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So ... what's up, guys? What did you do for the Labor Day long weekend, 2002? Yes, that's the span of Friday, August 30th to Monday, September 2nd. Hit the beach, huh? ann-ha. Watched movies? Good, good. Guess what we did? We made it to the summit of Long's Peak, in the Rocky Mountain National Park, at an elevation of 14,256 feet, a trek that took us through nearly 5000' elevation, 7.5 miles one-way, and about 16 hours to complete.
Did I get your attention? Good. Now, let's start from the very beginning, as that's a very good place to start.
The group of fearless adventurers: Kanishka, Ranjita, Krishna, Snigdha, and I. By the time Snigdha and I reached the Jeppesen Terminal of the Denver International Airport, the team from California (that's everyone else) had already taken the hotel room, picked up a huge Ford Expedition, and on their way to pick us up from the airport.
The night was uneventful, and we woke up relaxed on a sunny Saturday morning. Where are the Rocky Mountains? From our hotel, it looked like I was in the middle of Death Valley, with a dash of greenery substituted for the stark desert. Kanishka assured me that the mountains were there, and that we would soon be on them.
We drove up to Estes Park, the town closest to the RMNP (Rocky Mountain National Park).
First, some snippets from a few other websites that describe the trek:
Now for the real thing. That is, our account of the trek. I'm writing this down even before the pictures have come back from B&H, since I doubt if I'll remember it all a week from now - and, I don't know about you, but I would love to re-live these moments every now and then.
Kanishka's alarm went off at an insane time - something like 1 in the morning, a time I'm more familiar to getting to bed at, and not waking up looking forward to miles and miles of trekking. I managed to cling to my sleeping bag until everyone else was done 'booting up', and decided to start packing when I heard someone take apart the top layer of the tent. Pack up was done by 2am, and we were on our way to the Long's Peak Ranger Station.
Once we turned into the small paved road to the ranger station, we were surprised by the number of cars parked by the side of the road. Was the parking lot full already? It was hardly 2:30am. We reached the parking lot, and found ample space to park. I went through a few other trip reports online that mentioned the same. To date, I did not understand why people were parked on the road when the parking lot was half empty. If someone unravels this mystery, please let me know.
Soon, the car was parked, we decked up everything warm we had, I switched on my brand new headlight with pride, the register was signed, the 'before-the-trip' snaps were taken, and we were on our way. 7 miles or rocky terrain? No problem. Haven't we done these kind of treks already, in the Grand Canyon and the Telescope Peak? Little did we know what was in store, and how different this was going to be. Looking back, I think it's good that I didn't read about the trek, or see pictures of the hike, before I started out - I doubt I would have taken the trip if I had seen the pictures of the trek beyond the keyhole. But wait - let's not jump ahead. After all, the trek had to be taken one step at a time, and so should the trip report.
We were a little surprised to see the huge number of people who had already started the trek, but then that was good in a way - at least we wouldn't be the only people, and could get help if needed. The first thing that hit us was the darkness. Without the lights, I couldn't see my hand. The torches came out, and chased away the darkness immediately around us. Reminded us somewhat of Frodo's trip in the Lord of the Rings - with ents all around us in the forest, and the trail devoid of anything modern, and the silence all around. To drive the point home, there was a sign pointing to the "Goblin's forest" campground, a little way up the trail. We progressed at a slow and steady pace, and were overtaken every now and then by people who looked very fit and with way more energy than what my Bottled Rocket energy drink was providing me.
About an hour into the trek, my SafeWay $20 headlamp was done eating the batteries, and my argument that REI headlights were rip-offs went to the trash. Luckily, I had another set of batteries, and became more cautious in using up the power. My other flashlight from REI - with the high power Princeton Tech bulb and 4AA power - gave up completely, and was bagged by Kanishka. Now that I was not glowing from the head, it was easy to see the lights of Denver from within the trees. The hike went on and on, across little makeshift bridges (tree trunks placed across streams, with the top made flat), and little waterfalls, and streams, and some screeching thingies, and the constant upgrade. The slope was not very steep at this point - but was steady as hell. Everybody and their uncle overtook us on their way up, but that did not affect us - we were doing good time, too. Not like they were giving away freebies on a first come first served basis on the summit, anyway.
The trail was uneventful, except for the other hikers overtaking us from time to time. The road went on and on, and we could not see what's on either side - all that we could make out was that there was a mountain on one side, and a big fall on the other. Around 5:30, the sky began getting lighter. We were greeted to a beautiful sunrise when we reached the fork with North Long's Peak trail, about a mile shy of the Boulderfield. The Boulderfield was cold and windy, and we were getting out of breath even with all the pauses on our way up, so we snuggled into one of the empty campsites and crouched into the little protection provided by the stones heaped around the area. Krishna and I smoked - the first smoke on the trail, since smoking is prohibited when on the trail. We also nibbled on some of the chocolates and stuff we had brought along. The keyhole was looking grand, with the fresh sunlight falling on it, and I managed to take a few pictures. Then it was time to play 'froggy go home' in real life - jump from boulder to boulder, surfaces at crazy angles, following the stone heap markers (I came to know, after I was back from the trip, these are called 'cairns', and are meant to be markers, and not coincidental as we had thought). It was fun for a little while, but then the rare air was tough to do all the jumping in, and I was really scared of spraining my ankle. We all agreed that this was the closest we had come to something that can be called 'The Mines of Moria'.
