After our excessively long summit day, I slept soundly, which is not as easy as it sounds when you are overtired and sleeping on a slab of ice in a sleeping bag on an ancient thermarest pad. I’m not exaggerating- when we took the tents down we discovered that’s exactly what we were all camping on. See photo!
After more oatmeal – which I was definitely getting tired of – we reverse hiked our way back to the van, starting with the Railroad Grade. This time, instead of wearing my mountaineering boots I chose to wear my brand new Merrill’s, breaking one of the cardinal rules of hiking – don’t go a long trek in brand new boots. The downward slog caused multiple top of toe blisters and no less than five toenails paid the ultimate price.
But I digress. The real marvel of the Railroad grade, which, you will recall, is a slim reed of a trail with precipices on either side, was my mountaineering boot miracle. T had tied them to the sides of my pack, where they inelegantly protruded out in an apparently not very secured way. At the steepest and narrowest part of the trail, I could feel one fall off. I wisely thought, well that’s it, there’s no way I’m going after it – only to have said boot drop right at my feet with nary a roll to the side. With luck like that I really thought I should buy a lottery ticket.
The other odd part of our hike out was that at one point J, who was still not feeling well, managed to pull ahead of me. It had to do with a river crossing that I took my time at….while another group was well behind. For what I’m sure was a brief few minutes, although it felt longer, the trail started to look terribly unfamiliar. I called out to John to no avail, and started to convince myself I must have taken a wrong turn – not that I even recalled seeing any paths veering off. Finally, some other hikers walked by and assured me I was indeed on the way to the parking lot. I was relatively sure that there could only be one such parking lot on Mt. Baker, so that calmed my frazzled nerves.
We finally all made it back to the parking lot, in a state of bedragglement. After all, we’d been wearing the same clothes for four days, some of us had been ill, and we were all footsore. We were too late for our planned celebratory lunch, so we stopped at a Food Coop in Mount Vernon, where we had a very elegant little picnic sitting on a wall in the store parking lot under the overpass.
After surviving Seattle’s quite notable traffic we made it back to the Mountain Madness office where our little band of adventurers broke up and went our respective ways. We’d all bonded on the trip – one of the great things about mountaineering is the relationships you can form with a good group of people. And another is the relationship you form with the mountain. You don’t climb it – it lets you do so.
I had been apprehensive about putting my crampons back on. But this trip confirmed that thrill is still there. Now we just have to pick our next adventure.
My goal of cranking out our entire Mount Baker trip in a few weeks has been waylaid by work, as so many things tend to be. But fear not; we haven’t been stuck on the summit forever – we did in fact make a not very elegant but nonetheless effective descent.
One thing I inadvertently omitted from the account of our trip up to the summit was the eerie, almost tropical breeze that accompanied us at the beginning of our summit night. It was a harbinger because heat was the theme of the way down.
Of course, the first challenge of the descent was to reverse our way down the Roman Wall. As the smallest of our team of four, I was assigned the front of the rope, which meant I had the responsibility for picking out the footsteps we would follow on the way down. I had last led a rope line on Mt Elbrus and I was terrified as guide S short roped us (so he could control the rope better) and I cast a look down at the truly steep slope before me. He’d done the same short rope up the Roman Wall as well, which gives you some inkling of its incline.
It was much harder to get into a steady pace on the switchbacks on the way down, as we had very varying speeds on descent. To my surprise, the really vertical part was actually easier than the switchbacks – it required a boot plunge into already carved steps that you slid into – some almost 18 to 24 inches – but they felt fairly secure. The only problem was that so many other ice axes had already traveled that way when you dug your axe in you were just as likely to hit an existing hole and get absolutely no purchase.
I’d forgotten how much I liked leading a rope. The Roman Wall demanded absolute concentration and my legs felt shaky at times – nerves – but that complete absorption in the moment is one of the things I love best about mountain climbing (and glaciers, in particular). As our guide said – every step had to be purposeful. I’m afraid there are no photos of this. My hands were otherwise occupied.
We made it down the Roman Wall in decent time and then reversed positions and I was now at the end of a long rope. Our guide, SH, was concerned about speed because temperatures were climbing and water was getting low also. Apparently my Florida heat training helped because I got down with water to spare.
