Have you ever been in a situation where you were really excited about something? Maybe a party, seeing old friends again, a vacation, the official announcement of a promotion? You’ve planned for it, mentally rehearsed, talked to people, all that stuff. Mostly, there’s nothing that could go wrong because you’ve got it all worked out on paper.
And then real life says, “hi!” waving a hand more fervorously than Forest Gump when he sees Lt. Dan standing, erm, sitting, on the pier waiting for him.
That’s kind of exactly how this past weekend went for me. I had 5 consectuive days off in a row, and I was planning on summiting Mt. Elbert and Mt. Massive, the two highest peaks in CO. I researched. I chose [shortest] standard winter routes. These mountains are easy from a technical standpoint. There’s no hiking to get to the trailhead. You can camp at the trailhead. I watched the weather forecast for a week prior to setting out. I was ready.
And then I wasn’t.
Not Summiting Mt. Elbert and/or Mt. Massive
First, the weather said, “ummmm, why don’t you take a seat right over there. I’m going to be cold, cloudy, snowy, and relentlessly windy on Friday. Why don’t you come back on Saturday?” So that’s what I did. I drove to the trailhead at 7:30pm on Friday evening with the plan of sleeping in my car, and then pushing for the summit early Saturday morning.
And then I couldn’t.
I turned off the main road, onto the Forest Service road, and made it about halfway. I drove through a few snow drifts with no problems. And then I hit the one that stopped me. At 10:00 pm, I was digging my car out of a snow drift, and I still had 4.5 miles to get to the trailhead. I had no idea how often the road was plowed and the wind was still blowing more snow.
And then things got better.
I was able to get my car out and turned around and thought I could spend the night in a parking lot, go talk to the ranger in the morning, and maybe I would have a chance to get back there later on Saturday. It was likely that I wouldn’t be able to do Mt. Massive, but at least I’d still get Elbert.
And then it got a lot worse.
All of this didn’t matter: the planning, the forecasting, the digging, the doing everything right (except not bringing a snowmobile with me)…
I forgot my jacket.
Yup, not an insulating layer, jacket. My real jacket. The Gore-Tex, waterproof, insulated, super awesome jacket I was going to need to combat the -30+ windchills and blowing snow. It was sitting at home in my closet.
At 11:15pm, I accepted defeat, turned around, and went home.
An Impromptu Plan B: South Arapaho Peak
Being that we live so close to the Indian Peaks Wilderness Area, I stare at Mt. Baldy, South and North Arapho Peaks, and Mt. Meeker every single day on my drive to work. It is only logical that I have to get myself to the top of these things.
By mid-morning on Saturday, Anh says, “hey, wanna go summit Baldy and Maybe S. Arapaho?!” I did the math in my head: I still had 3.5 days off, we’ve been on the trail before, and we’re already packed and ready to go (since we were too tired to unload from the night before). I said, “heck yes!”
So we were off to summit South Arapaho Peak.
The weather was supposed to be MUCH nicer than Elbert and Massive in terms of clouds, snow, and temperature. The trail was longer, but the climb less steep, and we were going to take 2-3 days to do it. We had heard that it gets windy in the Indian Peaks Wilderness Area. Like, really windy. But the forecast was only calling for 25-30 mph winds. To be honest, I had no perspective of what that’s like.
And then I found out.
It was a gorgeous day, and I was hiking only with wind resistant trail pants, a t-shirt, and an insulating, black baselayer on top. If it weren’t for the wind gusts, I would have definitely been sweating, especially carrying my [estimated] 60lb. pack. The winds were so strong, and the gigantic pack making me a severely dense kite, that I was literally being pushed around. There were times where I thought I was going down. “No worries,” we thought. “The wind can’t last like this for 2 days,” we thought. But it did.
I also have to mention that I’m not the world’s greatest hiker. Sure, I’m in shape. Sure, I’m still relatively strong. But I’ve never ever in my life been into long distances. By the end of our 4.25 mile hike to the campsite at Rainbow Lake, my hips and hip flexors were screaming at me. The [estimated] 60 lb. pack didn’t help a damn thing. Just setting up our tent and walking around the site was excruciating. It took all of an hour to set our site up proper for the temps and winds. Editor’s note: it’s now 2 days later, and my hips are still effed.
Although I hate just sitting in a tent and doing nothing, I was grateful that it was dark by 6:30, and I had a chance to lie down and rest my legs. By 7:00, Anh was sleeping, and I read an entire book on my phone. At 9:30, I finally decided to shut my eyes and listen to the wind howl.
And then I woke up.
Well, I didn’t really “sleep” all night long. I had to pee since about 9:31 pm the previous night, but we were only using 1 door of the tent in order to keep the wind barrier on the side against. That meant I would have had to wake Anh up, climb over her, and fumble with my boots in the dark. I’m a nice guy. “I can hold it.” All night long, I could not get comfortable due to the pain in my hips. Every sleeping position I tried throughout the night brought pain relief in one area and created anew in another. When I finally got out of the tent and could stretch my legs and stand, I knew summiting wasn’t going to happen. But I didn’t tell Anh right away. I thought I just needed to walk around and work out the kinks. They never worked out. I thought that having a much lighter load in my day pack would help. It didn’t. Adding the weight of my snowshoes to my feet exacerbated the problem. Within 35 yards of settting out to summit, I told Anh I couldn’t do it.
Her, being the unselfish and considerate person she is, accepted this, and we turned around. She was also a little sore, but not nearly as bad as me, and probably could have powered through to summit Mt. Baldy…provided the wind didn’t pick her up and carry her off the mountain.
We tore down camp, loaded up my 60 lb. pack, and headed the 4.25 miles out. Thank GOD (or whom/what-ever it is you thank) it was mostly all downhill from there, proverbially and literally.
I learned that no matter how much you plan, no matter how confident you are, no matter what you think you’re going to do, there’s always things to get in your way. There are physical limitations, weather limitations, vehicular limitations, and outright dumbassness. All of these things can spoil a wonderfully planned trip(s). Of course, there’s no reason to let these things get you down. Mountains are mountains. They don’t move. They will be there for much longer than you or I will be. Just because you forgot your jacket this time, doesn’t mean you can never go back. Sure, we may not have the chance to try for those two 14’ers in one weekend again, but we sure as hell will be coming back to get them one-at-a-time if we have to. And now with the education we gained from South Arapho, we can plan it even better. Don’t let mistakes get you down; instead, let them make you smarter.
Don’t Miss Your Chance
I was stuck in Corporate America for 9 years. I was miserable.
Then I took control.
You can too, and it starts right here.
Good write and lessons learned! Carry an extra bottle with you next time so you can just take care of your business in the tent. Zip your bag open, go to the bathroom and then zip back up… just don’t spill. The empty bladder will help you stay warmer at night too while sleeping.
Thanks! A lot of people have been suggesting that. I’ve been winter camping since I was just a little dude, and I’ve not seen the need for the places I’ve been. Getting out of your bag is not so bad, but I just didn’t want to awake Sleeping Beauty. Ha!