Thursday, November 29, 2012

Mount Elbert

Colorado Hut-to-Hut Adventure – Day 9 – 9/16/12 –Mount Elbert - 9 Miles

Our time in Glenwood Springs was so short that I believe I blinked and missed a lot.  A very early morning departure after too few hours of sleep and we were traveling eastward again, this time to put the cherry on top of our Colorado Sunday (get it?) – summiting Mount Elbert.  The popular North Mount Elbert Trail is 9 miles roundtrip and I wanted as much time as possible for the journey.  At 14,440 feet, the second highest peak in the lower 48 states, most people have never heard of Mount Elbert.   Colorado has 53 mountains over 14,000 feet high, and names like Pike’s Peak (14,114) and Longs Peak (14,255) are more famous.  But Mount Elbert was right in front of us, so here we go. 

Jeff gave us the details of his experience climbing this mountain:  trail more than half above tree line, not dangerous, not technical, some rock scrambling but no narrow edges from which to plummet (I beg to differ with this post-hike), “it gets really steep near the top,” and he did it without acclimatizing and was very slow.  Well, I now had 8 days of acclimation so I would be … very slow.  It was the 4,500 feet of ascent in 4.5 miles that sobered me up.  But I can do this.

Jeff’s trailhead for Mount Massive was a half-mile from ours.  Although he had more miles to complete his summit, he is pretty fast when he hikes solo and I knew he would be back at the parking lot before me.  Cathy and I were quickly ready to hit the trail so we started off, knowing that Mike would catch up to us soon enough. 

The first part of the hike is on the CDT and was surprisingly gentle.  At 1.4 miles the CDT continues straight and a right turn put us on the summit trail.  Soon after, Cathy was ready to pull ahead so we made a plan to meet up every hour.  When the trail got steeper I realized this was a mistake because Cathy would be spending a lot of time waiting for me.  Sure enough, I was 10 minutes behind her for the first stop, so we made a plan to meet one more time in another hour and see how far apart we were.  After that we would adjust or abandon plans and every hiker for him/herself.  Cathy started off again and I waited for Mike (10 minutes behind me). 

Here comes Mike (1)

At the tree line Mike wanted to stop for lunch.  I had very little appetite but ate a small snack.  I left Mike enjoying his hoagie, knowing he would catch up to me easily, and began my snail’s pace up the deceptive mountain.

That doesn’t look too hard, does it?

Jeff’s view of the Mount Elbert trail from his trail to Mount Massive

A brilliant blue sky, a few interesting clouds rolling through, a cold but comfortable temperature, a very light breeze, lots of people (after all, it was a Sunday) and very little oxygen:  almost perfect conditions for peakbagging a 14-er, right?  And yes, there are elementary school age children and their dogs on the trail.  I can do this.

One step at a time, don’t forget to look around once in a while, admire the scenery, look at the pretty rocks.  Every step was earned.  Are those people or ants above me?  It was impossible to guess distance according to my pace, but it looked like I was nearing the summit sooner than I had expected.  So I asked a guy descending, and he smiled kindly and said I was less than half the distance, that I was looking at the first of several false summits.  (False summit:  the peak in front of you that appears to be the top of the world but is in fact obscuring the huge mountain behind it.)

Another fellow who was hiking down stopped and asked if my name was Sharon?  A message from Cathy:  it was too cold for her to stop and she was continuing to the top.

The trail curved up and around the shoulder of the false summit to the western side of the mountain where a blustery wind was howling, and the temperature dropped significantly.  I was expending a lot of energy but my hands quickly grew numb from the cold.  The thought of turning around crossed my mind – more than once.

I began a prayer mantra:  God, please walk with me.  Not “get me to the top” or “keep me safe,” just “walk with me.” 

Another step, another, and I chatted with nearly every person that passed me descending.  Everyone was very encouraging.  One fellow was sitting in a sunny spot back on the eastern side, out of the wind.  His wife had gone on ahead but he had called it quits and was patiently waiting for her.  This gave me incentive to keep going, because I was going to get farther than at least one person.

