Indian Peaks Southern Loop
Traffic on the Boulder Turnpike slows to a crawl. On the day after Labor Day, it seems as if the entire population of the metro area is headed back to work. The congestion eases and we’re moving again. Cresting a hill, the Flatirons come into view, partially obstructed by a thick haze. A CBS newscast comes on the radio. Tornadoes in Texas. The second story is about a fire in the Boulder foothills. 3,500 acres burned, a dozen homes destroyed.
Driving up Boulder Canyon, I notice that all roads leading to the north are blocked by sheriff’s deputies who are only letting in fire crews.
The mood is somber at the Ace Hardware in Nederland. Customers and sales clerks discuss which neighborhoods are burning and speculate how far the fire will spread. A clerk shows me where the fire is on the map and issues my backcountry permit for the Indian Peaks Wilderness. We discuss ways to get home if Boulder Canyon is closed.
Climbing the Devil’s Thumb Trail, the fire soon slips to the back of my mind. It feels good to again feel the earth beneath my feet and breathe the mountain air.
During a snack break, a hiker appears climbing around the bend of the trail. We hike together for a while, trading stories of past trips.
Some clever person has fashioned an easy chair out of dead wood and boulders and set it at the edge of the lake. Unrolling my Ridgerest pad, I take full advantage of it. Later, I explore the shore of the lake and the surrounding area.
A mile up from Jasper lake is Devil’s Thumb Lake. The scenery is dramatic.
Not much weather is predicted for Tuesday night, so I choose a high camp for the views, making sure the shelter is taut, the stakes sunk deep. At 4:00 AM, I awaken to a violently shaking tent. The wind is intense and seems to come from nowhere. Half-asleep, I re-tension my trekking poles from inside the shelter. The flapping settles to a low hum and I fall back to sleep.The wind remains strong in the morning; I have breakfast huddled in a thick clump of trees. Afterwards, I spend time exploring my surroundings.
The way up is steep in sections. Strong gusts of wind sweep down from over the ridge. This is not a place where you would want to fall from the trail. A big marmot runs by wearing a thick, dark coat of fur. Early winter?
At the top of the Continental Divide, the wind is so strong it almost knocks me off my feet. The trail leads down and becomes the High Lonesome Trail. The National Weather Service had predicted a 20% chance of rain this afternoon for the area. Looking up, I’m astonished to find a large bank of rain clouds advancing rapidly toward me from over the Fraser Valley. It appears that I’m going to have a 100% chance of rain within the next few minutes.
Soon I’m enveloped in a mass of clouds that are sweeping in from the west so quickly it seems like time-lapse photography. The Fraser Valley has disappeared. Visibility is reduced to a few yards around me. Rain blows fiercely across the landscape. Up here, there is no escape, no place to take shelter. The only thing to do is follow the trail south and hope the storm ends in time to find my exit back to the eastern side of the Divide. Striding across the tundra and struggling against the storm, I become, for a moment, extraordinarily happy. It’s hard to explain, but moments such as this are why I keep coming back to the mountains.
In the early afternoon the storm moves on, visibility gets better, and I’m easily able to find the trail descending back to the eastern side of the Divide.
Past King Lake and back down into the trees, it starts raining again, this time with just a little wind.
By mid-afternoon, I’m damp and chilled. Setting up my shelter, I try to get warm again.
Early in the evening, there’s a break in the weather. I take the opportunity to have a quick meal and explore Middle Boulder Creek.
While I’m getting ready for bed, my self-inflating pad delaminates and I’m left with just a section of Ridgerest. It’s been years since I’ve slept on just a closed-cell pad. In the morning, I’m stiff and sore and really feeling my age. But I wait for the sun to rise and dry my gear before packing and hiking out.
Farther on, I encounter a couple hiking up the trail.
“Gorgeous day.” I say.
“Yes, it’s beautiful. You’re the first person we’ve seen all day.”
“You’re the first people I’ve seen since Tuesday morning.”
“You’re traveling pretty light.”
“Yeah, I’m getting older and 20 pounds is all I care to carry.”
We talk a bit about gear and about wildlife before wishing each other a good hike and walking on.
Descending farther, I’m amazed at varieties of reds, oranges, and yellows in the understory beneath the aspen. “How did fail to notice this on my way up?” I’m thinking. A line from the end of Walden pops into my head. “Only that day dawns to which we are awake.” After looking around once more, I turn down the trail and walk back to my car.