Climbing above 13,000 feet on Mt. Audubon

This article is about my climb of Mt. Audubon with information to help you climb your next high peak.

While working on a Monday afternoon my mind started drifting away from work. I felt like I was in a mental fog brought on by the never-ending COVID pandemic and other things happening in my life. The only and best cure I’ve found for this is to go hiking or climbing in the mountains. So, I decided to wrap up my work by 1:30 pm and drive up to the Mount Audubon trailhead for a climb.

Mount Audubon stands 13,223 feet (4030 m) high. It is a Thirteener. It is the 459th highest peak in Colorado out of over 5,000 mountains. With all the emphasis on climbing Fourteeners, I’ve found Thirteeners to be much less crowded. In fact, I was the only person on Mt. Audubon during my climb. That was primarily because I started late in the day at 3:44 pm.

The photos look hazy because of smoke from wildfires to the west. The wind has predominately been from the west for the past several days. This is a moderate hike/climb for experienced hikers and a difficult hike/climb for people who normally hike on flatter trails for shorter distances. The climb requires ascending 2,712 feet in 3 miles – that is a lot of vertical gain. The trail includes a wide range of surface conditions, which you can see in the photos below. You should set a turn-around time so you can get back down before dark. This is great practice for climbing Fourteeners.

Informational signs at the trailhead. Starting elevation at 10,500 feet.

The gear that I hiked with is similar to the gear highlighted in this blog: https://tjburr.wordpress.com/2021/04/16/gear-for-a-hike-of-1-4-hours-or-3-10-miles/.

Make sure you have comfortable socks and shoes. My favorite socks are Darn Tough mountaineering socks made in Vermont, USA. They are durable, over-the-calf socks with a lifetime warranty. I’ve sent four pair back to them with holes in the heels. The company replaces them with new ones. My favorite hiking boots are Salomon Quest 4D 3 GTX. I have neuropathy in my feet, which is nerve damage. Without these comfortable socks and boots, hiking for me is painful.

My favorite pants are KÜHL Klash Pants. They have everything that I like in hiking/climbing pants. All the pockets are zippered to secure your belongings. There is a pocket that my phone slips right into and another one for a wallet. They are so comfortable that I don’t feel like I’m even wearing pants. They are also durable and have good abrasion resistance.

Trail sign and warnings about mountain lions.

In addition to mountain lions, what other possible dangers are there on this hike?

It is always good to do a risk assessment of your hike or climb to double check your preparedness. For this hike the possible dangers include lightning, rock fall, bears, exposure, fatigue, dehydration, loose rocks, tripping, and altitude sickness. For most of these, you need to recognize the symptoms and know what to do. Be aware of your surroundings, including the sky.

The route and elevation profile. Near the top some portions of the route have a slope of over 40%, which equates to a rise of 40 feet in 100 feet horizontal.
This is what the trail looks like after about 14 minutes of hiking.

A beautiful pine forest. A couple on their way down asked me if they were getting close to the parking lot. I said “yes.” I knew how they felt. Sometimes the descent feels like an eternity when your feet hurt, and you are low on energy.

Farther up the trail at 4:03 pm.
View of Brainard Lake from the trail.

The following photo shows the approximate route that I took the first time I climbed Mt. Audubon when I was a teenager. My parents were fishing at Brainard Lake. I told them I was going for a hike. Four or five hours later I returned.

The cross-country route I took as a teenager. Not recommended.
A view from a switchback on the trail shows Mitchell Lake, Pawnee Peak (12,943 ft) connected to Mt. Toll (12,979 ft) via the big saddle.
Continuing upward I passed some wildflowers and noticed the trees getting shorter.

There was a couple that I passed as they were going down. They said they hadn’t passed anyone else going up. I said, “That is awesome!”

At 4:26 pm I passed three guys and one girl on their way down. These were the last four people I would see on this hike including the return trip.

The view ahead to the north at 4:24 pm. Nearing timberline.

It is getting a little harder to breath as I cross above 11,000 feet elevation.

A few more minutes up the trail at 4:28 pm. Elevation: 11,340 ft.
Fork in the trail at elevation of 11,400 feet. Beaver Creek is to the right and Mt. Audubon is to the left. 4:37 pm.

The next photo shows the view when you turn to the left at the fork.

View to left from the trail fork. Mt. Audubon is visible on the far left.

Still a long way to go. To some it looks like a barren wasteland. To me, it is freedom. Miles of land open, natural, and virtually untouched by people. It is the freedom of the mountains.

Mt. Audubon is more visible from here.

At 4:53 pm, I see a large snowfield that helps feed Mitchell Creek with water all through the summer.

Looking south at 4:56 pm. The large peak with the flat top is Kiowa Peak.

The terrain is now alpine tundra. Trees do not grow at this elevation. This is also referred to as being above timberline.

Higher on the trail at 5:06 pm the snowfield is closer.

Some dark clouds overhead with the potential to drop some rain on me. I’m optimistic since I had not heard any thunder. I also have a rain parka in my small hydration pack (7 lbs). My hydration pack is the original CamelBak HAWG, which I’ve used for 20+ years.

Marmots along the trail.

Two marmots look around with some concern as I approach their home that is beside the trail. There aren’t many year-round residents at this elevation . . . mostly marmots and pikas.

This large snowfield with ice will last through the summer.

The dark sky at 5:08 pm. These clouds moved in quickly and left quickly. If it had been a thunderstorm, I would find a low dip in the terrain, put on my rain parka, and assume the position. The position is squatting down but keeping my feet flat and against each other. This is not a good place to be in a thunderstorm. It is too exposed. However, an even worse place to be in a thunderstorm would be up on the ridge or on the summit.

If you are wondering why the snow looks dirty it is because the wind carries dust, which drops when the wind slows down.

View to the southeast from the trail.

At 5:14 pm, this is the view looking back and to the southeast. Brainard Lake and Lefthand Reservoir are visible on the right side. Unfortunately the visibility is limited because of the wildfire smoke in the air.

Slowly, but surely getting closer to Mt. Audubon’s summit.

Rough and rocky section of trail with the summit in sight at 5:20 pm. Elevation: 12,040 ft. Flip flops and sandals are not recommended for this trail. Buy the best hiking boots you can afford. On one adventure, my friend, Craig, and I hiked over Pawnee Pass. Craig wore old running shoes with the soles starting to come apart. He didn’t want to spend the money to get some hiking boots. He was also a minimalist who always tried to get by with what he had. Neither of us could afford quality gear. I had hiking boots, but they were leather and heavy (2 lbs each).

