Saturday 28 September 2019

Camping in the Colorado Rockies

Below the Divide by an unnamed pool with a view to Mount Aetna

On my recent walk on the Continental Divide Trail in Southern Colorado I had twenty-five wild camps. As always these were an integral part of the walk. Staying in one place and watching the landscape is important to me and I find the routines of camping relaxing and satisfying.

Near beaver ponds on Middle Mineral Creek after a day of thunderstorms

Many of my camps were peaceful ones deep in the forest. At first this was because the trail stayed in the trees, later it was often due to thunderstorms that made camping out in the open seem unwise or for shelter from strong winds. Even so I had a dozen or more camps in spectacular situations.

Below the Divide in the Collegiate Peaks region

One of the best sites was chosen by Andrew Terrill. He'd kindly agreed to bring me supplies half way through a twelve day section so I didn't have to descend to a town. Rather than meet me at a high road pass he decided he'd hike into the mountains and meet me at a remote unnamed pool not far below the Divide. He thought this was would be a great place to camp. He was right. It was wonderful. The weather was perfect too so we could sit outside. The picture at the top of the post shows the view across the pool.

Camp with Andrew Terrill

The last section of the walk, nine days in the Weminuche Wilderness in the San Juan Mountains, provided several superb camps, once the thunderstorms had abated. I was happy not to be camping in the forest here anyway as vast numbers of the trees are dead, killed by bark beetles. Many had blown down and I was concerned one could come down on my shelter (a real risk - sadly a hiker was killed when a tree fell on her tent this summer). Camps near trees were chosen carefully.

On the saddle where the Collegiate East and Collegiate West alternatives of the Colorado Trail come together. This was a dry camp. I carried water five miles to it.

I camped on a variety of sites. Some were well-used, with bare ground to pitch on and at least one fire ring (I never lit a fire). Andrew Terrill pointed out to me that many hikers here felt a fire was essential even when camping above the tree line. Other than these unsightly scars the mountains were clean though with virtually no litter.

However many of my sites were pristine ones where there was no sign anyone had camped before. I made sure I left them like that. Here this is called 'dispersed camping'. Some of these were waterless and several times I carried a couple of litres the last part of the day so I had the freedom to camp where I liked.

Another dry camp. In the Cochetopa Hills.

Mostly I didn't treat water. However in the Cochetopa Hills there were few water sources and the little trickles I found were polluted by cows so here I filtered or boiled water. And tried not to notice the yellow colour.

A brief clearance brings a rainbow before the heavy rain and strong winds closed in again. I didn't feel too safe out in the meadow with thunder ringing out but I also didn't want to camp near all those dead trees.

For six days there were several thunderstorms every day. These were frightening at times but when they cleared the light was often superb.

Early morning light in the Lost Trail Creek valley

Mostly I camped on my own but in areas where water sources were far apart there were sometimes others camped not far away, though always out of sight. The only time I camped with anyone were with Andrew and Igloo Ed at the start and then with Andrew when he brought my supplies.

The highest camp at 12,461 feet (3798 metres)

Most of the walk was above 11,000 feet (3353 metres) and so were nineteen of my camps. Only two were below 10,000 feet (3048 metres). Three were above 12,000 feet (3658 metres). Whilst I did notice the altitude the first week, especially when walking uphill, I wasn't aware of it in the landscape. The treeline is around 11,000 -11,500 feet (3353 - 3500 metres) and the summits rise some 2,500 - 3,000 feet (760 - 915 metres) above the forest, which is much the same as in the Scottish Highlands.

In the Weminuche Wilderness looking to Rio Grande Pyramid

For those interested the shelter is my very well-used Mountain Laurel Designs Trailstars. In the last seven years it's been on many long walks and has been out hundreds of nights. It's never let me down.

