By Caleb Frome
5:00 am. My wake-up alarm song blared electric guitar into the chill predawn. It was time.
Half-sitting, half-lying in the passenger seat of our minivan, I squeezed myself out of my sleeping bag and sat up, rubbing my eyes.
Across the console in the driver’s seat, my dad was already up. But there were no signs of life from the bundles of blankets in the back where my mom and 15-year-old sister slumbered on. It was only after several minutes and some hot chocolate that we were all feeling awake.
Sunrise was only half an hour away; the trail was calling us. White-crowned and Lincoln’s sparrows sang from the brush at the edge of the gravel parking lot. We shouldered our packs and turned our faces uphill. It was time.
The sun rose behind us, illuminating the Grizzly Gulch Valley, where we had spent the night. A popular base camp for hikers, the valley was surrounded by several of Colorado’s giants: the fourteeners. At 14,000 feet (or higher) of elevation, their treeless tops towered above the trailhead’s 10,600 feet. Handies Peak, located in the San Juan Mountains of southwestern Colorado, was our goal for today: our first fourteener.
The trail climbed steeply, as it would for the entire trek; we would gain 1000 feet of elevation for each of the four miles to the
summit. But the beauty of the hike took our minds off the work. We hiked along a creek through a beautiful aspen-fir forest where Hermit Thrushes whistled their ethereal notes and Pine Siskins zhreeeed at each other. Cordilleran Flycatchers called out greetings, and Wilson’s Warblers popped up in the tops of bushes and sang us good morning. Squirrels and pikas raced across the rocks, yelling in their unintelligible but joyous voices. Massive crags towered above us on every side. It was a Rocky Mountain morning.
I stopped walking.
A piece of bark almost hit me in the head. There was a scurrying in the thick branches of a pine tree just above me, and a dark shape
flew to the next tree over- to the backside, of course. I ran up the trail toward it. For a few agonizing seconds, nothing moved. Suddenly, a dark shape appeared among some dead branches. I raised my binoculars and…yellow? Yellow! Perched happily on a dead branch sat an American Three-toed Woodpecker, his bright crown shining in the morning light. I had seen one of these scarce forest dwellers before, but this bird was so cooperative, it felt like a lifer all over again.
An answering pwuok sounded from the distance, and the woodpecker flew off to find his mate. I was in awe. This called for a break and some celebratory canned peaches.
We hiked on, now to the trills of Gray-headed Juncos. A Gray Jay squawked from a group of pines, but they were some of the last trees we would encounter. We had left the aspens behind us, and even the huge stands of evergreens were beginning to thin. We were almost to treeline.
8:00 am. The songs of more White-crowned Sparrows signaled the beginning of the tundra. The stream we were following grew steadily smaller, and the only bushes in sight were clustered thickly on its banks. Soon even these were behind us. All around us were the tiny plants of the tundra–wildflowers I had never seen before. The trail wound around boulders, zig-zagged up steep slopes, crossed and recrossed the stream. Suddenly, it turned to the right and we were really climbing the mountain. It was all switchbacks from here. The summit was close–perhaps a mile and a half away–but still several thousand feet above us. Except for the occasional pipit or sparrow, there was nothing but rocks and short grasses. A group of ravens flew over, looking for something to scavenge, but the land was empty. Disappointed, they cackled at us and flew effortlessly away toward the next valley. We pushed on, but slower; our Texan lungs, unused to this altitude, found it hard to breathe.
Finally, after a particularly steep section of the trail, we came to a ridge. To our left rose a steep talus slope that formed the flank of Handies. Irregular patches of snow lay about on the sides of the trail, which ran heedlessly up the rock-strewn side of the peak and disappeared. We were almost there.
We had scrambled partway up the slippery track when behind me, my mom suddenly yelled. I turned around and saw something brownish strutting happily on the rocks a few feet away. Its bright red eyebrow and white tail stood out among the dark rocks. There was no doubt in our minds: we were looking at a White-tailed Ptarmigan, one of Colorado’s coolest birds. I had watched a pair for the better part of an hour while on the ABA’s Camp Colorado last summer, but this encounter was much cooler. It is one thing to see a ptarmigan; it is another to see a ptarmigan 5 feet away.
I looked up and picking its way down the trail toward us was mountain goat. It wagged its head, bobbed its two black horns, and shook its white beard impatiently. We climbed up; he climbed down. We were at an impasse. With a goat. At 13,700 feet. When he was close enough that I could have reached out and touched him, he grudgingly stepped aside and let us pass before continuing down the edge if the mountain.
Another 10 minutes of climbing, and we found ourselves on a wide, flattish slope that ran for a hundred yards, turned to the right, and ended at the summit. We had made it.
A small, dark bird flew to a rock on the edge of the trail. Brown-capped Rosy-Finch! Dull pink feathers ruffled by the alpine breeze, it hopped on the loose stones of the precipice, not ten feet from where I stood. The transition from nemesis to lifer was glorious.
11:00 am. Colorado was drenched in glorious sunshine as I stood on top of Handies Peak. As far as I could see, there was nothing but mountains upon mountains. The Rockies stretched out in front of me for miles and miles, their treeless tops shining in the mid-morning light. Behind me, I traced the trail that had brought me here. It was the longest, toughest, most fun 4 miles I had ever walked. It had brought the oddest, closest, best nature encounters I had had in a long time.
I had just birded my first fourteener.
About the author: Caleb Frome is a 17-year old birder living in Dallas, Texas. Since his first eBird checklist over six years ago, he’s been chasing birds wherever and whenever he can. Anywhere in the mountains could be considered his favorite place to bird, but he’s also spent a good deal of time near his home in Collin County, where he’s attempting a Big Year this year. In other news, Caleb doesn’t like writing, unless he can work birding into it somehow. He has a tendency to go off the beaten path and explore, which is a good thing unless he is by some chance writing, in which case he rambles. No, he doesn’t know what he wants to be when he grows up. No, he doesn’t know where he’s going to college. Yes, he gets asked that a lot. In the unlikely event that he has any free time, and in the still unlikelier event that he has free time and isn’t birding, you might find him playing the piano, drawing, or working out…complicated number theory problems. Not working out. Anyway, he’d always rather be pishing.