Tuesday, January 25, 2011

The Alternate Reality of Mount of the Holy Cross

I may have mentioned before that I like to walk up mountains.  I am not sure if this is diagnosable in the DSM-IV, but this neurosis can be particularly harmful if not kept in check.

Some of the symptoms include:
  1. A willingness to get up before dawn so you can walk really far in less than ideal conditions in the hopes that you won't trip, fall, get eaten by bears, or any other number of rather horrifying things.

  2. A desire to get to the summit of a mountain, even though there is no tangible reward, and the closer you get to the top, the farther you are from the end.

  3. A cavalier attitude about the possibility of getting lost and starving to death.  Slowly.

  4. A strange attraction to overpriced clothing and gear (also known as "the magpie affect", or "look, there's a shiny object!")

  5. A complete disregard to your fears, phobias, and other God-given survival instincts.
Any one of these symptoms can lead you into an early and painful death.

So when my friend Myriah asked me if I wanted to climb Mount of the Holy Cross with a group from her work two summers ago, I was all, "Uh... sure."

Because I am obviously not right in the head.

Mount of the Holy Cross gets it's name from a cross-shaped collier that is usually filled with snow on the northeast side.  There are times in history when this particular image was extremely well known and thought to have religious significance.   We didn't go up that side, which was probably for the best.  That walking route is not only longer, but the actual cross on the mountain looks to me like the mountain got into a knife fight and lost.  It doesn't look like anything "holy" to me.  Just mean.

We left at 4AM, so we had climbed pretty far before it started to get light.

The night before, we had camped at the trail head, which was probably not our brightest idea.

I had had to work the day before, so we didn't get to the campground until close to 8PM, just in time for it to get dark and start to rain.

We had the added benefit of using a borrowed tent neither one of us had ever seen set up before.  After some struggling, we managed to get it into some semblance of a tent shape, with the door opening into a big rock. But we could get in. Good enough.

When the alarm went off at 3:30AM, I sat up and put my head through a huge puddle of water sitting on the roof of the tent.  This was an old school lightweight pup-tent, and it used nylon under tension instead waterproof fabric.  When I touched it it dumped on me.

It is never a good sign when the first words out of my mouth upon waking is a shouted "FUCK!"

This mountain, even though it is one of the smallest 14ers in Colorado (that's the mountains about 14,000 feet), has a really bad reputation.  This is my first "view" of the mountain.  It looks really freaking far away.

I felt wrong as soon as we got up.  

I didn't have a map, and was unclear of the route.  My mom had spent a good 20 minutes telling me to be careful, and not get lost, people disappeared without a trace up there.  She and Dad had been called in to help on a search years back and with hundreds of searchers and helicopters, and they never found a trace of the missing hiker.  And that was on a sunny day.  

I didn't like being surrounded by mostly strangers.  

I didn't like that the group would not stay together.

The mist was setting off some kind of mild asthma and it made my chest hurt horribly.  

We got to Halfmoon Pass, and I realize we had just climbed 1,000 feet, and we were going to have to descend just as far and then climb back up the valley on the other side.  This really pissed me off.

I tried my best to pretend I was all gung-ho to go, but I really just wanted to sit down and watch the sun rise some more. Maybe have some coffee.

People vanish and they are never found.

It seemed to take forever to descend into the valley, way longer than the climb up.

It wasn't a vortex into another reality, but a pretty common problem I have when I hike in the dark.  My brain kind of shuts off the dark parts, and I am always surprised by how far I went when all I had to see with was the cone of a headlamp.

Even though we were miles in, it turned out I was going stupid slow.

The land surrounding it is wild and goes for miles.  The mountain itself tries to deceive you with identical looking gullies, one being the way home, and the other 500 routes leading to madness.

I don't know if it was the fog, which was sticking around way longer than expected, the strange lush forests and muted thumps in the woods, or just my brain imagining what it would be like to be lost in this wilderness, but I started getting a creepy feeling bordering on panic.  It seemed completely stupid, but I just couldn't seem to get past it. 

Finally at about 12,000 feet (the second time), I stopped.

"I don't want to do this," I said.  "I want to go back".

Myriah admitted that she was experiencing a pretty severe migraine as well.  So we turned around.

I remember thinking, "Crap, I'm a failure."

One of the hike leaders, Steve, said he would walk us back, which made me feel completely embarrassed and upset that we ruined his day, but not enough to change my mind again. He wouldn't let us go back on our own.

