Bison Peak and McCurdy Mountain
There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.—L. Cohen
A herd of bison grazes out the open window to my right. A man dressed in an orange vest and construction helmet steps out into the dirt road with a stop sign. Five minutes pass, then ten. Last night was a late one, and this morning I was up early, anticipating the trip. Fighting the urge to doze, I study the landscape surrounding me. Eventually, a white Ford Ranger comes up with a sign that says Pilot Car Follow Me, and I’m led through miles of rough dirt road through the construction zone.
The day is warm at the Ute Creek Trailhead. I cross a pedestrian bridge over the creek and climb steeply up a hot, dry hillside. Though I’ve lightened my pack a bit since the last trip and have started to work out, I’m still feeling the exertion. Three thousand vertical feet later, I break out of the trees and ascend to Bison Arm.
Today’s destination was going to be McBison Pass, a couple of miles farther east, a place where water would most likely be available. But Mother Earth has intervened in the form of a large bank of snow. A search on the downhill side of the snow bank reveals a tiny trickle of water.
After finding a flat place well off the trail, I set up camp and take a nap. In the evening, I wake up refreshed, eat dinner, and set out to explore the area.
Night falls, and I walk back to camp. The almost-full moon shines brightly through the roof of my shelter. Using a fleece neck gaiter as an eye shade, I block out the light, zip into my sleeping bag, and am out.
Birdsong awakens me early. The first glimmers of morning light appear. Skipping breakfast, I grab my camera and tripod and head back to Bison Arm.
This morning’s destination is Bison Peak. Following the directions in a guidebook, I circle around to the back of the mountain. The instructions are excellent, giving just enough information to get you there, but not so much that it kills a sense of exploration and discovery. On the first pass, I ascend too high and am blocked. Scoping out the terrain, I drop down, circle around again and am soon on the summit. It’s 7 :00 AM. My stomach starts to growl and I head back toward camp. On the way back, I take the time to play on Bison Arm.
After breakfast, I start to get restless. The plan was to head out in late afternoon to climb McCurdy Mountain and take advantage of evening light. But I’m ready to go now, so I do. After hiking a couple of miles east on the Brookside-McCurdy trail, I come to a spot where a small seep of water moistens the trail. Looking to the left, I notice a broad gulch heading up with a window rock in the distance on one side and what looks like the highest point of McCurdy on the other. Climbing off trail up the gulch, the window rock attracts my attention first. I peer through the window, then climb through it like Alice through the rabbit hole. On the other side are phantasmagorical granite formations.
After getting my fill, I return back through the window rock and head toward the top of McCurdy Mountain. Once on top, the question arises: which is the highest point? McCurdy Mountain is a broad plateau with a number of rock formations scattered about. I scramble up one, then another. Neither has a summit register. I’m sure the third one is it, but no register here either.
All this time, I’m being buffeted by a cold wind that threatens to knock me over. I give up. A colorful rock wall catches my attention, so I go there to hide from the wind and munch on trail mix.
While hiking back toward the trail, I notice another formation at quite a distance. Could this be it? As I get closer, my excitement mounts. There is a north facing ramp and a short eastern scramble that matches the guide description. Once on top, I find the register and sign a piece of paper that happens to be the personal stationary of one of the co-authors of the guidebook.
It’s still early in the afternoon, so I take my time getting back to camp, stopping often, and going out of my way to explore the area around McCurdy Mountain.
By the time I get back to camp, it’s late, and I’m tired. After a quick dinner, I trudge to the snow bank to gather water for tomorrow morning. While there, something about the light catches my attention and draws me back up toward Bison Arm. Something special is going on up there.
The clouds blow away, the full moon shines brightly, and the night gets colder up here near 12,000′. I burrow deeply into my sleeping bag to stay warm. Another morning comes. I grab the camera and hike toward a bristlecone pine forest I noticed yesterday. For some unknown reason, everything I try with the camera now is disappointing. Nothing is working, and I can’t figure out why. Finally, I quit with disgust and tell myself that I have no business carrying a camera around on my mountain trips. I walk back toward camp feeling both defeated and strangely liberated from the demands of having to capture images. And then I start to notice things.
After breakfast, I break camp quickly, shoulder my pack and head back down toward civilization. As I pass Bison Arm, the granite formations sit silently in the harsh nine-in-the-morning light. As if nothing even happened here last evening. As if nothing ever happened here. As if.
The sun beats down relentlessly as I lose elevation. My lips are parched, and my skin feels like leather. Stopping in the shade of an aspen grove, I drink in the coolness and listen to the quiet quivering of the leaves.
A butterfly with large yellow wings comes fluttering down the gulch. It weaves among the shaded white aspen trunks and lands on a flower. It stays for a second, then floats down the mountainside and is gone.