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Photo essay: On top of the world
By Chris Young

It's a question I don't get often here in the prairie state: "Ever been above tree line?"

Hmmm. Born in Iowa. Moved to Nebraska after college and eventually back across Iowa to Springfield.

Short answer: No.

Truth is, I've changed planes in Denver a few times and went to Boulder for a Nebraska football game years ago. But my backcountry hiking experience was zero.

Colorado's scenery can go on for miles - and the hikes can, too. Unlike the Midwestern landscape that is broken by roads, farm fields and cell phone towers, in the mountains, it's still possible to feel the isolation that early settlers and explorers must have experienced.

Illinois once was about two-thirds prairie, and it's a shame one can't easily find a prairie large enough to look to the horizon and see nothing but grass and flowers.

Colorado has 54 peaks of at least 14,000 feet above sea level - or 14ers.

It's possible to hike to the top of quite a few of them, with only some "scrambling," or hiking over loose rock, required.

Mount Belford and Mount Oxford are in the Sawatch Range near Buena Vista, and rise to 14,197 and 14,153 feet, respectively. The tallest mountain in the Colorado Rockies is Mount Elbert, standing at 14,433.

Contrast that with Mount Everest in the Himalayas, which reaches over 29,000 feet into the sky. Mount McKinley, or Denali, in Alaska is the tallest mountain in North America at 20,320.

The trail that eventually takes hikers to Mount Belford and Mount Oxford follows Pine Creek from the trailhead. The trail splits, giving hikers the option to head to the mountains or continue to follow the creek to its origins in an alpine lake at about 12,500 feet.

Above that altitude, the trees can no longer grow, and the forest opens onto rocky tundra dotted with wildflowers.

The altitude is something to be respected. The rule is to spend a couple of days acclimating at a lesser altitude, say 9,000 feet, before the real hiking begins. It's always recommended to drink lots of water.

People who head straight to high altitudes can get seriously ill - or at best suffer a pounding headache.

While the air was thin, it occurred to me it wasn't much harder than trying to breathe humid air back in Illinois.

Step. Step. Step. Then lean on the hiking poles a bit. Step. Step. Step.

The last part of the ascent seems to take the longest. That's because it appears that the top is visible, but it's not. They call it the "false summit."

But the view from the top is worth it. Now the perspective is looking down on the alpine lakes that were an upward climb yesterday.

Humility lessons are everywhere.

Looking around the stark landscape, one can't help but feel small, insignificant and vulnerable.

At the summit, it's also a bit humbling to meet all the other people who have managed to make the same journey on this day.

There's a family of five from Columbia, Mo. - including an 8-year-old with his own kid-sized trekking poles.

There's a grandfather and grandson wearing T-shirts and shorts who are walking up 14ers all summer. They were hiking without trekking poles and had their hands in their pockets like they were doing something no more strenuous than walking up the steps to the State Capitol.

And there's a group of troubled youth on a "character-building" trip.

All of us were glad to be on top of the world - if only for a short time.

Story published Friday, December 4, 2009 ( Volume 4, Number 7 )

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