Living, Working, and Running at 9,500′

I’ve been spending the summer living and working at the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory (RMBL, pronounced “rumble”) in Gothic, CO. Life is good. First of all, I get to pursue my love for ecology while being immersed in an inspiring community of scientists and students. Also, I get to run in the mountains every day.

Before I get too excited about mountain running, let me first offer a synopsis of RMBL, its setting, and the work that is done there. Founded in 1928, RMBL was established in the townsite of an abandoned mining town tucked away at 9,500′ in the East River Valley of the Elk Mountains. It has since grown into one of the most renown high altitude field biology stations in the world. Every summer it is home to over 150 scientists, grad students, and undergrads from across the country.

Thunderstorms are the evening entertainment in Gothic.


A large variety of research projects are conducted at RMBL, but many of them examine the effects of climate change on interactions between organisms (i.e. plants and their pollinators/herbivores/pathogens/microbial mutualists). In high altitude ecosystems, interactions such as these are particularly vulnerable to environmental change because relatively severe climate conditions at high altitude lead to resource limitation and a highly compressed growing season. Thus, observations of mountain ecosystems may serve as the first indicators of ecological change in response to warming. Furthermore, because temperature generally decreases as elevation increases, studies can be carried out at multiple sites at different elevations in order to simulate different climate scenarios. Characteristics such as these make the mountain ecosystems surrounding RMBL premier locations for studying the ecological effects of climate change. For an in depth review about the usefulness of using elevational gradients to study climate change, see Sundqvist et al.

My teammate Vivian (front) and my mentor Rosemary Smith head down from Maxfield Meadow, a nearby research site below Gothic Mountain.


One week later: aspen sunflowers (Helianthella quinquenervis) in full bloom in Maxfield Meadow. Life proceeds quickly at 9,500′.


The mountains that teach us may also make us strong. At least that has become my motto, because running at 9,500′ is hard, and starting at 9,500′ to run up a mountain is even harder. My first week in Gothic was mostly spent running on the relatively flat dirt road that runs through town, but since then I’ve been steadily adding more vertical gain into my weekly training.

One of my favorite runs from Gothic is to head up Copper Creek trail towards Copper Lake


The 401 trail is great for running when there isn’t a lot of mountain bike traffic. From Gothic you can do the whole thing as an 15 mile loop, or you can do shorter loops by accessing it from Avery campground (5mi) or Rustler’s Gulch (7mi).


At 11,000', North Pole Basin is one of RMBL's highest elevation research areas. The last time we went there I ran to the top of Crystal Peak (12,600').
North Pole Basin is one of RMBL’s highest elevation research areas.  Last week, after finishing fieldwork, I ran to the top of Crystal Peak (12,600′). It’s hidden behind the foliage on the right.


My mentor has a GoPro she bought with a science education grant, and I’ve been having some fun with it. I attempted to take video of my descent of Crystal Peak, but unbeknownst to me I had it on the wrong setting and just ended up taking a bunch of photos. This is one of them.


This past weekend I finally made it to the top of Gothic Mountain for the first time this summer. I clocked in at 1:23′, over twenty minutes faster than last summer, which was quite satisfying.

Gothic Mt summit ridge


The last mile to the summit climbs 1600′ in one mile. As much as I love descending, going down this section was hell.


Two weeks ago I raced the Kendall Mountain Run in Silverton, CO and was very pleased with a 6th place finish. I’m hoping to run two or three other races before the summer is over. As of now my plan is to gear my training towards the IMTUF Bear Pete 30k in McCall, Idaho in late September.

Until then, I’ll continue to enjoy a satisfyingly simple life at RMBL. Cold water, a double propane burner, and a refrigerator are the only amenities in my cabin. The WiFi can be distracting, but there’s no cell service. I drive to Gunnison once every two weeks to get groceries, and sometimes I like to grab ice cream or a beer in Crested Butte, but for the most part I prefer to stay in the mountains.

My kitchen


Besides working, running, and sometimes mountain biking, I spend most of my time reading for pleasure, making quesadillas, and observing the antics of a litter of marmot pups that live under the cabin next to mine  (a family of foxes lives in town so they’re on high alert). I just finished Lord of the Rings (admittedly for the first time), and now I’m rereading Dune. Also, my Dad lent me his fly-fishing rod for a couple weeks. Yesterday my mentor gave me a fishing lesson, and I caught three fish! Two were minnows but one was a nice cutthroat trout.

I have about three weeks left of work for the summer up here at RMBL. Some larger ventures are brewing in my mind, and I hope to see them through by the time I leave. In the mean time, I’ll be training hard and trying to learn as much about mountain ecology as I can.

Follow me on instagram and twitter @alpenflow for more pictures and updates from 9,500′!

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Category: Adventures, Travel, & WritingKnowledge & TechniqueRunning


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