The relief I felt turning around was tangible and overrode all other emotions.

I was so relieved that it took me a few minutes to realize that the three of us were all alone.  On a trail that was packed with people minutes before.

Where's the trail?

We had walked right off the trail and were headed to an alternate universe.

All that relief I had felt moments before evaporated.

The mist had thickened up again when I stopped. 

"Hey," I said.  My voice was kind of quiet.

"HEY," I said louder.  The other two looked back at me.

"Where's the cairn?" I said.

I was tired, too.  Simply beat.  I wanted to cry because I was going to have to walk back uphill again to find our way.  I was pretty sure the direction we were going would spit us out no the exact wrong side of the mountain.

It was the second time that day that I dropped the f-bomb.

We all scanned the surrounding area, but visibility had dropped to about 20 feet in any direction.  I started to wonder if we were about to walk into another dimension.  One with... dinosaurs.  Or faeries.  You know, not the cute little Tinkerbell faeries, but like, the creepy monster faeries from old school faery tales.  The ones that turn milk sour and steal firstborn babies.

Or maybe, faeries riding dinosaurs.

Anything was possible.

"I see it!" Myriah shouted.  There was a momentary break in the fog, and we could see the pile of rocks beckoning from a hill to our right.  What's funny is that until the moment she shouted, I was under the impression that it wasn't a hill, but a drop off.

The mountain was playing tricks on me.

Although, I really shouldn't be that surprised.

My personal sense of direction is so bad that I could get lost in a closet.

It wasn't until we were well on our way back that the clouds opened up for a brief glimpse of the actual mountain.  I had an overwhelming impression that it was happy to see me go.

We made it back into the valley in what seemed like no time after that.  As I struggled back up Halfmoon Pass, I realized that I was pretty ecstatic that I was off the mountain.

But it still bothers me that it won.

It's been over 2 years since this attempt.  It may be time for me to meet this psychopath of a mountain again this summer.

(Photos from August, 2008)

Saturday, January 22, 2011

I Will NOT Think About Trolls... I Will NOT Think About Trolls... I Will NOT Think About Trolls...

So, I guess I am living the dream.

I get to do fun things.

And by fun, I mean insane.

You might remember me talking about the time I climbed Crosier Mountain, got to the top at dawn, and tried (and failed) to take a picture of the moonset.  If not, you can read about it HERE.  Or HERE.  Or even HERE.

Well, it was time.  Time to try this shit again.

And I have to say, I was much better at not thinking about trolls this time.  I didn't say the T-word all morning.

This time I kept thinking about mountain lions.  Might have had something to do with a dream I had recently where this mountain lion was stalking us on the North Fork trail (only a few miles from where we were), or maybe I am just ridiculous.

You can see the moon through the clouds.  Sort of.  

It was 4AM and the wind was howling when we reached the trailhead.  The plan was for Myriah, Chris, and I to climb Crosier before the sun came up.  I don't quite understand how I ever managed to get friends awesome enough to wake up at 2AM to go for a hike with me, but these guys win.

Today was one of those rare occasions where the moonset is close to the sunrise, and I was going to succeed this time.

We were going to succeed.

It would happen.  A photograph of the moon setting over the Continental Divide right when the sun illuminated the snowy peaks with glorious sunshine.

Unless, of course, it was cloudy.

The forecast was not hopeful.  Apparently, there was a severe winter weather alert for the foothills between six and nine thousand feet.  The top of Crosier is about 9200. This could be tricky.  There were so many things that could go wrong.

It might be cloudy.  It might be windy (gusts up to 49 miles per hour).  It might snow on us.  We might get eaten by mountain lions.

We went anyway, because we are just that adventurous.  Or stupid. 

Looking east towards Loveland about 45 minutes before dawn.

None of us were in tip-top shape this year.  We tried to plan a nice slow walk, but we were all feeling it.  

The trail was a mix of ice and dirt, with some snow.  We all wore YakTrax so we wouldn't slip, but it made the dirt and rock parts a little harder to deal with.  Our feet sparked as we walked.

I was actually pretty hopeful that we would get to the top and I would get my glorious photograph.

For some reason, I was walking in front.  None of us were using our headlamps because the moon was making the snow on the ground glow.  Every once in a while, I would stop and flick it on to make sure we were still on the trail, or to check out tracks I saw.  There were a number of animal tracks along the ice-packed trail, and I had to check for claws whenever one was the right size for a mountain lion.  Claws in the footprint meant a dog.  Big kitty cats don't have them.

