Friday, August 31, 2007

The Longest Day, Part I

Tuesday, Aug 21

1:00 comes fairly early in the morning. However, the alarm on my altimeter watch dutifully woke me up as I had instructed it to do. I slept pretty well from about 9:00pm-1:00am, considering that I was about to embark on a trip I'd been simultaneously looking forward to and dreading.

I'm sure a lot of people don't understand this. Doing this hike, especially for a 43 year old flatlander, was going to be a lot of work. I wasn't underestimating it this time. My climb of Mt. Elbert -- which is really more of a high-altitude hike than a climb, was a lot of work. That was a 12 mile round trip with roughly the same elevation gain ... about 5,000 feet. It wore me out. It was about a 10 hour round trip for me, and I stayed on the top less than half an hour because it was cold and windy -- downright inhospitable -- up there. Plus I wanted to get down for an Elk Steak (that I never had, by the way) in Twin Lakes.

And what many people don't understand is why some of us do it anyway. The answer is, if you don't understand it, I can't explain it to you. And if you do, I don't have to say another word. All I can say is, try it sometime and maybe you will.

I had no illusions about this climb. It was going to be longer, after about 7 good miles of hiking steadily uphill, I was going to have to scramble over a quarter mile of large boulders and climb to a spot where the hard work would really begin. Longs, though certainly not the most difficult Colorado 14er to climb, is no walk-up. It's probably the most difficult I will ever attempt, though.

The ranger at the ranger station suggested starting at 3:00am. From all the accounts I'd read, I figured I'd better start at 2:00. She said "all the better".

I had washed and shaved before I went to bed, and packed my pack so all I'd have to do is put on my boots and hat and jump in the car and go. I'd scouted out the road and trailhead the evening before. Even so, I missed something. I turned on C66 thinking it met up with C7.... wrong. It's the next road to the east -- Mary's Lake Rd. Fortunately, C66 comes to a dead end at some campground after a few miles and I realized my error and turned around and went back. I only lost about 10 or 12 minutes

The trailhead parking lot was fairly empty at 2:00 am. I pulled up alongside a car where another hiker was obviously getting ready to go. Even this early I wouldn't be alone. I got out and started pulling out my pack.

The other hiker was from Nebraska, and though I couldn't see her obviously female, and quite a bit younger (23, as I later found out). I opened the conversation with "The insanity begins." She'd been planning this event for a while as had I. She had tried it before and had to turn back due to weather.

I had in my pack some jerky, some trial mix, a Mountain Goat bar I had bought at Two Brothers Deli, 5 quarts of water (about 10 lbs). Another 10 lbs of camera gear. A fleece layer, a waterproof rain slicker, and an emergency poncho. I also had a water filter in case I ran out of water. That's another pound. A sheath knife. Leatherman multitool. Portable anemometer. And a compression shirt in case I needed another layer. First aid kit. And my hiking pole. I even had my cell phone on the off chance that I'd get reception from the summit via Estes Park.

In my lower left parachute pants pocket (zip-off legs in case I got warm -- highly reccomended for summer hiking) I carried the smaller Nikon "walkabout" digital camera for quick documentary snap shots (plus it takes video which the digital SLR will not). I did not plan on getting the good camera gear out until sunrise to take some shots of the diamond face (I should be there by then - and right about that time) and some at the top. Topographical map in the right lower pocket. And a GPS (mostly for curiosity sake, but you never know) strapped to the backpack arm strap.

Last, but certainly not least, an LED headlamp strapped around my forehead.

I signed in and hit the trail at 2:15 am, moments after "Nebraska". She disappeared into the darkness.

Pretty much all I could see was the spot on the ground my headlamp illuminated, and the dim shadows of trees on either side of the trail. One by one hikers who started up the trail after me passed me by. I stood aside and let them go. They were younger, more fit, better acclimated, or some combination of the three. I kept telling myself "This isn't a race. The summit isn't going anywhere." No point in wearing myself out before I get to the boulderfield.

On the Elbert climb, I'd averaged about 1,000 feet an hour in elevation gain. I was on about the same pace here.

At one point I took a wrong turn, thinking the trail must go across a stream, but it vanished on the other side. I got the topo map out and looked at it. When I looked back up another hiker had passed me and was walking 180 degrees from the way I'd been facing, up the next leg of the switchback. Geez, I've really got to pay more attention. Well it was pretty dark. Since I never pointed my headlamp that way, I never saw the obvious about-face the trail did right before the stream.

