Monday, January 7, 2019

Going to Colorado to "Get High"

Early July I noticed something odd about my work schedule - specifically the last 3 days of the newest one to come out.  I work at the Emergency Department of my local hospital as an ER Technician, so my schedule can change from week to week.  Typically, the next month of the schedule comes out just before we put in our requests for the following month, and I usually work a mix of 8 and 12 hour shifts, which has me actually working only 4 days a week.  Surprisingly, they scheduled me with the last 3 days off in a row - the 17th, 18th, and 19th of August.

Thinking quickly, I requested off the 20th, 21st, and 22nd.  Now I had 6 days of non-Vacation Time vacation to work with.  I started looking for cheap flights that put me near a "fun" high point.  One of the least expensive was to Denver, Colorado.

My exact thought as I took this picture outside Boulder:  "I hope that's what I'm heading to hike."

Getting My Kit Together

The same night I requested those extra 3 days off was the night I made several impulsive purchases to get the trip off the ground.  Flight - check (Morning of the 18th - through mid-day of the 21st).  Rental Car - check (a "Light SUV" that I was pretty sure could get me into the mountains).  Hotel Room - check (night of the 18th only, I had camping supplies for the other days).

That left the rest of my gear.  I still had my sleeping bag and 70L backpack, but I needed something to camp in.  Reading online gave me recommendations for hammock camping - no need to lug a huge tent with you, and camping in the air means that the cold ground won't act as a heat sink, letting you leave off a mattress or sleeping pad as well.  I already had webbing from firefighting, and knew how to tie anchors, so hookup would be easy enough.

I wouldn't be camping out of doors every night though.  I booked a hotel for my first night in Denver, then would camp at the mountain.  I'd figure out the third night later - whether I'd stay another night at the mountain camp or head back into civilization.

To keep from having to pack too many things, I decided to pick up the consumables in Colorado.

Boulder Colorado - The Royal Arch

Boulder Colorado sits 5,328' above sea level.  Mt Katahdin is "merely" 5,269', meaning by the time I landed at the Denver airport and drove to Boulder, I was already higher than I had ever been before.  But I was going to get even higher.  My goal was to acclimate myself to the altitude change of eventually reaching 14,000', and a day 1 hike to the Royal Arch seemed like a good first step.

Sure enough, that WAS what I was going to hike.
The Royal Arch is just one of the features in the Chautauqua park, which sits underneath Green Mountain.  The more prominent features that I saw from the approach were the Flat Irons, 5 in total, that rose not-quite-vertically up the mountain, at apparently an excellent angle for rock climbing.  There were quite a few options in terms of trails through the park, so I decided to take one past Flat Iron #3.

In spite of a slight drizzle, there were people making the climb up the Flat Iron.  It rose somewhere between 45 and 60 degrees upward.  It looked like a lot of fun, but without the training or gear for a free climb I passed up on the Flat Irons for this trip.

I was reminded of the higher sections still within the tree line of Mt Katahdin as I climbed into the mountain.  The trail was well maintained, mostly rock, with only a little bit of gravel / sand, and made for easy going.

It wasn't a very difficult or long climb, mostly horizontal parallel to the mountain ridge.  I made good time arriving around lunch time to find a bunch of day climbers eating food at the Arch.

On my way back down I got this excellent picture of the transition from the Great Planes to the Rocky Mountains.

I stopped at Target on the way in to Denver to pick up my consumable supplies for the trip - snacks and food, water, electrolyte packets - and picked up some hiking poles as well.  Boulder had a much better selection of things than I expected - I was expecting to need to track down an actual sporting good store, but everything was there.

I settled into my hotel, which wasn't really near anything in walking distance.  I decided to look up if there was a baseball game going on that night.  Maybe the Pirates were in town, or at least I could watch something to kill time.  While there wasn't a baseball game, I did find there were extremely cheap pre-season football tickets at half price off face value.

