Why do we climb mountains? For the sheer physical challenge. For the adrenaline rush. For the smell of danger that accompanies looking over the edge into 2,000 feet of nothing but thin air. For the mental high that comes from conquering a summit. To temporarily escape from the chaos of humanity stewing below. “Because it is there”. Your answers may vary. I climb mountains for all of these reasons, with different ones taking priority depending on my mood (although I have a limit to how much danger I am willing to smell…). Ultimately though, as a photographer, I climb mountains for the view.
With the highest average elevation of any state, Colorado has no shortage of mountains, and thus no shortage of views. Some of the best come from the summits of Colorado’s famous 14ers, a group of 53 peaks whose crests reach to more that 14,000 feet above sea level. At this altitude, other than birds and oncoming thunderheads, there is nothing left to look UP at. No mightier peaks obstruct your gaze and if you’re lucky, you might even catch a glimpse of a plane flying a few thousand feet below.
However there is not a direct correlation between higher elevation and better views. Far from it. After all, the 14ers have done nothing special to earn their fame, they have simply been the recipient of enough geologic good fortune that their summits exceed the ultimately meaningless and arbitrary 14,000′ mark. As a result, the Mount of the Holy Cross, topping out at 14,009′, is one of Colorado’s most famous mountains, in large part due to those uppermost nine feet. Meanwhile, Grizzly Peak, just 14 feet lower (13,995′), lies nearly forgotten just a few dozen miles away (lost in the shuffle of six—that’s right six—different Grizzly Peak’s in the state) yet provides an equally majestic vantage point.
Below I’ve put together a collection of panoramas shot from different summits around the state in an attempt to present the diversity of Colorado’s mountain peaks. Every summit, no matter how high, has a distinct atmosphere and feel, from suburban hills where you can down onto sprawling subdivisions and strip malls, to remote wilderness peaks where the only sign of mankind might just be the jet contrail 15,000 feet above you. Seeing summit panoramas always encourages me to get outside and fight Earth’s gravity once again. So go find any good chunk of rock that sticks up a bit above its surroundings, walk, hike, bike, climb, or crawl up it, and you are sure to be rewarded. My only specific advice is to find a peak without a road to the top. Views are best enjoyed in solitude and few things as demoralizing than spending hours trudging up a mountain only to find a gift shop, parking lot, or a family of six enjoying a three course meal in the back of their hummer at the top…or worse, a combination of all three.
It’s no secret that I love mountains. It’s also not much of a secret that the San Juan Mountains of Colorado are my favorite mountains. I love the San Juans for a number of reasons. One of them is geology. Look at a map and its easy to lump the San Juans in with the rest of the Rockies, but geologically speaking, they’re a whole different ballgame. Formed not by uplift but by some of the largest and most violent volcanic eruptions in Earth’s history (think Yellowstone only MUCH, MUCH larger…), the San Juans have a personality all their own. They are tall (12 peaks above 14,000 and 314 above 13,000), large (more than 10,000 square miles, as opposed to the long but skinny ranges that dominate the rest of Colorado), and so steep that only three ski resorts exist here.
I also love the San Juans for the solitude they can offer. 5+ hours from major metropolitan areas (*cough*Denver*cough*), escaping the crowds here is much easier than in the rest of the state’s mountains (*cough*Aspen*cough*).
As of last weekend though, my number one reason to love the San Juans is that the San Juans contain Ice Lake, which might be the most beautiful location I’ve visited on Earth to date.
Ice Lake is a glacial tarn located at 12,300 feet not too far from the mining town of Silverton. Fortunately, it’s one of the few major destinations in the San Juans that you can’t get anywhere close to with a jeep, which drastically limits the number of people that you see and the number of engines that you hear. Instead, it is accessed via a steep 3.5 mile hike from a trailhead along South Mineral Creek. It’s been on my list of places to go for several years now and my girlfriend Michelle and I recently got a chance to spend a few days in the San Juans and make the short but steep trek up to the lake. Hiking in Colorado’s high mountains in the summertime can be challenging. Near daily vicious afternoon thunderstorms make it hard to spend any appreciable time above tree line. Despite the fact that a good chunk of this hike was above treeline, we didn’t hit the trail until a little after 8am but fortunately the weather gods cooperated on this day.
