Sunday, July 26, 2015

Blue Lakes, Mt. Sneffels Wilderness

The mountains have no “meaning,” they are meaning; the mountains are. The sun is round. I ring with life, and the mountains ring, and when I can hear it, there is a ringing that we share.
—Peter Matthiessen, The Snow Leopard

Upper Blue Lake basin

Biologists go to mountains to study altitudinal zonation, ecological islands, and endemic species. Atmospheric scientists gather data on lapse rate, wind shear, and microclimates. Hydrologists measure snowpack and monitor water quality; geologists identify minerals and explain orogenic processes; geomorphologists speak their own language of horns and arêtes, monadnocks and flyggbergs.

What, though, of the phenomenology of altitude?—the sensation of standing in the hot desert, looking longingly up at green-shouldered, snow-capped summits; the response to peering down from a tree-lined ridge, seeing the land beyond open and brown out; the experience of ascending a ravine or ridge, feeling the terrain become more treacherous, the air thinner and colder? Measurements and explanations aside, what do people see, think, and feel when transitioning from close, cosy forest to open, exposed tundra to rock, snow, ice?

"MT. SNEFFELS WILDERNESS: Uncompahgre National Forest" ... "NO CAMPFIRES"
I’ll leave it to others (David Hinton, Robert MacFarlane, and Peter Matthiessen, for example, whose Hunger Mountain, Mountains of the Mind, and The Snow Leopard are, respectively, three of my favorite mountain-books) to write about the challenge of the climb or the particular joy felt upon arriving at a summit. Rather, let me share my thoughts from a hike the week after Wetterhorn. (Minimal rants about trails, signs, and disrespectful visitors in “wilderness,” I promise.)

The setting: Blue Lakes Trail, a popular route in the San Juan Mountains’ Mt. Sneffels Wilderness, Uncompahgre National Forest, just west of Ridgway, Colorado. A Friday, mid-July. Cool morning; clouds building; forecast for afternoon storms.

View toward Blue Lakes Pass from County Road 7 

The road to the trailhead winds up a scenic valley, passing through aspen groves and open meadows en route to a craggy wall of snow-laced peaks.  Four years ago, I’d taken a photograph from this road—a generic “Colorado mountains” image I’ve used in lectures to illustrate phenomena like altitudinal zonation and features like cirques—and was somewhat surprised and intrigued to recognize the very spot at which I’d stood. (This set the tone for the entire hike up to the lower lake—I kept encountering spots I remembered, kept remembering moments I’d forgotten. The trail was littered with memories.) After parking in a dirt lot (not quite big enough to accommodate the 40+ cars that were jammed in by mid-afternoon), lacing up my boots, and strapping on my pack, I started up the trail.

The air was cool, the ground soft. The forest was damp, pungent with the scent of pines, grasses, and fresh dirt. Shafts of sunlight cut through the trees. For a while, a stream tumbled merrily alongside, but then the trail turned away from it and began switchbacking up the slope. Then all I could hear were my own footsteps and heavy breathing. Surely, birds were singing and branches must have been shuffling in the breeze; I think I passed some colorful flowers? But, honestly, I wasn’t paying too much attention—part of my mind was in the past (Was this where we’d stopped for a rest and a chat?; Was that where we found the first patch of snow?) and part of my mind was on the future (Would Lower Blue Lake be as blue in mid-summer? What would the view be like beyond Upper?), leaving little awareness for the present. This is typical of my time in woodlands. At best, forests make me introspective; at worst, bored. Tree after tree after indistinguishable tree.

A few tenacious patches of snow

Up I went, hiking hard and fast. Through a meadow (brief views down the valley and up toward the summits), across a tributary stream (exercise in rock-hopping), and back into the forest (this is where we found the first patch of snow!). Eventually, the flower-filled meadows started getting wider and the treed areas smaller.  Past a waterfall and one of those intrusive and ineffective “Keep Wilderness Wild” signs, I was at Lower Blue Lake. The water was indeed blue, the shores snow-free (unlike the first time I’d been there), but a half-dozen bright tents stood out along the water’s edge, so I turned away and continued onward, upward.

