September 9th in Alamosa started as a cloudless 36-degree morning. My plan for the day was to drive to the Blanca Peak trailhead and power hike up as far as I could in four hours toward the summit. After reading several trail information websites (14ers.com is a good one), I affirmed that the trail to Como Lake would be a steep and rocky hike, and close to 4,000 feet of vertical in six miles from parking.
The Blanca Peak jeep road turns east from CO 150 (one of the roads to the Great Sand Dunes), three miles north of Highway 160. The dirt road crosses grasslands for over a mile before turning to nothing but ashen gray rock. This is a good place to park a car as hiking is faster than driving! This road is considered the most difficult 4-wheel drive road in the state. For Colorado - 'that be sayin' somethin!'
I had several reasons for hiking this day. Scout the route toward the peak, confirm the trail difficulty, document the beauty of September hiking, and honor my dad on the first anniversary of his passing. We all lose loved ones and I am finding the best thing to do is to celebrate their lives and cherish that which has become a part of us, and carry forward. I filled my daypack with hiking essentials and headed up the rocky road.
My first wildlife sighting, besides birds in the air, was a white-tailed jackrabbit with its large antennae ears moving away from me a short distance to be safe to carry on his breakfast grazing. Their ears are amazing adaptations!
My first internal observation was that I was walking a jeep road, which does not necessarily make it hiker friendly. Though still cool, between the warm sun and the relentless uphill, I was able to shed a warm under layer in the first mile. I soon left the high grasslands behind and entered into the piñon pine/juniper woodland zone. Because I knew Colorado was under a high pressure weather system, the chance of clouds forming was minimal. The sky would stay a deep September blue all day.
At the 1.75 mile mark, there was a switchback where a sign from the 4-wheel drive group that maintains the trail—the Creeper Jeepers Gang of Durango— lets 4-wheelers know the rules including 'Stay on Road or Stay Home!' As the trail got steeper and the boulders got bigger, several 4-wheelers had pulled off and parked. By the 2.5 mile mark, I had ascended around 2,000 feet, which made for expansive valley views. I saw no one for the next three miles, which by then, the trail had turned north across a ridge and dropped slightly into a tree shaded canyon, and turned east up a valley where I could now hear running water down below. Good, a water source. I carry water but I have a Grayl filter for restocking my water bottles.
I appreciated the shady trail, the joyous sound of a mountain stream, and contemplation time. Soon, I ran into a young couple with their two Rhodesian Ridgebacks with whom they had been camping for several days at the Blue Lakes above tree line. Reaching any summits, they said, would have been too rough on their dogs' feet. Shortly, I happened on a renegade aspen tree that simply had to be first to show off its gold! The leaves were fluttering and were catching enough sunlight to 'show off' as all of its family members would be be doing soon. Next, I overtook two backpackers headed to camp at the lake and climb the peaks. They were amazed that ANY vehicle could make it up this road. I explained how there are 'motor heads' who put large quantities of money into their 4-wheel drive custom creations and are in competition to build something to outdo one another - a testosterone fueled sport. One plaque, bolted to a rock, is dedicated to Leonard D. who did not make it, and rolled his jeep over the cliff. According to a website, he is not the only one to have died at 'Jaws II,' for which the rocky formation in the road is named. Craziness I thought, but reminded myself that dad always told me that life will always be a rocky road at times. I pondered on that philosophy as I hiked toward Como Lake on what was surely a steeper and rockier road than below. I also began to feel the altitude and had to back off my pace. But one good thing about rocky trails is that often wild raspberries grow nearby! September is getting late in the season for them but I gathered a small handful from several bushes and smashed them in my mouth. Wild raspberries have a bolder flavor that lingers a wonderfully long time.
I checked my Garmin GPS device and at the 5.5 mile mark, wondered how far it was to the Lake. The valley leveled out enough for me to pick up my pace and in four tenths of a mile, there it was! I saw several tents, was greeted by a less than friendly dog but his owner said he was in protective mode of her. Her boyfriend and an older friend had left camp early to summit three of the fourteeners and she was hanging out. Little Bear Peak lay directly east in view across the lake. I crossed the outflow stream and promptly ran into three tethered llamas. Not knowing their personalities, I spoke politely to them and gave them a wide berth as I continued. Darn cute they are, but personalities of golden retriever puppies or piranha?
