OVER THE LAST month and a half I’ve been lost in the wild – well, lost in writing about the wild! I’ve been deeply engaged in an epic reworking of On Sacred Ground, taking all the feedback I’ve received from my incredible beta readers and fully developing and articulating all the book’s themes. I’ve been obsessed, to be honest, neglecting most of my other work – including this blog. But I’m excited by the result. On Sacred Ground is now with my editor, Alex Roddie, and moving ever closer to completion. Watch this space!
I figured I’d return to blogging with a photo-essay – some images taken during a leisurely three-day walk in late September around The High Lonesome Loop. (Plus a few others from previous trips.)
The High Lonesome Loop is one of my favorite Colorado circuits. Located in the Indian Peaks Wilderness roughly an hour from Denver, the loop is a 15-mile circular route starting and finishing at the Hessie trailhead near Eldora. When following it counter-clockwise, it starts with a long climb up the Devil’s Thumb Trail, joins the High Lonesome Trail along the Continental Divide, then descends the King Lake Trail. Two thirds of the route consists of well-worn trails leading through forests, but the highlight (for me) is the less-visited and far less-trammeled third that runs above tree line – a glorious stretch of open space, expansive views and solitude.
I first followed The High Lonesome Trail in 2000 when walking my own version of the CDT. (I was heading north from the Mexican border to Canada, then on to Denali the following year). I had no idea back then that I’d one day live an hour from the trail, or that The High Lonesome Loop would become a regular feature of my life – a frequent Sunday morning trail run. And on that first visit, I had no idea that my future wife lay less than a week ahead either. Which only goes to show: one never knows what a mountain walk will lead to!
Since then, I’ve lost count of the times I’ve run the loop. Between June and October, for almost two decades, I’ve been heading to Hessie early on a Sunday morning to grab one of the rare parking spots, lacing up my running shoes, gasping and panting uphill to the divide, trotting along it, then flying back down afterwards, making it home long before lunch. I’ve camped in the area quite a few times too, but it was only recently that I realized I’d never backpacked the loop in its entirety.
It was time to do something about it.
The plan was to spend three days on the route, far longer than the three to four hours it usually takes. I wanted to stop often, linger and look, touch and smell, and even add detours. The previous visits had all been amazing – every single one of them – connecting with the mountains through motion, a connection of great value and meaning that some proponents of slow travel seem unable to understand and often criticize. But it was now time for something different. Not better, just different.
By choice, I don’t go on many trips longer than one night, even though multi-month walks remain my passion. Truth is, I still choose to put my family first. So, on the rare occasions that I do go for longer the joy that arises is off the charts! Stepping out on my own, with no-one else’s needs to meet, and mountains rising ahead, and nothing to do in them but ‘be present’ for days without break – it brings so much youthful energy and optimism to life that it’s hard to keep my pace under control. A slow approach could easily become a sprint if I didn’t pay attention!
I’m tempted to write far more about the walk than anyone has time to read! But I’ll hold back and let the photos do most of the talking. But I do have to share one key detail: how going slowly along a route that I usually follow quickly added an incredible extra dimension to the landscape. Each slow step brought back memories from all the previous fast steps, giving me an opportunity to relive the past while simultaneously living in the present. It may sound like a contradiction – that I could live in the moment while thinking about the past – but as I discovered: I could! Doing it blurred all the visits together, and the experience that followed provided a fuller picture of the mountains and a deeper connection than I’d ever had before. It confirmed what I already knew – that neither fast nor slow is better. And it also revealed something knew: that doing both, and linking them, results in an uncommonly rich and rewarding appreciation of the land.
But anyway – enough with such waffle! On with the photos…
It began above Hessie, early on a Friday morning. The Aspen were rustling in a warm breeze, shimmering yellow and gold as I set off uphill.
The steep climb to the edge of the Indian Peaks Wilderness passed slowly and easily, despite the pack on my back. Temperatures felt summer-like, but the distant roar of strong winds suggested that wilder conditions waited ahead on the Divide.
The landscape grew increasingly grand as I continued up the Devil’s Thumb Trail. A dusting of snow from winter’s first fall still clung to Skyscraper Peak, despite the day’s warmth. The large snow patch in view to the right of Skyscraper Peak, below the notch in the skyline, is Challenger Glacier. I was destined to take a photo atop it the next day.
Above 10,000 feet, there were patches of snow in the shade, a delightful sight after a long hot summer.
Leaving the Devil’s Thumb Trail, I detoured off the usual High Lonesome Loop into the trail-less drainage that rises toward Storm Lake. I was thinking about making a quiet ‘off-the-beaten-path’ camp at the highest possible attitude, or even a tent-less bivvy upon the Divide itself. The waterfalls and rugged scenery on the way up were a clear reward for the detour.
I reached Storm Lake, and it was a truly idyllic spot, but the wind was appropriately brutal, matching the location’s name, and camping here – or higher – would have meant a cold afternoon and a sleepless night. I lingered for half an hour, poking around to find a camping spot for some future visit, then retreated the way I’d come.
