IF YOU VISIT the same wild place often enough your perception of it will inevitably change. On a first visit, its essential characteristics and nature might seem clear – and possibly even ‘fixed’. After all, you’ve just seen and experienced it as it is. How could it ever be anything else? But after a fifth visit, or a tenth visit, or a who-knows-how-many-I’ve-long-ago-lost-count number of visits, a whole new range of insights into the place will emerge. Because of them, it won’t be the same place it was when first you saw it. It will have become so much more. Well, more to you, at least.
One of the fascinating aspects to this, to getting to know a place really well, is that your perception of it will become different from everyone else’s. How you see it will be informed by everything you’ve invested in it, every moment you’ve spent in it, and every single unrepeatable experience you’ve had in it. The place will now be uniquely ‘yours’. You could even give it a new personal place name. After all, why not? You won’t think of it the same way others do. So why call it by the same name that use?
Almost twenty years ago I wandered up the Chicago Creek valley for the first time. I was deeply impressed. Here was a valley to tick all the boxes. It was deep, a trench almost, hemmed between steep mountain slopes. A thick forest filled it at lower elevations, a tumbling creek splashed through it, a glorious lake rested in a bowl at the forest’s upper edge, and an even more glorious alpine lake shimmered in sunlight a few hundred feet higher, encircled by soaring, pinnacle-topped cliffs. As I paced up the valley I found myself captivated by how it seemed gentle and soft in some corners, but savage and hard-edged in others. It felt varied and rich, and slightly intimidating in its wildness, but also curiously accessible and even welcoming. It seemed to be a fairly typical Colorado valley offering all the usual elements, but also offering something extra, specifically the cirque at its end, which bore a unique and striking resemblance to a couple of glacier-hewn cirques that I knew and loved back in Britain: Cwm Idwal in North Wales and the wild corrie above Loch A’an in the heart of the Scottish Highlands. As a new transplant to Colorado, this intriguing resemblance won me over. It was as though my new home here across The Pond wasn’t all that different from my old, even though in many ways it truly was. But still, on that first Sunday morning visit I fully understood why I was sharing the trail with so many like-minded pedestrians. The crowds were justified.
Fast forward two decades, and the valley has evolved into an entirely different place. Of course, the topography hasn’t changed – although a few massive rocks have shifted, gravity ultimately winning out, just as it always does. And the many varied living biomes great and small remain basically as they were on my fist visit, as does the summer weekend human biome (although perhaps that may have increased in its multitude). But beyond all that surface stuff an un-measurable abundance of detail, complexity, nuance, and pattern has emerged, and it has revealed the character of the valley in a way a single visit never could.
There isn’t space here to go into the details of what this place has become to me – honestly, a full book might be needed. But to put it simply: what at first felt new and exciting and slightly unnerving but also familiar now feels even more exciting and not only known but also, wonderfully, like home.
Home! What a profoundly powerful word this is – when you pause to really consider it.
Back on that first visit, the only aspect I didn’t like was the name: Chicago Creek, Chicago Lakes. I mean, what did one of America’s busiest paved-over cities have to do with a nature-filled wilderness valley in the Rocky Mountains? Not that the inappropriate name negatively impacted my visit, or really mattered. It was just a name after all, and the landscape and its many inhabitants didn’t care. But still, it didn’t fit, and with each visit since it seemed to fit less and less and less.
A while back, I began considering alternative names, just as I’ve also been considering alternative names for the area’s highest mountain, as well as for all the surrounding valleys, peaks, cirques, and other prominent features. (This, of course, is only for my personal use. I wouldn’t force my preferred names upon others. For example, if some people wish to keep honouring Colorado’s genocidal second governor by using his name for the highest peak, even when they now know what he did, well, that’s up to them.) No, what I sought for my new place names were simple descriptions that summed the places up for me – that revealed some essential defining characteristic of them. Happily, I’ve come up with a fair few: Bristlecone Bowl, the Cirque of a Thousand Waters, Forest of the Ancients, Many Tors Ridge, Talking Ice Lake, Skeleton Forest, Moose Central, the Willow Maze, the Forest of Tottering Rock and Grasping Snags, and so on. Unfortunately, for the Chicago Creek valley, my favourite valley in the area, I struggled to find a name that fit.
But finally, a suitable name has occurred. It came to me last weekend during yet another overnight trip into the wild cirque at the valley’s head…
The visit began late on Saturday. Life’s complications meant I didn’t reach the busy Echo Lake trailhead until 4:30 p.m. (otherwise known as the Lake of Revving Motorbikes). And I almost didn’t go in the first place. The forecast wasn’t promising: heavy evening rain, thunder, lightning. “Not a good weekend for backpacking or climbing mountains,” went the popular opinion across Colorado-focused outdoor groups online. Then again, the valley had always treated me well in just those conditions. In my opinion, the cirque at its end is at its most impressive when echoing with thunder and swirling with storm clouds. If the wilderness gods were in a generous mood, perhaps they’d serve up similar dramatic conditions again.
