One doesn't expect to come face-to-face with a tornado at 13,000 feet.
Let me explain. I was driving up Colorado's Mount Evans Scenic Byway, the highest paved road in North America, known for its hairpin curves, sheer drop-offs and lack of guardrails. For some, driving to the 14,240-foot summit can be excitement enough.
The ascent is breathtaking, with sweeping vistas of mountain ranges and alpine lakes. Resident mountain goats and bighorn sheep are surprisingly unfazed by the eager photographers who often surround them.
But on this day I spotted only one goat herd and a couple of marmots perched on their hind legs, undoubtedly surveying the upcoming storm.
The skies turned threatening as I reached Summit Lake at 12,000 feet, but I continued creeping up to the top. The summit was socked in, but that didn't deter scores of visitors from climbing the remaining quarter-mile trail to the peak. Suddenly, ferocious hail started pounding my vehicle, so I decided to descend, all the while marveling at a collision of black storm clouds overhead.
As I was making yet another hairpin turn, I saw something most unusual dangling from the black base of a storm cloud--a long, thin funnel extending to the ground. Huh? I immediately pulled over and grabbed my camera. Wait--that sort of resembles a tornado. But they only happen on the plains of Kansas (remember Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz?), not near mountain peaks...right?
I surveyed the cloud's movement--it was weakly swirling around. I'll bet that's how a tornado starts out. Still, it wasn't computing.
Meanwhile, drivers coming around the bend stopped in their tracks. People hung out car windows, popped through sunroofs and leapt from cars, pointing their cameras, iPads, phones and fingers at this stunning, strange phenomenon.
The funnel cloud was getting bigger and wider and moving in our direction. Is now a good time to panic? What if this could hurt people?
My inner voice suddenly piped up: Vamoose! So I descended a few more sharp turns when I noticed this menacing beast of a cloud right next to the road.
That would make a good picture, I thought. Snap.
Okay, now I can go.
A few more switchbacks down and this foreboding funnel of condensed water vapor suddenly dissipated into a smattering of innocuous puffs.
And just like that, it was gone.
But the excitement wasn't over. A trained weather spotter was on the mountain that day and verified with the National Weather Service that this cold funnel cloud did indeed touch down, officially making it a tornado. The touchdown was calculated at 11,900 feet, making it the second highest altitude tornado in recorded history. (The highest was documented at 12,000 feet in California's Sequoia National Park in 2004.)
Colorado's tornado was a mere 101 feet from breaking the all-time record. Still, it was a rare and memorable event. A true Rocky Mountain High.
Follow Karen Goodwin on Twitter: www.twitter.com/TravelDispatch