Friday 27 September 2019

Wildlife in the Colorado Rockies

Encountering wildlife is always one of the joys of any walk. This summer's walk in the Colorado Rockies was exceptional for the amount of wildlife, large and small. Few days went by without my seeing many birds and animals plus signs of more. As well as being a pleasure in itself the variety and quantity of wildlife suggested a healthy and flourishing environment. I contrasted this with the Scottish Highlands, where, sadly, I generally see far fewer numbers of fewer species.

The land was often alive with crickets chirping. There were many other insects too, including a wealth of butterflies, especially these orange ones, which I saw every day. They're fritillaries but I'm not sure which species.

Another common creature was the beaver, though I only caught one glimpse of an actual animal. I did see many beaver dams, often in series and filling a whole valley.

In the forests I saw squirrels, chipmunks and gray jays regularly and they often seemed quite unafraid. Taking photos of these lively, constantly moving creatures wasn't easy though. Walking and staying in one place waiting patiently don't go together.

Above the trees marmots and pikas (a small animal related to rabbits) proved equally difficult to photograph, both whistling loudly at my approach and diving for cover into the rocks where they live, the pikas often with mouths full of vegetation for lining the dens where they'll spend the winter. I did get this one picture of a pika that hadn't noticed me passing by.

In the forest there were many small birds, most of which I didn't identify, and high above there were eagles and hawks. On the tundra ptarmigan reminded me of home in the Cairngorms.

Of the larger mammals I saw many signs of black bears, including fresh droppings on the trail, and I'm sure some bears must have seen me. They kept out of sight though.

I only caught glimpses of elk too and only once had a good view of mule deer, from near the camp I had with Andrew Terrill.

I did though have a splendid view of two bull moose and was able to watch them for quite a while. This came about due to a thunderstorm! I was on the edge of a big meadow and wondering whether to venture out into the open when there was a flash of lightning right in front of me followed almost instantly by a tremendous crack of thunder. I was staying in the trees. Indeed, I felt I'd be safer deeper in the forest. Below the trail I could see a dense clump of small subalpine fir that looked a secure shelter. I descended steep slopes and crawled in between the trees. A movement caught my eye and there, not far away, was a moose looking in my direction. I stayed quiet and still and the animal soon went back to browsing the grass. I'd found a natural hide. Soon afterwards a second bull joined it and for half an hour I forgot the thunderstorm and just watched these magnificent animals. Then their heads went up and they were running off into the trees. A hiker passed along the trail above. The storm over I followed.

Also fortuitous was my only sighting of a porcupine. I'd crossed a creek, heading for a spur that looked like it might provide a good camp site. Realising the spot was a bit further away than I'd at first thought I decided I'd better pick up some water now rather than come back for it. I dropped my pack and wandered back to the creek. There on the trail was a porcupine. It looked at me, turned away, spines bristling, and ambled off along the trail.

The final big mammals I saw were some female rocky mountain sheep. Crossing a steep rocky slope I first noticed movement above me and looked up to see a flock high above. I watched them for a while then continued along the trail as it ran over a slight rise. As I reached the top of this another half dozen sheep scattered right in front of me before regrouping and heading up to join the others.

Photographic Note:

I'm not a wildlife photographer. I have few wildlife photos from other walks because I generally didn't have a telephoto lens on my camera or even with me. I never approach a creature to get a photo in case I disturb it so usually animals are too far away for a worthwhile picture. On some walks I have carried a telephoto zoom lens but as this isn't usually on the camera I never used it much. Last year on the GR5 Through the Alps I didn't take it. I saw much wildlife and was frustrated I couldn't get many pictures. That's one reason that earlier this year I bought (second-hand) a Sony E 18-135mm zoom to use as my standard lens. Reviews suggested this was at least as good as the 16-50mm lens that's been my most-used for many years (some suggested the 18-135 was actually much better). With a reach of just over 200mm (35mm/full frame equivalent) this wide angle to telephoto zoom looked ideal for long walks and so it proved, for landscape shots as well as wildlife. I wouldn't have got most of the pictures above without it.

