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Fitness and Photography for Fun - A blog on staying fit by hiking and doing photography by David Mendosa

A Tundra Hike on My Birthday

August 9th, 2015 · 5 Comments

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Most people probably celebrate their birthday with a big meal or with a party. But that’s not my style.

Until now, I have ignored my birthdays as much as I could, but the one that came on Wednesday was a milestone. I turned 80.

For weeks I had considered how I could most appropriately mark this event. Because the activity that interests me the most is getting out in nature on a hike, that was my clear choice. But which hike?

My favorite hike is the 4.1 miles on the Ute Trail from the Alpine Visitor Center to Milner Pass in Rocky Mountain National Park. It is almost all gently downhill, except and the end where it descends steeply. It’s also one of the least rocky trails in the Rocky Mountains.

It starts at 11,796 feet and after 4.1 miles ends at 10,759 feet, so it’s mostly above treeline where the weather is almost always cold and often cloudy and windy. But August and September offers the best chance of acceptable weather, and I decided that this was my choice unless the prediction was for rain or snow.

The weather prediction was actually for a sunny morning, and that’s what I got when I arrived at sunrise. Although it was so cold at 45 degrees with a windchill factor that make it seem much colder yet, I was dressed for it.

But instead of hiking down from the visitor center to the Ute Trail, I hiked up 0.3 miles to the top of an unnamed point at 12,005 feet, where I had a 360 degree view. To the west was a range of mountains that the native people of this area, the Arapaho Indians, called by an appropriate name.

The Never Summer Range Appears Unworldly at First Light

The Never Summer Range Appears Unworldly at First Light

Click on the picture above to enlarge

At this altitude the air has little oxygen and I could climb only a few steps before having to stop to catch my breath. Returning down the short but steep trail was much easier. I stopped to take a photo of the nearly empty parking lot.

​The Red Dot in the Parking Lot is My Prius

The Red Dot in the Parking Lot is My Prius

Click on the picture above to enlarge

On the way down I also stopped to take this shot of a bull elk that posed proudly for me.

This Elk Would Be a Fine Model for a Statue

This Elk Would Be a Fine Model for a Statue

Click on the picture above to enlarge

By 7 a.m. I was ready to start on my real hike of the day, so I cross Trail Ridge Road to the trailhead of the Ute Trail. At just past the halfway mark I reached Forest Canyon Pass at elevation 11,320 feet.

Forest Canyon Pass Is Just Above Treeline

Forest Canyon Pass Is Just Above Treeline

Click on the picture above to enlarge

From earlier hikes here this is one of my favorite places. The weather had warmed up so I stopped here to remove my jacket, gloves, and headsock, and put them in my backpack. Then I sat down on the tundra for my morning meditation with my back against a rock.

Just as I finished and returned to the trail I encountered the first people I had seen since starting the hike.

Patrick Mulligan, Alice Clay, and Catherine Mulligan at Forest Canyon Pass

Patrick Mulligan, Alice Clay, and Catherine Mulligan at Forest Canyon Pass

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Until I met Catherine and Patrick Mulligan I was feeling pretty smug. I certainly didn’t expect to see anyone older than me hiking above 11,000 feet. I mentioned in our conversation that I was celebrating my 80th birthday on the trail. Catherine said that was good, and that she is 81 and Patrick is 84. Alice, however, is considerably younger.

Catherine says that she and Patrick hike this trail twice a year. I wasn’t surprised that like me, they live in Boulder.

An hour or so later I got the only other photo that I want to share. This chipmunk is certainly not anything special, but I think the lighting makes it worth while to include here.

A Colorado Chipmunk Poses

A Colorado Chipmunk Poses

Click on the picture above to enlarge

When I reached Milner Pass about noon the sky had clouded over and it just started to sprinkle. My plan was to catch a ride with some people who stopped there to get a photo standing by the sign saying that they were standing on the Continental Divide at 10,759 feet, as I did in my 2007 photo essay “Old Ute Trail.”

But the small parking lot there was so full of cars left by hikers that few people passing by could stop for that photo. Eventually, however, a couple who a few minutes earlier had showed me that their car was already full made room for me. Peter and Agata, who had immigrated 10 years ago from Poland to North Carolina with their sons, now 12 and 16, shared their car with me and my backpack and camera gear and gave me a ride back to the Alpine Visitor Center. I appreciated their generosity.


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Posted in: Photography

5 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Arun // Aug 9, 2015 at 8:17 pm

    Great pics David!….A tryst with nature with a 4 mile trek on your 80th birthday is an acknowledgement of your physical fitness…and what you could achieve and overcome with your sheer will power.

  • 2 David Mendosa // Aug 10, 2015 at 4:58 pm

    Thank you so much for your message, Arun!

  • 3 Charlie Rodgers // Sep 1, 2015 at 10:26 pm

    Not bad for an “old shutterbug”. Would you be so kind as to consider putting your info along with each pic? Camera, lens, and exposure info would sure be nice. We already know its you. lol

  • 4 Trevor Young // Sep 1, 2015 at 11:25 pm

    We don’t have chipmunks here in Australia so it’s pretty special for me!!! Thanks!!

  • 5 David Mendosa // Sep 2, 2015 at 3:33 pm

    Thank you, Charlie. Actually, for a while I did include camera, lens, and photo info with each shot. At one point I also included the scientific names of the birds and wildlife that I photographed. But then I realized that few people were interested in either. I still am, however, glad to answer specific questions about any photo. In general, I almost always use either my Canon 7D or my Canon 50D, which is my backup camera that also serves as my second camera in the field (so I don’t have to change lenses in the field so often, because that can easily get dust on the sensor, which is expensive to clean). My telephoto lens is a Canon 100-400mm, which I carry on the 7D. The lens on my 50D varies depending on whether I am likely to want to photograph landscapes, where I will use my Tamron superwideangle 10-24mm, or flowers & insects, where I will use my Canon 60mm macro lens, or one of my other lenses for special situations. I have two other cameras that I will use rarely, generally only as an emergency backup or for underwater photography. Now, I do have about 200 of my favorite photos on my Flickr page at where you can easily find all the EXIF info for each of those shots. Or just ask me for any others that interest you.