Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Where's that confounded trail?

Yesterday was Martin Luther King, Jr. Day here in the US of A. I did take the opportunity to talk to my daughter a little bit about the civil rights movement, but I didn't do a good job of explaining how we're supposed to celebrate the holiday. I did, however, get out for a nice winter hike in the mountains.

Last year I went snowshoeing with a coworker on the Long's Peak Trail in the RMNP. We kept it fairly short, just going up to treeline and back. I decided that I wanted to go back and see more of the trail, so yesterday I set out for Chasm Lake.

The weather was pretty good, being neither too windy nor too cold, but it was overcast with a light snowfall. Visibility was very poor. There was plenty of snow on the trail, but it was packed down pretty hard, so I left my snowshoes in the truck and strapped on my new MICROspikes - a kind of light-duty crampon.

They worked very well on the trail, providing plenty of traction without the added weight or bulk of snowshoes. The pictures above were taken at the end of the hike. I didn't experience any accumulation of snow on the spikes.

The trail was pretty quiet on Monday. I only saw two people while I was out there, though there was evidence of a third. I stopped and chatted for a while with the couple I saw. This was at the point where the winter trail splits off from the main trail to follow a stream uphill to treeline. From there I followed the main trail.

The funny thing about hiking in the snow is that, once beyond treeline, it becomes exceedingly difficult to tell where the trail is. I strayed from the path a number of times, finding myself in snow that wasn't packed as solidly. Without snowshoes, my feet were stove-piping in drifts that came up to my hips.
Thigh-deep in snow
Without the ability to see the landmarks that would unfailingly take me to Chasm Lake, I eventually decided to turn around. You'd think that backtracking would be a simple matter of following my own footprints the way I came, but because of the falling snow, wind, and hard-packed surface, I managed to lose myself in the drifts. Once again, my topo map and compass came in handy and I rejoined the trail just south of the junction with the Battle Mountain trail.
Back on the trail near Battle Mountain
I got a new phone recently, and one of the things I forgot to do was re-cache the maps for this area. So while GPS was tracking my route, it was overlaid on a featureless gray grid. Not very helpful except in retrospect, though I could have used the route line to get myself back on track.

View 1/16/12 9:29 AM in a larger map

Once I got back to the parking lot, I got a decent view of Twin Sisters where I'd gone hiking a couple of weeks ago.

View of Twin Sisters from the Long's Peak parking lot
I'm going to try the Chasm Lake trail again some time soon. Hopefully next time I'll be better prepared, and maybe have better weather as well.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Something I Have to Do

It was probably about 7 years ago that I visited Lily Lake near Estes Park, Colorado. Some of my family were in town visiting. We hadn't planned it - it was just a spur of the moment stop on our way to the Rocky Mountain National Park. My young niece rode on my back part of the time while singing an improvised a song to the clouds above us. It was a really pleasant discovery.

Directly across the road from Lily Lake I saw a sign for the Twin Sisters trail head. And while the memory of that trail has been nagging at the back of my mind ever since, I somehow had never made it back to see what it had to offer. Last Friday I took advantage of a day off work to remedy that.

I didn't know what to expect as far as trail conditions go. There has been some snow this year, but not very much. So I brought my snowshoes, just in case they were necessary. It was pretty windy at the parking lot, but otherwise the weather was nice - temperatures were in the 40s and it was mostly sunny. There was snow on most of the trail, but it was packed down pretty solid in most places. I ended up using the snowshoes part of the time, and the rest of the time, I just hiked.

The first couple of miles of Twin Sisters Trail is much like any other trail through lodgepole pine forest, traversing hillsides and switching back and forth up the mountains. Occasionally the view opens up and you can see Longs Peak to the West.

I wore my snowshoes for the first stretch of the trail, but as I approached treeline, the wind had scoured the snow and there were too many exposed rocks to proceed with them on. So I unbound the snowshoes and strapped them to my backpack.

The wind got progressively worse as I gained elevation. The first pair of fellow hikers I encountered told me that it was even stronger up on top of the mountain. I didn't doubt but that what they said was true. And it was looking like some dark clouds were trying to blow in, but I pressed on anyway, unwilling to turn back without a really good reason.

When I got above treeline, my persistence was rewarded by an amazing view of the Indian Peaks, Estes Lake, and the plains beyond the mountains to the east. But the wind was so strong I was nearly blown - nay, shoved - off the trail several times. It was frequently necessary to crouch down until the gusts subsided enough to continue to the top.

On my way up the trail, I thought of little more than the physical effort required to make it up the mountain. It was, after all, my first strenuous hike in ages, and at a higher elevation than I've been accustomed to lately. But on the way back down, the going was much easier, which afforded me the ability to let my thoughts wander. These kinds of moments of solitude are what the outdoors are all about for me.

One curious thought that came into my mind was that This - going out alone into nature to physically exert myself - is something that I have to do. Something that is as essential to my life as an artist's need to create, a scholar's need to learn, or a child's need to play. I've spent much time since then pondering what it means, exactly. Maybe it's strictly aesthetic. Maybe it's just playing, in my kinda-grown-up way. Maybe it's a way of recovering some piece of identity that is buried under other obligations when I'm at home or work. I don't know.

What I do know is that I need more of it. And maybe in time it will become more clear to me why it's so necessary. And hopefully I can pass on its importance to my kids. The beautiful things in this world will endure only so long as there are people around who love them and are willing to make them a priority in life.