Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Down from Hidden Peak

The start of the hike down from Hidden Peak.

On the final day of The American Birding Association convention at the Snowbird Resort in Utah, Julie and I joined a trip going up on the tram to Hidden Peak. What I did not tell her was that there was a plan to hike the mountains from 11,000 feet back to the resort at 8,000 feet. Only some of the field trip participants were interested in doing this. I jumped at the chance for such an adventure, especially because it was being led by consummate birder/naturalist/photographer Bill Schmoker of Boulder, Colorado.
Bill Schmoker hugging a snow monster.

Bill is just enough of a mountain man to enjoy a rugged hike such as this one, but he's also incredibly knowledgeable and one heckuva nice bloke. Joining us for the hike were a temporarily reluctant Zick, Barbara from Borderland Tours, convention attendees Michael and Darlene, and Callan Cohen of South Africa with whom I had birded in The Karoo area of the African cape in 2002.
Julie Z at the edge of the snow field.

Our kids were worn out from the week of early risings, so they stayed at the resort in our room just chillin' out. Before you call Children's Services on us you should know that we were in constant phone contact with them, and we had friends checking on their well-being.

Before the start of the hike we relieved ourselves of all excess gear. Tami Bulow of the ABA kindly agreed to take it back down on the tram for us. This was key because little did we know but we'd be hiking (or resting) for the next five hours.
Ski runs halfway down.

The top of Hidden Peak was free of snow due to the effects of snow and wind. A few steps over the edge and we were in snow so deep it was still skiable. On went the sunscreen and sunglasses. According to The Schmokster the reflecting power of the snow gives you 85% of the UV rays that straight-on sun does. It was like being in a giant white tanning booth.
SnowCats had prepared the trail for us. I was looking for Scatman Crothers from The Shining.

As we started down the recently snow-catted trail, I made a short video asking all in our party for their parting wishes and statements, in case, like The Donner Party, we got lost in the snow.

A quarter-mile or down the switchback trail, El Schmokatollah, dropped onto his behind and butt-surfed downhill to the trail below. This, he revealed to us, was called glissading. We all did it. I had to put the legs back on my pants first. Out party reconvened at the bottom of the hill, frosty buns burning only slightly form the cold. I have to say this was mighty fun.


The rest of the hike was a naturalist's treat: wildflowers, butterflies, geology, and spectacular scenery. We found items dropped by skiers, including three skis and two ski poles. The birds were good, too. We had close looks at lazuli bunting, white-crowned sparrow, Clark's nutcracker, gray-headed (dark-eyed) junco, and others. The nutcrackers we saw and heard really got Callan going—it had been his most-wanted bird for this trip.
Mountain bluebird male.

In the heard-only category went the black rosy-finches. Try as we might we could not set eyes on them.
Sun-cloud-sky.

While Darlene and Barbara pressed on down the trial ahead of us, Julie and Callan dawdled behind looking at butterflies and trying to take photos of them. Everything at this altitude comes out in early June and goes crazy trying to grow/reproduce/spread during the few weeks of warm weather. Wildflowers come up flower first, leaves later. Birds come up high to breed as soon as the insects come out.
Below the snow.

We all fell down at least once. I drew blood on my left elbow when I slipped on loose rocks when we were nearly all the way down. My instinct was to roll sideways to save my camera from hitting first. It worked, though the elbow is still sore.
Dead spruce on Hidden Peak.

By mid afternoon the buildings of Snowbird were in sight. It was a tthis time thnat Phoebe called to say she could see us up on the mountain path. "You look like ants, Daddy. But I could tell you from the way you walk." Smart girl, already knows her old man's field marks.
Snowbird, viewed from above.

Tired and a little footsore we strode creakily into the parking lot. Congrats and hugs all 'round. Half an hour alter we were toasting with pale ales in the hot tub by the outdoor pool.

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Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Into Thin Air

On the way up, looking up, from the tram.


Three different times during last week I ascended a mountain on a tram, hopping on at 8,000 feet above sea level and hopping off at 11,000 feet ASL. In this post I will share some experiences and images from two of those ascents. The third one I'll save for a future post.

I spent last week with Julie, Phoebe, Liam and about 250 other birders at The American Birding Association annual convention held this year at the Snowbird Resort in Utah, about 45 minutes outside of Salt Lake City. Snowbird sits at about 8,000 feet—much higher than SLC. Our ears popped several times during the shuttle drive up to Snowbird.

We arrived Monday night, too late for the banquet dinner and program. But we still managed a few hellos before heading off to find some late-night grub and our swanky room. Julie and I were attending the convention to help lead some field trips for the attendees and Julie was giving a presentation on Friday night, plus we had many old buddies with whom we wanted to catch up—so we had a busy week ahead of us.

We had nothing on tap for Tuesday morning so, after $68 of breakfast and a bit of birding around the Snowbird grounds, we four took the ski tram up and over the mountains to Hidden Peak. Phoebe and Julie took turns being moderately freaked out by the height and swaying of the tram. The tram could serve as the stunt double of the one featured in the James Bond film Moonraker in which Richard Kiel bites the cable to get to James Bond.

The tram in a rare Richard-Kiel-free moment.


Looking down at Snowbird from the tram.


We got to the top and, literally, stepped into thin air. Taking a few rapid steps at 11,000 feet of altitude caused me to breathe deeply. An altitude headache ensued, followed closely by two ibuprofen pills chased by an entire bottle of water.

In case you were wondering if you were really high or just high on life...


The sun was milky white in the clear blue sky. Most of the mountainsides around us were covered in deep snow. We all squinted through our sunglasses as we slathered on the sunscreen. The air was so thin it made Twiggy look like a sumo wrestler.

Uinta chipmunks asked us about the contents of our lunch bags. A golden eagle slipped past followed by three common ravens. Violet-green swallows twittered and swooped around an unused chair lift building, exploring the many possible nesting cavities.


The additional 3,000 feet in elevation made the air inside our potato chip bag expand. Sadly, the number of chips inside did NOT expand with the bag.


Uinta chipmunk with an accidental piece of cheese.


Gingerly approaching the edge.


Lunch with a view (and lifer chipmunks!)

Two days later I was invited to help Bill Schmoker and Jeff Gordon to scout Hidden Peak for birds we might see on the Sunday morning tram field trip. Joining our merry band of birders were Lisa White and Katrina Kruse of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, momentarily released from their booth-staffing duties at the ABA trade show. Up we went again.

Jeff Gordon and Bill Schmoker looked like models for the REI catalog.


Lisa and Katrina dug the awesome view.


On this second trip we hoped to locate some reliable black rosy finches, a target bird for many of the convention attendees. We had no such luck. But we did see pikas (a gerbil-like rabbit relative), several dark-eyed (gray-headed) juncos, and many white-crowned sparrows. We also hiked down off the top and along a ridge line. Hiking down was a cakewalk. Hiking back up required three separate stages marked by intervals of gasping for air. I know I'm not Lance Armstrong, but this up-slope walk made me feel more like Stretch Armstrong after I ran him through my sister's Easy-Bake Oven.

Bill Schmoker crosses a snow field. Being from Colorado he was used to the altitude.


My lord, the view from up there! If you've got to be gasping for air, trying your best to avoid your first major heart attack, Hidden Peak is a nice place to do it.

Soon we headed back down to the land of normal atmosphere and cash bars and bird checklists and evening programs and all the people who live their safe little lives in the lowlands. We, on the other hand, had walked among the giants, high atop Hidden Peak, where the livin' is easy, but the breathin' ain't. And we'd lived to tell about it.

The view from the top of Hidden Peak.

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