Exploring among the bristlecone pine in the Glacier Gorge area of the park 

Nearing the 11,000-foot mark up the precipitous trail to the top of Flattop Mountain, my lungs and calves nearing the point of exhaustion, I told my buddy Steve that I had to take a break.  Feeling the same he shouted in agreement, barely audible over the howling wind. A gale had hammered us head on, whipping our faces with spindrift for the past hour as we post-holed our way up the fresh ankle deep snowpack. We took refuge on the east facing side of a large boulder, where we were finally sheltered from the driving wind. Hunkered down, we had a chance to enjoy the lofty scenery below and afar that day for the first time.   

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The Rocky Mountain bristlecone pine with Glacier Gorge below.Michael Deeter

The Fascinating Story of the Bristlecone Pine

Situated in the heart of Glacier Gorge we had amazing views of Longs Peak and Mount Meeker to the east, as well as the gorge below, all displayed in the resplendent grandeur found in Rocky Mountain National Park during the winter. We also had the pleasure of an often-overlooked resident of the park directly below us, the Rocky Mountain bristlecone pine. These trees belong to a family of Earth’s oldest known living organisms. The oldest of this species is recorded to have taken 2,435 laps around the sun.  

They live just below the treeline where the harsh environment shapes their branches into magnificently twisted and curled Seussian shapes over the eons they spend locked into the sub-alpine. These hardy trees are even immune to the devastating effects of pine beetle infestations currently plaguing the region. While they may thrive in a climate zone that had been kicking our tails from the second our boots hit the trailhead at Bear Lake, they are not impervious to the challenges brought on by climate change.

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The author posing beside a Rocky Mountain bristlecone pine.Steve Toth

Researchers at University of California, Davis recently reported that the treeline has been moving upslope over the past fifty years in what is a result of warming temperatures, causing a “leapfrogging” effect from trees that normally live at lower elevations. This is increasing competition for valuable real estate for young trees to plant their roots. The researchers concluded there will be little effect on the well-established older trees, but the future remains uncertain for the younger bristlecone pines. A sobering thought that made my current woes seem rather insignificant.

Once rested, we stood face into the wind and took our beating, eventually gaining the ridgeline. We pressed on into the barren alpine landscape until reaching the relatively level summit for which our objective is named. There we were rewarded with far more grander views of Rocky Mountain National Park as payment for the hard endured effort.

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Trail Sign at the edge of Bear Lake.Michael Deeter

Winter Adventures in Rocky Mountain National Park

With near limitless hiking opportunities, the Glacier Gorge area of the park has something for everyone, from novice hikers to the most advanced alpinists. With a multitude of mountain lakes to enjoy, such as Bear Lake with close proximity to the parking lot and a nearly flat trail that surrounds it, age is not a limiting factor to enjoying what the area has to offer. If a challenge is what you are looking for, the Dream Lake to Loch Vale loop will get your heart rate up and provides excellent opportunities to see and photograph Andrews and Tyndall Glaciers.  

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Tyndall Glacier as seen from Dream Lake.Michael Deeter

For the hardiest of adventurers, the Glacier Gorge traverse will not disappoint. This alpine traverse spans the area from Flattop Mountain past Longs Peak, the highest peak in the park at 14,255 feet. This objective should not be taken lightly, as it covers a distance of over 19 miles, connecting 11 summits with a total elevation gain of 11,447 feet. Along the route expect to encounter some Class 5 climbing and consequential exposure.  

My favorite time to explore the area is winter, as the summer brings flocks of tourists from around the world. The resulting traffic jams and long waits for parking can make for a less than ideal outing in the park. So, plan ahead if the summer is when you go, and prepare for an alpine start to avoid the crowds. In the winter it is a good idea to check trail conditions before heading up as you may need traction or floatation, such as microspikes or snowshoes respectively. The trails can be quite icy or covered in deep snow, as we learned the hard way that day.

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Andrews Glacier taken from the tarn below.Michael Deeter

On the descent, with the wind at our backs, my thoughts shifted from suffering to the uncertain future of the bristlecone pine. While the mountains may be the enduring titans of the alpine, the bristlecone pines are the quiet watchers standing on the shoulders of these giants. Like sentinels of a long-forgotten time, these trees have posted guard over the alpine across the millennia, but now their future is uncertain. Climate change has us in its grips, but we can all do our part to reduce our carbon footprint, as well as practice a leave no trace ethos when traveling in wilderness areas.