Star Points for September 2012 by Curtis Roelle
A Cold Summer’s Night on a Fourteener

The stars don’t twinkle on the top of Colorado’s 14,270-foot Mount Evans. That’s what I discovered on the last Saturday in August when I spent the night by myself on top of the mountain, alone with only a sleeping bag, cot, and a fine pair of binoculars. It was an exhilarating experience I’d like to share.

One of Colorado’s most famous “fourteeners” – mountains higher than 14,000 feet – Mt. Evans is also home to the University of Denver’s (DU) Meyer-Womble Observatory, the highest observatory in all 50 states. At its peak, air pressure is 54% of that at sea level, causing the uncanny non-twinkling stars, making Mt. Evans a good location for field astronomy. The observatory is currently not in use because winds, averaging 90 mph and gusting to 135 mph, one day last winter blew away its protective dome.

I began the evening at sunset by visiting an open house at the historic Chamberlin Observatory, located in Observatory Park near the UD campus in Denver. The large dome of the beautiful 1890s Romanesque-style building houses the main telescope, a refractor with a 20-inch-diameter lens built in 1894 by the famous opticians Alvin Clark & Sons.

In the surrounding park, members of the Denver Astronomical Society set up their own telescopes for the public to look through. A fellow named Jack had his own 6-inch Alvin Clark refractor whose factory plate bore the date 1877. Through it I enjoyed a stunning view of the 1st quarter Moon that was razor sharp and free from any color fringing.

I observed the Ring Nebula, a planetary nebula in Lyra, through the 20-inch Clark. Inside the observatory I first learned of the passing earlier that day of American astronaut Neil Armstrong. In the future, when I remember where I was upon hearing the sad news, that memory will be pleasant. Then I departed, heading west toward Mt. Evans.

The highway wound its way up the mountain. When I reached its Summit Lake I couldn’t see the lake at all but knew it was there only by the Moon reflected in its waters. On the switchbacks above the tree line I could see shadows of mountains cast by the Moon in the valley below. It seemed as though I could reach out and touch their faint silhouettes nearby. But they were thousands of feet below and miles away in the dimness of night, and it startled me to realize the rented SUV was driving only inches away from a sheer drop into a rocky black abyss below.

It was 11 p.m. when I reached the top, and the temperature was already in the upper 30s and falling. I changed from shorts into long pants and donned a souvenir fleece jacket I had recently purchased. Thanks to the damaged observatory being closed, I was the only person at the peak on a Saturday night. I carried everything in a single trip over the rocky trail to the observatory. The moonlight guided each foot around every stone. I set everything up, and soon the sleeping bag was wet with dew.

Beyond the eastern side of the mountain were the lights of the mile-high city Denver, located nearly two miles below. They looked like glittering pinkish-orange electric netting whose garish glow hovered over it against the pristine sky.

I crawled out of the gentle breeze and into the sleeping bag with my binoculars waiting for the Moon to set. Its phase was nearly identical to how it was the night Apollo 11 landed on the Moon. It finally set around 1 a.m. and the stars came up like dainty house lights in a colossal pitch-black theater. At the same time the air became perfectly still, producing a new sound: dead silence. No crickets chirping, frogs croaking, or mosquitos buzzing by the ears. The sleeping bag was now covered with frost.

The cot provided the perfect posture for viewing the ragged Milky Way stretching across the center of the sky overhead. It’s the real thing, not an image on a TV screen or computer monitor. Unlike the everyday things of this world there is nothing fake about it — no false color, makeup, highlighting, augmentation, spin, or special packaging. On Earth looking up at night you see everything else, and there is so much more of it up there than there is down here. A person can feel one’s own problems dissolving away at the simple yet majestic sight.

With binoculars were seen many things, such as the large North American Nebula in Cygnus the Swan. Even without binoculars, the naked eye was capable of seeing far distances and millions of light-years, such as the great Andromeda Galaxy some 2.5 million light-years from Earth, and the even more distant galaxy M33, or the “Pinwheel.”

Having planned to spend the summer in Denver I didn’t bother packing a hat and gloves, so my head and hands were getting cold. I placed the shorts over my head and used the pant leg as a kind of periscope to keep the wind out of my face. Thank goodness there was nobody around to see.

The cold hard rubber surface of the binoculars made my gloveless hands so cold my body started to shiver. Fortunately, I have a rather long sleeping bag and was able to hold the binoculars through it from the inside. During a rest period I brought the binoculars inside the sleeping bag to warm them up enough to hold them, which allowed wider sweeps to be made.

At 3 a.m. a cold breeze began to blow, and within an hour came occasional buffeting gusts. My feet started getting cold and with it began a slight, dull headache. I rationalized that the brain was sharing its blood supply with the poor feet in order to warm them.

Finally, twilight came and then the sunrise. The rim of the Sun rose out of the murky horizon, turned oblate, then distorted with horizontal ripples.

On the return trip, a short distance from the mountain top, I discovered a herd of about 25 mountain goats. They were all ewes, young adults, and kids. I got out and walked with them as they strolled around stones and grazed on mountain grasses.

Wild Mountain Goat on Mt. Evans in Colorado
A wild mountain goat grazing on Mt. Evans in Colorado(Photograph by Curt Roelle).

Click above image to open larger sized image in new window (3.33 MB)

That night on Mt. Evans is one to remember. A couple of miles closer to the stars and the feeling that all the problems and worries had either been left up there, or had shrank and withered to a manageable size.

So if you’re ever in Colorado, take the time to visit Mt. Evans. It’s not as famous as Pike’s Peak, but it’s taller and just as accessible. But be warned that the road is only open between Memorial Day and Labor Day.