Sunday, July 22, 2012

Mount Audubon

I never knew "free access" days existed in the National Parks and I was lucky to catch one on the day I decided to run the Mount Audubon trail. Access to the Brainard Lake trailhead usually costs all of $9, but when I arrived at 5am there was no-one in sight at the gate and there was no manual payment system visible. I was confused at first but my rationale...and defense...was that I could always pay on exit. I drove up the access road and parked up...the only vehicle in the lot. It was a mild morning and the sun wasn't yet up. Otto was lively and we headed off through the woods in pretty dark conditions.

The first section of this trail is fairly level and although a few "hidden" tree roots did their best to trip me up I managed to emerge from the treeline and into the dawn reasonably unscathed. It's here that the trail gets rocky and steep and the switchbacks up the southeastern slopes of the mountain kick in.

Audubon isn't a long trail...about 9 miles roundtrip...but it reaches above 13,000 feet. It also isn't the most visually appealing mountain. There are no steep cliffs, no knife edge ridge, no exposed summit perch. It's a bit like the upturned hull of a boat, or maybe the back of a whale. I know that appearances from a distance can be deceptive and in the case of Audubon the deception comes in the running surface, because what looks to be green and accessible is actually extremely rocky and hard going.

This photo was taken after completion of our run. The trail skirts below the Krummholz on the right and heads behind the ridge on the cliff line to emerge on the summit from the North.

As the sun came up we were done stumbling through the dark and were able to step out a bit more briskly. This photo shows how challenging it is under foot. It's a good job I like to run more isolated trails at times when there are going to be few or no hikers around. Stumbling over rocks, stubbing my toe and twisting my ankle doesn't seem to enhance my vocabulary - these are not words to be teaching a dog. Otto runs ahead oblivious to my frustrations.

He becomes alert long before I see the cause. Otto is a very demonstrative dog and he stands bold and raises his ears slightly when something of interest is in sight. Of course, what is visible to Otto isn't necessarily visible to least not yet. Borzoi are sight hounds and although they like to sniff and smell as much as any dog, they are bred to chase down visible prey. This makes any visible distraction a potential target regardless of distance. Otto's excellent eyesight picked up a herd of Elk.

Otto fixes his sight but I can't see anything. The early morning sun lacks clarity and it takes some time and closer proximity for me to detect what Otto could see.

A large herd of Elk move below the skyline and crest the ridge.

Another characteristic trait of Otto's is his single ear alert sign. This isn't the result of him seeing anything in particular. It really works like radar - it is on most of the time when he thinks he might hear something interesting. From the point of seeing those Elk Otto's radar was on.

Sure enough, after a short distance Otto detected a breeding pair of Ptarmigan and he waits and then looks for my approval to chase and then disembowel them. That's the thing about just can't let them off leash, at any time in an open space. It's not that they won't's that they are impossible to distract from their prey. They will run and run to chase down whatever is their fancy and, possibly 4 or 5 miles later remember that they were supposed to be doing something somewhere else.

I often look at all those green tagged dogs from the greater Boulder know, the ones who have passed their obedience and close control (off leash) tests. This "license to roam" off leash is a coveted privilege...too often abused in my view...but it is a privilege no Borzoi will ever experience. But this is hardly a major problem. After all, which dogs get the chance to run and run for miles with their owner in such beautiful open country. Both Otto and Olivia enjoy supreme fitness that will add longevity and vitality - a leash is an enabler of that goal.

The view from the summit of Audubon to Longs Peak is amazing. In the early morning light the profile of the RMNP is brought into stunning clarity. In the center left of this photo is Sawtooth with the cliffs on its south face clearly visible. Across the valley to the right is St Vrain mountain - both summits we have visited.

The view south is dominated by the elegant profile of Mount Toll and a distant view of North Arapaho peak. The Indian Peaks really are, in my view, much more beautiful than those in the RMNP. And they also allow dogs...but don't get me started again.

The initial descent from the summit covers some steep, rocky steps and when the main trail eventually swings east it is possible to run at a very quick pace. It was towards the bottom of this section that we met our first hikers - a couple who had camped the previous night at Coney Flats and had taken the slightly longer route up Audubon. Rather than use a map they were struggling with a brand new GPS unit and requested my guidance. When I checked the unit the mistake was obvious - they were using the base map and hadn't uploaded the appropriate topo map. Consequently, none of the territory they were walking on was showing up - this map might be great for getting from Estes Park to Lyons, but it was useless for mountain trails. I gave them my single sheet printed map, pointed out the route and then ran off into the heat of the morning. They were a really nice couple and I'm glad they made their mistake in such clear weather on such a forgiving mountain. They would enjoy a great day and then later sell their GPS on eBay.

The final switchback on the descent revealed a view that had been concealed in the darkness of pre-dawn. Looking up the valley we could see Mount Toll and also catch the western fringe of Brainard Lake.

I must look for another one of those free access days...the trip up Pawnee looks outstanding!!

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