...It started out as a sort of bucket list item, casually discussed amongst some friends. It soon turned real when some of them actually committed to it and started the planning. There was no turning back.
These friends are ones I've known for over 20 years. They were college and rugby mates of mine and we've kept in close touch ever since, gathering for reunions once or twice a year, along with several others from that crazy motley crew.
One of them, Neil, has been living in Colorado for a while. I've been out there skiing a few times with him but up until his wedding almost 2 years ago, I had not spent any warm weather time out there. So John, Tom, and I commit to joining Neil in a 5 day Colorado backcountry summer adventure. But wait....John, Tom, and I are sea level east coasters. The plan was to go hiking and camping into the backcountry for 3 days between 9,000 - 12,000 ft elevation and wrap it up with an attempt to summit Longs Peak, one of the most technical 14,000 ft climbs in Colorado.
The 2 months leading up to the trip consisted of a lot of biking, yoga, stand up paddling, and practice hikes with a 50 lb backpack where I could find some decent climbs. The final week leading up to departure consisted of taking a daily aspirin and uncomfortably drinking a lot of water to thin the blood and proactively combat altitude sickness. If I had not done all that, I most certainly would have been in trouble. It turns out us east coasters all did surprisingly well with the altitude, but had underestimated the pucker factor of climbing Longs Peak. Maybe it was better we didn't really know what we were in for.
After arriving late morning on our 1st day, we go for a short 2 hour hike in the hills of Lyons, CO followed by some river tubing down the St Vrain. We got the impression it would be a lazy river ride since we took a bag of beers and had on flip flops. This was the first real indication we got that when Neil says, "Hey, lets go check that out", it means you might want to turn around and go back from whence you came. His lovely wife warned us but we were like, "yeah...whatever".
The hike was more like a Lewis & Clark bushwhacking trek....cactus and all. And we weren't 100 yards down the river and all of us except Neil were already falling off our tubes, getting dunked, losing our flip flops, sunglasses, and beers down the river....DOH!!! The river wasn't so lazy after all....at least not lazy enough to chill with a brew in one hand. We had to actually focus on the river. But of course, thanks to Neil, it was a great adventure and was also his secret mad cap way to get us slowly acclimated to the altitude before we set off into the backcountry the next day.
One of the many waterfalls along the way
The next morning, we're packed and off for a big early morning breakfast in Nederland before hitting the trailhead. We entered the Indian Peaks Wilderness Area in Roosevelt National Forest by way of the Hessie Trailhead. We followed the Devils Thumb Trail up in elevation approx 6.5 miles the first day, had lunch by Jasper Lake, and set up camp right under the Devils Thumb peak and next to Devils Thumb Lake.
Devils Thumb...you can barely make out our tents at the bottom
Now, Neil is not into the whole Ramen noodles and freeze dried packs for camp eating. He brought the good stuff and we ate good. Our meals consisted of chicken, red peppers, onions, seasoning/spices, bacon/eggs, coffee, pork fried rice and veggies, sausage, cheese, sandwiches, etc. However, with all this food, we had to be extra vigilant about cleaning up well after eating and putting all food related items into the "bear bag". This included anything else that had odors...such as toothpaste. We would tie the bag high up between two trees far away from camp.
I suppose a bear could have still taken down the bag if he really tried hard enough, but at least it wouldn't be near us. For some strange reason, the bear warnings didn't really bother me. The biggest thing I was worried about was the lightning. Lightning is the number one killer of hikers/climbers in Colorado each summer, particularly as you get above the tree line and are left so exposed to the weather. There is always a good chance of some afternoons thunderstorms rolling across those mountains and the weather can change in an instant. We fortunately had great weather...not one rain drop until we were almost off the trail on our 3rd day. The days consisted of high 70s and it fell into the 40s at night.
