Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Rocky Mountain National Park, August, 2012

Well, it’s been quite some time since I've posted here to the blog, for two main reasons, two reasons that tie into each other. First, I had my fourth child born this year, in December of 2011, and because of this first reason, I just haven’t gotten out anywhere near as often as I’d like to. There is nothing to complain about, it’s simply the reality of life at the moment. I was very fortunate then, when a planned family reunion hike in the Rocky Mountains was still a possibility, even though most of the family would not be there after all.

The main point behind the hike had been my nephew’s, Mike, desire to go on a hike with me as he had followed along here or on Facebook. After decisions and planning, we had decided on the Rocky Mountain National Park. The dates didn't work for everyone, and it turned out that Mike himself would only be able to meet up with me at the end of the week. But, it so happens that my sister lives in Longmont, just an hour away from the park, and had been able to get the entire week off and her daughter, Ruth, and her (Sara, for reference) were able to join me for their first backcountry hike.

The flight out to Denver was uneventful, if enjoyable. The layover in Atlanta was fun, basically because I enjoy large airports. So much going on in these places that I can sit there and just observe. Luckily, I only had to wait there two hours anyways. My sister picked me up that evening, on Saturday the 4th of August, dropped me off at her house with her kids, Eric and Ruth, and she headed off to her graveyard shift. I passed out rather quickly after a long day in the air and got the rest I would need for day one.

On a side note, the drought that has been affecting that part of the country was painfully obvious from the air. I am ever thankful for the constant green in my North Carolina.

Day 1 – On my own.

The plan for day one was for me to go off and hike on my own and camp out that first night. Sara still had to work that Sunday night and I had thought it a decent idea to get my body used to the altitude to hopefully make the rest of the week enjoyable (or at least with less sickness and throwing up). We drove up from Longmont into the Rockies for the first time in 20 years. The mountains really do rise up quickly, jagged peaks on either side constantly all the way up. The main road goes up and through Aspen Park, which, for a reference, is the Gatlinburg of the Rockies. It is a tourist town with the same things you see in that famous Tennessee town, the mini golf, eateries, and other methods to relinquish your money.

We stopped by the backcountry office at the park to get our permits and plan out our hiking trips. As opposed to the Smokies, you have to plan your trip precisely and put in the dates into the computer so that the number of campers and hikers are limited in each campsite. We didn't get the trails and campsites we had hoped for, but got two decent trips planned out, the second one essentially the same as we had initially planned. If you really want to get the sites you want, you have to call in months ahead of time to reserve them. After being able to just walk into the Smokies and go wherever, this felt very restrictive, but I understood why they did it. Sadly too though, I also paid the 20 dollar per trip fee, 40 dollars total. Wasn't too happy about that, but again, the money stays in the park, and I usually donate anyways.

My sister drove me out to the trail head of the area I would hike up to and camp out for the night and dropped me off around 10:30 AM that Sunday morning. My campsite was only about 2.5 miles from the trailhead, all uphill about 1500 feet up into 9300 feet, well past the 8000 I wanted to help acclimate. Beyond the campsite was, though, were a couple of alpine lakes, one specifically, Lawn lake, and I had planned to head up to it to check it out before coming back and camping for the evening.

The first .7 miles go up sharply about 1000 feet and I immediately felt the altitude, but not in any adverse way. I began to yawn a lot. No headaches, no nausea, just constant yawning. I felt comical almost, yawning every two minutes or so for the first hour or so of hiking up to the campsite. My poor brain was completely confused. I was in good shape, and not tired in the least, and yet I kept yawning as if I should be. My eyes were wide open, yet I found myself wondering why.  In the end, I was quite thankful that this was the only thing that really happened to me, other than something else also comical later.

View south from the campsite.
I reached my campsite, right next to a wonderful mountain stream.  I threw up my hammock and unloaded some of my gear, mainly the food in my bear canister (new experience for me). Didn’t like hauling extra weight just to haul food, but the trees around were simply not tall enough to rope up food high enough off the ground. All this to keep food away from the 25 bears left in the park. 25 bears. The Smokies have over 300 in a similar size area.

Dropping everything off, I then trekked the rest of the way up to Lawn Lake. It was a nice clear day and I there were many other people hiking up to the lake that day. I had a late lunch at the lake and then hustled to get back to the campsite by 5 that evening. In total, I hike just over 10.3 miles that day with no adverse affects.

