Friday, January 20, 2017

On Top of the World

“Mountaintop experiences” are mental highs, brief moments when your emotions reach ultimate peaks of joyous intensity. Reaching the top of a mountain generates such emotions, and though I’ll never make it to the peak of Mt. Everest (the true top of the Earth), achieving the top of any mountain does give one that feeling. I’ve been fortunate to experience that feeling a few times. I was never a mountain climber, so most of my summits were by hiking or driving or by train, and what follows shows those experiences.


    My buddy Len and I backpacked in Colorado numerous times, but coming from Chicago with its  altitude of 800 feet meant we had to acclimate to high altitude before attempting strenuous Rocky Mountain trails, so several times we camped for three nights at Great Sand Dunes National Park at an altitude of 8000 feet. 

The first two days we’d hike the area to get acclimated, including an 8 mile round trip with an elevation gian of over 1500 feet. The third day we’d hike to the top of the tallest dune, 700 feet above the valley floor, though slogging through sand makes it seem much higher. The view from the dune top was spectacular, even though the surrounding mountain peaks were another 5000 feet taller. The next day we’d then drive to our chosen trailhead and begin another backpacking adventure.




The Uncompahgre Wilderness was one of our favorite Colorado locales. Two days of backpacking  along the Big Blue River seen below, brought us near Uncompahgre Peak seen in the center of this photo...

As we approached Uncompahgre Peak, 14,309 feet in elevation, it dominates in this photo... 

My Dad accompanied his cousin, Jake, a U. S. Forest Service ranger, to the top of Uncompahgre via horseback in the 1930s to change out the sign-in sheets at the top...

... so it was a thrill for me to get to the top, too. And I hope my sons and grandkids follow the family tradition by going there in the future.  On day three of our backpack trip, we began the final approach and climb up to the peak, and though quite arduous, the feeling of accomplishment when reaching the peak is indescribable. Below you see me as we near the peak...

...and here's Len resting. Obviously back in the 1930s when Dad was here, the trail still existed all the way to the top allowing them to scale the peak on horseback. The trail has now deteriorated near the top due to the friable rock, so we had to scramble up the loose rock the last quarter mile or so...

...and here we are at the top...

...enjoying the view looking back at the Big Blue Valley which we had hiked two days to get here...



In 2009 I was atop New Hampshire’s Mount Washington, the highest peak in the Northeast at 6288 feet. It is the most prominent mountain east of the Mississippi River and it is notorious for its erratic weather. In fact, its observatory recorded a windspeed of 231 miles per hour in 1934, the world’s record for wind speed not produced by a cyclone or hurricane! Below are photos of the observatory at the top...

,...and here is the track with the cog track in the center (taken from the back of the train looking downhill)...

...and here's the cog railway train that took us to the top.

A road also reaches the top, but being a rail fan, I rode the old railway which is an experience in itself. The Appalachian Trail runs near the top and is found in the photo below. If you look closely, you can spot the two AT signposts in the center of the picture. In fact, there were several backpackers at the top who were taking a break from their arduous trek.

The museum at the top had a small sled called a slide board that rail workers could use in an emergency to quickly get down from the top.

It rode on the center cog rail, had a rudimentary brake, was in use from 1870 to 1920, and took less than three minutes to ride the three and a half miles down to the bottom at an average incline of 25%! What a ride that must have been! 



Another mountaintop I reached was Germany’s tallest, the Zugspitze, at an altitude of 9718 feet. No road was available there. Instead, the trip to the top involved a cog railway and then a cable car, 

Although we had our coats on while at the peak, we were still chilled from the altitude and the wind. Here are Len and Marlene.

While at the top, you can actually walk into Austria which shares the peak with Germany. In fact, the sign below is welcoming us into the Austrian state of Tyrol.

Here are a couple views from the top...

 There's even a chapel at the peak!

The nearest town is  Garmish-Partenkirchen where we spent the night. I recall it was July 4th, and since we were in Germany, we were surprised to hear fireworks celebrating Independence Day until we were told there was an American military base in town which hosted the fireworks display for the soldiers and families. 



Our family climbed Squaw Peak in Phoenix, Arizona, several times. At 2612 feet, it is the second highest point in the Phoenix Mountains. Below is the final scramble from the trail to the top of the mountain...

...and the next photo gives you a view with the tall buildings of downtown Phoenix far in the distance. 

Though not as high as the previous peaks, it towers above the desert floor, and its claim to fame comes from the fact that over half a million people hike its Summit Trail every year, second only to the Bright Angel Trail in the Grand Canyon. Though it  received its name in 1910, political correctness forced the city to change the name and it now honors Lori Ann Piestewa, the first Native American woman soldier to die in combat (2003 Iraq War.)



Grand Teton National Park has a wonderful hike up to Inspiration Point (7200 feet) seen here, from which you overlook Jenny Lake with views of the Gros Ventre Mountains and the Teton National Forest off in the far distance.

 You can take a boat ride across the lake like our  family did years ago, and then hike just over a mile (elevation gain about 450 feet) to the viewpoint, or as I have done several times since, hiked the trail alongside the lake which makes it a seven mile hike. The next photo shows the final section of rugged trail to reach Inspiration Point, chiseled out of a rock ledge by CCC workers in the 1930s.