Mt. Audubon is straight ahead.

At 5:29 pm and an elevation of 12,240 feet, the summit is straight ahead. The trail doesn’t go straight though.

View east toward the Great Plains. The view is much better on a clear day.

At 5:43 pm and an elevation of 12,450 feet, I briefly left the trail to look at this spring, which is part of the headwaters of Mitchell Creek. The view is looking east toward the Great Plains. If the sky hadn’t been smoky, the Great Plains would be clearly visible from here.

View to the north toward Rocky Mountain National Park.

In the middle of this photo in the distance is Longs Peak (14,259 ft) with the distinctive flat summit and Mt. Meeker (13,911 ft, 68th highest mountain in Colorado) to the right of it. Back when I was 32 years old, a friend and I climbed Mt. Meeker and Longs Peak in one day.

Selfie of the author feeling like he is in Heaven.

This is me at 12,720 feet at 6:01 pm. Of course, I wanted Longs Peak to be in the background. It is my favorite mountain in Colorado. I grew up on a small place in the country out on the Great Plains. From there, Longs Peak is the highest, most prominent mountain visible. Nearly every day of my childhood and teenage years I would look at Longs Peak. At one time in my childhood I didn’t think it was possible to climb such a mountain.

Native Americans were probably the first to climb Longs Peak. The referred to Longs Peak and Mt. Meeker as the two guides. It would have been an incredible sight for any of the early visitors to the area. Major John Wesley Powell and his team made the first recorded climb of Longs Peak in August 1868. It is one of Colorado’s most difficult and deadly of the peaks over 14,000 feet (Fourteeners).

This is the view of the summit from 12,720 feet.

Breathing is more difficult, and the trail is harder to find. From here, you keep climbing until you can’t climb any higher. It is best to stay on the trail as much as possible. Many of these boulders are loose and teetering on one another. This is a place where you could dislodge a rock onto yourself and get pinned down or worse. The rock is also angular with sharp edges that cut into your shins if you slip. The trail may be longer in length, but it is the safer route.

We often hear that there is less oxygen at higher elevations, which is false. The air contains about the same 21% of oxygen at 14,000 feet as it does at sea level. The air we breathe is 78% nitrogen. It is harder to breath because the atmospheric pressure is much lower. At sea level, the atmospheric pressure is 14.7 psi. At 14,000 feet it is 8.6 psi. In simple terms, when you have more pressure pushing the air into your lungs, it is easier to breath. With less air pressure you have to work harder to inflate your lungs. Even at 12,000 feet I was breathing more rapidly than I was at 5500 feet when I left home. On the summit of Mount Everest (29,029 ft), the air pressure is only 4.6 psi. Without supplemental oxygen at that elevation, it is impossible for your body to get enough oxygen.

The highest point on Mt. Audubon is in sight.

At 6:30 pm I am two minutes away from the summit. Do you see why these are called the “Rocky” Mountains? This was the time I had planned to turn back if I hadn’t made it to the summit yet. I carry a headlamp with me, but I much prefer hiking in natural light. I’m not as hard core as I used to be. When I was younger I would plan on hiking back in the dark to make the adventure more challenging.

View to the north from the top of Mt. Audubon. These mountains continue on into Wyoming.

This is the view north from the summit at 6:32 pm. This was the fourth time I had climbed Mt. Audubon (13,223 ft).

View to the south. These mountains stretch south into New Mexico.

This is the view looking south with nearly all the Indian Peaks in sight. Mount Toll (12,979 ft) is the distinct summit on the right side. I climbed Mt. Toll when I was 19 years old.

Panoramic view from the summit.

The top three reasons that I climb are 1) the feeling of self-achievement, 2) the euphoria, and 3) the incredible scenery from up high. Being up high in the mountains gives me a euphoric feeling . . . a natural Rocky Mountain High.

The long and winding trail back.

Looking at the long trail back was disheartening. How am I going to get back before dark? It looks like the trail stretche forever.

Columbine flowers along the trail back.

It isn’t dark yet.

Such beautiful flowers.

The Columbine is the Colorado State flower.

Kiowa Peak to the south, another Thirteener.

A view from a gap in the forest at 8:04 pm. The highest mountain to the left is Kiowa Peak. Niwot Ridge is barely visible in front of Kiowa. The foremost ridge separates the South St. Vrain Creek drainage from the Mitchell Creek drainage.

The sign at the trailhead – the starting line and the finish line.

I made it back to the trailhead at 8:26 pm. It was just getting dark enough to require a headlamp.

Jeep Grand Cherokee Laraedo, my home away from home.

My total hike was 7.78 miles, but I hiked a lap around the parking lot to get my daily mileage to over 8.0. My Jeep was the last remaining vehicle at this trailhead. I would like to have stayed the night right here, but I had to get back for work the next day. I’m seldom in a hurry to leave the mountains.

The Indian Peaks at nightfall.

My last view of the Indian Peaks for this day. Mount Audubon is the rounded mountain on the right side. Mount Toll (12,979 ft) is in the middle with a ridge connecting to Paiute Peak (13,012 ft) to the left of Audubon.

This is where I caught the mountaineering bug. My parents brought me here on a fishing trip when I was a child. This was the most amazing place I had seen at that time of my life.

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The narrative of my first climb of Mt. Audubon is in Chapter 2 of my book, Rocky Mountain Adventure Collection. It is available from Amazon.

Tranquility in the Mountains

I intended these stories to be a chapter in my book, Rocky Mountain Adventure Collection. I removed them to reduce the book size. My publisher told me that I had to remove some material. This was back in the days of publishing real books containing bound paper. These stories about meditating and relaxing in the mountains didn’t fit the adventure theme. I felt that a chapter on meditation would offer readers a break from the adventure stories. I could share a different type of mountain experience. At the time, although I liked the material, I thought my readers might see it as odd. After reading some of John Muir’s outdoor adventure stories, I found that he wrote of similar experiences. Many outdoor adventurers write about their spiritual connections with the mountains. After 25 years of collecting dust, I retrieved my original writing from the basement to refurbish it. I found the pages in a three-ring binder with my other book notes. I typed the draft of these stories using an ancient computer, a Commodore 64.