While the scenery along the trail is spectacular, all is forgotten once you catch your first glimpse of Ice Lake. One look at the brilliant neon blue water and you suddenly feel as if you’ve been hiking through a prison yard for the last few hours. I’ve never seen water so vividly colored; some of the hot springs in Yellowstone are the only things that come even remotely close. The color is caused by the presence of “rock flour” in the lake, extremely fine sediment left over from the days when large glaciers scoured out Ice Lake Basin and ground the fragile volcanic rocks into a powder. These sediment particles are so small that they remain suspended in the water, scattering blue light toward the eyes of every astounded hiker and backpacker that reaches the basin.
Unlike many of the other high alpine basins in the San Juans, Ice Lake Basin is HUGE! Covering nearing five square kilometers, the basin contains several other named and unnamed lakes as well as some of the most impressive wildflower fields I have ever seen. White, red, pink, and yellow varieties of paintbrush, elephant ears, asters, and columbines blanketed the basin. Wildflower season in the lower elevations has long past but up at 12,000 the show is just reaching it’s zenith!
Interestingly, the other lakes in the basin were not nearly as brilliantly colored, but rather a more drab blue-ish green that was nevertheless spectacular, especially when the wind calmed and the waters began to reflect the ring of peaks surrounding the basin. We lucked into a day where the thunderstorms had trouble developing and so we were able to spend 5-6 hours exploring the basin, crossing fields bursting with wildflowers, and relaxing by the lakes. We were hoping to get a glimpse of the mountain goats that often frequent such basins, but we had to settle for a handful of marmots and a trio of llamas which another party had used to pack their overnight gear into the basin.
It’s not an exaggeration to say that this was one of the most beautiful landscapes I’ve ever seen. Walking through the basin, I was reminded of Robin Williams’ famous quip about Glacier National Park: “If this isn’t God’s backyard, then he certainly lives nearby.” Apparently God has now purchased a summer home in the San Juan Mountains because the scenery here is truly second to none.
Spend enough time driving or hiking around western Colorado and you will inevitably be introduced to the rich mining history of the area. This is especially true in the San Juan Mountains where it’s hard to hike for more than a few miles without running into an assortment of old and dilapidated mining structures, ranging from head frames covering mine shafts that plunge hundreds or thousands of feet into the mountains, to bunkhouses that still contain the metal skeletons of the rickety old beds slept upon by early 20th Century miners. Most of these buildings have been abandoned; left to slowly decay and disintegrate under the weight of the dozens of feet of snow that accumulate in the mountains each winter. However a handful have been preserved or restored by local historical societies, such as the Mayflower Gold Mill just a few miles outside of Silverton, Colorado.
A mill is an integral part of any mining operation. While Hollywood seems to think that western gold rushes involved a handful of old grizzled, bearded men fishing fist-sized gold nuggets out of streams with their gold pans, the reality is that most of the rock mined in Colorado had concentrations of gold and silver that were best measured in parts per million, and concentrations of other metals like copper or zinc that were only somewhat higher. The purpose of a mill like the Mayflower was to take in this low-grade ore and spit out material concentrated in gold, silver, and a plethora of other valuable metals while leaving the rest of the rock, known as “gangue”, behind.
The crushing room inside the Mayflower Gold Mill.
The Mayflower Mill opened its doors in 1929 and was a technological marvel for its time. It was the last of the San Juan mills to close, in 1991, long after most of the mines in the area had ceased production. Ever since 1991, while the exterior of the mill has undergone stabilization at the hands of the San Juan County Historical Society, the interior of the mill has been left more or less untouched. The mill closed suddenly; one day it was open for business, the next it was shuttered for good as the prices of gold and silver plummeted and no one ever came in to clean up. Piles of partially crushed ore still lie on stationary conveyor belts, waiting patiently to continue their trip through the mill. Pairs of rubber gloves still lie on counters and railings, now covered with a thick layer of dust. Calendars with pictures of scantily clad women still hang from rusty thumb tacks in offices and control rooms. If all this wasn’t eerie enough, the power went out about five minutes after I entered the mill and from then on the only light source other than sunlight streaming through a handful of windows was the flashlight in my hand. Walking through you would never guess that it’s been closed for only 22 years; the place looks like its been abandoned for a good half-century and much of the equipment looks much older, yet somehow advanced for its age.
