Into Saddle and Onto Summit – Mount Baker Part 2

The first night of our expedition was the coldest of our three camping nights, and my feet never got warm. For some unknown reason I had failed to wear socks.

But the day dawned bright and sunny. This was to be our rest and training day. We were treated to a non oatmeal breakfast of surprisingly good scrambled eggs from a powder, topped with cheese and turkey bacon jerky. Who knew. SH had dispensed packets of instant oatmeal to everyone for the remaining days, which led to great confusion as to who had the right number of packets and what that number was. He’d also doled out lunches for the next days – wraps that we were already calling salami bombs and I’m sure they added to the weight of my pack.

A view from our tent – that steep bank in the distance is the Roman Wall

After a leisurely breakfast we donned crampons and climbed up the nearby snow bank. There we proceeded to practice movement on the snow (duck feet, French technique), self arrest (flip your ice axe around, pick side down, plant it, dig in with your knees and feet, hips raised, and kick), and movement on a rope with a team. It had been four years so I was glad of the practice. M, one of the folks from Canada,was definitely the most adventurous on the self arrest practice – she picked up a lot of speed as she simulated her fall down the slope. J and I were a bit more cautious.

We spent the afternoon reading, napping, and prepping our packs for a 1 a.m. wake up call. I also spent quite a bit of time observing our comrades from other groups – campgrounds are second only to airports for people watching.

We had an early dinner of rice, orzo, the ubiquitous salami chunks, followed by a sunset walk, and were in “bed” by 8. Needless to say, sleep was hard to come by, but I know I must have drowsed off, waking about five minutes before the alarm, just in time to force down my two packets of instant oatmeal. At least we also had dried fruit, nuts, and chocolate chips to add to them.

We finally started off at 2:15 a.m., only 15 minutes after our appointed time. Slow was definitely a theme of this trip – after all, it was referred to as the “slow Baker” expedition in the marketing materials. But let me also add a little flavor. Of our five merry climbers, only M, J and I had worn crampons before, and M had not done so for years. T (friend of absent S) and TF (the other person from Canada) had never worn them. So all in all, I think we made a pretty good showing.

It’s always spooky to take off in the dark, accompanied only by the glow of the headlamps, but the air was perfectly still and I was hiking in only a soft shell jacket. We started off with our crampons on – which was great as we avoided the agony of having to struggle getting them on somewhere on the glacier in the dark.

After about 45 minutes we crossed a rocky area with a bit of scrambling and it was time to rope up – we were well onto the glacier. SH led a rope with J, T and me; H led the other rope with M and TF. Z and C were on their own rope. Z did decide to wear something other than his kilt for the summit day.

I could feel myself slipping into that zen like state of a steady pace where focusing on putting one foot in front of the other is the only thing in your head. I’ve so frequently channeled our guide Ossy’s instruction to me on Cotopaxi in Ecuador that you have to find your own way up a mountain. This time I also repeated SH’s mantra – step purposefully. Surprising how these mountain directions do a lot for everyday life.

The trail was moderately sloped with a couple of flat platforms at 7000 and then at 8000 feet. There weren’t a lot of other groups but we were passed by some who were huffing and puffing – my goal was not to do that! The sun eventually rose and we could see the shadow of the mountain cast along the valley.

There were any number of crevasses that we had to wind our way around or step over, sometimes with the help of a snow bridge and sometimes without. The widest was perhaps 18 inches. They are eerie. You can see blue ice lining the sides and no bottom, and it looks like a fall would usher you into some completely other world.

The crater

We ultimately reached the crater. The mountain is still an active volcano but I wasn’t really aware of any sulfur; it certainly wasn’t anything like Cotopaxi. I was conserving my energy so didn’t walk over to look into it, but I did enjoy my salami bomb. I was making a big point of eating a lot as I know in the past I have failed to do so and that does not work well in the mountains. In the meantime, I learned later that both J and M were feeling unwell, but what troopers! They soldiered on without a word of complaint and still with appreciation of what we were experiencing.

Finally we reached the so-called Roman Wall, unclear why it was so named, but it provided the source for a running series of jokes about the ancient Romans and their visit to Mount Baker. The Roman Wall is indeed steep; it is really the head wall of the mountain and considered the crux – that is, the hardest part. It’s the part I’d been dreading. It averages about 40 degrees according to what I’ve read, and starts at about 9750 feet.

