Thursday, January 12, 2012

Sounds of the Trail

Running is a treat for the senses...the sights, sounds, temperature, wind, footing and smells all stimulate some aspect of our five senses, whether we think about it or not. Sometimes, though, a particular sense is activated and for a given run, that sense dominates.

So was the case on Tuesday's jaunt up Green Mountain as I was struck by the sounds of the mountain.

The run began around 3:30 p.m. from Chautauqua, climbing the old paved road to the Mesa Trail. The trail was, as expected, a mix of snow, ice, dirt and mud. No traction required (on the ascent).

I made my way over to the junction with the Bear Canyon Trail and started climbing. The further up I went, the more aware I become of the few sounds around me.

First, it was the pleasant gurgling of Bear Canyon Creek running beneath a layer of ice and snow, reminding me that even on the coldest days, our mountains remain invaluable water factories for the plants, animals and human communities that surround them.

On the climb up Green-Bear, I paused to listen to the distant caw of a crow, it's call forlorn and almost out of place on such a beautiful, sunny day.

Soon I was standing on Green Mountain's summit rock, marveling at the fact that there was no wind. None. It was perfectly still. I noticed then the constant, low rumble generated by the 97,000 or so souls moving around and going about their days down below in Boulder. Their collective sounds rolled up, combined and enveloped the mountain in a strangely comforting auditory embrace.

Green Mountain's summit marker. Photo: Brandon Fuller
Just then, the whistle of a train dropping down the side of Eldorado Mountain echoed through the hills, adding a new dimension of sound to the bass line of the city. The train's sound reminded me of hearing as a kid in Kansas the same distant whistle in the summer through my open bedroom window. To me the whistle is as much a warning as it is a reminder of movement, of going in running.

On the run down Green's frontside, the dominant sounds became of my own making -- the scrape of Microspikes on ice and rock, or the satisfying "squench" when spikes found a solid purchase in firmly packed snow, propelling me around a sharp switchback.

Once back at the now dark Gregory Canyon parking lot, the sounds became those of others. A car driving down Flagstaff Road, a dog barking in the backyard of a house in the neighborhood adjacent to the open space.

The low rumble of humanity I heard atop Green's summit now was just the usual collection of individual sounds. The crows were quiet, and the train's whistle now was drowned out by the immediate din of the neighborhood.

Running is, indeed, a treat for the senses.

Distance: 8.23 miles
Time: 1:46 (Green descent - 20:57)
Elevation gain: 2,887


  1. Exactly why I don't run with tunes (not saying never will, just that I don't). I love the sounds of the trail.

    That, and possibly survival (in the mountains) ;)

    Reminds of when I was a teen from Indiana, we stayed in a cabin in Peaceful Valley and my brother and I climbed a ridge and for the first time ever, I "heard" total silence. Then a bird chirped and it sounded like an air horn!

  2. Ask my pacer about the sounds of burping he had to listen to on the trail for 13 hours during Leadville.

    I'm always amazed when I get on the trail how much there is to hear. The problem is we live in a noisy world that drowns out the individual & unique sounds that we can appreciate if only we can hear them.

  3. MTR2 - totally get where you're coming from on hearing silence.

    Woody - the burping must, at least, have been entertaining in that glad-it-ain't-me kind o' way...

  4. Captured the joy of running off the beaten path very well! There is also the sound of your heart racing in your chest when you summit a ridge or peak and have the views we get in Colorado! ;-)

  5. Great stuff there, Jim.
    I read something awhile back (can't find it exactly) about a blind climber talking about how much of a thrill he (still) had climbing because the sound is noticeably different above treeline.

    Lastly, sometimes I've heard from hikers that trail runners are moving too fast to engage the senses fully. I've always disagreed with that: not only do we get a hyper-sensation by moving quickly, but by being able to feel the changes in terrain more dynamically, we also enjoy deeper stimulation of the sixth sense of proprioception.

  6. Jim - thx for sharing. Although I am mostly a solo runner because of this very reason (sights, sounds, senses..) especially when hitting the trails. These are some of the things you miss when running with other people because your engaging each other instead of your surroundings. mtnrunner2 - where in Indiana are you from?

  7. Mike - loved this: "the sixth sense of proprioception." I'd completely forgotten that term, but is what I had in mind when I said "footing" above. Need to use that word three times today to ensure it embeds somewhere in the brain's file cabinet.

    Ward - it's true that one's focus is on other things when one runs with others...keeping pace, watching someone's shoes ahead, making sure no one misses a turn, etc... Easy to miss subtle things on those run. But, there's no substitute for the camaraderie of shared suffering.