After about an hour, I started to calm down a little.  I realized that we would probably be OK.  We stuck close together, and I figured we were making enough noise that the big predators would leave us alone, even though dawn and dusk are their favorite times to hunt.

The wind was making the trees talk and creak.  Once I stopped worrying about mountain lions, the wind brought up another boogie-man from my childhood.

It's called a wendigo.  My version of the wendigo has little to do with American Indian mythology.  There was a story when I was little in one of those "scary stories to read around the campfire" books where the main character was picked up by the wind on a dark winter night, screaming.  I don't even remember the story that well, and I remember thinking it was stupid when I was little.  But the idea stuck with me.

We were about to be snatched by some huge, unseen wind monster.

More and thicker clouds were moving in.  The temperature was dropping.

We were going pretty slow.  According to my best map calculation, it should only be three and a quarter miles to the top, but we were going for about two hours and we still weren't to the main fork in the trail.  The fork is about the halfway point, time wise.

A decision was made to head back.  The clouds were getting thicker, to the point that the headlamps had been broken out.  It was getting colder.  And we weren't going to make it to the top before dawn.  Even if the clouds broke at the right moment, we were not going to be there to see it.

We decided to head back down and drive to Estes Park to try to get the photo from Lake Estes.  It was only a few miles from the trailhead.

As the top receded, the sky brightened.

Myriah and I were in front, talking about nothing.  She stopped suddenly.  "Did you hear that?"

"Hear what?" I asked.  I knew what she was talking about.  I just didn't want to admit it.

"I thought I heard something."

"Maybe it was a dog?"

"No..." she said, "It wasn't a dog."

There was a pause.

"Maybe it was a tree."

The trees were squeaking and groaning in the wind.  It could have been a tree.

I don't know why I didn't tell her.  Probably because I had been thinking about it the whole trip.

A while later, I heard it again, further off.

It sounded a bit like a woman screaming, only rougher.

It sounded like a mountain lion.

Again, I said nothing.

We got back to the trailhead about 7AM, and piled into my car.

I finally admitted what I heard.

Myriah thought it sounded more like a child screaming.

Maybe it was nothing.  A figment.

But I was pretty happy we didn't get eaten.

Lake Estes made little booming noises from the water hitting the ice.  The moon was obviously nowhere to be seen.

We drove the rest of the way up to Estes Park, hoping to be able to see something of the moon.  What I saw instead was how bad the weather was turning.

About 30 minutes after "dawn", a little but of sunlight leaked through to the east.  It mostly just made the landscape look colder.

Considering how cold we got in our 10 minute jaunt to Lake Estes, I was not at all upset that we turned back.

We had a big breakfast at Ed's Cantina and headed home.

Some day, I'll get the moonset over the mountains in the wee hours, but that day was not today.  I am not particularly upset that I failed again.  I didn't die.  Again.

Good enough.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

The Language of Bugs

My dad makes fun of me for taking pictures of dead trees.

I take a lot of them.

I find the pale, skinless trees in the woods fascinating.  They remind me of headstones or monuments.

At some point, I started noticing the secret writings of the insect world etched into the tree bones.

When was it written?  What did it say?

Taken on the North Fork Trail

I can imagine these are the only records of great and mighty insect empires, detailing their secret histories.  Their Caesars and Caligulas.  Their Hamlets.  Their heroes and villains.  The rise and fall of their entire civilizations.

Bobcat Ridge
I can imagine graduate students spending their school careers trying to translate this complex language without a Rosetta Stone, and going insane.

On the Colorado Trail
Maybe it isn't worth translating.  Maybe it's nothing more than a list of goods and services.

On the Colorado Trail
Maybe it's just graffiti, and says, "Benjamin Bug was here".

On the Longs Peak Trail in Rocky Mountain National Park
But they're all different.  They all have a story to tell, even if the story is simply, "a pine beetle infestation killed this tree 30 years ago".

On the North Fork
Or maybe...

Maybe someday I will have to grow up and stop making up stories.  

Sounds boring.

Monday, January 17, 2011

The Time I was Almost Eaten by Alligators.

I may have mentioned before that I really enjoy taking photographs.  This means that I have a huge number of pictures moldering away on my hard drive that I rarely look at.


Tens of thousands. 

And every album has a story.

For example.