Many famous and not so famous people venture into the mountains to find solitude. While working on the Manhattan Project, the famous Physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer retreated to the mountains to clear his thoughts and relax. Jesus ascended into the mountains to pray in peace. Monks, Saints, scientists, engineers, and others go to the mountains to gather their thoughts. It is a place where they can escape the everyday pressures associated with their lives. Regardless of what people do, most of them have stress that they don’t need. During my four and a half years of rigorous engineering study, I often felt overwhelmed. Stress was the worst during the final exams at the end of the semester. That is when I felt stressed out. For me, the mountain wilderness was the ideal place to relieve my stress – no matter what caused it. Even though I lived near the mountains, I couldn’t always afford to get in the car and drive to them. A few trips during college and more trips to the mountains in the summers was enough to rejuvenate me. Mountains and forests have always beckoned me to their tranquil environments. I continue to escape to them as often as I can.

Rays of sunshine radiate from a setting sun in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado. A jagged line of mountain ridges form the horizon. (Photo by TJ Burr, 5/7/2021)
Rays of sunshine radiate from a setting sun in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado (Photo by TJ Burr, 5/7/2021)

Of course, you don’t have to go to the mountains to meditate or relax, but mountainous areas put me at peace with the world. In the mountains the opportunities for relaxation are limitless. There are many places to choose from. You can relax next to a stream, beneath a pine tree, on a boulder, on a summit, or by an alpine lake. Rugged mountain wilderness areas are difficult to develop into cities and streets. That makes them appealing to those seeking to escape the noise of developed places.

Wilderness areas offer places where you can get away from it all. You don’t necessarily have to hike miles into the wilderness to find quiet and solitude. There are places to relax in nature that are only a few hundred feet from a parking lot. You could be next to a stream where the sounds of tumbling water drown out background noises. There are places where you don’t have to venture far from a road to find yourself surrounded by nature. In fact, there a many places you can be on a road and surrounded by nature. Some people can find solitude in a wooded area of a city park. For a trained practitioner, relaxing is a state of mind, not something that is dependent on a location. I need a place that I find relaxing.

Everyone has certain characteristics for the place they like to relax or meditate. My favorite places are on the tundra above timberline, deep in a forest, or sitting next to flowing water. The alpine tundra is high up and hard to reach. It is a place far away from the stressful noises of busy highways. I want to hear nature when I’m in deep relaxation. Forests are also great places to relax. A casual hike a half-mile into the forest gets me the minimum depth for solitude. I’m also quite comfortable being five or more miles deep into a forest. The beauty of being next to flowing water is that it drowns out other distracting sounds. It allows you to focus on the natural sounds of water tumbling over, under, and around rocks. Within a minute, my mind drifts to a place of calm. A place of tranquility.

Peace above Timberline

Relaxing in the sun on a grassy tundra at 12,000 feet above sea level is one of the most refreshing activities I’ve found. It is almost as if one visit a year could relieve the frustration and stress for that entire year. It is amazing what one hour above timberline can do to relax the mind. Most of the time that I’m in the high country I want to be moving, climbing, jogging, hiking, or skiing. But, even the most avid adventurers need a break. Some days I yearn to hike up above timberline to an alpine pasture in the sky to relax. Some days while descending from the high peaks I stop in the afternoon sun to rest. Sometimes I’m so exhausted from climbing that I must take a break on the way down to recover my energy.

I lived in the eastern United States for a few years, Georgia, and West Virginia. There are mountains out there, but none high enough to get above timberline. There are high places with similar characteristics in the Appalachian Mountains. But the experience of being above timberline in the Rocky Mountains is a unique and special for me.

There are roads that go above timberline, so you don’t have to hike or climb to get there. When hiking up through the forest to the land above timberline you experience the sensations of both environments. I recently experienced this when I climbed up high in the James Peak Wilderness Area in Colorado. I started hiking in the dense evergreen forest. As I hiked higher, I felt and saw the environment change. The trees grew shorter with increasing elevation. Hiking to timberline makes you more aware of the changes that occur at higher elevations. Changes you might miss if you drove a car up there. Some of the roads are paved, such as Trail Ridge Road in Rocky Mountain National Park.

Above timberline, the air is crisp. Views are spectacular. People are scarce. Insects are rare. Water is pure. Life is good. I’ve found tranquility in many places up high. These places include mountain summits, glacial bowls, rocky ridges, alpine meadows, glacial valleys, and alpine lakes. Some people would consider these places as sacred. Of all my experiences there is a place that stands apart from the others. It is a flat layer of granite high up in a glacial valley in the Indian Peaks Wilderness Area of Colorado. It is in a valley that I crossed during many climbing excursions among the Indian Peaks. Craig, my best friend from high school, accompanied me on many of these outings. It was second nature for us to stop in this area to relax after descending from the jagged mountaintops. The Continental Divide passes near this area, and peak after peak rise to over 13,000 feet in elevation. There are no trails to this place. This place ranks high among the most beautiful places that I have ever been.

One afternoon, after climbing to the summit of a thirteener, Craig and I collapsed on a patch of grass in the valley. An otherwise rocky valley. I lied motionless on my back in a shower of sunshine. At high elevations the sun is intense and comforting to a fatigued body. You can sense the temperature drop from a passing cloud that blocks the direct sun. For those precious moments, I focused on the sensations. I felt the sunshine soak into my skin. My body absorbed the energy from the sun’s rays. Without food, nature replenished my energy.

It was also an intoxicating feeling. Some people call it a Rocky Mountain High. The warm, “thin” air was comforting. My mind drifted into a meditative state. I envisioned a white ball of serene light energy. This ball of bright light blended with the sunlight that penetrated my eyelids. It felt like an out-of-body experience for a few moments. I felt completely at peace my surroundings. I felt more alive than ever before in the presence of the beautiful setting. All my body’s stresses and negative emotions dissipated. At that time in my life, I had the stresses of being a teenager. Life seemed harder than it was, but we don’t know this at the time we are going through it. In that relaxed state I relished the present. I reached deep into my mind to purge even the deepest stores of negative energy. The last waves of any negative thoughts radiated away into the air.