Mile High Stadium was impressive, with a great atmosphere.  Even with no real dog in the fight, I was convinced to root for the home team after just the introductory celebrations.  I stayed until a bit after half time when all the starters and 2nd stringers were sitting.

After taking a Lyft back to my hotel I fell asleep early, and woke up just as early ready for my next day.

Day 2:  Leadville and the Mineral Belt Trail

The transition into the Rocky Mountains is something I had not experienced before.  The Great Planes and Denver's urban setting slowly melt away to a slow climb upwards.  Then, suddenly, mountains are everywhere.  To the right, a series of mountains jump up, each impossibly higher than before.  To the left, the exact same view.  In front, a road that winds in between, curving out of sight into the trees that are somehow wild and alien compared to the Appalachian forest of Pennsylvania.

I stopped briefly to use the bathroom and get some coffee at a small village of Georgetown.

This let me get a few photos of the mountains and views that I was seeing on the road.  I wished I could have stayed and explored the area more, but I had a goal in mind, and I was saving the exploration for Leadville.  I hit the road again, and drove until a little before noon.

I arrived in Leadville to find the visitor center, and more importantly a Fire Department.  I poked my head into visitor center for just a moment, and headed across the street.  I hoped to pick up a patch or T-Shirt, and hopefully be invited for a tour of the station.

The local department was friendly, but didn't have any patches or shirts for sale unfortunately.  I told them about my goal and they offered some good advise (start early to avoid afternoon storms / stay hydrated).  The department covered a pretty impressive area, made even more impressive by not having any other departments to come with mutual aid for miles.  I don't envy their fire response.

I stopped at a small diner in town for a brunch, got a coffee from a local shop, and took in the brief sights of Leadville before continuing to the trail-head for the Mineral Belt Trail.

Mt Massive loomed in the background looking West from the trail-head.  Just a few feet short of being the high point of Colorado, mountain climbers during the great depression had attempted to carry stones up to try and get it higher than Mt Elbert, while “supporters” of Mt Elbert climbed up to tear the stones down and keep Elbert the highest.  Ultimately, those supporting Mt Massive failed, or else I would be climbing it instead.

It does remain the largest area above of 14,000’ within the contiguous US though.

I was ready to hit the trail, 12 miles into the wilderness around Leadville.  One of the Leadville Firefighters told me that it had been created with mining slag dredged out of the Arkansas River.  Flowing South out of town, it had been polluted by the many mines (some of which seen from the trail) until the EPA was formed.  The cleanup and trail was one of its first projects.

As it turns out, Counter-clockwise was not the "correct" route, and my mile markers turned out to count down rather than up.

Colorado Mountain College owns much of the land around the 12-10 mile markers, including a Frisbee golf course.  Sports at 2 miles above sea level!

The trail was well paved through most of the hike, going easy on my feet and knees.

Eventually, I reached the old (and current) mining operations that helped make the trail.  Most of what could be seen were abandoned mines and supporting structures.

Plaques were placed every so often explaining the story of the trail and the mining sites, and unfortunately I had chosen to go backwards through the trail (and thus the story).

The place was a mining town, with most of its food initially imported from Denver.  The plaques described mine disasters, the mines themselves, and the businesses that popped up to support the community.

The path lead up into the hills giving a pretty good view of the country.  The "high point" of the trail was 11,000 ft "and change" above sea level, but that meant only a few hundred feet above the city itself.

I was pretty tired having gone a 12 mile loop around Leadville, and was happy to see the end stretch of road.

I had made it back, and after 12 miles at 10,000 ft above sea level, felt confident that I would be able to handle the mountain itself without too much trouble.

I had dinner in town at a Mexican restaurant that had actual hot salsa as its normal table salsa.  A welcome change from the Pittsburgh standard mild.  After dinner, I headed out to the camp site at the Mt Elbert Trail-head.