When I set out, thunder was already rumbling and fog smothered the view. Cars retreating from cloud-wreathed Mount Blue Sky (blue sky – hah!) carried epic drifts of hail against their windshields, a testament to violent conditions raging up high. But I felt no qualms at proceeding. I’d be safe in the trees and the worst I’d get was wet, no big deal in August. I knew many possible spots for sheltered camps along the way if needed, including several caves. There was nothing to fear in the storm. The fog was mysterious and beautiful, the thunder a thrilling soundtrack, and I was heading into the wild – or heading back home, to put it another way.
The walk up the valley to its upper lake and cirque passed without a hitch. In fact, despite steady rain, and despite intentionally moving slowly, progress had never seemed easier or more relaxing. Two weeks previously I’d spent seven nights in the wilderness, my longest continuous trip in the area, and it had taken my relationship with it to the next stage. I’d become so deeply immersed that there was no going back to what the land had once been. The slight intimidation I’d felt on my first visit was long gone. Stepping into this wild place now felt comforting. It was like being embraced by a cherished and intimately known community. Or like returning to family and friends after a long absence.
As I neared the Chicago Lakes the thunder faded, the rain eased, then ceased altogether, and a burst of sunlight swept across the cliff bands ahead. It was coincidence, of course, but it felt as though the upper valley was welcoming me back. Only two weeks previously the valley had been outrageously lush with summer greens and decorated with wild flowers, but the cirque’s vegetation was now yellowing, slipping swiftly into Fallish hues. The mountains above showed streaks of white: a coating of hail from the recent storm. Summer was clearly on its way out.
I continued to the upper lake and the spot I’d chosen for camp, but before pitching my shelter I stared back down the way I’d come. A mass of cloud now filled the lower valley, and it was drifting my way. It looked as though another round of weather was moving in. Which wasn’t a negative thing. I welcomed for the drama of it.
I set up camp carefully in a hard-wearing spot that could support a single night’s use, making sure I didn’t trample any delicate vegetation. With summer fading the plants wouldn’t recover as easily as they do in the height of summer, and I wanted to leave no sign of my visit for both the land’s sake and also for other visitors.
Not every camper up here behaves with care. Over the years, several fire rings have appeared near the upper lake, a few with trash and broken bottles left in them. Fires in alpine country can cause lasting damage to the soil and fragile plant cover. Earlier this year I found one built right on the water’s edge, ready to pollute it, a sign of either true ignorance or willful disrespect. As with all the other fire rings I did my best to remove it so that future visitors wouldn’t be tempted to add to the damage.
Once my shelter was pitched the fog from lower down the valley swept back in, first clinging to the pinnacled ridge above.
Soon, fog filled the entire cirque. Before long, rain began and I retreated to my tent. Sitting within it, listening to the steady tattoo of the raindrops, with the tent half open and fog swirling outside, took me back to wild camps back in the British hills. These were the damp conditions that I wanted and loved, and that I had enjoyed up here many times. They were a treat in this bright semi-desert state of Colorado.
Before sunset, the rain eased off and the fog retreated back down the valley. This was a characteristic of this valley I’d witnessed many times before, with low level clouds rising and falling almost as though experiencing a tidal pull. Yes, I’d seen similar conditions elsewhere, but never as often as here.
(Spot the tent nestling among the rocks! There were three other tents pitched a hundred yards away in a more exposed location. Two of those tents were bright orange and stood out from miles away.)
As sunset neared, the clouds massed up again down the valley, rose and swallowed camp, then retreated once more. The drama of the foggy ebb and flow was thrilling.
After sunset, a cloud sea formed far below – always a magical sight. The magic increased even further once the moon was up. From two locations along the cirque’s jagged rim clouds poured downward like water overflowing from one bowl into another. These cloudfalls faded before reaching the cirque’s floor, but kept on falling over the rim. Lit silver by the moon, and with a similarly-lit silver cloud sea far below, and black-edged mountains rising all around, and stars blazing overhead, the magic of the scene was off the charts. Sadly, it was unphotographable (by me, at least), but then again, possibly even more magical because it couldn’t be captured – only lived. I stood for a long while, lost in the moment. When coyotes began howling from the cirque’s wild upper end the moment seemed complete.
By 4 a.m., the swirling clouds had completely vanished. I set out early by torchlight to wander up the peak overlooking the valley, Mount Spalding, the only mountain in the area I hadn’t yet set foot on this year. The temperature was close to freezing and a chill wind was gusting, so I kept my pace slow to avoid sweating. I didn’t want to reach the summit then freeze.
I was slowed even further as I climbed from the cirque’s floor to Summit Lake by long stretches of frozen hail. It covered the narrow trail and overnight had turned into solid ice; it was treacherously slick. With a decent drop to one side and only soft-soled running shoes on my feet care was very much needed. Higher up, on Spalding, the hail cover was even more extensive. To make safe progress I had to step and hop from rock to rock. But I still reached the summit fifteen or so minutes before sunrise. I pulled on all my layers, then hunkered down behind a boulder to wait. With the summit whitened by ice it didn’t look like August. In the biting wind it most definitely didn’t feel like it.