The first part is a series of switchbacks that nicely ameliorated the steep slope. I’ve always said you can climb most anything with enough switchbacks. But near the top, they cease and there’s a straight vertical climb. Kick into the step of the person before you, step up, and repeat. Twenty five or so straight up feet of this. A few more switchbacks and suddenly you’re back on a relatively flat area with the summit not far away.

The summit is a small 50 foot high or so mound that protrudes off the flat area. Unfortunately I kept having the image of a pimple, which does not appropriately capture the grandeur of the view or experience. We all collapsed for a few minutes and I took my obligatory yoga pictures – but couldn’t wait to start up the final steps to the summit. It was about 8 hours since we’d started our jaunt.

The views were spectacular, as the photos show. And I once again had that top of the world feeling, that exhilaration that I’ve never really been able to capture anywhere but a summit.

I later found out that TF’s parents were from South Africa and in the early 1950s, when they were in their 20s and had been married for four years, had travelled to England, bought a 1933 London taxi for 50 pounds, and proceeded to travel 6,000 miles throughout Europe, camping along the way in their taxi. So many people asked them what they were doing they painted the facts about their journey on the outside of the vehicle – the media picked it up and the taxi became known as their traveling suitcase and they the “traveling suitcase couple.”

What a spirit of adventure! I’d say that TF – and all of us on this trip – were carrying on a bit of that legacy, even at much more advanced ages. I’m sure TF’s parents would approve.

But as I’ve frequently said before here, what goes up must come down – and so it was with this trip also. That’s for next time.

Back in the Saddle – Mount Baker Part One

It was the afternoon before the trek/climb. After visits with family and friends – and an absolutely gigantic lunch in Gig Harbor (perhaps I am taking the idea of carbo loading too far) – we got an Uber and headed off to the Georgetown Inn in the Georgetown area of South Seattle. Known for being “gritty,” there are a lot of breweries and some interesting restaurants, but it is a long way from gentrification. The hotel had been recommended by our guiding company, but the desk clerk still seemed surprised to see our two very large backpacks walk into the lobby.

We located an Italian restaurant called Mezzanotte in what looked like a deconstructed building. Three levels of crumbling brick walls, ceiling tin covering some of them, and lots of people sitting outside. We were just as happy to sit inside and enjoy our fancy pasta – mine with king oyster mushroom Raghu and J’s with a very peppery sauce. We walked briefly around the neighborhood and back to our perfectly acceptable hotel – if a little noisy due to some bizarre mechanical noises that clicked and clacked throughout the night.

We woke up at 5:30 and met S, our friend from Alaska who was part of our Elbrus and Stok Kangri expeditions, in the lobby. We all ubered off to the Mountain Madness office, accompanied by three very large packs. The MM office is in a small house and there seemed to be at least three trips all packing up in various areas outdoors. Fortunately we found our correct group (I suppose otherwise we might have inadvertently gone ice climbing or something).

We met our fellow climbers – T, who is S’s friend and a pilot, two women from Canada (about my age or a bit older), and our guides, SH and H. Having nicely packed our packs, we now had to completely unpack, and lay everything out on the ground so our guides could confirm we had what we needed and left behind what we didn’t need. Apparently all of us had panicked when we got the packing video only two days before, which had led to multiple unexpected last minute purchases such as glacier glasses and sun hoodies! Two items, by the way, that I was very glad to have.

Everyone ended up leaving behind at least some items. I ditched my rain pants and second pair of pants. We reloaded our packs (my guess is mine was about 32-33 pounds), and met our porters, C, a Montana State student who was really serious about the mountains , and Z, a mid 20s exmilitary guy who was really serious about his sugar addiction. Z became best known on the trip for his hiking kilt – all he needed was a sporran!

After our packing and repacking extravaganza, we all loaded into the van, packs atop and in the back. We were enjoying trading travel stories with S, when just outside of Seattle he received a call to let him know there was a family medical emergency. S understandably felt he had to return to Alaska and pick up his wife so they could go where they were needed, so he ended up taking an Uber back to the airport. What a disappointment – this had been one of his bucket list trips. His friend T was a super good sport about it, and things were greatly eased by the fact that we really did have a congenial group.

We started off yet again, making a few bathroom and snack breaks. Z proceeded to sample every variety of junk food known to man (or at least available in Washington State), and I even found myself buying a large chocolate bar. Maybe it’s contagious.

Finally we turned off onto a series of dirt roads, gaining altitude over some teeth shattering potholes that sent the whole van rattling. We entered the Mt. Baker National Recreation Area, and traveled along more dirt roads, ultimately meeting up with all the vans and cars of other Mt. Baker adventurers. Vehicles were parked way down the road, but we were totally lucky and someone vacated a spot right by the trailhead. One final bathroom break in our last real bathroom and we were off!