Aptly-named Lower Blue Lake

The trail led me across the outlet stream, through more trees, across a talus slope, and along a ridge with views down to Lower Blue Lake.  I’d been expecting to encounter krummholz—a land of stunted, gnarled trees typically found high up mountain slopes—so was surprised to turn a corner, ascend a saddle, and find myself in Alpine tundra.

Tundra!  The “land above the trees!” The “treeless plain”! After spending several hours sheltered and blinded by the forest, I’d finally emerged into a landscape where I could see, I could breathe.  Granted, I could also be seen, be buffeted by the increasingly gusty winds, burned by piercing sunlight. Openness, rawness—this is where the hike started to feel real.

 Unlike the Alpine zones in the Adirondacks, which are situated at the summits of the highest peaks and thus afford views out over a sea of state-designated wilderness, this tundra was tucked low on the mountainside.  Instead of looking down and out, my eyes were drawn upward—up across rolling hills carpeted with low shrubs and singing with flowers; up to another Blue Lake and, sliding into it, patches of bright snow; up, up steep, rocky slopes finally to, waaaay up, toothy pinnacles and peaks, beyond them nothing but sky.  Although I’d intended to just sit by the shores of Upper Blue Lake for a while then head back down, I caught that urge to keep climbing.  The tundra drew me out, the mountains up. I wanted to see the view from the pass.

The trail wound alongside a small pool and waterfall, then to the edge of the Upper Lake (also very blue.)  From there, it began ascending a series of steep, geometric switchbacks. (A hundred paces one way; stop, gasp, turn. A hundred paces the other way; stop, gasp, turn. Repeat.)(Admittedly, that pattern soon became: fifty paces, stop, gasp…) The pass didn’t seem to be getting any closer, but I was slowly earning way above moss and into pure rock. The switchbacks got steeper and narrower, eroded in some patches. A section or two of scrambling, a pause for pikas, and the pass almost seemed achievable.  By this point, the wind was biting and I sorely regretted not bringing better gloves. My lungs and legs were burning and I was probably hungry and thirsty, but thought only of what I’d see on the other side. Up.

Up! As I crested the pass, a wide valley unfurled beneath me—Yankee Boy Basin. Mt. Sneffels towered over it, snow and rock streaming down its sides into brilliant green patches of vegetation below.  Standing there, drinking in the scene, gasping for breath, and half-debating whether or not to continue on—summit Sneffels! My first 14er!—I was startled to hear a voice call “Hello!” from behind a big boulder.  Turns out someone was already there—a guy waiting for his friends to come down off the side of Sneffels.  As soon as he pointed his friends out to me, I began seeing other figures moving on the mountain. And in the basin.  Ant-like lines of brightly-clad, eager peak-baggers streaming along what was presumably the main approach and bottlenecked at a scree slope.  Oh.

“Aiming for the summit?” the guy asked me. “No, no thank you,” I decided, “I’m happy to make it here.”

Taking a cue from the marmots basking by Upper Blue Lake

And I was.  That was enough up for me. After chatting briefly, I nervously eyed the thickening clouds and began the descent, stopping only to eat a brief lunch and spend a few moments basking, marmot-like, in the last of the sunlight and solitude on the shores of Upper Blue Lake.  From that point on, the sky was cloudy, the trail crowded, and, of course, I was back in the trees. Sigh.

Yes, Peter Matthiessen, I know that “the beauty of this place must be cheerfully abandoned, like the wild rocks in the bright water of its streams.”  

The descent always seems longer, though. The return to the real world feels more deflating than exhilarating. Part of me wishes that I could just stay above treeline forever. It’ll have to be enough, I suppose, to know more about the mountains—to have more first-hand knowledge of altitudinal zonation, atmospheric lapse rate; streams and rocks and arêtes. Better yet, there are now these memories of the experience—the flowers, the breeze, the brilliant blue of the lakes. 

Columbine -- one of many thousands bobbing away in Upper Blue Lake basin

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