A mile and a half or so up the trail I passed the Goblins Forest Campground sign. And at about 10,800 feet, the famous "Lightning Hazard" sign (3:30 am), warning of the dangers of lightning above the treeline, which I'd be at after climbing another 700 feet. Someone was stopped just ahead, taking a break and eating some "breakfast". I stopped, too, and turned off my headlamp while I ate some dried cranberries and drank some water. The sky was crystal clear -- black, with bright white stars searing holes in the cold, black backdrop. Breathtaking, really. Mark and I had noted how clear and distinct the Milky Way was from the campsite a couple of nights before. It seemed even clearer here.

We made some small talk, and both of us hit the trail again -- the other guy steadily pulling away from me. It didn't seem like long before the trees shrivelled and shrank away... and then a sight I'd read about opened up to the east and southeast. You could see the city lights of Boulder and Denver down on the flat. Wow. I really couldn't get a good picture of it without the tripod, but I did my best by getting the Pentax out and setting the "film" speed to 3200 and holding as still as possible. You get an idea of what it looked like -- but it was clear. You could even see traffic moving -- an we're talking about 40-60 miles away. Not many people get to see this. This is one of the reasons I'm here. If you want to experience something special, it takes some effort. Sometimes it takes a lot of effort.

The biggest thing I credit my father with is giving me the ability to go through long periods of discomfort, unpleasantness -- and discipline you'd really rather not force upon yourself -- without really complaining about it. You just do it, like the Nike commercial used to say. You just do it, and you don't bitch about it. Putting up hay all afternoon and evening in 97 degree weather with ridiculous humidity. When you're 12 and some of the hay bales weigh as much as you do. With bits of hay scratching you in places God never intended hay to go, including up your nose. In your eyes. Scratches stinging with sweat. Thirst. Exhaustion. None of that matters in the short term. Ticks, chiggers.... Or cutting wood all day in the snow, fingers, toes, and ears numb from the cold. There's a job to do and you're the one to do it, and it's not going to get done until you finish it. Don't get me wrong. I've seen "Band of Brothers", and I that's a hell of a lot worse than I've ever been through or ever hope to have to go through. Let's have some perspective. But I know what it took and how they did it.

And it extends to schoolwork, work-work, diet and exercise, and climbing mountains.

Lots of people can't do things because they won't try. It's amazing what you can do when you try and don't succmb to excuses as to why you can't do it. Gimme a Nike "swoosh"! Thank you!

Today it was getting up out of a warm, comfy bed at 1:00am and climbing a 14,000 mountain with a good 25-30 lbs strapped to my back. No, it isn't a job that needs to be done like the hay. But I can do it because I did the hay, and discomfort doesn't deter me from something I really want. Self discipline isn't just for the benefit of others. It helps you get what you want as well.

You think about a lot of things when you're hiking (or pretty much anywhere) alone in the wilderness. It's just you and your thoughts, and it's good for you. That's one of the reasons I like doing it. The sight of the city lights over the treeline at 5:20 in the morning was already worth the effort, and the day had hardly begun.

The tundra seemed to go on forever. I looked behind me and saw a stream of headlamps following behind me. Occasionally I could almost trace the trail in front of me with headlamps by looking ahead. It gave me an idea of just how far I had to go.

Hikers kept passing me over time as I meandered through the tundra in relative darkness. Sometimes I'd catch up with some when they were resting, but they'd usually pass me again. At one point a party passed me including a woman in a long cotton dress and a head covering -- probably Mennonite. Great. I'm being passed by a woman in a dress.

This is not a race. The peak will still be there when I get there.

The tundra started to give way to boulders, more and more of them. Not huge ones. Mt. Lady Washington was right there. Perhaps I'd reached the boulder field. But no. A young woman was stopped to the side of the trail ahead of me. I stopped and looked up at her. My headlamp revealed a "Cornhuskers" hat. "You must be Megan", I said. I had read her name above mine when I signed in at the trailhead. She was the second to sign in that day, and I was #3. She said she wasn't going to make it. Her ankles hurt. She said she had weak ankles anyway. I looked down at her unprotected ankles. "You need high-tops", I advised her. She replied that she didn't like high tops.

