The Red Hat

Submitted By: Allison StraussBoard Member

Last summer, as we entered Glacier National Park, Sara (WWW’s Social Media Coordinator) commented on the classic wood welcome sign, “You could watch me grow up through photos with those signs.” Sara’s family, Adventure Pass holders, stopped for a Kodak moment by the welcome sign to every park they visited.

I had something like that too, I realized. You could watch me grow up through photos with my red hat—the knit cap I always bring on outdoors trips because it’s too bright to wear in civilization. Ironically, it hails from the most urban of places, New York City. My mom bought the hat for me from a street vendor for ten bucks, when I was ten years old. Seventeen years later, I’m still wearing it. But only in landscapes too grand for it to compete for attention. Places where it becomes just a cheerful fleck of color.

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Section 16, Colorado Springs, Colorado

There are two schools of thought on apparel color in the outdoors. One is to wear muted colors and blend in with the scenery, the better to see wildlife. The other is to wear brilliant hues, because while it may be a drawback for wildlife to spot you, people spotting you is probably a good thing. Moreover, the vibrant trend seems related to the expense of new apparel. If The North Face is asking for $200 for a jacket, it had better come in appealing colors.

Because seasoned outdoors-folk already have the gear they need, and often take pride in their old threads, the color war tends to fall along generational lines. I saw this exemplified at breakfast at a hotel in Julian, California, a stopover for Pacific Crest Trail hikers. About six twenty- and thirty-somethings were like a flock of parrots in their neon puffer jackets, jabbering excitedly about their trail experiences. Meanwhile, three or four hikers in their sixties, dressed in well-worn dark fleeces, took their time sipping coffee, hardly speaking at all.

Growing up, my dad took me shopping, and since he’s of the thrifty coffee sipping generation, my outwear has always been navy blue, forest green, black, and brown. I’m still wearing the black fleece I’ve never grown into, and the brown rain shell I can barely fit layers under. (Children’s extra-larges and women’s extra-smalls tend to be a bargain.) But then there’s that red hat.

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Somewhere in Utah

Looking at my red hat/dark outerwear photos, I’m reminded of those t-shirts that say “Same shirt, different day.” The photos could almost be from the same trip except my face is changing and my hair gets longer and shorter. I wear the hat in different ways through the years—rolled like a skullcap, flipped at the edge and sticking up at the top, full length so it slouches in the back. It’s like that famous photograph of the Hole in the Wall Gang, where all the men are wearing bowler hats, but each at different angle that says everything about their personalities. I don’t know what the variations convey in my case. But no matter what phase I was in, on any given cold night, the red hat was pulled down to my nostrils, my sleeping bag drawn around my chin. In some sense, it has all been one trip.

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Age 11, summit of Mt. Massive, Colorado 2001

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Age 13, Appletree Campground, Angeles National Forest, California 2003

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Age 14, Angeles National Forest, California 2004

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Age 16, La Sal Mountains, Utah 2006

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Age 17, Weminuche Wilderness, Colorado 2007

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Age 20, near Woodland Park, Colorado 2011

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Age 26, Two Medicine Lake, Glacier National Park, Montana 2016

I’m the one in the red hat.

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Never Underestimate a Mountain

Submitted By: Kristen GraceBoard Member & Wilderness Ambassador in Denver

When two women set out to climb a mountain, they don’t let anything stop them.

They aren’t afraid to wake up at 4am. They don’t let fierce winds or freezing temperatures scare them off. And they definitely don’t turn back when the summit is in sight.

Even if they probably should.

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Climbing Mt. Bierstadt – 14,065′ (Georgetown, Colorado)

When we set out to climb Mt. Bierstadt, it was late September and the Denver highs were still in the 70s and 80s. Packing a heavy coat for hiking seemed excessive. We thought to bring hats and gloves, and to layer up just in case, but even that seemed like overkill.

Mt. Bierstadt was the first 14er I climbed after moving to Colorado in Summer 2016 and it taught me an important lesson: never underestimate mountain weather.

Because mountain weather is fickle and no matter how warm it is in Denver, in the mountains it’s always cooler and a sunny day can change to powerful storms in minutes.

The Climb

We hit the road around 4am so that we could arrive, stretch and start our climb just in time for sunrise.

The base of Mt. Bierstadt is only about an hour and half drive from Denver, making it one of most accessible 14ers in the state. It’s also a good choice if you’re looking for a quick and challenging day hike since the out and back is only a few hours.

The first part of our hike took us through a flat valley. It was deceptively pleasant and made starting out in the dark totally worth it. We watched the sun light up the snow-covered mountains with shades of pink and gold. This view alone was worth the trip.

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But once we started to climb, we realized something was wrong: it was windy. Really windy.

And windy means cold.

The part of this hike that people neglect to share is that you are completely exposed to the elements once you reach a certain point in the trail. That means there is no shelter from the wind, especially when you get closer to the rocky summit.

