Eagles Nest

Driving north on Highway 9 on Columbus Day, the rugged peaks of the Gore Range tower to the left and the Blue River meanders on the right.  A news report comes on the radio.  A lone hiker from Chicago, James Nelson, is missing in the Holy Cross Wilderness just southwest of here.  He was attempting a 25-mile trip around the Mount of the Holy Cross and never returned.  Search and Rescue is out in force.  I feel an instant identification with James; there are not that many hikers who enjoy solo backpacking in the Colorado high country in October.  Hopefully, the S&R crews will find him soon.

The parking lot at the Surprise Trailhead is empty.  A sign on the bulletin board indicates that the only open season right now is for moose hunting.  Since this is not moose habitat, I expect to be quite alone over the next three days.

The Surprise Trail climbs steeply through a grove of aspen, most of which have lost their leaves.  This isn’t the case on the slope across the valley, which is glowing golden in the morning light.


In the litter of aspen leaves by the side of the trail, I spy the feather of a hawk.  Though generally not superstitious, I take this as a good omen and affix the feather to my hat.  The trail steepens as it climbs into an evergreen forest.  Before long, the Gore Range Trail and Surprise Lake come into view.

Surprise Lake


After lunch, I spend some time exploring the area around the lake.  An hour passes quickly. Time to get going.  Darkness comes early this time of year, and it would be good to be settled in camp before nightfall.

Climbing higher, snow starts to appear on logs and shaded areas of the landscape.  With no wind, it’s been eerily quiet in the woods.  But now signs of an active animal life in the forest appear in the form of numerous tiny tracks in the snow.


One particular set of tracks has me puzzled for a while.  It looks like a series of arrows pointing in one direction and then turning off in another.  Blue grouse is my guess.  The trail continues to ascend until views of the higher mountains begin to appear.

Open sky


The trail eventually arrives at Upper Cataract Lake.  It’s a beautiful spot, so I spend lots of time exploring the area.

Upper Cataract Lake

Though a popular destination in summer, there isn’t much sign of recent human activity.  There is only one set of human footprints in the snow, probably from the weekend.  Beyond Upper Cataract, there are no footprints.  The trail is more sketchy here as well, so I take the time required for careful route finding.  Arriving at Mirror Lake, I wander along the shore to the far end and back.  It’s getting quite chilly now and darkness is approaching rapidly.  There is only time to have dinner and set up camp before it’s  too dark to see.  I vow to get up early and photograph the lake in the morning.

Cold rain in the face wakes me in the middle of the night.  I scoot to the back of the shelter but the wind shifts and drives  rain through the open door onto my sleeping bag.  Reluctantly, I zip the door closed and go back to sleep.

At first light, the rain is still beating at my shelter.  Then there is the unmistakable sound of rain turning to sleet and then to snow.  Peeking outside, there is no trace of blue sky, only a dense gray from horizon to horizon.  Photography will have to wait.

White dawn

A couple hours later, it’s still snowing and I’m getting a bit concerned.  The forecast was for a 20% chance for rain or snow showers at this elevation but this seems to be more than a snow shower.  If the snow continues,  it’s going to be a tough slog back to the trailhead.  Maybe the lucky hawk feather isn’t so lucky.  Thinking of James, the missing hiker, I hope that he is in a safe, sheltered spot.

The snow soon begins to taper off and I emerge from my shelter to take a look around.


Walking back to the lake, it’s evident that the landscape has been dramatically altered since last evening.



Mirror Lake

Lifting fog

Hunger is starting to get to me,  so I return to camp for breakfast.  It’s mid-morning, but the high mountain walls keep my camp in the shade.  The weather is still cold and damp.  A hot cup of tea helps me to warm up.

Drying out

Just after 10 AM, the sun peaks over the high ridge, the air gets warmer and dryer, and I start to think of what to do for the rest of the day.  Initially, the idea was to get up early, hike up to Elliot Ridge, and walk to the high point, Meridian Peak, before returning to camp at Mirror Lake. With such a late start, I’ve lost my motivation, and spend a couple of hours drying out and exploring the lake.  Around noon, I’m getting restless and decide to hike on toward Elliot Ridge.

