Dark and early yesterday morning, (3:45 am), my friend Charley and I headed for the Long’s Peak Trailhead to try to climb Long’s from the Loft route, between Mt. Meeker (13,911’) and Long’s Peak, a Colorado 14er (14,255). Our intention was to summit Long’s from the much less traveled Meeker route (12.6 miles from the trailhead), something we had attempted only a week and a half before but failed due to a lack of research, preparation and diminishing drinking water. This time Charley showed me a book and a printout he had gotten off the Internet and we felt well armed and equipped for the journey this time.
On the way up the canyon I almost hit a black bear as he lumbered out in front of my Jeep, keeping his furry black rump only about five feet in front of my bumper. He had to be doing about 30 mph to keep from getting hit. I thought, “Now that’s something you don’t see everyday… a bear on the side of the road as road kill. Sure am glad I didn’t hit him!”
As Charley and I started up the trail using our headlamps in the dark, we could tell that the clouds were thick overhead and that the half moon was completely hidden. Though still fairly warm for 4:00 in the morning, a fine mist was beginning to blow visibly in front of our headlamps, and I was grateful that Charley had warned me to wear long underwear and warm gloves. When we got to timberline, it was still dark as could be and the mist began to turn into a combination of light snow and rain, finally giving way to steady rain.
We were just warm enough and began passing small groups of hikers and climbers heading back down the mountain in the opposite direction. That is never really a good sign at 5:00am, with the day barely underway, and I wondered what adventures lay ahead for us for this day. “Give us this day our daily adventure…and forgive us our foolish decisions as we forgive ourselves for making them…”
When we got to the Chasm Lake turnoff, we stopped for a bite to eat and Charley put on his warmer clothes. I donned my down vest that had been attached to my camelback and was very appreciative for its warmth and protective outer shell.
“What do you think?” I asked Charley.
“I’ve seen mornings like this where the sun will come up and burn it off in just a couple of hours,” he reassured me. “Besides,” I thought, “it’s early September.”
And sure enough, as the light in the east began to glow and the sky went from a deep, deep orange to a moody, almost purplish red and then brilliant golden glow, the rain subsided and we could see the tip of the sun peeking through the crack that formed the morning between the horizon and the thickness of clouds above it. And then, a few minutes later, it vanished into the clouds.
We ventured down the beautiful Scottish-Highland-like trail, amusedly commenting on the beautiful emerald color of “Turquoise Lake”, and the beauty of Chasm Falls cascading down into it. Having been on this same route less than two weeks before, we were surprised to see that the potentially hazardous snow bridge across the path with a steep drop-off to the left, had completely melted leaving only a safe path of dry rock. “Just in time for the new snows to come,” commented Charley.
As we crossed the marshy field and crossed several little mini bridges over the cheery stream that wound its’ way through the meadow below Chasm Lake, a new confidence and joy began to well up within us.
We made great time, never stopping, but only walking step by step up the canyon through the scree and boulders and finally, the flat-iron face of Meeker towering before us. Now came the challenge. Our goal was to reach the Loft by 9:00am, and summit Long’s by noon. We began the slow ascent using both lungs and all four limbs to climb the rock face. Nothing too intimidating, but with a realization that there could be serious consequences for any careless mistakes or poor choices we might possibly make. It seemed, all was going well for us, and though the sun still had not made its’ anticipated second coming, we reached the base of the Loft by 8:15. A decided victory!
No sooner had we texted our loved ones that we had reached the Loft and were on to Long’s Peak, than the weather took a turn for the worst and turned foul. The temperature dropped rapidly and snow began to blow over the Loft and down the side of the mountain numbing our fingers and stinging our eyes. We only went a few dozen more yards or so and decided to hunker down behind a couple of boulders and wait it out a bit before making a decision as to what to do next.
Without telling each other, both Charley and I began to shiver and noted that our body temperature was rapidly dropping. We quickly decided it would be best to abort the mission to summit Long’s, which, by now, had disappeared into the blowing snow and clouds. My face and lips freezing, I could barely make intelligible words and it took me much longer than it should have to text Charley’s fiancé, Kathleen, and let her know we were heading back down. (His phone wasn’t getting service).
We both dreaded the slippery, snowy descent back down the ledges that we had just so cautiously climbed. But there was nothing else to do – down or die. About an hour and a half of “eagle-eyes” watching for cairns, (piles of rocks used as trail markers), and carefully placed footing and hand holds, we gratefully reached the bottom and turned around and looked back up at the tower from which we had just fled.
Momentarily, the wind died down a bit a gave a short reprieve as we headed back up the trail from Chasm Lake to the turn-off and back down to the parking lot. The biting, stinging rain began to hit the back of our necks and we began to walk/run the rest of the way. It felt a bit surreal running down the trail away from the impending disaster of hypothermia in the icy snow and rain to come upon an elderly Japanese lady who could barely speak English, walking in the opposite direction towards Long’s Peak in the blowing rain. Well above timberline and more than an hour away from the parking lot below, she was equipped with not much more than a light jacket and a red and white umbrella. She smiled an unworried smile and said something pleasant in broken English as the wind filled her umbrella and pulled her past us.
“Stay warm and be careful,” we warned as we passed her on the left and kept running.
“I hope she’s alright,” I thought out loud and pondered over the fascinating mini story that had just unfolded before our eyes – two full grown, strong and “experienced” men battling it out in nature, hands numb and freezing, running towards safety like a couple of elk from the wolves, encounter an elderly lady out for a pleasant stroll in the park, looking for flowers to pick and take home to set on her table 6,000 miles away.
Who knows, maybe we will someday have grown invincible and see her again, high-fiving each other as we surf a tsunami.