Andrew Terrill

The outdoor diary of a writer, photographer, and wilderness wanderer

A Small Mountain Made Big

THE MOUNTAIN THAT sweeps upwards above my Colorado home is pretty small as mountains go. In fact, arguably, to call it a mountain is to stretch the definition of what a mountain is. For one thing, it only rises a thousand feet from the valley floor to the highest point – hardly a big altitude gain. For another, it is topped by a rolling plateau, not a crowning, dominating summit. Then there are the human-made additions that diminish its mountain stature: electricity pylons and power lines that a previous (heartless) generation strung across the plateau’s own heart; an omnipresent background drone from the surrounding suburbs and industries; trails that can teem with hikers and mountain bikers, sometimes creating the ambiance of an urban park not a large wild mountain.

the mountain golden winter storm 15 march 2024
View from my front deck to the small mountain above my home. 

And yet, despite this, the mountain does possess redeeming features, including several that many larger mountains lack, such as the rock faces that surround the plateau – vertical walls of bulging basalt that, in places, only climbers can scale – as well as a great richness of wildlife: coyotes, deer, mountain lions, rattlesnakes and eagles among them. There are plenty of mountains I know back where I grew up in Britain that have a dearth of such wild inhabitants. On top of that, there is the redeeming benefit of the mountain’s diminutive size itself, which presents to visitors the truly priceless gift of accessibility, allowing easy access to the finest locations and hidden corners within minutes not hours. A full day on foot isn’t needed here to establish a meaningful connection with nature as it is on bigger mountains, only an hour or two. Then, alongside all this, there are also the rugged barely penetrable spots where no-one in their right mind would ever go but where true wildness can be found, as well as broad open-to-the-sky stretches where a visitor can feel released from the modern world’s constricting grasp. So, yes: small the mountain undeniably is, but large in value it can be to anyone who takes the trouble to get to know it. And for me, after twenty years and hundreds if not thousands of ‘getting-to-know-it’ visits, the mountain has value far beyond the sum of its parts.

Size, as is often said in jest, isn’t everything; it’s the ‘feeling’ of size that matters. (Ahem – no innuendo intended!) And that’s the thing about this little table-top mountain: under certain transformative conditions it can feel significantly larger than one might expect. In fact, in certain situations, it can give a visitor the feeling of a Big Mountain Experience. Of an adventure, even.

As it did last week…

snow on back deck
Snow piling up on the back deck.

The transformation into ‘something greater’ began late on Wednesday as daylight faded and spring-like temperatures plummeted back towards wintry. A drenching rain was falling, but over a thirty-minute period the downpour morphed into globular sleet then heavy wet snow. Soon it was piling up. By dawn the snow lay a foot and a half deep and continued to deepen as the day went on, as flakes relentlessly cascaded from the heavens. By the time the storm finally let up on Friday, two feet of snow buried the mountain, the third deepest fall in the twenty years I’ve called the mountain home.

cars golden winter storm 15-march-2024
Digging out to be done.

On the storm’s first morning, Thursday morning, civic duties came before selfish mountain-based pleasures: the shovelling of public walkways, then the releasing of driveways and cars for my own household and for neighbours. But eventually, with community duties completed and a great deal of energy already expended, I was free to dedicate myself to the hill. Exuberantly, I strapped skis to feet, uphill skins to skis, then headed into the storm. Within a minute of leaving my front door it was as though I’d left home miles behind. I’d entered a wilder environment, a place untracked and untouched, limited in view by fog and falling snow; a place muffled in sound, softened and smothered, whitened and simplified. And that was just at the start! Within another fifteen minutes, as I climbed onwards through snow that had been blown into waist-deep drifts, snow that might potentially even avalanche, it was as though I’d reached another world altogether, as though I were thousands of feet up some massive peak engaged in a genuine all-consuming adventure…

Which was quite something to experience only four hundred yards from home as the eagle flies!

The following photos are all centered on the storm; the first few taken during it, the remainder from the aftermath once the clouds had rolled away. They show a small mountain transformed into something bigger and wilder. They show a fleeting moment in time, a swift passing change, and they celebrate it, I hope, and above all reveal my gratitude for it. Change is something the human animal too often resists, and snowstorms are events that many people hate – and often for understandable and reasonable reasons! But change is as inevitable as spring Colorado snowstorms, and resistance to either is futile! I’m fortunate and privileged to be in a position where I don’t have to resist, where I can embrace and enjoy, and being in that position gives me, I believe, a duty to do just that: to enjoy, to savour, to make the most of such events.

When an epic snowstorm hits it would almost be a moral crime for me to waste it!

snow and rock - winter north table - 14 march 2024
A wild place transformed. Deepening snow curling over a basalt boulder.
snowstorm north table mountain - 14 march 2024
The crag above my home during the storm’s first day, with large wind-blown cornices building.
golden cliffs - cornice - snowstorm north table mountain - 14 march 2024
Cornices and drifts.

