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Colorado Thirteener Day

Started: 2013-06-03 20:35:04

Submitted: 2013-06-03 21:40:56

Visibility: World-readable

In which the intrepid narrator tours civil engineering sites in Boulder County, celebrates Holi, and observes Colorado Thirteener Day.

My brother Willy dropped by Boulder for a week in mid-May, so I took two days off work to make a four-day weekend to find some interesting mountains to climb. I was worried by the amount of snow on the ground; I was hoping we'd be able to do some proper snow climbs, but we'd received enough snow in April and May that the snowpack was still making its transition into spring conditions. For several days the overnight low temperature above treeline was above freezing, leaving a slushy mess of snow that raised the possibility for large wet avalanches. I had no interest whatsoever in becoming involved in an avalanche of any size, so for our first ascent I decided on the Twin Sisters; all but the last bit of the trail was below treeline, and none of it was especially steep or slide-ridden, and I expected the trail would be boot-packed all the way to the summit. (I've climbed Twin Sisters several times before, at various times of the year; in the middle of winter it makes a nice snowshoe ascent.)

Friday, 17 May, was warm and sunny. The conditions on the trail were as I expected: dry at the trailhead, with snow gradually accumulating on the trail. By the time we reached 11,000 feet and were approaching treeline, the snow grew soft and the boot-pack on the trail grew less distinct, so we put on gaiters for the remainder of the hike. From the summit we got a great view of Longs Peak across the Tahosa Valley, and we could see snow covering the Front Range as far as we could see in each direction.

Longs Peak from Twin Sisters
Longs Peak from Twin Sisters
Willy on the top of Twin Sisters
Willy on the top of Twin Sisters

By the time we began our descent, the snow had continued to melt; above treeline it was turning into a slushy mess, and I was glad we could follow the boot tracks of the hikers ahead of us rather than forging our own way through the snow.

On Saturday, Willy decided to go to church. In the afternoon, I took him on a civil engineering tour of northern Boulder County. We started at the Boulder Reservoir spillway, which he'd never seen in detail, then headed up to Button Rock Reservoir to look at Ralph Price Reservoir. (I've been hiking there for years, ever since moving to Longmont, but apparently I'd never taken Willy there.) He was interested in the large earthen dam and the powerful outlet spray, and appreciated the dedication plaque with dates and other useful information. I led the way up the trail next to the face of the dam as a thunderstorm was traveling overhead; when we reached the top we heard one cloud-to-cloud strike above us and hurried around the edge of the dam to see the spillway before retreating to the relative safety of the valley, though the lightning was the extent of the storm. When we saw the abandoned concrete cofferdam in the river (which we'd bypassed on the way up by taking the scenic trail) he was enthralled and stopped to take pictures, which eventually illustrated his blog post The Klan's Dam.

Willy observes the remains of the Chimney Rock Dam
Willy observes the remains of the Chimney Rock Dam
Willy photographs The Wandering Knight in front of Chimney Rock Dam
Willy photographs The Wandering Knight in front of Chimney Rock Dam

On Sunday, my employer held its celebration of Holi, the Hindu spring festival. On the subcontinent, Holi marks the beginning of spring on the lunar calendar in February or March, but in Colorado spring doesn't really get going until April or May. (Two years ago we celebrated Holi in April.) Willy wanted to attend, so I took him and Calvin for the cultural experience. The event started with sets by two bands populated by coworkers (one of which identified itself as the "Band APIs", presumably by someone who'd had one too many experiences with deprecated parts of the C standard library). They served several curries including saag paneer, though Calvin was really only interested in the naan. I introduced Willy to a few of my Indian coworkers and I chased Calvin around the courtyard with the other children until it was time to play with the Holi colors.

Calvin apparently remembered his reaction from the last time we celebrated Holi (possibly because I showed the pictures that morning) and wanted nothing to do with the colors, but he was content to watch the fully-grown adults, and their children, running around the parking lot throwing colored powder on each other. It was all great fun, but I ended up with colored powder caked on my glasses on two separate occasions and had to remove myself from the fray to clean them before returning. I ended up covered in colored powder from head to toe, as did everyone else.

Willy and Jaeger after Holi
Willy and Jaeger after Holi
Crowd after celebrating Holi
Crowd after celebrating Holi
People with Holi colors
People with Holi colors

Willy took a picture of The Wandering Knight; neither of them had experienced Holi before.

Willy prepares to photograph The Wandering Knight after Holi while Calvin looks on
Willy prepares to photograph The Wandering Knight after Holi while Calvin looks on

We joined the crowd in the showers afterwards but I went home with color caked to my face and ear, giving me a pink sunburned tint.

On Monday, I took off work to climb one more mountain. (I counted this as my floating holiday, "Colorado Thirteener Day".) After several days of above-freezing overnight temperatures, the snow finally froze Sunday night, leaving a nice firm foundation for climbing. I was worried by the forecast of several inches of snow, but when I checked the Longs Peak webcam and saw plenty of bare rock I decided to go ahead with my original plan to climb Mount Lady Washington, a drab pile of talus with amazing views of Longs Peak. We arrived at the Longs Peak Trailhead in the middle of the morning to find only two other cars there. One belonged to the ranger, and another belonged to a group who'd gone up Estes Cone. The ranger thought we'd be alone all day, and he was right.

We headed up the Longs Peak Trail and soon encountered boot-packed snow leading all the way up to timberline, where the trail branched and grew indistinct as we headed up toward the three-way junction on the east ridge of Mount Lady Washington. The sky was overcast; clouds obscured the mountains from time to time, and a light snow fell from time to time. We headed straight up the east ridge, hopping from boulder to boulder and crossing the occasional patch of crunchy snow. The snow had melted and refrozen and was in perfect climbing condition. I could see boot tracks from previous parties but their prints had filled with soft drifted snow; I found it easier to make my own steps than try to use theirs.

Willy looks at Mount Meeker
Willy looks at Mount Meeker

At length we reached the summit, a small wind-blown expanse of rock and snow with a few boulders sitting on top of it. Clouds obscured our view of Mount Meeker and Longs Peak, but I could pick them out from time to time. As we stood on the summit the clouds parted and we could see the East Face of Longs Peak in all of its snow-covered glory. The view was transcendent.

Willy on Mount Lady Washington, in front of Longs Peak
Willy on Mount Lady Washington, in front of Longs Peak

We ate a snack on the windy summit before heading down, surrendering our position as the highest humans for miles in any direction. The descent proved much easier than the ascent: I opted to downclimb the snowfield just north of the ridge, and I could plunge-step a thousand vertical feet all the way down to the trail. Instead of carefully placing each foot, all I really had to do was step forward and fall, relying on the ever-present snow to catch me. We descended the ridge in half the time it took us to ascend, and then we followed the trail all the way back to the trailhead, arriving tired but exhilarated.

Willy descends the east ridge of Mount Lady Washington
Willy descends the east ridge of Mount Lady Washington

Willy left for the Inland Empire (and a short trip to Mexico) two days later, leaving me barely enough time to catch my breath before taking Calvin to New York City -- without Kiesa.

I distrust few things more deeply than acts of literary explication.
- William Gibson, foreword to _Dhalgren_