But this is where the different trekking speeds really slowed us down. If I went too fast the rope would pool around J’s legs and he’d trip so I had to keep stopping and we never got a good downward rhythm going. It took almost five hours to get down (recall it had taken about eight to ascend), and it was an enormous relief once we could unrope and slip and slide down the last little bit.
Crevasses presented a few adventures on the way down also. The glacier is always moving and the cracks in the snow were no longer where they were or the same width. In fact, although I didn’t see it, T reports to me that M had a “crevasse crash.” The snow at the edge of one deep crevasse had gotten slushier, and you needed to dig in your crampons before hopping across it to get traction. As M approached, she couldn’t get a good foothold, and, worried about breaking her leg if one foot slipped in, chose to dive headfirst across the crevasse with full momentum. According to T, she quickly uprighted herself, sat up, and started laughing.
Back in camp everyone was exhausted. Poor J was still enduring whatever stomach issue was plaguing him, and M was also having to cope with feeling unwell. We had a latish dinner of spaghetti and needless to say, all were asleep at an extremely early hour.
Next up – the hike out, the miracle of my mountaineering boot drop, and had I actually gotten myself lost somewhere on the trail system of Mount Baker.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
This is going to be short. And no photos. I’m afraid I’ve given FromSwampToSummit short shrift recently. A and N’s wedding presented its own summit; followed by adventures in Vermont (think that old Bob Newhart show), and on mountains and around race tracks in Saratoga Springs. So much content to come!
But in the meantime – we leave for Mt Baker next Wednesday. The hike in starts Friday; Saturday is skill training (which we need since it’s been 4 years since we donned our crampons), and we should leave about 2 or 3 am Sunday morning for the summit. Hike out on Monday.
At 10,880 feet Baker is the third higheat mountain in Washington State and extremely glaciated. While it is way lower than many mountains we’ve climbed it’s the most elevation gain in one day – 4500 feet.
So, now the typical pre mountain jitters are surrounding me. Did I train enough? Will I be able to get my crampons on? (Pointy side down as my brother says.) What if there’s a crevasse and I can’t get across it? What about some of the creeks to ford on day 1? What if I’m so slow on day 1 they say I can’t go up the summit? And, God forbid, what if I step on the rope as we are going up the summit? (Those of you have climbed understand the shame that brings.)
Anyway, I’ve done this enough to know that fear is a healthy thing – as long as it doesn’t become overwhelming. So here’s to staying in the present, one step at a time, and a good balance of being a tortoise most of the time and a hare when necessary.
S looked at me bemusedly. “Really? You swore you were never again going multi day backpacking where you carry your own stuff after the slog up Long’s Peak.” His words resonated as I found myself buying my fifth or so back pack – this time a 70 liter one. It towers over me.
All it took was a late afternoon chat with SB, of Elbrus and Stok Kangri fame. Steps on the SummitThe Trek to Base Camp, Stok Kangri, Ladakh, India As we commiserated about our lack of adventure and travel over the pandemic, SB noted that Mt Baker in the northern cascades had always been on his bucket list. A few internet searches later we were all signed up for a Mountain Madness four day trip up Mt Baker’s Easton Glacier route in August.
In deference to our advancing age we are taking the slow route (relaxed, they call it, I guess like a fit of pants) and there are others who haul up the tents, cooking equipment etc. You “only” have to carry 30 or 35 pounds, but it’s too much bulk for my 53 liter pack.
So, it’s back to training for us. I did stairs twice last week and am forcing myself to run when I can stand it. J’s various Achilles issues seem to have resolved and he’s back to basketball.
But we are really hoping to get more outdoor hiking in….and yesterday was a good start with a beautiful walk in the Lake Proctor wilderness near Geneva, Florida with S and M. It’s a generally shady trail with Florida scrub on one side and views of a small lake on the other. The weather was spectacular- blue skies and in the 70s and we took our time and relished just being outdoors. There was even enough standing water to wade through and around to make S happy. Should all training hikes be so pleasant!
Our Mt Elbrus guide described Baker as a mini Elbrus so I guess it’s appropriate we are doing it with SB. Hopefully I’ve learned some things over the last 9 years and this time will make sure I have sun screen lip balm, not chapstick in my pocket.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?