Saturday, September 12, 2009

Racing The Storm

Afternoon storms and rapidly changing weather are just facts of life in the mountains of Colorado. My bunkhouse roommate only made fun of me one time when she saw me putting my silk long-johns on under my Wranglers for an all day ride. The very next day she was sent out on an all day and did not head my warning to “layer up”. She and her ride got snowed on. In July. She never laughed about it again.

One of the most spectacular rides in all of the Wild Basin area is the ride to Ouzel Lake and is not for the faint of heart. The ride takes hours and covers 9.9 miles from the trailhead, gaining over 1,500 feet in elevation. I took a family of four to Ouzel Lake one day and we were having a fabulous time. Despite the fact that they’d been in the saddle almost three hours, they were still in good spirits and absolutely enthralled with the view. Most guests relax quite a bit after we leave the human herds behind at Ouzel Falls, and these were no exception.

The weather was perfect. We had blue sky as far as we could see, which on a mountain ridge above 9,000 feet, is pretty far. We rode through the burn area, an area that was completely scorched by a lightning-strike fire in 1978, commenting on the amount of recovery that had occurred in almost thirty years. From a distance, the burn area looks barren, completely void of life. Within the burn area, though, it’s a totally different story. It has taken decades for the forest to recover, but there are now saplings that run six to seven feet tall and it’s teeming with life.

Coming up out of the burn area is my favorite part of the ride to Ouzel Lake – the ridge that runs above Ouzel Creek. For the better part of a mile, the trail makes you feel like you’re on top of the world; the mountain falls sharply away on both sides of the trail. My guests and I came up out of the burn area and started along the ridge. Out of habit, I looked up at the sky to gauge the weather. Yes, it was perfectly clear and sunny, but it was also nearing the mountain’s witching hour – two p.m.

I was only slightly surprised to see clouds building behind us, far to the east. I paid them no attention, as they appeared to be well out over the plains and in my part of Colorado storms move east, not west. They were already well east of us, so that storm wasn’t worth my attention.

I swung my attention to Long’s Peak, not at all surprised to see the clouds building, gathering for the upcoming onslaught. I sent up a quick prayer that anyone who had summitted Long’s was well on their way back to camp. Many people die each year on Long’s Peak after getting caught in an afternoon storm and the storm building that day looked like it could pack a wallop. In no time at all the gentle, fluffy white clouds had coalesced into heavy, gray storm clouds. Now this was the storm I had to keep my eye on. The last place we wanted to be was on a bunch of four-legged lightning rods while riding a trail at the top of the world. It was not a good time to be the tallest object around.

The sun was still shining and the birds chirping, we could hear the little critters rustling in the underbrush. All was still right in our little area of the world, but I worried that it wouldn’t last long. I knew it wouldn’t last long. In fact, I stepped up the pace along the ridge a little bit, praying that we would hit the tree cover before the storm caught us. I mentioned to my guests that we needed to hurry along, but they didn’t quite understand the severity of the situation developing around us. How could they? It was still sunny and warm and they were not from Colorado.

It was a fine line to walk; trying to get them to understand we needed to get to shelter now without panicking them. In their minds, the storm building behind Long’s was hours away. From experience, I knew we had ten – fifteen – minutes, tops before we were in a very bad situation and we were more than fifteen minutes away from the tree cover at the pace we were going.

I looked back – again – to hurry them along and my breath caught in my throat. There was no way I was seeing what I was seeing, but the storm to the east was moving toward us. Rapidly. It still looked like it was a ways off, but knowing that storms move east, not west, hadn’t done us any good, so I couldn’t count on my time estimate on that storm, it wasn’t acting at all the way it was supposed to.

I told the guests that I knew how much they appreciated the beauty surrounding them and that I knew they and their horses were getting tired, but we really, really needed to step up the pace. By that time, the storm had broken over Long’s and had zeroed in on us. Though the sun was still shining brightly, the horses caught their first whiff of the coming storm and stepped it up on their own. I desperately tried to keep an eye on both storms bearing down on us, and in short order, it was much easier to do. With a theatrical crash, the two storms collided.

Now the trick became keeping the horses from bolting. Eerily, the sun was still shining brightly, but the forest around us had gone dead silent. The birds and little critters had disappeared. We were all now in a controlled trot, pivoted backwards in our saddles, watching the two storms battle it out. Halfway to the trees now, and we began to see lightning arcing between the two storms and hear the rumbling thunder as one storm grumbled at the other.

Three-quarters of the way to the trees and we lost the sun. The force of the storm moving from the east had pushed back against the storm from Long’s and it scurried along behind us. Not wanting to allow the horses to bolt out of control, but needing to get off the ridge, I allowed the ride to speed up to a slow lope, keeping a close eye on my riders to make sure they didn’t fall off. Either they had suddenly morphed into excellent riders, or the pucker-factor the storm induced kept them glued to their saddles. Didn’t matter as long as they stayed on their horses as we raced the storm.

The few drops of rain that splashed down just as we made the trees were a welcome relief from the tension of waiting for the storm to catch us. I slowed the pace back to a brisk walk as soon as we were all in the trees, but kept the ride moving until we got to the hitching rail. I hastily tied up the horses, helped the guests dismount, untied their rain slickers from behind their saddles and passed them out so that we had some measure of protection from the impending rain. I led the guests away from the horses into some better shelter. We were all pretty quiet, still waiting for the storms to decide who was going to win.

Though we couldn’t see the battle ensuing between the two storms because of the heavy tree cover, we could certainly hear it and it sounded bad. Then suddenly, it was over. The Long’s Peak storm succeeded in pushing the storm from the east back toward the east. We were lucky to be on the periphery of the storm, as it never really broke over us, and in ten minutes the sky was blue, the sun was shining, and the birds were back out.

It’s sobering to think that if we’d left the livery just ten minutes later, or had run into trouble crossing the bridges at the falls, we could have been caught in a tremendous storm. As it was, that ride went down in my books as one of the scariest I’d ever led out.

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