After some time, and lots of pauses, we reached the keyhole. It was windy like hell, and there was hardly any space to sit and relax. I looked beyond the keyhole to the other side, and it looked like there was no way to go from here. So we go back, or something. Just then, a few hikers came along, and went around me, and took a path where there seemed to be none. I took a peek - the 'path' was on a sheer incline, hardly any holds, steep as hell, and no definite path to follow. But then, we had already come all this way, so it did not make sense to head back just yet. On we go. Beyond doubt, the trek suddenly became out of this world - I have never considered such paths as valid options ever before. We went following the other hikers more than the 'fried eggs' - the latter being the red and yellow circles that are meant to be markers. The other hikers seemed to know the best way to get to the top, wherever that was, so it was easier to follow them than make our own way. The hike was getting really, really tiring, and I had to stop for breath every 10 steps or so. Thankfully, I saw practically everyone else doing the same, so I gathered it was more to do with the thin air than my physical (un) fitness. After what seemed like ages, I reached the top - only to realize that it was just the beginning of the narrows, and the top was still about an hour away.
That was it - I gave up. I perched myself on one of the ledges just around the narrows corner, and went to sleep, while Ranjita and Krishna went forward. I slept for a good 20 minutes, I think, until Kanishka and Snigdha came up. Now that I was rested, I got some tempo to keep on going, and went off again into the depths of hell. Of course, 'went off' means take 10 steps, rest a while, but then after taking a few turns, I was at the Homestretch, and could see the top. That helped. Take a few steps, see the end come closer, stop and breathe. A million rests later, I was finally at the top - and that was that. It was around 11:30am. The view wasn't as spectacular as I had expected, visibility was not very good with the top sun and the haze, but still it was well worth the trip. None of us could do high fives or scream, the thin air had sapped a lot of our energy, and so we all lied down and took little naps. At least, I did, so I'm not sure what the others were doing when I was sleeping. Our sandwiches picked up the day before had become rock hard - and none of us felt hungry at all. Kanishka prodded us to eat something, so I picked the meat and cheese out of my sandwich and ate that. The frequency of people arriving at the top was going down, which meant it was time to get back.
We were on our way back around 12:45pm. Unfortunately, going down was tougher than I had thought - I think it was tougher than going up, except that the out-of-breath situation was replaced by the sheer-drop-to-death possibility. I was glad I had bought a new pair of Nike sneakers - I so would not have been able to do this in my hiking boots. All of us had weaker knees than the guys who went jumping down - so more often than not, we were down on our bums, sliding slowly down the smooth surfaces, hands desperately trying to do the braking thing. At one point, I came to this 10-foot smooth rock surface, which I had bypassed on my way up. The bypass looked more dangerous than the rock when going down, so I went for the rock face. Put my foot in a little crack, other in a little indentation, hands set to grip something, push a little. That was it - I slipped, all limbs looking for grips and everything, and landed straight 10-ft lower than I was. Kanishka managed to stop me from going down on my face, and I stood awestruck at my feat more than 13,500 ft above sea. That was close.
The trek went on and on, and looked way longer than on our way up. It took us 3 hours to get back to the keyhole and look down into the mines of Moria. Kanishka had the luck of being told by someone that he looked like a serious hiker, and that gave him a speed boost, and he reached the keyhole some half hour before the rest of us. Anyway, we took a rest, evaluated our water situation, had a round of Advils, looked at the Jewel Lake (though I was way too tired to take my camera out), and were on our way.
From that point on, I did not really mind the way back - for one thing, after coming down from 14,256', we were all glad to breathe the dense 12,000' air (!) - which we had found really rare on our way up. For another, all we had to do was cross the boulderfield, and then it was autopilot, one foot before the other, and we would be home. I always land up with a lot of energy once on the return trip and the end comes into the picture (which had not done so until we crossed the keyhole). Kanishka and I took off from just beyond the boulderfield at around 5pm, and went on walking, walking, walking, walking, through milestones that lied and tree lines that did not appear and mountains that we saw for the first time since it was all dark when we went up and some constructions we had not seen and the sun and clouds and shrubs and trees and waterfalls, and finally at 7:10pm, we were down at the parking lot. We made it just before sunset, and realized that the others were stuck in the dark. Since there was light out, Kanishka and I emptied up the car and re-packed everything so we can take off for the airport. Ranjita made it down next, followed by Snigdha, and then by Krishna.
Once everyone was changed and ready, Kanishka did a crazy taxi style drive, from Long's Peak Ranger Station to Denver International Airport, just shy of 1.5 hours. Just so the cops reading this article don't give him speeding tickets (which scare me to death every time I see cop cars on the road), I'm not telling you his license number. I managed to break most of the beer bottles in the trunk when I dropped the entire pack while taking out my backpack, and for a while, beer flowed in the parking lot, if you know what I mean. The only eating joint open in the airport was a Burger King. We all ate to our liking - personally, I did not feel hungry at all, but then you can always nibble on French fries and chicken tenders. Kanishka-Ranjita-Krishna left for the hotel, Snigdha and I took the 12:55am flight to JFK, NYC. We had 4 hours of sleep for the second night in a row, landed like zombies, and made our way to our respective offices. It was only after 11pm on Tuesday that I hit the bed, and was put out like light.
Created on ... September 04, 2002