Looking over at Mount Massive - I don’t see Jeff

Traces of snow began to appear in the rock pile

After the second false summit I reached a dangerously steep section.  Now, steep is steep until you reach something really steep, i.e. everything is relative.  What looks annoyingly steep becomes insignificant to what is ridiculously steep, and that’s what this was.  As I was hesitating, a very nice woman on her way down stopped to give me encouragement, saying that, yes, this was crazy dangerous but it was the very worst part and that it would improve in a couple hundred yards.  I can do this.

Another view from Jeff’s part of the world (the back side of Mount Elbert from where we were hiking)

Here comes Mike (2)

About 20 minutes before I reached the top, Cathy passed me on her way back down – just too cold to hang out for a long time.  The final 100 yards felt euphoric, the elevation eased up,  I could see people, and I DID IT!!

Mike and I took many photos of each other, from every perspective, but it’s hard to make it look like anything but standing on a rocky trail.  The vastness of the open space is just so difficult to convey in two dimensions.  The day was so clear, we could see Pike’s Peak about 100 miles away. 

Behind me is La Plata, at 14,336 feet
My ascent took 4.5 hours and it was mid- afternoon when we started back down.  Now that I wasn’t working so hard, I put my long pants back on and another jacket layer.  My fingers were tingling for most of the downward trek, not so much from the cold as probably I was dehydrated. 

There goes Mike (3)

I leap-frogged with a 4th grade girl and her dad going downhill – we passed each other over and over.  They had a very long day and she looked very tired, but she was still smiling.  I told her she was certainly the only girl in her class who had climbed the second highest mountain in the country with her dad.  So nice to see a father spending time outside with his daughter. 

At the tree line Mike and I caught up with each other again.  As we were resting we talked about an older man that we had both passed who was noticeably limping and making extremely slow progress.  Mike had talked with him briefly and the man had a sore toe and a bad knee.  It was getting late, so we waited for the fellow to see if he wanted assistance or just companionship the rest of the way.  He assured us that he was slow but okay, that he had water and a flashlight as well as a head lamp, i.e. he was well prepared.  This was not his first hike.  In fact, although it was his first 14-er, it was his 40th state high point! 

The last mile was a gentle roll downhill to Cathy and Jeff waiting for us in the parking lot.  A successful day for everyone!  What else to do but have a fabulous Mexican meal to celebrate?  The Grill Bar & Cafe in Leadville fit the bill with great margaritas, too.

After dinner, we parted ways with Mike and his van, and the rest of us drove a couple of hours east towards Denver to crash before our flight home the next day.  This was the weather the day we left Colorado.  What next?

“He left yesterday behind him
You might say he was born again
You might say he found the key
To every door”
~ John Denver

Monday, November 26, 2012

Back To Civilization - When Do I Get My Shower?

Colorado Hut-to-Hut Adventure – Day 8 – 9/15/12 – Uncle Bud’s Hut to Timberline Lake Trailhead - 4 Miles

Another beautiful early morning, ready for an altogether different kind of adventure.  Today we’re headed to Glenwood Springs, Colorado, for a soak in their famous hot springs, a fancy meal and a cushy night at a famous hotel.  But as with every hike…there were a few twists and turns in the trail.

We packed up, cleaned up and swept up Uncle Bud’s Hut and lingered for a few minutes on the deck to say goodbye.  This was my favorite of all the huts we experienced because of the unparalleled view of Mount Elbert and Mount Massive and our relaxing reading time yesterday morning.  

Still, hiking out to civilization was very exciting – food, showers, food!  We hiked down the CDT, four miles of contemplation of leaving a piece of myself here in the Colorado mountains. 

Here in the Holy Cross Wilderness during deer and elk bow season, we met a crossbow hunter willing to pause to get his picture made.

We passed near Galena Lake on the left and then skirted the edge of this pretty little unnamed lake.


Catching glimpses of tomorrow’s grand finale – Mount Elbert and Mount Massive

One more stroll through the aspens

Up and over one last little mountain, then on the last downhill we met a group of 15 people hiking up to Uncle Bud’s.  They were carrying very little, a few small backpacks and bottles of water, so I assume their gear was being hauled up via the jeep road.  They were laughing and joking, a rowdy crowd, although a couple of them were already sweating the steepness.  Looks like we got out just in time.

