"And Jacob went out from Beer-sheba, and went toward Haran. And he lighted upon the place and tarried there all night, because the sun was set; and he took one of the stones of the place and put it under his head and lay down in that place to sleep. And he dreamed, and behold a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven; and behold the angels of God ascending and descending on it." Genesis 28:10-19
First of all, I need to check out this Beer-sheba place! Second, and more importantly, like, why would anyone leave Beer-sheba to "tarry" in freakin' Haran? I mean come on, man!
Regardless. The point is that Heaven is just a ladder-climb away from Lovely Ouray.
Crystal Lake boasts two "ladders:" Full Moon Trail, which we climbed last week, and Hayden Trail, which we climbed yesterday. Though we didn't see any Angels ascending or descending, neither did we see another soul—always a good thing, unless you're having a heart attack or fall off "the ladder."
Full Moon and Hayden are blessed to wind their way up, up, up through aspen groves. Thus, being fall, it makes sense to give them a go this time of year, "when every leaf's a flower."
Not a hundred yards out of the car, Crystal Lake mirrors Red Mountains, now white with snow. A stunning band of autumnal aspen leads the eye to a snowy "focal point." It's a damn-near-perfect reflection, not a hint of distorting wind such that the photo could be viewed as well upside-down as right-side-up. Fabulous timing, proof that 1st prize in photography goes to early birds and late birds, not middle-of-the-day birds.
Beyond Crystal Lake dam, Hayden Trail disappears into dense woods—normally not my favorite kind of hiking, but I know we'll soon top out above timberline and it's a small price to pay. Besides, I enjoy leaf-filtered sunlight dappling my complexion and the surrounding ground cover. Even though it's a week past-peak, there's enough color to hold my camera's interest.
Right up there with aspen, one of my favorite trees in fall are maples. Their leaves glow like a fine crystal glass of Burgundy Wine. Unfortunately there are few maples around here, which I really don't understand because, right next door in Utah, the second best state in the USA when it comes to outdoor recreational variety, maples show off in practically every forest canyon. I digress...
After a half hour of stair climbing we gain enough elevation for a deeper/wider perspective. Bobbie and I agree that, while good, this fall's somewhat muted colors can't compete with last years.
It doesn't take long for our fall color hike to climb into winter. We wander on, through patches of snow and aspen barren of leaves...a reminder that winter works its way top-down and that fall is dreadfully short and sweet in the alpine zone.
Frozen puddles crunch under foot like shards shards of glass. Shady, and with temps in the upper 20's at the car, we greet a rising sun with gratitude, welcoming solar microwaves that defrost early hikers. It isn't long till we begin to perspire with the effort of climbing "Hayden's Ladder." Winter climate around here is often paradoxical: too hot in the sun, while 18 inches into shade you freeze your ass off.
By the time we break timberline, I'm down to a single Poly Pro shirt and my usual jean shorts. Once above the blanket of forest, there's nothing to block wind. And so it blows, steady and strong. My sweat soaked shirt and pack feels like I like put them on right out of a freezer. When chilled to the bone in such situations one has but two choices: stop and put on more layers, or hike harder. Not wanting to do a stiff-finger fumble with clothing in a gale wind, I chose the latter.
Tundra is seemingly spun from gold this time of year; there are hints of lime green and burgundy here and there for added variety and effect. If I didn't know the truth, it would be hard to tell if summer is waxing or waning; seems like only yesterday we were wading rambunctious wildflowers and knee-deep creeks. I am reminded that it is the brevity of mountain summers that make them momentous and memorable. Though I love tracking fresh mounds of midwinter snow on a sunny day, parting with summer is not unlike parting with a best friend whose moving away. Bittersweet.
In spite of resorting to power-hiking mode in order to counter-effect windchill, I realize that I am the most "at home" above tree line. I adore far views and wide open 360 degree space. I don't know how people live on top of each other in places like New York City and Chicago...stacked like sardines in high-rise condos, nuts-to-butts on sidewalks and public transit, squeezed into windowless cubicles at work. It'd be like living in an bustling international airport terminal, 24-7. Perhaps my southern Arid-zona upbringing is partially responsible for this irrational need for space and solitude.
Like most difficult ladder climbs, Hayden starts out well-trodden and wide then narrows the further you hike. By the time we reach timberline, the trail shrinks to something more resembling a mountain goat path...a narrow line etched into treeless hillsides. Steepness and lack of oxygen has a way of thinning down the masses. Throw in a little gale force wind and a dash of winter, and the great outdoors becomes a hostile environment that I can have all to myself.
About then, after nearly being blown to the ground by a gust of wind, my little internal "imp-demon" whispers, Do you really want to finish this hike?
I gaze down with longing at the protective aspen groves surrounding Crystal Lake and consider bagging it. You've been up here before, says the laissez-faire-weather imp. It's the same demon that can rationalize/justify the most egregious and outrageous things imaginable, like illicit affairs and lying. I know not to listen, but this time he's making sense.
I'm to a crossroads where I either need more clothes or shelter. I certainly can't work any harder and alpine tundra is about the most exposed, shelterless place on earth. That's when I notice tip-tops of volcanic rock, peaking just above the blond horizon. Wow. I'm almost there...to our turnaround point and a place to hide.
It is a sudden transition from tundra to volcanic "tuff," quite unexpected for anyone who's not hiked Hayden before. Like, "Bang, I'm in another world." The lavender grays, rusted reds, and burnt umbers are a relief to the eye after a couple miles of "gold." I normally explore the nooks and crannies of these fascinating formations, but not today. Just "Gimme Shelter."
Wet with sweat, I'm caught in a wind-tunnel pass. There's no hiding from such wind, the insidious kind that curls around every boulder and into every hiding place and ravage nerves and sends you on a shortcut to hypothermia. I pull on every article of clothing in my pack...a wool sweater, gloves, hat, jacket. I'm still wearing shorts, though, and have nothing to cover my too long legs. Where the hell is Bobbie? I'll steal her zip-off pants legs!
Funny how photos deceive, not always showing the "misery index" of things like wind, temperature, and windchill. Turns out the Ozark Mountain Daredevils are right: "If you want to get to heaven, you got to raise a little hell." And, I would add, hike right through it.
With Jacob's Ladder to Heaven bagged, it's time to head down and face the reality that winter is at our door. Might be time to pull RV Goldie from storage, pack up, and head off to see Southern Utah's red maples, you know, extend Ms Autumn's visit another month or so.