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

First Light over Texas

Whenever I’m in the vicinity of Culberson County, it’s a sure bet that I’ll be making several trips up and down all 55 miles of my favorite highway, Texas State Highway 54. During my most recent visit, I decided to see how it looked in the twilight of dawn. So, I rolled out of Van Horn while it was still dark and drove north, enjoying, as usual, the complete absence of other vehicles.

Texas 54 terminates at the base of the Guadalupe Mountains, the highest terrain in the state. It was wonderful to see the mountains aglow as the sun cracked the horizon.

Letting the Outside In

Another vintage film that I brought along on our most recent visit to the ranch was a roll of Kodak 2475 Recording Film, an extremely grainy high-speed film that was once a favorite of private detectives and cops working surveillance. This relic had been in the family film closet since my earliest days of photography; the expiration date was JAN 1977. By all rights, this roll should have become completely fogged over and useless many years ago. I was pleasantly surprised when the 36 frames came out quite nicely.

Buffalo Peaks Ranch
South Park, Colorado

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.

Glorious Failure

I love disasters like this. This is the roll that the lab told me was too faint to scan; I scanned it anyway. An old roll of high-speed Konica SR-G 3200 color print film, with a 1993 expiration date. These first two shots show Reinecker Ridge at sunrise, as seen from the Buffalo Peaks Ranch.

I have a large supply of old film, but it’s mostly black & white and I’ve never noticed any age-related issues when shooting that stuff. Color is a different story. And when it comes out like this, I really wish I had a lot more. Time to start scouring the internet and stocking up.

A shot of Sarah at the ranch. Looks as though she has found an interdimensional portal…

Later that week, a scene from Custer, South Dakota…

And, from my final evening in South Dakota this year, two shots of the sunset along my favorite gravel road…

The image above is the last frame on the roll. Not sure where the blocking effect came from, but I love it.