Slowly, daylight strengthened. Summit rocks began to glow. To the north and west, clouds capped the mountains of the divide but happily, here at 13,842 feet, the sky remained completely clear.
Finally, the sun peeped over the great plains. Its warmth was welcome! The gloves I wore weren’t adequate for the winter-in-August conditions and the wind was knifing through my layers.
The burst of new day turned the clouds and mountains pink. I wondered if anyone was standing far to the north on distant Mount Meeker in Rocky Mountain National Park. Being so close to the clouds, the odds of them seeing a Brocken Spectre – a rainbow hued ‘glory’ – had to be high.
To the south, Mount-call-it-whatever-you-want was glowing brilliantly. Even though my camera was misbehaving and fogging up internally, and even though my fingers were barely functioning, I was determined to grab a few shots.
All of a sudden, I noticed wisps of mist forming in the Chicago Lakes cirque below. The mist was thickening, then swirling upward from the void like steam rising from a witch’s cauldron. Which stopped me dead. Cauldron? I thought. Yes. That’s exactly what the cirque is like. I considered it some more, remembering the many other times clouds had swirled about the cirque’s pinnacles and crags and had filled it to the brim,. Suddenly, a possible new name for the cirque and valley and even the peak I was on occurred to me…
Soon, the rising fog drifted across the summit and hid the views… but then thinned just enough to hint at them once again. Mount Bierstadt came and went. (Bierstadt is ‘Miracle Mountain’ to me, so named for the miraculous way its summit has given me benign, windless conditions several times, despite fearsome hurricane-force winds a few feet lower.)
The low-angled sun kept casting my shadow into the fog, and a hint of a Brocken Spectre appeared but then swiftly vanished, appeared again, then vanished. Would the sun and clouds align? I hadn’t seen a Brocken Spectre in several years. Would the mountain and weather gods offer a reward if I showed a little patience?
No rainbow spectre showed, but I couldn’t complain. With fog swirling upward from the cauldron below conditions were soon beyond spectacular. Other hikers heading for the higher fourteener were now appearing and passing through, but I felt no urge to join them and push on. I didn’t need to be anywhere else.
But then it appeared: a Brocken Spectre, in all its ethereal glory. It was a magical reward for putting in the effort to be where I was. And for waiting once here. The phenomenon lasted for thirty seconds, then finally faded as thicker fog moved back in from the cauldron-like cirque below.
Thoroughly chilled by the conditions, but buzzing from all I’d experienced, I set off downhill back to camp. I didn’t take long to emerge beneath the fog, and when I looked back up a few minutes later it had utterly vanished as though it had never been. Had I really just experienced it?
The landscape now sparkled. The air was crisp and clear. Far below, the Chicago Lakes valley curved away, sunbeams reaching into it. Except, I had a better name for it now, one based on my numerous visits, on its bowl-like shape, on the clouds that so often roll around it and pour into it and boil upward from it…
Yes, not Chicago Creek or Chicago Lake any longer… but ‘The Cauldron of Swirling Cloud’, and ‘Cauldron Creek’, ‘Cauldron Lake’, and above it ‘Cauldron Peak’.
Not everyone will see it in such conditions, or agree, but for me these names feel far, far more appropriate.
Warming up nicely, I took my time descending the trail across the tundra, still stepping carefully from rock to rock to avoid the slick icepack.
Up close, the textured mountain surface spoke of three seasons: a few lingering greens for summer, befitting the August date; reds for autumn, now rapidly approaching; white for winter, the dominant season up here by far. In only a three or four weeks the first lasting snows will fall.
Soon I was descending into ‘The Cauldron’. Upper Cauldron Lake looked like a magical pathway to another dimension.
Back in camp, I lingered awhile, taking my time over breakfast, then coffee, then just to sit and soak it all in. This is probably how most people see the cirque, in bright sunlight, during good weather, free from swirling clouds. But even without the drama of fog The Cauldron remained a special place, arguably the greatest natural rock amphitheatre for quite some distance.
Finally, I pulled myself away and walked out, first past Lower Cauldron Lake…
And soon past the early signs of Fall.
Lower down, even the willows were showing their first yellows. Their season in leaf is short. The leaves don’t even appear until late June.
My short trip was done, but the events from it – and the events from all the visits to this popular valley – remain with me. How could they not? The Cauldron of Swirling Cloud is a remarkable and unforgettable place.
(Important Note; if YOU visit this location – or any wild and natural place – please-please-please remember that you have a duty and a responsibility to leave no sign you were ever there. This is CRITICAL. Travel gently, travel softly. Wild mountains may look rugged… but they are also easily damaged and diminished. Don’t just look up and learn ‘leave no trace’ principles… make them your guiding principles. The mountains will benefit, future visitors will benefit, and your own journey will be a thousand times better for it. Thank you.)