The tour through the mill is self-guided and costs $8 which at first seemed steep but ended up being well worth it. Not for the quality of the interpretive signs dispersed throughout the mill (despite the extremely friendly and helpful staff, the signs could use some serious work) but merely for the pleasure of exploring the mill itself, one of the most fascinating man-made structures I’ve ever been inside. My computer is telling me I have something like 48,000 photos on my hard drive at the moment. I’m willing to bet more than 95% of those were taken outside. Why? Well to be honest, I don’t generally find man-made buildings that fascinating so I’ve never been that much of an indoor photographer. Once in a while, I find myself somewhere like the Mayflower Mill that changes that, at least temporarily 😉
Piles of iron balls were bounced around in large drums to help mutilate the ore into pieces as small as a grain of sand!
While milling ore to produce gold and other metals may seem somewhat alchemistic, in essence the process consists of two phases: crushing the rock into very, very, VERY small pieces, and then using a variety of noxious chemicals to separate the metal from the rock based on their physical properties. Ore would arrive at the mill in large metal buckets that zipped downhill along an aerial tramway that connected the mill to the Mayflower Mine several miles and several thousand feet above the Mill in Arrastra Basin:
A view of the aerial tramway originating from the Mayflower Mine in Arrastra Gulch. The miners would often ride to work in the empty buckets headed back up to the mine. Hard to imagine a commute with a better view!
The crushing is then accomplished using a variety of progressively diabolical looking devices that to this day are covered in rock dust and surrounded by little piles of partially crushed ore that fell off of one of the many conveyor belts snaking through the mill. Normally there are buttons that you can press which turn on some of these devices for a short period of time but this was thwarted due to the aforementioned power outage. This was the device that I would have most liked to see in action:
A spiral classifier, used to separate different sized pieces of crushed ore.
Pieces of partially crushed ore scattered around the base of an enormous jaw crusher.
The separation occurred in a series of tanks and vats that, while not visually impressive, still seemed to reek of the boiling concoction of lead and cyanide they once contained. My gut feeling was that hanging around this part of the mill for a long time would probably be a bad idea. The final product was rich-enough in gold that access to the areas where the final stages of separation took place was restricted to only a handful of employees who were continuously monitored by a network of security cameras. Unbelievably, even after all this, the ore would still need to be sent to a smelter for further purification and processing before pure gold bullion, or other metals were obtained.
Here are a few more random pictures from inside the Mayflower, which truly is a photographer’s dream, ESPECIALLY when the power is out. I was so caught up in taking pictures inside that I completely forgot to get a picture of the mill from the OUTSIDE!
Every size drill bit imaginable!
Piles of old equipment in a dark corner of the mill. Actually, since the power was out when I visited, just about the whole place was dark…
A little workplace humor for good measure!
They are separated by more than 1600 kilometers. One barely rises above sea level while the other boasts six peaks exceeding 14,000 feet in elevation. One is most easily accessed by kayak or porpoise, while in the other it is difficult to escape the incessant drone of Jeeps, dirt bikes, and ATVs that trawl the vast network of old mining roads. One is beset by a deluge of by rain eight months out of the year, whereas the other is inaccessible except by ski, snowshoe, or helicopter for six. To the untrained eye, the San Juan Islands of NW Washington and the San Juan Mountains of SW Colorado couldn’t be more different. My current job situation has me living about an hour away from the mountains for 3 months out of the year, and an hour or less away from the islands for the other 9 months. And viewed through the lens of a camera, I have discovered that there are more similarities that you might expect. The first of which will probably be rather obvious:
They both posses stunning scenery:
View from Deception Pass State Park on Fidalgo Island looking southwest across the water towards the Olympic Peninsula.
Rosy Paintbrush in an alpine meadow near Red Mountain #1 (yes, nearby can be found Red Mountain’s #2 and #3. The old miners were a creative bunch.) in the San Juan Mountains.
Both offer opportunities for “extreme” sports:
A paraglider enjoys a serene aerial view of the San Juan Islands and several tankers headed for the oil refineries in Anacortes, WA.
Descending a scree-filled colouir after summiting 14.150′ Mt. Sneffels in the San Juan Mountains. While most of the climb is straightforward and requires only a hefty amount of scrambling, there is one tricky section near the summit during which a fall would likely mean the end of one’s mountain climbing days…or any other days for that matter.
Both were shaped and sculpted by vast quantities of ice:
Glacial striations in slate high above the Uncompahgre Gorge in the San Juan Mountains. The parallel grooves in the rock were carved by rocky debris trapped along the base of a long-gone glacier that was partially responsible for scouring out the gorge.