Our merry band

The trail starts off as an easy walk, even with a crushed gravel trail in some spots, but rapidly starts a somewhat unrelenting slope up. There are a fair number of dried out rocky river beds to navigate, tree roots to clamber over, and stone steps to climb. You first hike alongside the towering dark evergreens that stalk the trail; after some elevation gain the trees give way to shorter growth and meadows spotted with pink, purple, and white bell shaped flowers. I would have loved to use my plant identification app but there was no cell service and we weren’t stopping much anyway.

After a while, we reached the portion of the trail known as “Railroad Grade.” It’s a very skinny, straight ridge line that leads to Sandy Camp, which was to be our home for the next three nights. It is on an incline, although not particularly steep, but there is a lot of exposure. One side is a sheer drop down of rock and gravel caused by the receding Easton Glacier; the other side is a slightly less sheer drop into a wild flower covered meadow. I would definitely have preferred to fall meadow side, but neither option was very appealing. At times the path was barely a foot wide and you had to navigate over rock. At some point it must have been wider, making the trail look like a railroad track – hence the name, I presume.

Once we finished the Railroad Grade it was a short jaunt to camp (although maybe jaunt isn’t the right word when you’re lugging heavy packs). Sandy Camp is a small bowl quite close to the edge of the glacier and partly on and off snow banks. It’s somewhat sheltered from the wind – although wind was almost nonexistent while we were there anyway.

SH and H set up tents and we helped shovel snow to flatten out the foundation. As the temperature warmed and snow melted we ultimately found ourselves camping on quasi-islands. SH had to move his entire tent the next day because it turned out he was on a pond! C and Z, in the meantime, had to hike back to the lot to pick up their personal gear for the mountain and return again that same night. What a long day! Altitude gain was about 2300 feet.

After we settled in, we had a dinner of Mac’n cheese and smoked salmon and hiked up to a nearby bluff to see a spectacular sunset. On one side are the majestic mountains of the Cascades, on the other, the glassy ocean with Vancouver Island in the background. The setting sun backlit the clouds and snow capped mountains turning everything a soft apricot. It was a good omen for the next day and our upcoming summit attempt.

Florida by Rooftop Tent – The Many Uses of a Little Black Dress

They don’t say a little black dress can be worn anywhere for nothing. A case in point.

The other week I was invited to speak to the Florida Young Lawyers division about mental toughness (which I call resilience) and my mountain climbing adventures. Having rejected the urge to show up in full battle gear – crampons, helmet, boots and the like – I decided my REI black travel dress would convey the necessary formality (these young lawyers were much more dressed up than we older lawyers tend to be) while still demonstrating that mountain “savoir faire.”

The event was in Tampa, and our plan for afterwards was to drive southeast toward the heart of Florida to a Hipcamp named Camp Catfish. It advertises itself as one of the top Hipcamps in Florida for 2021. It was a primitive site – no water, portapotties or any amenities (if you consider a port a potty an amenity). Just four leveled off pull in sites on a piece of property bordering the Peace River.

The drive to Camp Catfish took us along two lane county roads wending their way through fields of crops and citrus groves. I know Florida’s citrus industry is on the wane, but you wouldn’t know it when you’re in the midst of acres of orange trees.

Finally our GPS – yes, we had no address, only GPS coordinates- took us to a dirt road. Nestled along side were a few small farms and dwelling places – one was a “peace bus”. Truly looked like a spot for those living off the so-called grid.

We reached the end of the road and pulled into the campsite, marked by a Camp Catfish sign. Each site was large, with plenty of privacy. J and I immediately set to work – even though we’ve gotten a lot faster there’s still a lot of set up to do, and J insists on setting up an awning even for a one night stay. Hopefully some time we can go for two nights and enjoy the fruit of our labors.

Now what I haven’t mentioned is that I saw absolutely no point in changing clothes – hence I found my self erecting a privacy tent and making up the roofnest in a black dress! Well, I did change into tennis shoes. Like I said, those little black dresses go anywhere.

I did find something else to wear for a lovely short hike to the Peace River on the Hipcamp property the next morning. The river is home to many fossils – sharks teeth, armadillo plates, and the like – and the other campers were taking full advantage. They floated sieves in the river, dug up portions of the muddy riverbed and strained it through. They also had the biggest tent I’ve ever seen and I wondered if they were actually professional fossil hunters. After all, it was only $10 per night!

