Fear and Ozone at 14000 feet
- Submitted by: Pete Buckley, United Kingdom
- Website: http://www.easywayup.com
- Submission Date: 23rd Apr 2008
The deer and fawn stood in the roadside clearing a couple of yards from the line of the forest and about 10 yards from where I sat. The morning sun shone on their glossy coats as they took turns grazing the long grass and checking around for possible threats. The pair were quite aware of, and happy with my presence, so I was somewhat disconcerted when they simultaneously stood bolt upright in alarm and looked into the woods directly behind the rock on which I sat. I followed their gaze into the dark pines, and seeing nothing but shadows, turned back to the deer they had vanished a panic sprint into the forest.
Something had scared them off possibly even a bear or mountain lion. The only thing was, my route led into the woods exactly where whatever had scared the deer had been!
Putting aside thoughts of black bears and of pumas and cougars which one was it that lived around here now I headed off up the deserted trail into the forest. A ttacks on humans by bears or mountain lions are extremely rare in Colorado though its healthy respect to be aware of their presence. Little did I know however that later that morning I would face mortal danger from a completely different source.
The trail led me steadily upwards through the deep green of the pinewoods, occasional shafts of sunlight bringing colour to the forest floor and I began to enjoy the walk despite being conscious of the fact that I wasnt keen to meet whatever had scared the deer. I met no large predators however and presently emerged into the bright sunshine of a clearing in the forest which was followed by another and in a few more minutes, the timberline itself.
Surmounting a small rise revealed an expansive vista of snow capped mountains surrounding the head of the valley to my left while straight ahead rose Quandary Peak an icy sentinel shining in the morning sun. I was surprised to see a young hiker approaching he must have been out early to be descending at this hour we had a brief conversation during which I asked him whether Id need an ice axe or not. Producing a sharp looking piece of stone from a pocket, his advice was to find a decent rock. I was impressed by his resourcefulness at using the rock instead of buying expensive kit. I have since made safe the descent of an icy slope in Wales with a well found rock having forgotten my axe. Stone Age technology indeed but it worked!
I continued my ascent as the trail climbed across a steep slope of grass and heather above a typical Alpine valley to my left. The Weather Channel had mentioned that thunderstorms were to be expected later over much of Colorado State so I made the ascent as quickly as I could manage on the heavily rationed oxygen up here and an hours hard labour saw me crossing a wide stony plateau at about 13000 feet. The summit rose steeply ahead and keeping to the left of the ridge close to the drop off to the valley, I began the scent of the snow. Thanks to the snow conditions - which were near perfect for kicking steps neither crampons nor for that matter Stone Age axes were needed for the ascent which became steeper as I climbed. The weather still appeared reasonably settled though there was more cloud now over the Mosquito Ranges to my right. Finally, and with the effort of a marathon runner completing that lap of the track that follows running the 26 miles and precedes collapsing on the ground, I reached the summit of my first fourteener.
Surprised to see other people up here, we took photos of the fast disappearing view before deciding to head down as the weather seemed to be going downhill as faster than we should have been! Large dry snowballs began to fall each one looking like a giant hailstone but being composed of light powdery snow. while a still grey mist surrounded us and the air prickled with static electricity. We descended the slope quickly as the air became filled with a disturbing sound.
I knew that sound it was the noise power lines made on a damp day. It was the sound of electricity making its unstoppable way to Earth. Earth in this case was the 14000 foot high ridge on which we stood, like 5 lightning conductors and the power source, a building storm with the energy of a thermonuclear bomb. The brim of my hat began to fizz and crackle and the faint blue glow of St Elmos fire lit the mist eerily. Removing my hat caused my hair to stand on end and I was now getting electric shocks through my fingertips. I replaced my hat and the fizzing sound grew steadily in pitch. Having visions of a flash of blue light that would reunite me with God somewhat prematurely, I dived onto the snowfield, shouting to my companions to follow, and slid penguin style for a short way down the slope. Though water and electricity are generally considered a bad combination, I somehow knew that snow was a bad conductor.
Few words were spoken as the 4 of us made our way as quickly as possible down the snow slope. The static seemed to reduce as we got lower. As thunder began to rumble over the Mosquito Range, I followed the guy in front and removing a plastic bin liner from my rucksack, sat down on it on the snow and proceeded to slide down the mountain. Not maybe the most stylish descent Ive ever made but preferable to finding out what life's like as a fried chicken!
The storm didnt reach us right away but as we returned to the forest, the Rockies echoed to the sound of thunder and all thought of marauding bears and mountain lions was gone, as the safety of the trees was reached.
Such had been the nature of our descent that wed not been able to make each others acquaintance properly. All I knew was that the guy of about my own age was from Denver and had a cabin somewhere near here, and that the younger guy and girl were from neighbouring Kansas.
We bade our farewells at the trailhead and I continued my way back through Breckenridge to Lake Dillon where I was staying. Later that afternoon, I was treated to a spectacular natural firework display over the lake which I watched from the beach, retreating to the safety of my room as the storm approached closer.