Then I felt like I had melded with the natural surroundings. I was as close to being “one with nature” as possible. These mountains were 65 million years old. At one time a thick glacial ice sheet covered this area. Glaciers, gravity, and erosion shaped the landscape. Change is subtle, yet always happening. The streams of this high valley are true natural streams. If you gaze into the clear water, you can see particles of sand in motion. Those small grains of sand grind away at larger rock in the streambed. During spring melt, chunks of ice topple small rocks and push them along. I thought about these processes as the way things are. It isn’t positive or negative. It is nature in its purest form. That was where my subconscious mind took me. It is hard to keep yourself from thinking about things. Try to do nothing and think of nothing.

As powerful and enduring as the mountains are, they also have life-and-death cycles on a grand geologic scale. Relentless entropic processes continually reshape the mountains. Natural forces will erode the Rocky Mountains down to the size of the Appalachians. Later in their life they will become like rolling hills on the plains. In the end they will be sediment on the sea floor. I thought of this lifecycle as I relaxed, relating it to my own life. My thoughts came back to the pleasures that life yields, and the pleasures of being in the mountains. The same forces that erode the mountains create beautiful streams, lakes, peaks, valleys, and forests. The forces of nature spawn new life. The marmots, deer, elk, mountain sheep, bears, rabbits, birds, people, and plants exist because of this ecological balance.

Even though humankind is unique from other animal life, we are part of nature. People don’t always realize that they are dependent upon nature for their survival. This thinking is changing as more people take actions to preserve nature. People are working harder to conserve natural resources. The mountains provide us with life-sustaining fresh water. There were times in our history that progress took precedence over the environment. There is an environmental cost for the modern conveniences that developed nations enjoy. We can correct some damages, but not all. These were thoughts that my mind wandered to when untethered by my conscious brain. Sometimes my mind wandered into philosophical issues.

There are many people who worry too much about the impact of humans on the environment. In my lifetime I’ve seen dramatic changes for the good of the planet. Millions of people work to preserve natural resources and to find ways to live in harmony with Earth. The mountains will endure. With time, nature will heal itself. It has been through far worse conditions than humans could ever dish out.

From those deeper thoughts, I drifted to comforting present thoughts. Like a hawk gliding in the wind, I soared above the ground. I swooped back and forth across the valley, absorbing the sights, sounds, and aromas. I saw the splendor and beauty of the entire area. For a few minutes, I circled the peaks and swooped down the valley enjoying the fascinating topography of the mountains. I smiled as I experienced the joy of being in nature. Time didn’t matter. I was in the present there and then.

Lying motionless in the short grass, my thoughts returned to where I was in the world. When I returned to my physical self, I felt rejuvenated, and ready to face the world again. I could abandon conventional life and spend every day exploring the mountains. Should I have done that? Did my parents, teachers, and society condition me to live a productive life of contributing to society? I felt compelled to do what I could to help conserve natural places as natural resources vital to all life. Later in life I discovered the writings of John Muir, Aldo Leopold, Henry David Thoreau, Anatoli Boukreev, and Jon Krakauer. I didn’t realize that it was possible to survive as a fulltime student of nature or as a mountaineer. Reflecting on my life, I’m not sure if I served a better purpose living a conventional life versus if I had sought a life of living day-by-day in nature. Did I miss my true calling?

Following our revitalizing rest, Craig and I were ready to climb again. We splashed some stream water on our faces, got up, and started climbing again. I had boundless energy in my younger days. We didn’t make it to the summit of a second thirteener that day. When we were midway up the mountain a mid-afternoon thunderstorm formed. We decided to make a hasty descent. It was as if Mother Nature had allowed us to have some fun but didn’t want us to overdo it. What is wrong with having too much fun?

Meditating in the mountains helps me relax and be more aware of the mountains I enjoy so much. Relaxing in the mountains is a wonderful way to reconnect with nature. Whenever I’m losing my way in life, I return to the mountains for the wisdom they provide. There are many pitfalls in life associated with money, success, careers, and worldly pleasures. Solitude in the wilderness is how I sense God’s presence. Being in the mountains keeps me grounded in life.

The author meditates in a peaceful mountain setting shortly before sunset. A man sitting with his hands together on a rock outcrop under a pine tree (Photo by TJ Burr, 5/7/2021).
The author meditates in a peaceful mountain setting shortly before sunset (Photo by TJ Burr, 5/7/2021).

Hypnotic Waters

Relaxing to the sound of flowing water is another excellent way to purge stress. The rhythmic sound of water flowing across and splashing against rocks is hypnotic. It gives your aural senses something to focus on while clearing the clutter from your mind. The splashing water masks other distracting sounds. This allows you to focus your thoughts or to let your mind drift.

Streams are pleasant places to relax beside. You can listen to and watch the flowing water. The flowing water is soothing. There have been a few lazy afternoons that I’ve spent an hour or more sitting on a rock out in a stream. With water flowing around me I stare into the current focused on the swirling and splashing sounds. Sometimes it feels good to do nothing. It can be therapeutic. One memorable experience was during a climbing trip to Mount Princeton in the Collegiate Peaks of Colorado. I was with two good friends preparing to climb the Fourteener. Craig was my best friend from high school. Sean was someone I met during college at the University of Wyoming. We planned to camp near the base of the mountain for a day before the climb to let ourselves adjust to the elevation.

Mount Princeton stands 14,197 feet above sea level. It is a majestic peak. That trip was my first time exploring the beautiful Collegiate Peaks. We established camp near the base of Mount Princeton in a well forested area. After we pitched the tents and built a campfire, we went in separate directions to explore the area around camp. Sean walked upstream from camp. Craig crashed on a sun-soaked boulder. I ventured down to the edge of Chalk Creek, a small mountain stream.

It was a sunny day in late May. The temperature was in the mid to upper fifties. I was a little tense thinking about the upcoming climb. We weren’t as prepared as I thought we should be. In those days, we had carefree attitudes. We ventured out half-cocked most of the time. Some adventures failed because we didn’t do our homework. Once while searching for a cave, we drove a hundred miles, then hiked all afternoon. Later we discovered that we were miles from the cave we were trying to find. Now, in my fifties, I understand how a young person could go Into the Wild without a map and get into trouble. I’m referring to the book written by Jon Krakauer about the life of a carefree young man who ventured into Alaska’s wilderness half-cocked.

