Category Archives: Nature

Colorado Chicago Basin

This past August I had the pleasure of exploring an area of Colorado called the Chicago Basin with my friends Tim & Catone. The area is very remote, requires at least two nights and includes lots of hoofing it to access the Basin. The main back country camping area provides access to three of the states most remote 14ers (Windom, Sunlight and Eolus). The Basin is absolutely stunning and I can’t wait to visit again.
The best way to experience the Basin is to utilize the Durango Narrow Gauge Railroad. The train will drop you and your pack off at the start of the main trailhead, cutting the hike to the main camping area down to ~8 miles. The train is a true piece of Colorado history operating just like it did back in 1880. The train conductor operates in a very casual manner, as long as you paid for a full round trip ticket you can pretty much take it out of the Basin any day you want. So, once you get there and decide to spend another day enjoying the area, don’t worry about the date on your ticket :). As an added bonus, if you end up taking a different route out of the Basin simply flag the train down at any point in the valley and they’ll stop and pick you up.

The Basin supports a very healthy goat population that has been desensitized to humans. Make sure you goat proof your camp before heading out to bag the 14ers. The goats are very aggressive at sniffing out your scraps of dropped food and love the salt in your urine. Our camp was overrun by goats multiple times. The goats are harmless, but you can help minimize the blending of the worlds by hanging left over food instead of burying it and urinate on large rocks instead of the dirt.

If you haven’t already bagged these peaks, make sure you put them on your list for next year. Exploring the area is definitely worth 14 hours in a car, 5 hours on a train, 16 miles by foot (not including the miles required to summit the peaks) and three nights in a tent at 10,000 feet. Enjoy!

RMNP Spearhead

I spent today high up in the alpine of Rocky Mountain National Park. My friend Tim and I set out at 3am to summit Spearhead via the North Ridge (~5.6 seven pitch trad climb at 12,000 feet). The approach is about 6 miles through the gorgeous Glacier Gorge and starts about a mile past Black Lake. It was a heavy snow year for the alpine this year (~300% above average), crampons and a mountaineering ax where required for safe passage after Mills Lake.

The quality of the granite on Spearhead is amazing and the several hours of climbing spent on the rock was epic. It was my first day at altitude in over a year and I definitely felt the effects. I had forgotten how harsh the elements can be above 12,000 feet. The decent off the summit was a little rough to do in climbing shoes but doable. After getting back to the packs we slammed some much needed cold water that had been chilling in the snow all day and started the 6 mile trek back across the snow field to the trail head. After 14 hours up in the alpine we heading back to Boulder where we had some great bbq, cold beers, and watched the Folsom Field firework show. Happy Independence Day!

First Flatiron

Today I accomplished a 20 year old goal of climbing
the First Flatiron above Boulder, Colorado. I initially set the goal when I was ten years old at summer camp out hiking with peers.  I had no idea it would take two decades to get around to doing it!

The First Flatiron is an iconic Boulder climb that offers spectacular views. Despite the inability to place good protection it’s a fantastic classic climb. The climbing is relatively easy. Depending on the route its rated about a 5.5 or 5.6 all the way to the top. The most challenging aspect of the climb is the high exposure level and lack of opportunities to place protection (the possibility of a 40 foot fall is common).

My friend Tim and I did it as a 5 pitch “trad” climb, but it is very common for people to climb it without gear. The climb ends with a well protected 100 foot free rap off the back side of the flatiron. I had a blast and cant wait to do it again!

The Era of Synthetic Bird Nests

I know almost nothing about birds, nor do I spend anytime watching them. Even though I spend a lot of time in very remote areas backpacking or exploring slot canyons, I couldn’t tell you the name or type of most birds to save my life. Luckily I have a good friend who does this for me and last weekend I had the pleasure of catching up on a long overdue conversation about whats new with Colorado birds.

I was amazed to find out that over the past two years, a bird called Bullock’s Oriole has learned that man made synthetic material is better for building nests. Mark Dudrow has observed this bird on his property for many decades and has seen the switch away from natural nesting material.  He assures me that the birds have a choice and are choosing to collect nesting material from old tarps and other man made material on the property.

When it comes to nesting, the Bullock’s Oriole builds a new nest in a different location every year.  Because these new synthetic nest don’t degrade as quickly as “natural” ones do, Mark’s pine trees are now littered with abandon synthetic nests.

As we were having this discussion about the recent change in nesting habits I couldn’t stop relating it to Darwin’s observation of the Finch population on the Galapagos Islands.  When I dove the Islands back in 2009 I remember learning that Finches on different Islands developed beaks that were best suited for the food supply on the Island. I’m not suggesting that we are witnessing evolution in progress, but rather pointing out that this species in southern Colorado has changed its preferred building material and adapted to its new environment (which now includes nylon tarps and abandon vehicles).

Plastic bird nests are interesting, but what I really look forward to learning is how long it will take the Bullock’s Oriole to realize that the nest can be used longer and change their ingrained annual nest building habit.

Black Hawks, FEMA, and the Red Cross?


This was one weird backpacking trip… It was both my sister’s and my partner Nicole’s first backpacking trip ever. The goal was to reach the crystal clear waters of havasu. I had done the trip 3 times prior and was confident in my ability to be the trip leader. After a brief 16 hour drive to the south rim of the Grand Canyon we all crashed in the back of the Jeep and tried to get some sleep. We had spent the last few hours of the trip driving 140 miles in a very remote area through the worst thunderstorm I’ve ever witnessed. The rain was so heavy and the lightning so bright that at times we could only drive 5 mph.

Fortunately the storm passed after a few hours and we made the decision to proceed with the trip. We left the Jeep at 4am and started our 10 mile hike by head lamp down the Grand Canyon to Supai. After six miles of hiking we finally reached what should have been the calm crystal clear 70 degree Havasu creek… it looked more like the Colorado river. It was a dirty fast flowing river that had overflowed its banks by 50 feet! The bridge to cross the creek was inaccessible and was covered with large tree branches. Unbeknownst to us, a few hours prior an earth dam failed and sent an wall of water down the canyon.

As we sat at the bank of the river a privately owned helicopter combing the canyon spotted us and landed in a clearing a few yards away. The pilot waived us over and two officers from the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) helped us load our packs into the helicopter. We were told that more water was expected to come down the canyon and we had to get out of there immediately.

We were taken the rest of the way to Supai where we mingled with a hundred other campers. We heard story after story of other backpackers that had spent the entire night hugging trees or scrambling up the side of the canyon trying to escape the flood waters. People lost hundreds of dollars of gear including wallets and car keys. To put this into perspective, the amount of water rushing down the canyon was so great that it leveled several homes, completely destroyed one of the waterfalls, and created two new falls in its wake.

We were stuck at the village all day (all foot paths in and out of the village had been destroyed). After a few hours the BIA informed us that FEMA helicopters would be joining the rescue efforts and that the US National Guard would be bringing in Black Hawks to evacuate the village… I couldn’t believe this was happening!

Eventually the three of us were strapped into a Black Hawk and flown out of the canyon to a Red Cross mobile command center. There we had to sign in and give our story and observations of the situation in an attempt to account for everyone in canyon. We were given a bottle of Gatorade and told to drive 200 miles back off the reservation to the nearest hotel. What a day.

Both Nicole and my sister told me they had no idea backpacking was so exciting and they couldn’t wait to go again. I tried to convince them this was a once and a lifetime but not sure they believed me 🙂

 

 

 

p.s. If you’re ever being evacuated by a Black Hawk in a dusty environment don’t take pictures… it will trash your camera. These are the last photos this digital camera ever took.