Thursday, August 5, 2010

Colorado Hiking

Just got back from a great hiking trip in Colorado. I got to go with my best friend, Peter, whose parents live near Boulder and were great to us (Thanks you two!). It even sounds like they might not mind if I go back next year! Sweet!

We arrived in Denver in the late evening on Friday, and I don't remember doing much before bedtime. All of the evenings were pretty relaxed, sitting around eating and drinking, wandering around whichever town we were in at the time. Combined with hiking and running, there probably aren't many better ways to spend your time (though, of course, some dawdling around online doesn't hurt).

Saturday we woke up and Peter took me for a run of a few miles, to start getting used to altitude. Peter always kicks my ass running, and makes it look easy. I'm just happy he'll humor me with a run occasionally. It was a fairly flat route (east of the "Front Range", everything is pretty flat), but I certainly remember one hill (which might not even qualify as such in Charlottesville) in particular, and trying to catch my breath for a while. After we got back, we (me, Peter, and his dad, Gary - the same combo for all the hikes) headed out to NCAR (National Center for Atmospheric Research) for a hike up Bear's Peak. Actually, we were going to do South Boulder Peak, but there was maybe some map mis-reading, and it was on the other side of what we were anticipating, I guess. Still, it was a fun hike. Scrambling up rocks, lots of nice views, and more getting used to altitude. It was a... 6ish, let's say, mile hike with something like 2000' elevation gain, ending up in the 9000s. Good times. This was also our only hike without rain.

Sunday we got up and headed out past Rollinsville along a 7 mile or so dirt road to the trailhead for a hike up to Heart Lake. I think this hike came in closer to 8 miles, started around 9k, and finished up around 11k ft or so. I could be mistaken. It was a much easier, technically, hike than Bear's Peak, and gorgeous. Maybe someday I'll be in shape and go back to run the road and also the trail. Someday. Around the time we got the top, it started to drizzle, and it just kept raining harder the whole way down. By the end it was pouring, and lightning was getting pretty close (2 one-thousand ish). I regretted not bringing more of a change of clothes (or leaving clothes in the car - my pack wasn't exactly waterproof), but once Peter sorted out the heat in the car, things were looking better. We stopped in Rollinsville looking for a cup of coffee, but didn't have much luck. We did, however, catch guys with pistols and shotguns standing around the parking lot (we're talking right outside the store) shooting at birds. I don't think I'd last long in Rollinsville on my own. We drove to Nederlands for coffee, and it seemed like a cool little place.

Monday we took it pretty easy. Another half hour run with Peter, and his dad this time, to start the day, then we headed out to Golden (where Coors is made, or so), Red Rocks, and some nearby dinosaur tracks. I think it was this day that I started noticing more how brown everything was. Not that there's anything wrong with that, it's just a change from Virginia (I guess that's sorta part of the point of travel, huh? the change?). Apparently at Red Rocks people like to exercise, among all the stairs. You can run back and forth along the rows of seats; apparently getting 4 miles in without hardly changing your geographical coordinates. Watching everybody, I got pretty tempted to just try bounding up the rows of the stadium. Eventually I decided on a 'next time' approach. After all, we were resting up for our big hike the next day, Long's Peak.

Monday night we went to bed early. It's what you gotta do when you're going to wake up at 1 in the morning. Out the door at 1:30, then a bit of a drive, and on the trail by 3am. This out and back hike is something like 15 miles with 5000' of elevation change, ending above 14000'. Long's Peak, I hear, is the only "14er" in the Rocky Mountain National Park. I also hear it's one of, if not the most, hiked 14er (at least, the Keyhole route that we took), but that only 3 in 10 who try it successfully summit.

So anyway, starting at 3am, there's not much to see for a while. Just hiking along with headlamps on, seeing the first 20 feet, or whatever, of trees on either side of the trail. When we popped out above the tree line, it was still dark. However, the moon was half-full (half-empty?), and I found that it provided plenty of light to see by. We had a gorgeous view of the stars, and even saw a few shooting stars. I was feeling a little dizzy, and couldn't decide if it was the altitude or possibly just something strange with walking with your main light source being a headlamp. I felt a little better when I turned of my headlamp, but the dizzy didn't entirely go away. Probably I just started focusing even more on walking and staying upright, and didn't have as much time to notice the dizzy.

