One More Before I Go…Columbine, You Are MINE!

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.

Emerging out of the forest above the tree line.

Emerging out of the forest above the tree line.

Bobbie and Chris waiting on me at treeline.

Bobbie and Chris waiting on me at treeline.


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.

Heading over the mountain.  We need to cross over that ridge ahead.

Heading over the mountain. We need to cross over that ridge ahead.

Chris and Bobbie, waiting again...

Chris and Bobbie, waiting again…

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.

Once up over the ridge line, the terrain gets more interesting.

Once up over the ridge line, the terrain gets more interesting.

Bobbie takes on the role of postcard photographer while Mark is out on injured reserve.

Bobbie takes on the role of postcard photographer while Mark is out on injured reserve.

Not a very good picture, but a wildflower I love for its name alone,

Not a very good picture, but a wildflower I love for its name alone, “Sky Pilot.”

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!

First glimpse of Columbine Lake above the small dam.

First glimpse of Columbine Lake above the small dam.


Chris picks us out a good wind break for lunch.

Chris picks us out a good wind break for lunch.

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.

Bobbie pulls out her trusted map to show our location.

Bobbie pulls out her trusted map to show our location.

Beautiful Queen's Crown wildflowers in the foreground.

Beautiful Queen’s Crown wildflowers in the foreground.


I love this perspective — That’s “T11” mountain on the far left, a “thirteener” at elev 13,510′. Mark and Bobbie have climbed it. But it looks short here, because we are over 12,000′.


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.”  😉

Bobbie gets down at flower level to channel her "inner Mark."

Bobbie gets down at flower level to channel her “inner Mark.”

Pink elephants, another of my favorite wildflowers.

Pink elephants, another of my favorite wildflowers.

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.

"Aerial view"

“Aerial view”



Chris lends some perspective in front of the iceberg.

Chris lends some perspective in front of the iceberg.

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.

A field of Magenta Paintbrush.

A field of Magenta Paintbrush.

Headed back across Mill Creek Basin

Headed back across Mill Creek Basin

IMG_3551 IMG_3552

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.”


Aiming back for that tree line, just above the basin.

Aiming back for that tree line, just above the basin.

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.

Hiking in Cedar Ridge Preserve, niece Hannah, Stephen, and me.  March 3, 2012

Hiking in Cedar Ridge Preserve, niece Hannah, Stephen, and me. March 3, 2012

35 thoughts on “One More Before I Go…Columbine, You Are MINE!

  1. Your picture of Stephen startled me. He looks so much like my son, who is two years younger. Same garb and glasses. I feel your sadness.

    Virtual hugs,


  2. I love the idea that you’ll be hiking with your brother’s poles. You’ll be taking a little bit of him with you – protecting you and keeping you company on your hikes.

    Beautiful photos of your latest hike! 🙂

    • Thank you, Barbara — I am behind on my blog reading due to lack of signal for a few days, but it is raining here today, so I hope to catch up on what you and Katie have been up to!

  3. I don’t think it ever ends, really, seeing something that reminds us of a lost brother or sister, mom or dad… friend. While it may turn an otherwise light moment sad, overall it serves a greater purpose by keeping their memory alive. And by unselfishly sharing Stephen with all of us, you further that purpose…
    Box Canyon Mark

  4. Lordy, that is one beautiful hike…but what a slice of “verticality”! Noisy people on the trail make me crazy, I felt your pain.

    May those new trekking poles bring you to wonderful places, and Stephen in spirit.

    • Thanks, Lisa. Bobbie said she was going to educate them on “trail etiquette,” but they never caught up to her. I was hoping to see that. 😉

  5. What a stunning hike!!! And I know you’ll do Steven proud with those hiking poles. He’ll be with you every step, and hopefully those steps will become less painful over time.

  6. I learn so much from your blog…names of wildflowers, mountains, basins and passes. I enjoy your writings so much I attempted to order your book, “Alone, But Never Lonely”, from your Amazon link. Not sure if you received credit for it but hopefully you still receive residuals from sales. I am eagerly awaiting its arrival so that I can travel globally on paths you once walked. Thank you for sharing your lovely prose, photos and thoughts through this blog.

    • Rhonda — You write the nicest comments! Thank you for your support of the book. Yes, I get a few cents “royalties,” but the reward for me is hearing people say it was of interest to them. It was an amateur effort, but a lot of love went into it, so I hope you enjoy it.