This area is part of the Rocky Mountains for a reason. Time lapse photography since the last ice age would certainly hold my attention as a spectator to watch the glaciers melt, the rocks crumble and crawl over one another to come to their present resting place. I soon left the trees below me as the trail turned to the north and as I came over a lip of rock, there lay the Blue Lakes. A cool breeze blew but with the continued warmth of the sun; I needed no additional layer. It felt like a crisp, yet comfortable, fall day! Across the valley was a waterfall from an upper lake but I had no idea where the trail went until I crossed the meadow. Sure enough, the trail materialized to the left of the waterfall and magically switchbacked upward through the steep boulder field. Admittedly, maybe by my light-headedness induced by the altitude, I began thinking of dad's last few days. Tears came as I climbed. I came over another rocky crest to Crater Lake and decided that this would be my stopping point. I looked at my watch and it had been, to the minute, exactly four hours! I sat on a rock, filled my filter and drank the cool, clear water. I lunched on red grapes, freshly picked cherry tomatoes and my own specialty which I call energy balls made with about twenty different ingredients for micronutrients, protein, and raw local SLV Haefeli Honey as the glue. I enjoyed the scenery and sat there, with dad, for him. Thanked him. I heard voices from the high ridges on what would be the final ascent to Blanca but could not see anyone. Time to head back.
Climbing down is more dangerous than climbing up. So, remember the ABCs of going downhill. Always Be Careful. This high mountain valley is not easily accessible by mountain rescue vehicles for injured humans, so my suggestion is, 'Don't hurt thyself.'
I scanned my high, rocky, alpine surroundings one last time. Back at the lake, I told the woman that I had heard voices and she believed that they should be on their way down from the summits. I descended at a good pace with ABC in mind as fatigue makes me clumsy and every footfall is important on this, the roughest, rockiest trail I have ever hiked. I had climbed about seven miles and 4,900 feet up but did not know for sure as my Garmin battery died just above the lake at the 6.2 mile mark.
I saw no one for the first four miles on my descent. I stole a few more of Mother Nature's raspberries, more closely examined a few of the nasty spots which four wheelers faced driving up, and I was happy to be on foot! My brain 'reinflated' with oxygen filled air and chased away my light headedness and the energy balls were doing their work. Knock on wood, my knees were holding up nicely.
I made it through the shady zone where I had to go uphill again which is more difficult after long stretches of descent. I crossed the ridge and I was now descending directly into southwestern sunlight and there would be no more shade on the road. Warm! Around a corner came three backpackers, two from Denver, one from Albuquerque. We talked trail talk for a bit and they mentioned they had run into the Texas couple with the dogs and one of the dog's feet were hurting so badly that the dog had crawled under a tree and refused to move. I told them I had seen them about 10:30 that morning. It was now 2:45. I told them to have fun climbing the peaks and we parted. Another mile and I ran into a young couple with backpacks. In fun, I gave them a hard time about picking the hottest part of the day to climb. They laughed. They had been up here before but could not remember how far they were from the shady part. They were more than ready for the cooler air of the north facing canyon. I could now see my car glittering in the sunshine another mile and a half distant. I drank water but still felt dehydrated as I stumbled along. I thought maybe the dog had gotten better, but soon, under the shade of a piñon tree, there, all four of them sat. I was prepared to give them the last of my water but he had been able to go to the car and get what they needed for them and the dogs. He said they had stopped last minute to buy a bunch of water to leave in the car. Smart decision, we agreed. We discussed options. I told them I had additional water and food in my car but they said if they did have to spend the night they had sufficient supplies. The dog was no small puppy, almost ninety pounds. Should we carry him? I offered to lend my assistance to get them down but they politely declined. They had cell service and I told them that if the dog refused to budge, Search and Rescue could easily grab you at this point. We exchanged friendly good byes. Hope everything came out okay.
I walked the last bit of the rocky road to my car with tired feet and looked forward to a cold lemon flavored bubble water I had in my ice chest. Nice day on the trail. September can be such a magical month in the mountains. Yep, my favorite. A few more thoughts about dad and I remember asking him once about the meaning of life. I had spent this day mostly alone, and we all need our solitude at times. He told me that life is really about service and to try and pass on all that is good to others. As I popped the top on the cool can I raised it and toasted, 'makes good sense to me dad!'