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A Watcher on the Heights

While on the sky-line as State Snow Observer, I had one adventure with the elements that called for the longest special report that I have ever written. Perhaps I cannot do better than quote this report transmitted to Professor Carpenter, at Denver, on May 26, 1904.


The day before the Poudre flood, I traveled for eight hours northwesterly along the top of the Continental Divide, all the time being above timber-line and from eleven thousand to twelve thousand feet above sea-level.

The morning was cloudless and hot. The western sky was marvelously clear. Eastward, a thin, dark haze overspread everything below ten thousand feet. By 9.30 A. M. this haze had ascended higher than where I was. At nine o’clock the snow on which I walked, though it had been frozen hard during the night, was soggy and wet.

About 9.30 a calm that had prevailed all the morning gave way before an easy intermittent warm breeze from the southeast.

At 10.10 the first cloud appeared in the north, just above Hague’s Peak. It was a heavy cumulus cloud, but I do not know from what direction it came. It rose high in the air, drifted slowly toward the west, and then seemed to dissolve. At any rate, it vanished. About 10.30 several heavy clouds rose from behind Long’s Peak, moving toward the northwest, rising higher into the sky as they advanced.

The wind, at first in fitful dashes from the southeast, began to come more steadily and swiftly after eleven o’clock, and was so warm that the snow softened to a sloppy state. The air carried a tinge of haze, and conditions were oppressive. It was labor to breathe. Never, except one deadly hot July day in New York City, have I felt so overcome with heat and choking air. Perspiration simply streamed from me. These oppressive conditions continued for two hours, — until about one o’clock. While they lasted, my eyes pained, ached, and twitched. There was no glare, but only by keeping my eyes closed could L stand the half-burning pain. Finally I came to some crags and lay down for a time in the shade. I was up eleven thousand five hundred feet and the time was 12.20. As I lay on the snow gazing upward, I became aware that there were several flotillas of clouds of from seven to twenty each, and these were moving toward every point of the compass. Each seemed on a different stratum of air, and each moved through space a considerable distance above or below the others. The clouds moving eastward were the highest. Most of the lower clouds were those moving westward. The haze and sunlight gave color to every cloud, and this color varied from smoky red to orange.

On the Heights

At two o’clock the haze came in from the east almost as dense as a fog-bank, crossed the ridge before me, and spread out as dark and foreboding as the smoke of Vesuvius. Behind me the haze rolled upward when it struck the ridge, and I had clear glimpses whenever I looked to the southwest. This heavy, muddy haze prevailed for a little more than half an hour, and as it cleared, the clouds began to disappear, but a gauzy haze still continued in the air. The feeling in the air was not agreeable, and for the first time in my life I felt alarmed by the shifting, rioting clouds and the weird haze.

I arrived at timber-line south of Poudre Lakes about 4.30 P. M., and for more than half an hour the sky, except in the east over the foothills, was clear, and the sunlight struck a glare from the snow. With the cleared air there came to me an easier feeling. The oppressiveness ceased. I descended a short distance into the woods and relaxed on a fallen tree that lay above the snow.

I had been there but a little while, when — snap! buzz! buzz! buzz! ziz! ziz! and electricity began to pull my hair and hum around my ears. The electricity passed off shortly, but in a little while it caught me again by the hair for a brief time, and this time my right arm momentarily cramped and my heart seemed to give several lurches. I arose and tramped on and downward, but every little while I was in for shocking treatment. The electrical waves came from the south west and moved northeast. They were separated by periods of from one to several minutes in length, and were about two seconds in passing. During their presence they made it lively for me, with hair-pulling, heart-palpitation, and muscular cramps. I tried moving speedily with the wave, also standing still and lying down, hoping that the wave would pass me by; but in each and every case it gave me the same stirring treatment. Once I stood erect and rigid as the wave came on, but it intensified suddenly the rigidity of every muscle to a seemingly rupturing extent, and I did not try that plan again. The effect of each wave on me seemed to be slightly weakened whenever I lay down and fully relaxed my muscles.

I was on a northerly slope, in spruce timber, tramping over five feet of snow. During these electrical waves, the points of dry twigs were tipped with a smoky blue flame, and sometimes bands of this bluish flame encircled green trees just below their lower limbs. I looked at the compass a few times, and though the needle occasionally swayed a little, it was not affected in any marked manner.

The effect of the electrical waves on me became less as I descended, but whether from my getting below the electrical stratum, or from a cessation of the current, I cannot say.

But I did not descend much below eleven thousand feet, and at the lowest point I crossed the South Poudre, at the outlet of Poudre Lakes. In crossing I broke through the ice and received a wetting, with the exception of my right side above the hip. Once across, I walked about two hundred yards through an opening, then again entered the woods, on the southeasterly slope of Specimen Mountain. I had climbed only a short distance up this slope when another electrical wave struck me. The effect of this was similar to that of the preceding ones. There was, how ever, a marked difference in the intensity with which the electricity affected the wet and the dry portions of my body. The effect on my right side and shoulder, which had escaped wetting when I broke through the ice, was noticeably stronger than on the rest of my body. Climbing soon dried my clothes sufficiently to make this difference no longer noticeable. The waves became more frequent than at first, but not so strong. I made a clumsy climb of about five hundred feet, my muscles being “muscle-bound” all the time with rigidity from electricity. But this climb brought me almost to timber-line on Specimen Mountain, and also under the shadow of the south peak of it. At this place the electrical effects almost ceased. Nor did I again seriously feel the current until I found myself out in the sunlight which came between the two peaks of Specimen. While I continued in the sunlight I felt the electrical wave, but, strange to say, when I again entered the shadow I almost wholly escaped it.

