Last Monday, we were looking at our trusty G-Calendar and noticed that, miracle of miracles, we had no plans for the upcoming weekend. Because this was the first time it had happened in a long time, and because I’m a fan of shocking my husband, I suggested that we go camping. He did his best to contain his delighted surprise, and quickly set about making plans so that I was committed and couldn’t turn back.
I chose a spot that I had heard great things about, in a part of the White River National Forest known as the Holy Cross Wilderness Area. According to the website, there was no fire ban (which this summer has seriously hindered any appeal that camping might have otherwise had), and there was even a “smaller” 14-er in the area. For you Midwesterners, “14-ers” are those lovely Rocky Mountains that top 14,000 feet. There are somewhere around 50 of them, and Colorado-dwellers find a sick sort of satisfaction in conquering these peaks, which can range in difficulty from a moderate hike to a full on rock-and-ice-climb. Mt. of the Holy Cross, the “smaller” 14-er in question, was only a measly 14,009′ apex, and what we thought might be a nice way to fill our time on Saturday morning.
I also requested to car camp, so as to be more comfortable after the climb and not have to worry about packing light. For you non-outdoorsy types, “car camping,” is just as it sounds — setting up camp within spitting distance of your car, in a bona fide campsite, usually within a 100-foot range of some semblance of a bathroom. “Car camping” is also seriously frowned-upon by the rough-and-tumble Colorado set, and is seen as far inferior to “backpacking,” or carrying everything on your back at least 2 to 3 miles into the semi-uncharted wilderness. I’m sorry, but for me, Car Camping will always trump backpacking. It’s easier, you can pack
all the comforts of home things like chairs and firewood and coolers full of beer, and you can retreat to the car when the going gets rough. Plus, despite all of its appearances of luxury and glamour, even car camping is rustic enough for me. When the simple task of brushing your teeth becomes a complicated ordeal, you know you’re not at the Four Seasons.
In any case, with my preferences in mind, we set off Friday towards our goal, joined by our college friends, Josh and Laura, and their two dogs, Darla and Denali. We were all prepared to do a “hybrid” of car-camping and backpacking. Knowing that we’d get to the site late and might not be able to obtain one of the few campsites at the trailhead, I conceded that we might have to find a spot somewhat nearby, but still with easy access to the car, so we wouldn’t have to load our backs like pack-mules.
Let’s just say, things didn’t go nearly as we had planned.
We arrived late at the campsite, and as we had expected, it was packed. It was pitch black, and finding a suitable place nearby was simply not happening. We quickly found out why the campsite was so small — as the rest of the ground was extremely slanted and tree-filled. What, are we in the mountains or something? We also were disheartened to learn that one of our pre-requisites, the ability to spend our nights by a cozy campfire, would also be thwarted. Despite evidence to the contrary on the World Wide Web, there were permanent signs displaying a constant fire ban, which came along with a hefty fine and the potential to be Colorado Enemy Number One should we mess with kindling in the midst of one of our state’s worst fire seasons.
With no other options, we decided to start up the trail towards the peak, carrying only what we would need that night and for the hike the next day. We set up camp about a mile or so in, thinking we’d have a massive head-start on the mountain and be finished early enough on Saturday to pack up our tents, head back down to the car, and find some fire-allowing camp spot somewhere else the next night.
As you may have guessed by now, the “measly” 14-er was anything but. This is not my first mountain, and not my first difficult hike, and I consider myself to be in pretty good shape currently, but this trek seriously kicked my ass. There were steep ascents, and steep descents (both ways). There was scrambling and hand-over-foot climbing. There was boulder-hopping (not as nimble as it sounds), and empty water bottles and sunburn and heat and cold. After nearly 12 brutal hours, we found ourselves back at the campsite, knowing that we were in no shape to pack up and move again as our original plan had illustrated, but we still had to go back down to the car for the rest of the supplies to get us through the night. Welcome back, Pack Mules. Suddenly I was cursing the decent “head start” that we had gotten before, and I wondered if I was just going to have to be left on the side of the trail until morning. But, we made it back to the campsite, and after cooking some noodles over the stove and having a few swigs of warm whiskey, we collapsed into our sleeping bags and slept well, if not completely sore and spent, knowing that at least we’d conquered the mountain — and then some.
We woke the next morning, eager to return to civilization, paved roads, and comfortable seating options. After three days in the wild, there were a lot of things that I looked forward to, but maybe one thing more than most, which involves the one thing that I will not do in the Great Outdoors. Let’s just say that at home it involves a porcelain seat, 2-ply flushable cloths, and a sink equipped with anti-bacterial soap. In the wild, it involves a shovel.
So, with a fond farewell to our beloved, conquered peak, we headed home, exhausted, sore and actually looking forward to the work week ahead.
Ok, ok. As bad as I made it sound, the trip was not all bad. In fact, without this blog post, I might have been able to look back on it fondly in months to come with the rose-colored glasses that the future always provides for the past. There were certainly some highlights, enough to keep me from regretting the entire weekend despite the way I am still walking like an arthritic old man, 3 days later.
Some of my fonder memories include:
- Watching my dog clean all of our clocks in an impressive display of agility and endurance. Hopping up and down boulders, racing ahead of us and back down, I swear Olive did that mountain at least three times, and seemed downright giddy while doing it. We had countless people stop to ask us if she was a dog or a mountain goat. Honestly, sometimes I’m not sure myself.
- Snacks on the way up the mountain. And at the top. And on the way down. Seriously — does food ever taste as good as when you are testing your physical limits? I say no.
Conquering my fearsBlowing my fears out of the water and joining my husband for a family portrait on a pile of rocks at 14,000 feet.
- Enjoying a sunny day alongside friends with whom we have a good, long history, with whom we don’t always get enough chances to catch up.
- Finding an m&m on the trail, dusting it off, and eating it on a bet with the promise of a dollar and a beer. It was peanut butter — one of the best I’ve ever tasted.
- Learning that the boulders do not actually fall into place like stairs, and meeting the magical elves that spend their days rearranging these massive rocks into retaining walls and staircases. I was humbled by their plight and momentarily set my exhaustion aside to thank them for making the trek at least a little easier — and safer.
- As hard as it was, climbing the final boulder field and joining complete strangers in high fives and this massive, shared accomplishment as we basked in the breathtaking views from the top.
- Finding out that some of these “complete strangers” that we’d been leap-frogging on our hike and exchanging bits of small-talk along the way went to our college. Small world.
- Trotting back down the mountain with just Olive (both of us were faster than our cohorts on the descent), and stopping for a moment to hear, literally, nothing. Zero sounds. It is not often that I do not hear the whirr of electronics, the buzz of city noise, or the chatter of neighbors, and every once in awhile, it is refreshing.
- Oh, yeah, and this.
- And this.
- And this.
The views, the company and the memories — yes I will hold onto those. But, needless to say, the physical exertion of this trip literally wore me out, and I think it will be awhile before I have another weekend like this. Well, except for next weekend, when I run a half-marathon through the mountains.
… Once again, who have I become??