Life update: About a year ago I moved from Oregon to Colorado to work for National Audubon Society. I’m now the communications and marketing coordinator for Audubon Rockies, the regional office for Colorado and Wyoming. In the past year I’ve spent my personal time getting to know Colorado’s shortgrass prairie and montane forests.
Intense. That’s how I’d describe my cross country ski two weekends ago. The powerful winds, sublime scenery, physical exertion, and a tinge of fear made my trek to American Lakes in State Forest State Park one of the more intense things I’ve done.
Two Saturdays ago I wasn’t feeling like myself. I had a few things on my mind and I just couldn’t enjoy the night. As I usually do when I feel off, I went to the mountains to be alone and exhaust myself.
I had been craving a hard cross country ski, so I decided to try skiing from Cameron Pass to American Lakes. After a beautiful mile on Michigan Ditch Trail, I connected to American Lakes Trail, which led me to my favorite meadow in Colorado.
Here, a tinge of fear began to creep in. At this meadow is an ominous sign warning you to check the avalanche conditions. Usually there are lots of snowmobile tracks scarring the meadow. This time, however, there were no tracks at all. I was completely alone.
I might have turned back if the mountains hadn’t been so barren of snow. Really, I could see the ground in places on the peaks. So I trudged upwards for another steep mile, but now with a sense of alert vulnerability.
Eventually, I arrived at the bottom of a vast and striking subalpine meadow rimmed with dramatic peaks and ridges. From them tremendous gusts of wind blew down, and I stood there for several minutes watching the waves of swirling snow approach and wash over me. At one point a gust almost knocked me over and sent me chasing after my camera case and mitten.
Again, I considered turning back. Taking shelter behind a couple trees, I scanned the large meadow ahead. I worried how much stronger the gusts would be in the open, but I spotted two patches of trees that I could take shelter in on the way. So I buckled everything down and sprinted forward.
With a hint of adrenaline, I quickly made it to the first tree patch before the a gust could strike. I caught my breath and waited for a gust to pass, then darted to the next patch. From there I only had one obstacle between me and the lake: a tall, steep slope.
I skied forward and began to climb the slope. About halfway up a strong gust caught me and I fell to my knees. Once it passed, I continued to climb, but the snow became icy and my progress slowed to a crawl.
At this stage I felt that I was approaching my limit. I was out of breath, my skis were getting stuck in the crusty snow, and the wind was blasting me backwards. It felt like I just wasn’t moving forward anymore.
So I fell. And rested. Got up. And fell. And rested.
For the next five minutes, I continued this process, watching the top of the hill draw slightly nearer. At last, the incline began to level out and the incredible scenery was slowly unveiled.
When I finally made it to the top, I skied to a few boulders and sat down in the lee of the wind. Flying ice crystals scratched at my face, but I tried to enjoy the moment by watching the wind blow the snow off the mountain like a ramp.
I don’t know why, but the feeling of vulnerability that sank in as I watched the wind whip snow over the ridges was comforting. The realization that there were no other humans, or even animals, within a mile of me added to that sensation. But I think this kind of experience helps me reestablish perspective and humility.
Places where you can experience true solitude are increasingly rare in Colorado’s Front Range. As always, I’m grateful for the opportunities that public lands provide for me to find them.
Feeling like I had found what I came for, I got up, clumsily descended the icy slope, and went home to enjoy a calzone and the company of my friends.