Monday, August 10, 2015

Passes and Peaks

In Colorado, where even the newcomers can tell you that “cotton kills”; where many new arrivals tell the same story of driving around the US looking for someplace and discovering that Colorado was the place; where visitors swarm, not for beaches, but for the high-quality cold and snow; here in Colorado, it’s common to hike the “fourteeners,”  the 14,000-foot mountains.

On any weekend you’ll find a raggedy line of hikers trudging past wary bighorn sheep up the well-worn trail to the most popular peaks. I imagine there’s a similar communal feel as Buddhist and Shinto pilgrims climb Mt. Fuji each summer—carefully polite, upbeat and determined. A lot of people decide to hike all 53 of the fourteeners. They hike the peaks, which, to get on the accepted list, must stand more than 300 feet higher than the saddles connecting to another peak. Gray’s and Torrey’s are two favorites, because they stand close together, their shoulders touching to form a high saddle. Very fit people sometimes run between the two peaks.

But as gratifying as the accomplishment of climbing the sometimes 4,000 feet from the base to the top of a fourteener, and as grand as the views from the peaks are, I prefer hiking the passes. The passes are the mountain ranges’ low points between canyons or water catchments. They not only connect watersheds to each other, but they also connect humans to the landscape.

It was by the passes that white explorers explored. For example, Zebulon Pike never summited Pike’s Peak, but he did cross Medano Pass on his mission to spy on the Spanish in Santa Fe. Most importantly, passes determined the routes by which ordinary people—Arapahoes, Utes, European-descended trappers, miners and settlers, traveled through the mountains following deer, elk and dreams. Look straight up and you see that ravens, too, use the passes to travel substantial distances, gliding along on the winds at an effortless, dreamlike 40 or so mph. The views are still very grand, and more than that, you are seeing what hunters, trappers and the peripatetic have been seeing for thousands of years.

And even though they’re not fourteeners, the passes can still give you a good day’s workout. For instance, from one trailhead on Colorado’s famed Trail Ridge Road, you can hike from Fall River Pass (11,796 feet) to Forest Canyon Pass (11,320 feet) and then on to Milner Pass (10,759) and back. From another trailhead, you can hike the Ute Trail across Timberline Pass (11,484 feet) then down to Fern Lake and beyond. It’s the “beyond” that’s so exciting about passes. Once you’re on one of these pass trails, you find yourself on an ancient single-track highway system that criss-crosses the Rockies. You walk in the footsteps of the American continents’ most ancient travelers. A pass trail will take you to little-traveled, almost secret places. Passes are through-ways, not endpoints, and they always leave you with the sense of more possibilities.

Thunder Pass (when you’ve seen the lightening-scarred crags to the north and south, you know it earned its name), for example, leads you out from the glaciers of the Never Summer Range and shows you the panorama of the Cache La Poudre River headwaters and North Park. There’s no want of drama, as the thunderclouds and lightening blow in quickly, and a breathless dash from treeline to the high point of the pass and back to beat the storm can be ill-advised. Stormy Peaks Pass, farther east, provides a passageway from the Cache La Poudre River system to the Big Thompson River. Colorado river catchments are as important to human existence in the region now as they ever were, and there’s nothing like crossing from one to another on a dry summer day to drive that fact into your bones.

Our predecessors walked and rode the passes for purposes of commerce, science, politics, migration and adventure. I find that history of purpose enriching, even intriguing, on a long day’s walk up and downhill.