A Washington State Ferry passes a cliff of glacially scoured rock in the San Juan Islands. Glacial striations identical to those in the previous photo are ubiquitous throughout the San Juan Islands, evidence that the area was buried beneath more than a mile of ice during the peak of the last glaciation, about 15,000 years ago.
And finally, both are home to curious wildlife:
An American Pika investigates a bush at 11,000 feet in the San Juan Mountains.
A Blood Star investigates a California mussel below sea level in the Strait of Juan de Fuca.
In case you didn’t know, that’s what starfish look like when they are curious.
The San Juan Mountains have a way of making you feel uneasy. Perhaps this has something to do with the fact that the most infamous cannibal of our time, one Alferd Packer, consumed five of his fellow prospectors here during the winter of 1873-1874. But while the alpine scenery rivals or exceeds that of any mountain range I’ve ever visited, the fact that many of the streams cascading down the steep slopes run with a neon, metallic orange color that coats every last pebble along the streambed in a golden veneer lets you know that something is wrong.
While you might think that someone dumped a truckload of kool-aid into the mountains, in reality it’s because the San Juan’s used to be gold and silver country. Looking at a topographic map of the San Juan’s is like looking at some sort of twisted and tortuous treasure map, with literally thousands upon thousands of tiny crosses marking the locations of long defunct mine shafts, many of them waiting to swallow up the unaware hiker. The majority of these mines were established in the later 1800’s when silver in previously unheard of concentrations was discovered in the mountains, along with smaller amounts of gold, zinc, copper, and other heavy metals. Like an enormous hardrock gopher mound, the San Juan’s are riddled with underground mining tunnels. It is possible to travel between the towns of Silverton and Telluride, several hours apart by road, without ever setting foot on the surface of the Earth. While few active mines still exist, the imprint that the mining had on the land is readily apparent to anyone traveling between Ouray and Silverton on U.S. Highway 550, commonly known as the Million Dollar Highway (for reasons which are disputed…) which, due to the persistent lack of guardrails along its more perilous stretches, is not for the faint of heart.
Ouray County Road 31 branches off of Hwy 550 about halfway between Ouray and Silverton and winds through the Red Mountain Mining District for several miles. This area, located about 10,000 feet above sea level, was home to a number of rowdy mining towns during the its heyday in the 1800’s. Since I am rarely (ok, never) mistaken for a history buff, an excellent history of the Red Mountain District written by people who know what they are talking about more than I do can be found here. The road is marked as a 4WD on maps road but seemed very well maintained. I ventured that I could have gotten my trusty Toyota Corolla down it when dry, but probably not at a rate much faster than I could walk it. As a result, I parked my car along the highway and struck out on foot. In hindsight this was both a good and a bad idea. Bad in that the skies of Colorado decided to unleash their first drops of moisture in months, when naturally I had left my rainjacket at home. Thankfully, old mine buildings make for decent shelter if you can find one that doesn’t look like it will collapse in the slightest gust of wind. However this was good considering that the road basically turned into a clay bog as soon as it started raining which means that I would have been S.O.L had I decided to drive instead of walk.
A short walk in along Road 31 and it becomes immediately apparent that the land has been completely and utterly gutted by the silver mining process. It is the bright orange creeks and streams catch your eye first. This phenomenon is known as acid mine drainage, and occurs when rainwater or snowmelt comes into contact with metal-rich rocks, such as the rock that composes the tailings piles that surround all of the old mines. The water leaches metals, most commonly iron, out of the rock and into to the water. The iron then oxidizes resulting in the highly acidic, bright orange water that flows throughout the region. Perhaps even more pervasive than the orange creeks though is the smell. Nearly all of the mines and tailings piles are accompanied by a metallic, musty odor that leaves you with the funny feeling that it would probably be a bad life decision to inhale the air for an extended period of time. The smell is truly difficult to describe, the closest analogy I can think of is the hydrogen sulfide so commonly associated with the geysers and hot springs of Yellowstone, although this still falls short. This smell was much less sulfurous and disagreeable, and while I wouldn’t go as far as to say it was pleasant, it wasn’t bad enough to make me cover my airways with a bandanna or seek refuge somewhere else.