One time, I was almost eaten by alligators...

Shortly after I moved back to Colorado from Louisiana, I took a trip to visit my friend Flynn out at a place called Caddo Lake.  He was there looking at some property his family owned, and it was a good opportunity for me to see see some swamp.

Caddo straddles the border of Texas and Louisiana near Shreveport.  We stayed on the Texas side, in a little tiny town called Uncertain.

The sign coming into town made me laugh, as did everything that mentioned the name, like the "Uncertain Grocer" and the "Church of Uncertain"

It was evening when we arrived, and the cyprus trees were starting to lose their needles.  Everything looked magical.

Years later, the HBO television show True Blood, used this same broken down boat-up bar/restaurant in the opening credits.  I took the picture first.  They totally copied me.  Also, Sookie is supposed to live in LOUISIANA, not East Texas.

 It wasn't until the day we took a boat out onto the lake that I realized I was going to die.

I had also just purchased my camera, and I was not 100% on how it worked.  I put it on Auto and just took a ton of pictures, hoping for the best.

Don't get me wrong, I know how to swim, and besides that, most of the lake is shallow enough to stand in and would be between knee and waist deep.  It was what was under the water that scared me.

The surface might look like a mirror when it is reflecting a well-lit background from the top, but it was dark with debris.  I could imagine inky blackness if I were to swim down a foot or two.

Yes, this was the "path" that the boat traveled through.  I remember we got a teeny bit of air as we slid over larger chunks of vegetation.

This meant that anything could be down there.

And this being the South, and a swamp, the first thing I thought was, "There's frickin' alligators here.  Holy crap, I am going to be eaten by alligators."

And what would happen if we got stuck?  No one would  ever find us.

It didn't help that we were zooming along in a tiny little tin can boat with a motor about the size of my pinky.  I know it had to be light and have a shallow draw to have any chance of navigating the constantly changing waterways, but this thing was going a bit overboard (no pun intended).  I was mere inches from snake-infested waters.

Admittedly, we had a guide who grew up on the lake, but that doesn't completely counteract my fear of ... well, everything.

Because I was all about taking photographs, I was put in the very front of the boat.  It had the best view, and the added advantage of no one being able to see my expressions of stark terror.

We tipped this way and that, skimming the water.  I snapped pictures as we went, attempting to distract myself from my own impending death, and because Caddo Lake is frigging AMAZING.

It was almost a shame to break open the algae.

It turned out that I survived.  Alligators are not terribly active in November, and I probably should have been more worried about the duck hunters.

(Photos from November 2007)

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Cross Country Skiing is like Masochism, Only Prettier.

Don't get me wrong.  I adore cross country skiing.  But cross country skiing is a sport for the slightly mentally ill and the people who like pain and discomfort.  It's also incredibly fun.

"Hey guys, it's snowing like a motherf%&ker out!  Let's get in the car and drive into the mountains in the storm so we can go play!"

Trees from the Bear Lake parking lot

And that's exactly what happened on Sunday.  It was snowing like a motherf%&ker down in the lowlands of Loveland.  We had already planned to try skiing that day, but the storm made it imperative.

Dad drove the old Jeep.  The roads were icy and snowy and slippery, but we didn't die.  We even got pulled over for speeding in the park (oops).  I love that Jeep.

We arrived much later in the day than expected.

Bear Lake. 
It was amazing.  

At some point before I left in the morning, I decided to shoot black and white film.  I figured my best winter mountain pictures look black and white anyway, and the film camera is lighter, and I had never tried it before and... I don't know.  It seemed like a good idea.

Looking back at the shore from Bear Lake.

It was.  These are some of the best snowy pictures I have taken.


Yes.  It was cold.  Like, freaking arctic cold with polar bears.

Yes, there was some sweazing (that's sweating and freezing at the same time).

Yes, my lungs burned and my muscles screamed at me.  Either I am that out of shape, or it is just that hard to move.  I actually got a cramp in my big toe.  I guess I forgot to stretch it before heading out?

I realized about an hour in that I couldn't move my face.

But the snow was perfect.

It really was this amazing.

Sometimes I have to risk frost bite to remind myself why I love living in Colorado.

The "foreign" version of me.  (Picture by Erin)  And if you're wondering, that I am wearing my awesome shiny red Eddie Bauer coat in this photo.  I really am the best dressed girl in the Rockies.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

I Can't Even Do Depression Right!