At the stream, I did some rock-hopping back and forth across the flowing water. That was one of my favorite pastimes. I enjoyed testing my balancing skills by leaping from rock-to-rock. I was also searching for a sun-warmed boulder to lie upon to think. I found a “comfortable” boulder to rest on. It was an island with flowing water on all sides.

This trip was my last trip to the mountains before entering America’s workforce. I wanted to enjoy every minute of it. I didn’t know when my next trip to the Rocky Mountains would be. In exchange for my college tuition, I volunteered to serve in the Air Force for the next four years. My first destination was for training in Wichita Falls, Texas, which is a long way from the mountains. After a month in Texas, I would be off to Atlanta, Georgia for my first fulltime job after college. I wanted to absorb every sight, sound, and smell hoping it would last until my next trip to the high country. Again, at the time, the thought of being a mountain bum didn’t even cross my mind as an option. My parents had instilled in me that I had to work to survive.

After getting comfortable on the rock, I concentrated on the rhythmic sound of the splashing water. Dense pine trees hid the streambank giving it a sense of seclusion. In moments the flowing water carried me into a hypnotic state. At that moment, nothing else mattered. I was one with the stream. I drifted deeper into relaxation while trying to not to think about anything outside of where I was. My mind was free to wander. For about an hour I stayed still while tuned in with nature. I listened to what nature was saying through the tumbling sounds of the water around me. It was relaxing. It left me feeling optimistic about life. I felt completely at peace with my surroundings. I was in tranquility in the mountains.

Later, the three of us sat around a campfire talking about our futures. The glow of the flames flickered on the faces of my friends. It was the perfect end to a wonderful day. The next day we climbed as high as we could on Mt. Princeton (14,197 ft). We didn’t want to follow a trail, so we charted our own course up a gully on a steep mountainside with lots of loose debris. The area we climbed up is named the Chalk Cliffs, a dangerous route. We made it up to 12,000 feet elevation, then a series of dangerous thunderstorms moved in. We were in the open above timberline. With lightning in the area, we decided to descend. The mountain will be there for another attempt.

Those were two of many similar experiences I have enjoyed during my life. Sometimes it feels good to blank out my thoughts allowing nothingness to creep in. It is difficult to let your mind go blank. We’re always thinking about something, even in our sleep. Try to make time to relax in a natural setting on a regular basis. It will work wonders for your physical and mental health.  

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Afterward: This blog is dedicated to friends that I shared many outdoor adventures with. Sean and Craig have passed from this world far too soon. I’m thankful for the adventures we shared, and the memories we made.

On the trail a few hours before a May snowstorm

I recently read someone’s blog where they wrote about their feelings. It was almost like reading a diary entry. I liked it. The author shared his raw emotions, which is rare. He shared some of his deepest thoughts. This blog is headed in that direction, but still more descriptive than emotional. Let me know if you like reading about the thoughts of the writers.

On Sunday, May 2, 2021, I planned to hike 8 miles in the eastern foothills of the Rocky Mountains in Colorado. When I started hiking there was a band of rain far to the south, but scattered clouds overhead. It was supposed to rain all day according to the forecast from yesterday. They missed it by about 12 hours. There weren’t many cars parked at the trailhead, especially for a Sunday. The trail was mostly dry, but there were signs of light rain earlier in the day. The first 0.25 mile is tame, then the upward hiking starts. The trail parallels a stream for the first half mile. I wore a short-sleeved polyester shirt and had my small Camelbak pace with me. I packed two long-sleeved shirts and a rain/wind parka. The clouds looked innocent at the start, but I knew that could change fast.

I kept a good, steady pace. I passed (from opposite directions) some mountain bikers, two hikers, and a trail runner. There are some challenging rocky sections on this trail. Most of the trail is in the difficult category. At 5:56 pm I arrived at the junction with another trail and it was decision making time. To the north is the 8 miles of hiking and to the south was the shorter, safer route. I took a short break to contemplate what I should do. Nature made the decision for me. When I arrived at this junction, I was sweating and my bare arms were warm. The air felt to be about 55 degrees F. Then a north wind kicked up at about 15 mph. I felt the temperature drop at least 10 degrees. The sky overhead was totally gray. It was raining about 20 miles to the northeast on the plains. If I went north, there was a good chance that I would be rained on. I had the extra clothing I needed, but I didn’t want to deal with wet, muddy, and slippery trails. The older I get, the lower my tolerance for misery.

Without further delay, I turned left (south) for the shorter hike. Along the way I saw some mule deer, spring flowers, and birds. The ground was dry. Pine needles crunched under my feet. I hiked until I had 1,000 feet of vertical gain, then I took a break under a ponderosa pine tree. I was far enough off the trail so other passersby wouldn’t see me. I started feeling cold so I put on one of the long-sleeve shirts I packed. I relaxed and let my mind wander as I gazed across a steep-walled valley at a mountain. I could hear the stream flowing about 500 feet below me. It was 6:26 pm. I guessed the temperature to be about 45 degrees F, which is the temperature that we can typically see our breath at when the air is cooling. Under normal mountain conditions when it is cloudy, it could rain at any minute or be clear 30 minutes later. This looked and felt like it would be around for a while. 

The image shows the writer's view during a hiking break. A view of a mountain with mixed areas of bare ground and forested.
The view from where I rested under the ponderosa pine tree (Burr, 5/2/2021)

I thought about the cabin in the mountains that I dream of having someday. I’ve always wanted to live in the mountains, but circumstances haven’t been right with life and work. This is high on my priority list for retirement. I would like to have a view of some high peaks that go above timberline. A view of Longs Peak would be the bomb. It has to be close to hiking trails and public lands. I noticed the cloud ceiling dropping, so I decided to start hiking down.

Some mountain bikers whizzed by me on the way. I stopped for a while at the stream crossing to record some sound clips of the flowing water and a short video. 

At 7:30 pm I was back to my Jeep in the trailhead parking area. I was the last person off of the mountain. My car was the only one left. I finished with 5.6 miles of hiking with a total vertical gain of 1,200 feet. On the way home I looked toward the mountains and could only see the bottoms of them. Where I was at 45 minutes earlier was engulfed in clouds. 

