Ten Favorite Photos from Autumn 2018

The experts said it wouldn’t be a beautiful autumn. The experts lied. There was work stress and a million things to pull us away from the center. But then, as always, nature pulled us back. As we move full blast into winter, a look back at the most fleeting and urgent season of them all, autumn.

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In early August, the first sign of autumn hit the high tundra on the Continental Divide. The green turned to gold and the gold turned to red.

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The closest I’ve ever been to a yellow brick road.

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Birdseye view of the valley, the divide, the impending September storm.

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Autumn moves at a blur…the most beautiful moments, the peak present in days and hours, not weeks and months.

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A remnant stand of orange in the foreground, the winter playground in the background.

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On this day, we skipped a planned workout and just went exploring on a perfect autumn mountainside. It was a good choice.

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The roller skis turned crisper, the mountains more gold, the snow on the peaks providing motivation.

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We choose not to go to traditional church on Sunday. Instead, we go to our church everyday.

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Sneaking in a late roller ski past the moose sign as a cold sleet storm rolls in behind the fog.

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And then, the world turns white, a few gold hanging on to the past.

Photos by Dan Vardamis. Indian Peaks Wilderness, Colorado.

The end of summer’s peak, the beginning of autumn’s nudge.

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Moody weather marks the end of summer’s peak at 8,800 feet above sea level.

Something happens this time of year. Perhaps it’s the subtle shift in the sun’s position in the sky, or the occasional morning in the high 40’s and not the low 50’s. Whatever it is, early-August marks the beginning of the change.

In modern western society summer begins June 21 and ends September 21. Around here, those numbers mean little. While June 21 feels like summer in earnest – the endless daylight, everything blooming, the insects and birds in full flight – late September is the heart of autumn here, not the beginning.

In late September the aspen trees are in their full regalia, donning their yellow caps. The mornings are crisp, and with few exceptions the high peaks have had at least one blanket of snow to cover the tundra and talus. Usually that snow melts off before real winter hits a month later, but there is no confusion about what season late September is here. It’s fall, the most beautiful and fleeting season there is.

In pagan societies, early August marks the halfway point between the summer solstice and the fall equinox. The pagans had a name for this time of year – Lughnasadh or Lammas. It marked the beginning of the harvest season, when the wheat and crops were ready to be picked.  Pick now, for the turn towards cold is eminent.

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Dim evening light in the forest makes the river smooth.

In nature, the first evidence of the change can be found by looking toward the ground, at the ferns.  Aspens get all the glory, but the ferns lead the way. When the ferns go, a cold night – and the aspens – are not far behind.

There is a little hike near our home that loops underneath a pine and fir covered mountain. A stream runs thru the valley, and along this trail, where the cooler mountain air descends to the stream, there are perpetual cold spots. In the summer, one is likely to bump into a moose or a rabbit in these places, both seeking refuge from the baking heat of the day.

A few days ago on our walk, we saw our first yellow fern of the year. And then a little further on, in the very coldest spot in the entire valley, another and another.

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The first yellow ferns of the year.

The ferns know. Another autumn has almost arrived. The season to saunter in golden leaves and climb frosty mountain peaks is around the corner.

Cold Front and Fresh Snow

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A little snow on the Eldora nordic trails makes for some nice classic skiing.

We finally got our Greenland application out just the other day. That’s been a major weight, so it’s nice to have it signed, sealed and delivered. We’ll see what happens. I do worry we don’t have enough requisite polar experience to be accepted for an independent expedition, in which case we’ll have to reevaluate our timeline. We’ll know soon enough. If we get permission, it’ll be time to buckle down and get to work, because there is much preparation to do.

This has been one of the slower starts to winter in many years in the Front Range of Colorado. Of course, there have some memorably bad years, the winter of 2011-12 coming to mind, and before that, the drought years of the 2000s. Beyond the lack of snow, it’s been very warm, most days soaring well over freezing and perhaps one or two days where nighttime temperatures dropped below zero. Certainly global warming plays a role, but a larger factor is the jet stream is sitting just to the north of us. We’re missing the brunt of the action and the cold is having a hard time settling in.

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Front Range Snotel Graph. We’re sitting at 90%. Not bad.

That’s at 8,800 feet above sea level, right next to the Continental Divide. Just a few miles east and 500 feet lower, in Nederland, there is virtually no snow. Meanwhile, Boulder has been downright balmy. It’s a stark contrast from last year, where December and January were like a scene out of the Shining movie, snow piling up in copious amounts on a daily basis. There was so much snow we had to park our cars a half-mile from home and ski home with groceries.

We’re actually better off than most of the state. Down south, in the San Juans, the picture is grim.

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A much worse story down south in the San Juans, where they are at 34% of average. 

It could be an ugly summer down there if this continues. As we learned hiking and skiing thru it this summer, southern Colorado is a tinderbox of dead, beetle killed trees. If I were hiking the CDT this summer, I would definitely go north, at least if things continue this way. Best to get thru the state before things possibly burn up.

We’ve managed our winter decently well thus far given the snow restraints. Thank goodness for Eldora, the nordic center and uphill travel. We’ve spent a lot of time on manmade snow there this winter, only recently getting out more on natural surfaces. That’s been a nice change of pace.

There is a drainage near our home that I’ve been eyeing for a nice backcountry cross country ski “trail” for some time now. It has all the desired factors – generally north-facing, sheltered from the wind and a bit away from the main travel routes. The Little Raven and CMC trails are fantastic nordic touring options, but it would be wonderful to have a bit more. So yesterday we headed out into the forest and did some exploring.

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Good woods.

As is always the case on exploratory days, there was a fair bit of futzing around, making wrong turns and getting stuck in deadfall. I carry a small hatchet on days like these to try to break thru and create something decently passable. Bottom line though – the route could be a good one. There were moments during the two hour ski where we thought, this could be really good. Another good sign – there were moose tracks. I find if animals use an area, it’s probably a good human route too. Numerous times on the CDT we lost the trail, followed a game path, and found a better way. Animals are not dumb. It’s an area of mysterious woods, full of creaking old trees, freshly sprouted firs and deep, deep snow. It has a feeling of good forest. I think we’ll explore it some more.

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The best days are the ones where you can see your breath and you get home from the woods just as it’s getting dark.