Back at the campsite, I quickly found out that I had forgotten one key tool that I would need: lighter or matches. I had forgotten to buy some that morning on the way up. I wasn’t hungry, as I rarely am that first day or two of hiking, but I knew I needed to put food in me, so I settled for some breakfast bars, Oreo cookies and some powdered milk. I just wasn’t feeling it at that point. So I took my camera and began walking around. I walked around the trails around the campsite and nearly ran into an 8 point buck. Also got startled by an owl simply sitting in the tree staring at me.

That night, I froze my ass off. It got down to 45 and I had not brought my big sleeping bag, since the rest of the week was supposed to be warmer at night, and I shivered a lot, which is fine with me. The worst part of the night though, was something else the altitude made me do. Pee. A lot. All night. I kept having to crawl out of my hammock (an ordeal in itself), find a spot and pee, usually while shivering, which made things harder even. I would have slept fine that night if only I had not had to get up every hour or so.

Day 1 down, 5 more to go.

Day 2 – Family Reunion

Sara and Ruth would pick me up around 9 am that morning and we would head off to do the rest of our hike. I got up at 7, and not surprisingly, had no urge to pee. I quickly ate nothing, as I had nothing worth eating that didn't require heat, and headed down the trail. It was nice and cool and I was down in an hour, with plenty of time to sit around and watch the people that were starting their day hike up to Lawn Lake. Sara was there shortly after nine and we began the drive up and over to the western side of the park where our other trails were. Thankfully, Sara had brought along lighters and even more so for me, a pair of donuts that I gobbled down.

The drive up and over is a popular drive, and for a good reason. You go from 7000 feet up to 12000 feet and the views are awesome. Not many animal viewings that time, except for a few elk. Once down on the other side, we found our trail head, packed up, and headed out. I brought along a bit of extra padding to put in the hammock for warmth at night, and a lighter.

We began up the trail, Tonahutu Trail, and quickly were overwhelmed by the not so pleasant smell of horse poop. By the third mile, I was complaining rather loudly about the smell in more vulgar terms. We ran across several of the guilty animals, and the guilty riders. One of them even had the audacity to offer me a ride.

Horse poop aside, the scenery quickly faded from the trail head and the busy trail into a quit trail that routinely opened up into valley meadows. We would hike through the trail and suddenly be right next to a meadow, a stream running through it. I stopped many times to take pictures, thinking each one was the last time I would see such a vision. It would only get better.

Just one of many meadows.
After about three miles, it became apparent that both Sara and Ruth had plenty of adjusting to do. This was their first time out in any kind of backcountry setting, and hauling all that weight takes some time to get used to, not only just for the weight, but for how everything fits on the pack. Things kept shifting and that wears a hiker out faster than the actual hike. Our campsite goal was still 5 miles away, and if we kept on the trail, we would have to hike a strenuous 10 mile hike up and over a peak to reach our next campsite. My sister and niece though, needed another day of simple hiking to get their packs how they wanted and I predicted that a tough hike the very next day wouldn't be a good idea. So we planned to stop at the next campsite, rest, repack, and take a different trail to our site the next day. That change of plans would prove to be one of the best things to happen on the trip.

View from campsite Paintbrush.
The campsite was called Paintbrush. The site veered off the main trail through a patch of downed trees into a small rising about 15 feet above a very large meadow. It had a wonderfully nice large area to put a tent down and perfect tree spacing for my hammock. The view of the meadow was amazing. Just as we got there, it began to rain, so we threw our rain gear on and sat down and talked. That night we cooked food, and despite still not being hungry, I had barely eaten since the previous day, so I crammed some food down, crawled into the hammock, hoped I wouldn't have to pee so much this night, and fell asleep to the sound of a thunderstorm pelting our hammock / tent.

Day 3 – Best Hiking Day, EVAR!

Sara and Ruth.
I woke up Tuesday morning at around 5:15 AM, having slept much better, without the constant desire to pee and much warmer after reorganizing how I bundled up. I did though, wake up with a pretty bad headache, probably due to the fact that I had barely eaten in two days. I got up, took some advil, converted my hammock from sleeping to sitting, and sat there. I had the hammock set up at the very edge of our campsite with a perfect view of the meadow, which this early morning was heavily shrouded in fog. It was an amazing sight, one which I kill myself for not taking a picture of, but that morning, with my head, I just sat there and relaxed. Then, in the distance, I began to hear some honking and from the fog began to emerge a whole herd of elk, at the river, drinking. Along the northern edge of the meadow, one of the elk was running along the tree line honking. As the fog began to lift around 7, Sara and Ruth began to stir in their tents, aching and sore from their first day of hiking and the elk vanished along with the fog.