Later, at my house, it rained into the night. The weather radar showed snow for areas above 7000 feet elevation. That would have included where I stopped for my rest under the pine tree. There were winter storm warnings for the mountain towns. We had a cool, wet April that is now continuing into May. Colorado has been under drought conditions for a long time, so I welcome the moisture. 

* Update: This is the next day. The area I was hiking in did get hit with snow.

[Link to audio podcast (6:24): https://anchor.fm/tj-burr/episodes/On-the-trail-a-few-hours-before-a-May-snowstorm-e1053qv]

Gear for a Hike of 1-4 Hours or 3-10 miles

My goal for this article is to share how I decide what to carry for a short to mid-range hike. Knowing my reasoning for what I pack could help you decide what to carry. I’m in my 50’s and every ounce that I carry makes hiking harder. So, I put a lot of thought into the things I wear and carry. I’ve hiked, climbed, and backpacked over 12,500 miles (I’m still counting and hiking). That isn’t much for an ardent hiker but is significant for an average hiker like me.

I often go on hikes and climbs that last from 1-4 hours for distances of 3-10 miles. I used this gear for an 8-mile hike in the Colorado Rocky Mountains with an elevation range of 6000 to 7500 feet. It was a mid-fall hike in October. The weather forecast was for continued clear, calm skies. The terrain was a steep mountainside with forest on the north slopes. The open areas provide some incredible views. Most of the trail surface was rocky with a few stretches of sandy soil. The surrounding landscape consisted of open brush areas, rock outcrops, and pine forests. I hiked in the afternoon on north and east-facing mountainsides. This meant the terrain and air had started cooling.

When I started hiking the air temperature was 50-degrees F. It felt hot to me. So, I started the hike wearing a polypropylene short-sleeve shirt (item 12 in the photo). I carried some essentials in a small Camelbak hydration pack (item 6) that I’ve had for a long time. Camelbak was the first company to make and sell hydration packs. Before those came out, to drink water, hikers had to stop, get out a water bottle, put it back, then resume hiking. The Camelbak is an incredible invention. You can use whatever you like to for keeping hydrated. My limit for hiking without water is around one hour. I drink a lot of water while hiking and climbing. This hydration pack holds 100 ounces of water, which lasts me 6-8 hours, depending on the conditions. The weight of the water is 6.5 pounds (15.34 fluid ounces of water in a pound). When the bladder is full and I’m carrying the rest of this stuff, the pack weighs about 8.0 lbs.

I often hike in the late afternoon and early evening, after work. There is always a chance that I’ll find myself returning in the dark. So, I almost always carry one or two light sources. For this hike, I carried a light, Petzl headlamp (item 2). People have become lost and died on hikes of one mile.

Where I hike, the number of hikers decreases the farther I go, starting at about one mile. This is often true even when the parking lot at the trailhead is full. After two miles I’m on my own except for a few other hikers. The trail for this hike had a difficulty rating of moderate to difficult. There are places that you have to climb over rock outcrops and a few stretches on steep, loose gravel.

Getting injured or lost is always a possibility. To help in that event, I carry a whistle (item 3). I carry a plastic bag with a few other essentials (item 4). The bag contains an emergency space blanket, a lighter, some toilet paper, and a parachute cord. You should always carry a fire starter. If you ever have to stay out in the woods overnight in an emergency, you’ll want to have a fire.

Item 5 is a boot knife for self-defense against a bear or mountain lion. I hope that I never have to try to fight off a bear with a knife, but I figure it is better than nothing. I don’t always carry that, but I always have a knife of some type. More often I carry a small Swiss Army knife and a very sharp Benchmade tactical knife. Knives are also high on the list of essentials for many uses. I’m not a big fan of pepper spray, but there are situations it could be helpful. There is often wind in the mountains. If you are in a standoff with a bear and you are downwind of it, pepper spray is not going to help you. Pepper spray is also “one and done.”

Items 7 and 8 are light gloves and a fleece headcover. I carried these because I was hiking in October. If you hike several miles in the mountains, the temperature can vary a lot. Where I hiked, I knew it would be colder after the sun dipped behind the mountains. The temperature also dropped as I reached higher elevations. There is always a chance for the wind to start blowing harder. These items are situation-dependent like many of the things you decide to carry with you. If I was doing this hike in June or July, I wouldn’t carry these items. If I was climbing a Fourteener in June or July, I would pack them.

Items 1 and 13 are long-sleeve polypropylene shirts for layering. Having an extra shirt also gives me a dry shirt I can change into if the one I start with gets wet or sweaty. When you make your list, think of items that have many uses. I used item 13 on this hike when I was up higher, and the sun was lower in the sky. When I reached the halfway point, the temperature was about 40-degrees F. Item 9 is a lightweight windbreaker that is also good for layering.

Item 10 is a multi-tool, which is high on my list of essentials because it has so many uses. I carried two protein bars (item 11) for energy. I ate one of them on this hike after I started feeling weak and light-headed. I knew my energy and sugar levels were low.

I have Salomon Quest 4D hiking boots (item 14), which are the bomb for me. They are expensive but worth it. I have neuropathy (nerve damage) in my feet, which kicks my pain level up to 6-8 during most hikes and climbs. It would be hard for me to hike without these boots or some like them. The Darn Tough, over-the-calf mountaineering socks (item 15) also help with foot pain. They are the best hiking socks I’ve found. Darn Tough backs them with a lifetime warranty. I’ve collected twice on the warranty because they developed holes in the heels. They honored their word and sent me new socks. They come in other heights, so you don’t have to get the over-the-calf type.

The Kuhl Klash climbing pants are the most comfortable pants I’ve ever worn. They are also expensive, but worth it. I found these and many of the items on this list at REI. They have all the pockets I need, including a front left hip pocket for my phone. The pockets zip closed, which I’ve found useful. You don’t want to lose your car keys while hiking – keep them in a safe place. Under the climbing pants, my first layer of protection is polypropylene underwear (item 17). I never thought I would wear $25 underwear, but these are so functional and comfortable, they are worth it. The older I get, the more I opt for comfortable clothing. In my early hiking days, I wore cotton underwear and blue jeans. My tolerance for suffering was also higher when I was younger.

I often hike in the late afternoon and early evening, after work. There is always a chance that I’ll find myself returning in the dark. So, I almost always carry one or two light sources. For this hike, I carried a light, Petzl headlamp (item 2). People have become lost and died on hikes of one mile.