At the trailhead parking area, a discovery:  Jeff did not have the keys to the rental car.  Instead, they were in Mike’s van 20-plus miles away.  How long Jeff had known this, I’m not sure, but there was nothing to be done now except beg a ride to the van.  What worked in our favor was that this was a beautiful Saturday morning and this was a popular parking area for multiple trails with many cars coming and going.  A young couple drove up and I asked if they would help us out, give Mike a ride to the main road where he could hitch another ride to his van.  They were very kind, taking Mike all the way to the service road where we had left the van, and from there he walked in less than a mile. 

During our two-hour wait, Cathy explored the trail to Timberline Lake, then read her book on her eReader.  Jeff contemplated the universe.  I spread out my rain jacket, pulled my ball cap over my eyes, and simultaneously napped and acquired a sunburn.  Hey, there are many worse things than sitting outside on a sunny day.

Once we had collected both vehicles, we commenced our long drive to Glenwood Springs, stopping at the funky little town of Red Cliff for fish tacos at Mango's Mountain Grill. 

A little rooftop celebration

On Highway 24, the abandoned mining town of Gilman clings to the side of Battle Mountain, wrapped in aspen yellow.  The view was irresistible.  Cars were screeching to a halt at the pull-off every which way to get a look.

Gilman, Colorado, founded in 1886 for mining zinc and lead, closed in 1984

Highway 70 winds its way through Glenwood Canyon, an engineering feat as it slithers through the narrow twists and turns.  No photos, we just enjoyed the ride.

Our home for the night, Hotel Colorado, reminded me of the Overlook Hotel in “The Shining”, wide plushly carpeted hallways perfect for a kid to ride a Big Wheel, beautiful people in the common areas attending wedding receptions.  But it’s all a blur because the real reason for the long drive was …

Glenwood Springs!  The biggest hot tub I’ve ever seen!  The water was waist deep and luxuriously relaxing as the sun set on eight days of outdoor frolicking.  And the shower afterwards was a wonderful thing. 

Then, a glass of wine and dinner at Juicy Lucy’s Steakhouse.  That is all.

“You know he’d be a poorer man
If he never saw an eagle fly
Rocky Mountain High”
~ John Denver

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Navigation 101 With Mike

Colorado Hut-to-Hut Adventure – Day 7 – 9/14/12 – Peak 12313, St. Kevin Lake & Bear Lake – 5 Miles

Tried a night of natural sleep (no Tylenol PM and no ear plugs) that resulted in some restlessness but no headache.  Ah, progress.  The everyday world at home tried to creep in, listing things I need to do as soon as I get back.  I thought about the amount of time we spent last night just watching the daylight fade.  At home I would have spent that time goofing off on the computer.  What have I learned?

Uncle Bud’s Hut was very cold when we got up this morning.  Jeff prepared for another peak- bagging day (Galena Mountain) while the rest of us brought our sleeping bags downstairs to the window seats to relax and read while waiting for the day to warm up.  My book was Wisdom For The Ages by Wayne Dyer, a collection of 60 short essays by Dyer based on writings by poets, philosophers, authors and spiritual leaders.  Each essay is about four pages long on topics such as forgiveness, beauty, humor, grief, etc.  An excellent book for an adventurer contemplating the universe and his/her place in it.

We left the hut at about 10:15 a.m. for a day of roaming with Mike in charge, starting out at 40 degrees with a strong sun.  Mike’s vague itinerary included backtracking part of yesterday’s route to climb up a peak that we skirted around.  The peak has no name, just an elevation of 12,313 feet on the map.  

Backtracking up the old jeep road, snowy peaks in the distance.  We took a left turn into the woods to shortcut over to the CDT.  This should have been my first clue that today was going to be a clueless day.

There is no trail going up 12313, so we meandered until we were above the tree line and then Mike made his own switchbacks.  Just because a pile of rocks goes straight up doesn’t mean you have to walk straight up it.  I brought up the rear, moving in my slow and deliberate style, keeping my breathing in check, enjoying that familiar-but-always-new expansive feeling of being in the wide open outdoors. 

The summit of 12313 is a big old pile of rocks – like the AT in New Hampshire but with less oxygen.  For new reasons, I was glad that I had the opportunity to hike in the White Mountains with Judy in August:  good training for Colorado.

