It’s hard to leave the bikes behind sometimes, but entirely worth it. August is the month to hike high in the Colorado Rocky Mountains, but it’s also a month of crowds and busy hikes. We skirted the crowds by heading into the Indian Peaks Wilderness. These mountains are what you see if you look west from town; summer or winter, the huge cirque of mountains surrounding the Arapahoe Glacier can be seen up against the skyline. We chose South Arapahoe at 13,397 feet. It’s the second highest but the most accessible, avoiding the exposure and technical climbing needed to get to the North Peak.
The weather forecast wasn’t ideal, but we got on the road at 5am anyway. We guessed we had until late morning before the thunderstorms would roll over the hills. As we hiked up and away from the Fourth of July Trailhead, we could already see whisps of clouds sitting over the continental divide; it was going to be a stormy day
We’d gained ground quickly, and by 7am we had turned off the main trail and started the slow climb on the Arapahoe Glacier trail. The Glacier is the biggest in Colorado, and responsible for the crystal clear water we drink in Boulder. The trail passed an old mine at 11,200 feet, tucked into the most sheltered part of the valley. Multiple glacial run offs collected in the bottom here, creating a small marshy area filled with firebrush, juniper bushes, and small pines struggling to make it above six feet. The vegetation was damp from the previous day’s rain, leaving us soaked as we passed by.
As soon as we left the shelter of the basin, the wind whipped up. We stopped low down on the slope and started piling on the clothes. We’re all pretty experienced when it comes to hiking the hills, and there was no shortage of clothes. Normally, for an August hike, I think of the clothes as a neccessary burden for the peace of mind I need to summit the mountains. Today, clothes were needed. We emptied our rucksucks of down layers as the windchill brought the temperature far below what we’d expected. The clouds raced by on either side of us. Slowly the view closed in, only breaks in the clouds revealing the foothills spreading west towards the plains.
Finally, towards the glacier. The saddle came into view quickly – a rare trail without any false summits. The wind was curving around the peaks, pushing clouds ever faster towards us. Glimpses of blue above, and the heavy foggy air reassured us that, for the time being, thunder and lightening would stay at bay. Only as we snuggled into the lee of the hill did the gusts relent, and we could look down into the huge bowl of snow and ice that makes up the glacier.
From here on the easy hiking was done. The trail snaked up the sharp edge of the peak; just left of a huge drop down to the valley below. Visibility was zero. Summiting was a matter of accomplishment, rather than for the view that would accompany it. We walked slowly, marking each others steps, keeping just far enough from the edge that we could keep our bearings, but stay safe. Finally the rocks ceased, and there we were left at the summit. 13,397 feet above the sea. We enjoyed the moment at the saddle in the blinking sunshine instead:
With the fog closing in, and the realisation that the damp cold air wouldn’t be forming any thunderstorms for a couple of hours, we decided to climb back up from the saddle to summit Old Baldy, too. It’s official name is simply “Peak 13,058”, a nondescript label belying it’s huge status on the skyline of Boulder. We were rewarded for our extra effort by getting a brief glimpse all the way back down to the plains, 8000 feet below:
I’m glad we went ahead and made the hike, even in the face of less than ideal conditions. The weather in the mountains doesn’t wait for anyone, so every opportunity needs to be taken. With so few weekends to do this kind of adventure, I’m glad we chose such a great peak!