John, Tom, Mac - heading up towards the Continental Divide
Our 2nd day consisted of hiking up and over the Continental Divide on the High Lonesome Trail. I looked up a description of this trail. It read "traverse across the western exposure of the Continental Divide to Rollins Pass. Rock cairns mark the intermittent path across the delicate alpine tundra. Cleverly camouflaged ptarmigan can frequently be discovered upon close examination of the lichen covered tundra rocks." OK....that was what I was going to say, but simply put, it was absolutely beautiful. There were wildflowers everywhere. It made you want to spin around in circles and sing, "The hills are alive, with the sound of....". OK, maybe not, but we talked about it. It was wild seeing snow everywhere along the way. Some sections of eastern facing snowpack never melt. They say you can stand on top of the Continental Divide to pee and it will end up on the west coast or the east coast. Do you want to pee on California? Or do you want to pee on North Carolina?
Hiking down High Lonesome Trail towards Kings Lake Trail. We would later come back up this steep trail to watch the Continental Divide sunset.
Along the way, we found hours old bear scat....hmmm, interesting...and a mental note that we better keep a look out. We ventured down Kings Lake Trail to check out Bob and Betty Lakes. Since Bob Lake had an actual iceberg floating in it, it seemed only natural that we would go for a dip in the water. The very frigid water. Of course, this was soon after Neil said, "hey, lets go check that out". Shrinkage doesn't even begin to describe the experience. It was so cold, our feet were burning. Did I mention there was a freaking iceberg? But we got somewhat clean from all the trail dust and felt refreshed afterwards. We ventured back to Kings Lake to set up camp.
After setting up camp and having another great dinner, we saddled up to Kings Lake to see if we could get a bite on the fishing rod Neil brought. Tom was unsuccessful the day before trying to lure some fish on Devils Thumb Lake. John and I settled back on a large boulder to watch and take in the view. All of a sudden, I saw a bear running up the trail past our camp. He was already a far distance away. I yelled for the others to look up and see the "BEAR!!". The bear stopped on the trail, turned around, stood up on his hind legs and looked at us. I guess he didn't like what he saw because he turned back around and took off in the opposite direction up and over a rocky hill. Neil estimated the bear's height standing up around 8 feet...not a small one. Wow, that was excitement enough for the day.
Since we had the Neil "hey, lets go check that out" afternoon jaunt to Bob Lake and its iceberg, we were to be later introduced to John's "hey, have to see the sunset" jaunt. Now, I thought I was into sunsets. John takes it to a whole new level. At his behest, we hiked back up over 1,000 feet elevation, and back up to the top of the Continental Divide to watch the sunset. It was worth my heart literally beating out of my chest...really. Not a lot of people can say they've sat on the top of the Continental Divide and watched the sunset. Thanks John for pushing us to go. We hiked back down in the dark and with our headlamps on...calling out to Mr Bear.
Continental Divide sunset (photo from Neil)
With all the "jaunts" and circles we did, we ended hiking approx 9 miles on the 2nd day. The 3rd day was an easy hike 6 miles down the trail, into the valley, and back to the car. Even though we had eaten well on the trail, we were eager for some grub and brews in town. As Tom said, we were going to "eat like Vikings". Nederland or "Ned" as the locals like to say, is a cool little mountain town and we found our little oasis at Wild Mountain Smokehouse and Brewery. Incidentally, Ned is the home of the "Frozen Dead Guy Days" Festival. Yeah...we were thirsty. As we started getting too relaxed, we remembered that the real big day was tomorrow and we needed to get some rest. We would wake up at 4am the next morning and be hiking by 5am with headlamps on to begin our journey up Longs Peak at 14,000 ft and a 15 mile roundtrip day.
6am - sunrise
Neil, Tom, and John with Longs Peak in the background with the sunrise light on it
We weren't even halfway up the mountain when my back stiffened up. So much so that I was really beginning to question if I could finish this thing. The last thing I wanted was for my back to have a spasm, lock up, those guys having to carry me down the mountain, and me spending the next few days in bed not being able to fly home. We weren't even to the real hard parts of the climb yet. It was getting colder and windier as we progressed higher up the mountain. We stopped for a short break. I took a deep breath and started into what I now affectionately refer back to as the "quitters speech". "Hey guys, here's the deal...my lower back is acting up and...blah, blah, blah". Those guys....god bless 'em....they looked me right in the eye and told me it was my decision. Dammit!! I stretched and decided to go a little further and see how it felt.
Beginning to enter the Boulder Field. Longs Peak to the left and the "Keyhole" to the right.
