Posts made in August, 2016

Joy vs. the Wilderness, the final chapter

DAY 6

After five days of hiking and camping along the Horn Creek Trail in the Sangre de Cristo mountain range, we returned to Snowy Peaks Campground in Buena Vista on Wednesday afternoon. Another former Trekker, Merrill, and his dog Macy were there to greet us with happy hour snacks and beer. Though I’d never met him, I could not have asked for a better friend. I’m quite sure fresh veggies, hummus, chips, salsa, and Coors Light had never tasted so good.

We all took hot showers and enjoyed a spaghetti dinner, followed by the most amazing sunset. I went to bed early and was finally able to get a decent night’s sleep before our big hike the next day.

Carbo loading before tomorrow's big climb.

Carbo loading before the big climb.

Red sky at night, climber's delight!

Red sky at night, climber’s delight!

DAY 7

After six days of acclimation, it had all come to this… Huron Peak. We woke up at daybreak, and after a quick grab-and-go breakfast of hard boiled eggs, fresh fruit and coffee, we each prepared a snack bag for the big climb. I chose trail mix, salted nut rolls, a Clif bar, and some M&Ms. Snack bag of champions.

Bill mentioned that the road leading up to Huron Peak was “a little rough,” so we left the Volvo behind and took off in Bill’s Jeep, Amy’s Land Rover, and Merrill’s 4-wheel drive pickup. As we turned off the main road and onto the gravel, the road got rougher and rougher. “This is the good part,” Bill kept saying as I popped more Dramamine. “So, when is the rough part?” I asked. “Oh, you’ll know,” he replied.

He wasn’t kidding. We passed some smaller trucks and cars that were parked at the “2-wheel drive trailhead” and continued on our way. Not long after, we reached what I thought was an impassable chunk of washed-out road and gullies. Bill put the Jeep in a different gear and said, “here’s the rough part.” I grabbed what my mother calls “the Jesus handle,” shut my eyes, and once again hoped for the best.

Somehow we made it, as did the rest of the entourage. We parked at the “4-wheel drive trailhead” and grabbed our day packs out of the trucks. This time, when Bill asked if I wanted to borrow a pair of hiking poles, I was quick to reply with a firm yes.

According to RockyMountainHikingTrails.com, Huron Peak is located in the Collegiate Peaks Wilderness Area of the San Isabel National Forest. It lies along the western edge of the Sawatch Range and is known for its spectacular views. Topping out at an elevation of “only” 14,003 feet, Huron Peak is ranked 52nd in height among all 53 fourteeners in Colorado. The only other 14,000-foot peak with a lower elevation is Sunshine Peak in the San Juan Mountains.

Just before starting out, I took a short video. The time was 8:44 AM.

I stared at the top of that mountain and knew I could make it. There was no doubt in my mind. I accepted the fact it might take me a little longer than the rest, but I was determined to make it… no turning back. More than anything, I wanted a picture of Jordan and me standing together at the summit of our first Fourteener.

So, off we went… up, up, up. I tried to keep up with Jerry for a while, but I lost him pretty quickly. Eventually I found my groove with Lucy, Merrill, and Macy (the dog). Jordan would also pop back to check on me every so often. I tried not to think about the fact that we’d be ascending 3500 feet, all in one day. Instead, I just kept putting one foot in front of the other and punching out a rhythm with my hiking poles. You’d think a person would get a lot of thinking done while they’re out there putting one foot in front of the other for 7 hours straight, but I don’t think I did. In fact, maybe that’s the beauty of mountain hiking… the sheer mindlessness of it. For me, I found it nearly impossible to carry on a meaningful conversation while I was gasping for breath, so it really became a mindless journey of mind over matter. Walk. Drink. Admire. Repeat.

