Off The Map: Week five, critter country

At the top of Rock of Ages Pass, a furry marmot scurried forth from a jumble of rocks, his nose twitching hungrily. I sat down between him and my pack, in case the rodent tried any funny business. Their craving for salt, even in the form of dried human sweat, was legendary. To further dissuade him, I lobbed several stones inches away from his head, but the creature didn’t even flinch. He simply waddled closer and stood up on his hind legs like an obese prairie dog.

I resumed my focus on a map of Southwest Colorado, and on the two 14,000-foot mountains that loomed ahead of me. Suddenly, a loud clatter broke my attention, and I whipped my head around to see that the marmot had snuck behind my back, grabbed the strap from one of my hiking poles, and was hightailing it down the ridge. he pole bounced noisily off the rocks as he fled, while I shouted in outrage and began to give chase. The ambitious animal dragged his quarry for thirty feet before he reconsidered his actions and let go. I was both relieved and impressed. Marmots had devoured my pole handles before in order to satisfy their salt addiction, but I’d never encountered one this bold. Over the next few days, vigilance with my equipment would definitely be required.

I made camp in a sunlit meadow below Mount Wilson and El Diente, and was able to lie back and relax all afternoon while I appraised the routes up to those summits. My surroundings shone with the enchantment of a Japanese rock garden. Vibrant outcroppings of primrose, buttercup, yellow paintbrush, and the amusingly-named elephant’s head saturated the grassy spaces between the stones.

A pair of marmots patrolled the gardens, wagging their tails briskly as they scoured the area for hidden treats. When I stood up from my cozy hillock to stretch my legs, the male waddled over and began chewing the grasses where I’d been sitting, as if my presence had made the fare more delicious. At times, he raised his head up from his meal to consider me carefully. With his graying muzzle and his hair slicked back from his forehead, the marmot projected an attitude that demanded gentlemanly respect, despite his species’ portly physique and predilections towards thievery. The antics of these creatures helped to lighten the grim atmosphere surrounding my current mission – the climbing of two Fourteeners and the crossing of the highwire traverse that stretched between them.

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