The hike itself took us through hobbit land. Covered in emerald green ferns, gentle rises and falls, and a canopy of old oaks.

I left the best for last. The night was moonless. There were no clouds or light pollution of any sort and the sky was embroidered with a thick weave of brilliant stars. Peace River. A wishful hope in these times.

Winding Down 2021 – Adventures in a Rooftop Tent

This blog post was supposed to be about our first actual out of the driveway camping experience in our rooftop tent (called a RTT by those in the know). But with 2021 rolling out in as haphazard a manner as it rolled in, this post is similarly going to have to careen across many topics. Think of the ball in a pinball machine going this way and that – perhaps a good analogy for the year.

To go back a few weeks – we did indeed get to adventure for one night at a Hipcamp site on the north shore of Lake Apopka. It was a fairly short drive from Orlando – light industrial areas morphed into light agricultural areas, anchored by what I learned is one of the largest blueberry processing facilities in the country. Who knew.

This particular campsite is notable for its whimsical decorations – LED dinosaur lights adorned our spot, and odd remnants of old vehicles and other objects (like a swan boat!) dotted the landscape.

The RTT experience itself was great. There’s a sense of security in sleeping ten feet above the ground, and the views are magnificent. The campfire was great and dinner would have been also had we remembered any utensils. I found myself googling “how to eat baked beans without silverware.” After rejecting the idea of whittling a fork (we didn’t have a knife either!) we resorted to using the tops of our water bottles as scoops.

The next morning was misty and grey. There was a hiking trail just across the street. Huge elephant ear plants around our tent and gone to the wild citrus made us feel we’d entered a world far from 21st century Florida.

But despite our plans for further adventure in 2021, the world of work kicked in and the next RTT inhabitants were Daughter A and fiancé N – in the driveway! Their sojourn – one night only – was occasioned by a Covid/omicrom outbreak among yours truly, J and daughter S (who we suspect imported this strain from a brief trip to San Francisco). And yes, all of us are fully vaccinated and boosted. We did, however, ultimately manage to cordon off the house so A and N were able to sleep indoors.

Fortunately we have a large porch and the contaminated ones were able to sit at the bottom part while still socializing with the others who held court on the top part. Our kn95 masks were de rigeur. Thank God the weather in Florida was compatible with outdoor living, and thus far we’ve limited the outbreak to the original three. But I must say I have rarely spent this much time outside – even on a camping trip. We spent a lot of time watching TikTok videos of other families in similar straits.

Note the “uppers” and the “downers”

So, J and I will shortly see off the last of our holiday houseguests and plan to spend NYE in our covid imposed bubble instead of at the fancy dinner we’d planned at a local restaurant with M and S.

2021 had its moments – A and N’s engagement, Long’s Peak and Colorado, a family Thanksgiving extravaganza, and some great visits with my parents, among them. And let’s not forget the vaccines! I have a very definite feeling that without them I would be facing something very different than a head cold and fatigue.

Here’s to 2022! And to adventure, whether in a rooftop tent in the driveway or beyond.

Long’s Peak – Down Down Down in Colorado

Since you can’t stay at the top of a mountain forever (or near the top, in our case), it was time to start the clamber down through the rock boulders. Being significantly shorter than the others in our group, I have developed a wedge yourself into a crack, slide down, squat and start it all over again technique. It’s not fast but it’s undoubtedly safe. The sun was scorching down on the reddish rocks and we were all glad when we finally reached the Boulderfield. J managed to get totally dehydrated but was better after some electrolyte tablets.

Once we packed up the tents and ourselves, we finally got on the “road”. We had another 4 plus miles to our next campsite, but at least the trajectory was downward, which certainly helped ease the weight of the packs. We climbed over and through lots of rock, and then emerged onto a broad expanse of rocky grasslands. We stopped for lunch where we were joined by another hiker we had met at the Boulderfield- he had gotten to about 100 feet below the summit but had to stop at that point because of ice. A number of large and well fed looking marmots also participated in our dining activities – or attempted to!

We reached the Boulder Brooks campsite in decent time. It’s situated by a rushing stream and consists of three very spread apart sites. Of course, as soon as we got the tents up it started to pour with a hard rain, which seemed to be the pattern of this trip. J and I hunkered down in the tent and I finished my book. My kindle is truly worth the extra few ounces on trips like these.

The location was beautiful and I sat outside for a bit in the early evening. Unfortunately a multitude of mosquitoes found it equally enjoyable and ultimately chased me back into the relative safety of my tent, where an early bedtime – combined with more rain – made for a very good nights sleep.