Once we cleared the tree line, the views were absolutely breathtaking. It was a beautiful morning with crystal blue skies… a perfect day for hiking… or so I thought. Here’s a video two hours into our hike:

I made it to the basin where the trail evened-off for a bit and provided spectacular views of an alpine meadow covered in beautiful wildflowers. Michelle took the following gorgeous photo which still doesn’t quite do it justice:

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It was about this time I ran out of water… and stamina. (Word to the wise… when the list says “Nalgene bottle,” get yourself a Nalgene bottle. At the very least, get yourself a decent water bottle with a wide mouth that holds more than 24 ounces and doesn’t squirt you in the face whenever you put a fizzy tablet into it.) I sat down to eat my Clif bar and admire the wildflowers (i.e., try not to die) and took the following video. The altitude must have been getting to me at this point, because it’s a little ridiculous how many times I say the word ridiculous.

Jordan popped back to check on me, and after a quick chat, I sent him on ahead. Lucy had also ventured ahead at this point, as well as Merrill and Macy, the dog. The sky was starting to look a little gloomy off in the distance, and without anyone having to say it, we realized we’d better keep moving if we were going to make the summit before the afternoon thunderstorms hit.

As for me, I was losing my groove. From the meadow, I could look up to the ridge and see all the people who had passed me along the way. They were as tiny as ants, marching their way up to the summit, and I thought… I’ll never make it. I finished my Clif bar and wished I had something… anything… to wash it down with.

Enter Bill. He and Amy caught up to me at this point and Bill offered me his spare Nalgene bottle filled with Gatorade. I could have kissed him. I took a good long gulp, stared at the tiny ant people on the ridge, and thought… I did not come this far to not make it. But I was going to need a little help. Desperate times call for desperate measures.

I pulled out the 70s music.

Yes, I said it. I love 70s music… the cheesier, the better. If I was going to make it to the top of this Fourteener, I was going to need my “Couch to 5K” playlist. It got me through two miles of jogging; surely it would get me to the top of Huron Peak.

Suddenly, I was in my happy place again. Amy led the way, with me in the middle and Bill pulling up the rear. One foot in front of the other. Like a Rhinestone Cowboy. Roll With the Changes. On and On. Sweet Life. Don’t Pull Your Love out on me Honey. I’m on the Top of the World.

As we neared the top, the terrain got rockier and the path got steeper. It was a little freaky (a lot freaky), but I just kept my head down and tried to concentrate on where to put my foot next. And then… lightning. Crap.

The storm clouds were gathering over the peaks behind us and in front of us. It seemed only a matter of time before they’d find Huron Peak, too. The rest of the gang had already made it to the summit and were wisely starting to head down. Lightning is nothing to mess with on a 14,000 foot mountain so I knew we had to turn around, but I was so disappointed. I was SOO close… just 300 feet from the summit. I’d come all that way, only to have to turn around at the very end.

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I was very happy Jordan made it to the summit, and I’m pretty sure this will not be his last Fourteener. He seemed pretty hooked, and very much in his element.

As for me? Boy… yikes. That was all very hard and scary. But here’s one thing I know. I’ve never done anything so meaningful and rewarding in my entire life. I look back now and still can’t believe I actually did it.

After we returned home, Jerry Wetterling gave me a special gift which I absolutely love. It’s a framed print of all 53 “Fourteeners” in Colorado. I now have it sitting on a shelf in my living room so I can stare at it every day and marvel at the fact that I somehow survived. One down, 52 to go. Thanks Jerry!

Thanks also to everyone who followed me along on this journey, and to everyone who sent in a donation to support this year’s Wilderness Trek. As a group, we raised over $16,000… the most ever! All donations go to the Jacob Wetterling Resource Center to help with victim assistance and prevention programming to help keep our kids safe. I couldn’t be happier or more proud to support such an important and worthy cause.

NEXT: It’s over…

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Joy vs. the Wilderness, part 5

Day 5 started with a bang.

After four days of getting very little sleep, Jordan and I both passed out from sheer exhaustion around 8pm. A few hours later, we were awakened by the sound of thunder and the beat of rain against the tent. Jordan, in a groggy stupor, remarked how impressed he was that our tent was holding up so well, considering he’d only paid $15 for it.

“Um, what?” I asked. He mumbled something about a Black Friday Christmas deal, then he rolled over and went back to sleep.

