Alpine sunflower in granite near Mount Shavano
The mighty Sawatch Range of central Colorado dominates the western skyline as viewed from the Arkansas Valley. Towards the southern end of that range, where the high peaks tower over the small cities of Buena Vista and Salida, lie what are collectively known as the Collegiate Peaks. They have been named Harvard, Yale, Princeton and Oxford. However, there are more peaks than noteworthy colleges and two of the southern peaks carry Ute names: Shavano and Tabeguache. All are part of a massive bulwark of rock that formed when the mountains rose and the valley slipped along the responsible fault. Yes, the earth is alive, or at least animated even if its movements are too slow for us humans to perceive.
From Salida one can look up to Mount Shavano and in most years see what is referred to as the Angle of Shavano. This angle is formed by snow patches that linger into summer and melt out into the peculiar shape of this angle. In my opinion it looks more reminiscent of one of the aliens that emerges from the spacecraft in “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”, sans legs. Regardless, it is a well known sight up on the mountain side during June and July.
Near the Angle of Shavano campground, found in North Fork of the South Arkansas River, lies a trailhead for a nearby portion of the Colorado Trail. The elevation is more or less 9,200 feet, and therefore I would be climbing some 5,000 feet to reach the summit. There are other trailheads that offer shorter and easier hikes, but involve more driving. So, avoiding a longer drive, I made off for the summit in the mildness of early morning. The hike begins with a steep ascent up and over a divide before the trail levels off for the next mile and a half. This mile and a half is a great location for montaine elevation wildflowers and the aspen, conifers and interspersed meadows made for pleasing accompaniment as I hiked and admire the scenery. I didn’t take any photos of this area, sadly enough, because on my way up I was in a hurry and on my way back I was possessed with the thought of reaching the trailhead. But I remember my impression on how in awe I was of the lushness of this part of the trail. Especially on my way up, the morning light was low and made for an especially alluring setting as the sun poured through the aspen and lit up the dew-drops which sparkled like so many diamonds.
I shortly passed by the more commonly used trailhead for this summit whereupon I was joined by the multitudes, all of us with a common goal of visiting the heavens. At this point, or rather about another quarter mile on, there is a side trail that leaves the main and heads off to the summit. It becomes relentlessly steep from this point on. The rocks and cobbles had been well worn from erosive action and were consequently rounded and at times felt like ball-bearings under my feet. I passed from the spruce, fir and ponderosa and into a bristlecone forest. Every so often, a view would present itself and I could see just how far I had come and how much further I had to go. Eventually, I found myself passing through treeline and emerging into the same gully that produces the Angle of Shavano. Here I was, stomping through the snow pack that I have so often viewed from the valley floor, thousands of feet above and now looking down. It was surreal somehow.
There were flowers in abundance at 13,000 feet. I made note, and passed them by. So far, the hike up had been challenging, but I was in a good space and made easy time, each step seeming to paradoxically gain strength. I reached the saddle beneath the peak, where the wildflowers had their display. I made off for the peak, and of course this last thousand feet was the most challenging; there was no real trail to follow and navigation had to be done through boulder fields and other obstacles, and it was really steep at times. I paused repeatedly, my easy feeling having turned to an atavistic determination. Muscles tired and depleted, route uncertain, overall prognosis wavering on the edge of capitulation; but one step at a time, repeated, and the realization that I was making progress even if slowly, that is was kept me moving forward and up.
Finally, the lost rock was surmounted and the peak of Mount Shavano was attained. What a sublime feeling I had, perhaps caused by the rarefied air lacking its usual quota of oxygen, as I turned my gaze to the surrounding peaks and the Arkansas Valley below. I, like so many humans in the past, wished for wings so I could let my physical body soar as my spirit was assuredly doing at that moment. Summer in the mountains is defined by experiences such as these. Peak after peak, ridge after ridge peeled off into the distance. This summit made of rock so raw. In some ways closer to the earth’s core, more primeval at least, than the surrounding valleys that are filled with the eroded detritus far removed from these high peaks.
