A lying guide, an abandoned mine, a slippery glacier, and a mountain storm.
Summer never touches certain corners of the high country. Even when the city on the plains below swelters in early July heat, snow still remains implacably on mountain sides. Afternoons, storms blow up unexpectedly: one minute the sky is topaz blue, and the next low gray clouds are clamoring across it, obscuring the sun and dropping the temperature several degrees Fahrenheit.
My father and I enjoy hiking on weekends, and to that end we've purchased several books detailing routes high in the Rockies promising to lead us to new and exciting vistas. My father has always been a serious hiker, starting from a youth spent scrambling around Cochise Stronghold in southern Arizona. I like to pretend that I can keep up with him in any physical pursuit, so naturally, after reviewing the books, he selected one of the hardest hikes listed, and I immediately agreed. We were on our way to see an alpine lake far up US 285 past Bailey, Colorado, somewhere in Pike National Forest-- about an hour drive from our house at the base of the Front Range.
We pack a lunch and raingear, not to mention my father's various books for identifying trees, flowers, and rocks (not that he needs them-- he can name most natural items found in the American West), stuff our feet into our hiking boots and drive out to the little dirt road leading to the trail, all as according to the map in the hiking guide book. This dirt road travels through rows of thick pines and aspens alongside a mountain stream. Thick rocks jut out of the dusty road, threatening to puncture a hole in the gas tank of a less worthy vehicle than our own 1989 Ford F-150. We pass several smaller, even more rocky roads branching out from this road, but the map in the guide book seems to indicate a straight path. Truthfully, we're getting a little concerned-- we seem to have traveled quite a bit further up this road than the 1.2 miles the guide book stated. Toward the end of the road, we are in the lowest gear of four wheel drive, fording the stream, crawling over the rocks, and eventually arriving at a simple dead end. A sheer wall of yellow stained mine tailings rises up in front of the truck grill, and we roll to a stop. For a minute we simply gaze at this massive pile of dirt, obviously from a small and long decrepit mine.
Mine tailings are not unusual to come across in the mounains of Colorado, and despite how much of it there is before us, we know that tiny mines produce lots of tailings. This was probably a one-man operation, belonging to some prospector digging for gold or silver in one of the various mineral rushes of the late 19th century. After a minute, my dad says, "Let's go."
We're out of the car in an instant and making our way warily around the tailings, looking out for places where the loose dirt has formed sinkholes. After several minutes of searching, we find what appears to be a hiking path and start traveling along it. It angles steeply up the side of the mountain, and is just as rocky as the road, but we expected nothing less from a hike labeled "extremely challenging". The altitude strips the oxygen out of my lungs as we ascend rapidly. The book says that we are heading for a summit of 13,039 feet above sea level, ascending from a base of 10,500 feet. I gasp for breath quietly, trying to match my father's quick pace. Whenever I catch up to him, I notice that he's breathing normally. I force my breath to slow, making myself a little light headed after several minutes of focusing on nothing but regulating my breathing. We come to the stream and see that the only way across it is on a thick log laid down over it. This seems a little iffy for a well known hiking trail, but we can't see a bridge anywhere. So I set my foot on the log, and I slip and plant one boot straight into the water. The freezing, rushing snowmelt soaks my leg up to the knee. I try to scramble back onto the log but instead send my other leg down into the water. I stagger to the other side in disgust and climb out onto the bank, yanking myself out by grabbing onto the thick grass lining the banks. My dad helps me catch my balance and laughs at my hopelessly soaked boots. Luckily, the sun is beating down on us, so much so that sweat is trickling down my back. The boots will dry soon. We carry on, walking ever farther up towards the sky.
At one o'clock we reach the summit, but no alpine lake presents itself. We search around for a while before sitting down in a field of wildflowers and eating our lunches. Below us, the valley stretches out, a green gem dotted by a dirty grey glacier and the yellow tailings. When I lay back in the grass, full of grapes and a cheese sandwich, the sun falls across my face and lulls me towards sleep. Distantly I can hear my dad identifying flowers.
