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Colorado Snow Observer

WHERE you going?” was the question asked me one snowy winter day. After hearing that I was off on a camping-trip, to be gone several days, and that the place where I intended to camp was in deep snow on the upper slopes of the Rockies, the questioners laughed heartily. Knowing me, some questioners realized that I was in earnest, and all that they could say in the nature of argument or appeal was said to cause me to “forego the folly” But I went, and in the romance of a new world — on the Rockies in winter — I lived intensely through ten strong days and nights, and gave to my life new and rare experiences. Afterwards I made other winter excursions, all of which were stirring and satisfactory. The recollection of these winter experiences is as complete and exhilarating as any in the vista of my memory.

Some years after my first winter camping-trip, I found myself holding a strange position, — that of the “State Snow Observer of Colorado.” I have never heard of another position like it. Professor L. G. Carpenter, the celebrated irrigation engineer, was making some original investigations concerning forests and the water-supply. He persuaded me to take the position, and under his direction I worked as a government experiment officer. For three successive winters I traversed the upper slopes of the Rockies and explored the crest of the continent, alone. While on this work, I was instructed to make notes on “those things that are likely to be of interest or value to the Department of Agriculture or the Weather Bureau,” — and to be careful not to lose my life.

On these winter trips I carried with me a cam era, thermometer, barometer, compass, notebook, and folding axe. The food carried usually was only raisins. I left all bedding behind. Notwithstanding I was alone and in the wilds, I did not carry any kind of a gun.

The work made it necessary for me to ramble the wintry heights in sunshine and storm. Often I was out, or rather up, in a blizzard, and on more than one occasion I was out for two weeks on the snow-drifted crest of the continent, without seeing any one. I went beyond the trails and visited the silent places alone. I invaded gulches, eagerly walked the splendid forest aisles, wandered in the dazzling glare on dreary alpine moorlands, and scaled the peaks over mantles of ice and snow. I had many experiences, — amusing, dangerous, and exciting. There was abundance of life and fun in the work. On many an evening darkness captured me and compelled me to spend the night in the wilds without bedding, and often without food. During these nights I kept a camp-fire blazing until daylight released me. When the night was mild, I man aged to sleep a little, — in installments, — rising from time to time to give wood to the eager fire. Sometimes a scarcity of wood kept me busy gathering it all night; and sometimes the night was so cold that I did not risk going to sleep. During these nights I watched my flaming fountain of fire brighten, fade, surge, and change, or shower its spray of sparks upon the surrounding snow-flowers. Strange reveries I have had by these winter camp-fires. On a few occasions mountain lions interrupted my thoughts with their piercing, lonely cries; and more than once a reverie was pleasantly changed by the whisper of a chickadee in some near-by tree as a cold comrade snuggled up to it. Even during the worst of nights, when I thought of my lot at all. I considered it better than that of those who were sick in houses or asleep in the stuffy, deadly air of the slums.

Believe me, ‘t is something to be cast
Face to face with thine own self at last.”

Not all nights were spent outdoors. Many a royal evening was passed in the cabin of a miner or a prospector, or by the fireside of a family who for some reason had left the old home behind and sought seclusion in wild scenes, miles from neighbors. Among Colorado’s mountains there are an unusual number of strong characters who are trying again. They are strong because broken plans, lost fortunes, or shattered health elsewhere have not ended their efforts or changed their ideals. Many are trying to restore health, some are trying again to prosper, others are just making a start in life, but there are a few who, far from the madding crowd, are living happily the simple life. Sincerity, hope, and repose enrich the lives of those who live among the crags and pines of mountain fastnesses. Many a happy evening I have had with a family, or an old prospector, who gave me interesting scraps of autobiography along with a lodging for the night.

A man with a history.

The snow-fall on the mountains of Colorado is very unevenly distributed, and is scattered through seven months of the year. Two places only a few miles apart, and separated by a mountain-range, may have very different climates, and one of these may have twice as much snow-fall as the other. On the middle of the upper slopes of the mountains the snow sometimes falls during seven months of the year. At an altitude of eleven thousand feet the annual fall amounts to eighteen feet. This is several times the amount that falls at an altitude of six thousand feet. In a locality near Crested Butte the annual fall is thirty feet, and during snowy winters even fifty feet. Most winter days are clear, and the climate less severe than is usually imagined.