After breakfast, where I ate heartily, the plan was, instead of attempting to go up and over a peak, we would double back the three miles, and take a 7 mile trail up a different side of the mountain to the campsite we were set to be in that night. We were off by 8 AM, having repack and reshifted some of our gear. Once back and the trail head, the girls dropped a few things at the truck, and we headed up the secondary trail, called the North Inlet Trail. It was 7.7 miles, all uphill, but rarely very steep. I felt really good and set myself at a rather fast pace, usually leaving the girls behind. Id stop every mile and wait for the girls while taking pictures.

In our very first mile, we nearly stumbled into three male moose, just 10 feet off the trail. We stopped for a while to make sure they weren't ornery, and thankfully, they were just interested in relaxing at the edge of a meadow. I took my pictures and went ahead and was later informed by Sara that I had walked right past a mother moose and her calf. That might have gotten messy.

The trail continued up the valley, following a stream that routinely broke out into meadows, then back into narrow valleys with many waterfalls. One big difference between my Smokies and the Rockies, other than the age and the height, the trees are spaced further apart and there is far less under vegetation, so one actually gets to view further into the distance. The trail was very rocky, many times being literally cut out of the mountain side. I even came across a group of 8 rangers working on a section of the trail, cutting rock blocks out of the mountain and moving them over with a series of pullies and cables to set them down as stairs. It was amazing work, hard, yet so simple and effective. I talked to them for 30 minutes right up to the point they offered to let me help them. I laughed, in a non offensive way, and kept going.

There were a few campsites along the way, and I always had to keep in mind that the girls were only on their second day, and going uphill. They were going at their own pace, but it was still a good steady pace, about 2 miles an hour. I was going at about 3.5 miles an hour, uphill, and I must say, I was impressed with myself. It gave me plenty of time to scout ahead, and bushwhack a bit to take pictures while waiting for the women each mile. At each campsite, Id let the women decide if we wanted to stop short. We really wanted to get to the campsite for one main reason, it was one of the very few campsites where campfires were actually allowed in the whole park. It took us a while to get there, but it was worth it.

Campsite Porcupine was delightful. It was off the trail on the other side of the stream that we were following up, built rather steeply into the hill, but with enough space to set up a couple of tents and good spacing for the hammock. The stream was just below us and the view was great. To our delight, there was a rather large pile of wood just ready for us. We were exhausted, dusty and hungry and the temp was quickly dropping. We were at about 10100 feet and it was going to be a lot chillier that night. Within minutes though, I had the fire going and we sat around the log benches that were there, ate food and laughed at our soreness. I was even able to make my quiet niece laugh, although it required good ol campground humor: farting.
We settled in for the night and slept good, if a bit chilly, but good for the evening.

Day 4 – Lakes on the top of the world.

We were scheduled to stay at Porcupine campsite for two nights in a row, so we decided to explore the area that day. I was on my fourth day, and was hoping to wash up in the stream, and was hoping for a “warmer” afternoon to have the courage to do so. We began though, by heading out to take a side trail that led up to two lakes Nokoni and Nanita, both above 11000 feet. About two miles up, I realized that it was about to get steep and that we wouldn’t be back till after five, well past any chance to clean up without freezing in the river, so I doubled back and went back to camp. The women went on without me and experienced complete silence at lake Nokoni.

I on the other hand, experienced a lack of clothing within a very very cold river. I was able to clean up, wash my clothes and soak up some sun while laying on what appeared to have been a previous half log bridge that had washed out at some point. I then did some of my own exploring around the area, finding a really nice waterfall nearby, North Inlet falls, the trail’s namesake. That evening we ate well and used up the rest of the wood. We headed to bed early because it was our plan to hike out really early the next morning to make it back to a small town at the bottom of the trail, near where the trail head was. I was hoping to get there before breakfast, and they wanted lunch.
North Inlet Falls.

Day 5 – Breakfast and another family reunion.

I was up around 6, and after a quick snack of oatmeal, I was packed up and off onto the trail by 7 am. I came across another moose resting near a small pond in a meadow and another deer eating across the trail. Going downhill now, I was making amazing time and covered the 7.7 miles to the trail head in just under two hours. At about 5 miles away though, I began to run into people heading up to some of the waterfalls on the trail. That wasn’t what shocked me, but the fact that these people were in flip flops or sandals, most of them without any water at all, dressed in jeans and midriffs. This is the kind of thing that I would see right off the car in short trails, but this far up I was a bit shocked. I think they were going to be shocked by thirst and blisters after the end of their day.