Stop number two for the day was the remains of another 19th century mining camp: Ironton. Unlike the Red Mountain District, which was so extensively mined that it is essentially located on a barren hillside that has been mostly stripped of trees, Ironton and its associated mines, such as the Colorado Boy seen below, are nestled deeper within the forest. A well marked trail leads to Colorado Boy but many of the other sites in the area are located along routes that have been nearly completely reclaimed by the forest, making them difficult to find without a good map and good sense of direction since GPS devices don’t work worth a darn in the dense woods.
Just south of Ironton, spanning a large gully known as Corkscrew Gulch, lies a bridge that I am convinced was the inspiration for the rickety wooden span in Shrek that Donkey and Shrek traverse in order to cross the boiling lake of lava. Oddly, this interesting relic isn’t listed on any maps of the area and I was unable to find many pictures of it online, yet it was one of the highlights of the day. I initially spotted the bridge from below, it wasn’t even obvious that it was a bridge at first but being the curious cat that I am, I was naturally intrigued. After about a half hour of bushwhacking my way up the ridge on the west side of the gulch, I located the trace of an old, overgrown wagon road that eventually led me to the edge of the canyon and the bridge abutments. Now this bridge, missing as many planks as it was, would have been completely impassable regardless but for whatever reason, one of the two cables spanning the gulch had been cut causing the span of the bridge to hang like a limp wet noodle across the canyon. The bridge is in such bad shape that the weight of a house fly alighting on the remaining cable would likely cause the remainder of the structure to plummet several hundred feet to the streambed below. Interestingly, upon further research, this bridge was at one point the longest suspension bridge in Colorado. To this day, it holds the unofficial title of “sketchiest bridge in Colorado” and I don’t envision it relinquishing this title any time soon.
Despite the glaring environmental ramifications and water quality issues associated with the mining that took place here, , spending an afternoon exploring the mines was a fascinating step back into the exciting history of the San Juan Mountains and southwestern Colorado. The mines are so prevalent and such a seemingly integral part of the landscape here that it is sort of difficult to imagine the San Juan’s without them. Just don’t drink the water….
My trusty Nikon D70 died today after nearly 35,000 shutter actuations, in a beautiful place no less; more than 10,000 feet above sea level along the West Fork of the Cimarron River, high in the ice-sculpted pinnacles of the San Juan Mountains of southwestern Colorado. Given that it had pluckily survived numerous 5+ foot drops onto hard, rocky surfaces, many torrential downpours, hitchhiking across the sheep-filled land known as New Zealand, and being partially submerged in mineral-rich water as I uncontrollably floated down Havasu Creek, it seems odd that a light bump against a ratty-looking old lodgepole pine is what ultimately brought it to what in hindsight seems a rather ignominious end. Alas, this accidental tap caused the camera’s shutter to cease operating, casting the camera’s 6.3 megapixel CCD chip into a state of eternal darkness, never again to capture the majestic photons emitted by the incomparable scenery of this great Earth.
Not even the most exquisitely crafted prose can capture the stunning allure of the natural setting in which the D70 ultimately met its demise. Its final hours were spent summiting the rocky, yet green and verdant slopes of 12,152 foot Courthouse Mountain, a impressive edifice that is but a mere foothill to the soaring 14,000 foot peaks of the San Juan’s above. Despite it’s striking appearance, more than 1200 other peaks in the state of Colorado exceed it in height, although after today’s passing, none will exceed it in sentimental significance. A more glorious and perfect day could nary have been found; the weather gods were beaming upon the landscape below, basking the D70 in warm, unintterupted sunlight as it ascended the mountain, strapped to the shoulders of its loving owner.
From the summit, the D70 faithfully recorded its final panorama; a wide swath that included the jagged crags of Dunsinane Mountain and Precipice Peak, the dark green lodgepole stands of the Uncompahgre Wilderness, and the distant summits of Uncompaghre Peak and Mt. Sneffels, gripping tightly to their last vestiges of winter snow. To the north, beyond the exquisitely layered deposits of Chimney Rock belaying its violent volcanic history, lay the verdant Uncompahgre Valley, home to the towns of Ridgway, Montrose, and Delta. Along the eastern base of the mountain lay the valley carved by the West Fork of the Cimarron River, on an arrow straight path north to eventually meet the mighty Gunnison River.
Until such time that a suitable replacement can be procured, the D70 will be replaced by a small, yet capable Canon point-and-shoot camera. In lieu of flowers, please send Amazon.com or B&H Photo gift cards.