The next morning our tents and any possessions stored outside were all quite soggy. We had stayed dry inside but the exteriors were soaked. After a pancake breakfast we dried everything out as best we could and then started a three mile trek out to the pick up point.

The trail followed the same creek we had camped by and we criss-crossed it several times on narrow log bridges just above the water. A far cry from the high swinging bridges of the Himalayas. The Douglas firs soon gave way to silvery white barked aspens. Although they are beautiful I appear to be allergic to them and snuffled and snorted my way the last few miles to the pick up point.

Made it!

The guide company van met us, and delivered a gourmet picnic lunch which we devoured at a nearby state park. The drive back to Estes Park went quickly, and we were deposited at the back of The Stanley Hotel, of The Shining fame, where we were to spend the night. S, J and I were each given a large black garbage bag to serve as a receptacle for the by now extremely dirty contents of our backpacks. The rooms weren’t ready yet so we and our very muddy and smelly possessions found a discrete corner on the porch of the hotel to while away a few hours. We met back up with M and her sister D, who politely refrained from too much commentary on our bedraggled state.

I couldn’t help but think that a haunted hotel was just the right spot to conclude the first part of a magical trip.

Stanley Hotel. Redrum.

Long’s Peak – Through the Keyhole

See the Keyhole in the background

I felt like Alice. Going through the Keyhole was as though we’d walked through the looking glass, only to find ourselves in the netherworld. But we aren’t there yet on this journey – let me resume where I left off, at the Goblins Forest.

We woke up on time, about 6 am after an adequate nights sleep – except for the part where I thought J’s shadow as he reached for a drink of water was a bear…

After a filling breakfast of eggs, bacon, and potatoes we started hiking about 8:10. The first section was what we had done the day before – but this time with over 35 pound packs. As I had feared, an 18 inch step up is a lot harder with 35 pounds on your back – especially as you are working your way up a couple of thousand feet of elevation gain.

It took about five hours to get to the next campsite – the infamous Boulderfield, the real start of the Keyhole Route. We started by disassembling our tents etc, and once fully laden with our packs and the ever constant bear cans, started to hike, up, up, and more up. We made decent time to the junction we’d reached the day before, but definitely slowed down after that and as we went above the tree line.

Weather was moving in, and we all got out our rain gear. The sky turned progressively grayer as the thunderclouds rolled in. The rain came first. Then, just as we reached an even more exposed traverse, the hail started. This was larger than the Twin Sisters hail – almost buckshot sized pellets aiming at us as if fired from shotguns.

The stone steps kept going up and up. I only kept going by focusing on my office building stair training – each time there was a brief leveling out I pretended I was on a landing.

Eventually the stairs turned into an uphill field of boulders, and after a few wrong turns we finally made our way to the “campsite.” It consisted of a square gravel and sand base outlined by small rock walls. Stark, to say the least. No vegetation to speak of except for a few clumps of grass peeking up between the rocks – leading one to wonder what in the world all the marmots are surviving on.

Once there, we got the tents up just before the next rain storm arrived. J was very dehydrated and we just hunkered down in the tent. I amused myself by trying to video the tent interior as he slept. Eventually our guide T delivered carrots, hummus, and cheese to each tent for a mid afternoon lunch – which revived J considerably.

Finally the rain stopped and we emerged from our tents to take in our surroundings. Our guides had suggested in lieu of the Keyhole we could climb Mt Lady Washington if we wanted. After we asked what it looked like and they pointed to a high pile of what can only be described as a rubble heap, there was not even any discussion among the three of us. The Keyhole it was!

We were up at 4:30 am on what appeared to be a true bluebird day. The Keyhole is visible from the Boulderfield and each clamber up another boulder brought it closer and closer. Just below the Keyhole is a stone monument to the first woman to summit Longs Peak in winter – she died on the way down.

I wasn’t even aware of the precise moment I went through the Keyhole – it’s a steep bit and you’re looking down. But once through, suddenly a previously unseen mountain range spreads out before you, towering over a dark, stony valley. It was as if we had entered another world, some magical kingdom populated by giants and goblins and ghosts.

We ventured out onto the Ledges, the next section of the route. There’s a fair degree of exposure, but I felt comfortable- able to lean into the wall and move fluidly. We followed the bulls eye markers almost to the end of the Ledges section, which is marked by a piece of rebar. At that point you have to step around a fairly intense rock – it was slippery and you have to move around it without being able to see to the other side. It was clear our guides weren’t going to let the 60 year olds under their charge go any further.