Eagles Nest Mountain

Peaks and clouds

The ridge

The area above Mirror Lake is gorgeous, especially now with a fresh coating of snow on the mountains and the billowy white clouds above.  Scene upon scene presents itself, and I wander from one part of the landscape to another.  It soon becomes clear that I won’t be able to hike the ridge today and get back to camp before dark, so I surrender myself to the beauty of the moment.


Gore Range peaks

Mindful of the early approach of darkness, I eventually manage to pull myself away and head back to camp.


On the way down, there’s a field of tawny dormant grass, with reddish willow branches, and an evergreen tree stuck in the middle.  Something about it, probably the way the light is striking, gives me a feeling of deep peace and contentment, a knowledge that all is right with the world. Transfixed, I stop and stare for a while before continuing toward Mirror Lake.  At the lake, a hawk circles once, twice on the updrafts above a cliff and then disappears over the ridge.

The lake

After dinner in the fading light, I crawl deep into my sleeping bag.  Looking out the door of my shelter, the sky has cleared and the stars are shining brightly.  It’s going to be a cold night.

In the middle of the night, I awaken to find the inside of my shelter coated with frost. My shoes are frozen stiff.  Reaching up to the clothesline in my shelter, I find that my wool socks and Goretex socks are also frozen.  I put the shoes and socks into a stuff sack and tuck them into the bottom of my sleeping bag.

The morning is cold, and with hours to go before the sun emerges from behind the eastern ridge, I go for a walk to stay warm.  Following the outlet stream of Mirror Lake, I find a steep gorge cut into the rocky mountainside.

Cataract Creek

Wandering on, I go to take another look at Mirror Lake.


After breakfast,  I hang around camp long enough for the  sun to appear and dry out my equipment before packing and heading back down the trail.


The forest

The trip down goes more quickly than the ascent.  On the way, a startled blue grouse flies off on heavy wings.  Coyote tracks wander back and forth through the snow.  Farther on, there are elk prints in the mud and fresh bear scat.  In the aspen grove, evergreens are decorated with golden leaves that have fallen from the aspen above.  Underfoot, there is a deep carpet of gold, brown, and black aspen leaves in varying states of decay.  Those at the bottom have already started to disintegrate and return to the earth.  Dust to dust.  It brings to mind an image of my father being lowered into the ground three years ago at this time of year, just before Halloween, when the veil between the living and the dead is at it’s thinnest.

Driving back along Highway 9 beside the Blue River,  news comes on the radio.  The world is celebrating the emergence of thirty-three Chilean miners from their underground tomb.  Next story:  the search for James Nelson, the missing hiker, has been called off.  After four days of intense S&R effort, there has been no sign of him.  I didn’t expect the story to end this way.  Looking out to the right toward the jagged, snow-covered peaks of the Gore Range and the sky beyond, I send up a silent prayer for James.


16 thoughts on “Eagles Nest

  1. Dondo, this is probably going to be one of the last trip reports of 2010 I would assume for you in the high country and I think this is one of the better reports you’ve done this year. You have a skill at capturing the tone of a trip, the tranquility is clearly felt by me in this one. I thoroughly enjoyed it! Thanks Dondo for always inspiring and sharing the world outside our doors… well your door.

    • Eugene, thanks for your kind words. During this trip and while putting the report together, I was really feeling the inspiration that a connection with wilderness can provide. It’s good to know that at least some of it is being communicated.

    • Thanks for that, Pig Monkey. I didn’t know you so I went to take a look at your blog. It looks like a very interesting mix. I’ll be adding it to my “Google Reader” list for sure.

    • Thanks, Mark. Great to see you visiting here. Yeah, Colorado is beautiful but as an admirer of your blog, I’m really enjoying the photos of your recent travels in Lapland. The photo of the icy rapids from your “The Other Path” post is just stunning.

