Here's the short version of the hiking adventure in Colorado:
It's true that this is not astronomy related, but there were three astronomers on the trek, so that counts for something!
And now the longer version: Wednesday night, July 25th, Ann and John flew into Denver. Yancy drove up from Tucson on Thursday afternoon. Thursday evening, the four of us and my mom, enjoyed BBQed lamb and a variety of libations at “Base Camp”: aka my house. Ann & I also taught the rest of the crowd how to play “Chicago” which basically involves trying to roll a better hand of dice than the person before you, or bluffing your way to victory at the expense of the person after you—a great way to build trust and camaraderie!
After a relaxed breakfast Friday morning, it was a 2.5 hour drive west, from Co Springs through the Front Range (dominated by the sight of Pike’s Peak), the ___ valley (home to a few bison herds), and the Sawatch Range foothills. It was rainy for much of the drive, but since that has been the trend all summer, the valley was unusually green. For the last half of the ride, we could see the peak of Mt. Princeton drifting in and out of the clouds that had settled over the surrounding Collegiate Peaks.
The Sawatch Range runs north to south through the middle of Colorado. Starting from the south, there is […] Mt. Princeton; Mt. Yale; Mt. Harvard and Mt. Columbia; Mt Belford, Mt. Oxford, and Missouri; Mt Elbert; Mt. Massive; etc. As far as height goes, Harvard is 3rd in the state behind Elbert & Massive. Princeton is 14,197. Yale is a mere one foot shorter. (My advisor, a Princeton grad, is rather proud of this fact.) Columbia…well, it’s somewhere down there on the list. Meanwhile, Cornell doesn’t need a mountain to remind people of its prestige. Dartmouth has a glacier in Alaska.
We settled in at a campsite in a narrow valley south of Mt. Yale. Campsites normally have to be reserved 4 days in advance, but we were able to snag a site by the creek for one night under the condition that we moved out by 2 pm the next day. The next night, we’d be at a different site. Because of the limited time frame we had to reach a summit and get down we decided to climb Yale the following day instead of tackling Harvard.
Amazingly, everyone woke up before the 4:30 am alarm on Saturday. In fact, the only miserable part of the morning was breakfast. It turns out the non-descript oatmeal from our pantry tastes like liquefied cardboard. Thankfully, I think we suffered through, or threw out whatever was left, for the good of future summer hiking parties.
Mt. Yale was a 4 mile hike, one-way, gaining ~5000 feet of elevation. It was the shortest 14er I’ve done (of three), but also the steepest. We reached the tree line a little more than half way into our hike, around 12,100 feet. The view to the west was phenomenal. From the side of Mt. Yale we looked across to other peaks and alpine valleys, many still with snow patches. At some point we caught up to and passed a large group of backpackers that had begun the climb at 3 am—we left the trailhead around 6! Ann and John made it above 13,100 feet—a really impressive feat in and of itself—and enjoyed even better views. At this point Yancy and I were getting a bit worried about the weather—it had been getting cloudier as the morning went on. John and Ann hung out for a bit before heading back down the trail. Yancy and I powered on. The adrenaline rush was good for about 100 feet before the altitude kicked in and we had to moderate the pace once more. Around 13,200 the trail got significantly steeper and harder to follow. Our next goal before the weather turned was the shoulder along the north side of Yale at over 13,900. We stopped frequently for breath along the way. Upon reaching the shoulder it was clear why this was considered a Class 2 climb. The path was essentially disappeared, but having come this far, it was no time to turn back—we followed sparse trail markers to scramble over another few hundred yards to the top. There wasn’t much vertical left; but the top of the mountain was essentially a massive granite rock pile, with its own challenging ledges and crevasses.
At the top, Yancy and I did a little victory dance, took pictures as evidence of the ascent, and sat down for a tired lunch. We were joined by a marmot perched on a rock ledge about 30 feet below. Framed against swirling clouds, he became “Marmot in the Mist”. We were convinced he was stalking us and our roast beef sandwiches.
The trek down was faster, but hard on the knees and the quads. We had reached the summit just in time because just before we reached the protection of the tree line, Mother Nature pummeled us with hail and rain. It must have let up with about a mile to go, so thanks to the dry air and altitude we were nearly dry by the time we met Ann and John at the trailhead. (I love the utter lack of humidity in Colorado—did I mention this means no mosquitos?)
Back at the campsite, we decided that our stuff was sufficiently soaked and, more importantly, we were sufficiently exhausted that we wouldn’t attempt another peak the next day. We packed up for base camp in Co Springs with other brilliant schemes for thrills and adventure the next day. We hit up the super tasty coffee shop in Buena Vista (population: several hundred?), Bongo Billy’s, on the way out. Whatever impression the name gives, this is the place to be in middle of nowhere Colorado, and an ideal stop between Co Springs and the ski resorts, driving from the south. Back at base camp, we devoured dinner, but took it a bit easier on the drinking this time around.
Sunday morning, Ben biked the 90+ miles south from Boulder to the Springs and sometime that afternoon we took off for Great Sand Dunes Nat’l Park in south-central Colorado. The Dunes are nestled next to the Sangre de Cristo Mtn Range that extends into northern NM. The Dunes, created from the erosion of the surrounding mountains, are estimated at a few thousand to a million years old (worse error bars than astronomers!). The tallest, Star Dune, lies 850 feet above the valley floor. To the south is the Mt. Blanca group, a set of four dramatic looking peaks, to the northeast was Mt. Culebra??, and to the east the valley stretched for 60 miles before it is interrupted by the next mountain range.
Climbing the dunes felt like something out of Lawrence of Arabia—from the top of High Dune, we had a beautiful panoramic view. Playing ultimate across the dunetops was a challenge, but they were definitely great for wrestling and sneak attacks, which is how I got destroyed by Ben and how Ann face-planted in the sand. I think only Yancy and John remained relatively unscathed.
We departed a short time before sunset, but still didn’t get home until 11 pm: we had another delicious BBQ—the patented Hess’ marinated flank steak—and then the festivities began. Yancy made his signature margaritas (75% tequila, 20% sugar?), and somewhere around 2 am (“already?”) we threw aside our watches figuring time was rather irrelevant at this point. As the night went on the sky got lighter, but it was Ann, Yancy, and I that made it all the way to sunrise. We sat out on the front step with a giant box of cereal, a gallon of milk, and a 2 pound bag of sugar—to make those cheerios a little more interesting. It was an appropriate end to a couple crazy days.
The next day—that is, the one we witnessed begin at 6 am—was a recovery day. I gave an abbreviated tour of the Springs, and we walked around Garden of the Gods: a beautiful park with red sandstone sedimentary layers that have been turned vertical. It’s hard to describe, you just have to see the photos, but they’re really popular with local rock climbers.
There was a lot more random stuff that happened, but I hope you get the gist. This was easily the best 5-6 days of my summer: I can’t wait for next year to come around! Thanks to everyone who came, and I hope more people will be able to visit next year.
Until the next adventure...