My camp site was pretty simple.  I was going with a hammock for sleeping.  A park ranger stopped by the camp and explained that they normally frowned on hammock camping as it hurt the trees, but I had used webbing to secure the hammock and not rope or "drilling hitches into the trees" as one set of campers had done, so I was given the all clear.

A quick hot meal of soup, and I turned in early, still tired from the morning hike.

The next day was going to be busy.

Day 3:  Getting High on Mt Elbert

I got out of my hammock and started up the trail at 5:00am, before first light.  I found out after the fact that the temperature was 30 degrees when I woke up.  It certainly felt that way.  I started out at a pretty respectable pace, passing a couple of people that started just before me.  Eventually, after stopping for a break, I wound up keeping pace with a fellow in his 50s visiting from Philadelphia who was hiking on his own as well.

I got to watch the sun come up, but within the trees really didn't get a good view.  We made pretty good pace through the trees, taking several breaks.

One such break was at a small clearing in the trees, where we made a friend.

This bird was very curious about us, following us the rest of the way through the tree line.  Probably fed by other hikers and looking for a hand out, he was willing to get pretty close to us, but never so close that we could have touched him.

One last break just inside the tree line.  Unfortunately this is where I left my new friends behind, as my human friend was forced to take more frequent breaks feeling the exertion of the altitude, and the bird wasn't willing to go any further.

Up ahead we could make out the false peak, and a pretty clear route up to the top.  Many mountains contain at least one "false" peak where as you approach the top of the mountain you can see what looks to be summit only to find as you get closer that there is another higher point hidden from view.

The terrain had changed quite a bit to scrubby grass with switch back trails up the mountain towards the false peak.  Even at this height, I could look around and see for miles.

To the North, Mount Massive stood.  I mentally vowed to come back some day and climb it as well.

The climb doesn't look too bad, but it's hard to get a true sense of scale.  The hikers in front of me disappeared into the mountain, until they were almost no longer visible.  I began to need more and more breaks as I went.

Another shot of Mt Massive from further up.  Due to tricks of perspective, it is actually very difficult to figure out what the height of things are relative to me.  Depending on how I looked, Mt Massive either seemed right at the same height or above me.  Nevertheless, the peak is just a few feet shorter than Mt Elbert.

I was motivated to pick up the pace when passed by a guy carrying a bike up the mountain.  He was accompanied by a dachshund.  I did not want to get left behind with them making better time than me.

The climb turned to more stones and less loose dirt and grass.  We looped around the false peak and the real peak came into view.

At this point I felt a swell of emotion.  Just four months prior I had separated from my wife, and filed for divorce.  A year and a half before that I was lying in a hospital bed, unsure if I was too far progressed with a pneumonia and Leukemia to live.  Throughout all this I had countless people in my life - friends, family (biological and fire department), and co-workers - help me through the difficult times.

This was something I had done myself.  I prepared for this trip, flown to Colorado, traveled to the mountain, and climbed to the top without anyone else.

And here I was.

The views were incredible.  There was only one place in the contiguous 48 states higher than me right now, and it was all the way out in California.  I could look East with confidence that nothing was above me but sky.

I had many more high points to climb.  Many of these peaks I would climb with important people in my life.

But in this moment I realized that this mountain and trip was important to be only for me.  I wasn't alone at the mountain peak, but the people there weren't what got me to the top.

I climbed this peak myself.

The trip down was much faster, and easier on my legs.  I stopped for a break only twice, and made it back to my camp before 3pm.  I had considered camping another night, but decided to head back to civilization for hot food and a warm bed instead.

I had a late lunch / early dinner at the same diner I had lunch at the previous day, eating a pretty crazy amount of food, then I drove back to Georgetown.

There was a bed waiting for me there, and gorgeous views to wake up to.


I woke up, enjoyed a drive back through the mountains, and flew back to Pittsburgh the next afternoon.

That was it, I was a highpointer.  This would be the last major expedition of the year, but far from the last high point.  My next target would be a lot closer to home, Mt Davis, PA.

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