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Hi, I'm Tamera, a professional wedding, portrait and boudoir photographer in Colorado Springs. But this blog isn't about my professional work; no, it's a daily love note to my beautiful city, where I've lived for most of my life. I love it here and I hope you enjoy seeing Colorado Springs through my eyes and lens!

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29 April 2017

Our adventure above the clouds

I mentioned last week that Pat and I had gone on a mountaintop adventure. I've finally gotten through all of the photos and decided which ones to share. This post has a lot of pictures!

Pat recently discovered that you can stay in a historic National Forest fire lookout tower, a là Jack Kerouac. Being huge fans of his, the prospect of this excited us to no end! Pat did some research and found that there are two such fire lookout towers in Colorado, and one of them is within easy driving distance, at the summit of Squaw Mountain. We booked it straightaway. As the date grew closer, the anticipation grew. We love new adventures and were very excited about this one!

It had been 20 years since we'd gotten to the top of a mountain on our own steam. All the same, we didn't realize that it would be quite so much work to reach the summit of Squaw Mountain. Neither of us thought to look up what the altitude would be. The directions simply told us to drive to Idaho Springs, head south for about 18 miles (it turned out to be more like 20), then park the car and hike up about a mile. That sounds easy enough, right? Wrong! First of all, like most people Pat has a 9-to-5 job. We were packed and ready to go, but Pat worked a full day and then came home and took a shower, so we didn't hit the road until about 5:45PM. The drive was roughly 120 to 130 miles. By the time we got to Squaw Mountain it was 8:00PM, dark, and 35°F (1.5° C) -- and only going to get darker and colder. The lookout tower has beds, electricity, space heaters and a small kitchen, but no running water. So you have to pack in all your food and water, plus extra clothes and a good sleeping bag to keep you warm, because it's cold up there! Our packs were heavy and they only got heavier as we hiked. But thank goodness Pat had the foresight to bring headlamps for both of us, which really helped. I've never gone night hiking before, let alone in the snow. It was definitely a unique experience!

So up the mountain we went. Even though I live at 6,000+ feet above sea level, I'm no good over 9,500 feet or so. I can't hack it! Well actually I can hack it, but not at the same pace that others can hack it. We started off at a good clip but eventually we both got to a point where we had to take frequent breaks, because the air was so thin. But it was fun anyway. We couldn't believe that we were hiking up a mountain in the snow, at night, in the cold. Really, this was not normal for us! And it was so dark out! Pitch black! At one point during a rest break we turned off our headlamps and looked up. We were suddenly awestruck by the sight of a million twinkling stars above us in the blackness, framed by swaying treetops. It was indescribable. I wish I could bottle that moment and keep it in my heart forever.

The directions told us that after a mile we'd get to a locked gate, and to go around it. Okay, apparently we didn't read the directions very well in preparation for this adventure, because after looking at them again we realized that there was another mile to hike after the locked gate! I'm not going to lie. It was tough. Not only did it get steeper, the road got a lot more rocky and harder to navigate -- especially in the dark! We pressed on. By then we'd been going for well over an hour, and we could not tell if we were even close to the summit. One foot in front of the other, keep going, stop, gasp for air, keep going... Finally I reached a point where it felt like I couldn't take another step. I took off my backpack and sat down on it. Pat put down his heavy pack too, then gamely soldiered up the path alone to see if he could spy the summit. When he came back down, he had great news: we were nearly there! Only a couple hundred yards to go! We pressed on with renewed vigor, and there it was! The lookout tower! As we rounded the steps, another amazing sight greeted us: the city of Denver in the far distance, twinkling in the dark below us. It was incredible.

Getting to the summit was such a relief. By then it was 10:45PM and we'd hiked for almost three hours. There's a sign at the base of the steps that lead up to the lookout: "Squaw Mountain Fire Lookout, Elevation 11,486 feet". It's a good thing I didn't know that in advance. I might have said no to this adventure! We were pretty dumbfounded to learn that we had just hiked to nearly 11,500 feet. In the dark of night, no less! It was cold up there above treeline, so the first order of business was to plug in the space heaters. I'd brought a camera and tripod (though Pat kindly carried them the entire way) in the hopes of taking some photographs of the night sky, but almost immediately after we arrived, a bank of heavy clouds enveloped the lookout tower and cloaked it until morning. The best part of that was when Pat opened the door and clouds drifted into the room. Clouds in our living room. I will never forget that as long as I live.

As if on cue, Pat and I woke at 5:30 the next morning to an unforgettable sight. The clouds that had shrouded us all night had descended to treetop level below us. They looked like the ocean, frozen mid-churn. The sun had not quite yet broken the horizon. The sky was deep blue, fading to apricot. It was breathtaking. I teared up, it was so beautiful. I tried to capture it in a few pictures. I'm sure they don't do it justice, but they give you an idea of what we saw. Magnificent.

I'll leave you with that. The pictures explain the rest. The hike up was difficult but worth every step. If you would like to stay in a lookout tower like we did, go to recreation.gov.
8:32PM, half an hour into the hike and motivated! I had no idea that we were well over 10,000 feet.
9:05PM, the lack of oxygen was getting to me. Soldier on, Tamera! You can do it!
5:42AM the next morning and the clouds had descended into the treetops below us. I could almost reach out and touch them. This picture doesn't come close to showing how beautiful it was -- there would be no way to capture such a moment in a mere photograph. Truly the most ravishing, otherworldly thing I've ever witnessed.
6:24AM and the mountains on the other side of the lookout were kissed by the rising sun.
11:11AM and I scrambled down the rocks below the lookout to get a picture. What a view!
We packed in Costa Rican coffee and a half dozen donuts for breakfast. I believe we earned it!
There's a log book on the small desk, and visitors are encouraged to write their impressions within. I was surprised to see that people stay at the lookout even in the dead of winter! There were lots of interesting and fun entries in the book.
Here are a few recent log book entries. As it turns out, we were the third visitors in a week. It's a popular spot!
I added to the log book, too.
Job duties for fire lookout rangers. Interesting reading. The tower was built in the 1920s and rebuilt (or maybe just remodeled, I'm not 100% clear on that) in the 1940s. I'm not sure when it was retired from its original purpose.
My bed. Not exactly the most comfortable place I've ever slept, but I've never had a 360° view like this from a hotel room! Windows all the way around, with the snow capped Front Range to the west. I give it five out of five stars 😉
This old photo gives you the names of all the surrounding mountains, including majestic Mount Evans, the tallest peak in the Front Range at 14,271 feet.
The hike down was laughably easy compared to the night before! Let's just say that going downhill takes a lot less effort.
Ah yes, the locked gate. It looks so innocent now.
Last shot of the day! This is where we parked our car. As you can see, it was snowing as we left.

On a final note, here is some video I shot from the wraparound deck of the lookout tower as the sun was coming up. Add this trip to your bucket list. This is the kind of view you can only see from the top of a mountain.


Linda said...

I can't imagine hiking up a strange trail in the dark. Your videos show a spectacular view!

William Kendall said...

What an adventure, and what glorious views! Well worth doing it!

Lois said...

Incredible photos Tamera! What an unforgettable adventure. Love the videos too.

bill burke said...

What an awesome adventure. The views were definitely worth every step you took on the way up. The photos and video are breathtaking.