Wandering to Blue Lake

I only had one goal cast in stone for this trip. Iíve been working on a four seasons photographic portfolio of Mount Sneffels for the last few years, shooting the peak from the same location in each of its seasonal splendors. With spring and fall down, and a fairly good winter shot accomplished, all that was left was to shoot the summer photo. Logistically speaking, summer would be the easiest of the shots, since the location I had picked out was very accessible then. Unfortunately, I have put off the trip the last few years until fall had already begun to take shape. This year, even though it was already into early September, I figured I could get the shot with green aspen leaves and far less snow on the peak than in my springtime image.

My destination was set for Thursday morning, so I was flexible for a Wednesday evening location to shoot sunset. I decided to head up to Carson Saddle west of Lake City, then up to a high plateau overlooking the Weminuche Wilderness. After multiple delays for construction on Highway 50, the day was slipping by too fast. Still, I determined I had enough time to get where I wanted in time for great light.

On the way up the rocky road to Carson Saddle, my timing was thrown into a tailspin when I encountered a young couple from Texas sitting by the side of the road. They had some bad fortune earlier that day up almost exactly where I was heading. Seems they got into a jam in a bog at 13,000 feet. While she stayed behind, the young man, Zach, piled into my truck and we headed up to see if we could pull him out of the mess. A mess, indeed! The Jeep was listing precariously at about 35 or 40 degrees, with its left tires hopelessly submerged past the axles in a soft water pocket surrounded by spongy, sopping wet marshland. I hooked my tow strap up to my front hook, Zach attached the other end to his vehicle, and I started to pull. My wheels spun helplessly on the soft ground, unable to get the traction needed to extricate Zach from his predicament. Shifting strategy, I repeatedly drifted forward to give the line slack, then gunned the engine in reverse, hoping to jerk him out of the mud hole. After several tries, the Jeep lurched up out of the bog and back onto solid ground. With the light turning a deep orange as the sun neared the horizon, I asked Zach to take a few pictures of me for use on a dust jacket for a book Iím having reprinted. He gladly complied, and then we went our separate ways.

I hurriedly drove up the rough road until it disappeared, and with camera bag and tripod in tow, headed up the last few hundred feet to the top of a ridge on foot. The light was turning to deep amber in the waning minutes of daylight, presumably colored by forest fires raging in California. To the south, Rio Grande Pyramid rose majestically skyward. A multitude of unnamed summits to the west and southwest turned to hazy shades of gray, lighter and less detailed the farther away they were. On the far southwest skyline I could easily pick out Sunlight and Windom Peaks and Mount Eolus, three fourteeners I had shot from almost the exact opposite direction almost exactly a year ago from near Overlook Point (see "Lost and Found in the Weminuche"). Northwest of me, Redcloud and Sunshine Peaks, two more fourteeners, were the dominant features. I shot several images as the clouds above the scene turned red, panning left and right to shoot as many angles as the rapidly fading light would allow. As the sun dipped below the western horizon and a cool breeze kicked up, I said to myself, Ah, what timing!

The next morning I headed to my Sneffels location before sunrise. I noticed the day before that the aspen trees around Lake City had already begun to change color, albeit an unfortunate brown instead of vibrant gold. But the stretch of Highway 149 from Powderhorn down to South Fork always seems to turn a week or two earlier than the rest of the San Juans. Once there was enough light to get a good look at the area around Miller Mesa, I could see that Sneffels had a few traces of recent snow hiding in some of the north-facing crevasses. There was also one aspen tree in the grove that would be in the foreground of my image that was definitely beginning to turn from green to gold. I shot a few rolls of film on the scene, and determined that by this time next year, Iíd have a better winter shot and the Mother of All Summer Shots.

With my agenda now wide open, I contemplated where to go next. It dawned on me that, while Iíve shot hundreds of photos of Mount Sneffels in particular, and the Sneffels Range in general, and while Iíve been into Yankee Boy Basin at the height of flower season, I had never actually been into the officially designated Mount Sneffels Wilderness. Some peopleís goal is to climb all the fourteeners. Mine is to eventually spend some serious time in every one of Coloradoís wilderness areas. Decision made. I was off to the Blue Lakes trailhead.

Because of the amount of weight I carry when I backpack, I often end up choosing between carrying a full load of 80-plus pounds for overnighters, or leaving well before dawn or returning well after dusk with a more manageable 45 pounds of camera gear. I had pretty much decided to forego the overnight haul to Blue Lakes in favor of leaving in the morning almost three hours before sunrise. Then I struck up a conversation with a couple returning to the trailhead. I asked them if there were any reasonable places to camp between the trailhead and the lake, and they told me about a pretty nice spot a little past the halfway mark. I suddenly felt energized, and within 45 minutes I had my backpack fully stuffed and I headed up the trail. I wanted to make it all the way to the lake, even though it was already well past four oíclock in the afternoon and dark clouds were beginning to stream over the highest peaks. To aid in my attempt, I left the cook stove and the heavier rain gear in the truck, and threw in a hand-full of granola bars and a couple of cans of pre-mixed tuna salad for sustenance. I knew that I had that camping spot halfway there to fall back on if it got too dark or dicey. The first half of the trail, roughly to the wilderness boundary, was pretty steep in spots, but once I got to the stream crossing that would signal my arrival at said campsite, I decided Iíd push on to the lake.