I can see this pinnacle from my front door, and I’ve climbed to the top via the face on the right. But I’ve never before seen it with a four-foot cornice! With spindrift swirling, and my home below hidden by the storm, and drifts many feet deep, and skis on my feet, it emphatically did not feel like a familiar much-visited place.

heading up north table 14-march-2024
A party of three, heading up.

I caught up with three others who were attempting to carry their skis (and one snowboard) up onto the plateau. They were sinking waist deep, and one member of the party was calling “enough”, wanting to turn back. The sight of their struggle added to the transformation of the mountain. It also brought home how effective skis can be for staying on top of snow. I’m not much of skier – my preference is to snowshoe – but the success of this rare outing for my cross country skis might well change my future preferences!

snowdrift north table 14-march-2024
Deep, DEEP snow!

Up on the plateau’s edge the drifts and cornices were deeper than any I’ve ever seen on the hill. They were so deep that I even considered the possibility of an avalanche extremely carefully before approaching and breaking through to the tops. (After a careful inspection I concluded that the snow was well-bonded and safe.) But the potential threat of collapsing snow added yet another element to the adventure, further increasing the mountain’s stature.

andrew terrill snowdrift north table 14-march-2024
The drifts, for scale! Home lay only four hundred yards away in a straight line and only four-hundred feet lower. But… a world away, too.
trail sign winter north table 14-march-2024
Wild on top!

Conditions on top were WILD! A brutal wind blew hard, creating near white-out conditions. I only grabbed one photo: this one, of a trail sign that wasn’t revealing much! But I know my way around up here regardless of whether or not I can seeing anything and, well wrapped-up, I treasured the thrill of skiing across a small section of the plateau. It was a treat, an experience for all the senses, a moment to pull in to the full and treasure, a short stretch of life that while occurring became everything – true living in the moment.

skiers golden winter storm 14-march-2024
A return to civilisation.

Eventually, a thoroughly inelegant ski descent took me back to town (I only crashed over three times!) As I returned ‘from the wild’ I discovered that others were also about on ski, others also relishing the transformative conditions.

 snow car 14-march-2024
More shovelling to be done!

The storm finally broke on the Friday morning, the sun reappered. After clearing walkways and cars and decks once again I pulled on snowshoes this time (for the variety and comparison of it) and set off uphill on the same route as the day before.

golden colorado snow 15 march 2024
Less than a hundred yards from home and the view was already captivating.
heading uphill golden cliffs colorado 15 march 2024
In radiating sunlight, layers were soon stripped off. The short climb to the crag took far more effort than usual!
snow covered mountain mahogany thickets golden 15 march 2024
Snow-smothered mountain mahogany thickets. An impenetrable eight-foot high jungle simplified.
cornice - north table mountain - 15 march 2024
The cornices atop the crag were even more impressive than they’d been the day before.
eagle and cornices - north table mountain - 15 march 2024
By great fortune, I had the zoom lens on my camera to photograph the cornices when a golden eagle soared into view…

eagle - north table mountain - 15 march 2024

It was a magnificent sight… and even better followed when I finally stood on the plateau: four bald eagles swooped by less than fifteen feet overhead, with the wind whooshing through their feathers. They passed far too swiftly for photography, but the moment was one to treasure, the memory as indelible as any photo could be.

andrew terrill - deep snow north table mountain - 15 march 2024
Nearing the plateau, the snow grew deeper. Five to six-plus feet in places. The mountain seldom looks like this!
cornice - golden cliffs - 15 march 2024

cornice - golden cliffs - 15 march 2024

A lingered awhile on the plateau’s edge to treasure the conditions and immense beauty, awash with gratitude and appreciation, still pinching myself at the choices and chances that had led to this moment in time.

cornices - north table mountain - 15 march 2024

The edge of the plateau.
north table mountain - 15 march 2024
The plateau.

Up on top, the mesa was ‘whiter’ than it had been in over sixteen years. ‘Normal’ snowfalls don’t settle deeply enough to smooth over the rocks or hide the tall prairie grass. But this storm had altered the plateau into a simpler and cleaner place.

north table mountain summit snow - 15 march 2024
The plateau’s highest perch is a small pimple of volcanic rock. A figure wallowing towards it was lost in the great extent of white.
north table mountain plateau snow - 15 march 2024
A few of the clouds drifting above the plateau resembled hummingbirds – summer residents soon to arrive.
cornices - north table mountain - 15 march 2024
A deep drift on the rim.

It might be years before Big Mountain Cornices form on the mesa’s edge again. Or weeks – who can tell?! But I made sure to take my time, to appreciate the nature-sculpting ‘art’ of them.

cornices - north table mountain - 15 march 2024
Hanging over my home town!
Golden from North Table Mountain - 16 March 2024
My home, Golden, looking pristine – viewed from ‘A Small Mountain Made Big’.


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