One winter I walked on snowshoes on the upper slopes of the “snowy” range of the Rockies, from the Wyoming line on the north to near the New Mexico line on the south. This was a long walk, and it was full of amusement and ad venture. I walked most of the way on the crest of the continent. The broken nature of the sur face gave me ups and downs. Sometimes I would descend to the level of seven thousand feet, and occasionally I climbed some peak that was four teen thousand feet above the tides.

I had not been out many days on this trip when I was caught in a storm on the heights above tree-line. I at once started downward for the woods. The way among the crags and precipices was slippery; the wind threatened every moment to hurl me over a cliff; the wind-blown snow filled the air so that I could see only a few feet, and at times not at all. But it was too cold to stop. For two hours I fought my way down ward through the storm, and so dark was it during the last half-hour that I literally felt my way with my staff. Once in the woods, I took off a snowshoe, dug a large hole in the snow down to the earth, built a fire, and soon forgot the perilous descent. After eating from my supply of raisins, I dozed a little, and woke to find all calm and the moon shining in glory on a snowy mountain-world of peaks and pines. I put on my snow-shoes, climbed upward beneath the moon, and from the summit of Lead Mountain, thirteen thousand feet high, saw the sun rise in splendor on a world of white.

The tracks and records in the snow which I read in passing made something of a daily news paper for me. They told much of news of the wilds. Sometimes I read of the games that the snowshoe rabbit had played; of a starving time among the brave mountain sheep on the heights; of the quiet content in the ptarmigan neighbor hood; of the dinner that the pines had given the grouse; of the amusements and exercises on the deer’s stamping-ground; of the cunning of foxes; of the visits of magpies, the excursions of lynxes, and the red records of mountain lions.

The mountain lion is something of a game-hog and an epicure. He prefers warm blood for every meal, and is very wasteful. I have much evidence against him; his worst one-day record that I have shows five tragedies. In this time he killed a mountain sheep, a fawn, a grouse, a rabbit, and a porcupine; and as if this were not enough, he was about to kill another sheep when a dark object on snowshoes shot down the slope near by and disturbed him. The instances where he has attacked human beings are rare, but he will watch and follow one for hours with the utmost caution and curiosity. One morning after a night-journey through the wood, I turned back and doubled my trail. After going a short distance I came to the track of a lion alongside my own. I went back several miles and read the lion’s movements. He had watched me closely. At every place where I rested he had crept up close, and at the place where I had sat down against a stump he had crept up to the opposite side of the stump, — and I fear while I dozed!

One night during this expedition I had lodging in an old and isolated prospector’s cabin, with two young men who had very long hair. For months they had been in seclusion, “gathering wonderful herbs,” hunting out prescriptions for every human ill, and waiting for their hair to grow long. I hope they prepared some helpful, or at least harmless prescriptions, for, ere this, they have become picturesque, and I fear prosperous, medicine-men on some populous street-corner. One day I had dinner on the summit of Mt. Lincoln, fourteen thousand feet above the ocean. I ate with some miners who were digging out their fortune; and was “the only caller in five months.”

But I was not always a welcome guest. At one of the big mining-camps I stopped for mail and to rest for a day or so. I was all “rags and tags,” and had several broken strata of geology and charcoal on my face in addition. Before I had got well into the town, from all quarters came dogs, each of which seemed determined to make it necessary for me to buy some clothes. As I had already determined to do this, I kept the dogs at bay for a time, and then sought refuge in a first-class hotel; from this the porter, stimulated by an excited order from the clerk, promptly and literally kicked me out!

In the robings of winter how different the mountains than when dressed in the bloom of summer! In no place did the change seem more marked than on some terrace over which sum mer flung the lacy drapery of a white cascade, or where a wild waterfall “leapt in glory.” These places in winter were glorified with the fine arts of ice, — “frozen music,” as some one has defined architecture, — for here winter had constructed from water a wondrous array of columns, panels, filigree, fretwork, relief-work, arches, giant icicles, and stalagmites as large as, and in ways resembling, a big tree with a fluted full-length mantle of ice.

Along the way were extensive areas covered with the ruins of fire-killed trees. Most of the forest fires which had caused these were the result of carelessness. The timber destroyed by these fires had been needed by thousands of home-builders. The robes of beauty which they had burned from the mountain-sides are a serious loss. These fire ruins preyed upon me, and I resolved to do something to save the remaining forests. The opportunity came shortly after the resolution was made.