Back on the Devil’s Thumb Trail, the scenery grew increasingly enjoyable. The wildflowers may have gone, but the upland meadows didn’t disappoint.
The wind was still roaring by the time I made camp, but I found a perfectly sheltered spot beside a thicket of krummholz, and spent the rest of the day wallowing in blissful simplicity.
My water source, a nearby pool. Imagine the grass whooshing and swaying in the wind!
The Devil Thumb’s crag from close to camp – always a fine sight.
The first night passed – but not uneventfully. I barely slept, not because of the roaring wind, but because of a cold that I discovered I’d picked up from my daughter. It made itself felt at sunset, and the raw throat that developed overnight had me considering packing up and walking out. But by dawn, despite feeling ill, the joy of the day ahead kept me focused on what I’d come for, and soon I had camped packed and was moving uphill. One of my favorite parts of being alive is mornings in the mountains! Breakfasting in camp, taking down the tent, striding forth with the day ahead a thing of unlimited possibility – what could be better? A mere cold – I decided – wasn’t going to stop me from living the day to the full!
Beginning the day, I rejoined the Devil’s Thumb Trail and turned uphill, climbing at a patient pace. The scenery on the approach to the Divide was soon wonderfully dramatic.
Going slowly, the climb seemed far easier than it had during previous running visits! Once I reached the Divide, I sat out of the roaring wind and paused for a long break. Following behind me were three runners (two of them pictured here). It was fun watching others doing what I’d done so often, and even better when it turned out I knew one of them. It made the High Lonesome Loop a little less lonesome!
I was now on the High Lonesome Trail – but only for a few steps. The official trail runs across slopes west of the divide and a few hundred feet lower, but I stuck to the highest ground – the watershed itself. It was a battle in the wind, but I found a momentary respite in a sheltered hollow at the top of the Challenger Glacier. Much shrunken from when I first saw it in 2000, it was still a dramatic point.
After summiting Skyscraper Peak, I could see into the day’s destination: the mountain bowl housing Betty and Bob Lakes directly below, as well as King Lake. My aim was to find a sheltered pitch somewhere down there in a quiet corner that few people visit. Above Bob Lake, Skyscraper Glacier looked very old and sad – more like dirty concrete than a glacier. A few years of heavy snowfall wouldn’t go amiss.
Further along the Divide, I paused to look down at a nameless lake. Examining the landscape from above, I chose my spot for camp, then took an adventurous off-trail route toward it, weaving around crags and steep ground. This entire area can be extremely busy, even in September, but a little imagination can still deliver a near-wilderness experience. Of course, going off trail carries responsibilities. Stepping carefully, I made certain no-one would ever know I’d passed through.
I set up camp early in another view-drenched spot, with another sheltering wall of krummholz to keep off the wind. A couple of hours of quietness and immersion followed, then a few hours of unhurried exploring.
I weaved packless across the mountain bowl, exploring the ups and downs, savoring views of afternoon sunlit spilling down autumn-hued slopes.
I didn’t have a specific plan, and my feet – almost of their own accord – delivered me to a high, un-named lake. A swim was seriously considered, but the wind on this occasion was too numbing. The water would have been icy enough, but stepping from it into the wind would have likely turned my cold into full blown pneumonia!
The longer I wandered, the more incredible each stretch of ground became. Soon, every detail tiny and great appeared magnificent. The photo above of grass and granite probably looks extremely ordinary, but at the time it seemed the height of beauty and natural magic. The point is: time in nature does strange things to perception, and one often ends up experiencing the world in remarkable ways that are truly hard to explain and share. (Although I believe I’ve made a good stab at it in On Sacred Ground!)
Late afternoon light spilling across the Divide. Imagine sitting comfortably in camp for hours, simply watching the light slowly change. Happy times!
I returned to camp eventually, but not before lingering here first, the un-named lake I’d earlier spied from above.
A detail of the lake’s edge. Being able to witness and connect with places and moments like this made me profoundly glad that I hadn’t let my worsening sore throat chase me home early!
The second night was even more unpleasant than the first, with my cold digging in. I’d originally hoped to be back up on the Divide for sunrise – but instead I lazed in camp until the day had warmed, feasting on this view. Sunrise from the Divide would have to wait for another trip!
The walk out was horrible, not quite a death march, but not far off it. Happily, pockets of autumn color provided compensation. Back home, I collapsed – but felt no regrets at having stuck with the full plan. I felt mentally recharged, and had even more memories of the High Lonesome Loop to call upon when next I return to it. I have a hunch that even if I run I’ll be able to dip into the peace I’d found while walking. Each visit and each experience adds to a place, increasing the connection with it. Running and walking may be entirely different approaches, but taken together they can increase the connection in extraordinary ways.
Well – don’t take my word for it. Try it yourself!