Into Thin[ner] Air: A Colorado Junket
June 30-July 1, 2000

Hikers: Matthew Reagan, The Octopus

Business travel sucks, usually. You go through all the problems associated with plane tickets, hotel reservations, car rentals, travel reimbursement, and the pure anti-joy of the travel itself just to spend three or four days trapped in some hotel well away from anything you'd actually like to visit. Atlanta? Dull. Knoxville? Nasty. Colorado? Hey, now we're talking.

The excuse for this pre-thesis vacation was the 14th International Symposium on Thermophysical Properties. It's held in Boulder, CO (right), which is a huge improvement over the strip-mall sprawlburban smoghole of Atlanta that hosted my last big technical event. Even better, the conference was scheduled over a Monday-Friday block, demanding that at least one extra weekend be spent in the area to get that Saturday-night stay discount on the plane ticket. Time to expand my climbing horizons.

The conference itself was rather uneventful, with the same faces talking about the same material I'd heard about at other conferences. My talk was something new, but I don't think anyone got too excited about it. Whatever--I had enough to keep me busy. Starting on Tuesday, I began my altitude training, driving up into the hills around Boulder (8,000'-10,000') each night after dinner to suck some wind and get used to the altitude. The weather stayed rainy for the first three days, but on Thursday the sky cleared, allowing me to take an afternoon hike at 6,800' in the Boulder Mountain Park and see the fine views of the city and of the Front Range (left). The plan was to slowly go higher each day, with a final attempt on some 14'ers on Saturday.

Friday morning dawned clear and cool--perfect weather for a weekend in the mountains. I checked out of the (unimpressive) conference facilities at C.U. and was heading north toward Estes Park by 7am. I paid my $10 admission and enjoyed breakfast at 9,000' in Rocky Mountain National Park. As I ascended the Trail Ridge Road, views opened up all around, with the 14,255' Long's Peak dominating the park's skyline (right). The road snakes up and over the highest terrain in the park, topping out at over 12,000' along the treeless ridge. Each turn offered new views of mountains I'd never seen before, and after some steep switchbacks the road carried me and my Avis-rental Cavalier above treeline onto an endless expanse of alpine tundra (left). I'd seen plenty of tundra before, and I even recognized many of the plants, but unlike the precious patches of above-treeline terrain in New England, this stuff went on forever. I stopped at each scenic point, "hiking" along Macadam-paved tourist paths that kept errant feet off the delicate plantlife. I took a brisk pace on each excursion, trying to get my heart rate and respiration up for altitude practice. I did pretty well, feeling better and better about altitude as the day went on.

I stayed high as long as possible, even doing a little bit of shopping at the park's Alpine Visitors Center (11,796'). Beanie Babies and tchochkies over two miles up--no worse than Mt. Washington, I suppose. After a short descent to the Continental Divide and Milner Pass (10,758', right), I took an extended hike, running the two miles back up to treeline on a hike the park ranger said was over four (OK, looking at the clientele, I suppose they need to be ultra-conservative). By 1pm, though, it was time to descend and start my search for a place to spend the night.

Leaving the park through the western gate, I headed south to US 40 through Winter Park and Berthoud Pass. The "real" Colorado--not the academic haven of Boulder--stretched out before me. The radio supplied all the Jesus babble and Country/Western one could ever want, while flat plains bounded by snow-capped peaks filled the windshield. Reaching the mountains once again, the resort town of Winter Park presented a more familiar form of civilization, as well as a nice set of sculpted ski runs. The highway passed the Winter Park and Mary Jane ski runs and soon climbed several wicked switchbacks to Berthoud Pass and the Berthoud Pass Ski Area, supposedly home to excellent semi-backcountry skiing. A steep descent to I-70 and a few miles of wading through the holiday traffic brought me to Georgetown and the road to Guanella Pass.

A topo map of the Gray's Peak area revealed a forest service campground a few miles above Georgetown on Guanella Pass Rd., and since it was only 3pm Friday, I managed to find an open site. This wasn't as pristine as the campgrounds I'd seen in the White Mountains--the access road passed high-tension power lines, a hydroelectric plant, and several small dams and reservoirs, leading to the campground beside a rough clearing just above 10,000' (left). I set up my "Eclipse" a.k.a. Clip Flashlight (with some help from The Octopus) and headed back down to I-70 in search of dinner. Georgetown (right) turned out to be a nice find, with several touristy but friendly restaurants on a quaint, restored, Main Street. I drove around a bit after dinner, checking out the small towns along I-70 and marvelling at the tremendous volume of traffic heading west out of Denver. Radio reports indicated that this slow-moving line of SUVs and minivans ranged over 50 miles, from the Denver suburbs to the Eisenhower tunnel. And I thought getting to New Hampshire was tough on a holiday weekend.