I had brought along my two dogs, Sheba and Lady Dog, who were busy investigated reported sightings of marmots and pikas. These larger rodents make quite a bit of noise when threatened and the marmot has earned the appellation of whistle pig for the high pitched alarms which they emit with regularity. While I was in awe of my surroundings for the pups it was just another day out in the woods with all the attendant sights, smells and sounds that must be accounted for. Prime age dogs, and these two liked to travel, they barely seemed phased by the hike up and while I rested, ate my lunch, took pictures and otherwise relieved myself of burdens, they were a continuous blur of motion until finally satiating their senses they, too. loafed on the rock and ate a snack.
July in the Rocky Mountains is also monsoon season, and the rains come along nearly everyday along with thunder and lightening. Climbing down over wet rock is slippery and dangerous and can make what is otherwise an easy scramble a difficult challenge that may require ropes instead of steady balance. So, having started early I reached the summit well before the thunderheads were able to be built up for the afternoon revelry. But what would occur over the next few hours was plainly obvious, and besides desiring not to have to slip and stumble over wet rock for a thousand foot descent I did not want to have to dodge lightening strikes that would surely strike the vicinity of the summit. So, I departed my lofty perch and returned to the saddle just above the angle.
Here, I wondered off the beaten path a short distance, feeling more secure from the electric javelins that would be shortly falling from the sky, and marveled at the field of alpine daisies that I had noted on the way up. We sat, resting the muscles for a bit, and as time went on I became aware of movement a quarter mile out on top of a nearby ridge. As it turns out, there were six to eight bighorn sheep grazing away contentedly. They don’t seem to get perturbed over weather related events, and remained in place as the first rumblings could be heard emitting from the above clouds. I, on the other hand, made haste for lower elevations, passing down below treeline so as to find perceived shelter. Trees provide a psychological respite from heaven’s electric gift if nothing else. The rains began to descend as well, and I made more haste until well below the high ridges and slopes. Once I reached the main trail, the rain moved off and the remainder of the hike was resumed through the gorgeous meadows and forests made fresh by the recent downpour. I was happy to reach the trailhead, and rest my weary bones. What a day! My body was tired, but my spirit was freshened and my soul renewed.
Alpine flower garden on the slopes of Mount Shavano
From the Mount Shavano Trail the Arkansas Valley lies beneath of ceiling of cloud
From Mount Shavano, the North Fork of the South Arkansas River
The Colorado Rocky Mountains in July
Looking east from Mount Shavano, the Arkansas River, the City of Salida and the downstream Bighorn Sheep Canyon (nee Arkansas River Canyon) are in view
Sheba atop Mount Shavano
Lady Dog atop Mount Shavano
The Collegiate Peaks as seen from Mount Shavano
From Mount Shavano the Sawatch Range stretches out
What I believe is North Fork Reservoir as seen from Mount Shavano
One of the views from Mount Shavano
Me and Sheba atop Mount Shavano
Descending Mount Shavano
Old-Man-of-the-Mountain in granite
Hymenoxys grandiflora (Rydbergia g.)
An epic day in the Sawatch Range
Avens, possibly genus Acomastylis (Geum)
Phlox (Polemoniaceae) and avens (Rosaceae)
Phlox on the shoulder of Mount Shavano
Mount Shavano viewed from the saddle just above the Angle of Shavano
A field of Alpine Sunflower near Mount Shavano
Bighorn Sheep near Mount Shavano
Bighorn sheep above 13,000 feet near Mount Shavano
Bighorn sheep graving above 13,000 feet
A half-dozen or so bighorn sheep near Mount Shavano
Sheba at rest in saddle to the south of Mount Shavano
If this is genus Phacelia then it is part of the Borage, or Boraginaceae, Family
Perhaps genus Polemonium in the Polemoniaceae Family
Garden of diversity in the alpine near Mount Shavano
Alpine sunflower in granite near Mount Shavano