Sometimes marmots can be downright annoying, like the yellow-bellied fellow that stared at me from atop a boulder as I labored upward through a talus-covered slope. I neared the summit of Humboldt Peak, elevation 14,064 feet, in Colorado’s Sangre de Cristo Range, fatigued and nervous. The rocks lay in a vertical jumble. Climbing them required a hand-over-foot balancing act. Many of the oversized stones threatened to cut loose under the weight of my body and pack. The pudgy marmot just sat there, entertained by the latest hiker—me—as I hovered before heaving myself another few feet skyward.
More sky surrounded me than earth, though there wasn’t much air. I was only a couple hundred feet shy of the top. “Test the rock, step, breathe” became my mantra as I picked my way toward the false summit that loomed just above me.
Navigating the rockpile required lots of guesswork and a little luck. No paint on the rocks pointed the way, and the unofficial cairns, left behind by well-meaning climbers, often dead-ended at a cliff or impassable gap. It was a dangerous place. A false footstep could easily result in a broken leg, or worse, a long tumble to one’s demise.
Mr. Marmot continued to watch me as he contentedly munched on an alpine weed. He wouldn’t be much help if I stumbled. Neither would my husband, Jack, who had already summited and passed me on his descent. The other person in our hiking party, a friend named Bill, was somewhere behind me. It could take him an hour to catch up if he happened to follow the same route up the talus maze. The odds were low, but I looked back to see if I could spot him.
Instead of Bill, I beheld a staggering view. The mountain fell away steeply to either side of a saddle that I had crossed an hour earlier. Beyond the saddle, Humboldt’s famous neighbors, Crestone Peak (14,294 ft) and Crestone Needle (14,197 ft) stabbed at gathering storm clouds to my left. To my right, tall mountain ridges rippled to the horizon. That view would have been reward enough had I turned around, but I kept climbing with a renewed sense of urgency. I had never summited a 14,000-footer in Colorado before. This was my chance, though I didn’t want to be in such an exposed spot during one of the Rocky Mountain’s notorious afternoon thunderstorms.
Allure of a 14er. Many mountain ranges have their signature peaks, usually a collection of the highest points. Growing up as a hiker in New York’s Adirondack Park, pinning a 46er badge on one’s backpack after summiting the 46 peaks close to or over 4,000 feet in the park, earned one instant respect. As a college student and then a resident of New Hampshire for 20+ years, the 48 peaks in the White Mountains were an equally lofty achievement on my life-list.
Colorado’s 14,000-footers greatly upped the ante in number, elevation and vertical gain. There are 53 mountains in the Centennial State over 14,000 feet. Mount Elbert (14,433 feet) is the highest. Humboldt Peak is ranked 37th. It’s considered one of the easiest, a walk-up, whereas reaching the top of a number of other Colorado 14ers requires technical gear and skill on rock or ice. That said, Humboldt is not for the weak of leg or lung, especially as a day hike, which is how most people do it. The climb is over 14 miles round-trip with a vertical gain of about 5,000 feet.
Just getting to the trailhead for Mount Humboldt is a challenge, requiring a high-clearance, four-wheel-drive vehicle. The previous August, after bouncing up the eroded two-track near Westcliffe, Jack, Bill and I shouldered our packs, unsure whether we would actually try for the summit. The route passed by the South Colony Lakes, two sizeable tarns on an alpine plateau, about 4 miles from the trailhead. Feisty but willing trout purportedly finned those tarns. Perhaps we would seek trout rather than a mountaintop. We carried fly rods to keep our options open.
After crossing a well-constructed footbridge over a creek, we headed up a dirt road, now closed to motor vehicles. It was a welcome warm-up. Patches of purple monkshood and pink fireweed colored the forest, which had burned a number of years ago. The wildflowers juxtaposed to the charred, weathered stumps bore witness to Mother Nature’s ability to renew herself.
After a couple of miles and about 1,500 feet of steady but untaxing climbing, we came to an old trailhead. Here the dirt road ended, and a traditional footpath began, actually two of them. The right path headed toward Humboldt. The left path went to Crestone Peak and Crestone Needle. Elaborate signs described the Sangre de Cristo Wilderness which we had entered and explained that Humboldt Peak was named for Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859), a German explorer and naturalist whom Charles Darwin considered “the greatest scientific traveler ever lived.”
Humboldt, the Man. Alexander von Humboldt was among the world’s preeminent scientists of the early 1800s. He was known worldwide for his landmark journey to South America, where he mapped the land, cataloged flora and fauna, observed native cultures and documented evidence of climate change. His work in meteorology, geology, botany and geography laid the foundation for these areas of study as we know them today. Many of the world’s leaders of his era, including President Thomas Jefferson, the King of Spain, the Russian czars and Napoleon Bonaparte, sought Humboldt’s opinions.