As we climbed, I questioned both our sanity and safety.

I couldn’t feel my toes, my face was completely exposed and it was really cold.

This should have been enough to make us turn back… but we were on a mission.

The summit was 20ft in front of us. How could we quit?

The Summit

I learned later that my hiking buddy, Chi, had been shouting for us to turn back, that it was too cold and the wind was too strong to keep going.

But I couldn’t hear her over the sound of the wind whipping around us. So as I continued to push on, she begrudging followed.

Not being able to communicate was another reason we should have turned back. If only I’d known.

But miraculously, we reached the top.

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We pulled out our signs and snapped a few pictures. “Click, click, okay, let’s go!” My mouth was too frozen to smile.

The pictures we managed to take showed a clear, wide open view of the Rockies that only the top of a 14er can provide. I just wish I’d been able to actually enjoy it!

Then a strong gust of wind threw me into a rock, nearly tossing me off the mountain. With the threat of death feeling very real, we raced back down. Mission accomplished — we were ready for the hike to be over.

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On the way down, the weather improved. It was actually warm enough to enjoy the view!

As we passed groups of people headed to the top, we noticed that many were even less prepared than we were. We saw hikers in shorts and tank tops. We saw sandals!

I was already feeling bad enough about misjudging the intensity of this hike, but I admit, seeing others more foolish than me attempt the climb made me feel just a tiny bit better.

We tried to warn our fellow hikers that they were in for a shock at the top, but most brushed us off. It was beautiful and warm at the bottom! How could it be cold at the top? A rookie mistake.

The Aftermath

In the end, we made it. All our fingers and toes intact.

But this experience changed the way I prepare for serious hikes.

First, I always check the forecast before heading out. I want to know if there is ANY chance of rain, wind or snow. When you’re over 10,000ft in elevation, it matters.

Second, I pack for every possibility, even if most things stay in the car. Extra clothes, raincoats, snacks, hand warmers, etc. You never know what you might need.

Third, I never underestimate the intensity of the climb. Just because you’re in shape doesn’t mean the elevation won’t affect you. When you’re at high elevation, you need to be aware of how you’re feeling and when it’s time to call it quits.

Finally, I’ve made peace with turning back. Finishing the Mt. Bierstadt climb was stupid. It was dangerously cold and windy, and we were not prepared. While I’m proud of us for pushing ourselves, it was a huge risk and we got lucky. When faced with a similar situation, I’ll never put my goals ahead of my safety again.

But at least it was beautiful!

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Field Notes, Part 2

Submitted By: Allison Strauss, Annual Adventure Maven

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See Part 1 here.

April 26, 2011

Ponderosa Pine Forests

Field Example: Black Forest, Colorado

“Of all the pines, this one gives forth the finest music to the winds.” 

—John Muir on Ponderosa Pines

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Young ponderosas hugging at Section 16, Colorado Springs

Introduction to Ponderosa

“The range of ponderosa pine essentially defines the West. From Nebraska to California, and from Southern British Columbia to Northern Mexico, ponderosa pine is the dominant forest tree of the montane zone in Western North America.”

—Audrey Delella Benedict, The Naturalist’s Guide to the Southern Rockies

There are three kinds of ponderosa, the one in the Southern Rockies being the Rocky Mountain Ponderosa Pine.

Ponderosa is the Goldilocks tree. It likes a temperate climate—not too hot, not too cold, not too wet, not too dry.

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Ponderosa Dispersion & Fire

Ponderosa ideally grow in clumps in open grassy areas. American pioneer accounts describe ponderosa forests as “park like” with grass “stirrup-high.”

Trees, like most large species, favor longevity over high reproduction. Ponderosa saplings therefore grow in the open grass, away from the clumps of their mothers, sparing the mature trees competition. Each clump of trees, therefore, is of one generation.

Clumping in the grassland keeps fires regular and low impact. Fire, like water, takes the most direct course, which in this case is through the open channels of grass. Most saplings burn, but those that make it to maturity are then out of harm’s way.

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But Black Forest, like most ponderosa forests today, is not park-like. Europeans brought the practice of fire suppression to North America, and the U.S. Forest Service has followed in this tradition, putting out all fires, not distinguishing between emergencies and regular low-level ones. Without their population control mechanism (channels of grass), ponderosa forests have grown dense so now virtually all fires are emergencies.

Black Forest is in fact named for its density, displaying a random pattern of dispersion. The trees are all about the same age, probably around 100 years old, rather than there being clumps of different generations.

The European perspective sees forest fires as wasted lumber. Ponderosa pine is the second most harvested type of lumber in North America. (#1 is Douglas fir.) The irony is, now there’s nowhere for fires to go without burning these very trees.

This is further perpetuated by aggressive brush clearance, which has also taken a toll on wildflowers.

