| Orange is for Aeric
A quote from Aeric's Facebook page:
“Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature's peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves.”
On Friday, October 5, I was shocked and deeply saddened to learn of the loss of a friend from college: Aeric Luciano. His face and his voice were clear in my mind when I heard the news, as if I had just seen him. I couldn’t believe he was really gone, and I was in tears.
Aeric and I had taken several classes together at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, and we were both members of the College Council for the college of Natural Resources; Aeric was the Historian and Photographer for the group. We had the same major in college - Natural Resources Recreation and Tourism. His concentration was in Parks and Protected Areas Management. He and I both loved wolves and we worked on a paper together at CSU about how to manage conflict between stakeholders living in areas with reintroduced wolves.
To say he loved animals would be an understatement: he was the proud owner of huskies and cats, he ran a pet-sitting service for ten years, and he was devoted to conservation of wildlife. He also loved climbing mountains and enjoying the peace and solitude of nature. He climbed several 14ers and 13ers, and he always had something encouraging to say when I posted my 14er summit photos on Facebook.
Aeric M. Luciano
Earlier this week I was contemplating how to honor Aeric with a climb. Climbing a mountain seemed like the perfect way to remember someone who dearly loved mountains. Aeric was a huge Broncos fan, and everyone who knew him remembered how much he loved the color orange. I knew I wanted to wear orange for him, but which peak would I climb?
Aaron (AndYouSeeMe) and I were chatting about weekend plans when he mentioned he was going to climb Pagoda Mountain on Friday, October 12. For those who don’t know, Pagoda Mountain is a 13er southwest of Longs Peak - the two are connected by a saddle. The north face of Pagoda can be seen from Glacier Gorge in Rocky Mountain National Park. I remembered how much Aeric loved Rocky Mountain National Park, which made a 13er in the Park seem like the perfect choice. Plus, I really wanted to do something unique and different this weekend; something adventurous and challenging. At 14.5 miles round trip, with about 5200 feet of elevation gain, complete with bushwhacking, talus-hopping and scrambling at a Class 2+ difficulty, Pagoda fit the bill for adventurous. Aaron and I agreed to climb it from Wild Basin (not the standard route) with an early start.
Aaron and I left Broomfield around 3:30am and reached the Wild Basin entrance about at about 4:45am. We had some difficulty finding the Sandbeach Lake Trailhead in the dark, because the turnoff for it is marked “Copeland Lake Trailhead.” Once you turn right into that trailhead you will see the Wild Basin sign. We did not see this sign initially which ended up costing us about 20 minutes, but we eventually found what we were looking for: the parking lot right next to the ranger shack and very close to the Wild Basin Lodge and Event Center.
We started our hike at 5:19am. It was very dark and the moon was just a sliver over the eastern horizon, with its ends pointing upward. The forest was still and silent as we made our way around Copeland Lake and through the Ponderosa pines and aspens. The first section of the approach is 4.5 miles and continually flirts with Hunter Creek. After 4.5 miles, we reached a wooden bridge over the creek but did not cross it. Instead, we headed right along a smaller trail that follows the stream on the right side.
The bushwhacking starts not long after this turn-off. At this point the sky was beginning to turn a lovely mixture of pink and blue as the dawn approached.
The trail that follows Hunter Creek does not appear to be well-traveled. We took a break at Lyric Falls and I recharged with some shot blocks and a peanut butter granola bar.
Lyric Falls in Wild Basin
Several downed trees covered the path; one of these trees succeeded in making me look ridiculous as I struggled to get over it. Aaron just laughed and took a photo.
Me getting stuck in a dead tree
The distance from the right turn at Hunter Creek to timberline is roughly two miles. As we headed farther northeast, the forest started to open up a little more. We were walking through a clearing along a small stream when a large mountain appeared in front of us - it was Mount Meeker.
Majestic Mount Meeker
We kept walking beside Hunter Creek for a long time.
Aaron walking along the trail next to the creek
A bend in the stream in the middle of a grassy meadow seemed like a good place for us to filter water and fill up Camelbaks. We headed through another section of forest. Emerging from the trees, our destination became clearly visible in the distance.
I was soon treated to a unique and unusual view of my favorite 14er.
Me next to a stream with Pagoda in the background
During our ascent, we made the mistake of going directly through a dried up willow marsh, which required quite a bit of effort.
Aaron bulldozing through the pokey dried willow bushes
I had to leap across a section of a cold alpine lake, which I was a little hesitant about.
