OVER THE PAST twenty years I’ve enjoyed some truly special moments on and around the mountain now known as Mount Blue Sky. But few of the many previous visits were more special or more meaningful than Saturday’s. This wasn’t only another walk to a treasured place… it was also a celebration.
As readers of this blog will already know, I’ve been visiting this mountain and the wilderness that surrounds it frequently this year, and have been invested in the campaign to rename its highest mountain. On Friday afternoon I attended the meeting of the U.S. Board on Geographic Names, and as soon as the board voted to remove the name of Colorado’s second governor from the peak, and approve the name Mount Blue Sky, and as soon as the ripple of applause had died away, I picked up my rucksack and headed for the newly renamed hill.
It was ironic that the name was approved on a day when the mountain was lost in storm clouds, but the forecast for the following day was exceptionally good: blue skies from dawn to dusk. When I reached the trailhead rain was still falling and the mountains above were white – a thrilling sight: the first snow of the winter. Unexpectedly, the road to Summit Lake was closed, which raised the amusing possibility that I might end up being the first to climb the mountain since the renaming. It could be a first ascent, of sorts!
I left the trailhead at 5 .pm. and sploshed up the Chicago Creek (sorry, Cauldron Creek) valley toward camp at the upper lake. I was soon into snow. Unsurprisingly, given the weather and late hour, there was no-one else around. This special place can be popular… but I’ve grown used to having it to myself.
Dusk was approaching as I neared the spot I’d chosen for camp. As has happened here many times before, clouds were sweeping up the valley toward me. Conditions had turned the upper valley into a chill, hushed and almost black and white world. It felt thrillingly wild and remote.
By the time I had camp pitched darkness had fallen. I settled in comfortably… but had a rough night. Something I ate. I felt nauseous, close to throwing up all night, and barely slept. But I wasn’t aiming to let it stop me heading up the mountain in the morning. I set out at 4:30 a.m..
My body was horribly reluctant; I felt exhausted from the very first step. But I set to the walk ahead with determination. Spikes on my feet, headlamp beam shinning bright on the snow, I broke trail up the steep and exposed trail to Summit Lake, then continued upward to Mount Spalding. I was moving incredibly slowly, but knew that if I kept on taking steps I get there, eventually. By sunrise, at 6:45, I was halfway up Mount Spalding. The temperature was a brisk 19f (-7C), but the sun soon changed that, bringing welcome warmth and magical light.
Behold: the newly named Mount Blue Sky, seeing blue sky for the very first time!
Perhaps the name doesn’t truly represent everything that the mountain is, but on this day the name that was fought for so hard by the Mestaa’ėhehe Coalition felt profoundly and beautifully appropriate. To be honest, although I’ve been one-hundred per cent in support of removing the previous name since learning it’s history, I haven’t always been behind the Blue Sky name… but now, on this morning, after all that has passed, after seeing what it means to those who campaigned for it, and after hearing the emotion in their voices, that’s all changed. It’s time to accept the name, celebrate it, and move on.
Many people won’t. They’ll cling to the old name for many different reasons. But for me – the official name works well. Mount Blue Sky it is.
With the mountains lit pink, I climbed on. The snow only lay six inches deep, but breaking trail through it was still gruelling work. Even a little snow can seriously increase effort. The thin high altitude air, the fresh snow, and a night without sleep, all conspired toward arguably the slowest pace I’ve ever walked! As I trudged on I thought about how much I wanted to quit and turn back. The physical effort was too much. It brought no pleasure. I felt so drained I even thought the unthinkable: do I really want to keep doing this, walking in the mountains? Perhaps it’ s time to find another past time, another way of living…
But… we are more than our bodies. We are more than comfort-seeking creatures. This wasn’t a day for giving in. I was here to reach the highest point. I was here to feel, to live. Plus, the light-hearted idea of getting the ‘first ascent’ was too hard to resist. I kept on going.
From the summit of Mount Spalding, the two fourteeners Grays and Torreys came into view. One of my favourite spots for camps and igloos was also now visible, down in that valley below, right where sunlight was just catching the brown of the willows.
To the southwest, the newly-whitened Rockies stretched away.
