Midnight Pub

On Alpine Environments


Today, I figured I would write something up on what it feels like to be 10,000 feet above sea level. It is a sensation few experience, although having been born and raised in Colorado, I imagine my respiratory system is adapted to such heights. Even for me, someone who's lived next to mountains for my entire life, the lofty reaches of Guanella Pass are elusive and awe-inspiring.

The first thing you notice when you crest the lower curves of the nail-bitingly narrow highway is that Guanella looks like something straight out of a high-fantasy novel- it suddenly strikes you that if Peter Jackson hadn't filmed The Lord Of The Rings in New Zealand, Guanella probably would have been his first choice. The grass-coated slopes stretch on for incomprehensible distances, and without trees to get in the way you start to realize just how BIG mountains are, that even if you can see exactly where that lake is, or exactly where that bush is, with the naked eye, it's actually 20 miles away and walking there would take until dusk.

Though thin, the composition of the air around Guanella is very fresh, free of particulate from wood and smoke. As I mentioned earlier, I imagine someone who's lived at sea level for their entire lives would probably faint at this altitude. One remarkable feature of human evolution is mountain adaptation. Tribes who have lived in the Himalayas or the Andes for millennia have enlarged Alveoli, which compensates for the thinner oxygen levels. I think I probably have something similar, although perhaps not to the same degree.

One amazing pastime you can participate in when you're up this high is to reach out and touch the clouds. Not fog, mind you, but actual clouds, clouds which are normally only seen from the window of an airplane or thousands of feet up from the ground. These Cumulus and Stratus drift lazily above the highest points near Guanella, and if you happen to see one and you're fast enough, you can run to catch it and stick your hand inside. The water vapor clings to your skin, and it's very refreshing.

The shadows of the clouds are also something you instantly recognize, they cast shadows the same way any other object would, very distinct shadows over the rolling green. Every now and again a stray Marmot, the sole occupant of the tundra, sticks its head out to observe the alpine activity, though they're hard to make out because they blend in with the sparse bushes which litter the grassy rock-strewn hills, a permanent decorative layer.

I think I summitted one of Colorado's famous fourteeners entirely by accident, as from the highway the mountains merely look like hills, and it takes maybe 20 minutes at the most to summit them, however as I said distance can be deceptive in a featureless landscape where all you have to go off for landmarks or frames of reference are small mineral outcroppings and scant vegetation. I got to the top by walking up a well-kept trail, and once I was there I looked around and saw that it was getting dark, that the sun was vanishing past the rim of the Eastern side of the bowl and to the north there were rumbling clouds the color of soot and ecstasy.

Being in the Alpine is something one never really forgets, at least upon their first exposure to it. It is a thoroughly alien landscape, although terrestrial it strikes an uncanny impression into the viewer, one of grandeur and incomprehensible majesty. Much like staring out into the universe, viewing the Rockies up close makes one feel puny and meaningless, which can be fun for masochists and contemplative types.


There's a mountain near me which goes up 1200m and though its not high up enough to catch real clouds, you do get weird mist rising up you if you cycle fast enough. On the way down, you can cut through it fast and watch it gently vortex behind you which I've always thought was cool



Very nice! I believe the highest I have been, or at least the highest I have hiked, was 12,441 feet, to the summit of Baldy Mountain, on the Philmont Scout Ranch.

Baldy Mountain, NM

This was a long time ago, in the mid 1980s, the same trip where we stopped overnight at Mystery Flesh Pit National Park in Texas. I'd link to my recollections about that, but my Gemini server is down the now.