The keyhole route has a handful of landmarks. After you get above the tree line (a bit further than that, even), you come to a Boulder Field, where people camp, and there's some toilets. There are also marmots - always handy to have around for a Lebowski reference. From here you can see the summit basically (though not the route you'll take to get there), and the Keyhole. After the Keyhole comes, if I remember correctly, the Ledge (across, scary), the Trough (up, scary), the Narrows (across, scary), and the Homestretch (up, scary). You'll notice a theme here. At several points I considered telling Peter and his dad I was just going to sit tight and wait for them on their way back down. I kept plodding along though, happy to tell anybody who asked that I was terrified. Peter was worried I was getting mad at him for "making" me do this, but I was far to scared for that. And also too scared to notice much trouble with the elevation. Sure, I got out of breath, but not too bad.

You're welcome to call me a wuss, I don't care. I was scared. Death was quite honestly a possibility (indeed, it has happened to many on this mountain). All it would have taken was one wrong step. I wondered if there was any way I'd be able to catch Peter's (or his dad's) arm if he fell. Lacking anything like upper-body strength, I knew it wouldn't go well. We're all glad it didn't come to that.

We made it to the top around 8:30am. I sat around telling Peter and his dad that there was no way off this rock besides a helicopter. And I wasn't sure they'd be able to make it that high. Eventually (9ish) they decided it was time to head down. "Just take it easy, slide down on your butt", I was told. Of course, everything I know (nothing) says that sliding is exactly what you don't want to do. Despite all of my fears, down was, quite honestly, easier. I'm not here to ponder why (and why would you listen to me anyway?), but it was. Still scary, of course, but manageable.

We were back in the Boulder Field around noon, but decided (mostly) to not stop for lunch because the clouds were clearly starting to form. We wondered a little how the rest of the hike would go for the lady who happily professed that she was "Too f*ing old for this s*" when we passed her on our way down and her way up. Or the couple with their infant (seriously). I hardly wanted to be up there when the clouds weren't there. Perhaps lacking the panoramic view of everything (the cliff a step away) makes it easier, but I doubt it.

As we descended, I was looking forward to getting pictures of the "Alpine fields" we had walked through in the dark, and the forest further down. But right behind us was a rapidly growing, and darkening, storm cloud. Our pace quickened. And paused so we could take pictures, or just gaze around, check our packs for... whatever. And then quickened some more as the lightning and thunder built up. We were still above the tree line (and 2.5ish miles from the parking lot). While I appreciated being tall and lanky during other parts of the hike (scrambling over boulders and trying to make my way up the mountain), I no longer appreciated being the tallest thing around. Peter was behind me on the trail, so slightly higher still, but that wasn't much help. As we were about getting to the tree line, the hail started. I wondered about tornadoes, but couldn't quite believe they'd occur "at elevation". The lightning was more worrying. Eventually I pulled off the trail underneath a tree and next to a rock. Even after Peter said that's not what you're supposed to do, we stayed for a few moments. People passed us, just ambling down the trail, so we decided to go as well.

Eventually the storm calmed down, and I could start feeling the tired in my legs and feet again. The white of the hail all over the ground made everything fairly pretty, even if it was a little hard to appreciate, being a bit cold and wet. We made it back to the parking area, and changed into dry clothes, by about 3pm - 12 hours, 15 miles, and 5000' of elevation gain after our start. Good times.

When we got back and settled and fed and warm, we all started looking around for articles or trip reports about hikes from the day. Apparently the day we hiked was the 50th anniversary of the first successful summit attempt along a particular route (and by a math Ph.D. no less!). I didn't see many other articles. Now, a few days later, Peter and his dad have found some articles about another hiker who's trip didn't go as well as ours. I hope he recovers quickly. And I hope that everybody else on the mountain that day (and others, of course), made it home safely.

Wednesday was another relaxed day, and the day of my flight home. It didn't seem like the end of my trip, though. The flight was scheduled for 6:10pm departure, with arrival in BWI around midnight. We left at least an hour and a half late, due to weather, and got to Baltimore around 1:30am. Then the drive to Peter's place, and I was probably in bed by around 3am. Back up at 5 for work today. I can't say today was my most productive day of programming :) But I did stay awake the whole time, so I consider it a success. And I made it home, and my cats even seem basically happy to see me. So I guess now my trip is done, even if I'm not unpacked.

My pictures are posted (Warmup Hikes and Long's Peak). My memories are written. And my last dose of caffeine is wearing off. So it's bed time.

Some trail wisdom, straight from Sir:
It's always raining somewhere.
Take it easy.

Update 20100807: Peter posted his pictures.
Update 20100808: Gary's pictures and trip report.

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