But the elation of reaching that other world – paired with a lot of adrenaline and endorphins, I’m sure – brought back all my summit experiences. It always makes it worth it.

But – we couldn’t stay there forever. The descent had to begin.

Long’s Peak and a Little Bit of Karma

Lily Lake, Rocky Mountain National Park

Flush with our success on Twin Sisters, we decided that our final day before the Longs Peak push should be easy. We were to meet our guide that afternoon, pack up, and generally do all the things you need to do before a four day backpacking trip – like laundry.

Hence, we started our day with a gentle couple of miles walk around Lily Lake, which is at the base of Twin Sisters and shares the same parking lot.

But the best laid plans and all that. After completing the circuit it became clear that M had a knee injury, probably exacerbated on Twin Sisters, that simply wasn’t going to permit her to do the Keyhole Route. After batting about various options, ultimately her sister, who was in dire need of her own vacation from the pandemic, was able to fly out from the west coast. S also managed to wangle the only free hotel room in Estes Park over the July 4th weekend. So while we missed having our full foursome for Long’s Peak, at least karma kicked in and a good time could be had by all. Just another life lesson – roll with the punches. I’ve never been quite sure what that means but it seems apropos here.

Late in the afternoon we met our guide in the parking lot of the gear store. It turned out we were also getting a trainee guide, who was extremely experienced in her own right (e.g., such things as living in the wilds building trails for six months). So with a ratio of 2 guides to 3 hikers we thought we should be well set.

However, in yet another one of those moments to test your flexibility, our guide, T, informed us that there was still significant snow in the Trough section of the route, and the rangers were warning folks not to try to summit without crampons and ice axes, which we did not have. We had always known this was a possibility as we were early in the season, but still….anyway, the ultimate decision was that we would simply go as far as was safe.

The next day dawned, and about 8 am a large van rolled up, piled with food, tent parts, sleeping bags, bear cans, and various and sundry other items to be crammed into our already full packs. We were mostly using the trekking company’s gear, on the theory that was easier than lugging it from Florida.

The night before J, S, and I had already eliminated about half of what we had planned to take, once we saw the size of our packs. Mine was 70 liters, J and S were both carrying 90 liters. Did I really need two pairs of hiking pants? No. How about that extra shirt? Absolutely not.

T left us to our own devices to begin to stuff the packs. She quickly realized that while J and I may have climbed a lot of mountains, our trips have typically been supported, and animals or other people help carry stuff on these very long treks. This became very evident when J managed to explode his water bladder while it was in his pack before we had even left the Airbnb. It was a good thing we had a dryer.

By the way, I had always wondered what a bear can was. For those of you with a similar lack of knowledge – it is a large plastic barrel with a locking top that should be left about 100 feet or so from a campsite. In it goes food and anything with a scent, even toothpaste. Bears are apparently not very discriminating.

Still fresh at the start!

Packs finally packed at weights of 35 pounds, 43 pounds, and 47 pounds, we were underway. Once at the trailhead the first destination was a couple of miles to Goblins Forest campsite, elevation 10,120 feet. It was slow going with our first day of heavy pack carrying; we went up, up, up the pine and fir lined trail and suddenly were at camp. We were the only campers there – well, except for the mosquitoes.

After setting up camp, the plan was to hike, sans packs, to Chasm Lake. We would be hiking that same route the next day, only with our big packs. There were multiple boulders to pick your way through and over, extremely high steps, and I spent a lot of time imagining what this was going to be like with an extra 35 pounds and an additional couple of miles to go. Daunting, to say the least.

This was an easy part of the trail

We didn’t make it quite to Chasm Lake but turned around after a respectable distance, at about 11,000 feet. Dinner that night was a chicken curry. We, and the mosquitoes, all settled in. We knew the next day was going to be five or so miles, at altitude, with weight, on our way to Boulderfields, elevation 12,760.

My journal entry ends with the cryptic note – “I’m feeling the altitude more than I usually do.” More to come.

S at Goblins Forest

Colorado – Up, Up, and Away in Estes Park

On the road

After the angst of packing and extracting ourselves from work, we were finally on our way to the Rockies. Despite all the horror stories of Uber unavailability and cost, we obtained one with no issue and made it to the airport with time to spare. In fact, we were there ahead of M and S, which is an unusual circumstance, to say the least.

