I’ve been told I take “pretty pictures” and “it must be nice to take pictures for a living.” While I appreciate the sentiment, it is not always easy, or even enjoyable. On a recent attempt to walk over to Mount Flora (a 13er) near Berthoud Pass (near Winter Park, Colorado), I had a not-so-enjoyable experience.
I spend a lot of time in Winter Park, Colorado, and photograph the area more than most others. Still, I had not hiked up to Mount Flora, and this morning I wanted to try it. After all, it should be an easy walk.
I crawled out my bed in Winter Park around 3:20am (pretty normal for mornings I’m heading out to shoot in the high country but a complete no-go for most of my friends). I was in the car by 3:45am and drove to the top of Berthoud Pass. I parked in the lot for the old ski lift there about 4:05am, then got out the flashlights. Usually, I like trekking up the opposite side (west side) of Highway 40, but today I wanted to walk over to Mt. Flora and take in the view for sunrise. The walk over is only around 6+ miles round trip, so it should have been pretty easy.
There is a dirt road that winds up the ski area to the Colorado Mines Peak that you can see from Highway 40. This road serves the weather research facilities on top of this small peak that is run by the Colorado School of Mines. From the top, you can see Highway 40, Winter Park, the valleys below and over to Mt. Flora. So I started up this road, but soon came to an unknown trail that led more directly up. Thinking I’d save some time and steps, I took the trail as it headed up a steeper grade. Feeling good that I’d shave off some time, I walked uphill for about 7 or 8 minutes. At that point, much to my dismay, the trail just disappeared. Appropriate words were uttered, but fortunately, I had my GPS. I figured I’d just look at the map and work my way back to the road. My feet were soaked and cold from the dew on the grass, as I now had to cut across the slopes with no trail to follow. Still headed at a rather steep incline, after 10 or 15 minutes of slow grunt work on unstable terrain (and pausing to catch my breath), I found the road again. I like to think I’m in pretty good shape (I climb 14er and 13ers and seem to do ok). But by now, I was sweating profusely, sucking air at 12,000’ in elevation, and wondering if I’d make it to the summit before sunrise. I pressed on – feet cold, but feeling like I’d make it.
Eventually, I reached the top of Colorado Mines Peak. I had been fortunate up to this point – there was no wind to speak of. However, when I walked up to the top of this small peak, a gale force wind greeted me, nearly blowing me over. I wanted to photograph this view (from my location looking towards Mount Flora) but the wind was so strong I couldn’t keep my camera and tripod still for the longer exposure the dim light required. The sky was turning orange on the horizon and the clouds were racing by overhead, but the wind would not allow a still image. I thought I’d try weighting down the tripod with my backpack. Clearly not thinking, I let my tripod stand on its own while preparing to hang the backpack onto it. I turned my back for a second and the tripod instantly blew over. The strongest winds I’d experienced before this was on the summit of Mount Yale several years prior. But these winds now were stronger. I was having a hard time standing straight up. I ducked behind one of the research buildings on the peak and tried to gather my wits.
This is where my mental battles rage: Will I regret not pressing on to Mount Flora? (less than 2 miles away)?; Am I crazy for trying to press on?; Does it really matter if I get the shots this morning when I can come back in better conditions?; Will the winds be calmer over on Mount Flora?
I usually decide to make sure I have no regrets, and I did this time, as well. So I took a few steps downhill to head to the ridge that connects Colorado Mines Peak and Mt. Flora. And I was blown down to my knees. Feeling defeated by an invisible enemy, I crawled back up and over Colorado Mines Peak and started back towards the parking lot. And as soon as I reached the downside of the slope on the west side, the winds were again calm - so calm that about halfway down to the Berthoud Pass parking lot, I stopped to photograph wildflowers with Red Mountain in the distance.
No, this morning wasn’t particularly fun nor enjoyable, but I did get a few images from the top of Colorado Mines Peak looking over to Mt. Flora. I also salvaged a few Indian Paintbrush images, as well, so it wasn’t a complete bust. And I’ll get to Mount Flora when the snows melt – next year.
But I still love my job. A bad day and windy conditions on a summer morning in Colorado will always trump a good day in the office, at least in my opinion.