Week 11: Estes Park to Grand Lake

Somehow, I can’t help but feel that John Denver’s approach to the Rocky Mountains was a little more laid back. This was supposed to be my down day, and here I was, bushwhacking through boulder and bramble to the top of Lookout Mountain. I cleared the final rise and saw that this peak was crowned by no ordinary summit; it had a thirty-foot pinnacle topped by a flat slab which stuck out to one side like the brim of a baseball cap. I eyeballed the tower skeptically and pondered. There are some maneuvers you wouldn’t attempt without sufficient motivation; in this case, I had expended so much effort to get here that I couldn’t bear to let a little thing like physical endangerment stand between me and true summit glory.

The pinnacle itself posed no difficulty, but gaining access to the summit slab was quite problematic. I tossed my backpack up ahead of me, and then my hands searched blindly above my head for nicks in the slab’s upper surface that might serve as fingerholds while I threw up a leg. If I jarred a finger out of position while pulling up my body weight, it meant a hard, thirty-foot fall. Thankfully, the dry air prevented sweaty palms, and my grip remained secure as I hauled myself over the lip.

I stood up to enjoy the view and quickly realized… I was not alone. The slab was clouded by a swarm of flying ants… the same quarreling insects I had seen plaguing summit pinnacles in Idaho and California. They were battling each other, seemingly engrossed in a rousing game of King-of-the-Mountain… that is, until they turned their attention on me. I was now the high point, and my head became the focus for their swarming activity. Insects were landing everywhere; they either saw me as the “Mountain” or as a new competitor who needed to be taken down.

A quick escape was necessary. Still, I couldn’t descend the pinnacle while being attacked at the same time; the distractions would likely prove fatal. So I laid my body low for a minute until most of the insects lost interest, then carefully dropped down the side of the tower. Success!…. except…. All too late I realized that my backpack was still on the slab, just a few inches’ away from grabbing reach. With a sigh and a shake of the head, I went off in search of a long enough stick.

My biggest character flaw isn’t forgetfulness, however, or even recklessness… it’s my tendency to overextend myself and try to squeeze in too many experiences into a single day. This habit of being seduced by quantity rather than quality extends to my writing, my eating, my personal life, and most pertinently, my hiking. For example, the day after the excursion to Lookout Mountain, I was midway through a twenty-mile hike in an obscure corner of Rocky Mountain National Park when I eyeballed an unnamed summit and thought: that peak looks lonely…. maybe I should climb it!

By suppressing basic facts about the remaining hours of daylight, I turned a perfectly reasonable hiking experience into my longest day hike ever – 28.5 miles, with 7,000 feet of elevation gain. Thanks to the sustaining influence of raw cookie dough, I was able to scramble to the fourth and final peak without running out of burnable sugar, but by then the sun had nearly set over Shadow Mountain Lake, coyotes were howling, and I still had nine miles of descent left before I could reach my vehicle. Normally, I wouldn’t be that concerned, but I’d been unable to locate a spare headlamp battery this morning, and without moonlight the last few hours of my hike were going to be rather murky if I didn’t hustle.

After bushwhacking down from Mount Craig, I hit the valley trail running. By now it was dusk, and I was racing through a dark forest in a deep valley, so the limited light that filtered through the clouds and trees was scarcely enough to provide depth perception. I had to tap into years of trail-running skills in order to bound from rock to rock without tripping over the numerous stones and roots. It didn’t help that I was on an unfamiliar trail and felt dead-tired besides; I had to keep risking a painful tumble for as long as I could before darkness claimed the valley completely.

And then there were the gnats. Whenever I left the forest and jogged into the meager light of the open valley, I would have to pass through clouds of insects who were swarming directly over the trail, presumably because that strip of earth was a lighter shade than the surrounding vegetation. The gnats flew straight into my eyes, blinding me and eliciting tears, which made my speed even more dangerous. I ran at times with my eyes practically closed, arms windmilling for balance, and this worked… until the rain began to fall. The additional element of slipperiness on top of all the other encumbrances finally led me to misjudge a tree root, and though I caught myself before I pitched forward and lost a tooth, I decided it was too dark and probably suicidal to continue at my present speed. Peripheral vision and visual memory can only assist so far in these circumstances. But I was five miles closer to the trailhead, and my weak headlamp had just enough battery juice to illuminate the remaining distance.

I camped out for a few days near the town of Grand Lake to recuperate, and while my muscles healed and strengthened and my scratches scabbed over, I noted that the local theatre troupe was performing the musical “Almost Heaven: The Songs of John Denver.” I bought a matinee ticket and relaxed in the sixth row, listening to songs of gentle beauty, love and companionship. John’s own adventures in Colorado’s Rocky Mountain High seem to have been experienced at a much more leisurely pace than I’ve experienced mine. Perhaps I should be taking notes.

Bryan is a 1991 Norwich High School graduate and works as a naturalist at the Rancho Alegre Outdoor School in Santa Barbara, Calif. You may reach him mid-journey at foolsby@hotmail.com.

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