I have come to the "chalk stone," one of the most difficult points on Colorado's Longs Peak (14,259-feet).
Removing my gloves, I run my hands over the smooth granite surface seeking a way up the 12-foot incline where my brother Kent Keith is waiting. Grasping a narrow handhold, I place my right boot on a skinny indent and jam my left foot into the "V" of a rock. Two maneuvers later, pressing my left knee into an uncomfortable position, I call up to my brother telling him "I'm stuck."
Kent extends his leg encouraging me to grab on.
"I can't reach you," I gasp. "I'm still (sputter) too far down."
Feeling around, the middle fingers of my right hand discern a tiny crag. Rearranging other body parts, I pull myself up on my belly. I have reached "The Notch."
As I catch my breath, Kent excitedly says, "Wait until you see what is on the other side."
Anticipating a glorious vista, my heart skips a beat as I gaze upon a 3-foot ledge running alongside the mountain with a sheer drop-off of 700-feet. I am overlooking "The Narrows." With Kent in front of me, I squat down behind one solitary rock guarding against a plummet.
"Kent, I don't think I can do this," I say.
But wait - I'm getting ahead of the story.
This is Day Six of a two-part adventure in Rocky Mountain National Park. This protected wilderness area is located 65 miles northwest of Denver. Thanks to conservationists such as Enos Mills, and F.O. Stanley, RMNP became the United States' 10th national park in 1915. Their vision ensures that future generations can find a place for physical challenge with mental and spiritual healing.
My travels begin on the west side of the park where I pick up our backcountry permits at the Kawuneeche Visitor Center. The name is Arapaho for Valley of the Coyote. My brother and I plan to do a four-day loop along the Continental Divide Trail (CDT) starting at the North Inlet Trailhead near Grand Lake.
Because Kent and I are both flatlanders - Houston, Texas and Bemidji, Minnesota respectively - we immediately feel the effects of altitude at 8,367-feet. I remind myself to go slowly, consume calories and stay hydrated. Finding water is easy as the path meanders beside the North Inlet stream and waterfalls.
The real hike begins on Day Three with an arduous switchback up to the treeless, alpine tundra of Flathead Mountain (12,324-feet). While basking in the exquisite even plane of this near-barren playground, I notice two young men carrying backcountry skis and heading for a narrow patch of dirty snow. Out of incredulity, I ask their girlfriends why the boys have such equipment in the autumn.
They tell me, "It's September ski day. Our boyfriends find snow somewhere and ski at least one day every month of the year."
I watch for a while knowing it will be easy to ski down in a matter of minutes, but I wonder how long it will take to get back up the steep ridge.
The usual afternoon winds, rain and moisture move into the high elevations. Trudging onward we make our way on the spur trail to Haynach Lake. Following the dinner chores, we stroll the one-mile track past several lakes leading to a deadend.
Dusk is crisp and serene. It is so quiet I can hear ringing in my ears. A deep calm transports me to my innermost thoughts. Unexpectedly a low, deep moan turned high pitch squeal jars me out of my reverie. My eyes pop up into my brow. My brother has the same startled look. We silently move deeper into the canyon. More grunting, known as bugling reverberates off the walls. Across the meadow we detect a group of elk (wapiti). This is the beginning of the rut, their mating season.
Sitting quietly atop a rock, I absorb this first-hand account of one of nature's ancient rituals of life. I stay a short time, as light is growing short.
As I return to camp, the brilliance of Venus lights to path. The rods and cones of my eyes are working overtime. Detecting movement across the stream, I vaguely make out more elk, but the advancing darkness keeps me focused on the trail.
Savoring our morning coffee, we discuss the powerful events we were privileged to have witnessed. The trek back to the car would be easy and anti-climatic.
We are now automobile tourists for one-half a day, as we motor from the west to the east side of RMNP for the second part of our adventure. Camping in an area where all 245 sites are occupied brings it's own incident. Around midnight I am dreaming of butterflies, when "something" tickles the bottom of my sleeping bag. I shoo "it" away and groggily doze back off. Within seconds "the thing," now confirmed as a mouse, scampers over my head, jumping out my open tent flap.
On the fifth day, we meet my son, Eric Scotland, who now lives in Boulder, Colo., at the Longs Peak Trailhead. A vigorous 7.5-mile route, with 5,000 feet of elevation gain can be undertaken in one or two days. For the single day hiker, the event should commence no later than 3 a.m., with headlights, to ensure a safe summit before the typical afternoon thunderstorms roll in. The average person takes 14-16 hours for the difficult round-trip.
We design our trip to be a two-day excursion by securing a permit to overnight in Boulder Field. This will be Kent's first "14-er" out of Colorado's 54 named peaks over 14,000-feet. "Fourteen-ers" are classified into ratings of 1-5. Longs Peak is a Class 3-plus, non-technical climb as long as the ground is ice-free (usually mid-July to mid-September) and the weather is good.
At noon I begin the arduous shuffle up, step by slow step. Several returning hikers scare me with stories about the difficulty of the route. I give myself permission to turn back if I determine the trek is beyond my comfort level. By mid afternoon I become adept at sensing which folk summit and which turn back. The successful ones have a "Rocky Mountain High" about them.