Each draining step took me closer to the mountain, now shinning bright on this most perfect of September days. There was barely a breath of wind – a rare treat up here where ferocious winds are extremely common.
Ahead, across the next bowl, rose Mount Bierstadt (Miracle Mountain).
As usual for a weekend morning, the summit hosted a crowd. Given my slow speed it seemed highly likely others would have beaten me to the route up Mount Blue Sky. Then again, with the road to Summit Lake closed (the access route that most hikers use) Mount Blue Sky had become a far harder-to-reach peak. On this day, it really had to be earned. Under fresh snow it had become a wilder, higher, remoter, more difficult, and even ‘newer’ mountain.
To the west, the Mount of the Holy Cross, the fourteener at the northern end of the Sawatch Range, was surprisingly snow-free.
The previous day’s snowstorm had been impressively selective in where it had delivered snow. A short distance away, mountains were still brown. Only one valley divided winter from autumn!
To my delight, when I reached the final high altitude mile to Blue Sky’s summit – a rocky traverse beneath its high ridge – I found the snow untouched by any one else. This didn’t make progress any easier, of course… but there were compensations to the toil: a growing soaring feeling that this really was a first ascent of a new and untouched peak! It was an illusion to savour and enjoy.
Ever-increasing weariness slowed progress to practically a crawl over the final stretch. But the simple act of putting one foot before the other got me there, eventually, and finally, after five hours of slogging up a route I’ve previously completed in less than an hour and half, I was there. It was a good moment, it’s fair to say. I stood on top of what felt like a new mountain. New for the fresh snow that lay upon it, new for the cleansing it had received of the new name.
To the south, Pikes Peak rose on the horizon. I wondered how the runners racing the Pikes Peak ascent were getting on in the snow! (As it turned out, one of them was breaking the ‘impossible-to-break thirty-year-old’ course record!)
North rose Longs Peak. It hadn’t received nearly as much snow as the Blue Sky area, just a light dusting, from the look of it.
Far below, South Park was slowly filling with fog. Beyond it, the Sangre di Cristo range gleamed.
The James Peak and Indian Peaks wilderness areas had also, curiously, missed out on the snow. That area usually collects far more than where I currently was.
A couple of thousand feet below, snowplows were finally at work clearing the road to Summit Lake. Eventually I descended – a thankfully easier task – and once down at the lake I had a good chat with one of the park rangers. If it hadn’t been for the reservation system now in place, and a desire to honour those who had bought timed entries, they probably wouldn’t have cleared the road. As it was, the crowds would soon return to the area – well, temporarily, until the first big snow closed the road until next June. For now, others would get to enjoy the easy access again and benefit, in many different ways, from the priceless gifts this wild place can offer. But I felt grateful to have had it to myself. Quietness and solitude can transform a natural environment. Connection with the land can be so much deeper and stronger. For me, the the timing of the early-season snow and the name change couldn’t have worked out better.
Two hours from the summit, I was back in camp. I felt even more exhausted and my head thumped, but I was also wonderfully content. I didn’t rush my second breakfast. This was a familiar and cherished place, my home, and soon deep, avalancheable snow would make this spot too risky to attempt to reach. I took my time before striking camp.
But eventually, I headed out, back into the world of trees where the snow was thawing fast.
I met plenty of people on the way out, and everyone was smiling. Everyone seemed happy to talk, to share a joke, to laugh. The beauty of the day seemed infectious. Face to face, hikers were treating one another with humour, politeness and respect – ‘civilised’ by nature, perhaps. It was a beautiful thing to see… and in complete contrast to how many people greeted the name change on social media. Happily, these ‘real world’ face-to-face encounters balanced the ignorance and hate spewed by a minority online.
The path out led down into the aspen woods, which still had only a subtle hint of the autumn soon to arrive. I made my way downhill slowly – and goodness was I moving slowly! But I knew I’d get there. Campaigns are won step by step. And the next step for this mountain, and for the wilderness around it, is to rename that wilderness, to make it the ‘Blue Sky Wilderness’. This will take an act of Congress. The Wilderness Society has a petition to get things started, here: PETITION TO RENAME THE MOUNT EVANS WILDERNESS