Back to that whole "doing what needs to be done" thing, I guess. At the very least, then, she should have a hiking pole. She should have one anyway even if she did have high tops. They help you catch your balance when you trip, slip, or stumble, and your arm absorbs the shock instead of your ankles. Well it was too late for her. We wished each other well. She said she'd be back another day.

By this time I was noticing an injury of my own. It was an injury I don't ever remember having before, but was the ligament on the inside of my right knee. I have no idea what caused it. It was sore, and every time I picked up and bent my knee very much at all, it hurt. Not terrible pain, but it was sore, and it was the kind of thing that could get worse. I was starting to be concerned that I wouldn't make it myself. I decided to take some ibuprofen and press on to the boulder field and possibly the keyhole and re-assess at that point. If it got worse I'd still have a good 8 hours to get back down before my planned return time of 4:00pm. I could take it easy and downhill wouldn't be as bad -- especially with the hiking pole.

The sun was up over the horizon within a few minutes from then, and I was presented with a very large series of switchbacks leading higher up the tundra, apparently ending at the boulder field -- which I couldn't see yet. But as the sun got higher in the sky, I was treated to a spectacular orange-gold bath of light over everything, the tundra, myself, Mt. Lady Washington, Storm Peak, and the Diamond Face of Longs. I stopped and broke out the Pentax again for this. One of them (below), I think, is THE shot of the trip. Another climber asked if I'd like my picture taken, and you know.... you bet. What a memory. Even if I don't make it to the top (as I often say when I'm hiking/climbing) I get to be here. Wow. Just.... wow. No adequate words to describe it.

It was a bit hazy from forest fires out west, but you could still see Trail Tidge road and the mountains farther to the north and west. In the morning twilight I even saw a headlight on Trail Ridge -- either that or the light on one of the pieces of road construction equipment. Whatever it was, it was cool.

Daylight, the spectacular view, and the proximity of the boulder field gave me the energy to press on. I'd been struggling with oxygen since about 11,500 ft (not that the previous 2,000 feet was a piece of cake).

The boulder field has real boulders. Big ones. Not that stuff strewn around the north side of the base of Mt Lady Washington's peak. These were often the size of cars and bigger. Mike had told me it's easier to boulder hop than to try to pick your way through them, and he was right. It would've been easier without the sore knee, but the hiking pole came in handy for minimizing the impact of that.

I could hear Boulder Brook trickling underneath the boulders, but I couldn't see it through them. I had recently read that it is believed that there's about a 100' thick glacier underneath the boulderfield -- the boulders are actually helping protect it. I guess they got deposited on top of what's left of the glacier a long time ago. At one point around 1930, there was even an Inn built up here to which people rode horses, stabled them there, spent the night, and then climbed the last 1.5 to 2 miles to the top in the morning. Certainly much safer that way as you wouldn't be tired when you got to the hard part. Within a few years a 2' crack developed in one of the walls, and they tore the whole thing down. It is now believed that that was caused by glacial movement.

There's also a cool story about a little girl's ghost up around the trough area, riding a tricycle -- the daughter of the Boulderfield Inn Keeper.

There are 9 campsites at the boulder field. It's tempting to reserve one, but you have to way ahead of time, and if the weather's bad the day you planned on going, that's it (unless you are crazy and reserved it all week or something). The boulder field is inhospitible. It's a field of big huge rocks at just under 13,000 feet, for Pete's sake. There are two latrines that you have to climb stairs to get to since they weren't about to dig down in the rock.... they built a big huge bucket and put a latrine on top, about 8-10 feet above the boulders. They have some system there to keep the sewage from getting in to boulder brook. It would be interesting to know how that works, but it appears to be powered by solar panels.

There's also no roof to these things. A man can stand an pee, and he'd be visible from the shoulders up to anyone on the boulder field. Smile and wave, I guess. But people who will hike here, much less camp here, aren't the squeamish type. Hats off to the Mennonite woman.

The sites themselves are areas cleared of boulders .... sort of... there are 4' walls of boulders built in semicircles around each site, which have mainly flat bottoms upon which one can pitch a tent. When you first reach the boulder field, you can't see these sites. They blend right in. Only the tops of the tallest tents poke above the rock walls, and not many are that tall.

I stopped and used one of the latrines (phew!!!! I think the contrast with the fresh 13,000 foot air made them smell all the worse!), and pressed on to where the boulders began to climb to the keyhole where I promised myself a rest, some breakfast, and a look at the knee.

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