The Untamed Tundra

(Colorado Series)

You never conquer a mountain.

You stand on the summit a few moments,

then the wind blows your footprints away.


 Arlene Blum



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For most who live in the U.S., Memorial Day marks the start of summer, which includes excursions to the beach or the lake. But here in Colorado it means trips to the high country.


Weather permitting; the highest paved road in North America leading to the summit of Mt Evans opens on Memorial Day. National Park Service plow operators normally begin clearing the snow in the middle of April. This year, due to late spring storms, they encountered snow drifts from 18 to 22 feet.


Colorado is a state short on bad views, but it’s when we take the road to the sky to the top of Mt. Evans that I truly appreciate the staggering breadth of my adopted state.


Colorado at its wild, wild best.


(The only other way to reach  such heights is to spend all day hiking while carrying food & water on your back over many grueling, oxygen-deprived miles.)


On the drive from 8,700 feet in the town of Idaho Springs to the top at 14,130 feet, one experiences a living laboratory: 3 life zones that pass the bent & gnarled bodies of ancient trees (the oldest is approximately 1700 years old!), lakes & forest to the land above timberline.


With eardrums popping, the ride up is serpentine & dizzying, with guardrail-less drop-offs on the passenger side of the car.

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Since temperatures drop 3.5 - 5 degrees for every 1,000 feet of elevation gain, it’s not unusual for it to be 80 degrees in Denver and 35 degrees at the top of the mountain. (Below freezing temperatures may occur at any time of year.) Since the phenomenon never gets old,  my husband is known to announce the  nose-diving mercury every few miles as a way to entertain his passengers.


UV rays are more intense at higher altitudes because the thinner atmosphere filters out fewer UV rays. UV rays increase approximately 5% with every 1,000 feet above sea level. For example, a mountain at 14,000 feet receives 70% more UV exposure than an area at sea level.


This is no joke. Friends of mine who recently climbed a 14er (a mountain 14,000 feet in elevation & above) suffered third-degree burns on their faces.




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There's 14 miles of road from the ranger station to the Mt Evans summit parking area – also home to the highest observatory in North America at 14,130 feet. From there, you can hike the last 128 feet (about 1/4 mile climb with switchbacks) to the top at 14,258 feet.

Even though it’s only a ¼ mile trek, at that altitude, your limbs feel leaden & most lowlanders have a hard time catching their breath in the oxygen-deprived air. The barometric pressure is lower than at sea level, meaning you intake 12% less oxygen with each breath at 14,000 feet than at sea level. Some even experience altitude sickness.


My niece & I taking in the IMAX-scale views  (& gale-force winds) on the summit of Mt Evans.

Summit marker

Wildlife persists here in one of earth's most extreme environments due to their highly specialized adaptations.

Mountain goats  (By the looks of that coat, he just got back from the groomers.)

A Rocky Mt Bighorn Ram can exceed 500 pounds with horns that can weigh up to 30 pounds.

The yellow-bellied marmot — a jolly good rodent that likes to sunbathe where most of us wouldn't dare — on rocky ledges & outcrops with 2,000 ft drop-offs.

Then there’s the austere beauty of Trail Ridge Road which crests over 12,000 ft in Rocky Mountain National Park – the highest in any national park. Three-quarters of it is above 9,000 ft with 60 peaks over 12,000 ft, more than one-third is above tree line (11,200-11,500').


Rocky Mountain  Elk


Sunset on the tundra — jaw-dropping beauty on a grand scale

Monstrously beautiful. Majestic.


Forbidding beauty. Savage charm.

Primitive & vast.  Inhospitable to human life.


A wind-whipped moonscape of vast emptiness.

A landscape so desolate it seems not of this earth.


The natural world is powerful, & never more so at elevations above 12,000 feet.



It's Happy in Here (TM) (Series) |  How to Be Happy:  22 Tips to Everyday Bliss by Cindy O'Krepki

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