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/

Geology of the Great Plains

I grew up in the Great Plains about 15 miles east of the Colorado Rocky Mountains. Writing a book about the geology of the Great Plains was a natural extension of my interest in the mountains. Much of the soil that forms the plains came from erosion of the mountains over millions of years. The plains help make the Rocky Mountains look so incredible. In the photo below, Pikes Peak is barely visible on the western horizon of the Eastern Plains of Colorado.

01 Distant view of Pikes Peak across Great Plains_v2

Discover the natural forces that transformed a shallow sea into the Great Plains.

Did you know that a shallow sea covered the interior of North America for 500 million years? Dinosaurs once roamed the area from Kansas to Colorado and from New Mexico to Canada. Western Kansas and eastern Colorado once had tropical climates with lush vegetation. Discover the natural forces that created the Great Plains and the nine unique subregions. How did this region of swamps and forests become the fertile wheat land that it is today? Where did the hundreds of feet of soil come from that covers the plains? Why are there rounded boulders in the middle of Kansas? Learn how rivers carved valleys and canyons to shape the landscape. The book contains 30 maps and images to help you better understand the geologic history of the region and what it looks like. This short book will give you an overview of the incredible geological forces that formed some of the most productive farmland in America.

This short book provides an overview of how geological forces formed the fertile land that produces food crops for millions of people.

This introductory book will leave you with a rich, new perspective on this swath of land in the interior of the United States.

FROM THE PUBLISHER

Alpinhaven Publications published a new book on August 24, 2018: The Geology of the Great Plains. It is available for the low price of $3.99 as an e-book in Kindle format. It is only 81 pages with 30 photos and other images. It is a great overview of how the Great Plains formed. One day while surveying a stream located in Colorado’s Great Plains section, TJ started wondering where the thick layer of sandy material came from. He had an idea where it came from, but the thickness and uniformity of the material captured his attention.

For more information and to see some of the book, click on the following link:

https://goo.gl/GqDyiT

As always, happy trails . . .