Flatlander’s Folly – A Southern Boy’s Rocky Mountain Wanderings (2007)

      We didn’t summit yesterday. I’m disappointed, though trying to focus on the beauty of the things we saw and what we did accomplish. As planned, we left the hotel in Fort Collins at 10:30 p.m. and made the hour and a half drive along narrow two lane roads to the Long’s Peak parking area. On one stretch of highway – U.S. 34 – Michael reminded us of the Big Thompson Flood, which ripped through this very area in 1976 – 31 years ago almost to the day and almost exactly this time of night. A massive line of thunderstorms had stalled over the Thompson River drainage area creating a deadly wall of water, 19 feet high in some places, which washed away cars and homes and claimed the lives of 139 people. As we drove along, peering out at the shadowy canyon walls on both sides of the highway, it was impossible not to imagine that wall of water and the terrible confusion and screams which must have filled the inky darkness that fateful night. A sense of Mother Nature’s capacity for sudden and fantastic violence took the place – at least temporarily – of hiking talk. The car took on an eerie silence as we collectively tried to shake that creeping and unwelcome sense of dread and foreboding.  

      When we arrived it was slightly cool, around 51 degrees. When we exited the car the midnight blackness and austere, shadowy surroundings left us feeling equal parts excitement and apprehension, though as the minutes passed excitement began to rally and apprehension was in full retreat. The scent of pine was invigorating as we made last minute adjustments to our packs and readied ourselves for the gargantuan task that lay ahead. I had on long hiking pants, a short sleeve wicking shirt and a blue, long-sleeve wind shirt. Although I was slightly cold with that ensemble, I knew that I would warm quickly once we began walking, so I left my fleece jacket in the pack. I made a last minute visit to the restroom and noticed a sign prominently displayed on the restroom door sternly warning hikers to keep the door closed on account of bears, leaving me to ponder the possibility that park management had experienced ongoing problems with bears leaving the toilet seat up, or possibly not flushing after themselves, (bears are notoriously ill-mannered and boorish, after all).   Finally, with equipment ready and bladders voided, we donned our head lamps, grabbed our walking sticks, and with a great sense of optimism and expectation, hit the trail.

      The walking was immediately hard. The parking lot is at approximately 10,000 feet, and I could feel the altitude right away. I had a mild headache within the first 30 minutes, although I couldn’t immediately determine if it was from the altitude or if the strap of my head lamp was too tight. I loosened the strap and that seemed to help. The moon was nearly full and iridescent. It was brighter than I have ever seen it, and at times, when we got up above the tree line, you almost didn’t need a headlamp at all. The night grew increasingly colder as we gained altitude and got closer to dawn – it’s always coldest just before dawn, and around 3:30 a.m. we stopped to put on fleece jackets. I was silently cursing myself for not bringing gloves.

      Unfortunately, Michael’s left hamstring was giving him fits – he was really beginning to struggle, and around 4 a.m. he made the decision to turn back. I was disappointed for him, as this mountain has become somewhat of a nemesis for him over the years. In true Michael fashion though, he parted with encouraging words for Lee & I, and even gave me his gloves.

      At this point, I was feeling good, and could even look forward to regaining feeling in my fingers once the gloves did their work. My headache had even dissipated. For the next hour, Lee & I made slow progress. We were stopping every thirty yards or so as Lee was now feeling poorly. He was forced to walk with tennis shoes the first part of the hike as his hiking boots were in poor repair, and his feet and ankles were taking a beating as a result. Finally around 5 a.m. (or possibly 5:30), he decided to rest a bit and decide from there whether or not to proceed. He told me to go on without him. So, for the second time in as many years, I was on my own by the time I got to the Boulder field. I was mentally prepared for it this time though, and frankly relieved to be able to quicken the pace a bit.

      The Boulder field is a moonscape of rocks, ranging in size from your finger nail to your washing machine to your car. The key is to follow what loosely passes for the trail through this area. There are 12” high piles of rocks every 20 to 40 yards marking the trail, although there are many different such paths through the Boulder field, and none of them are particularly accommodating or easy to navigate. The sun was slowly rising at about this time, which cast a breathtaking light on the horizon behind me, and was beginning to reveal, bit by bit, the mountain in front of me, which had until then been just a shadowy, brooding mass. I was having much more success than last year at making my way through this area, so my spirits were high. They Key Hole loomed progressively larger as I made my way across the Boulder field. The Key Hole is an aptly named keyhole- shaped, jagged outcropping of rock at the top of the Boulder field through which you must pass to access the backside of the mountain & move on towards the summit.