As I was contemplating this, I noticed a small triangular patch above my head where the tent fly had pulled away and the rain was starting to seep in. When the seep became a trickle, I briefly considered going outside to try and pull it back into place. But between the lightning and the marmots, I decided to stay put. I pulled my sleeping bag over my head and hoped the rocks I’d put over each of the tent stakes would keep the tent fly in place until morning.

It was another long night of not sleeping… for everyone. But, no worries. It was RECOVERY DAY and I couldn’t wait to start my recovery. I grabbed my “Life is Better at the Beach” cup and headed out for morning coffee.

Michelle took this amazing early morning photo of the sun rising and reflecting off Mount Adams.

Michelle took this amazing early morning photo of the sun rising and reflecting off Mount Adams.

We started Recovery Day with an awesome breakfast of homemade pancakes. This is another Wilderness Trek tradition and a favorite among the regular Trekkers. Jerry and Amy did the cooking, while the rest of us wolfed down pancakes as fast as they could make them. In lieu of butter, I decided to take Jerry’s advice and smear on a little peanut butter before the syrup. I admit it was not entirely terrible.

After breakfast, Amy mentioned something about gathering water in large Ziplock bags so we could lay them out in the hot sun and wash our hair later. It all sounded fabulous. I couldn’t wait to get my recovery on.

Not long after, Bill mentioned something about hiking up the grassy slope behind us so we could get acclimated to 13,000 feet. We were already camping at 11,800 feet, but the goal was to climb a bit higher each day in order to prepare ourselves for the big “Fourteener” hike on Thursday. I looked up at that beautiful grassy slope… in that beautiful morning sun… on a full stomach of peanut butter pancakes… and I thought to myself, well how hard can that be?

Grassy slope above our camp site with Mount Adams on the far left. Click for a larger view.

Grassy slope above our camp site with Mount Adams on the far left. Click for a larger view.

I should probably give you the lay of the land a bit here. Our camp site was located at the base of Mount Adams (east side) and the north side of Upper Horn Lake. If you click the icon in the upper right corner of the map below, you should be able to see a larger, topographical view of where we were.

Colorado is known for its 53 “Fourteeners,” or peaks with an elevation of at least 14,000 feet. Every year, the goal of the JWRC Wilderness Trekkers is to summit one of these 14er peaks. Little did I know that the beautiful stony peak just to the west of our camp site was Mount Adams, not quite a 14er at 13,937 feet, but impressive nonetheless. Our goal on this day was to climb the grassy slope up to the 13,200′ ridge which led to Mount Adams.

All good.

In my head, I prepared myself for a quick little hike, followed by a full day of pampering. I couldn’t wait to wash my hair in a Ziplock bag, catch up on my journaling, and maybe go hang my feet in Horn Lake. What a beautiful, perfect, mountainy kind of day.

After breakfast, we did the dishes, filled our water bottles, and packed some lunch items in our daypacks. Next, we marmot-proofed the food supply and prepared to head out. At the last minute, I popped a lemon-lime fizzy tablet (with electrolytes) into my water bottle for some extra energy along the way. Not that I needed it. Maybe it was the delirium after four days with very little sleep, but I was feeling pretty great and raring to go. I couldn’t wait to see the view from the top of that grassy ridge.

We headed out and soon discovered there was no clear-cut trail up to the ridge. We sent Jordan ahead… over some rocks and through some willow bushes… to see what he could see. While the rest of us waited, I grabbed my water bottle and pushed the button to take a drink. Suddenly, a stream of fizzy water shot out of the straw and into my face. It shocked me so much at first, I couldn’t figure out what had happened. I blinked, wiped my eyes… then laughed along with everyone else. Lesson learned. Fizzy tablets don’t work well in a Contigo bottle. I took a drink and put the bottle back in my bag.

We heard Jordan calling from somewhere above us, so we started bush-whacking our way toward his voice. It was only about 10am, but the sun was bright and it was already starting to get warm. Thankfully, we cleared the willow-bushes after a bit and lost the mosquitoes. We were happy to discover a stiff breeze up on the slope that helped to keep us cool. However, the breeze was so stiff that it was hard to stand upright without feeling like you were going to get blown over. To compensate, I found myself grabbing at rocks and grass clumps so I wouldn’t fall backward and go tumbling down the mountain.