On top of Peak 12313.  Looking due west, we could see Galena Mountain up close where Jeff was hiking today.  Looking in the far distance due northeast we could see Pearl Peak and the small mountain that Jackal Hut sits upon.  And here, looking due south, are snow-covered Mount Elbert and Mount Massive.  Wow.

Where to next?  Let’s go look at the lake, which I thought meant Bear Lake, not far below Uncle Bud’s Hut.  But…rather than retracing our steps, we began a descent down the back side of 12313, a great deal steeper, carefully choosing our steps around boulders, loose rocks and fir trees.  

Looking back up at the rock pile summit

Looking back one more time

Although Bear Lake was down in the valley and to the left, Mike kept trending to the right.  I finally asked what his plan was and he said he wanted to show us St. Kevin Lake, a high elevation snow melt lake.  I felt frustration rising up in me because…did I want to go to St. Kevin Lake?  I had no choice.  At this point there was no trail, no option for me to go a different way solo.  I was short-tempered with Mike, and he allowed that maybe it was too much of a surprise but that I really would like St. Kevin Lake. 

And of course Mike was right.  He definitely pushes me beyond my comfort level but the result is always worth the push, if for no other reason than a good story of overcoming adversity.  To reach St. Kevin Lake required more climbing, my main reason for not wanting to make the effort in the first place.  Another quarter-mile of cross-country and we intersected with a faint trail ascending to the lake.  And it was spectacular.

St.  Kevin Lake – Cathy and I are tiny dots on the rock in the bottom center of the photo

The most perfect lunch stop of all time

St. Kevin Lake is stocked with trout and therefore a popular fishing spot.  Today there were three fishermen departing as we arrived, and one came along while we were hanging out.  As we ate lunch at the water’s edge three speckled trout swam nearby.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen fish in a pond like this before.  

Naturally Mike wanted to hike out a different way and he was determined to teach us some navigation skills.  After some time studying the NatGeo map (#126) we identified some landmarks and chose a creek flowing down into the valley. 

Keeping the creek on our right side (called the “handrail”) and the semi-circle of mountains at our back (the “backstop”) we followed the drainage all the way until it intersected with the CDT.  Turning right onto the CDT, we followed it to the side trail to Bear Lake.

Bear Lake

Grasses in the lake

Somewhere over that ridge is Uncle Bud’s Hut

Ah, but the lesson is not over, Grasshopper.  From here Mike challenged me to find our way back to the hut using map and compass skills.  It was getting late, I was tired, and I reluctantly took his instruction.  I knew it was uphill (again) to the hut and not the way I wanted to end my day.  After a bad start, Mike showed me how to get a bearing using my shadow and then how to take the path of least resistance up a sparsely wooded steep slope, meaning to zig-zag back and forth a lot, correcting with the shadow trick.  I was so intent on my shadow that Cathy spotted the hut and we were home free.  My mantra was true again:  the only thing better than the beginning of a hike is the end of a hike. 

During our trip we had been discussing what to do on our last day in Colorado.  The original plan was to drive a really long way and climb Pike’s Peak because, well, it’s Pike’s Peak.  But all week long we had been looking at the awesome mountain range that included Mount Elbert, the tallest peak in Colorado and coincidentally the second highest peak in the lower 48 states.  (Remember how I summited MountWhitney a year ago, the first highest peak?)  And although Jeff had already climbed Mount Elbert, well, good old Mount Massive, the third highest peak, was right beside it.  Looks like we’ll be staying in the neighborhood.

Outhouse view of Mount Elbert and Mount Massive

Jeff checking out the log books at Uncle Bud’s

Aren’t you curious about what we had for dinner on our last night in the huts?  Creamy wild rice soup to which we added fresh mushrooms and leftover tortellini, leftover shredded parm cheese and pepperoni, plus crackers that Cathy had carried around for 4 days without crushing.  Tomorrow we hike out to civilization, retrieve cars and enjoy our first showers in 8 days!

Bonus photo:  Jeff’s view of St. Kevin Lake from atop Galena Mountain.  Peak 12313 is in the center foreground.

“His sight is turned inside himself
To try and understand
The serenity of a clear blue mountain lake.”
~ John Denver