So I have finals and I’m stressed the hell out. So here is a story from my summer.
In early August of 2017 I was finishing a summer of working with the summer camp Avid4 Adventure and getting back to my usual grind behind the bar at Tahona Tequila Bistro. I was working about 65hr a week and doing very little for myself. In fact my self care was so poor it pretty much killed a relationship I was having. Having just taken 6 months off of work though I could not justify a slacking schedule. Having crushed through most of the summer I was close to my goal of dropping the summer camp job, dropping hours at Tahona, and getting back to school. I was beyond excited for school to start, it is my last year after all. The start to August was hot, but stunning. The fires that ravaged the West were yet to really cast a cloud of smoke south and east towards Boulder, and the front range was breathtaking.
I decided that I needed to get up into the mountains and get me some fresh air and stretch the ol’ legs! So I picked one of my favorite local spot, the Brainard Lake Recreation Area (BLRA). Being the ambitiously minded 26 year old that I was I woke up at 5:30am and drove up towards Ward, Colorado the small town just east of the entrance of BLRA. I gotta say I really enjoyed driving up the small pothole filled road in the early morning light following the twists and turns in my newly acquired subaru outback, (Thanks Rita) It’s always fun to drive a new car in the mountains.
Thinking I would just have a mellow day I decided to go hike to Blue Lake, a roughly 4mi hike on the western edge of the Brainard Lake area. Pulling into the parking lot that morning was fantastic! I was one of three cars in a lot that only a week before I hadn’t been able to find a space. Hardly anyone was out which meant I’d be having a blast. Grabbing my pack, and my poles, checking my water, and maybe even retying my laces I started up the dirt track next to the pit toilet.
Now if you’ve never been to the subalpine at 9-10,000ft above sea level you’re really missing out. The smell is probably my favorite part. If cold had a smell that would be what the subalpine would smell like. Not that it was all that cold this time of year at 6:15am, maybe just 45 degrees fahrenheit. I think it might just be the smell of freshly melting snow cascading through the soft topsoil on its way to join on of the many winding streams and into the Saint Vrain drainage. Combined with the soft piney smell of subalpine fir and spruce trees there is nothing else in the world that calms me down so much.
Crushing up the trail dirt and pine needles underfoot I was in very high spirits. The sky was just starting to lose the orange glow that screamed sunrise and was taking on a classic Colorado blue sky. The deep deep blue that I’ve only ever seen here in the summer. And it was only about halfway up the trail before I came upon the only folks I’d see that morning. The owners of the only other cars in the lot, a group of photographers wrapping up a sunrise shoot of the alpine cirque to the west of Blue Lake. Stopping to make small talk and make the required exclamations of not wanting to be anywhere else; two of the photographers asked me my plans for the day. The two fellas asking were older maybe 65 or 70 years old. When they found I only planned on heading to Blue Lake they suggested an alternate route. Above Blue Lake, maybe a 1/2 a mile there is Upper Blue Lake, and if you follow the draining up towards the base of the cirque, there should be a trail. That’s what they said, “should be” a trail. They mentioned it had been a few years since they’d been up to check it out, but that trail used to lead from Upper Blue Lake to the summit of Mount Audubon which is a 13,000ft peak that creates the northern crest of the cirque.
Having no real plans for the day and feeling very good I mentioned to the photographers that I might go check it out. With a quick smile and a nod I was off down the trail again quickly moving towards Blue Lake. The sun was moving higher in the sky as I crested the final little hill and the lake splayed out magnificently before me.
Upon reaching the lake with the sun still far behind me in the east and with the boost of energy that came from crushing an energy bar I decided to keep pushing up to the upper lake. Moving quickly along the outside edge of the lake, soaking in the sun I headed towards a rock shelf in the rear of the glacial cirque where I assumed that Upper Blue Lake would be hidden out of sight. Within about an hour I’d reached the steepest part of the shelf and started to scramble up the rocks on my hands and feet. Quickly breaching the crown of the shelf I looked expectantly for the next lake and saw nothing. Having just traveled off trail for an hour I was a little peeved about the lack of a lake. But I still had my bearing. Mt. Audubon was an obvious and hulking guide for me. deciding to head towards the peak and look for a trail I began moving even further away from the trail and Blue Lake.
30 minutes of walking on rocks while dodging the hopelessly sensitive patches of alpine vegetation, I quickly meandered my way northward towards the massive scree slopes of Audubon. It was just about now when I realized how much larger the cirque was than I had thought. The time it took to cross was only increased by my hoping and skipping across the granite to avoid the sensitive flora. However, its when I made a misstep and my foot went through what I thought was a solid soil surface and into the stream below that I realized that I was walking on loose rocks covered by barrenground willow. This plant grows near water at high altitudes. My attention was then taken again as a very small lake appeared right in front of me as if out of nowhere. I’d found Upper Blue Lake.
Upon arriving at the upper lake I began to search for the trail that would lead me up to the summit of Audubon. It was getting later in the morning, right around 10am. The sky was starting to give up a few wispy clouds. Knowing the area is prone to afternoon showers and that the last place I wanted to be was below treeline on an exposed face when a storm rolled in I had a choice to make. Head up to the summit on a trail I was having a hard time finding. Or I could turn back and go down the same way I’d come up.
Common sense would dictate that I turn around and head back towards the car, but I was feeling particularly good this day and decided to push on. Giving up hope on a trail I began searching for a navigable way up the formidable boulder fields and cliff between me and the summit of Audubon. Finally just going forward I soon found myself at about 12,200ft, as according to the altimeter on my watch. The time was 11am and by this time clouds were actually starting to roll in. The dark gray in the west a familiar albeit a very unwelcome site for me at that point. With a few loose rocks tumbling down below me I made my summit bid. A quick 30 minute push up the final 800ft to the summit. But within about 15 min I’d made it to saddle I’d not been expecting. And here on this unexpected saddle I found a trail. A trail that dissipated into the rocky drop and boulder fields I’d just climbed out of.
Jogging along as best I could I pushed fast to summit. The air was obviously thinner and I had to slow my pace several times to catch my breath. The wind was picking up and making breathing even more difficult as it started pressing in on my mouth like a suffocating hand. Sun breaking through the cloud and wind whipping against my jacket strongly enough to support my body weight for a split second I rounded a bed to the last slight slope to the summit of Audubon.
So I’d found my way to the summit. Up a sketchy scree slope and even worse boulder field. Finishing the coffee in my thermos, which was still hot, I enjoyed another energy bar before turning for the trail that would lead me down the eastern slope of Audubon towards the Brainard Lake drainage.
I’d beat the storms. On my way down I passed about nine other folks on their way to the summit but when I was passing them the first drops of the afternoon storms were starting to pepper the brim of my hat. At this point I was booking it for treeline, not out of fear of a storm but more for the feeling of security that comes from being in a familiar place. The alpine is gorgeous. Above treeline the when the wildflowers are in full bloom, there are very few more beautiful places. But when the rocks start to match the color of the sky one begins to feel very exposed.
I made it down to my car before the rain really started, right around 1:15pm. The first clap of thunder reverberated loudly through the plastic panelings on my car door. My seat was reclined all the way back and I began to doze off to the sound of the pitter patter of rain on my windshield.
(I guess thanks for letting me share another story without much of a point. I guess it’s just fun to write sometimes. To go back to these memories helps to keep me calm while I’m dealing with the stress of finals. To put them out into there world, well I don’t really know how that’s gonna make me feel yet. I guess I’m finding out.)