It’s cold and quiet here. There is little sign of human activity, only two cars in the far parking lot and a guy stepping out of his RV with a little dog. Definitely autumn. Aspen are at their peak. It’s been raining but there is blue sky up ahead.
As I walk up the Beaver Creek trail, I listen to the wind blowing through the tops of the evergreens. That, and my own footsteps are the only sounds I can hear.
A couple of hours in, I’m startled to run into another solo backpacker. He’s decidedly old school, wearing an orange Kelty external-frame pack with a sleeping bag and a scrap of closed cell foam tied underneath. There are waffle stompers on his feet. He says that he hasn’t seen anyone yet today, and that I should get plenty of solitude out here.
Through the trees, I hear the sound of running water. It’s Beaver Creek, which is running pretty high for late September. There won’t be any problems finding water on this trip.
As I approach Coney Flats, it starts to drizzle. Looking up between the trees toward the west, I can see nothing but gray skies. The drizzle morphs into a cold, hard rain. I stop to don a fleece sweater and hat, as well as a rain jacket and pants. Then I walk on.
At Coney Flats, I exit one trailhead and look for the trail that will take me up toward Sawtooth Mountain and Buchanan Pass.
As I climb higher, the wind and rain intensify. Unless the weather changes radically , I’ll be camping well short of the pass today.
By mid-afternoon, I’m getting a bit hypothermic and decide to quit early and set up my shelter. Snuggled in my sleeping bag and drinking hot tea, I listen to the wind and rain get stronger and buffet my shelter about.
Though I love this spot, I can imagine a stake pulling out of the sodden ground in the middle of the night. In this kind of wind, if one stake goes, they all will, and I’ll be exposed to the full fury of the storm. Quickly, I move my camp to a safer place nestled deep inside the forest.
During a break in the storm, I attempt to cook a proper dinner. Before I’m finished with my mashed potatoes, a dark cloud races in from the west and pelts me with hail. It gets into everything. Hail in my food bag, hail in my cooking pot, hail in my backpack, hail all over me.
Feeling hypothermia starting in again, I eat a chocolate bar, hang my food from a tree, and burrow back into my shelter.
In the morning, there’s been no change. I pack up quickly while trying to decide whether to hike on or to retreat. A brief respite from the wind helps make my decision; I’ll hike on.
As I exit the trees, the wind again becomes stronger. Visibility is down to a few feet; all I can see is rocks and mist. The only thing to do is to keep track of the trail and follow it upward. Wind-borne hail slices into the exposed flesh on my face.
Eventually, I get to the top of Buchanan Pass, where I’m met with another icy blast of wind. I hide behind a cairn. No views at all. Just an impermeable wall of clouds ahead and behind.
I descend through the soup until I can see the outline of a forest emerging from the mist. Beautiful, protective old trees.
As I’m passing through Fox Park, the rain eases to a drizzle. Yellow aspen leaves coat the forest floor. Fresh water droplets glisten against the gold. Gorgeous.
By mid-afternoon, I’m hiking up the Cascade Creek trail toward Pawnee Pass. It’s still overcast, but the precipitation is now in the form of a gentle mist. I’ve seen no one since that lone old-school backpacker yesterday.
There a preternatural stillness in the air, as if in anticipation of something. Nothing happens, but still the mood builds.
A crack of thunder splits the earth. I stop and look at the mountainside to the left. A lone pine tree sits among a grove of aspen.
It’s very quiet now. I take a step forward, and then she comes into view, straight ahead. The moose turns her bulk toward me as a reminder that she is indeed queen of this forest and not to be trifled with.
In deference to Her Majesty, I take a few steps backwards. She seems satisfied and walks back to the footbridge where it appears that she had been grazing. The problem is that she’s now blocking the bridge that is the way forward. I wait a few minutes to see what she’ll do next. It becomes obvious that she’s going nowhere.
Reluctantly, I walk down the bank and step into the cold, cold water of Cascade Creek. On the opposite side, there is no way forward except through a bog. This is absurd, I’m thinking. I take a look upstream. There she is by the bridge, still grazing but keeping a close eye on me. The bridge is out of the question. I continue crossing the bog, almost losing one of my trail runners to it. Before long, I find the trail again and continue forward.
Though it’s getting late, I feel as if I have no choice but to stop and photograph the many waterfall along this stretch of Cascade Creek.