With great difficulty and much grunting (the Boulder field grows progressively steeper and more taxing as it rises up to meet the Key Hole), I reached, at long last, the Key Hole. I made it to the turret-shaped stone shelter perched there and named for Agnes Vaille, a lady who evidently perished there years ago after accomplishing an improbably impressive but ultimately mortal climbing feat. I gazed out over the Boulder field through the shelter windows and felt quite pleased with myself for navigating it, even while a tiny but persistent voice in my head kept reminding me that it would be hell going back down.

      At length, I exited the shelter and clambered over the last few boulders and onto the edge of the Key Hole itself. When my eyes finally saw what lay beyond I let out a completely involuntary and thoroughly amazed “wow”, which must have been audible to the two or three people nearest me by the nods and knowing smiles they gave me. The view was spectacular. The Key Hole gives way to Glacier Gorge and what must be a 1,000 foot drop off to the valley below, which in turn gives way to more impressive peaks on the other side. There were lakes at the valley bottom, and the whole scene was possibly the most breathtaking expression of natural beauty on which I have ever laid eyes.   

      To the left, after passing through the Key Hole is the section called the Ledges. I was a little taken aback at what turned at this point from a strenuous but patently non-life-threatening hike into what seemed to me to be a death-defying high wire act. The Ledges, as the name would imply are exceedingly narrow ledges of rock which you must crawl, climb and pray yourself around and over, usually on all fours, all the while with quivering limbs and a non-quite-believing-I’m doing this sort of awe over the fact that a slip of a foot or a lost hand grip could send you to a quick but inconceivably horrific and unquestionably messy death on the valley floor below. It is a study in overcoming fear. Add now to the mix a vague but persistent feeling of queasiness. Altitude sickness.

      I made it across nearly all of the Ledges and came just to the section called the Trough. At this point, physically beat, gasping for breath, and needing to sit down as badly as anyone ever has, I sat heavily down on a rocky ledge. I was exhausted, and the altitude sickness began to manifest itself with a strong headache, dizziness and slight nausea. Not exactly the way one wants to be feeling on a high ledge, some 13,000 feet in the air. I planned to take a quick nap in the hopes that it would pass, but sleep would not come. A local hiker and his wife, both obviously perfectly comfortable & acclimated, stopped to say hello (people are exceedingly friendly on the mountain). He had hiked Long’s before, and I asked him what exactly lay ahead for me between there and the summit. His expression instantly turned serious. He told me the hardest hiking lay ahead, possibly an hour or more of it, and the physical challenge I had experienced thus far would pale in comparison to what was next. The Trough was a mad, near vertical scramble on all fours up loose boulders. The Narrows, beyond that, was another insanely narrow rocky shelf with drop offs that would make your knees buckle just seeing it on TV, much less from 14,000 feet up on the mountain itself. The summit was just beyond that. I was probably only ½ to ¾ of a mile from the summit at this point. I had decisions to make. The altitude sickness wasn’t subsiding as I had hoped – if anything it seemed to be worsening. The summit lay another 1,250 vertical feet away. My current dizziness & nausea began only about the last 500 feet or so of the climb, and I wondered what effect 1,250 additional feet of climbing would have on my condition. It could only deteriorate. I seemed to be in some hazy, grey area where bad things could happen quickly. I decided to turn around. Disappointed, but accepting defeat, because as the old saying goes, sometimes discretion is the better part of valor, I turned my back on the summit and started the long walk back to the car. (After a good nights sleep, I woke up this morning and it occurred to me that the simple act of donning a back pack and venturing into the woods at 12 midnight in and of itself places you in a hazy, grey area where bad things can happen quickly. Admittedly, I’m no Edmund Hillary, but I would live to hike another day).

      Going back over the Ledges was no less harrowing, other than the fact that I knew what to expect this time. I am amazed that the National Park Service could allow just anybody with a wild hair to come here and tempt fate like this, and I am a little skeptical of the sign at the trail head which informs you that 56 people have died on this mountain over the years. That seems an exceedingly low number, given the terrain I’ve just seen, and I wonder if the sign has been updated in the last forty years or so.

