At this twilight hour, I don’t expect an hour of stop-and-go traffic to block my escape from the city. When did everyone decide to head to work at 6:45 a.m.? By the time I hit the Peak to Peak Scenic Byway, I’m running late for my climactic hike of the season. But morning light turns the yellow leaves of the roadside Aspens into a billion whispering promises: “Pull over for the gold rush.”
So I stop the car, and feel the rush, as I look down on a valley overflowing with Aspens as luminous as the sun.
On the Peak to Peak Scenic Byway I pull over for the Aspen gold rush.
I continue to Brainard Lake Recreation Area and Mitchell Lake Trailhead. It’s 9:45, an hour later than I planned to start my 8-mile round-trip up Mount Audubon. Other hikers in the parking lot ignore me as I curse at my trekking poles, which refuse to lock at the proper height. I heave them into the back seat in frustration and slam the door. 10:00 a.m. Crap.
I take a deep breath. Smell that? That’s fresh air. I look up. See that? It’s blue sky. It must be in the 70s. I get over myself and get moving.
At 13,233 feet, Audubon is the shortest among the seven 13ers of the Indian Peaks. The relative ease of this non-technical hike makes it a good choice, since I’m walking alone and haven’t trained much this summer.
I start at Beaver Creek Trail, which, according to the sign, is a mountain lion gauntlet. The sign suggests a walking stick, but I refuse to get into another fight with my poles. The sign suggests talking. With whom? The sign says not to run, or I’ll look like prey. I’m more nervous about lions than usual, since – excuse me, but – I’m on my period. The sign gives no instructions on this issue. But I’m not about to give up this glorious day and go home.
At the first switchback, I turn to look at Mitchell Lake and the Indian Peaks.
A dappled pine aisle, carpeted with ripe, red, leafy undergrowth becomes my tunnel to another world. After about 15 minutes, the trees open up, and I breathe easier – no place for cougars to hide. At the first switchback, I turn to look at Mitchell Lake and the Indian Peaks, which are threaded with rippling veins of snow. I exhale, “So beautiful.”
Along the gradual uphill path, stunted pines twist above a bed of dwarf aspen. Far below, green hills tumble around humble blue lakes. But this pretty trail isn’t perfect. The constant jumble of rocks forces me into an arrhythmic gait, which wears out my knees, making me miss my poles. The whistling wind starts to wear on my ears, so I don my wool hat.
The low, round summit of Mt. Audubon is slashed with white warnings of winter.
After about 1.7 miles, not quite halfway, I turn left at the Mt. Audubon Trail, which curves up a gentle rise of rolling tundra. In the Indian Peaks Wilderness, summer may be lively, but fall is a drama queen. Autumn flings itself across this alpine landscape in broad strokes: fiery reds, luminous golds and darkling greens, leading to moody browns and grays, topped by a low, round summit slashed with white warnings of winter. Like spies, the tips of the Indian Peaks peer out from their hiding place behind the tundra.
Like spies, the tips of the Indian Peaks peer out from their hiding place behind the tundra.
Two men with trekking poles pass me at a good clip. But I no longer miss my poles. Now I’m just wondering how I’m going to change a tampon without anywhere to take cover on this wide open, Julie Andrews, “Sound of Music” hill. I try to blend in with a rock cairn, look around to make sure nobody’s nearby, and take care of business. If anyone is watching me through binoculars, they deserve what they get.
It’s hard to spot the tiny rock rabbits.
On the rock-strewn tundra, I hear the intermittent “peep” of pikas. It’s hard to spot the tiny rock rabbits: they’re top-notch scurriers, and their tan-and-gray coats blend into the rocks. But now and then, I get a peek at one before it runs from my chuckles to vanish in a rock pile.
A skier glides down the short pre-season run.
Though the sun remains warm, the wind kicks up a notch, so I pull on my fleece. A snow slope drops to the right, and I stop in surprise to watch a skier glide down the short pre-season run. I cross several much smaller snow patches, which slow my progress and soak my socks, as I place my feet in the slick footprints of earlier hikers.
I pass three returning hikers: one happy, the other two wiped out. Apprehensive, I glance toward the talus field leading to the summit. It looks brief and straightforward – so I’m going with the story on the happy guy’s face.
At Paiute Peak, a howling gale charges through the Continental Divide.
Before I head for the top, I turn right, to admire the grand horseshoe of Paiute Peak and its steep couloirs. A howling, knockdown, drag-out gale charges through the Continental Divide, and staying upright requires a leaning, staggering, Harold Lloyd struggle.
The final ascent up the talus field is only about half a mile, but now I understand why those hikers looked haggard. Negotiating unstable boulders is tricky. A few times my foot sticks in a crevice, nearly twisting my ankle and catapulting me into jagged rocks.
To the south, spider webs of snow trace the choppy rise and fall of the Indian Peaks.
Just as my legs grow wobbly beyond control, at about 1:30, I summit. Strange – it’s less windy here than below. Maybe Mother Earth has commanded silence for this heart-stopping show: to the north, a rolling massif leads to those highfalutin’ siblings, Longs Peak and Mount Meeker; to the south, spider webs of snow trace the choppy rise and fall of the Indian Peaks, with tribal names like Apache, Navajo and Arikaree.
There are several windbreaks, but only one isn’t filled with snow. As I sit there to eat my sandwich, the warm air and deep silence tempt me to nap. But I know the few fluffy clouds could still turn their thoughts to lightning, even this late in the season. So, shortly after 2:00, I start the four-mile return trip.
Sun sets fire to the end of this Indian summer day…
…and the mountains go for a late swim in Mitchell Lake.
I reach the car at 4:45. Pretty slow, even for me, but I do take an unhealthy number of photos. Which explains why I don’t get home until dusk – because when the sun sets fire to the end of this Indian summer day, and the mountains go for a late swim in Mitchell Lake, I have to stop, just once more…