The previous year, that is, Twenty-Fifteen, I had hiked up to Mount Harvard with my two German shepherds on a peregrination through the Sawatch Range of Colorado. Neither dog is especially adapt at scrambling over large rock, and both have a healthy respect for drop-offs. We came close to reaching the apex, but about sixty or seventy feet from the summit I turned us all back, as the canines seemed unhappy about the situation, and I could not foretell what peril might lie above the declivities I then saw. Therefore, I had resolved that in Twenty-Sixteen I would return sans dogs and make that last scramble up the pitch to reach the aerie that had been just out of reach. I rose early, determined to be not dissuaded, as I knew that soon enough the early season snows could soon end my hiking season. The Sun rises relatively late in early October, and as first light doesn’t begin to diminish darkness until after six, I left sometime around four in the morning.
I left my home in Gunnison, Colorado, and drove east over the nearly empty U.S. 50 towards Monarch Pass, that transitory, relative to highway speeds, point, one of many, on the Great Divide that parts the waters of the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. The highway miles slipped by easily as I transited the Sawatch Range, my mind sensing the landscape around me from memories created in congruence with certain parts, say a curve for example, of the familiar road. At Poncha Springs I turned left and north on U.S. 285, and along that road, to the left, the mountains rose up in a dark mass that blotted out the stars while on my right the Arkansas carried away the snow melt that never truly ceases to emanate from the crags’ rocky embrace at the various headwaters. At Johnson Village I left the latter highway to continue westbound on U.S. 24. West by highway designation, but by the compass I kept north, and within a mile came to the small city of Buena Vista. Here I did turn west, and traversed by automobile a series of county roads, the specifics of which are too tedious to enumerate. What matters is that I drove up the stony North Cottonwood Road, also known as San Isabel National Forest Road 365, until I reached the North Cottonwood Trailhead. I suppose it almost goes without saying that I now found myself in a deep canyon formed by North Cottonwood Creek.
In order to ensure that the physical and mental well being of my shepherd companions had been met, I had risen much earlier than four so that I could take the dogs out for a standard jog, which entails running out to the end of the airport and back. When I arrived at the trailhead, the light had not yet begun to show in the east, and as tired as I was I decided to sit pat in the car and nod off for ten to fifteen minutes prior to beginning my trek up to Mount Harvard. I never truly fell asleep and watched as one or two other cars arrived at the parking area. Two other young people, coming up from the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs I would find out later, were busy preparing for their own adventure, headlamps jolting around like jumbo sized fireflies. I listened to the radio spew out the daily harangues, one group or another casting disparaging fulminations upon the other, until I sickened of the ritualized diatribe. Gratefully, I turned it off and tuned myself in, instead, to the sounds of Nature once I exited the cooling vehicle. The rumbling creek, just behind, still thundering even now in low water. Wafts of pine odor filled my nostrils with each imbibed breath, and deep did I draw them in. I gathered my gear, and wits, and set off to find the actual trailhead, the precise location of which I was only vaguely aware.
I soon found my way and began hiking through the dim light upon the Horn Fork Trail No. 1449 paralleling the rushing waters of North Cottonwood Creek. Somehow, that this trail isn’t denominated by the creek’s name is a bit perverse, almost, but certinainly unexpected. However, in the end, the moniker isn’t that important but rather simply denotes the location instead of the essence. Dawn arrives quickly in the mountains, and the Rockies of Colorado are no different in that regard. Two miles of hiking now accompanied by radiant visibility and I reached the junction with the Kroenke Lake Trail No. 1448. It forked to the left and continued following North Cottonwood Creek. I took the right fork and began to now climb in earnest. That first two miles certainly gained some elevation but not much in the scheme of things. This new drainage that I then ascended is known as Horn Fork Creek and it leads to Horn Fork Basin, residing as it does between Mounts Harvard and Columbia, as well as the main ridge of the Sawatch Range, that which is the Continental Divide.
By the time I had made another half a mile the Sun’s early, long rays emitting from the east were striking the rocky crags to my west and then shone upon the crowns of the conifers above me. The clear sky, deep cerulean, had few if any clouds upon which those golden rays could strike and thus produce the romantic sunrise seen not occasionally in these very mountains. Today, however, the rays lasted briefly, thrown upon the pinnacles and eminences that, as large as they seem to loom above a puny human like myself, were soon engulfed by the azure dome. The dawn transit glowed with its customary encouraging promise of a fine day to be had, and soon morning and bright sunlight arrived in full. I continued to trek upward, leaving the aspen behind to the lower elevations and entered the sub-alpine in a state of elation.
As I hiked ever up I phased into the alpine tundra life zone, Mount Columbia casting a dark shadow over the basin. I reached the same plateau as Bear Lake and looked over at that emerald gem sitting in its rocky setting. Up I continued, increasingly amazed at the vast talus slopes and moraines that had formed over the countless centuries and past glaciation events. I felt small, and the temperature kept my physical plant chilled, having even produced ice on the trail, none too surprising this first week of October. The Sun then lit up the ridge behind Columbia and suddenly crested, casting warming shafts of light down upon this poor child. I looked up at Mount Harvard and began to think it audacious that such a creature as myself should attempt to lodge myself upon its craggy head.
With each step I gain another foot of elevation, occasionally and briefly retreating into a small swale or some other such cause of losing a bit of my previous made gain. This mattered not, for each step is also a footfall in an alpine wonderland, and I savored each moment spent here in the embrace of the Rocky Mountains. The Sun, the Autumnal foliage, fresh and clear air, sparkling water, chirping rodents, soaring ravens and the rock gardens seen all about me remind me of why I have chosen to live this life for I believe that I am in heaven. I am now, in my mind as I write this, on a ridge overlooking Bear Lake and ahead of me I espy the trail leading ever upwards. Two stout souls pass me on the trail, both much younger than I, and I envy them their fresh bodies as I must admit to the puerile hope of having been the first to make the summit that day. The final wall approached and the grade increased as I began to climb the series of rocky switchbacks that lead up to the point were the dogs and I stalled out last time.
I find the route up the final bit of scrambling and it is about what I thought it would be, relatively easy for me, using a bit of due caution, but perhaps too challenging for my shepherds. If it needed to be done it could be, but I am sure it would be stressful for all involved. Some dogs would do fine here, but both Draco and Leah are not particularly adept on rocks nor face with alacrity cliffs and drop offs found in fields of boulders. With the final climb I reached the summit of Mount Harvard, elevation fourteen thousand and four hundred and twenty feet above sea level. I found the two young gentleman, cadets at the Air Force I find out, and we engaged in conversation about the wonders to be found in such a place as this. The views of the Sawatch Range extended to the north and south, a chain of unbroken mountains for many a mile. Close by I could see the rocky eminences of Mounts Belford and Oxford, as well as the totality of the upper basin formed by Pine Creek. I could also see too many far off points to enumerate, but with the recognition of each I imagined in my mind’s eye what lay between here and there, and often found myself drawing in experiences of past days to elucidate myself.
I sat and contemplated the world around me before finally packing up and returning essentially by the same route. I made haste, wanting to return home and release the dogs from their confinement. Despite my rapid tempo I paid heed to the natural world around me, albeit with less emphasis on the particulars but instead with a realization of the whole. I knew that this could be perhaps the last time this season to see the hibernating vegetation, even if most of it was already cured for the onset of Winter. I could still recognize most of the common forbs by their seedpods or leaf shape and structure. My stride felt good and that made me happy, and I gave a blessing for this day as I returned to the trailhead, for it had been an exemplary hike.