The next thing I know it is warm. Very warm. And VERY VERY bright.
Not too much later we're heading back to the car, having left the tent set up behind us. I've spent the morning collecting trash and have a bag full of broken glass, beer bottles, bottlecaps, and plastic. I can't fathom how there's so much! Back at the car, two people from Montana are cleaning up a hillside beneath their vehicle: two bags! One of them comments that in Montana you'd be beaten up if you did this sort of thing.
A drop by the visitor's center gets us a pass into Rocky Mountain National Park. Waiting with our car to get into the park with our pass takes longer than procuring the actual pass, but, once inside, the traffic disperses and we're switch-backing up a narrow, tarred road. This eventually drops us in a lengthy parking lot where we give B.K. flake for parking as far away from the trailhead as humanly possible.
The other three load on there backpacks; I put some food in the pockets of my fleece jacket (which just so happens to have a waterproof jacket, leggings, stocking cap, and binoculars already in it. Heading up the parking lot I can't tell whether my supplies are adequate or not—it's all situationally-dependent, of course—but I feel they are. Our best and most reliable survival tool is our wits, followed by our self-control and our goals, everything else is secondary. The trick to packing is an honest assessment of the former three. But, for anyone who didn't know better, I didn't look much better than a lowland-tourist walking ignorantly into the woods. I hope that isn't true!
|The trail's excellent wood planks for the first two feet and then becomes three-foot deep snow worn with the passage of hundreds of previous day-hikers and ripe for post-holing and slipping. This brings us, a quarter mile later, to Bear Lake. By summer, I'm sure it'd be beautiful, but at this time of year its an expansive of partially-melted, yellowed snow.|
|The trail alternates between slick snow and mucky muck, both in and out of the forest. Always climbing. B.K. sets a quick pace the whole way, stopping rarely. Often times the group's out of site somewhere ahead of me. This isn't too unusual, though. My knee isn't always happy with me and I take special care to ascend with minimal flexion. Large upward and downwards steps, especially with a pack on, place enormous load on the joint and are something I avoid, preferring to lean and balance my way up inclines and fly, with my customary speed, along the straight-of-ways. Except, with the snow, there are none!|
|We ultimately do take a break in the shade of a massive boulder at the end of Emerald Lake(?) as B.K. climbs it. The hikers we passed sitting by the shore cheer and beseech him to yodel, a request he declines. Coming down he apologises for the speed on the way up: he wanted to challenge himself. From there, we scramble through a boulder-field mixed with snow. The boulders present all their usual fun, but the snow near them is treacherous. The boulders are catching the snow, warming, and melting the snow near them leaving squishy patches or gaps many feet deep.|
B.K. leads us through it and up a steep snow slope, switches back, and continues up the slope to where it levels out.
|We continue along the boulder field and the mountains rise around us. There are ski trails coming down some of the slopes, though they appear, from our angle, to be nearly straight drops. Pulling out the binoculars, I find that some of them are just snow or rock slides leaving anthropomorphic droppings. B.K. points to the end of the lake, is it okay if we go around there? Though the slope in that direction looks quite steep from where we're at, we agree.|
|Above us, he points out a narrow snow path climbing upwards to the peak. "We're climbing that tomorrow", he says. Now, in every interaction I've had with him, B.K. has struck me as an up-and-up person, and not in the climbing sense. He seems calm, pleasant, fair, experienced, and intelligent. Consistently. In oter words, I hold a high opinion of him, but one that hasn't been tested through extended and varied interaction.|
Watching the speed at which he ascended the trail, the way he looks at the peaks, the path he's led us on so far, I know he has an agenda. No one comes to the mountains without one; I sure don't. He's in the tricky position of having planned and now leading this trip: it's a position which pits one's desires against one's duty to ensure the safety of the group, to assess situations based not just on yourself, but on your knowledge of those you're with. You have to use your prior experience to look at a new place, a new situation, judge the challenge it presents, and then judge the people you're with to see if the two will fit. In the best cases, that can take a group on journeys more difficult than its members believed themselves capable of; in the worst, you flirt with disaster. The trick is knowing where that line is and staying on the right side of it.
I'm being wary for the time being.
There's a scree slope descent. I dislike these, both because of that storm in the Sangre de Christos and because they present a formidable challenge for my knees. I descend very slowly.
When B.K. suggested the trip around the end of the lake, both Jusko and I had looked at the slope and raised our eyebrows, but, as promised, it's quite passable.
|Rounding the corner of the lake, we begin to speed-hike out. B.K. sets a quick pace with Jusko and Peter scuttling along and keeping up. The terrain is the primary culprit here. As above: hills ain't happy. But I can make awesome time on the straight-of-ways. Can I follow the frozen lake shore instead of taking the trail? Yes. Can I cut the distance around this lake in half by going around it the other way? Yes. I look ahead, and see B.K. and Peter flitting through the trees. The snow squishes softly beneath my feet. Perfect.|
We all take the last mile or so at something between a fast jog and a run, sliding along the snow and jumping into drifts to cut speed at the corners. The parking lot's a good place to stop and laugh with exhileration.
They drop me off at the library where I work for the afternoon. Returning, hours later, they tell me they didn't climb at all… Jusko is having some problems with the altitude.
Later that night, sitting on the rock out-cropping, B.K.'s friends Torsten and Anna find us and we all sit, look at the stars and distant night-glowing mountains, and talk until at least midnight.