The beam of my headlamp jolts as I fall, abruptly illuminating dark tree trunks before merely reflecting off crystalline white snow. With an effort, I pull my leg from the hip-deep posthole I just created. Cautiously, I take another step forward. This is a common occurrence on this crisp New Year’s morning, as adventure-buddy-in-chief Austin Riley and I climb the trail in Rocky Mountain National Park in the pre-dawn blackness.
Before I can even fully see without the benefit of my headlamp, I hear it, the two-part call note of my first bird of 2018, a Pine Grosbeak! Soon we approach treeline and prepare to leave the more or less defined trail, pausing on the side of a frozen lake to equip our boots with crampons and free ice axes from our packs. The wind here is absolutely brutal, with windchill temperatures around -16ºF, and my glove-free hands go completely numb within seconds as I fumble with straps. Through the howling wind, my second bird of the new year gives its rattling call from somewhere in the spruce-fir forest below us, an American Three-toed Woodpecker.
With the snow now much steeper and not a soul having broken the trail before us, the going gets a fair amount tougher and slower. Tucked into some low shrubs above treeline, though, Austin chances to flush the third bird, a rather mystical creature perhaps akin to a unicorn. With pure white plumage and striking black eyes and beaks, a small family group of White-tailed Ptarmigan break from their snow burrows and quickly shuffle a few feet away from us before bedding back down to watch us walk past.
As we near our turnaround point well into the alpine tundra below the steep cliffs on the backside of Longs Peak, my first mammal of the year and a fourth bird (Brown-capped Rosy-Finch) make their presence known. Unlike most mammals that live in such cold ecosystems, the American pika does not hibernate. Instead, it survives the winter off of vast reserves of vegetative material that it spends its entire summer gathering. In cold, wind, and snow that makes me extremely uncomfortable even with all of my down and Gore-tex, this tiny, cute Lagomorph lives quite comfortably, as one neeps at us from a snow-covered boulder field.
The final treat of the day romps into view soon after we reenter the subalpine fir. An American marten cautiously investigates us, curious as to why two humans are also out playing in the snow on such a blusteringly cold morning. It quickly loses interest in us and returns to hunting pika and squirrels, but not before I capture the following video. And for those of you curious, the remaining bird species I saw on this hike were Mountain Chickadee and Ruby-crowned Kinglet, and the final mammal was a Pine Squirrel.
My best wishes to you all for a fabulous 2018! Thank you for reading, and I look forward to taking you with me on many more adventures in the coming months!