The One on the Left

After a visit to the top of the butte featured in last week’s post, I continued to roam the dusty roads of Grand River National Grassland. About nine miles to the northwest, I found these scenic buttes in a quieter, more natural section of the grassland where there are no fences, no visible signs of farming or ranching. The butte on the left looked to be the tallest of the bunch, so I decided to visit that summit. Starting out from the Pontiac, I walked past the remains of a cottonwood tree that struggled for many years to survive in this arid land…

Gaining elevation quickly, climbing through the shade of the steep eastern slope…

Just about out of the butte’s shadow as I near the top…

View from the rocky summit. Some nice flat stone there, though I didn’t stand on it as it seemed rather unstable; note that you can look through that hollow area beneath the slab and see the grass down the slope…

You can follow this link to Vimeo and enjoy the scenery from two locations—the first part of the video was taken at road level and the second part shows the view from the top of the butte. (Video duration is 62 seconds.)

I imagine the darkness here is incredible. I definitely want to return to this desolate area and stay through the night, listening to the coyotes and enjoying the blazing stars.

Next week…a butte in North Dakota.

Time to Climb

Perhaps having lived in flat farm country for so many decades is the reason I’m driven to climb every hill that I see. During October’s tour of nine National Grasslands, I’m happy to report that I ascended more buttes than on any previous fall excursion.

Despite numerous journeys through South Dakota over the years, there is one grassland that somehow escaped my notice until 2018—Grand River National Grassland in the northwestern corner of the state. Rolling northward through this grassland on a sunny autumn day, I came upon a nice hill very close to the road. I’m always happy to add another summit to my list, even if it’s an unnamed peak and an easy climb. So I turned left, parked on the shoulder and began my march to the top of this butte…

Butte? That’s what I call the many hills of this size and shape that are scattered across the Great Plains. True, they don’t resemble the classic vision of a butte—those towering red-rock formations with vertical sides and a flat top. Perhaps these buttes of the prairie are made of softer material and have eroded more quickly. Call them hills, call them peaks…I’m not looking for a debate on the topic. I’ll just say that many of these hills are labeled as buttes on maps, such as the Dog Ear Buttes, which I climbed in 2017, and White Butte, seen in the photo below, which lies just to the southwest of this summit. I’ll pay a visit to the top of White Butte on my next trip to the area…

As a special bonus to this ascent, I enjoyed a little western flavor while I hiked, watching a small cattle drive as it approached from the east. In this photo, the lead cowboy is well out front, just approaching my parked car. Behind him are twenty or so head of cattle, with the other two cowboys bringing up the rear. It was fun to watch them glide slowly and rather silently down the dusty road. No one stopped to sniff the Pontiac…

Near the butte’s summit, I was intrigued by this collection of large boulders; oddly round, rather brittle in nature and spotted with bright orange lichen. Have to wonder how these rocks got here…

You can follow this link to Vimeo and watch a slow 360° rotation atop the summit. (Video duration is 55 seconds.) This was only the first climb of the day; I’ll have more butte stories for you in the weeks ahead.

The Hall of the Mountain King

As high as the Pontiac has ever been, or ever will be: 14,130 feet (4307 m) above sea level. The Mount Evans Scenic Byway is the highest paved road on the North American continent. Due to the likelihood of heavy snow at that elevation, the road is open only from Memorial Day through Labor Day. Since I’ve never been a fan of summer travel, I pushed it as late as possible and made my ascent on Labor Day, September 7, 1998.

I rose early and left the town of Idaho Springs well before sunrise. There was some delay getting on the road because the Pontiac did not want to start in that cold, thin air. I was able to get it going by removing the air filter and wedging open the choke plate with a screwdriver. If Idaho Springs (elevation 7526 feet) was a problem, then starting the car at the top of mountain would be even more challenging. So I left the engine running during the entire trip up and down Mount Evans.

Winding my way up the mountain in the cold and the dark, I was watching closely for deer and other beasts, and hoping that the Pontiac could handle the climb. Traffic was limited to just two or three other vehicles. I arrived at the entrance gate a few minutes before they opened for business that day, and made it to the parking area as the sun was coming up. Standing in the cool, clear, still air, I marveled at the view of the sun rising over the rugged terrain far below, and at the mountain’s long shadow extending for many miles to the west.

