Deep in the San Juan Range of Colorado lies a valley 12,000 feet above sea level. At this altitude, the air is thin and cold. The area experiences rapid weather changes and harsh seasons. I first entered this area, Vestal Basin, in August of 2017. I was on my way to climb the towering Arrow Peak, and its neighboring Vestal peak. Both mountains are made of strong, metamorphosed sandstones and shales, and rise at steep angles above the lower valley.
After a nine-mile approach hike with about 55 pounds on my back, I was ready for rest. Little did I know what awaited me in the basin. The last 3 miles of the hike is brutally steep and loose, and my energy was wearing thin. As I crested the final knoll, the tower peaks came into my view, and my energy levels immediately rebounded.
I walked only a few steps further and another sight stole my attention.
All of Vestal Basin was covered in a lush, green blanket of thistle and willow. This area was in the upper montane zone, an elevation range of heavy precipitation that is sheltered from the strong storms experienced on the peaks above. As I walked further into the basin, I hardly blinked. I passed towering pines and spruces near the sides of the valley. A small creek ran down the center of the valley, draining the Trinity Range as well as Arrow and Vestal Peaks. This creek fed the willows and thistles found in the valley, as well as many other welcome guests. The ground was coated in Lupine, Harebell, Fendler Ceanothus, and Colorado Columbine.
Prior to this moment, I had only heard of the beauty of the Colorado Columbine, and had seen it in pictures, but I had yet to make its acquaintance.
As I reached my campsite at the cirque of the valley, I chose to sleep in a natural clearing surrounded by Columbines. There were easily several thousand Columbines in the valley. They grew out of the most unlikely places in the ground. They grew between cobbles, boulders, and downed trees. They grew anywhere the sun shone and a steady source of water was available to them. They demonstrated the durability of such a delicate-looking flower.
As the sun lowered down over West Trinity peak, the Columbines soaked up the last rays of sun for the day, and slowly shut their petals to bear the bitter cold and snow that was to come that night. I watched the Columbines for what seemed like hours, although it was only about thirty minutes. By watching them at such a dynamic time of day, I realized the liveliness of the flowers themselves. I was watching the flower nestle in and go to sleep, and it was about time for me to do the same.
I slept in a sleeping bag with no tent, and watched the Milky Way roll over the ceiling of the valley as I shut my eyes to rest.
I woke up in the morning before sunrise, and began to prepare a breakfast that would fuel my adventure for the day. I was anxious, and excited. I rushed to pack my summit bag with the bare necessities. As the sun crested over the valley, a spectacular show slowed my pace. The Columbines lit up, one at a time, and began to slowly open their petals to the warmth of the sun’s rays.
I had been in a hurry, but suddenly my climbing partner and I found ourselves leaving thirty minutes behind schedule. The Columbines in Vestal Basin had given us a sublime, meditative experience. I tried to make myself like the flowers, and soak up the sun’s energy. My anxiety for the climb quickly dissipated, and my pace became attuned with nature’s. I no longer saw the peak as a task to be accomplished, but rather as a new perspective to be gained.
As I climbed higher and higher, the only plant that remained above 12,500’ was the Columbine. They grew in large bunches, and I watched as the day progressed how the Columbines reacted to the sun. The climb went as planned, and I felt a deep feeling of fulfillment as I strolled back down through fields of Columbine. Undoubtedly, the Columbine had become wise sentinels on the high peaks because of their ability to adapt and react to the processes of nature. That trip, the Colorado Columbine taught me how to be attune with my surroundings. The Columbine taught me to see myself not as a conquistador of peaks, but rather as a nomadic member of an ecosystem. I learned to live and breathe with the flowers.
Author: Patrick Cole. Patrick’s story was voted the best among 28 submissions to be featured on the Herbaria3.org site. He is a student at the Colorado School of Mines.