Monday, July 13, 2009

Man Against Nature

Well, in this case, nature most definitely won! My plans to overnight at a high altitude lake near Telluride were thwarted last night when lightning from a wicked early evening thunderstorm drove me off the mountain. My targeted destination for this trip was Hope Lake, a beautiful emerald green lake nestled high in the San Miguel subrange of the San Juan Mountains. Unlike my previous backpack trip to Crater Lake, this area was well above treeline so weather was even more of a concern. After waiting out an early afternoon thunderstorm, a clearing trend seemed to be prevailing. Since the trek to the lake was only 3 miles, I figured I would give it a go and return if the weather soured.

Note to self: Never, ever consider spending the night on the tundra if there's even the slightest risk of thunderstorms in the forecast!

The trip to the lake was very pleasant despite the endless switchbacks during the second half of the hike. The views back to the San Miguels towering over Trout Lake below were magnificent and I was looking forward to a great evening at my destination.

Trout Lake and the San Miguel Range

My enthusiam was dampened a bit when I got above treeline and clouds started rolling over the peaks in front of me, but at least they didn't seem of the threatening nature. I arrived at the lake and quickly dropped my pack to take a load off and enjoy the view. After a quick chat with another couple heading back down, I dug through my pack for my camera gear and began to wander around looking for compositions. Not long after that the first of the really dark clouds started to make their way over the craggy peaks in front of me and I heard the first distant rumble of thunder.

Hope Lake

"Aw Crap!" I uttered to myself (or something to that effect). I quickly ripped off a few shots and started coming to the realization that I was way too exposed to ride out a storm anywhere near the lake. I packed up and headed out of the cirque surrounding the lake only to find that the storm clouds had already filled in all the way down the valley. Just then the first crack of lightning (less than a mile away) jolted me into the realization that it was time to run! Down the muddy mountainside I went trying to move as fast as I could with a 40 lb pack and with full knowledge that I was carrying two aluminum lightning rods (my trekking poles). After another nearby lightning strike I quickly came to the conclusion that it would be crazy to try to reach the larger stands of pines below as they were just too far away. I was now in the vicinity of a few stunted 10ft pines and I made a beeline for those. Just before reaching them I felt my legs go from under me, resulting in what must have been a most ungainly looking seat drop into the mud. From there I basically slid down to my destination.

It was under this miniscule cover that I sat for the next hour waiting out more lightning, hail, heavy rains, etc. I was beginning to wonder if it would ever let up! Finally, I decided I could wait no more and (probably foolishly) made a final run towards the closest stand of mature pines below. Looking back, I can't believe I didn't sprain or break an ankle on the muddy, rocky terrain but I made it unscathed. I caught my breath there and waited for the storm to let up a little before finally forcing my jelloed and quivering legs to take me back down to my truck. This was definitely not my finest hour and on the way down I vowed to myself to give Mother Nature her due respect and never get caught in such a situation again!

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

First Solo Backpacking Outing

Well, I just returned from my first solo backpacking trip up in the San Juan Mountains the other day. When I first moved to this area almost two years ago, I figured that I would've done many of these by now. Unfortunately, physical ailments hounded me all last summer so I barely did any hiking at all. This trip was just a quick overnighter to a high alpine lake, Crater Lake, along the West Needles subrange of the San Juans.

While it was only a six mile journey to the lake, it turned out to be a bit more than I bargained for. This is still the spring season up in the high country and, while most of the snow has melted, everything is still very wet up there. What this translates to is muddy trails...miles and miles of muddy trails. It made for very slow going which was only exacerbated by the blowdown area I encountered about a mile from the lake. This consisted of a large section of downed pines (and I mean big pines) from a storm last winter and the swath of destruction was about a quarter to half mile wide. They obliterated the trail and forced me to navigate my own way through the mess and on to the lake as I wasn't able to relocate the trail once I got through it. Thank god for my GPS! That section wasn't fun at all with a balance interfering 40lb backpack strapped on.

The end result of my slow progress to the lake was that I arrived only a half hour before sunset and had no time to relax or eat before pulling out the camera gear. But what a sunset it turned out to be!

North Twilight Peak Reflected in Crater Lake at Sunset

I can certainly deal with a few hardships if I know it'll result in witnessing marvelous scenes like the one above.

After a rather sleepless night (I never sleep well when camping), I decided to pack up and leave shortly after my sunrise shoot as thunderstorms were predicted to be widespread by the late morning/early afternoon hours. My sunrise shoot, while beautiful, was very typical of most any Colorado high country sunrise scene....a nicely glowing mountain reflected in a high alpine lake under a clear morning sky.

Crater Lake at Sunrise

I was hoping for an interesting sky or more pronounced early morning mist/fog to set it apart a bit more, but it wasn't meant to be. After the previous night's sunset, I wasn't gonna complain! As it turned out, my earlier than planned departure turned out to be a wise choice as I was surrounded by threatening skies by the time I got back to the trailhead. It was a memorable first backpacking trip, that's for sure!