  2. Thanks Dondo. That pic was actually from a couple of years ago. I’m off to Lapland at the start of November.

    I’m hoping to do some backpacking in Colorado at some point next year. We should talk sometime so I can get some tips from you.

  3. Dondo, a wonderful report and photos, your comment “I surrender myself to the beauty of the moment” perhaps summarises the trip. Sometimes we are not able to complete the planned trip but instead we enjoy what we are offered after all nature has a lot to offer and all too often we do not take the time to enjoy the surroundings we are in, thanks for yet another inspiring post.

  4. Great write up Dondo. Some fantastic photos too. Really getting me in the mood for winter. Events have conspired against me lately and I haven’t managed to get for some time, but this post really whet my appetite!

  5. I really enjoy your writing- thank you for taking the time to set these moments down. They’re all too fleeting. I’m looking forward to the next installment. Until then, stay safe.

    • Thanks, Wendy. You’re right, those special moments are so fleeting. Generally, when I’m writing, the effects of immersion in the wilderness are still reverberating through my nervous system. Hopefully, something of what I’ve felt is coming through.

      I’m very impressed by the photography on your website. The underwater work is magical but I think I’m most moved by the photos of the people of Afghanistan. The humanity we all share shines right through.

  6. Dondo, I’ve really been enjoying reading your trip reports and photos since this blog got started. It’s something I look forward to, especially when so many other people write mostly about gear. Going out there to look at, listen to, and take time in the places we go for walks is what makes the getting out there so special. I’m actively pulling away from too much focus on gear and on actually getting out with my camera. Back to my roots in going outdoors, which had very little to do with gear at all.

    I do have a gear question, though. You’ve been writing a lot about your GoLite Shangri-La 2. I also saw that you had once been considering the Mountain Laurel Designs TrailStar. I’m in a quandary over which to get. They both are good for year-round, both can do well in alpine use, and both can handle winter conditions (the Shangri-La better probably). I’m wondering why you went with the Shangri-La.

    Your style of hiking is a lot closer to what I do than to those who like to go as light as possible. I’ve gone back to cooking in my pot, rather than freezer bag cooking, recently got the MSR Dromedary Lite water bag because of its greater durability, big mouth, and returned to a more robust, but still light, pack. I want my equipment to last for a long time without my having to constantly replace it and think about gear so much. It’s funny that while I was still a conventional backpacker I had only one pack, one pair of shoes, one water bottle, one shelter, one rain jacket, etc. Now it seems that gear is the focus of everything and my closet is full. The point seems to have been lost.

    • Hi Miguel. I’m glad to know that you are still visiting here. Our approaches to gear and to backpacking seem to be evolving along similar lines. In my case, it’s not that I no longer have an interest in gear. It’s that my passion for the sights, sounds, smells, and emotions associated with the experience of being “out there” is much stronger. So that’s what I mostly write about. If I find the time, I’ll write about the gear as well. But it’s great that other bloggers are more focused on the gear. I learn a lot from reading them.

      My choice of the Shangri-La 2 had to do with how I perceived it would do in snow, especially the heavy, wet kind we can get here in the shoulder seasons. The steeper walls make it easy for the shelter to shed snow and even if it sticks, it takes minimal effort from the inside to get it to drop to the ground around the perimeter. The large peak vents at either end of the shelter allow good cross-ventilation even when the bottom is sealed with snow. The fact that the shelter is held up by two well-spaced poles means that you’ll still have plenty of head and foot room when it’s weighted down with snow. Originally, I bought the Shangri-La for winter use, but after using it all year with great results, I’m selling or giving away my other shelters.

      Of course, this runs contrary to customary UL or lightweight philosophy which seems to promote a “quiver” of shelters or packs or whatever–one for every occasion. Like you, I’m moving more toward a simpler kit, having fewer carefully chosen, reasonably durable and versatile pieces.

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