Well, it must have been adrenaline. It must have been the thoughts of regret in not having finished. It must have been the thought back as to one of the reasons I came to do this in the first place...to see what I was made of. We started to cross the infamous Boulder Field. A rocky wasteland...strewn with boulders the size of cars one after another and everywhere you stepped...you had to hike/climb over them. The hiking poles were now a liability for the rest of the way up, so away they went into our day packs.
Tom in the Keyhole shelter
We ventured through the "Keyhole"...literally an opening like a keyhole into the backside of Longs Peak. As you cross it, you enter the "Ledges". The Ledges is where you cross horizontally, then down and up across the very steep backside of Longs Peak. Now would not be a good time to find you're afraid of heights. The pucker factor really started to set in. There were a couple of sections that if you did not get your footing and hands just right, it would have been a very long and steep drop down the trough. At one point, Tom asked me how my back was doing. My reply, "I have no $#&*ing idea". I couldn't feel a thing. My mind raced through many different emotions and questioning myself...what in the world was I doing. We had to stay mentally alert and focus completely on every single step and rock we were climbing.
John & Tom - "This is crazy, this is crazy" - the final steep trough up to the top. Yes, it was as long and steep as it looks.
The four of us took our time and eventually made the steep climb up the final trough of the Ledges section. We were almost there. At the very top, it plateaus at 14,000 ft and opens up into a section called the Narrows just below the summit. At this point, the clouds were rolling in. It started to snow, sleet, and the wind wasn't letting up. Another climber was coming back down at this section (and had a helmet on!). He stopped to tell us it was precipitating and making for slick conditions on the Narrows and the final push up to the summit. As the crow flies, we were approx 200 ft away. The Narrows is another "ledge" at the top of a steep drop off with zero room for error. Its very exposed and the fact that it was slick and wet didn't bode well. Plus, more dark clouds were headed in our direction and it would take us a couple of hours to get back below the tree line. We had to think of our safety...I know, what a concept at this point. People have died at this spot. The four of us decided together this was a good time to turn around. We sat at the top point between the Ledges and the Narrows and got one last good look at the view. We had made it to 14,000 feet and felt like we made a huge accomplishment....with no regret of not pushing that final 200 ft.
Me, John, and Tom at the top...almost (photo from Neil)
It was around 11:30am and we still had to go back down 7.5 miles. We couldn't lose our focus climbing down the Ledges. It was just as much of a pucker factor going down as going up. On the way down, we passed some people who didn't seem well equipped to be on the Ledges, much less getting to the summit. You don't want to be on the Ledges or higher after 12noon when the likelihood of thunderstorms increases. As we continued on down, we passed a High Mountain Rescue member climbing up...fast...like a combo of mountain goat and Spider Man. He had someone on the radio and said he going up to rescue someone. I guess we missed this person in distress since we didn't get to the summit...or that person was climbing the more difficult vertical face on the other side. Sadly, as I'm writing this several days later, I discovered that a man did die that morning of a heart attack. He was apparently just past the Narrows at the Homestretch to the summit. If we had pushed on to the summit, we would have come across him and the people already there giving him CPR. They were right around the corner from us and we didn't even know it. From reading the newspaper account, it doesn't appear we would have been able to do anything as others were already there performing CPR in vain.
Sign in the parking lot...we didn't see it that morning since it was dark
The final 3 miles down seemed like forever as our legs were just about to give up. The sun was out again, the wind was getting blocked by the trees, and it started to get hot. However, looking back at the top of Longs Peak, we could see the clouds still rolling through very fast with the heavier wind at that higher elevation. We stepped down into the parking lot right at 3pm and it started to rain heavily. We wrapped the day back in Lyons with a great dinner and brews at Oskar Blues Brewery, home of Dale's Pale Ale among others (the Gordon Pale Ale was excellent).
Thanks to Neil for setting everything up, getting the permits, doing the planning, preparing all the camp supplies and food, and for being our fearless guide. Thanks to his bride, Connie, for the great hospitality and putting up with three stinky guys in their home. And thanks to Neil, John, and Tom for the complete experience we shared together and an adventure we'll never forget. When you're out of your mind hugging a rock at 14,000 ft, its nice to know you can look your friends in the eye and you know they've got your back.
Neil, John, Mac, Tom