My plan is to leave Ouray the following day after the Bear Creek hike. But I get an email from Bobbie saying “If anyone is interested in a hike on Tuesday, I’ll take you up to Columbine Lake.” I have been intrigued by this hidden alpine lake since the Bullion King hike, when we stood at the top of the ridge with Blue Lake on one side and Mill Basin on the other, as Bobbie told us, “There’s another blue alpine lake hidden just beyond that mountain called Columbine Lake.” How could someone resist such a beautiful sounding place?
Of the three remaining stragglers left in Ouray, Chris, Debbie, and I, only Chris is on board. I ask Bobbie, “Do you think I can do it?” She answers, “Of course you can do it!” My follow-up question, “Well, I know I can do it, but let me rephrase my question….Do you have the patience to WAIT for me to do it?” It’s one thing to be slow when hiking with a group, as conversations evolve, and the group becomes fluid in it’s pace as people slow and speed up according to conversation topic. But when it’s only two other people, both who are much faster hikers than me, there is more pressure to keep up.
Columbine Lake is a steep hike, 3.5 mile OW gaining over 2,200 feet in the first two miles. This is the same elevation gain as Yellow Jacket Mine in less than half the distance, which equates to a whole lotta “up.” But the pay-off at the top is another pristine, alpine blue lake, unseen unless I am willing to pay the price of steep switchbacks, burning lungs, and the sound of my pounding heartbeat reverberating in my ear drums.
When I used to hike “mountains” in the northeast such as Cadillac Mountain in Acadia National Park, my “point of arrival” was always seeing birds soar beneath me. I knew if I was higher than the birds, I had “arrived.” In the Rocky Mountains, my new point of arrival is to hike above the tree line, where there is no longer enough oxygen in the air to sustain growth. Giant evergreens shrink rapidly in stature and girth, which happens around 12,000′ elevation. Columbine would offer this payoff before we were barely warmed up.
The climb begins immediately, with a steep incline right off the side of the 4WD road, just north of Silverton. It is a narrow, poorly marked trail that shoots up from the side of the gravel road through the thicket of fir, spruce, and Ponderosa pine, with steep, long switchbacks ascending rapidly. The ardous zig-zagging continues with mind numbing, thigh burning, oxygen starved monotony, until finally, light is visible through the trees. Not only is the height of the towering forest diminished, but the thicket of green gives way to blue sky. Soon, we pop out above the forest where only the smallest, most delicate of wildflowers can sustain life. AAaaaah, we have arrived!
Bobbie and Chris are waiting for me at treeline. Bobbie says “the trail will level out a bit as we skirt the basin…..but first, we have to get on the other side of that mountain.” This is the most grueling part of the hike yet. It feels like I can’t get any “traction” across the vastness of Mill Creek Basin. Plus I have two very loud young boys and their dogs nipping at my heels and my last nerve. My desire is to sit and wait for them to get far ahead of me, so I no longer have to listen to their yips and yaps. But that would only put me further behind Bobbie and Chris. I must press on. Up and up, over the ridge.
Once we have crossed the saddle, the hike becomes much more interesting, with snow pack and gorgeous sculptured ridges on the horizon. The trail follows the crystal blue Mill Creek, and wildflowers are once again prolific. The varied terrain helps take my mind off the grueling “verticality.”
Soon, I can tell we are about to break up over the edge of the lake. I see the stone dam first, and then another few steps up and the crystal blue surface of the lake unfolds further with every step. But the wind is howling on the more exposed surface, so we find a rock to take refuge and grab a bite of lunch. Bobbie pulls out her map so we can orient ourselves according to the other hikes we have done over the past couple of weeks.
After a round of Chris’ famous “summit cookies,” we skirt the lake and climb higher for a better view. Bobbie shouts back a word that I can’t quite make out until I am further atop the ridge, “Iceberg!” There in the small lake above Columbine is a floating piece of ice, its aquamarine roots a shimmering beneath the surface.
It is an easy run the 3.5 miles back down the mountain, as wildflowers give way to the green of the basin, and all too soon we are back below the tree line…back among the thick of the forest where once I would have found solace and satisfaction….back before I became hooked on the “Rocky Mountain High.”
A note from “real time,” as I am behind on the blog as usual. Today would have been my brother Stephen’s 54th birthday, had he lived. I am presently in the picturesque little town of Pagosa Springs, where a river runs through it. Stephen had many hobbies, most of them passing fancies. The exception to that was fly fishing. He seemed to find his happy place casting a line in the middle of a cold stream like the San Juan River. I see him everywhere in this town, with fly fishing tours and outfitter shops with trays of colorful feather flies on display.
Stephen seemed to skip from hobby to hobby, none which ever seemed to stick. We all teased him about his latest fad calling for “a whole new outfit,” whether it be golf clubs he rarely used, kayaks he only paddled in his swimming pool, bikes with tires that went flat never having been ridden, or camping gear unpacked only a few times. It was as if he were seeking a portal to a life that was different from his own. Each of us took from it what resonated. For my older brother Don, it was fishing. For his best friend Bob, it was his grill master techniques, smoking fajita meat on home grown pecan wood and perfecting his signature margarita recipe. For me, it was camping and hiking.
After his death, I went into his locked storage shed, a toy chest time capsule of dreams and hobbies never fulfilled. There on the upper shelf were his top of the line Leki hiking poles, used no more than twice. I confiscated them as my own, though I have not had the intestinal fortitude to carry them as of yet. Today, I will do my first hike with Stephen’s hiking poles, alone up in the San Juan National Forest, and will celebrate the life that ended long before he had a chance to settle into his “happy place.” I hope he enjoys mine.