(SIDEBAR: For me, hiking and climbing is very much a mental endeavor, and thinking positive seems to help me get to where Iím going. I also really enjoy talking to people I encounter on the trail, but I also adhere to some pretty specific rules of engagement. If a person is very near their destination, Iíll offer up an encouraging "Youíre almost there!" On the other hand, if they still have a long way to go, Iíll only tell them so if they ask me for specifics. When I was ascending a particularly steep set of switchbacks about a mile from the trailhead, I happened upon three descending bow hunters. After telling them I hoped to make it all the way to the lake, one of them asserted, "Itís a long way." Of course, carrying the load I was carrying, what I heard was, "Itís a looooooooong way." For the next 15 or 20 minutes on the trail it felt like I had a fully deployed parachute trailing behind me, hindering my forward momentum. I even considered turning back and reverting to my pre-dawn hike plans. Luckily, that notion soon faded, and I continued my uphill grind. As it turned out, the lake was roughly about as far away as I had envisioned, no thanks to the unsolicited trail update.)

I arrived at lower Blue Lake at about 6:30. The dark clouds made it seem much later. I pitched my tent in an incredibly flat area under some spruce trees and headed to the lake to see if it was aptly named. I sat on a flat rock on the lake shore, marveling at the way the water turned from a soft, milky color on shore to a deep, almost unnatural-looking turquoise color just a foot or two out. The clouds were thick enough that I didnít see any hope for sunset photos, so I just sat by the lake for a while, enjoying the scene and the solitude. A month ago this place was probably overrun with campers. Now, a few days after Labor Day, I had the wilderness to myself.

I slept fitfully that night, like I always do when I camp alone. I sleep so lightly when thereís no one else around for miles that I swear I could hear a chipmunk tip-toeing past my tent. As much as I present myself as comfortable in the wilderness, which I generally am, Iíve never been able to shake that persistent little fear of no escape that nighttime in the wilderness surrounds me with. Itís nothing that a good .357 Magnum wouldnít cure, though.

About an hour before sunrise, I crawled out of my sleeping bag and headed up to the next highest lake. The Blue Lakes are a string of three lakes, the first at 11,000 feet, the second 500 feet higher, and the third around another 100 feet up. Theyíre not actually connected; hence the lower lake is the only one with the namesake blue shade.

As I climbed higher in the basin, the view got increasingly more dramatic. While autumn had begun to shade only one tree in that aspen grove down below Mount Sneffels, clearly fall was in full swing up at timberline and above. The tundra was painted in rich green-gold hues, with occasional bursts of almost fluorescent reds and oranges. Amazingly, despite the surrounding landscape, there were sporadic patches of yellow Indian paintbrush and mountain bluebells still clinging to summer.

Directly across the valley, several of the Sneffels Rangeís rugged peaks competed for attention. There was Dallas Peak, a 13,809-foot high mountain considered by many to be Coloradoís toughest climb. Just out of view were a host of named summits, hidden by lesser, but still impressive, rocky summits ringing the basin. A sharp, unnamed peak took on stature far beyond its elevation, and proved to be quite a dramatic scene when viewed from the middle Blue Lake. Just as I made my way to the far side of the lake to shoot some reflection photos, I turned around to see many of the surrounding highlands being engulfed by ominous gray shafts of rain. Not knowing whether or not the impending storm would turn electrical, I headed back down into the trees to wait it out. For 20 minutes I watched a light rain fall, interspersed with episodes of gropple. Then, as the sky began to clear, I headed back to the lake. This time, I decided to circle the lake in a clockwise direction. Halfway across the outflow, I must have slipped on a rock. All I know is, one minute I was hiking happily across a stream, and the next I was laying facedown in the water! I didnít hit my head, but I did a number on my left shoulder and biceps, as well as my left thumb, which since then has protested every time I attempt to grasp a pen. (Thank goodness for computer keyboards. . .) After shaking out the cobwebs and fishing my completely submerged tripod out of the water, I gingerly made my way to the far shore, losing my footing a number of times on the wet, sloping tundra.

The eastern shore of the lake provided an astounding artistic platform. Intermittent smatterings of sunlight graced the slopes across the valley while the brooding clouds added dramatic counterpoint. I have often said that bad weather makes good photographs, and this was one of those instances that proved the point. In the constantly changing light I found it hard to pull myself away from the scene and head back to camp, but I eventually did. On the way down I stopped at a few precipitous rock outcroppings that overlooked lower Blue Lake. When the sun hit the water, the blue color of the lake was absolutely breathtaking. Blue Lake definitely presented its most beautiful personality when viewed from high above.

I spent the first half hour back at camp chowing down on all the snacks I had brought, then I packed up and headed back down. Along the way I stopped to photograph the ever-changing light and shadow on Mount Sneffels' rugged western slopes, and enjoyed a good 30 or 40 minute conversation with an older gentleman from Chicago who was heading to the lake with his dog, Sam. We shared a chocolate bar while the man, whose name I didnít catch, puffed on a sweet-smelling pipe. Then it was off to the trailhead for me and up to alpine paradise for him.

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