Hike the Equinox

Itís funny how things happen. I visited the upper Huerfano River basin in the Sierra Blanca section of the Sangre de Cristos on the first day of summer this year. By coincidence, on this yearís autumnal equinox, here I was again, celebrating the changing of the seasons on familiar ground.

Back when I was here in June, I was planning to hike up to Lily Lake, a little short of three miles and about 1,800 vertical feet from the trailhead. It was plain to see from a distance, however, that the basin where the lake sits was still snowbound. Chances were pretty good that ice skates would be more appropriate than hiking boots up at over 12,300 feet.

On the first day of fall, it was obvious Old Man Winter had already made a few exploratory visits to the valley. The incredible north wall of 14,345-foot Blanca Peak, the highest point in the Sangres, and itís 14,042-foot companion, Ellingwood Point, rises up from the valley floor some 3,500 feet. The majority of that is a sheer, near-vertical rise that ends with great fanfare at Blancaís pointed summit. Nearly every crack and fissure in that headwall held evidence of recent snow, giving the scene a cold, wintry look. But this time of year, shadows remain all day on the north slopes of the Rockies, so it wasnít unexpected to see so much of the white stuff clinging to the highest peaks. Unlike last June, it looked like clear sailing to the lake this time.

My friend, Scott Basinger, had recently ceased his active duty status in the Marine Corps, and by yet another coincidence, called me the day before I left for this trip to see if I wanted some company on a future excursion. Eighteen hours later, he was unloading gear from his car to my truck, and we were on our way. The last time Scott and I went backpacking was four years ago, just a day or two before he headed off to boot camp. We spent the night in Fravert Basin in the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness near Aspen, enjoying an incredible sunset on the less-seen west side of the Maroon Bells.

Approaching the trailhead for Lily Lake, I noticed that clouds hugged the higher peaks. There were still residual monsoon clouds, perhaps left over from the overly wet summer the region had experienced. I wondered if the weather would hold for the trip, but we decided to make the trek up to the lake regardless. In more time than I care to admit, we were standing on the lake shore, a stiff, cold wind blowing in our faces, and a thick layer of clouds canvassing the sky. My goal for this trip was to get some decent shots of 14,042-foot Mount Lindsey. With the full moon only a few days away, the time was right to catch moonrise over Lindsey across the valley to the east. The clouds, unfortunately, were conspiring to prevent that from happening.

We hung out at the lake for about half an hour, shifting positions to avoid the ill wind that always seemed to be blowing right in our faces. Ever the eternal optimist, I had to concede that chances of getting any decent light were looking slimmer with each passing minute. It wasnít like there was any chance of getting any good reflection shots on the lake surface. "Surfís up!" was a more accurate description. With only 20 minutes of daylight left, we headed over the steep embankment just below the lake and started down. I wasnít ready to surrender completely, so I told Scott that we would make our way back to timberline slowly, just in case I got a brief window of light to work with.

Good plan. As I descended, I kept a watchful eye behind me. I figured that the clouds above us were mostly a mountain phenomenon, and there might actually be clear skies just out of view to the west, over the expansive San Luis Valley. Sure enough, with only five minutes left before sunset, the clouds to the west began to turn to pastel shades. To the south and east, Mount Lindsey and the ridgeline east of the Huerfano River were aglow with a thin strip of the most intense orange light I had seen all year. Capping it off, there was an immense cloud bank lit with the same orange hue that hung over the whole of the range, reflecting its intense glow into every shadowy recess of the valley. The higher deck of gray clouds prevented me from ever seeing the moon, but somehow that didnít seem to matter in that brief, two- or three-minute window of incredible light. I shot conservatively, however, knowing that one of my film backs held a type of film I was not yet familiar with, and the other one had only four or five frames left. I knew if I stopped to reload film, I would miss the shot completely. Yet another lesson re-learned for the thousandth time!

The light faded as quickly as it had appeared, and then Scott and I were faced with the inevitable return trip in the dark. We trudged down the trail without headlamps as long as we could, and then stopped down in the trees to remove some layers of clothing for the less windy trip back to the trailhead. I donned my headlamp, complete with brand new halogen bulb and fresh batteries. Scott donned his headlamp that he uses when mountain biking at night. My lamp threw a weak beam, as I have come to find out that halogen bulbs donít appreciate batteries any less than room temperature. Scottís light, on the other hand, was roughly equivalent to the light of a million suns. As he hiked behind me, it was hard to tell if I even had my light turned on. After a bit of adjustment, however, it proved to be a great tool for nighttime hiking.

When we approached the end of our hike, Scott panned back and forth across the big, beautiful meadow not far from the trailhead. Under the beam of his headlamp, three pairs of green eyes lit up a hundred yards away. Three mule deer stood motionless, no doubt curious how a small beam of daylight had returned to their valley home. I decided right then and there that I had to get one of those lights.

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