The grassy slope was filled with beautiful wildflowers, which I stopped to admire often while gasping for breath. It was a glorious sunny day and the view was absolutely magnificent. I reached for my water bottle to take another sip of water and got another blast in the face. It was only my second sip of water since we’d started hiking, and already my bottle was less than half full. I reminded myself to unscrew the top first before taking another drink.

Driven by the fear of falling, Michelle and I continued to scramble our way up the grassy slope while the others were mostly able to maintain an upright position. I also noticed that the six people who had poles were making efficient zig-zags up the hill (switch backs) vs. going straight up on all fours like Michelle and I were doing. (Another lesson learned. When someone asks if you want to borrow a pair of poles, take them.)

Around 11am, we stopped for a break and I shot the following video.

I knew we were pretty high up, but I was amazed to see how far we were above our camp site. If you click on the following photo of Tim, you’ll see our tents WAY below on his right.

Tim with Mount Adams behind him. Those are our tents WAY below around the center of the photo. Click for a larger view.

Tim with Mount Adams behind him. Those are our tents WAY below around the center of the photo. Click for a larger view.

About an hour later, I realized how cool it would be if we could shoot a live Facebook video from this amazing location. I’d never done it before, so I asked Jordan if he knew how. He didn’t either, but he had it figured out in about five minutes or so. Jordan shot and posted this LIVE video on July 18, 2016 at 12:05pm. From this, you should be able to hear how hard the wind was blowing, and also how hard it was for even a 21 year old to breathe at 12,500 feet.

We reached 13,000 feet and decided to break for lunch. We each grabbed our daypacks and pulled out the bread, peanut butter, jelly, Nutella, leftover pancakes, and trail mix. As I pulled out my water bottle to take a drink, I shot myself in the face with a stream of water for the third and final time. Could not believe it… and now I had no water left for the rest of the hike up, or the hike down.

And, speaking of the hike down…

I sat there eating my peanut butter and jelly sandwich, staring at that 45 degree slope, wondering how in the world I was going to make it back down. Michelle was none too keen on heights and decided she was as close to the top as she wanted to get. While I was OK with the height, I was none too keen on the thin air and was more than happy to stay put. So, while the rest of the gang ventured upward toward the top of the ridge, we were happy as clams to sit and chat in the sunshine and admire the views.

Within a half hour or so, the rest of the Trekkers returned and it was time to head down. And what I thought had been hard and scary coming up the slope, was way harder and scarier going down. My thighs started to burn, my legs started to shake, and more often than not, Michelle and I found ourselves sliding down on our butts during the particularly hard and scary parts. (Again, I wished I’d taken Bill up on those poles.)

When we finally returned to camp, I was beyond spent. I knew I needed water, so I threw my daypack in the tent and started down toward the lake. Nothing seemed familiar and I couldn’t remember how to get down to the water, so after a few futile attempts, I just sat on a rock and waited for someone to come by. I was moments away from tears when Joan finally came smiling through the willow bushes carrying her empty bottle. She showed me the way down to the lake, and we crossed the rocks to get out to the deeper water. I filled my bottle, threw in an iodine pill, and checked my cell phone so I would know exactly when my 30 minute waiting period was up so I could drink the water. I stayed on the rock, waiting. After six minutes, I decided to take my chances with dysentery and giardia and drank the whole bottle. I filled it up again and headed back to camp for another iodine pill.

I crawled into my tent and tried to recover from Recovery Day. I was in sorry shape… weak, shaky, nauseous. I wasn’t sure if it was from altitude, exertion, dehydration, or just plain exhaustion. But whatever the case, I had hit the wall.

I didn’t make it out for Ziplock hair washing, and I didn’t make it out for tea. I closed my eyes and tried hard to fall asleep, but again, it didn’t happen.

At some point, Jordan came in to put on his rain gear because it had started to rain. He told me dinner was ready, so I also got my rain suit on and headed out to join the rest of the group for bean and rice burritos. I wasn’t hungry, but knew I needed to eat. It was a good decision, and pretty soon I began to feel infinitely better.