Each person has a story to tell. One of my favorites is an energetic, middle-aged Swiss man who cruises down the mountainside. He wonders why American trails are so "flat." He chuckles and invites us to his country for a real challenge. Another is a jovial Japanese man who reached Longs Peak's apex three years ago, saying he would never do that terrifying route again. He is content to journey to Chasm Lake at the base of the mountain.
My favorite individual is a Mexican named Ricardo Peña. First he tells me has done all 54 of the 14-ers. Then he asks if I have read the book "Alive" about the 1972 plane crash that hurls the members of Uruguay's rugby team into the Andes Mountains.
"Yes, I have read the book," I say.
Next Ricardo asks if I saw the National Geographic story about some of the survivors of that crash who retraced their escape route.
"Yes, I remember reading that story as well."
Mr. Peña tells me he was on that re-enactment trip. Living in Boulder, he now guides full time through his business (alpineexpeditions.net).
The afternoon is waning, so I trudge onward through a mix of rain, sun and snowflakes. Arriving at the Boulder Field, I notice only the top of an orange tent peeking about a circular wall of layer stones. There are nine such areas with enough flat space to erect one solitary tent per site in an otherwise uninhabitable terrain.
Before we can make dinner, we must find water must be found. Walking around the boulders, Eric listens for an underground stream. He finds a flowage swift enough to fill our bottles, but he has to lean his face against the rock and reach his arm downward into the shadow. Following the gourmet cuisine of freeze-dried Chicken à la King, we relax in our "bunkers." I laugh as the other campers pop out of their holes like gophers in the movie "Caddyshack."
As the great heater hides behind the mountain, we need to don our woolies and down jackets. There is an amber glow over Estes Park before the dark shadows form alien looking shapes that surround me. Sleep at an altitude of 12,500-feet is fitful. I rehash all the stories I have heard today and even have irregular dreams of the unknown.
At 5:30 a.m., the morning's first hikers can be heard making their way over uneven rock piles. Rousing myself out of the sleeping bag, I see three shining headlamps dancing up the slope with a thin sliver of pink on the horizon behind them. After coffee and forced oatmeal consumption - I'm too nervous to eat - I scramble towards "The Keyhole" and the remaining 1.6 miles to the top.
Eric, who is four times faster that I am, plans to summit Longs, then take a Class-5 traverse to the neighboring Meeker Peak (13,911-feet). Meeker is too "short" to be considered a 14-er, but daunting nonetheless. Eric and I exchange walkie-talkies so we know where each other are located.
Longs Peak passage is well marked with painted red and yellow "bull's-eyes." We allow a faster hiker to pass us and begin to follow him. Soon all three of us realize we are off course and begin wandering around looking for the mark. We are too high, but we finally get back on course. The moral of the story is, don't move until you see the next bull's eye.
We now enter the "Trough," which is a straight up scramble. A helmet would be beneficial. I was warned to listen for rock slides from overhead hikers and take precautions. Thirty minutes later I am at the "chalk stone."
"Kent, I don't think I can do this"
My brother, who has the same heart-stopping experience I do, says, "Let me go just a short way and see if it is manageable."
I mumble to myself, "Hundreds of people have carefully navigated this precipice. I can too. But I'll turn around if I need too."
Placing my left hand on the rock I lean my body into the wall, hugging the granite at all times. My Jell-o legs proceed very slowly, my eyes never looking down. This is not a race. I try not to think about how I am going to come back down. I only focus forward. Little by little I am making progress.
After the narrows, the trail does spirals back on itself leading to the "Homestretch." In another 30 minutes, I am standing on the highest point in all of Rocky Mountain National Park. Strangers are clapping, giving me high-fives and proclaiming "Congratulations!" I have just scaled one of the hardest of all the 14-ers.
Kent is there to celebrate with me. We go to the actual survey mark letting the emotions of a goal set and accomplish wash over us. Making a slow circle to my left, I absorb the panoramic landmarks. The air quality is so clear I can see Pike's Peak (another 14-er) 130 miles southeast of my position. My walkie-talkie rings. It's Eric.
"Mom, can you see me? I'm on top of Meeker."
Straining my eyes I observe a miniscule speck flapping his arms across the valley.
After absorbing as much of the heavenly setting as I can, the tricky downward climb begins. Initially everyone uses the five-point method, scooting on one's posterior. I'm careful not to slide too fast, or too far in any given motion. Most accidents occur during the descent. I admire the youngsters who have mountain goat-like stability. From my tent site in Boulder Field to the pinnacle, it takes me three hours to ascend and another three hours for the reverse.
Back at the Keyhole, Eric catches up to me. Pausing on a ledge, I inquire about his double adventure.
Sheepishly he informs me, "I had a little accident."
Upon careful examination I see he is scuffed up with dirt-filled scratches. Eric explains there was a flaw in his right boot. When his left foot caught the defect, he fell about five feet, landing on his hip and jarring his left hand. He was quick to point out he did not hit his head or break any bones. I try not to say anything, merely use a mother's look to convey my mix of feelings. I am extremely thankful all is well.
The scorecard now stands with Eric completing his 24th 14-er, Polly two and Kent his first. My brother is so hooked he's back in Houston dreaming of next year's adventure.