Paul Andersen: Thoughts while on a wilderness trail |

Paul Andersen: Thoughts while on a wilderness trail

Paul Andersen
Fair Game

Graeme aptly puts the day into perspective: “We’ve seen more mountain goats than people!” Such was the tally after eight hours on a wilderness trail during a two-pass traverse of the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness.

The trailhead in late August was empty when we arrived. The tumult of summer had tapered off noticeably in the interim between the Aspen Music Festival and JAS Aspen. School had started. Families were gone. The mountains were quiet and empty.

After an hour hiking up the steep, narrow valley, we came to a steep section where the sides of the trail were stacked with the snapped off limbs and shattered trunks of aspens, spruce and fir. The carnage of a 300-year avalanche cycle from one fatal night in March revealed the combined force of gravity and a record snowpack that brought mayhem to the mountains.

“I wonder how an Avilung would have worked in this,” remarked Tait as Graeme pushed his hiking pole to the hilt through tree wreckage that looked as if it had been pulverized by a brush chipper.

Looking deeper, we recognized that the power of avalanche pales next to the grinding force of glaciers that long ago carved the lofty arêtes, cirques and jagged ridgelines, not to mention the unimaginable forces that had pushed up these mountains in the first place.

We puny humans felt like microbes within the grand scheme of things and humbly strode the meandering trail through ancient forests, the bright morning sun illuminating their topmost branches.

The red hue of the Maroon ridges, colored by the iron-bearing mineral hematite and oxidized into rust, contrasted with the sparkling gray granite that millions of years ago pushed skyward deep beds of sediments deposited by outflows from the Ancestral Rockies and accumulated miles deep in a Cretaceous seaway.

The Mount Sopris pluton, a vast magma mushroom, pushed these deep red beds into thin air where they were later sculpted by massive ice floes into what we see today. And mankind assumes we are at the top of a hierarchy of planetary significance? Get real!

Humans are melting the world’s glaciers, but when we recognize glacial striations etched across granite slabs or note the ponderous hulk of a glacial erratic boulder, all hubris must vanish. Just as it must when gazing alone up at the dark dome of space where the Milky Way is a smear of stars whose numbers speak to infinity.

Alone is a good place to take in the universe, so I slow my pace and let the others go ahead. I sniff the scent of crushed evergreens and identify the cloying fragrance of lupine. I hear the rush of the creek in the deep cleft below and the soft humming of flying insects that flit to and fro.

At the top of our first pass at 12,500 feet, we stretch out on the tundra, share treats, drink snowmelt spring water and gaze down at an array of high lakes set in emerald green verdure tinted with yellow and purple wildflowers. Here is a canvas where nature’s artistry is magnificently contrived to suit the esthetic sensibilities to which we have evolved.

Cooper studies his hand where a large yellowish fly perches. It lands on each of our hands in turn, and we gaze curiously at its features. I stick up my pointer finger and the fly lands atop it with confidence. Dare we admit to feeling kinship with an emboldened fly? How rare it is to commune with the meek that shall one day inherit the Earth.

Graeme points out white shapes on the distant ridge. Glassing the heights reveals 11 mountain goats, including several small kits, the herd grazing slowly upwards, their bright white coats standing out against the deep blue-black of a summer sky.

To think of these goats in their polar bear coats buffeted by blizzards contrasts sharply with the frailty of our thin, vulnerable skin, now jacketed against a cool breeze that speaks to the coming of autumn as the first leaves of understory foliage are reddening against the failing of the sun and the inexorable and welcome change of seasons.

Paul Andersen’s column appears on Mondays. He may be reached at