The wide-angle lens used here was junked right after this roll was developed, as it had quit working properly and was seriously over-exposing each frame (these black & white photos required heavy digital manipulation). Happily, the cheap disposable camera I had purchased at a gas station was there to save the day…

It would have been a shame to get this close to the summit and not finish the journey. As one who lives near sea level, I’m glad I had asked my doctor for an oxygen prescription so I could buy a tank for trips like this. On went the mask and I set out for the top of Mount Evans. This was my very first attempt at physical activity above 10,000 feet. Though only a 135-foot climb from the parking lot to the summit, it didn’t take long to learn that I needed to move slowly at this elevation.

I did stand—briefly—on that highest rock, but even with the O2, I had trouble balancing there. To date, this remains the highest point I have ever visited: 14,265 feet (4348 m).

Wish I had put the top down before taking these photos of the Pontiac; at least it was lowered for the sunny ride back down the mountain.

Ilford FP4 film
Kodak Gold 400 film

Right Place, Right Time

After my 2016 visit to the Dog Ear Buttes of South Dakota, I posted this trip report, where I mentioned my long-standing desire to conquer the summits of these little hills on the prairie. When I returned to the buttes this past September, I had no plan in place for tracking down the landowner so I could get permission to hop the fence; I figured I’d wing it once I got there. Turns out, it couldn’t have been easier.

As soon as I had parked on the side of the road, a van came around the curve and slowed to a stop beside me. I introduced myself to the friendly family inside and asked if they happened to know who owns the land south of the road. “We do.” Cool. I asked if they would mind if I walked to the top of each hill. They gave their blessing, as the cows were grazing in another pasture that day. I thanked them and we said goodbye. As they drove on to their destination, I rolled a short distance westward, looking for the best spot to climb the barbed wire.

(Above: View to the west from the north summit; the Pontiac parked below)

(Above: View of the north summit from the south summit)

Once over the fence, I made straight for the north summit. Not difficult hiking, certainly, but steeper than it looks from the road. The ground was stony and dry, studded with yucca and prickly pear. In short order, I was standing on the rocky peak of the north Ear, enjoying an unobstructed view of the big sky and the sweeping prairie.

(Above: Looking eastward from the south summit; a vulture gliding through the center of the frame)

I then made the easy stroll across the saddle to the top of the south Ear. The only movement I noticed in this panorama was a single soaring vulture, making a slow circle around the buttes; not an uncommon sight on the plains, but this may be the only time I’ve seen one circling below my eye level. Pretty sweet. (You can spot the vulture during the first few seconds of the video I’ve linked below.)

(Above: View to the south from the south summit; 18 miles to the Nebraska line)

In addition to the great view up there, I enjoyed the absence of noises from the civilized world; I tend to linger in places where I can bask in the silence of the wind.

You can follow this link to Vimeo and watch a 45-second video showing a slow 360° rotation atop the south summit.

Victory at Trout Creek

Ever wondered what lies on the other side of this ridge? We certainly have. Reinecker Ridge looms impressively in most of our photographs taken at the Buffalo Peaks Ranch. Last year, Jay and I made a half-baked attempt to walk to the base of the ridge, but we didn’t get any farther than Trout Creek (you can read about that misadventure here). The next day, we all piled into Sarah’s Subaru and tried to reach the ridge via service roads, but we were stopped short by a locked gate. Determined that we would summit this beast in 2017, we researched our best route to the ridge by studying aerial images of the valley. What appeared to be a culvert, well to the north of last year’s route, gave us hope that we would reach our destination. Just after sunrise on a cool, windy and beautiful October morning, we set out.

