Sunday, July 29, 2012

Mount Audubon and Paiute Peak Loop from Brainard Lake

We've not lived long enough in Colorado to know what "normal" looks like, but the locals tell us that the weather this year has been most unusual. Only a few weeks ago in Boulder we experienced 11 consecutive 100+ degree days and every day bar 2 in July has been above 90. We drove 4 days across country in December 2010, arriving in Boulder as the first serious snowstorm of the year was underway. The locals said that was unusual. We finished that first winter with moderate accumulation figures in the town, but huge amounts of snow in the mountains. I recall last spring finding many of the high mountain trails out of action well into June.

This last winter was the reverse and we saw a lot of snow on the foothills and plains, but very little in the mountains. It has been evident all summer that this is problematic. But climate change, in the US, is a little like religion - despite the evidence, and despite the utter stupidity of some of the more extreme opinions, it is almost impossible to have a sensible debate. As Americans seriously consider electing a President who believes the "Garden of Eden" was in Missouri, the future for science and free enquiry isn't all that promising. And as for global warming...well, the huge amount of money being pumped into anti-science groups from big oil to wealthy individuals, tells you that this isn't going to be settled by the science. Despite the overwhelming evidence, denialism is taking hold.

It is therefore extremely encouraging that research is starting to change some skeptical minds.

With both dogs taking a break today I set off on my own from Brainard Lake. I had much bigger objectives that what I eventually achieved...but lived to run another day.

It was 46 degrees at the trailhead...pretty chilly...and I was toying with wearing a long-sleeved top. It was breezy without blowing a gale and although the wind would be stronger up high I figured the sun would compensate. Tee-shirt it was. There was a little sun poking through, but not very much, and although some rays lit up Mount Toll and Pawnee, I wasn't feeling the warmth at all and my clothing decision was already in doubt.

I knew the trail up Audubon from previous visits. It's not too steep to run, but it is really difficult underfoot. This wasn't helped by my choice of shoe - a brand new pair of Walsh Spirit Lights - and the creasing across the toe line was removing skin. They'll be fine in a few more weeks, but I grimaced through the developing soreness unaware that this would be the least of my problems. Just beyond the point in the photo above the trail swings west and Audubon comes into view. I could see a runner high on the switchbacks...a good mile and a half ahead of me. I wouldn't catch him, but it didn't stop me trying.

Just after taking this picture of the final ascent up Audubon the runner met me as he descended from the summit. We chatted for a few minutes - he had been "let out" for two hours on his own and would now have to race back to his car for a family event. How many of us find ourselves in this situation? Torn pleasures, sometimes conflicting, sometimes in balance.

Just below the summit the ridge to Paiute strikes out west. This would be new territory for me. I had always wanted to run this ridge but I didn't want to have a dog with me at the time. I knew there were many rocky steps and exposed scrambles and I didn't want to put the dogs under duress. I also knew that the final steep section up to the summit of Paiute was a bit loose and chossy...hardly the terrain for a dog. It was a wise decision.

It's a great view from the summit. Sawtooth is on the extreme right and in the valley below is Upper Coney Lake. I was really cold on the summit, but didn't want to stop and add layers. I don't know why. I hadn't seen much sun and my thermometer showed 38 degrees and probably 25 mph wind. Not exactly shorts and tee-shirt weather, but I can pretend to be tough when I want to be and started the descent to the Paiute ridge. Any thought that I would be jogging along this ridge quickly evaporated.

I've looked along this ridge a number of times from Audubon and every time I've thought...that looks a great run. Really? In the mile or so from summit to summit I probably ran for about 400yds at most, and even that was very tentative. It was just rough, loose and dangerous. I'll come to the danger bit in a moment. I was so thankful not to have a dog with me, and although I miss the company I felt pleased I got one decision right.

The main problem is that there isn't really a trail. There are some sections which show signs of passing...a few scratch marks on rocks...the odd worn patch of grass...but nothing obvious. I didn't mind that at all. I like to think ahead and evaluate routing options and I generally chose well. The descent from Audubon loses about 700 feet in altitude from 13,000 feet and gains about 600 feet on the climb up to Paiute. With both mountains above 13,000 feet this is a big trip. The imposing bulk of Paiute dominates.

With the goal in sight and most of the descent complete I relaxed a little and my boulder-hopping became a little more daring and faster. I don't know what caused this. Maybe I was concerned about the time. My plan had been to summit Audubon in 1hr 30 minutes and I was 5 minutes ahead of that time. But I had only allowed 30 minutes for the Paiute ridge and I could sense it taking longer. It's in these moments...perceptions based on flawed judgments...that can distract and cause accidents. I was annoyingly thinking of this when I leaped onto a large and solid looking boulder. It shifted under my weight and I fell in a gentle arc. The sound of my knee crunching into an oncoming rock was for my ears only and the sudden flush of nausea demanded I sit down immediately. The excruciating, searing pain was short-lived. Surprisingly there was no blood, just a dark patch where the internal bleeding spread. 

I was lucky...and I knew it. My head cleared, I stood up, dusted myself down and headed off again. A little gingerly at first but then more purposefully. As I ascended Paiute I could feel a little light-headed. Now, normally I would make some kind of self-deprecating comment about my brain power and general dimwittedness, but this was a bit more serious. I sensed low blood sugar and knew I had to reach the summit and take in some fuel.

I was glad I made it. A handful of nuts and some dried apricot did the trick and I appreciated the surroundings. To my earlier point on global warming, there is abundant visual evidence of serious climactic change. NCAR monitors glaciers in the area and there is concern that they are receding. I don't have sufficient reference points to know for sure, but the lack of a significant snowpack looks concerning. There's a summit register on Paiute (I've never found the one on Audubon) so I signed it...well, I tried to. My hands were so cold I could barely hold the pen. I managed a few illegible scribbles, screwed the lid on the tube and set off towards Mount Toll which was dominating the view south.

It was decision time. I'd lost too much time. After being 5 minutes ahead on Audubon, I was 7 minutes behind on Paiute. My knee was burning a little. The climb up Mount Toll would be challenging and then there was Pawnee Mountain beyond, followed by a descent of Pawnee pass on a busy trail. I descended to a col, down a few very steep steps, and evaluated my options. To complete my circuit I'd add another 4 miles to my overall mileage. If I descended to Blue lake there would be tricky talus to cover but I could pick up the Mitchell trail. I estimated 1hr 40 minutes down the Mitchell trail and 2hrs 30 down the Pawnee trail. Weighed in these terms there was really only one option and I began the descent to Blue lake.

Blue Lake is in a stunning glacial valley with Pawnee Peak on the right (south) and Audubon on the left. Lower down the valley I would skirt Mitchell lake on its southern shore and then get back to Brainard 2 miles beyond.

What's not to like about Mount Toll? This would have to wait for another trip. I descended to the point on the ridge just above the small snow field - it was actually a fairly big snow field but it is concealed behind a hidden ridge. I struck straight down the talus towards Blue Lake.

Across the valley to the south was Upper Blue Lake beneath the slopes of Audubon.

I'll have to return to Blue Lake with my wife. This is a great short hike destination.

It was a long, slow descent. Mount Toll is above my left shoulder. The small snow field in the upper right is the one that marked my descent for the ridge. I would be back, for sure.

I struck a faster pace down the trail to the car. There were quite a few walkers and hikers but I was surprised there weren't more. The sun was now out and the temperature was a pleasant 63 degrees. Back home it would be 95. This was a great outing. A few days of rest for my knee and I'll be back on the trails in no time.

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