We had a relatively uneventful flight to Denver, which is always a good thing. The airport entry into Denver is surprisingly industrial, and looks more like Elizabeth City, New Jersey in the ‘80s than a gateway to the Rockies (no offense meant toward New Jersey). It’s not helped by the massive interstate construction project that has created a literal bombscape for much of the way.

But very shortly the cloudscapes of mountains start to appear in the distance. We took a toll-free route that led us right through Boulder (I kept thinking of Mork and Mindy), where we had a nice lunch of ceviche tostados at Wahoos. Not sure why I opted for a salad with tofu.

It wasn’t too far from Boulder to Estes Park, at elevation 7522’. The directions to our Airbnb were confusing, to say the least, but after many twists and turns, largely centered around looking for the Bank of Estes – which was the main landmark – we found our way to a very nice small house, just a short walk to town, with mountain views and a great night vista of the illuminated Stanley Hotel.

Estes Park itself is populated by throngs of tourists of all shapes and sizes, small restaurants, and an extraordinary number of candy shops (indulgence in which did not seem like a good idea as a precursor to Longs Peak). There’s a lovely river walk that goes along the banks of the Big Thompson and Fall Rivers, and ultimately we ended up at a pizza place just off the river for dinner. The pizza offered some truly unusual toppings. I treated myself to smoked trout, capers, and cream cheese, while S experienced a little bit of Hawaii with pineapple and red sauce. J and M had something more conventional.

The next day it was time to start some acclimatization hiking in preparation for the Keyhole Route. S had picked out the Twin Sisters trail, which reaches just over 11,000 feet with about 2475’ of elevation gain. Rocky Mountain National Park has timed reserved entries from 9 to 3, so it’s key to get there early – and that’s a necessity for Colorado weather anyway – as you’ll see.

We hiked up a dirt road from the parking area to the trail head. The beautifully maintained trail starts in tall Colorado pines and firs, with a sprinkling of wildflowers. Each uphill stretch was met with a period of relatively flat recovery, a far cry from the straight up treks in the Balkans.

We finally broke through the tree line and the terrain turned rocky, but it was still easy to pick our way through the boulders. Walking through clouds we reached the saddle between the two small summit peaks that were a few feet higher and just a short scramble. But we decided the saddle was summit enough as we started to hear the first claps of thunder.

Being good Floridians and heeding the warnings about exposure and lightning we decided it was time to go down. We were a little concerned about the youth group that we encountered close to the top. They’d broken up into several dispersed groups and the last we saw of them the youngest seemed to be scrambling to the summit as the rain started. Apparently they didn’t take to heart our admonitions that they might want to think about starting down.

Just as we approached the tree line, the real rain started. We managed to get our raincoats on but not our rainpants. Soon the rain turned to pellets of hail, which was to become a weather theme for our trip, although we didn’t know it then. It turns out hail really hurts when it starts to hit your face and hands.

J and I moved fast through three different sessions of hail, all the way to the bottom where, naturally, the sun was now emerging from the clouds. M and S were slightly ahead and we were all soaked. Fortunately the house had good laundry equipment which we took full advantage of.

We had a late lunch at a very informal spot called The Local. I tried the elk stew, which seems to be a specialty of the area. It was good, but frankly anything would have tasted good by then.

We managed to relax in the afternoon as more rain poured down, and did some additional gear shopping (which seems to be an integral part of such trips). I scored a great $13 long sleeved hiking shirt. It helps when you can fit into a boys large.

Despite large lunches we forced ourselves to choke down a good dinner at Claire’s, a nice restaurant where we could sit at the bar without a wait. We had read that Twin Sisters was a great training hike for Longs Peak, and were pretty pleased with our prowess. We were all feeling very ready to go. Were we?

Enchanted Austin and a Scramble Down a Rock

We were welcomed with a rainbow.

Rolling green hills, lightning storms approaching, wildflowers edging the two lane roads. While I could choose to write about 18 miles plodding down the West Orange Trail a couple of weeks ago, it’s more fun to remember this past weekend in Austin, Texas.

Air travel is once again a thing- I reread my blog posts from last summer with some sense of bemusement. How quickly we forget isolation – except for the fact rental cars are more expensive than plane tickets (and those are going up too) and the ubiquitous Uber drivers seem to have all disappeared.

Husband J and I must have increased the median age in East Austin, home of daughter S, by at least a couple of decades. East Austin is inhabited by hordes of 20 somethings scootering between watering holes that are interspersed with eating establishments catering to any variety of tastes.

After a lovely, if late, dinner at the French restaurant Justine’s, on Saturday S and her boyfriend Z took us adventuring in the Hill Country, which starts just outside Austin.