OK, Thanksgiving is over.  So is Christmas.  And New Year's Eve.  And my mom's birthday (a bigger holiday than Christmas in my family).

Some people might decide that now would be the perfect time get all depressed.  I mean, seriously:
  1. The weather is shitty.    
  2. Everyone has a cold.  
  3. New Year's resolutions are chok full of suck.  
  4. The next big holiday is MLK, which is really not all that exciting because there is no food, and no presents,
  5. I still haven't sent off Christmas cards OR presents for my nieces- proof that I am a deadbeat aunt.
But I'm not down.

So what if the days are short?

So what if my winter pudge is really not a good look?

So what if it's freaking cold and every morning I have to scrape ice off the windshield so I can go to work (which is not all that awesome to to begin with, and this time of year I go in before sunrise and leave after sunset)?

So what if all I have to look forward to for the next two months is going to the gym with all the other pudgy winter revelers, and not buying anything because I have to start saving money for really real this time?

January is really the "Monday" of the year and should totally make me feel old and not very accomplished at anything, and frantic to accomplish SOMETHING with my life.

Where the hell is my annual seasonal affective disorder depression?

I'm sorry, guys, I can't lie anymore.  I feel pretty OK.

Go on.  Turn that frown upside-down.  It's a brand new year.  You get to fail all over again!

I am never going to belong. 

Monday, January 3, 2011


This is the last day of my enforced eleven day vacation from work (aka, "the company furlough").

Eleven days is a long time to be away from my desk, and I will be lucky if my plants are alive when I return tomorrow.  Ok, one plant.  Or stick.  It's really just a little chunk of bamboo in a glass container that sprouted leaves on top.  But the container it's in is really small and it dries out if I don't add water a couple times a week.  And I have been gone ELEVEN DAYS.  What if I killed it?

I am a little scared about going back.

What if I can't find my way through the cubicles? What if they moved everything, just a little bit, just to mess with me? What if they didn't but I convince myself they did? What if I get lost?

You know how I am always complaining about not having enough time?  How I would be so much more creative and accomplish so much more if I only had time and didn't have to work?  I'll bet you're wondering what I did with ELEVEN DAYS AWAY FROM WORK AND ENDLESS TIME ON MY HANDS.  Well rest assured.  I'll fill you in.

I got sick.  Cough, cough, sneeze, sneeze, since Christmas Eve.  I am starting to feel better, now that I have to go back to work.

Because I got sick, I didn't make it up into the mountains THIS ENTIRE TIME. Not even during the snowstorm, which is my favorite time to go participate in the weather because no one else is around.  But I didn't.  Hopefully they (by "they" I mean the mountains) won't be angry with me when I do go back, and try to kill me.  More than usual, I mean.

I watched TV.  Like, a lot of TV, every evening. I don't normally watch that much.  My brain has become the consistency of Jello, and I may have damaged myself.

I drank beer.  More than usual, even.

I ate too much "food", if you call the over-processed crap I have been putting in my mouth "food".  All of it bad for me.  Obviously.

I finally managed to break myself of the expectation that the toilet will flush all by itself as soon as I stand up.
    I actually kind of miss the automatically flushing toilets at work.  You go to the bathroom, and as soon as you move away, "FLUSH".  No touching the nasty toilet handle.  Then you go to wash your hands, and you just shove your hands under the spigot and the water comes on.  No handles, levers, pumps, or syphons.  Just water. It's pretty amazing.

    The problems occur when I go back to the real world and nothing works automatically.

    There is nothing quite as strange as catching myself staring at my floaties in the toilet wondering why they haven't gone away.

    And then I wave at it, trying to trigger the motion sensor.

    After 5 or 10  minutes, it finally occurs to me that I have just spent 5 or 10 minutes communing with my own feces, and that the little lever thingy there will make this whole problem go away.

    And so I manually flush the damned thing.

    I go to wash my hands, berating myself for forgetting yet again that I don't have motion sensors in my house, for crying out loud, and then I realize that I have been standing there berating myself with my hands hanging underneath the faucet and no water is coming out because I haven't turned it on.  Because there are no motion sensors in my house.

    So yeah.  It took ten and one-half days to rid myself of the habit of expecting my plumbing to be automatic, maybe even psychically linked to my brain, and tomorrow I have to go back to work.

    What did I do with my winter vacation?  Well, the most difficult part of my day involved thinking about pooh.

    I think my vacation came out all right.