      I was immensely relieved to get back to the Key Hole, where I rested for a while and chatted with a nice couple from England who were on their way up and seemed a trifle daunted by the task at hand. I offered some encouraging words and bid them good luck, then turned my gaze upon the Boulder field below.

      I cannot go to too great of lengths to explain just how hard, how thoroughly punishing it is to go back down the Boulder field. As taxing as it is to go up – and it is a challenge – it is one hundred times harder to go down. The rocks punish your joints mercilessly with each step. And it never escapes your notice, even for a moment that you have a heavy backpack on, which increases the stress on your knees and ankles exponentially. Entering the Boulder field at dawn, you only sense the expansiveness of it. Coming back, with the sun up and the jaunty optimism of early on replaced by a gritty realism, the expansiveness of the Bounder field roars into your consciencness. It commands your attention, and you soon realize that even though it costs no money to walk this mountain, Long’s will not let you go without paying some serious dues. Not to mention the fact that going up, you can see the top of the Bounder field (the Key Hole), and it’s always easier to prepare yourself mentally and emotionally when you can see the end in sight. Going down, all you can see is a vast sea of boulders. It’s impossible, at least from the vantage point of a 5’11” man to get an accurate sense of exactly how far you have to go. I was constantly flummoxed by how far I had come down, yet how far it seemed I still had to go. The end of the Boulder field seems to retreat with every step, until you begin to wonder if you will ever, ever exit it. And always the pounding, downhill slog, wondering with each step if your knee or ankle will give way and buckle with a sickening crack under the stress of your weight and that of your pack. This was the low point of the hike.

       At long last, around 10:30, and after two hours, I exited the Boulder field. Now the goal was to make it down below the tree line, and from there, back to the parking lot. The weather changes quickly and without notice on the mountain, and every thirty minutes or so I would have to stop, take off my pack and add or remove clothing accordingly. The miles go by slowly on the way down. Excruciatingly, impossibly slowly. The first mile maker you come to tells you with an emotional detachment, even a mocking coldness, that the parking lot is 3.5 miles away. Now, 3.5 miles doesn’t sound like far to go when you exit the cozy confines of your house for a leisurely stroll, recently fed and comfortably rested, but after climbing Long’s Peak (or most of it), it seems a cruel joke and a near impossible task. After what seems like easily 3.5 miles, you come to the second mile marker, which sneeringly informs you that it is 2.5 miles to the parking lot, which inevitably brings about much bitter cursing and earnest vows never to lace up another pair of hiking boots for the balance of one’s life. You are only vaguely familiar with this part of the trail. It was dark when you came through the first time, and you were full of optimism and vigor. The walk back is quite a different story. The light of day, combined with your own grueling weariness sheds a stark light on just how demanding this little hike really is.

      This is not to say that the walk back is completely void of it’s own small rewards. The scenery is, as everywhere on the walk, absolutely beautiful. The Alpine views at every turn are postcard-worthy, and even amid the din of protests from your feet and joints, you are often taken aback by the exquisite splendor surrounding you. It takes a little more effort to appreciate the splendor at this point – it is natural to fall into a state of robotic trudging, blankly staring at the ground and obsessing over your end-of-hike meal, but it is worth the effort.

      Finally, at approximately 2 p.m., I exited the woods and walked, mercifully into the parking lot to find Michael & Lee waiting for me & ready to go. The last mile or so my progress seemed to slow down to a crawl – so slowly that small children and old men (I think, even one on crutches) seemed to pass me with a swiftness and ease that was truly humbling.

      I took off my pack, dumped it in the back of the car, and I immediately felt a hundred pounds lighter, as if I could levitate and bound around like Neil Armstrong on the moon. But all I wanted to do was sit down. I climbed into the back seat, and was immediately fighting sleep while attempting to participate in conversation. We stopped by McDonald’s in Estes Park and I ordered an obscene amount of food. I ate greedily and luxuriated in the sheer ecstasy of sitting down and eating something besides trail mix, even if it was McDonald’s.

      Finally back at the hotel, I showered and slept and then slept some more. Despite my complaints, I feel good today – just a little sore and not too much worse for the wear. Yesterday afternoon I swore I would never under any circumstances go hiking again. Today I’m on the fence. Tomorrow I’ll be planning next year’s trip. Such is the nature of these things, I suppose.

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