A renaissance man who promoted the idea that all branches of science are related to each other, Humboldt’s mark on our modern world is undeniable. His many protégés included not only Darwin, but also Louis Agassiz, Henry David Thoreau and John Muir. A penguin, lily, orchid, oak tree, skunk and dolphin are among the many species that bear his name. The Humboldt squid lives in the Humboldt current off the west coast of South America. There’s also a bay and state park in California; a river, lake, mountain range and sink (dry lake) in Nevada; and a glacier in Greenland, to name a few of the geologic formations called Humboldt. The list goes on, including towns, parks, schools and universities, forts, historic sites, even asteroids.
Humboldt Peak in Colorado is but one of the mountains or mountain ranges named for the man. Others are in Venezuela, New Caledonia, Antarctica and New Zealand. Interestingly, Humboldt never climbed any of his namesake peaks, but he did climb mountains. For 30 years, he held the world record for the highest elevation reached by a human, 19,286 feet on Mount Chimborazo in the Andes of Ecuador, 1,000 feet shy of the summit.
“I can relate,” said Bill upon hearing about Humboldt’s failure to reach the summit of Chimborazo. Chimborazo was Bill’s calling and his nemesis. After three attempts, he still hadn’t reached the top and often pushed Jack and I to join him on a fourth try. A resident of Missouri, he acclimatized for Chimborazo and other alpine climbs by hiking up 14ers in Colorado. Humboldt was his idea, but mainly for the trout fishing, fresh air and exercise. With the COVID pandemic raging worldwide, none of us were leaving the United States to climb foreign peaks for a while.
Reaching the Peak. When we arrived at the South Colony Lakes, instead of stringing our fly rods, we stashed them in a crevice between two boulders. White caps tussled the emerald water. Casting would be tough in the steady wind, so we turned our attention to the summit.
The trail wound through low willows, which quickly petered out as we hiked higher. Marmots scurried everywhere, though most paused to watch us pass. Endangered picas also busied themselves among the rocks and wildflowers, more wary than their larger neighbors. If Humboldt were still alive, I wondered if his theories about climate change would have landed on ears influential enough to save these little cuties. Picas are uniquely adapted to life in the alpine zone at high elevations. As the Rocky Mountains have warmed up, picas numbers have dropped.
At one point I spied a Colorado thistle, a stout subalpine plant with a drooping large yellow flower ball. A hummingbird daintily placed its long beak into one of the flowers, adroitly avoiding the plant’s knife-like thorns. There’s a hummingbird named for Humboldt, too, though not one native to Colorado. Still the coincidence amused me.
As we ascended some long switchbacks, Bill, Jack and I spread out, each hiking at our own pace. The switchbacks ended at the parabolic west ridge of the mountain. From there the trail, now above 13,000 feet, was broken by rock outcroppings, a preamble to the challenging talus field above.
The talus exhausted me both physically and mentally, but skirting the false summit gave me momentary relief. I could see the true summit just a quarter mile farther ahead, across a grassy meadow. Tipsy from the elevation, I carefully made my way across the meadow, which had just enough slant that I feared a slip would not end well. I also took care not to stray too far to my left where unfriendly cliffs disappeared into a void.
At the end, I scrambled up a short rockpile to find a nest of weathered stones that previous hikers had built to block the wind. A metal canister lay tethered inside the nest, though the logbook inside was confetti. Unable to sign it, I claimed the summit with several selfies, took a quick sip from my water bottle, then turned to go as the clouds started spitting rain. I wanted to linger, but I had no delusions about an easy descent. The rocks would be slicker when wet, and I was still dangerously exposed if a thunderstorm should roll in.
The Descent. As I stuffed my water bottle back in my pack, the wind kicked up and the clouds started to spit at me. By the time I reached the steep talus, a chilling rain pelted the rocks. I was tired from the arduous ascent, but the down-climb proved even more taxing. Sometimes I could simply step onto the next rock, but most of the time, I had to turn with my belly to the cold, wet stone, then carefully lower a foot while gripping whatever handholds I could trust.
As I made my way down the precarious rock pile, the fair-weather marmot was nowhere to be found. In an odd way, I missed the pudgy creature, who was likely warm and dry, unlike me. My hands had gone numb in my wet gloves, and my eyes blurred at times from the wind and wayward drops of water that drippled off the edge of my hat. I ignored these discomforts, instead concentrating on the old rock climber’s saying, “three points on the rock.” It saved me a couple of times when I unexpectedly lost my footing.
It was slower going down than up, even taking the most direct route. With only so much energy left, I was determined to reach the saddle without any detours. Wiser, I ignored the small cairns and simply sought good footing or felt for it, as was often the case. When I finally reached the saddle and was able to simply walk downhill, the anxiety drained away. I was still a long way from the trailhead, but the mental strain, thankfully, was much less, and I could move faster which warmed me up.
Thinking back on my climb up Humboldt Peak, the terrain amazed and terrified me at times, an emotional rollercoaster that was immensely pleasing after it was all over. Which isn’t to say that the summit was disappointing. The feeling of accomplishment and the sense of awe I felt standing atop that mountain bolstered me months later. I’m now inspired to climb other 14ers in Colorado and perhaps follow in the Alexander von Humboldt’s footsteps elsewhere in the world.