After dinner, we once again lamented the fire ban that prevented us from having a camp fire, so we decided to pack it in early and head to our tents. At the last minute, Jordan decided to put a few more rocks over the tent stakes, just to make sure our tent fly stayed in place if it started to thunderstorm again.

Another good decision.

That night, there was not only rain, and lightning, and thunder, but also this CRAZY WIND that is hard to describe. We could hear it building up speed as it reached the top of Mount Adams, then it would come howling down the canyon and hit our little camp site like a freight train. It happened over, and over, and over… like clockwork… every 3-4 minutes or so. Each time the Crazy Wind hit our $15 Black Friday special, the sides of our tent would collapse right on top of us. It was so ridiculous, it was almost funny. Once again, I just put my sleeping bag over my head and hoped for the best.

We survived.

The next day, we made breakfast, broke camp, and headed back down to the Shangri-La Meadow. The Crazy Wind had blown so fiercely that once we hit the tree line, the trail was covered in fragrant green balsam needles. It was a beautiful hike, and other than my burning calves and the 40+ pound pack on my back, it was very enjoyable. I especially loved this view as Jordan walked ahead of me:

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NEXT: The Fourteener…

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Joy vs. the Wilderness, part 4

In my last post, I left off with a video of myself just after I had experienced my first wild animal encounter, all alone at the top of a mountain in the middle of the Colorado wilderness. I was completely terrified, wondering how many of those things were lurking in the willow bushes staring at me, and knowing Amy was just beyond those bushes and would be returning on that path at any moment.

With a little Photoshop wizardry, I tried to recreate the scene for you. First I took a screen shot from my video at about 00:20, then I added the scary creature in the spot he appeared, trying hard not to exaggerate its size.

Here’s what I came up with… click to see photo.

It turns out my wild creature is called a marmot… a yellow-bellied marmot to be exact. Pronounced “MAR-mit,” it belongs to the squirrel family and lives in mountainous regions. I had never even heard the word before, although I had noticed it in several places, like on my sleeping bag, and the backs of people’s rain jackets. Little did I know the company was named after a terrifying mountain squirrel. All along I’d been saying “mar-MOH,” thinking it was French. (By the way, here’s another vernacular tip for my fellow non-mountaineers… the word carabiner is pronounced cara-BEE-ner, not cara-BI-ner like I’ve always said. You can thank me now for saving you this embarrassment later. And if you don’t even know what I’m talking about, just move along.)

Now, back to the moment at hand. I’m sitting by myself, exhausted, terrified, wondering if Amy is ever coming back or whether the scary creature got her. Thankfully, she appeared just moments later, still carrying her empty water bottle. She reported that she could see the lake but couldn’t figure out how to get down to it. It was surrounded by willow bushes and rock ledges, so getting drinking water was turning out to be a challenge.

I told Amy about the huge scary creature. I said it stood at least 3 feet high (I was not kidding, though I admit it was standing on an incline) and it was right in the path where she had just returned. She wasn’t concerned in the least. She told me it was a marmot. No big deal, they’re harmless. The only problems they’ve ever had with them is when they ate the handles off their hiking poles.

Marmots were the furthest thing from Amy’s mind. She was intent on getting water and decided to try another path to the lake, this time in the other direction. Even though I was terrified to go back into those willow bushes, I was even more terrified to stay there alone again, so I followed along. We started up another path, but found it hard to believe it could be so far or difficult to get down to the water. Clearly other people had stayed at this camp site. How did they do it?

We returned to the camp site and sat down. She asked me how I was feeling. I said fine. She, however, was not fine. She was feeling a little confused and disoriented, and was worried she may be suffering the effects of altitude sickness. She said she wasn’t thinking clearly, and she needed my help.

In that moment, she looked at me and I looked at her, and I’m pretty sure we were both thinking the same thing. Holy crap. We are all each other’s got.

Then, Amy made a decision. We were going back down the mountain to the second creek crossing so we could get water and get back to a lower altitude. This was a serious situation. She told me to grab my day pack, rain suit, water bottle, and some snacks. We would wait for the others at the creek and then hike back up with them.

I did what she asked, but was a little shook. As we began our descent, I started in with a few questions. “So, what exactly are the symptoms of altitude sickness? You’re not going to pass out on me or anything, are you?”