When I started on the last slope toward the top of North Specimen, I came out into the sun light again, and I also passed into an electrical sea. The slope was free from snow, and as the electrical waves swept in close succession, about thirty seconds apart, they snapped, hummed, and buzzed in such a manner that their advance and retreat could be plainly heard. In passing by me, the noise was more of a crackling and humming nature, while a million faint sparks flashed from the stones (porphyry and rhyolite) as the wave passed over. But the effect on me became constant. Every muscle was almost immovable. I could climb only a few steps without weakening to the stopping-point. I breathed only by gasps, and my heart became violent and feeble by turns. I felt as if cinched in a steel corset. After I had spent ten long minutes and was only half-way up a slope, the entire length of which I had more than once climbed in a few minutes and in fine shape, I turned to retreat, but as there was no cessation of the electrical colic, I faced about and started up again. I reached the top a few minutes before 6.30 P. M., and shortly afterward the sun disappeared behind clouds and peaks.

I regret that I failed to notice whether the electrical effects ceased with the setting of the sun, but it was not long after the disappearance of the sun before I was at ease, enjoying the magnificent mountain-range of clouds that had formed above the foothills and stood up glorious in the sunlight.

Shortly before five o’clock the clouds had begun to pile up in the east, and their gigantic forms, flowing outlines, and glorious lighting were the only things that caused the electrical effects to be forgotten even momentarily. The clouds formed into a long, solid, rounded range that rose to great height and was miles in length. The southern end of this range was in the haze, and I could not make out its outline further south than a point about opposite Loveland, Colorado, nor could I see the northern end be yond a few miles north of Cheyenne, where it was cut off by a dozen strata of low clouds that moved steadily at a right angle to the east. Sixty miles of length was visible. Its height, like that of the real mountains which it paralleled, diminished toward the north. The place of greatest altitude was about twenty-five miles distant from me. From my location, the clouds presented a long and smoothly terraced slope, the top of which was at least five thousand feet and may have been fifteen thousand feet above me. The clouds seemed compact; at times they surged upwards; then they would settle with a long, undulating swell, as if some unseen power were trying to force them further, up the mountains, while they were afraid to try it. Finally a series of low, conical peaks rose on the summit of the cloud-range, and the peaks and the upper cloud-slope resembled the upper portion of a circus-tent. There were no rough places or angles.

When darkness came on, the surface of this cloud-range was at times splendidly illuminated by electricity beneath; and, when the darkness, deepened, the electrical play beneath often caused the surface to shine momentarily like incandescent glass, and occasionally sinuous rivers of gold ran over the slopes. Several times I thought that the course of these golden rivers of electrical fire was from the bottom upward, but so brilliant and dazzling were they that I could not positively decide on the direction of their movement. Never have I seen such enormous cloud-forms or such brilliant electrical effects.

The summit of Specimen Mountain, from which I watched the clouds and electrical flashes, is about twelve thousand five hundred feet above sea-level. A calm prevailed while I remained on top. It was about 8.30 P. M. when I left the sum mit, on snowshoes, and swept down the steep northern slope into the woods. This hurry caused no unusual heart or muscle action.

The next morning was cloudy as low down as ten thousand five hundred feet, and, for all I know, lower still. The night had been warm, and the morning had the oppressive feeling that dominated the morning before. The clouds broke up before nine o’clock, and the air, with haze in it, seemed yellow. About 10.30, haze and, soon after, clouds came in from the southeast (at this time I was high up on the southerly slope of Mt. Richthofen), and by eleven o’clock the sky was cloudy. Up to this time the air, when my snow-glasses were off, burned and twitched my eyes in the same manner as on the previous morning.

Early in the afternoon I left Grand Ditch Camp and started down to Chambers Lake. I had not gone far when drops of rain began to fall from time to time, and shortly after this my muscles began to twitch occasionally under electrical ticklings. At times slight muscular rigidity was noticeable. Just before two o’clock the clouds began to burst through between the trees. I was at an altitude of about eleven thousand feet and a short distance from the head of Trap Creek. Rain, hail, and snow fell in turn, and the lightning began frequently to strike the rocks. With the beginning of the lightning my muscles ceased to be troubled with either twitching or rigidity. For the two hours between 2 and 4 P. M. the crash and roll of thunder was incessant. I counted twenty-three times that the lightning struck the rocks, but I did not see it strike a tree. The clouds were low, and the wind came from the east and the northeast, then from the west.

About four o’clock, I broke through the snow, tumbled into Trap Creek, and had to swim a little. This stream was really very swift, and ran in a narrow gulch, but it was blocked by snow and by tree-limbs swept down by the flood, and a pond had been formed. It was crowded with a deep deposit of snow which rested on a shelf of ice. This covering was shattered and uplifted by the swollen stream, and I had slipped on the top of the gulch and tumbled in. Once in, the swift water tugged at me to pull me under; the cakes of snow and ice hampered me, and my snow-shoes were entangled with brush and limbs. The combination seemed determined to drown me. For a few seconds I put forth all my efforts to get at my pocket-knife. This accomplished, the fastenings of my snowshoes were cut, and unhampered by these, I escaped the waters.

A Storm on the Rockies

Since I have felt no ill results, the effect of the entire experience may have been beneficial. The clouds, glorious as they had been in formation and coloring, resulted in a terrible cloud burst. Enormous quantities of water were poured out, and this, falling upon the treeless foothills, rushed away to do more than a million dollars’ damage in the rich and beautiful Poudre Valley.

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