My friend Jason is one of my more regular partners when it comes to adventure. We do our best to get out regularly and motivate each other to stay active. It might seem silly for two people who live in Colorado to need motivation to get out but we all need it now and then.
Jason called me up this past weekend to reminded me that his kids were in day care on Mondays and to see if I had any plans yet. I jumped at the opportunity to get out for a couple of reasons. I have been sick this past week and have scaled back my physical activity significantly in an effort to recover and be healthy for the climbing road trip I am about to take. I was excited to get outside and enjoy some physical activity. I also have my new pack from Gregory, the Z55 which I have been eager to load and test out on a real hike. I told Jason I was in and we discussed our options in Rocky Mountain National Park.
We would be headed to the Longs Peak trail head which is off the Peak to Peak highway, a couple miles South of Estes Park. This is one of my favorite park access points (free…). Jason and I agreed to meet at the parking lot no later then nine o’clock to get started.
My drive to the trail head from Fort Collins was uneventful although I got to see a lot of flood damage on highway 34 that I had not previously seen. Houses hanging off of slopes that had been partially washed away and metal pipes wrapped around trees like pieces of ribbon were a few of the highlights. The construction crews are still busy at work, repairing pull-offs, adjusting the riverbed, and cleaning up debris.
I breezed through Estes park, buying a crappy cup of coffee at one of the local gas stations before heading South to the trail head.
When I pulled in, Jason was practically ready to go. I rolled out of my car looking like I had just woken up. I apologized for not having any of my gear ready to go. It took me about 30 minutes to get organized, change clothes, and drink a few sips of water. We decided to don snowshoes (uhggg) and got on the trail a little before ten.
Following the trail towards Granite Pass would give us the option to hike Mt. Lady Washington, Storm Peak, or the Keyhole (on Long’s Peak). We didn’t want to set a specific goal until we got up above treeline and could assess the conditions and make an educated decision. We meandered through the trees, taking our time and enjoying the fresh air. After what seemed like a long time (we both remembered it being shorter) we ascended a small snow slope and broke out of the trees. The views of Meeker and Longs were commanding.
Snow swirled in wintery dust devils high on the North face of Long’s. The alpine intensity of the sun beamed down on us like a laser and I was thankful to have my goggles. We picked a point up the valley and began the slow walk up hill. This is when I realized that my energy reserves are still quite low from being sick (or maybe it was the altitude…or both). Either way I felt like I was moving at a snails pace and I mentioned this to Jason to his amusement. He said it made him feel great to see me moving slow for once.
After what seemed like 45 minutes we had made it about half way up the rocky slopes between us and the summit of Granite pass. We decided that just making it to the pass would be enough of an accomplishment for both of us. Even though our objective was in sight, things began to get a bit more challenging as waves of wind blasted us with spindrift from the slopes above. In addition to our outdoor pursuits, both of us worked on a 14er as Interpretive Rangers. Jason and I have had plenty of exposure to high terrain and the wind that seems to persist there. Today however was a bit more extreme. Individual gusts began hitting us and we estimated them in the vicinity of 60 miles per hour. We watched as these waves of energy descended the slopes above us, excavating and launching pieces of wind-crusted snow high into the air. It was spectacular.
We continued upwards, stopping occasionally to steady ourselves with trekking poles, orienting our bodies to combat the powerful wind. We were both almost blown over multiple times before we reached the summit some time around three o’clock. On the saddle that is Granite pass the wind was less gusty and much more consistently insane, prompting me to find a large rock for shelter. I shuffled over to make room for J as he sat down beside me, a look of satisfaction on his face. We drank some water and decided that with how slow we were moving and how late in the day it was already, we better bust a move and start heading down. We decided to make a little circuit and head down a different way then we originally came up. A pleasantly angled ridge appeared to lead right back to our descent route. We put our packs back on and began hiking again.
Often times in an alpine environment or any outdoor environment for that matter, our perception of the environment can be skewed. Ill use our descent route as an example. This benign looking ridge, with it’s few rock outcroppings and snow-free crest appeared to be a great choice. After walking with snowshoes on for the better part of the day we were thrilled to have a nice tundra walk sans awkward foot attachments. The reality of the situation was that, yes – the walking was pleasant. Something that was difficult to judge however was the severity of the wind that we were about to experience. Because there was no snow present on this ridge, it was difficult to SEE the wind. As we worked our way down, the wind steadily increased. By the time we were within a hundred yards of the rock outcroppings we had seen from afar, the wind seemed that of a tropical storm…no correction, of an arctic storm. The icy blast increased as we approached the rock tower to a point at which I’m pretty sure we were being blasted in excess of 80 miles an hour. The rocky tower was big enough and positioned perfectly to deflect the wind raging up the ridge and channel it around both sides to a focal point. I stood in this location, facing the blast, leaning forwards, held at roughly a 40 degree angle by the tempest.
I had my fun for a few moments before seeking shelter once again. In the lee of the rock I was able to comfortably sit down and watch Jason approach. Watching him stumble his way across the tundra, almost being knocked on his ass brought me to the point of hysterical laughter. Once he arrived safely we both ate some more food and drank. We discussed the next obstacle, a saddle roughly 100 yards wide that we needed to cross to continue our descent. It was the low point of the ridge and a frigid cloud of spindrift scouring this exposed area made it apparent that the wind at this location might be even more intense then what we had just experienced.
As we began our trek forward our predictions proved correct. This intensity of the wind was almost enough to suck the breath right out of our lungs and we staggered across the low spot on the ridge. Spindrift pelted the few millimeters of exposed skin on our faces, making us feel as if we were being sand-blasted. Speaking to each other was pointless, we couldn’t hear a thing. As we stumbled through the invisible force that attempted to prevent our travel we managed to cross the saddle only to arrive on an exposed high point. We crouched for a moment and quickly decided to continue. After rounding this small summit we almost let out a shout of joy as we dove into some haggard looking Limber Pine. Shelter is a wonderful thing.
Our descent became much more tolerable as we wound through this dwarf forest of Pines in a place which was clearly demonstrated to us as one of the most extreme environments where life can carve out a foothold. We remarked at how pleasant the now 40 mile per hour wind was as we crossed our old footprints and regained the trail down into the Spruce/Fir forest. We walked with a spring in our step, enjoying the downhill grade and the shelter we could finally enjoy.
Just before getting to the trail head we ran into a group of four young hikers who asked if we had seen their friend. They had gotten split up as he short-cutted the switch backs while they stuck to the trail. Separated, they wrote a note in the snow for him and decided to head back to their truck. We eluded to the extreme nature of the weather up high and wished them luck in finding their friend.
Getting back to the car always creates mixed feelings. On the one hand there is relief. The safety the vehicle seems to provide reassures us that we have ‘made it out alive’ and that we are going to be ‘ok’. At the same time, reaching the car signifies the end of our adventure. We recall our hours of exposure up high in the alpine, where we can only rely on each other and our previous experiences to keep us safe. It is in those moments that we smile and know that we will go back at some point, a reassurance that the adventure is not over, we’re just taking a little break so we can rest, refuel, and do it again next week.