  7. Sounds like “that word” is catching on. While I got a kick out of that, I most appreciated the window into Stephen’s life. I’m so glad you’re going to put those poles to good use – every time making another memory of your brother.

  8. That lake at the end of the trail was a fitting prize for such a grueling hike. I’m certain Steven would be pleased to have you use his poles. You can carry him with you each time you pull them out to hit the trails.

    • Thanks, LuAnn. The lake was definitely a pay-off for a grueling climb. Just wish I could catch it on a day that was warm enough to swim!

  9. Could be that Stephen’s happy place was introducing others to what would become theirs? Sounds like there are several, at least, who will think of him with love and gratitude while enjoying the pasttime/passion he led them to.

  10. What a Grand hike….I so love coming along. I know I could not handle the vertical climb but I would so love to sit atop the mountain top. You keep going girl. So much sadness these days. Keep taking good care of yourself as you can not live their lives for them. Take a piece of them that touches your heart and hold on to it. I like the idea of your having the poles. You might think of adding a copy of the picture to your pack too. I’m glad you had those moments to share. Take Care my friend and keep on truckin!

  11. I could so feel your pain as you climbed. Isn’t it great knowing the way down will be a breeze:) The lakes are just gorgeous!! And an iceberg…so cool!! I can’t believe there are still so many wildflowers. So pretty!

    I enjoyed reading a little bit more about Stephen:) I’m sure he will help carry you along on mnay wonderful hikes. What a great way for you to carry him along:)

    • Pam — the fact that there were wildflowers still around was indeed an added bonus. I so hate to see them come to an end! Glad to see your boots are back on the trail where they belong!

  12. I absolutely loved your hike/lake pictures. Such beautiful hikes you’ve shared with us. We love heading to a Pagosa Springs. It is only 3+ hours from our home in Los Alamos. If you decide to soak – I offer up our opinion. We prefer to soak at the Overlook rather than The Springs (Disneyland of Hot Sprungs). It is smaller, less expensive and the rooftop soaking is unique. Enjoy!

    • Karen — I had to choose between the Disneyland and Overlook, as I didn’t have enough time to do both. I decided since it was my first time, I should go for the Disneyland experience! But the Overlook did look and sound lovely. I really enjoyed my time at Pagosa Springs, and would love to come back when I could stay longer. I learned there is much to explore in that area.

  13. I so wish that hike would have been one we got to do before we left Ouray. Oh, well, there’s always next summer. Would you do it again???

    I hope Stephen’s poles serve you well.

    • Gayle — Well, it wasn’t because I didn’t beg you to stay. 😉 I would do it all over again tomorrow if I could! There was a lot of pain, but the gain of the wildflowers and lake were worth it. And besides, it’s only hard halfway. 😉 Next summer, indeed!

  14. Suzanne,
    Hope you stayed out of the lobster pool at the hot springs-ouch it was hot.
    Carry your brother with you, in your heart, and in your hands as you move along a magic path.

    • Dick — My feet stayed in that lobster pool for T-minus 8 seconds before liftoff! haha!! Yeeeooowwza, it was hot in there! Thanks for the nice comment.

  15. Another truly enjoyable vicarious – although belated – adventure with you, Suzanne, woven in with the poignant.

    I’m behind in keeping up with you and the other blogs I enjoy (including Gayle and Nina’s). First there was the end of life experience with my auntie-mom – who rescued me from an untenable situation and made sure I could navigate this crazy world with some skill. Immediately after I began to get word about fires too close to my hometown, and became consumed with keeping up on news as fires raged through 400,000+ acres of my home turf (Okanogan and Chelan Complex fires in WA, gratefully now about half-contained), as well as keeping up with my two recruiting projects (know any early-career mechanical engineers or experienced production planners? LOL).

    Loss seems to be the theme of this year for people in my life. You eloquently capture what comes from the experience of loss – I think of the phoenix rising from the ashes. Strength, resiliency, courage, compassion – qualities of character worth nourishing, which you clearly do in abundance. Sending you warm wishes from the Oregon Coast. Sea level, no problem with burning lungs, nice and cool…and smoke free.

    • Frederika — Thanks for the lovely update. I am sorry to hear about your loss of your Auntie-Mom as well. Yes, it seems like there has been way too much this year. For the poor forests as well. I am glad to hear you and Pete are in a cool, smoke free place, and since it is Oregon, I know you are surrounded by beauty! Thanks for saying hello…

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