First stop was Enchanted Rock State Park. The route there took us off the interstates and onto a series of two lane roads winding through the hills. It’s been raining and the roadsides are splattered with a palate of colors – yellow and burgundy tickseeds interrupted by sudden bursts of purple thistle. The park itself is centered around a very large granite “mountain” protruding up 472 feet which is surrounded by smaller rock structures and cliffs. The way up is straightforward if a little steep in parts. Easy when it’s dry, but I can imagine if wet it would be extremely slick. The top is pocked with carved out pools in which little oases of grass and cactus flourish, as do funny little water bugs that scat about on the bottom.

After enjoying the views we plowed downward – not paying a lot of attention to direction on the theory it was all down. But shortly we realized we were descending the wrong side of the granite mound and corrected our course – not, however, by returning to the regular trail. Instead we found ourselves facing a decent little scramble that required hands, and in my case an assist from Z as the drop was quite a bit further than my short little legs could manage.

A bit nerve wracking as it’s been so long we’ve been on a true rock face but what better training for Longs Peak. On the other hand I felt strong and except for the mental challenge it was reaffirming to feel I could have done the hike several times in a row.

Once we rejoined those who had chosen a more conventional descent it was time to drive 40 minutes farther, onto Southhold Farm and Cellar. S had treated us all to a wine tasting and small plate experience at one of Texas’s up and coming wineries. We enjoyed 4 different wines with wonderful names such as The Lovers and the Dreamers while watching flashes of lightning in the distance as a storm rolled in across the broad green valley. And I kept wondering about the elegantly dressed woman, wearing a large sunhat and long dress, sitting alone drinking wine on one of the swings. She looked as though she was in the opening scene of a romantic comedy.

A drive back to Austin and Z demonstrated his cooking talents with seared duck breast over a mushroom risotto. A fitting end to an enchanted day!

12, er, 13 miles….Cady Way Cadences

Beginning the Cady Way

Recent training hikes have exhibited peculiarities just odd enough to suggest the world is out of kilter. Perhaps it’s the general euphoria of creeping out of the slough in which we’ve all been dwelling during the year of Covid.

But a week ago or so, J and I decided it was time to return to the Cady Way Trail for a full 12 miles. After all, June 30 and Colorado is getting ever closer. Encumbered by 30 pound packs, we set off, if not bright and early, at least at the respectable hour of 10 (or so). I had a workshop lined up at 4 that I didn’t want to miss. We knew the weather was going to be relatively cool, so that seemed eminently doable, and we were even ambitiously talking about how we’d fit in a quick lunch at one of our favorite breweries.

But alas, things did not turn out as planned. Turned out my Charge 4 Fitbit lost its GPS Bluetooth connection (who else has this chronic and annoying problem) and was underestimating how far we’d walked. Combine that with the fact that neither of us actually recalled whether the six mile mark was on the other side of the concrete mixing plants or by the little bridge where the two teenagers were murdered. Yes, Cady Way has its own sordid stories, mixed with industrial charm.

Anyway, we plowed along, blisters getting ever worse, when suddenly we realized we were at the Seminole County line, by a new public restroom and trailhead, and about to embark on the Cross Seminole Trail! The mileage marker read 7.2.

At that point we also realized I’d forgotten to pack the plastic bag with the energy bars . We were in good shape for water, but not a bite to eat. Plus there are no shops for miles and J had left his wallet behind anyway.

At that point it was also equally clear that we were going to have to achieve a very rapid pace if I was to have a prayer of attending my workshop on time. We exchanged barely a word on the return trip except for my pointing out that any cyclists (of which there were many) could just go around me as my energies were completely concentrated on putting one foot in front of the other. Most mysterious was the biking couple who seemed to pass us, only to show up again behind us and pass us yet again. It was as though they knew of some Cady Way Trail wormhole which we certainly could have used by that point.

Fortunately it turned out we hadn’t started at the absolute beginning of the trail and had only walked an extra mile and a half or so, making the total trek somewhere just over 13.

We got back home with no time to spare. I grabbed a yoghurt and attended the workshop while sitting on my yoga mat nursing my blistered feet.

After, I felt I more than deserved a martini while we sat on the porch. Only suddenly to feel a sharp sting on my forehead and realize I’d been bitten by a wasp. Not our most successful training hike. But let’s hope all that bad karma manifests itself now and not at 14000 feet while class III scrambling on the Keyhole Route at Longs Peak. Maybe we will be too high up for wasps.