I settled in early, after building a small campfire for entertainment purposes and repacking my gear for the next day's expedition. I crawled into my tent soon after sunset (quite spacious for one person) in hope of getting a full night's sleep before sunrise, but I made the critical error of not checking the altitude of the campsite. At 10,000', sleep was difficult. I'd start to drift off, but as soon as my breathing began to relax I'd wake up gasping for air. I imagine I slept a bit over the next eight hours, but only in worthless little naps. My watch alarm lit up at 5am--and unnecessary alert considering that I'd been wide awake and watching it since 4:30. A cup of Whisperlite-brewed Earl Grey made me feel a bit better. I chalk the night up to "altitude experience."

The drive to the trailhead only took 30 minutes, including the four miles of rocks, gullies, and potholes that were stuck together to form an access road (the Cavalier performed superbly, BTW, even passing a Grand Cherokee SUV owned by a truly incompetent driver who was completely unaware of wheel placement or "low gear"). The road passed an interesting assortment of abandoned shacks and newer vacation cabins, plus one scruffy piece of property surrounded by barbed-wire fences and numerous "Keep Out"/"No Trespassing"/"Private Property" signs. The centerpiece of this tangle of barricades was a plywood box with only one visible window, something like the Unibomber's backwoods home. Standing proudly on the rickety "porch" (deck? veranda?) was an even scruffier "gentleman" sporting stringy redneck hair and a NASCAR T-shirt, and leaning on a large shotgun. I suppose he felt the need to protect his investment property from the hordes of SUV driving yuppie day-hikers. The Gray's Peak trailhead (11,230'), unlike Bubba's estate, was very well developed, with restrooms, many signs and posters about "life in the backcountry," and even a quarter-mile section of gravel-paved trail for people who just wanted to see a few wildflowers. I snagged one of the last legal parking spaces at 7am, and was packed and on the trail (left) by 7:15.

Now, I'd spent some of the previous day walking around above 11,000', but this was my first time hiking briskly at altitude with a full pack. I brought all sorts of junk due to this being a solo hike in unfamiliar territory, and the gear, water, and heavy hiking boots really made a big difference. I covered the first mile in ten-minute segments, stopping every time my pace got ahead of my respiratory rate. Dozens of day-hikers passed, most wearing all-cotton outfits and carrying tiny packs that barely could have held two liters of water. I felt somewhat stupid carrying Presidentials-grade clothing and emergency gear, but considering that I was a stranger in this country, it was probably a wise thing to do.

The trail started out as a gravel-paved nature trail, soon easing into a gentle grade on a dirt and gravel base. Imagine the lower Tuckerman Ravine trail--with no rocks! The route gently zigged and zagged through the alpine meadows, curving around the base of 13,464' Kelso Mountain and following a stream that drained a beautiful U-shaped glacial valley (right). Rounding the first corner, I finally caught a glimpse of my destination (left), and quickly regretted leaving my ice axe in the car. A long ridge, lined with dozens of Huntington-Ravine-esque gullies rose gently to buttress 14,270-foot Gray's Peak. A broad col separated the rounded Gray's summit from the sharp point of 14,267-foot Torrey's Peak, and the bowl in between was filled with a huge Tuckerman-style snow bowl topped by a old, rotten, but still sharply-defined cornice. Glissading potential was everywhere, but I'd believed the internet reports that said "all the snow has melted."

{You know, one thing I now appreciate more is the wealth of information available about the White Mountains. Dozens of people share the details of their hikes on several websites, and you can always find the information you need about trail conditions, weather, bugs, and snow. Colorado doesn't seem to have this culture (Altavista hasn't found it, at least), and what few sites there are for the 14'ers, the quality of the information is really poor. Do none of these Western hikers have internet access, or don't they care?}
As the trail approached the flanks of Gray's, it attacked the steeper grade by looping through broad, well-constructed switchbacks. At first, I assumed that this habit of grading the hell out of the trails was simply a function of wussy Western hikers, but after hitting some of the steeper sections, it was clear that the intricate construction was necessary for erosion control. Unlike the New England mountains, where you hike on boulders from the parking lot to the summit, these mountains were covered by a loose mix of sandy soil and golf-ball sized stones. The dirt shifted and slid with each step, despite all the effort made to pave the path with carefully-placed stones. Acres of alpine wildflowers lined the sides of the trail--all the more reason to stay on the graded path. These perfectly graded trails stood out on the neighboring peaks--looking like minature Mt. Washington Auto Roads switchbacking up every ridge and summit. Still, a few rock outcrops provided firm footing and fine photo ops (right).

