In bloom: Follow the flowers
July 17, 2009
MARBLE, Colo. – Wildflowers have a lot to teach us about living in the mountains. Like when to be out on the high peaks, and where to be safe in them.
I was recently reminded of these lessons on an alpine excursion between Marble and Crested Butte. With the forecast calling for no precipitation, I set out to spend a rare, full day above tree line at Yule Lakes and Treasure Mountain. From the Crested Butte side of the Raggeds Wilderness, it’s usually an easy, 2-mile hike to Yule Pass. Halfway there, though, the trail was blocked by a narrow, but steep, snowfield. Steep enough that you couldn’t see the bottom some 2,000 feet below.
With no ice ax and no companion, this should have been a no-brainer – turn around and go to “Plan B.” On the other hand, three sets of footprints indicated other hikers had recently crossed the slide. And the pass was so close. I dug two steps into the snow to test it out. Thankfully, common sense intervened, I backed out of the snow, and I looked to the flowers for help.
Basically, if a slope is covered in green, it’s probably safe to be on. The plants both anchor the soil and indicate there’s something to anchor into. I backtracked and headed for green above the snowfield and onto 13,500-foot Treasury Mountain, Treasure Mountain’s next-door neighbor. Covered with fragments of fossil-filled slate, Treasury appears an unlikely home for wildflowers. But tucked in amongst the rocky ledges and crevices was a rich variety of flowers, including two rare, strictly-alpine species, arctic draba and Lyall’s rockress, that until now had eluded me.
In order to see all of the hundreds (yes, hundreds!) of tiny species of alpine flowers that live on Colorado’s high peaks, you need lots of time – time to move slowly and deliberately with your nose to the ground, and ideally time enough to wait for the wind to calm just long enough to get a photo. Usually mid-day thunderstorms deny the alpine wildflower seeker this kind of time, but not on this “Plan B” day.
Indeed, I had forgotten all about “Plan A” until my innkeeper in Crested Butte told me about a massive search and rescue mission that had been launched just the week before near Yule Pass. It seems a hiker had slid thousands of feet down a snowfield – the same snowfield, as it turned out – onto the rocky valley floor below. He was in critical condition. After the chills had dissipated, I considered the lessons learned for traveling in the high country: Give yourself plenty of time, embrace “Plan B,” and follow the flowers.