The rain stops as I stumble upon a very obvious, but great campsite. It’s by the creek, with a thick layer of pine needles and a view down the valley. Normally, I avoid sites like this, preferring hidden spots away from water and the trail. But I’m tired and this one is too good to pass up.
It’s a quiet, comfortable night. In the morning I continue past more waterfalls toward Pawnee Lake.
The clouds break up, the sun comes out, and the day becomes warm. I pass Pawnee Lake and Lone Eagle Peak and start the long, slow ascent up the steep western side of Pawnee Pass.
Near the top of the pass, I stop to look back at the country that I’ve been passing through.
At the top , I encounter two solo hikers who are out for the day. There’s a woman with a DSLR and a long lens who I realize had been taking photos of my ascent up the switchbacks. The other hiker is a man who appears to be about my age. We all talk for awhile, then I take the obligatory selfie at the Continental Divide sign.
Tomorrow is my 60th birthday, a day that I’ve been dreading for quite some time. But gazing east at the shadows being cast by the moving clouds upon the autumn landscape of this corner of the Colorado Rockies, I’m thinking that maybe sixty won’t be so bad.
Postscript: The story ends here, but, of course, as long as there is life, there are more stories. The sunny weather after the storm brings the mass of humanity back to Indian Peaks. On the hike back to the trailhead, I have a chance to encounter a number of my fellow hikers, and more stories are generated. There is The Strange and Wondrous Tale of the Seven Moose, The Sorceress Who Wanted to Know Everything About Lightweight Backpacking, The Man who Mistook Me for a Youtube Star, and The Old Mountaineer who Fell Off His Lawnchair. But I’ve already gone on long enough. These will be stories for another time and perhaps another place.
Another snowfield blocks the trail. I venture carefully onto the consolidated snow. My trail runners can’t get any grip at all on the hard snow; the only traction I’m getting is from my trekking poles. I look down at the stand of trees at the end of the snowfield. If I slip here, that’s where I’ll land. Should have packed the microspikes, I’m thinking.
The plan is to hike the Indian Peaks Northern Loop, a hike I’ve done several times in the past. It’s mid-July but snow conditions are more like that of early summer. Still, it’s beautiful here. Since passing the spur that leads to the Mount Audubon summit, I haven’t seen a soul. I fall into an easy rhythm of footsteps and trekking poles. My body relaxes, and my attention becomes absorbed in the surrounding beauty.
Thunder rumbles just as I reenter the forest. The sky turns very dark. The trail takes a turn, and a flash of movement catches the corner of my eye. I turn to look. Nothing there. Glancing up through the canopy of trees, all I can see is a heavy gray shroud of clouds. But there’s the sound of something moving through the trees just beyond my vision.
A crack of thunder and then another. I think of Rip Van Winkle and games of ninepins in the hills of New York.
The sound of running water up ahead. It’s Beaver Creek. The lovely S-curve of the creek catches my attention, so I set up my camera and tripod by the creek and experiment with shutter speeds.
Engrossed in my work, I’m startled when I start to see leaves shredding around me. Hail. Quickly, I grab my camera and tripod and backpack and make a dash toward the overhanging branches of a large tree.
Too late. A marble-sized hailstone catches my upper back and stings me like a bee. While I fish out a rain jacket from my pack, another large hailstone makes it through the trees and bounces off the top of my head.
The hail becomes pea sized, turns into a heavy rain, then a drizzle. I venture out from my hiding place and hike on.
The rain stops by the time I get to the Coney Flats trailhead. No one here, or so I think. Two 4-wheelers emerge from behind the trees, rolling through Coney Creek. Two tattooed guys are behind the wheel, and are videotaping themselves and each other. A woman stands on the opposite bank with several children.
While climbing toward Buchanan Pass, I come across a wall of snow, this one too steep to attempt to walk across, so I have to guess which way to go around. The trail goes left, but I guess right and soon find the trail again.
Sawtooth Mountain appears ahead. I leave the trail to follow a stream upward, then gather water and head out to find a flat stealth spot to camp far from stream and trail. A cold rain begins to fall. Quickly, I set up my shelter, throw my pack inside, then cook dinner huddled in the scant protection of the trees.
The rain goes on all night long. Great gusts of wind blowing in from the west buffet my shelter. Rumble and crashes of thunder. Flashes of light. I pull the buff down over my eyes and try to sleep. Despite, or maybe because of, the commotion going on outside the thin walls of my shelter, I’m having the time of my life.