Ponderosa’s Best Friend

Underground truffles (fungi) are integral to ponderosa and other pines. They wrap around the tree roots, essentially becoming one with them. This combination is called Mycorrhiza (fungi-root). Mycorrhiza increase the tree’s intake of water and nutrients from the soil.

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Being underground, untouched by the wind, truffles rely on animals for dispersion. Animals dig them up, eat them, and poop out the spores elsewhere.

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Abert’s squirrels also eat ponderosa phloem (part of the trunk that transports sap), which they live off exclusively through the winter, making Abert’s squirrels an indicator species of ponderosa forest health.

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Ponderosa’s Enemy

Dwarf mistletoe is a parasite to ponderosa. It can only produce 3-4% of its own energy, so it grows on tree branches, sucking out the carbohydrates (sugar) and water, the tree’s own food. This makes it hard for the tree to photosynthesize, and may render it barren.

Dwarf mistletoe disperses its seeds in summer, when the fruit explodes, shooting gooey seeds as far as 20 feet at up to 50 miles per hour!

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Black Forest is highly infected with dwarf mistletoe.

Gamble’s Oak

There are also Gamble’s oak in Black Forest, the only oak native to Colorado. Like other oaks, Gamble’s mast. Masting species let seed heavily in some years, and little to none in others, but all members of a local population let the same amount at once. For example, one year, a population may drop all of its acorns, but then drop a few to none in the next three years. They’re “irregular and synchronous.”

Black Forest also has a ground cover of delightfully named kinnikinnick, which bears eat.

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Field Notes, Part 1

Submitted By: Allison Strauss, Annual Adventure Maven

Professor Marc Snyder left his one non-EV majors class for the last academic block of the year. By April, it was a pleasure to take general-requirement kids out to the woods every day and show them stuff.

In 2011, I was one of those general-requirement kids. The class was called Forest Ecology of the Colorado Front Range. That’s a colloquial term for the eastern edge of the Rockies where the state’s major cities are, including my school’s home of Colorado Springs. (Yes, Planned Parenthood-attack Colorado Springs. But sometimes known for Pikes Peak and the U.S. Olympic Training Center.)

Each morning, we piled into a van, and Marc would drive to a spot that exemplified whatever type of forest or ecological phenomenon he wanted to talk about that day. I’d jot down his commentary and sketch things in a small notebook that would inevitably get wet and crumpled.

In the evening, I’d convert my chicken-scratch to long form in a journal, then take notes on the night’s assigned reading, primarily from The Naturalist’s Guide to the Southern Rockies by Audrey Delella Benedict.

By the end of the course, my journal had become something of a guide book of its own, a layperson’s introduction to Forest Ecology of the Colorado Front Range. Now, with some editing and personal photographs, I’m sharing that guide here. Welcome to the first installment!

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April 25, 2011

Forests by Altitude & Direction

The Southern Rockies Life Zone (where there are complete ecosystems) falls between the upper and lower Tree Lines. Trees only grow so far down a mountain because of draught, and so far up a mountain (approximately 11,500 feet) because of cold and wind. Different kinds of trees have their elevation preferences within the life zone, so the type of forest changes as one moves up a mountain. These forests distinguish different ecosystems.

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North-facing slopes get less sun, meaning they’re cooler and hold snow longer. Higher elevation species, like spruce and fir, are more prominent on North-facing slopes, because the all-over climate is more like that normally just at high elevation. By the same token, South-facing slopes are the most temperate.

Ecosystem Participation

When a glacier melts, or a forest burns, or a quarry is a abandoned, the site becomes available for a new ecosystem. The order in which species appear there is called Succession.

First come the Colonizers. “Good colonizers exhibit rapid growth and a high tolerance for the sorts of environmental extremes associated with disturbed or newly exposed sites” (Benedict). Aspen and Lodgepole Pine are common colonizers.

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Aspen at Crater Lake, with view of the Maroon Bells, Colorado

Most species are Generalists. They can adapt to and are therefore found in a broad range of ecosystems. Probably the Southern Rockies’ most successful generalists are the coyote and deer mouse.

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Opposite of the Generalists are the Specialists. These species only live in specific conditions, like pika in high elevation talus, and Abert’s squirrel (Professor Marc Snyder’s specialty—I suspect he is one) in ponderosa forests.

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Pika and Abert’s squirrel

Because of their sensitivity, specialist presence indicates the health of a given ecosystem. So specialists are also known as Indicator Species.

 

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Much of this seemed obvious, things I had a sense of just by spending time in the environments described. Of course ecosystems change with altitude, for instance. But I hadn’t recognized that they do so in a consistent way from mountain to mountain. I’d imagined more of a patchwork where there were distinct horizontal bands. Having such realities parsed out and learning the vocabulary to sum them up gave form to my free-flowing observations from the trail. The overarching lesson for me was that very little in nature is arbitrary. The natural systems at work became all the more impressive.