Sunday, September 18, 2016

CO Trip Log: Tundra Hiking, RMNP, September 10-17

Finally we were able to pull it off! My son and I were able to finally take that western hiking trip we had long hoped for! We spent the week in Rocky Mountain National Park and celebrated the National Park Service's 100th Birthday in Colorado. To make sense of this overwhelming experience, we broke up our exploration according to altitude, so this post will cover our tundra hikes at 11,000 feet and above. 

On the Trail Ridge Road.

I've long been a fan of cold weather environments so our hike day above treeline was such a blast for me. It snowed, almost blew us over, sleeted. We shivered and lost feeling in our hands. Then the sun came out and we peeled back out hoods and unzipped our jackets only to have snow squalls return.

Snow poles mark the corners of NPS buildings at the top of Sundance Mountain, 11,800'

As we drove up the famous Trail Ridge Road at daybreak, the snow squalls roared across the summits of the ranges all around us. It was a raw and beautiful morning. We beat the mid-day tourists by several hours and had the tundra region pretty much to ourselves. We hiked three trails before we met another soul - on the Ute Trail. 

One other hiker on the Ute Trail on this cold, snowy day.

The tundra environment is highly protected by the NPS and there are warning signs at every trail head to stay on the path. Soils are extremely thin and repeated foot traffic can cause such damage that some fragile tundra plant communities may take up to a century to recover. The Ute Trail (above) was one such trail where thousands of years of Ute migrations over the tundra fields had worn a permanent path across high mountain passes. These post-Pleistocene hunters and gatherers roamed the highlands until the Arapaho chased them out in the mid-1800s, but members of both tribes continue to hike this trail in honor of their ancestors. 

Game wall built by Ute hunters thousands of years ago to direct big game into killing grounds.

On the Ute trail we followed entrenched paths through rocky fields far from vehicle and tourist noise. About a mile in we observed a section of a game wall system that directed migrating animals into areas where they could be harvested. All along our way were cairns of rock several feet in diameter that marked the way for animals and their hunters. Before long, with winds blasting us backwards, we came upon a high country herd of elk sheltering at the top of a bowl-shaped glacial valley. The big elk was strutting, bugling, and chasing his cows into tight formation.  I ducked down behind a upended rock and waited as he directed his harem in our direction. I could imagine the ancient hunters waiting behind their cover for the herd to pass into the funnel of game walls! 

Antlers back and bugling away, this big elk bull was driving his harem up towards us through a game way

He turned the herd around when he spied three humans on the ridge.

Hiking above treeline, in the thin air of the Rockies, took our breath away literally and figuratively. We had to hunch over a few times or slow our pace (which was already slow!) to wait for our pounding hearts to settle down. At 11,000 feet there was 30% less oxygen than at our familiar Piedmont altitudes of 500 to 1200 feet. 

12,300 feet at the summit of Sundance Mountain.

Our hikes included the Ute Trail for two miles and two unnamed trails that wandered over the shoulders of Sundance Mountain. With tundra plants, lichens, and mosses all around it was good our pace was slow so that we could enjoy the fall colors. 

Mosses and lichens in rich golds and browns.

Succulents, mosses, crust lichens, and withering cotton grasses. 


Besides the elk, our wildlife watching was pretty much nonstop. Pika squeaked their warning from burrow entrances and watch-rocks, yellow-bellied marmots hollered "AL! AL! AL!" while ravens and red-tailed hawks played on the updrafts and squall winds.

Yellow-bellied marmots.
Sea bottom above treeline.

On the Tundra Community Trail we climbed wind-blasted pedestals of metamorphic sea-bottom to find our high summit of 12,300 for the day. We packed for winter weather so our layers of clothing and wooly caps and hoods kept us warm, but to take pictures I had to go bare-handed and - wowee! - were my fingers numb in minutes! 

Snow squall approaching our summit perch.

Unnamed trail across the shoulder of Sundance Mountain into krummholtz. 

There wasn't much in the way of shelter to escape the blowing winds and stinging snow pellets, but I noticed that for smaller animals like a few sparrows and rodents I saw scampering, the stunted fir trees or krummholtz hummocks, provided low, protected cover from the elements. I looked for ptarmigan here but every time I bent low to peak under these ancient trees my nose would bleed! The krummholtz environment is shaped by the wind and when snow covers the low tree mats, a cave-like shelter forms underneath - perfect for smaller critters, but too small for us.

A break from the wind - along with a few dozen tourists who ventured up today.

With nowhere but the car to warm up, we decided to visit the highest NPS visitor center in the country and ducked into the warmth and chattiness of the Alpine Visitor Center. The building is perched on the bowl of a glacial cirque and the views down into the valley were breathtaking. I got so warm I pulled my cap and jackets off. But I quickly tired of the people as did my son. We stayed long enough to get feeling back in our hands and headed out again. We noted the oxygen station near the door!

Moose on oxygen at Alpine VC.

Of course I had to have my picture taken with a tundra protection ranger!

Tundra plants have incredibly deep tap roots while mosses form mats of red around their edges.

Squalls lifted for the afternoon but the winds increased.

Entrenched paths demonstrate how thin tundra soils are - about two to four inches.

Higher than the glaciers ever got, these tundra-cloaked peaks are rounded and boulder-strewn.

A pedestal of volcanic ash (white rhyolite) and sea bottom (dark gneiss).

Wind is the shaping force of this landscape. It blows snow off the highest shoulders of tundra so that moisture and warmth is swept away and these places are tundra deserts that receive less than 2 inches of moisture a year. It was the harshest environment we had come into. I was glad I had pulled on an extra fleece vest under my wind/rain jacket! Rock pedestals at the edge of tundra slopes were shaped by winds blasting snow and ice up and over the rims. Not many tourists ventured up here this day!

Tundra desert above 11,000 feet. Twas' cold!
We had been above 11,000 feet for about five hours and we were both exhausted! Though there was plenty of daylight left, we had very little energy to spare. We made it back to our car and collapsed into our seats, so tired! Work high, sleep low - says a high country climber's book. We headed down to 8,500' for our dinner and an early-to-bed. 

I'm not that tall - standing on a rock for this picture. George is much taller than me!

Some light reading without having to endure the cold:

George and I both observed some incredibly stupid people behaviors, hence the need for a tundra protection ranger. Even with ample signage at all parking lots, pull-offs, and trail heads, people were just stupid and romped (though never far from their cars) into the fragile tundra to snap pictures (mostly selfies). One guy was even modelling his jacket for his adoring girlfriend while standing on delicate wild flowers still in bloom. I have the utmost respect for our rangers (having been one) and was certain to stop and chat with them and thank them for their service. Please do the same.

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