The photo above (my favorite of the day) was captured by Sarah, who followed us through her lens until we were swallowed by the shadow of the mighty ridge. The next two photos also belong to Sarah. Here we are at the starting line, fueled by a hearty breakfast…

Striking eastward across the valley. The cows paid us no attention…

Even without the fence or the cattle trail to follow, our target would be easy to find…

The promised culvert! Our ticket across Trout Creek…

After hopping the final barbed-wire fence at the base of the ridge, the climbing began, as did the anticipation. What would we see on the other side? Our route from here would be improvised. As the slope steepened, we entered the last of the morning’s shadow…

Which soon disappeared as the sun found us once again…

The terrain grew rockier as we ascended. We discovered many large red boulders embedded in the ground; this one resembling a giant egg in a nest…

And this one, split in two by natural forces who knows how many thousands of years ago…

A look at the slope as we switchbacked our way to the top; Trout Creek winding below toward its union with the Middle Fork South Platte River…

Huzzah! Happy hikers at the summit…

Jay, leaning into the wind; me, trying to hold onto the phone. Once we had left the valley floor and started our climb, that morning’s hard west wind steadily grew stronger as we gained altitude, pushing us up the hill. At the summit, with the ridge out of its way so it could fly freely, I conservatively estimate the wind was sustained in excess of 60 mph; wouldn’t be surprised if it was actually higher than 70 mph. Standing still was quite difficult…

A beautiful and long-awaited view of the Buffalo Peaks Ranch…

To our knowledge, the very first time that the Rocky Mountain Land Library banner has been flown over Reinecker Ridge…

Reaching the summit was quite rewarding, but the real prize was waiting for us on the eastern side of the ridge. As we walked down a short distance, the wind continued to howl overhead, but it became little more than a gentle breeze at ground level. We stood there looking out over a vast and beautiful landscape stretching all the way to the distant mountains; no signs of civilization, no moving creatures…just hills and valleys, grass and rocks, a few scattered trees, sitting in silence under an immense blue sky. Such a powerful and sublime vista.

Jay, in the lower left corner, sitting down for a moment to take in the scenery. That bald hill in the middle distance is known as Bald Hill (as seen on this topo map; elevation 9556′). As we gazed at this wonderland, we couldn’t help but make plans for our next visit to the ranch, which will include an extended exploration of this valley and, of course, a march to the summit of Bald Hill…

With so many amazing peaks and parks and trails in Colorado, this particular spot isn’t likely on anyone’s hit list. And by the numbers, avid hikers and climbers might find it less than noteworthy. Our one-way walking distance from the ranch was just over one mile; the elevation at the summit of the ridge is 9481′ (confirmed by the topo map and the altimeter app on my phone). From the floor of the valley near Trout Creek, that’s an elevation gain of only 370′. Still, it’s no exaggeration to say that this was the most satisfying hike of my life. I’ve visited the high points of 31 states (all of them, incidentally, lower in elevation than this ridge), but treks of that nature are all rather predictable…a known destination, a well-marked and well-established trail shared with dozens of other hikers. But on this day, we were explorers. We were out there alone, blazing our own trail. And the adventure climaxed with an element of discovery—something that’s not frequently experienced in this century. We had some giddy moments up on that ridge, and I’m sure it wasn’t simply due to a lack of oxygen.

Before we began our walk back to the ranch, I recorded a video which features a 360° view from the top of the ridge. It’s a little shaky, as the wind was trying to rip the phone from my hands, but it will give you a much better look at the land to the east of the ridge (and a better appreciation for the strength of that gale). The link below will take you to Vimeo (video duration is 1:51). Enjoy the view!

Watch the video here.

High Plains Drifter II

As I’ve said before, I’m not a fan of Pontiac pictures that show the top in the up position. The old photo of my first visit to Nebraska’s highest point, seen below, was successfully replaced today by the one above. A few things have changed since 1996; the fence is new, as is the $3 entry fee. And the road leading in has become much rougher…just like me.

Black Elk

Now that this mountain has a new name (its third), I think it is time to revisit the summit, which I hope to do in the next few weeks. Road trip season has arrived; stay tuned for a new batch of photos from the American West.

Cypress Hills

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More scenes from last Tuesday’s drive to the top of Saskatchewan.

My final seconds in Alberta; the fence on the left marks the Saskatchewan line…

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At the summit: The highest car in SK…

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Heading back down…

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A hill. And there’s no fence around it! I’ve written before of my strong desire to climb every hill that I see; when I find one that isn’t fenced in, you bet I’m going to the top, even if it isn’t a particularly high hill…

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The view from the top. Spot the Pontiac yet?

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Back on the prairie…

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