Paul Andersen: A walk on the wild side
It seems like the classic “day after,” but my hangover is not alcohol-related. My legs feel like I’ve borrowed them from a 93-year-old man. My mind is on 33 1/3 in a 78 world.
Anybody who has ever used a record player will understand that last metaphor. Suffice to say that all my systems are on auxiliary power in the aftermath of a long and satisfying day hike last weekend that took me and a buddy over three high passes in the heart of the Snowmass-Maroon Bells Wilderness Area.
Our lengthy 18-mile route defines the desperate motivation of stay-at-home dads champing at the bit to get out of the house. Walking that distance in one day may seem excessive, but the inherent value lies in maintaining a balance between domestic harmony and wilderness wanderlust.
What with juggling careers and families, multiday trips are about as unlikely as monthlong expeditions, so the domestic adventurer must often relegate only a single day for the pent-up needs that live in his heart. This induces a purge mentality in which the essential requirements of freedom must be exercised within a 12-hour window.
Long day trips become as important to the psyche as a sound connubial relationship and family stability. The challenge is to jam a week’s worth of vacation into a single day, which compels one to plot journeys that rejuvenate the spirit and tax the body. Such was the goal of our epic last week.
I knew MT and I had reached that pinnacle of achievement when we saw the mountain goats on the trail below Willow Pass. A mother and her twins walked nonchalantly up the tundra toward us as we sat, catching our breath and downloading calories, on a grassy hummock strewn with alpine wildflowers at around 12,000 feet.
At first the goats looked like Great Pyrenees sheep dogs, their white coats contrasting with the deep-green tundra through which they climbed. They moved like bears, with big, strong shoulders and an easy, lumbering gait. It was their sharp, black horns that identified them.
The mother goat led the babies toward us, then veered onto a rocky ramp beneath a crumbled cliff of talus where they picturesquely grazed. At one point, the mother planted her forelegs on a boulder and gazed across the valley at the towering face of North Maroon Peak. It was one of those Kodak moments that lives in your mind better than any picture ever could.
MT and I had left the East Snowmass Creek trailhead that morning at about 8:30. MT’s friend Jim, from Florida, made an admirable showing as we marched resolutely through wildflower meadows, dark timber and finally over snowfields to the 13,000-foot divide overlooking Willow Basin.
Wild geraniums dotted the understory of the aspen tree ecosystem, as did bouquets of Colorado columbine and colorful varieties of painted cup. Birds sang riotously and a cool breeze rushed down from the pass under a sky so blue it seemed like an optical illusion.
MT and I set off for the rest of the loop while Jim headed back down the creek. We passed Willow Lake, then ascended Willow Pass, where we took a break and watched the goats. We dropped into Minnehaha Gulch, then followed the goats over Buckskin Pass, circumventing a huge snow cornice that rose over us like a curling wave. “Surf’s up!” said MT.
As the goats provided stunning silhouettes on the ridge, we shouldered our packs and marched the few miles down to Snowmass Lake, one of the most spectacular mountain vistas anywhere. The snowfield on Snowmass Mountain was enormous and roared with whitewater that poured into the deep green lake.
We pumped water with MT’s filter and scarfed the last of our food, filling our bellies with the cold, clear water. Glancing up, we surveyed an immense and inspiring panorama of the glimmering lake hemmed in by jagged ridges of granite.
Then we dialed into the long, steady descent down Snowmass Creek, our legs on autopilot and our minds wandering pleasurably across an infinite range of thoughts and ideas. We spoke only a little during the final leg of our 11-hour hike, reveling in that blissful state of self-absorption as the mountains gave us room to breath, dream and ponder.
Paul Andersen values the serenity and the leg cramps of a long, contemplative hike. His column runs on Mondays.
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