Two days before reaching the objective point, farthest south, my food gave out, and I fasted. But as soon as I reached the end, I started to descend the heights, and very naturally knocked at the door of the first house I came to, and asked for something to eat. I supposed I was at a pioneer’s cabin. A handsome, neatly dressed young lady came to the door, and when her eyes fell upon me she blushed and then turned pale. I was sorry that my appearance had alarmed her, but I repeated my request for something to eat. Just then, through the half-open door behind the young lady, came the laughter of children, and a glance into the room told me that I was before a mountain schoolhouse. By this time the teacher, to whom I was talking, startled me by inviting me in. As I sat eating a luncheon to which the teacher and each one of the six school-children contributed, the teacher explained to me that she was recently from the East, and that I so well fitted her ideas of a Western desperado that she was frightened at first. When I finished eating, I made my first after-dinner speech; it was also my first attempt to make a forestry address. One point I tried to bring out was concerning the destruction wrought by forest fires. Among other things I said: “During the past few years in Colorado, forest fires, which ought never to have been started, have destroyed many million dollars’ worth of timber, and the area over which the fires have burned aggregates twenty-five thousand square miles. This area of forest would put on the equator an evergreen-forest belt one mile wide that would reach entirely around the world. Along with this forest have perished many of the animals and thou sands of beautiful birds who had homes in it.”

I finally bade all good-bye, went on my way rejoicing, and in due course arrived at Denver, where a record of one of my longest winter excursions was written.

In order to give an idea of one of my briefer winter walks, I close this chapter with an ac count of a round-trip snowshoe journey from Estes Park to Grand Lake, the most thrilling and adventurous that has ever entertained me on the trail.

One February morning I set off alone on snowshoes to cross the “range,” for the purpose of making some snow-measurements. The nature of my work for the State required the closest observation of the character and extent of the snow in the mountains. I hoped to get to Grand Lake for the night, but I was on the east side of the range, and Grand Lake was on the west. Along the twenty-five miles of trail there was only wilderness, without a single house. The trail was steep and the snow very soft. Five hours were spent in gaining timber-line, which was only six miles from my starting-place, but four thousand feet above it. Rising in bold grandeur above me was the summit of Long’s Peak, and this, with the great hills of drifted snow, out of which here and there a dwarfed and distorted tree thrust its top, made timber-line seem weird and lonely.

From this point the trail wound for six miles across bleak heights before it came down to timber on the other side of the range. I set forward as rapidly as possible, for the northern sky looked stormy. I must not only climb up fifteen hundred feet, but must also skirt the icy edges of several precipices in order to gain the summit. My friends had warned me that the trip was a foolhardy one even on a clear, calm day, but I was fated to receive the fury of a snowstorm while on the most broken portion of the trail.

The tempest came on with deadly cold and almost blinding violence. The wind came with awful surges, and roared and boomed among the crags. The clouds dashed and seethed along the surface, shutting out all landmarks. I was every moment in fear of slipping or being blown over a precipice, but there was no shelter; I was on the roof of the continent, twelve thousand five hundred feet above sea-level, and to stop in the bitter cold meant death.

It was still three miles to timber on the west slope, and I found it impossible to keep the trail. Fearing to perish if I tried to follow even the gen­eral course of the trail, I abandoned it altogether, and started for the head of a gorge, down which I thought it would be possible to climb to the nearest timber. Nothing definite could be seen. The clouds on the snowy surface and the light electrified air gave the eye only optical illusions. The outline of every object was topsy-turvy and dim. The large stones that I thought to step on were not there; and, when apparently passing others, I bumped into them. Several times I fell headlong by stepping out for a drift and finding a depression.

The Crest of the Continent in Winter, 13,000 Feet above Sea-Level

In the midst of these illusions I walked out on a snow-cornice that overhung a precipice! Unable to see clearly, I had no realization of my danger until I felt the snow giving way beneath me. I had seen the precipice in summer, and knew it was more than a thousand feet to the bottom! Down I tumbled, carrying a large fragment of the snow-cornice with me. I could see nothing, and I was entirely helpless. Then, just as the full comprehension of the awful thing that was happening swept over me, the snow falling beneath me suddenly stopped. I plunged into it, completely burying myself. Then I, too, no longer moved downward; my mind gradually admitted the knowledge that my body, together with a considerable mass of the snow, had fallen upon a narrow ledge and caught there. More of the snow came tumbling after me, and it was a matter of some minutes before I succeeded in extricating myself.