Tuesday 24 September 2019

Colorado Rockies Walk: The Beginning

Trying to work more systematically through my Colorado Rockies pictures I'm starting at the beginning and going to the end! (Up to now I've just been skimming through them for ones that catch my eye, a good way to miss the more subtle ones). Here are pictures covering just the first day and a half, during which I climbed to the first 12,000 foot plus pass with Andrew Terrill and Igloo Ed through lovely forests and flower meadows.

The weather was lovely and the company and the landscape exciting and invigorating. Big mountains! Wild forests! Huge meadows! Fascinating stories! But the heat and the altitude were energy-sapping for me and we camped before reaching the treeline, going on to the first pass the next day. It was enough. Just being here was enough.

There were beaver ponds in the valley below as we climbed towards the last trees.

Then the world began to open up and suddenly there were mountains filling every horizon and the trail wound gloriously across the alpine tundra.

Sunday 22 September 2019

With the John Muir Trust in Glen Nevis

Ben Nevis

On returning from Colorado I knew that in just a few days I would be off to Fort William for a John Muir Trust meeting. I hoped that I'd have recovered enough from jetlag to participate coherently (I think I did, just, though some of the time I didn't feel quite real). What I didn't expect was that the weather would be just like Colorado - deep blue skies, hot sun, incredible clarity - for the two days I was there.

In Glen Nevis

Every September the JMT has a Trustees meeting close to one of its properties - in this case Ben Nevis - so that Trustees can see the work going on and meet local staff. I think doing this is very important and keeps Trustees in touch with day to day JMT work and helps stop us becoming a remote governing body. At every one of these that I've attended I've been impressed with the dedication, knowledge and skills of the staff.

The first day consisted of getting there via a rather convoluted long bus journey (why is there no direct bus from Strathspey to Fort William?) followed by a Board meeting. Being indoors in such beautiful weather was rather trying and we all approved the chair's suggestion we should finish early the next day so we could have more time in the sunshine. In the evening we had interesting and informative talks from Alison Austin, the JMT Property Manager for Nevis, and Lizzie Cooper, Programme Manager for the Nevis Landscape Partnership, of which the JMT is a member.

Nathan Berrie (on the right) talks to JMT Trustees and staff about tree regeneration in Glen Nevis

The weather remained clear and sunny the next day for a walk up Glen Nevis with Nathan Berrie, the Nevis Conservation Officer, who talked about the problems managing such a popular area and, especially, about forest regeneration. The complexities of both were made clear and again I was impressed by the work of the staff.

Heading for the Ben Nevis path

The walk up Glen Nevis over two of us headed up to the main Ben Nevis path hoping to meet up with a work party. Unfortunately they were higher up the hill than we expected and we ran out of time. But we had a good walk and met dozens of walkers coming down from the summit, many part of an organised National Three Peaks Challenge and accompanied by guides. They were off to climb Scafell Pike overnight and then Snowdon the next day. This is not something I can imagine doing. Linking all three on a long walk certainly but all of them on one weekend? No.

Walker descending the Ben Nevis path

In Glen Nevis the big views dominated in the bright sunshine but as always they were enhanced by the details of the landscape. The River Nevis was full - showing the weather hadn't been dry for long - and looked cool and inviting as it swirled over the rocks, and the individual trees were lovely, especially one rowan resplendent with berries.

Thursday 19 September 2019

First selection of pictures from my Colorado Rockies walk

Returning from a long walk is always somewhat disorientating. The world has changed and there's so much to do. I've been back from my month on the Continental Divide Trail in Colorado for a few days and have barely begun to sort everything out, and tomorrow I'm off to Fort William for a John Muir Trust meeting. I have though downloaded most of the 1000 or so photos I took and begun to look through them. These are ones I took with my 'big' cameras. All the ones I posted during the walk were from my phone. Here are the first ones that caught my eye.

Thursday 5 September 2019

Colorado Rockies walk

In Creede two-thirds of the way through my walk I've finally found time to post a blog piece. The walk has been glorious, wild, mountainous, and freeing of the spirit. I'll post more when home. In the meantime there are reports on and here are a selection of pictures.