 Hidden Falls is an added plus if you walk a short side trail,

...and take a bit longer trek up Cascade Canyon and you’ll see the towering Cathedral Group of peaks off to the west, including Grand Teton Peak at 13,770 feet. This is a popular trail and can be crowded in the summer, but it is well worth the effort. I hope you can get there sometime! 

Here's one final Teton NP photo, this one from when I backpacked 9 miles up Paintbrush Canyon and reached the high point looking down at Lake Solitude far below...



Avalanche Peak Trail in Yellowstone is near the east entrance, 17 miles east of Fishing Bridge. It’s a five mile roundtrip hike with an elevation gain of 2100 feet, reaching a height of 10,566 feet in elevation which affords you mountaintop views like these next two. 

If you look really closely in the photo below, you’ll see a long sliver of Yellowstone Lake just beyond me in the mid-center of the photo.

This hike was a bit unusual in that I was wearing shorts but also a windbreaker top because it was a bit chilly and windy. The legs stay warm because they are generating heat from the strenuous hiking. The zippered top allows me to open and close it as I regulate the heat in my upper body, and I can take it off and carry it in my daypack if I get too warm. As I ate my lunch  enjoying these views, I was joined by a squirrel who grabbed one of my peanuts that dropped.  

Later, as I drove back to the campground, I spotted this grizzly cub whose mother was nearby. Fortunately she wasn’t concerned about the audience her little tyke had amassed since he was 20 feet off the road behind a tree.



Another mountain top was Alaska’s Kesugi Ridge Trail. Although its altitude is a mere 3500 feet, it is the best place to get views of Alaska’s “Ancient One,” Mt. Denali. I backpacked the trail in 2004 as part of a two week Sierra Club outing, and our four days on this mountain top five-star trail was breathtaking despite traditionally poor weather with drizzle and fog obscuring the panoramic views much of the time. 

Large groups are not allowed in Denali National Park, but Denali State Park is across the highway and offers similar terrain, including lots of tundra at the top.

Here's a photo of Mt. Denali (previously called Mt. McKinley), the highest peak in North America at 20,320 feet. Only about a quarter of the visitors get to see it because it is usually obscured by clouds, fog, or storms. 



In the early 2000s, I did about a thousand miles of 4-wheel driving in Arizona, Tennessee, and (mainly) in Colorado, where mountaintop views like these are normal. Getting off the beaten track and exploring old mining roads was thrilling, scenic, and on occasion, quite frightening, but my Nissan Xterra was a very capable off-road vehicle and never failed me.



A 1996 backpacking loop in Colorado’s Weminuche Wilderness’ Squaw Pass area included a section of the Continental Divide Trail which took us up to 12,760 feet and provided views like these next five photos…

Here's my backpacking buddy, Len, again, as he savors the view...

…and the next two photos as I enjoy the views from the CDT...



Another backpack trip in the Weminuche Wilderness took us over  Columbine Pass, altitude 12,680. While resting at the top, a father, mother, and teen daughter arrived, and the daughter  immediately took out a cell phone and dialed a friend. We laughed and the mother explained that they lived nearby and made this trip every year, and the only way they could get the teen to join them was to allow a phone call from the top. I remarked that I was surprised there was a cell signal way up high, and the mom said about half the time the girl could find a signal and call her friends.

The panoramic photo below is a view from the top looking down towards the basin, which itself is at 11,000 elevation.

The photo below shows Len as we began heading down the very steep trail from the pass to the famous Chicago Basin area 3000 feet below, which abuts three of Colorado’s “14ers” (peaks above 14,000 feet elevation.) As we headed down this trail (we had come up the other side from Vallecito Creek via the Johnson Creek Trail) we spotted a columbine, Colorado’s beautiful blue state flower.  



In 2004, I took an 11 week driving trip to Alaska. On the way, I did a volunteer trail project and a backpack trip in Washington State’s Goat Rock Wilderness. I was on the famous Pacific Crest Trail seen in the left of this photo.

At one point on the PCT, I saw Mt. Rainier to the north (the next photo below) and behind me I saw Mt. St. Helen and Mt. Adams. I was awestruck and took out my cell phone, actually had a signal, and called my Mom to share the experience because she was the primary force behind me having a cell phone (something I had fought against for years.)

While on the trail, I observed these two marmots interacting with each other, so I stopped and watched them for a few minutes. I've seen marmots dozens of times (and pika, too, a few times) but I'd never seen two marmots interacting playfully with each other before.  Too cute! 



Finally, I participated in a Road Scholar program touring Mexico’s Copper Canyon by railroad. Copper Canyon is larger and deeper than our Grand Canyon, and the train parallels the largest of the six connected canyons as it runs from Chihuahua at 8000 feet to Los Mochis at sea level on the Gulf of California. We hiked, horse-backed, and rode in buses as side trips on the excursion, and saw  sights like these… 

Below is one of the hotels we stayed at...

...and from which we hiked down to the stone structure dwellings of local Tarahamara natives.

Two more shots of the marvelous canyon...

And finally, here's our guide, rocking on a large boulder overhanging a cliff...

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