The switchbacks carried me and the hiking hordes higher and higher, revealing better and more expansive views with each curve (left). The rough, serrated Kelso Ridge to Torrey's presented a tempting challenge, and several steep, snow-filled couloirs begged to be climbed. I stuck to the main route, however, still sucking wind and feeling somewhat out of my element. As I approached 13,000' (the highest I'd ever been outside of an airplane cabin), I had to take a few rest stops to force down some sugary granola and plenty of water. The last 1,000' feet were the low point of the day. I hovered at the edge of altitude sickness without actually getting a headache or feeling nauseous, and soon fell well behind the two-hour pace listed at the trailhead. The ranger at RMNP had said that it take two to six weeks to truly acclimatize, and she was right for once. Stopping for another forced food break (altitude wrecks your appetite, too), I spent a pleasant ten minutes chatting with a New England expatriate who shared stories of Presidential climbs and foul-weather adventures in the Whites. This seems to have taken my mind off the altitude, because the last 50 yards to the summit weren't a problem even with the two-pints-on-an-empty-stomach buzz I had going.

I touched the summit three hours and thirty minutes after hitting the trail, which surprisingly matches the standard AMC "book" time for a four mile, 3,000' hike. The views were expansive and awesome, with endless lines of snowy peaks receding into the distance. I enlisted a fellow hiker to get me a solo summit photo (right), and brought out The Octopus to commemorate this awesome occasion. I rested a bit, letting my pulse drop all the way down to 90 beats/minute and relaxing my breathing to the point where I could talk to people on the summit. I didn't stay long, though, since this quick recovery moved me to try for a second 14'er.

Sick of the dusty switchbacks, I chose a rockier route to Torrey's--down to the col and up the connecting ridge along the corniced top edge of the snowfields (left). I felt a bit more at home walking on rock, but this rock was still small and loose, like piles of river cobbles rather than the football- to house-sized boulders that make up a typical Presidential scramble. I dropped the 300' quickly, and immediately attacked the steeper ridgeline up to Torrey's. Climbing once again, I was immediately reminded of the altitude. This 300' scramble was complete nontrivial, and the loose gravel and small boulders made it even more of a chore. I seemed have adjusted a bit, though, since I was merely out of breath, rather than out of my head. Determined to finish the job, I gasped and stumbled up to the sharp summit of Torrey's Peak, arriving a little less than an hour after leaving Gray's.

I stopped for another set of sweeping views and Octopus conquests (right), and noticed the gray plastic tube containing the summit register. Doh! I could have "officially" signed in on Gray's, too! I signed in for both myself and The Octopus, making a note of all the religious graffiti the locals placed in the register. About one in four entries had some kind of proselytizing, from "Jesus Loves You!" (how nice) to "Bow down before Him or BURN in hell!!!!!!" (how nice) to one entry that suggested that Jesus H. Christ himself had climbed the peak (now that would impress me). I felt the need to leave something profound, as well as respond to all the god-talk, so in a high-altitude haze I added my own perspective:

Don't waste your time on 2,000 year old superstition. Salvation is right here. Look around.
It seemed profound at the time.

I spent only fifteen minutes on the summit. By noon, the puffy cumulus clouds surrounding the peaks seemed to be getting larger, and I felt a sudden urgency. I blasted down the ridge, balancing on the loose rock with my trusty poles, traversed across the top edge of the wide snowfield (looking down, sadly, at 1,000' of perfect steep glissading!), and rejoined the Gray's Peak Trail just above the first set of switchbacks. I was amazed at the number of people who cut onto the snowfield much higher up on Torrey's, walking along the edge of that old cornice (left). I assume they hadn't scoped out the route from below, and didn't realize they were standing on an undermined ledge of old snow above 1,500' of steep slush and boulders. For me, the air below 13,000' seemed positively thick, and I flew down the trail using my poles for balance and slow, late, altitude-sick day-hikers as slalom gates. Around the base of Kelso Mtn., I ran smack into a herd of bored-looking mountain goats (right). They gladly posed for pictures in between lazy munches on tundra plantlife.

Light sprinkles began to fall as misty clouds billowed up through the Gray's-Torrey's col. As I trotted down the two-mile runout, I looked back to see dozens of people silhouetted against an angry sky, including several people who still seemed to be ascending the switchbacks. Thunder rumbled in the distance, and distant thunderheads grew upward from the hot and smoggy valleys. These folks are lucky to have typically predictable and benevolent weather--this sort of behavior has killed dozens of people on Mt. Washington alone.

I arrived back at the car around 1:45 and hit the "high-clearance" road again by 2pm. A nasty headache appeared out of nowhere as I dropped below 10,000', and a liter of Gatorade did nothing to fix it. I worried about altitude once more, then realized the real problem and stopped for a bottle of iced tea in Idaho Springs. Aahh, caffiene! Saturday night was spent in a Motel 6 in a dingier part of dingy Denver, but capped by a fine dinner at the Wazee Supper Club in "LoDo" (the small upscale district in downtown Denver). I slept very well that night.

All my travel troubles have given me two domestic plane tickets. Where to next?

Photos by Matthew Reagan

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