The chirping of birds wakes me up before dawn. I pull the buff off my eyes, slip into my wet trail runners, grab my camera and tripod, and go out to meet the new day.
Turning around, I notice that pink light is bathing the clouds creeping over Sawtooth Mountain. Great light like this doesn’t last long. I run and run in the direction of the light and manage to capture a hint of it before it goes away.
Dark clouds roll in from the other side of the divide. I turn tail and head back for my camp.
In my haste in chasing the light, I had failed to notice any landmarks and now realize that I don’t quite know where my shelter and gear are. Fighting a hint of panic, I take a break and try to get logical. I know that the stream is east of here, so if I just hike toward the sunrise, I’ll intersect it. Once I find the stream, I’ll walk up and down it until I reach one of the landmarks I memorized last night. From there I can find my way back to camp.
The plan works, and soon I spot one the the bright yellow peaks of my shelter peeking out from some trees.
By now, I’ve decided not to cross the steep snowfield on the way to Buchanan Pass. One false step there could mean game over, for good. Besides, I’ve done the loop before and will do it again. No need to tempt the fates.
The sun is out and I’m lounging in camp, looking at a map to plan my day. There’s an out-of-the-way lake on the map that I’ve never seen before. Now is a good opportunity to check it out. Quickly, I break camp and head out in a spirit of exploration.
The trail to Coney Lake is boggy and overgrown in spots, threading it’s way through the kind of terrain much loved by moose and mosquitoes. The mozzies soon find me, and I spot the cloven hove prints of a large ungulate in the mud. I tell myself that it’s just a large elk, because it’s what I want to believe. Elk will move out of your way when they spot you, but moose will expect you to find a way around them. And they aren’t beyond challenging you.
When I find the lake, I see that it’s a delightful spot and abandoned, at least for today. I sit on the bank watching the clouds roll over the divide and have my lunch. But soon I’m restless, and its time to start hiking again. Heading back down, I lose the trail and travel cross country until the trail pops up again.
At the trail intersection, I pause for a moment to think, but my heart already knows where I’ll spend the night.
I arrive back at my aerie on the flanks of Sawtooth Mountain just as a great battle is about to begin. The dark cloud armies flow over the pass from the west with alarming speed. The lighter battalions of mist slither up the valley from the east. They join battle directly north of my position on Sawtooth. They conjoin and swirl around until it’s difficult to see which side is which.
I crawl into my shelter. The wind and the rain lull me gently to sleep.
Birdsong again awakens me early. I walk to a clearing facing east to await the arrival of the sun.
This morning, I walk, not run, to get a clear view of the early light playing over the clouds above Sawtooth.
Pushing through a grove of stunted flag trees, I come into a meadow with a clear view of the peak, and am delighted to also find a herd of elk grazing there.
As the sun rises in the sky, the elk slowly drift away, and so do I, back to camp.
Basking in the morning sun, I have breakfast and lay my gear out to dry. Then I pack up and head back down the trail. I hope to get up and over the high ground on the Beaver Creek Trail before the afternoon thundershowers begin.
Storm clouds gather again, and I know I should keep moving. But aware that my time here is so quickly fleeting, I stop again and again to attempt to capture the beauty of the wildflowers.
Hiking down the mountain path toward the trailhead, I see a man standing at the edge of a switchback, looking out at the scene below with his binoculars. We exchange greetings, and I walk on. A minute later, I decide I need just one more photo and hike back up toward him.
“Mind if I join you? I think I’d like to get a shot of this.”
“You ever see this before?”
“Actually, this is my backyard.”
“Oh, Yosemite is my backyard. I live in San Francisco.”
We talk about places we’ve been and things we’ve seen.
” I’m taking a couple of weeks to deliver my Xterra to my son as a high school graduation present. He lives with his mother in Kansas. Along the way, I’ve stopped in Bryce, Zion, Canyonlands, and Rocky Mountain National Park. Someone there told me about this place. I asked my son to travel with me but he couldn’t take the time to go.”
We talk about how a generation may have lost an appreciation of the natural world, and would rather spend their time looking at little screens.
“Still, I think he would have liked this.”
We stand there looking at the valley below.
“There’s a lot of beauty out there,” he says.
“There is,” I reply.
A flash of lightning, then the slow rumbling growl of thunder. We wish each other happy trails, and the man hikes back toward the trailhead. I stand there for another minute or two, just watching.