Our World for a Weekend
Fall in the high country. A melting pot, both a juxtaposition and fusion of seasons, where the mountains shed their summer mantle, layers peeled away, before being stripped down bare, to the bones of winter. Warm sunny days are followed by cool nights and crisp mornings. Lush greens are overtaken by golds, yellows, russets and vibrant reds, all set against a deep blue sky. The bright fragrance of flowers and frenzy of growth is replaced with the ripe aroma of decay, both sweet and musty. Leaves are brittle and dry, rattling in the breeze, and the majestic bugle of an elk echoes across the valley. The cadence of the earth is slow and heavy.
This is fall and into the high country we go. Like the diversity of the season, a 30 mile loop circumnavigating the mountain which gives the Holy Cross Wilderness its name, provides a perfect tour of autumn in the mountains. From rugged, windswept passes well above tree line, to dense pine and aspen forests with dappled sunlight shimmering through the golden quakies. From faint paths scribbled across the spongy alpine tundra to rocky trails tracing the ridges and knolls of the valley sides. From pure blue tarns set in granite bowls fed by crystal waters cascading down like tears, to the meandering creeks which languish into muddy swamps on the valley floors. This is our world for a weekend.
We set out into the dusk, weighed down with heavy packs. An occasional break in the dark evergreen forest affording views as late evening light casts long shadows of purple and umber into the distant peaks of the Gore Range.
By nightfall we have traveled four miles and reach Lake Constantine. Cold hands struggle to function as we stumble around in the dark pitching our tents. A quick dinner and we are tucked in for the night, a vain attempt of sleep for we toss and turn at this high altitude of 11,300 feet.
Daybreak. A hard frost, the ground brittle and white. We shiver and coax our stoves to life. Sunrise brings streams of pale light spilling through the trees and mist rising from still waters.
As we lean into the climb, the sun rises higher and its warm fingers finally pry layers of clothing from our chilled bodies.
At Fall Creek Pass rocky ridges soar and a waxing crescent moon hangs above, like thin rice-paper in the bright midday sun.
The trail drops off sharply below us into a jumble of granite, a string of lakes, aquamarine and emerald jewels sparkle in the distance.
Fancy Pass, a steep but steady climb through fractured rock, the debris of old mining claims lies around.
From this elevation of over 12,000 feet we can see the shape of the Collegiate Peaks, the Elk Range and even further where they disappear into the mountains of southern Colorado.
We are on top of our world, walking through the sky.
And then it's down again. The upper reaches of the Cross Creek drainage are a perfect bowl rising gradually from smooth grassy meadows up forested flanks to high benches.
After 14+ miles on the trail we wearily pull into camp, our feet leaden but our minds and hearts full.
The last magic hour of light. The glassy surface of the lake filled with cloud and sky, as alpenglow lights the distant peaks.
And then darkness. A velvet night. We lie on the ground our eyes filled with the Milky Way and shooting stars.
Another cold frosty morning quickly gives way to warm sunshine as we continue our trek following the bipolar Cross Creek, one minute roaring through boulders, the next still and languid.
Golden aspens frame the Mount of the Holy Cross towering above us at over 14,000 feet and at our feet, if eyes are sharp enough, we find forest treasure, boletus mushrooms.
The trail is long and rocky, endlessly climbing and then dropping up the sides of the valley, through thick pine forests scattered with mouton rochees and large granite boulders left by a retreating glacier. It's a slog and in deep contrast to the previous day where we walked through the sky. It's hot too, at these lower elevations - a reminder that summer has not yet officially ended.
With the final crossing of the creek and after two days and two hours of hiking our tour of the high country draws to a close. This was our world for a weekend.