When I thrust my head out of the snow-mass and looked about me, I was first appalled by a glance outward, which revealed the terrible height of the precipice on the face of which I was hanging. Then I was relieved by a glance upward, which showed me that I was only some twenty feet from the top, and that a return thither would not be very difficult. But if I had walked from the top a few feet farther back, I should have fallen a quarter of a mile.

One of my snowshoes came off as I struggled out, so I took off the other shoe and used it as a scoop to uncover the lost web. But it proved very slow and dangerous work. With both shoes off I sank chest-deep in the snow; if I ventured too near the edge of the ledge, the snow would probably slip off and carry me to the bottom of the precipice. It was only after two hours of effort that the shoe was recovered.

When I first struggled to the surface of the snow on the ledge, I looked at once to find a way back to the top of the precipice. I quickly saw that by following the ledge a few yards beneath the unbroken snow-cornice I could climb to the top over some jagged rocks. As soon as I had recovered the shoe, I started round the ledge. When I had almost reached the jagged rocks, the snow-cornice caved upon me, and not only buried me, but came perilously near knocking me into the depths beneath. But at last I stood upon the top in safety.

A short walk from the top brought me out upon a high hill of snow that sloped steeply down into the woods. The snow was soft, and I sat down in it and slid “a blue streak” — my blue overalls recording the streak — for a quarter of a mile, and then came to a sudden and confusing stop; one of my webs had caught on a spine of one of the dwarfed and almost buried trees at timber-line.

When I had traveled a short distance below timber-line, a fearful crashing caused me to turn; I was in time to see fragments of snow flying in all directions, and snow-dust boiling up in a great geyser column. A snow-slide had swept down and struck a granite cliff. As I stood there, an other slide started on the heights above timber, and with a far-off roar swept down in awful magnificence, with a comet-like tail of snow-dust. Just at timber-line it struck a ledge and glanced to one side, and at the same time shot up into the air so high that for an instant I saw the treetops beneath it. But it came back to earth with awful force, and I felt the ground tremble as it crushed a wide way through the woods. It finally brought up at the bottom of a gulch with a wreckage of hundreds of noble spruce trees that it had crushed down and swept be fore it.

As I had left the trail on the heights, I was now far from it and in a rugged and wholly un frequented section, so that coming upon the fresh tracks of a mountain lion did not surprise me. But I was not prepared for what occurred soon afterward. Noticing a steamy vapor rising from a hole in the snow by the protruding roots of an overturned tree, I walked to the hole to learn the cause of it. One whiff of the vapor stiffened my hair and limbered my legs. I shot down a steep slope, dodging trees and rocks. The vapor was rank with the odor from a bear.

At the bottom of the slope I found the frozen surface of a stream much easier walking than the soft snow. All went well until I came to some rapids, where, with no warning whatever, the thin ice dropped me into the cold current among the boulders. I scrambled to my feet, with the ice flying like broken glass. The water came only a little above my knees, but as I had gone under the surface, and was completely drenched, I made an enthusiastic move toward the bank. Now snowshoes are not adapted for walking either in swift water or among boulders. I realized this thoroughly after they had several times tripped me, sprawling, into the liquid cold. Finally I sat down in the water, took them off, and came out gracefully.

A Snow-Slide Track

I gained the bank with chattering teeth and an icy armor. My pocket thermometer showed two degrees above zero. Another storm was bearing down upon me from the range, and the sun was sinking. But the worst of it all was that there were several miles of rough and strange country between me and Grand Lake that would have to be made in the dark. I did not care to take any more chances on the ice, so I spent a hard hour climbing out of the canon. The climb warmed me and set my clothes steaming.

My watch indicated six o’clock. A fine snow was falling, and it was dark and cold. I had been exercising for twelve hours without rest, and had eaten nothing since the previous day, as I never take breakfast. I made a fire and lay down on a rock by it to relax, and also to dry my clothes. In half an hour I started on again. Rocky and forest-covered ridges lay between me and Grand Lake. In the darkness I certainly took the worst way. I met with too much resistance in the thickets and too little on the slippery places, so that when, at eleven o’clock that night, I entered a Grand Lake Hotel, my appearance was not pre possessing.