The growl of thunder wakes me up. My dad is halfway across the field, examining some columbines, and I see his head come up at the sound. Dark clouds gather in the west. My dad says it's time to go back, and I agree, so we start back down the thin trail. Within a few minutes, my toes feel terrible from rubbing up against the inside front of my boot. The boots are a little too small for me, relics of Outdoor Lab in 6th grade, and have been well used. I grit my teeth and ignore the pain, thinking, "What would Shackleton do?" (that and "It'll be colder on Mt. Everest" are my exploring mantras) After a few more minutes, I can feel warm blood running from my toes and my feet are in agony. I collapse onto a flat rock and yell for my dad to stop. He comes back and helps me take the boots off, revealing my toes. Sharp pieces of plastic have come loose in the lining of the boots, scraping across the tops of my toes with every step. My dad kindly tears his undershirt into strips and wraps it around my toes, and then we stuff my feet back into the too small boots and move down the trail, much more slowly now. The clouds are busy invading the sky.
Upon reaching the stream, we find a rather alarming sight: the log we used to cross it has been swept away by the rushing water. My dad ponders this for a minute and decides that we shouldn't try to ford it, because now that the sun has gone behind the clouds our feet will quickly get numbingly cold, and my feet, in particular, will be in a lot of pain. We hike further down the river, off the tiny path now. At this point, we're both starting to realize that the guide book was wrong, and that we're on our own here, in uncharted territory, but neither of us says a word. This is our way, this silent walk, where we pause only to examine some new bit of flora or remark on interesting geology. Instead, we search for a better way across the stream. Suddenly we exit the trees and find ourselves on a ledge of solid granite. We can see the tailings to our right, and beside them the white dot of the truck. Directly in front of us-- blocking our path-- is the dirty grey glacier. Maybe two hundred feet below us, at the bottom, is a clear pool of water. I can only imagine how cold it is, this puddle of glacial melt. The glacier is very steep, but not solid ice, and on the other side of it there are some large rocks and then a clear trail down to the tailings. My dad says, "Can you do it?" and of course I nod yes, my heart already beating a little faster.
My dad goes first, like he always does, stepping out onto the ice with one foot. He shoves his boot down, making a thick dent, and tells me to walk only in his footsteps. He begins to walk out onto the glacier, standing at a sharp angle, occasionally touching the ice with his hand to keep his balance. The glacier is at something like a thirty degree angle. I follow him on my painful feet, carefully planting my smaller feet in his boot indentations. The glacier seemed tiny until I was on it; walking across it, so slowly and carefully, I feel like I'm crossing all of Antarctica. I'm caught between an adrenaline rush and paralyzing fear, knowing that if I fall we don't have a cell phone to call for help (not that there would be any reception here anyway). For the first time in my life, I'm out of the range of help. It's a crazy feeling, like I'm off balance on the edge of the Grand Canyon. And then I'm across the glacier, on a tiny ledge, but the sheer drop is still below me, a straight fall into the transparent waters of the lake.
The large rocks-- which I now realize are immense boulders-- loom immediately ahead of me. I follow my dad up one, planting my feet in indentations and grasping for the top. His hand grabs mine, hauling me up and over the rock, and then we're climbing up another. At one point, we have to cross a gap in the rocks, and I swing out into space for a second before making contact with the next boulder.
Finally, we are across the boulders-- just as a thick rain starts to fall. We are near to our goal now-- the truck-- so we forget about the raingear and charge down the path. We pass the dark wooden ruins of an old mining cabin, and the red rusted remains of a sieve system. Then we are at the truck, drenched, and although I am in pain, I exult in having made it here.
The next summer, we came back, and found out that the guide book had been completely wrong-- that one of the branching roads led to a very nice, wide path which led up to a sunny meadow and a pretty lake full of rainbow trout. It was a beautiful, enjoyable hike. We also tried to return this past summer, two years after our adventure, but Pike National Forest was closed due to forest fires.