My Denver host, a long-time friend, had kindly cleared his schedule to join me for a day of high country adventure.
We rose at 5 am to get a jump on the weather. The mid-summer months often see violent storms rise up over the mountains in the afternoon, an unnerving, often terrifying and sometimes deadly experience for those caught up above the treeline with nowhere to take shelter. As a rule, it's always best to be off the mountains by 12pm, or at least close to shelter. The weather forecast was good however, so it looked like we were in for a great day.
Being already a mile high, the 14,000 foot plus peaks looming to the west of Denver are in truth 9,000 feet above the city. The earth rises up as you head west and as you climb closer to higher peaks, the valley floors rise to heights of 10,000+ feet, bringing you breathtakingly close to the now formidable looking peaks.
Left: Grizzly Peak (foreground) with Torres and Grays Peaks further back, fellow hiker and Onyx in the lead. Right: Grizzly from the base of Torres
Our plan for the day was to take I-70 west to it's highest elevation at the base of the Loveland Basin ski area, roughly 60 miles west of Denver, then to head up to the summit of Loveland Pass at 12,000 feet to begin our journey. Loveland Pass was the only way over the mountains in this direction until I-70 was taken under the continental divide through the Eisenhower Tunnel, which was opened for traffic in 1973. 18 wheelers carrying dangerous cargoes must still climb up and over this harrowing switchback road, a particularly dangerous prospect during the winter months when the snowfalls are measured in feet, not inches.
After a quick stop for a breakfast sandwich and coffee, we reached the pass summit around 7:00 am, donned our camelback packs, and along with our companion Onyx, my friend's pound rescue, headed up the trail toward the summit of the Divide.
Left: Looking up Grizzly (second peak). Right: Continental Divide from Loveland Pass.
Now, as many of my friends and family would gladly tell you (perhaps with just a hint of derision) , I pride myself on being somewhat impervious to the physical trials of mere mortals. I can go on less food and less water than most, am lucky to have been born with a somewhat iron constitution, and keep myself physically fit. So imagine my dismay when I found myself struggling for breath a mere 200 yards and 500 feet above the car. It was going to be a long day.
A mere 36 hours off the plane from sea level, my body had yet to adjust to being a mile high, let alone over 2-miles high so I was inclined to be careful and not overexert. The hike was over 8 miles long and starting at the top of the pass, high up above the treeline, we were already at the lowest altitude of the entire climb. We were heading over several smaller saddle peaks up and over Grizzly Peak, a mere 13,427 feet, to the base of Torres Peak, a "Fourteener" as they are known in Colorado, one of fifty-two 14,000 foot plus peaks in the state.
A mile and and a half into the hike we reached the Saddle that runs along the Continental Divide. This is the dividing line of the continental watershed. Water falling west of the Divide heads to the Gulf of California and Pacific, while water falling east of the divide flows to the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic. We were up over 12.000 feet and the panoramic views were as impressive as the heaving of my chest and relentless pounding of my heart.
Left: Grizzly Snowfield. Right: Marmots (don't anger the neigbors)
If the next mile or so of relatively mild climbs up and over the smaller saddle peaks had my pulmonary system working like an overtaxed steam engine, the 1,000 foot climb straight up the shoulder to Grizzly Peak had me sweating like a miner and gasping for air like a stranded goldfish. Several time along the ascent I had to stop, fully chagrined, and let the dizzying heaving and pounding of my heart and lungs subdue while my hiking partner, a fully acclimatized back-country mountain biker whom I knew to be in no better shape than me, jumped spryly higher without a pause.
Like all climbs, each time you thought you had reached the top, another promontory appeared just above. It was a great feeling to finally reach the top, panting and heaving, and view for the first time the full panorama of Grays and Torres Peaks from the summit of Grizzly. After few minutes on the top we began down the back of the mountain towards the grassy tundra shoulder leading to the base of Torres.
My "experienced" hiking companion, not readily seeing the trail and having never taken the hike, took us off the back of the mountain, where we ended up descending a 600 foot face of loose "scree" rock, which had my life flashing before my eyes more than once. When we finally reached the tundra shoulder, tired and harried from the decent, it was nice to walk across the smooth grass before heading up the shoulder ridge of Torres.
While Torres beckoned a mere two miles away and 2,000 feet above us, we knew it was time to turn back to avoid any mishaps with the now slightly darkening skies. This time we took the proper way back up Grizzly, perched along the rocky ridge that fell away abruptly to our right down a cliff 800 feet to the valley below, and across a great snowfield.
Retracing our steps, it was quite a surprise to see just how far we had come. Enjoying the unparalleled beauty of the surroundings, the final decent back down to the truck was an inspiration, and luckily, not a "death march". It was my first real hike in the high country in decades, and experience I won't soon forget. Thank go out to my host and hiking partner for a fantastic day along the Divide.
Left: St Mary's Glacier from the lake. Right: View of Mt. Evans from the Glacier.
After a quick lunch, I took a ride up Fall River Road above the hamlet of Idaho Springs to St. Mary's Glacier, one of the most beautiful and easily accessible spots in the Rockies. The Glacier had receded another hundred yards or so in the years since I had last seen it, but remains one of my favorite spots on earth. It can be quite crowded on summer weekends with cliff jumpers plunging into the ice cold lake, skiers and snowboarders on the glacier, and a myriad of partying campers, but it can't detract from the natural beauty of the location or the incredible views of Mount Evans (another 14'er) 10 miles off to the South.
Left: Mount Evans from Summit Lake. Right: Mt. Evans, view from 14,260 feet.
Speaking of Mount Evans, this enormous peak, easily viewed from the Denver Metropolitan area, features the highest road in the United States, a spectacular drive to the summit at 14,260 feet known as the Mount Evans Scenic Byway (a couple of hundred feet higher than the famed road up Pikes Peak in Colorado Springs). This high mountain road is a breathtaking experience, and one of only two ways to reach 14,000 feet by car, the other being the afore mentioned Pikes Peak, 80 miles to the south and clearly visible from the summit. There's a resident herd of mountain goats and even some big horn sheep that populate the summit in summer, a popular attraction for the many visitors who ascend by car, bicycle, and on foot to take in the astounding views of the surrounding peaks and valleys. I took the precipitous drive up from Idaho Springs, descending through the even more beautiful Squaw Pass, a trip I highly recommend for anyone visiting the area.
Left: Local inhabitants, Mt. Evans. Right: Goat's Eye View, Mt. Evans.
There's lots more to come. Join me on my next post when we sample the ample independent and used bookstores of Boulder, Colorado, home of the University of Colorado, then make our way up through the byways and bookstores of Colorado to Jackson, Wyoming.
Sad Days for an Old Friend
One final note to my good friend Chris, a high school buddy from my days in Arvada. My deepest condolences for the untimely loss of your son Scott. Approaching the painful anniversary of the accident that took him away too soon at 19, your love and your pain is an eternal, living testament to the boy, and the man. Thank you and your beautiful wife for your hospitality, and for sharing your most intimate pain with us. All our best.