The wind gusted around us as my long-time friend, Sue, and I hiked along the narrow trail high in the tundra at Medicine Bow Curve, in Rocky Mountain National Park – elevation about 12,000 ft..
Tiny wildflowers carpeted areas of the hillsides where an occasional American Pipit would appear.
White-crowned Sparrows were singing nearby and Horned Larks males flew up in display flights, gliding gently back down, hoping to attract an admiring female.
As I walked along elated, my mind flashed back to my first experience hiking to almost that elevation in the High Sierras when I was nine. Our family had been staying in a cabin near Twin Lakes (elevation 8,500) and each day we would take a hike. The last morning our Dad announced that we were going to take our lunch and hike to Duck Pass.
It was 5.5 miles to the pass, initially winding through mixed conifer forest,
gradually going higher into spruce woodlands with lakes far below us,
and then emerging above the tree line where the trail switch backed through rocks and tundra to an elevation of 10,800 ft., with the crags of 11,00 peaks around us.
It had been a 2,300 ft. elevation gain and I am sure I was cranky towards the end – as only a nine year old can be, documented by this photo of my mother and sister and I lagging behind my Dad.
However, once we reached the summit, my attitude changed.
I remember the feeling of exhilaration of seemingly being on top of the world.
Our trail intersected with the John Muir Trail, and as we were eating lunch some backpackers came toward us from the John Muir Trail. They stopped and chatted with us. No longer cranky, I was enamored when I learned that they had been hiking and camping along the trail for a week.
As we were driving back to Santa Monica through the Mojave Desert, I couldn’t get the backpackers out of my mind. What I wanted to do most in the world that August was to backpack along the John Muir Trail. I ruminated on the notion for a couple of days after our return. Ever the neighborhood organizer, mid-week I announced to my friends that I was going to set out for the High Sierras after dinner and if they wanted to join me, to meet at my house that evening.
When my compliant friends arrived, I had my ‘ditty bag’ on my back with my pajamas and was ready to go. I gave no thought to food or water.
“Where are your things?” I asked when they arrived empty-handed.
“We didn’t think you were serious,” they responded incredulously.
I was indignant. My mother thought she would save the day by suggesting that everyone sleep outside in our backyard teepee tent. My friends got their things, but didn’t last long in the tent before they wanted to go home. I was crushed that I wasn’t allowed to sleep outside by myself.
The longing to backpack in the high country never went away.
The following summer I spent two weeks at Girl Scout Camp at Big Pines in the San Gabriel Mountains and loved sleeping outside in a sleeping bag. When my parents picked me up the last day, I was told that Dad had accepted a new job in San Bernardino and we would be moving.
I joined a new Girl Scout troop and spent the following summer at Camp Tautona and enjoyed hiking to Dollar Lake in what is now the San Gorgonio Wilderness.
Always wanting to explore, I dragged Chris along as I scrambled over the lower areas of the San Bernardino Mountains near our foothills home.
I finally had the opportunity to backpack and hike in the high country of the Sierras when I was 15 and was accepted to attend a regional Senior Girl Scout Encampment. I was able to learn wilderness survival skills, and then spend four days backpacking at an alpine lake near Ebbets Pass.
Every time I have the opportunity to visit a high elevation location, I have the same sense of exhilaration as that first time at Duck Pass.
“I’ll bet you want to see the ptarmigan,” a hiker with binoculars said as he passed Sue and I as we headed up the trail. “I saw it about 50 yards from the end of the trail.”
When we reached the spot where a pile of rocks marked the end of the trail,
we started scanning the boulders, knowing that the ptarmigan’s plumage perfectly camouflages it. We didn’t see it anywhere.
A birder from Boulder arrived and joined us in searching.
As we continued to scan the rocks, a small group of elk bulls appeared on the top of a nearby peak and seemed to look us over.
The Boulder birder finally gave up, but I didn’t want to leave. This might be my only opportunity to see a White-tailed Ptarmigan that lives year-round at this elevation.
Finally after standing at the end of the trail for half an hour, I noticed something different and focused my binoculars. Sure enough, the nesting hen had raised her head so she was visible above a small boulder.
“Sue,” I called softly. “Ptarmigan by that rock.”
My camera didn’t want to focus, but Sue was able to get a photo.
As we watched, she stretched and then walked to the other side of the rock, before returning to continue incubating.
In high spirits we started back to the parking lot.
Not only was I grateful to be able to see the White-tailed Ptarmigan, it brought back memories of the hike that cemented my love affair with high elevation locations.