The next day, after a few snow-measurements, I set off to re-cross the range. In order to avoid warm bear-dens and cold streams, I took a different route. It was a much longer way than the one I had come by, so I went to a hunter’s deserted cabin for the night. The cabin had no door, and I could see the stars through the roof. The old sheet-iron stove was badly rusted and broken. Most of the night I spent chopping wood, and I did not sleep at all. But I had a good rest by the stove, where I read a little from a musty pamphlet on palmistry that I found between the logs of the cabin. I always carry candles with me. When the wind is blowing, the wood damp, and the fingers numb, they are of inestimable value in kindling a fire. I do not carry firearms, and during the night, when a lion gave a blood-freezing screech, I wished he were somewhere else.

Daylight found me climbing toward the top of the range through the Medicine Bow National Forest, among some of the noblest evergreens in Colorado. When the sun came over the range, the silent forest vistas became magnificent with bright lights and deep shadows. At timber-line the bald rounded summit of the range, like a gigantic white turtle, rose a thousand feet above me. The slope was steep and very icy; a gusty wind whirled me about. Climbing to the top would be like going up a steep ice-covered house-roof. It would be a dangerous and barely possible undertaking. But as I did not have courage enough to retreat, I threw off my snowshoes and started up. I cut a place in the ice for every step. There was nothing to hold to, and a slip meant a fatal slide.

With rushes from every quarter, the wind did its best to freeze or overturn me. My ears froze, and my fingers grew so cold that they could hardly hold the ice-axe. But after an hour of constant peril and ever-increasing exhaustion, I got above the last ice and stood upon the snow. The snow was solidly packed, and, leaving my snow-shoes strapped across my shoulders, I went scrambling up. Near the top of the range a ledge of granite cropped out through the snow, and toward this I hurried. Before making a final spurt to the ledge, I paused to breathe. As I stopped, I was startled by sounds like the creaking of wheels on a cold, snowy street. The snow beneath me was slipping! I had started a snow-slide.

Almost instantly the slide started down the slope with me on it. The direction in which it was going and the speed it was making would in a few seconds carry it down two thousand feet of slope, where it would leap over a precipice into the woods. I was on the very upper edge of the snow that had started, and this was the tail-end of the slide. I tried to stand up in the rushing snow, but its speed knocked my feet from under me, and in an instant I was rolled beneath the surface. Beneath the snow, I went tumbling on with it for what seemed like a long time, but I know, of course, that it was for only a second or two; then my feet struck against something solid. I was instantly flung to the surface again, where I either was spilled off, or else fell through, the end of the slide, and came to a stop on the scraped and frozen ground, out of the grasp of the terrible snow.

I leaped to my feet and saw the slide sweep on in most impressive magnificence. At the front end of the slide the snow piled higher and higher, while following in its wake were splendid streamers and scrolls of snow-dust. I lost no time in getting to the top, and set off southward, where, after six miles, I should come to the trail that led to my starting-place on the east side of the range. After I had made about three miles, the cold clouds closed in, and everything was fogged. A chilly half-hour’s wait and the clouds broke up. I had lost my ten-foot staff in the snow-slide, and feeling for precipices without it would probably bring me out upon another snow-cornice, so I took no chances.

I was twelve thousand five hundred feet above sea-level when the clouds broke up, and from this great height I looked down upon what seemed to be the margin of the polar world. It was intensely cold, but the sun shone with dazzling glare, and the wilderness of snowy peaks came out like a grand and jagged ice-field in the far south. Halos and peculiarly luminous balls floated through the color-tinged and electrical air. The horizon had a touch of cobalt blue, and on the dome above, white flushes appeared and disappeared like faint auroras. After five hours on these silent but imposing heights I struck my first day’s trail, and began a wild and merry coast down among the rocks and trees to my starting-place.

I hope to have more winter excursions, but perhaps I have had my share. At the bare thought of those winter experiences I am again on an unsheltered peak struggling in a storm; or I am in a calm and splendid forest upon whose snowy, peaceful aisles fall the purple shadows of crags and pines.

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