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