Me getting up the nerve to jump over freezing cold water
Reflection of Pagoda and Longs in the alpine lake
The view of Pagoda, Longs and Meeker from Wild Basin is truly remarkable.
Pagoda on the left, Longs on the right
There is a banded face on part of Pagoda which reminds me of the Diamond on Longs.
Sheer face with stripes
We crossed a very large alpine tundra, towards what looked like a steep scree slope.
What we throught was loose scree/gravel was actually loose talus
Along the way, we noticed a beautiful frozen waterfall coming off of Longs Peak.
The trickiest part of the day was ascending and descending the loose talus slope below the Longs-Pagoda saddle. The terrain here was relatively steep and not very stable.
Aaron going up the gully
Upon reaching the saddle, there was a very clear view of smoke from the Fern Lake fire.
The Fern Lake Fire
We were in the final stretch of scrambling to the summit. Carefully, we navigated over and around large boulders and patches of new snow… I was tired and sore at this point, but the thought of Aeric eased my final dash to the summit.
Me on the final stretch to the summit
Aaron and I reached Pagoda’s summit at 11:50am. A rush of joy uplifted me as I looked all around. I was thoroughly impressed with the views. Aside from one of the most incredible views of Longs Peak I have ever seen, I could see all of Glacier Gorge and much of the Park, and several beautiful 13ers like Chief’s Head, Audubon and Navajo.
I wished that Aeric could see what I saw. I knew he would love it. Words can’t fully describe the feeling of complete solitude on a rarely visited mountain in the middle of Rocky Mountain National Park. It is magical. This one’s for you, Aeric!
Climb on, Aeric!
Aaron strikes a pose with the incoming storm behind him
Although the weather was pleasant for the entire morning (windless, comfortable temperature and blue sky), dark clouds and worsening weather began moving in rapidly from the southwest. Snow was on its way.
The snow storm was headed our way
It was getting closer and closer, and in a matter of minutes it was snowing on us. The snowflakes resembled styrofoam pellets out of a bean bag. It was time for us to head down. The weather around Longs Peak is always unpredictable.
Getting down the steep slope was made a tad harder with the falling snow which was making the rocks slippery. I found myself scooting down on my butt for much of the initial descent. Upon reaching the gully, we were careful not to knock any rocks on each other. I pondered how Longs Peak must have been decades ago, before all the foot traffic. I can only imagine it was just as loose as Pagoda at one time - the rocks appear to be made out of the same material. There is definitely a technique to keeping one’s balance on loose talus. Longs was shrouded in fog:
Once back to the tundra, Aaron suggested we avoid the prickly willow field this time and stay to the left. We headed toward a “notch” in a pile of giant boulders on the left side of the valley. The snow had subsided and a cool, gentle mist was moistening the air and any exposed skin. It was a peaceful walk through the alpine.
Looking back at where we were
Aaron snapping a pic of Pagoda
Once over the boulders, treeline was in view. A small cairn was sitting on top of a boulder at the edge of the forest. We followed a faint trail through the woods. Sometimes there was no trail, but following stream beds and water led us back to Hunter Creek. Once back to Lyric Falls, we each added a liter of water to our Camelbaks.
From the cairn at the edge of treeline the key is to stay to the left, near the base of the slope. A faint trail appears and disappears quite often, but staying left of the thicker forest makes for a pretty straightforward descent with little bushwhacking. Once you can hear the stream on your left just follow the water through some open areas before finally meeting up with the use-trail at the area where Hunter Creek makes a fork.
Since this part of the descent is always in between the two forks of Hunter Creek, no matter what you do, as long as you are heading in a general easterly direction you will eventually end up at the point where they merge into one.
The sweet sound of mountain chickadees and gentle glow of sunlight as it lightly rained brought warmth to the spruce forest.
Following Hunter Creek (sometimes right next to the water, sometimes about 20 feet to the left of it) will take you back to the Sandbeach Trail, where the wooden bridge crosses the creek. Stay to the left and follow Sandbeach Trail all the way back to the trailhead.
Just before reaching the parking lot, the sound of leaves rustling made me turn my head to the left and notice three female mule deer bounding up the hillside. My presence must have made them nervous because they quickly moved out of my sight.
We were thrilled to reach the parking lot at 4:15pm and finally relax in the car. It was a successful day and I was happy that I had chosen Pagoda, and to devote my climb to Aeric in a place that he loved very much.
Me next to the RMNP sign in Wild Basin
Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):