Where I hike, the number of hikers decreases the farther I go, starting at about one mile. This is often true even when the parking lot at the trailhead is full. After two miles I’m on my own except for a few other hikers. The trail for this hike had a difficulty rating of moderate to difficult. There are places that you have to climb over rock outcrops and a few stretches on steep, loose gravel.

Getting injured or lost is always a possibility. To help in that event, I carry a whistle (item 3). I carry a plastic bag with a few other essentials (item 4). The bag contains an emergency space blanket, a lighter, some toilet paper, and a parachute cord. You should always carry a fire starter. If you ever have to stay out in the woods overnight in an emergency, you’ll want to have a fire.

Item 5 is a boot knife for self-defense against a bear or mountain lion. I hope that I never have to try to fight off a bear with a knife, but I figure it is better than nothing. I don’t always carry that, but I always have a knife of some type. More often I carry a small Swiss Army knife and a very sharp Benchmade tactical knife. Knives are also high on the list of essentials for many uses. I’m not a big fan of pepper spray, but there are situations it could be helpful. There is often wind in the mountains. If you are in a standoff with a bear and you are downwind of it, pepper spray is not going to help you. Pepper spray is also “one and done.”

Items 7 and 8 are light gloves and a fleece headcover. I carried these because I was hiking in October. If you hike several miles in the mountains, the temperature can vary a lot. Where I hiked, I knew it would be colder after the sun dipped behind the mountains. The temperature also dropped as I reached higher elevations. There is always a chance for the wind to start blowing harder. These items are situation-dependent like many of the things you decide to carry with you. If I was doing this hike in June or July, I wouldn’t carry these items. If I was climbing a Fourteener in June or July, I would pack them.

Items 1 and 13 are long-sleeve polypropylene shirts for layering. Having an extra shirt also gives me a dry shirt I can change into if the one I start with gets wet or sweaty. When you make your list, think of items that have many uses. I used item 13 on this hike when I was up higher, and the sun was lower in the sky. When I reached the halfway point, the temperature was about 40-degrees F. Item 9 is a lightweight windbreaker that is also good for layering.

Item 10 is a multi-tool, which is high on my list of essentials because it has so many uses. I carried two protein bars (item 11) for energy. I ate one of them on this hike after I started feeling weak and light-headed. I knew my energy and sugar levels were low.

I have Salomon Quest 4D hiking boots (item 14), which are the bomb for me. They are expensive but worth it. I have neuropathy (nerve damage) in my feet, which kicks my pain level up to 6-8 during most hikes and climbs. It would be hard for me to hike without these boots or some like them. The Darn Tough, over-the-calf mountaineering socks (item 15) also help with foot pain. They are the best hiking socks I’ve found. Darn Tough backs them with a lifetime warranty. I’ve collected twice on the warranty because they developed holes in the heels. They honored their word and sent me new socks. They come in other heights, so you don’t have to get the over-the-calf type.

The Kuhl Klash climbing pants are the most comfortable pants I’ve ever worn. They are also expensive, but worth it. I found these and many of the items on this list at REI. They have all the pockets I need, including a front left hip pocket for my phone. The pockets zip closed, which I’ve found useful. You don’t want to lose your car keys while hiking – keep them in a safe place. Under the climbing pants, my first layer of protection is polypropylene underwear (item 17). I never thought I would wear $25 underwear, but these are so functional and comfortable, they are worth it. The older I get, the more I opt for comfortable clothing. In my early hiking days, I wore cotton underwear and blue jeans. My tolerance for suffering was also higher when I was younger.

Last on the list is a cell phone (item 18), which is priority 3 on my list of 26 hiking essentials for all-day hikes. My phone is also my camera, map, Internet access, and apps source. I track my hiking using the Map My Walk app and a Garmin Instinct GPS watch. A free hiking app that I refer to sometimes is the Colorado Trail Explorer or COTrex. I like the topographic maps in that app.

Always carry what you need for the conditions you’ll be hiking in. If you know it is going to rain, you’ll need to add rain gear. If the insects are going to be bad, add insect repellent to your pack. For longer hikes, check out my blog, Gear for Non-Technical Mountaineering and Hiking in the Rocky Mountains. Be safe and happy trails.

Gear used by TJ Burr on a 8 mile hike in the mountains in October.

The Lure of the Mountains

Lure of the Mountains

Today, while working from home, I looked out the window at about 2:00 PM to see a clear blue sky. Then, I walked outside and looked west at the mountains. They were calling me to them. I had to take the rest of the afternoon off to go hiking. Besides, it was Friday. I wrapped up my work, then changed into my incredibly comfortable Kuhl climbing pants. By 3:00 PM I was on the trail hiking up into the mountains. I fully invoked the layering method of keeping my body temperature comfortable. I knew up in the shaded areas the temperature would be below freezing, and it was. There was ice-covered patches of trail. By 4:00 PM I was 1,000 vertical feet higher than the trailhead. The sun had disappeared behind the mountains. I put on a light fleece jacket and gloves.

I stopped for a short break under a Ponderosa Pine Tree and sat down on a thick layer of pine needles. There are days that I am happiest sitting against a pine tree, high on a mountainside, gazing at the natural beauty of the mountains. I experience a deep joy when I’m in communion with the mountains.

I wanted to climb higher before turning back, so I got back on the trail. I hiked and soaked up the natural solitude that I was immersed in. The next time I looked at my watch it was 4:38 PM. It would be dark by 5:30 PM. I picked a high point on a rock outcrop to be my summit for this hike. That gave me a respectable vertical gain of 1,500 feet. I carried a small Camelbak pack with some essentials and a headlamp. It weighed about 8 pounds. I could hike by headlamp if I wanted to, but I only use it as a last resort. I like to let my eyes adjust to the darkening sky so I can hike without a headlamp most of the time. I was the last person on the mountain.

At 5:40 PM I was back to my Jeep Grand Cherokee at the trailhead. It was pitch dark. I had hiked about 7 miles. My heart rate was up to 165 bpm at one time. I knew for at least the next 24 hours I would feel good.
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I took this photo shortly after sunset on January 15, 2021.

