At the moment the dinning hall of the Wyss Wilderness Medicine Campus is brightly lit, filled with happy voices, punctuated with laughter, and the occasional beep from the microwave. Everyone is in different states of preparedness for the upcoming week, and overwhelmingly the impression is one of anticipation and excitement for whats to come. Along with bemusement of those who had to much to drink last night and made a fool of themselves. It’s interesting to sit here in the middle of active conversation and socialization and intentionally isolate myself with headphones and an open laptop. Quietly observing the body language of my peers, imagining their current state of mind.
Two weeks of focused study later and I am honestly feeling ready to go home. As much as I enjoy the company of these fine people I have to say that there is no replacement for those people we have selected to be our family. And likewise creating a healthy routine becomes almost impossible when your utmost dedication is required to a single task. I’ve spent the better part of 11-13 hours a day focused on the study of emergency medicine and as a result have let other aspects of my life lapse. While I am able to recognize this as a necessary evil in the pursuit of larger long term goals, it is still frustrating to not be able to feel satiated emotionally, artistically, physically. Perhaps the single hardest thing for me is not having the time to be on open trails with dirt and rock under my feet.
This leads me to perhaps one of the more valuable lessons I’ve learned here; I require a lifestyle in which balance is made and then maintained. Actively participating in my own imbalance is a strange and surreal process. To recognize the solution and yet to not be able to fix it in pursuit of something else is quite frustrating. Do we call that sacrifice or masochism? Does it matter? Isn’t it all just complaining anyway? But maybe not? I have to say there has not been a single moment here that I have no enjoyed, and yet if I could I would do things differently. Maybe its just recognizing preferences.
My preferences are for the open and star lit skies which ring with cold. Strong coffee that is balanced firmly in sun browned hands and sipped by dirty faces. Rough rock that absorbs the stress of powerful ethics and the commitment to better days. Tenacious friendships that pick up always where they left off and scoff at hardships. My preferences are for exactly what I’m doing and appreciating it for what it is, recognizing that these moments are the only ones like them that I will ever get. By embracing these few seconds and seeing them for what they are; my preferences are for brightly lit dining halls, filled with happy voices, punctuated with laughter, and the occasional beep from the microwave.
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.)
So this morning I woke up in Incline Village on the north shore of Lake Tahoe. Right around 8:45am my alarm rang like it does everyday at that time to prompt me out of bed before 9am. That is the latest I’ll let myself sleep in these days. With plans to hit a yoga class around 9:30am I stretched and and did a bit of a morning workout routine that I’ve been employing for the last several days. Followed by a quick bite of breakfast a cup of coffee I was heading out the door. As I was I learned that my class had been canceled and that I now had a more solitude filled morning. So natural I retreated to my phone. Scrolling through social media, which I have carefully sculpted to be a barrage of outdoor inspiration, medical advice columns, climbing photos and a select group of friends I was looking for the motivation to get up and get my day started. That when I got a call from my current host Carol Fowler. Carol called to tell me about a hike that was only about a mile away from the house that had spectacular view of the lake. And she also quickly pointed out that, “I’ve never seen the lake look more like the caribbean than it does today. It’s beautiful.” To say the least, that is all the motivation I need to get into my car and head to the trail head.
Grabbing my small day bag with my epic kit, 1.5 liters of water, two power bars, an extra layer and a headlamp but without reading any information on the trail, without checking the weather report, and perhaps worst of all without telling anyone where I was: I started up the Flume trail. While Carol had suggested I go check it out we had not confirmed in any real way what that my plan for the day would be. Stopping in at the coffee shop near the trailhead I briefly chatted with a young woman on trail conditions and I set up off a paved track that would lead me to the trail.
We rationalize things based on past experiences. We find patterns in history and we adhere to them because of the cumulative knowledge through experience. That is exactly what I was doing today. Based on a variety of factors such as altitude and assumed trail difficulty I did not behave in a manner that would suggest I was heading into the backcountry. To me I was on a simple routine day excursion into the woods.
The hike started off simple enough with the paved path leading up to the edge of the park and the beginning of my trail. The altitude was right around 6,200 ft above sea level and the lake was perfect. The sun shone brightly and there was only the occasional gust of wind to chill me. Overall I could not have asked for better hiking conditions so I quickly pressed forward. Crushing the first mile of the trail in under 20 minutes only spurned me on faster since I felt that I had my altitude lungs back. I made quick work of the trail as it rose from 6,200ft to 6,550ft above sea level. The feeling of bliss, the warm sun, the smell of spring sap leaking from the pines: the entire world faded away from my reality as I enjoyed purely the moment I was in. With the slight rise in elevation however came snow, and with snow more physically demanding hiking. I was not wear my crampons nor did I really need them but I did need to pay attention to how I stepped on the crust as to not twist my ankle or soak my socks.
The snow did not slow me down in the slightest. I’d was born in Salt Lake City, raised in Colorado, I was a passionate and competent mountain kid. So I carried on a slight breeze filling my hair and cool the sweat under the straps of my pack. Since starting out around 11am I’d really only seen folks descending the trail and only a small handful at that. The day was perfect for hiking why were more folks not out there enjoying the natural beauty of our world? I puzzled over this as I worked my way up a much chillier 7,300ft. The trail here was all snow. Trudge through the hardpack ice was not to difficult, and honestly was pretty entertaining. And right at about 12:32pm nearing 7,400ft was when my day changed.