I made it back into the town, Grand Lake, and headed into town to find somewhere to eat. I found a little restaurant serving breakfast on its small main street, and ordered myself a rather large amount of food. Even the waitress asked me a couple of times if I was really ordering all the food. After that banquet, I walked down to the lake that gave the town its name, pulled out my Kindle, and settled down to read for a while waiting for the women to arrive. They did get into town around 11 am, had their lunch, and we were off in the truck back to the other side of the park. Our older brother and his family were going to be getting into Aspen Park later that afternoon and we were going to meet up with them.

We met them and actually got a room with them at the same hotel they were in. We planned to head out to the Bear Lake area the next morning, but because they were doing road work, we could only get in before 8 am, so we headed to bed early.

Day 6 – Glacier Water.

Nymph Lake.
I had hoped to achieve two goals on this trip, reach a peak (13k feet or more) and drink glacier water. I missed the peak, but was really hoping for the glacier water. From Bear Lake, it was about 6 miles up, 10 miles loop trip, to Andrews Glacier. Sara was joined by her younger son Eric and they and my brothers family would hike up the lakes that led up to the glacier, and head back when they felt they should. I told them I would meet them back by 4pm.

So I bolted off at my pace and stopped at the first lake on the way up, of which there were many. When I stopped to take some pictures, I noticed that my nephew Mike had actually kept up with me and was planning on going all the way to the top with me. It was great to catch up with him and after the third lake, where we stopped for a while to snack and talk, the rest of the group caught up and my brother Tim also decided to head on up to the top with us.

Up to Loch Lake.
We passed Nymph lake, then Dream lake and reached Haiyaha. These alpine lakes are frigid and crystal clear, and the further we went up, the less people we ran into. The silence over the mirrored water was wonderful. We came down a bit from Haiyaha then took another trail up to Loch Lake, a lake that spilled as a waterfall and we hiked up all the way up beside this waterfall. The lake was larger than the others and crystal clear. We stopped and ate some lunch there before heading up even further.

The trail got smaller and thinner the higher we got, and it branched off into an even small barely maintained trail that led to the glacier. After about half a mile of scrambling up over trees and boulders, we entered into the glacier’s spill area, a huge boulder laden valley at the top of the mountain. The trail essentially ceased to exist and we were crawling over large eroded boulders, navigating our way to the top .We finally stopped short of the very top of what we assumed was the trail, and found an area where a small stream was pouring off through high mountain grass, just below a portion of the glacier.
Almost there...

We stopped there, exhausted, but with an amazing few. I broke out the filter, filled it up, and we filled up our bladders and had some amazingly cool and crisp glacier water, just like I had hoped. I even broke out the pipe and enjoyed some good Virginia Black at the top of the world. It was a very fitting climax to the trip.
View from the glacier.
We headed back down starting around 1 pm, hoping to get out of the peaks and the possible thunderstorm that was coming. Downhill is always easier, but we, especially my novice (out of shape) hikers were beginning to feel it. By the time we made it back to the parking lot, my older brother was at the end of the hike, but we and Mike both made it and I can honestly say that I was extremely happy that they had both come with me. Our family is spread out all over the states, and so don’t get together as much, but when we do, it’s always great fun.

We headed back into Longmont where I bade my sister and niece goodbye. I think I got Sara hooked on backcountry hiking.

Day 7 – Back home

I spent the night with Tim and his family at their hotel and they took me to the airport the next morning. I did have my camping spoon confiscated by the airport security people, acceptable loss, if not funny.
The flight home was simple, without incident and I was home a little after midnight that night.

Mike, on the way back down.
Once again, exact plans for this trip fell apart, but yet again, the experience was amazing. I really miss the heavy dense vegetation of my Smokies, but the Rockies were quite enjoyable. It was nice to have clothes actually dry off after washing them. There are far more restrictions in the Rocky Mountain National Park, things that made my general hiking trip annoying, but its understandable when I saw the way people were on the trails, barely prepared.

My sister and I have pledged to try again in 10 years, and reach the top of a peak that time around. Despite living only one hour away from the park, this was the first time she had ever gone, but I think I have her hooked.

I was pleased that I didn't suffer from any altitude issues, other than the yawning and peeing, and was especially happy with my hiking pace and distances I was able to cover without falling apart. I tried some new food ideas and some were failures but others were great successes. Olive oil is hiking liquid gold. I also figured out good thresholds for staying warm and just what to use at certain temperatures. Its always tricky in the hammock because wind can really change the game, but it helped. I am also completely in love with my boots. At no time, in that rough terrain, did I ever feel pain, get blisters, twist an ankle, or have any discomfort at all. 

I am looking forward to returning to my Smokies, but I will certainly love to revisit the Rockies in the future. 

Happy Hiking.