The Blue River and September Thoughts

Here is a short video clip (20 seconds) of the Blue River near Heeney, Colorado. The Blue River is an amazing mountain stream with pristine water quality. Many of the highest peaks had a fresh dusting of snow from a cold front that moved through. I saw Grays Peak and Quandary had snow on them. September is my favorite month. The air is cooler. The biting insects go away. Thunderstorm activity slows down. It is a great time for hiking and climbing.

Life is more enjoyable when you stop watching the junk on television and get into the great outdoors. So many people are freaking out over the COVID-19 pandemic. It is far from the end of the world. Even if were one of the small number of people getting COVID, your chance of dying from it is very small. Take the recommended precautions, but don’t let it ruin your life. There are so many beautiful outdoor places to explore in the world. So, get out there.

Happy Trails.

Pyrocumulus Clouds and After

Have you heard of pyrocumulus clouds? The link below is for a short video explanation that I found on YouTube. It is a timely topic for those of us out west. The Pine Gulch Fire north of Grand Junction, Colorado caused this weather phenomenon to happen. Unfortunately, the fire is only the start of a series of changes to the landscape. The effects of the fire will take years to recover. With no vegetation and baked ground (think crust), rainfall flows off of the mountainsides much faster.


https://youtu.be/uIyaka3N3Tg

The faster runoff overwhelms streams and gullies that normally have flows that rise and fall over a longer time. Flowing water can cause massive erosion, especially in the mountains where gravity adds “fuel to the fire.” As a mountaineer, my senses are finely tuned to the continual pull of gravity. Rock fall and avalanches occur frequently in the mountains. When nature mixes a burnt landscape with rain and gravity, the ground becomes a flowing slurry. The slurry includes ash, mud, rock, and any logs that weren’t completely burnt. Follow this link to see a post-wildfire flow.


https://youtu.be/ro3KaOd_hY8

Some people want to demonize nature by saying the mountains are punishing us or nature is lashing out at us. No, it is nature being nature. The mountains don’t care if we are climbing them or building houses on them. The forces of nature are always at work. Lightning strikes, trees burn, rain falls, rocks fall, and nature shapes the land as it always has. The mountains are just there. We need to respect them and be aware of the hazards associated with them.

Objective Look at Coronavirus

https://www.livescience.com/56598-deadliest-viruses-on-earth.html

This is a good, objective article on the Wuhan coronavirus. COVID-19 could become another virus of a long list that exist in our world. Despite having a vaccine for measles, many people still get measles because they aren’t vaccinated. HIV is another one that never went away, but we’ve found ways to manage symptoms and limit exposure. Some of the other ones we live with: SARS, Ebola, smallpox, Marburg, rabies, hantavirus, influenza, dengue, rotavirus, and MERS. It is virtually impossible to eliminate these. Earth is an ideal incubator for life in many forms.

Mountaineering Legend Fred Beckey (1923-2017)

Every now and then you come across a movie that grabs your attention. One night I was looking for a movie to watch on Amazon Prime or Netflix. I was about to give up on finding something that looked worth watching. Then, I saw this movie titled “Dirtbag: The Legend of Fred Beckey.” He is a mountaineering legend that I didn’t know much about. Fred wasn’t a glamor climber. He just loved climbing and being in the mountains. He could have capitalized off his amazing mountaineering feats, but that wasn’t his style. Dirtbag is a documentary about the life of Fred Beckey. It was finished in 2017, after Fred had died at 94.

If you like mountaineering, mountains, and climbing, you should watch this movie. It won several awards. Beckey was always busy climbing, planning a climb, and writing. He kept meticulous notes about his climbs. I’m not sure anyone has a definitive number of mountains he climbed, but he was known to climb 40-50 new mountains a year. He is credited with having 1,000 “first” accents – meaning he was the first person to climb those peaks or routes. He could have climbed 3,000 or more mountains throughout his life, which is legendary in itself.

Fred didn’t feel fully alive unless he was at higher elevations, which is how I feel. I enjoy being up high where streams are born and you can see to the ends of the horizons.

Survival on Mt. Shavano (14,231ft)

Nick Noland had a harrowing adventure on Colorado’s 18th highest mountain. This could happen to anyone venturing above 13,000 feet. It happens to beginners and experienced climbers. He set out to climb the Fourteener as a routine day hike. He had no idea what he would face later in the day. Within the span of a few hours he went from an enjoyable climb to a life or death struggle.

In the book Deep Survival by Laurence Gonzales, he wrote about a survival instinct to do what is necessary to survive, not necessarily what is recommended. Experts frequently advise people who get lost to stop and stay put, which is often the best advice. But, not always. Nick could have died if he had stayed put. Mt. Shavano, like most of Colorado’s high peaks, is massive and covers a vast area. When viewed from above, you see a surface of broken up rock with shadows. There are thousands of crevices, loose rock, and jagged edges. One climber who disappeared on the Mount of the Holy Cross most likely died on the mountain. Despite large search parties looking for several days, they didn’t find her.

Nick had the survival instincts to know he had to keep moving. This decision probably saved his life. It takes time to organize and deploy a search team. If they haven’t started before nightfall, they may wait until the next morning to start searching. It is difficult and dangerous roaming across a rugged landscape in the dark. I always pack with the assumption that I may have to spend a night on the mountain. I also curse having that extra weight in my backpack, but I pack it anyway. Check out my blog: Gear for non-technical mountaineering and hiking in the Rocky Mountains (09/15/2017).

I’m not going to second guess the things he did that culminated in his dilemma. There will be plenty of critics who will analyze everything he did. There is often a series of trivial events that start to form a bad situation well before things go wrong. I’ve been in similar situations. Every situation on a mountain is different with dozens of variables changing by the minute. I’ve planned on descending in the dark on many adventures. It usually isn’t too difficult if you stay on the trail. If you stray off the trail or otherwise lose it, you could find yourself in a bad situation. Hiking off-trail at night in the Rocky Mountains has its own set of risks. The slope of the terrain can quickly change from moderate, to steep, to vertical.

Nobody knows how they will react during a stressful event. There are so many thoughts racing through your mind. Unless you are in the exact situation with the same circumstances, you don’t know how you would react. There are scenarios you can train for, but many more that you can’t train for.

There is no such thing as being too prepared when hiking in the backcountry. If you think you might need something, pack it. People have become lost on hikes that were only supposed to take 1-2 hours.

https://www.outtherecolorado.com/surviving-fourteener-came-at-a-high-cost-for-colorado-father/