She told me she might get confused, belligerent, or might start saying things that didn’t make any sense. If that happened, she would need my help to make good decisions. We crossed a tiny stream that trickled across the top of our path, and I told her I wanted to stop and fill my water bottle… just in case. She said not to drink that water… it was too close to the path and could be contaminated by animal feces. I decided to fill my water bottle anyway. I figured if she passed out, she wouldn’t care about a little animal feces in her water. We kept walking.

As concerning as this whole situation was, I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed going DOWN the mountain vs. up it. Without a 40+ pound pack on my back, I actually felt like I was floating. Perhaps I was also getting delirious, but it was all so enjoyable, I decided maybe I should start a new business for people who just want to get dropped off at the top of a mountain and go down instead of up. It was brilliant. I couldn’t wait to pitch the idea on Shark Tank.

We kept walking.

After about 30 minutes or so, we reached our destination and found Joan, Patrice, Lucy, Michelle, and Bill just coming across the creek. I think they were as happy to see us as we were to see them. The ladies were exhausted, and they wanted to know how much further it was to the top. Keep in mind, they had already hiked 2 1/2 miles back to the car from the Shagri-La Meadow to get the rest of the food, then another 2 1/2 miles back up, THEN put on their heavy packs and climbed another 2 1/2 miles up to this point. At the end of the day, it would be an eight mile hike for them, and an elevation climb from 9,000 feet to 11,800 feet. I didn’t know how to break it to them that they still had another hour of climbing from where we were.

I just have to mention Bill here. He is 73 years old and only has one lung. As a child, he came down with a rare bronchial infection and had to have one of his lungs removed. However, this has not slowed him down one bit. Today, he is the only one who has never missed one single JWRC Wilderness Trek. He has been on mountain hikes and wilderness trips all over the world, including New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, and much of Europe. It was comforting to know we were with someone who had so much experience and so incredibly much stamina. While the rest of us were completely spent, it seemed Bill could go on forever.

Hiking back up the trail after meeting Bill and the ladies at the creek crossing.

Hiking back up the trail after meeting Bill and the ladies at the creek crossing.

As for Amy, she was feeling much better at this point. We filled our water bottles at the creek, popped some iodine pills into the water, then began the long 30 minute wait before we could drink it. We took the ladies’ tents from their packs to help lighten their load a bit, then we started back up the mountain.

We finally made it back to the camp site around 5:30pm or so. Within a half hour, Tim, Jordan, and Jerry arrived with the daypacks full of food that Bill and the ladies had retrieved from the cars earlier in the day. We were shocked by how quickly they had made it back up the mountain again. Amy and I had passed them around 2:45pm or so, meaning they had made the whole round trip, six mile (steep!) hike in a little over three hours.

Bill wanted to get the tea going, so the rest of us headed down to find the water. After each arriving at the lake from a different direction, we finally settled on one path that seemed the most logical. It wasn’t easy. Every time we went for water it was a 15 minute process, but at least we figured out how to get there.

After dinner, we did the dishes and went straight to bed. I doubt it was even 7pm. I was looking forward to the next day, which Bill called our “recovery day.” I couldn’t wait. I thought I might take some time to write in my journal or figure out if my sleeping pad would work for a lake floaty. But, as I would soon learn, Bill’s idea of a recovery day and my idea of a recovery day were vastly different.

More soon…

P.S. While I was Googling to find a picture of a yellow-bellied marmot, I came across the most amazing video from our friend Troy. Remember Troy? He was the day-hiker with the two dogs we had run into on the trail in my last post. On the exact same day we were hiking the Horn Lakes Trail (July 17, 2016), Troy was taking video which he posted to YouTube. This was such a great find, considering I had neither the will nor wherewithal to be taking many photos on my way up the trail. Also, I am so intrigued by the beautiful spot he stopped for lunch. I have no idea where that was, and it would have made filling our water bottles so much easier! Anyway, enjoy! Watch the video...

NEXT: Joy vs. the Wilderness, part 5…

Upper Horn Lake and Mount Adams. View these images on Flickr...

View these images on Flickr…

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