September 24-25, 2008
Alas, another golden summer is winding down. Classes have begun again at the local colleges, seasonal workers at the park are leaving for winter hibernation to do whatever it is seasonal workers find to do in the off-season, and the broadleaf trees in the forests are draining chlorophyll and protein from their leaves in anticipation of winter. Most marmots are already hibernating Ďtil spring. Hiking days for this year, good ones with warm air, smelling of pine and plenty of sunshine, are dwindling in number to perhaps fewer than a dozen. It is disheartening, yet the narrowness of the mountain hiking season is precisely what makes those perfect summer days in the alpine world so wonderful. If everyday were perfect, you wouldnít much notice it anymore. Like a good book that reaches the best part near the end, the best weather, the best scenery and the best time to hike in the hills is fall. I donít care what they say about July, in my book there is no finer time to explore the 10,000-foot isoline than mid September, provided there hasnít been an early snow.
So, Iím content, though feeling a little melancholy, as I step out of the car at the Longs Peak TH and lace on my boots. Twin Sisters Mt sits across the valley, towering above the tiny houses that dot the base. Thereís a hike thatís on my list, but will have to wait for another season, it seems. With my pack full and all zipped up, I set off on the trail around 1:15. The sun is high overhead, but noticeably tilted south, causing the light to have a thin, sharp quality to it that you donít see in summer. The air is warm, about 70-degrees, and the sky is perfectly clear, the air calm. The aspen leaves are yellow, dropping singly on the trail and in the woods. Even with no wind to flutter the shiny leaves, they drop one by one in the still quiet of the woods onto the forest floor. There arenít many people out and about, though there are plenty of cars in the lot. A sign near the trailhead announces that Longs Peak is ďtechnicalĒ for the rest of the year due to ice and snow. Down here, however, all is dry and warm. In fact, I break out in quite a sweat on my way uphill along the well-marked trail.
After laboring uphill for about half an hour, I arrive at the Goblins Forest camp. It comes sooner than I would have liked, since that means Iíve that much farther to go in the morning, but itís all part of the fun. I walk along the narrow path that leads south across Alpine Creek, and come into the camp area. There are 6 individual tent pads at this camp, all separated by about 30 yards, arranged in a circle around the privy, which is a wonderfully-open little affair consisting of a toilet rim over a pit, with a three-sided half-wall for privacy. I check out the tent pads one by one, ascertaining that I have the entire place to myself (though I will still appreciate the privacy fence around the privy), and finally settle on the 5th one from the creek, counting clockwise. It seems to have the most sunshine, and the flattest ground. Plus, it is farthest away from the access trail, so seems to have the highest potential of solitude should others arrive. This time of year, however, that concern is easy to dismiss. I pitch my tent around 2:00 and hang my food from a nearby tree, there being no bearbox at this tent pad. I actually prefer that, since there is something quintessentially wilderness about the need to hang food from a tree. I have my own food-hanging technique, devised over many seasons, and I like to practice it. It beats practicing one-way ANOVA tests at work.
With camp up and ready for the night, I explore the area immediately around the camp. The woods, made up mostly of subalpine fir with smatterings of spruce and limber pine, are very dense, so little light makes it to the forest floor. Consequently, the understory is sparse, mostly just downed timber with patches of whortleberry turning yellow as fall closes in. The faint rustle of Alpine Creek is heard in the near distance, muffled by boughs of conifer needles. Gray squirrels chip and chatter in the trees, flitting about frantically on the ground to scoop up summerís harvest before the snow flies. Were Frank here, he would be chasing them all. It is 60 degrees in camp, and I throw on a fleece shirt to keep warm, then decide to hike somewhere for something to do. I have a book, but Iíve still got too much energy, and the day is still too beautiful, to settle for that. I gather up a few essentials and put them in my pack, then Iím on the main trail again by 3:00, heading up. As I cross the bridge over Alpine Creek heading out of camp, I sink a bottle of Coke I carried up to keep it cold for dinner.
The trail winds through more dense forest, crosses Alpine Creek at a nice chattery waterfall and begins to head into Krumholtz territory, where the spruces and firs are stunted into small shrubs or ground cover. I pass about a dozen hikers on their way down from Longs Peak, some looking horribly tired. By 3:30 I am above timberline, enjoying views of the surrounding sun-flooded tundra, replete with red, orange, yellow and green foliage. To the east, the Twin Sisters rise up formidably from the valley, and to the west, obscured by the afternoon sunís glare, is the split summit of Longís Peak. The trail is wide and obvious, and I am reminded of the value of checking out a trail in daylight before attempting it in the dark.
After sitting on a big flat rock and enjoying the tranquility of the afternoon for several minutes, I begin heading back to camp, arriving at my tent around 4:00. In July, there would still be hours of daylight left, but in late September, evening is already drawing near. In the deepening shadow of camp, I read a Stephen King novel (always a good choice for a night alone in the woods) and regularly add layers of clothing to keep myself warm. The mercury drops to 50 degrees by 4:30, and the sun disappears from camp as it sinks behind the ridge to the southwest. At 5:00 I filter water from Alpine Creek and retrieve my ice-cold bottle of Coke. With the filtered water, I cook ramen noodles near camp and slurp them down, adding the full complement of MSG-laced spices for full gourmet effect. The bubbly Coke is a refreshing treat. I have said before, and Iíll say again, that the guy who comes up with a dehydrated soda technology (just add water) will be a millionaire. Camprobber jays hover around me, hoping for an opening, but I keep my eye on them and my food close at hand. After dinner I get cold again, and contemplate how nice a hot cup of coffee would taste right now. I make a note to bring coffee next time. I study the map, and note that the camp is at 10,300í. I check my thermometer. It says 45 degrees and it is only 5:40. Going to be a cold night. Iím glad I brought long johns. By 6:00 it is down to 40 degrees and too cold to sit outside comfortably any longer, so I get into the tent and into my down sleeping bag. So comfy. I read about a deranged cop wife-stalker until 7:00 when my hands get too cold to hold the book any longer. It is well dark by this time, anyway, so I shut off my headlamp and drift off to sleep.
My alarm doesnít go off when it is supposed to at 4:45, but I luckily wake up at 5 AM and note the time. In the freezing morning blackness I dress for the day, trying to decide whether or not to wear long johns to hike in (they can get awfully hot). Out of the tent and into pitch-black 30-degree forest, I pack up my little bag with food and equipment, and by 5:15, Iím getting lost on the myriad camp trails trying to find the main route to the main trail. Itís just disturbing how disoriented one can get in the dark, and my little LED headlamp which works great for reading a book in a tent at night does a terrible job of helping me find the right way out. I end up at the privy twice before finally selecting the right path that leads across the creek and to the trail.
The hike is quiet and cold. There is no obvious world outside of the small halo of light thrown down by my headlamp. In the dim light, there is no color, just textures in a bluish monochrome. I concentrate on not tripping or twisting an ankle. I consider how hard it is to overcome that nervous feeling of walking through dark woods by yourself. Writing this down on paper after the fact, itís hard to recapture that feeling, but Iíll bet thereís almost nobody alive who can walk through deep, dark woods in the black of night without getting just a little bit nervous. Itís just ingrained so deep down in our chromosomes to get nervous in the dark when the surroundings are unfamiliar. Itís when the predators come out, and even though I know there are no predators coming to get me, I canít shake that anxiety built in the blackness. So, I think about other things, and maintain a steady, brisk pace up the cold, dark trail through the black woods. Goblin Forest? Apt name.
The feeling of looming forest abates after I cross the bridge over Alpine Creek and begin to enter the alpine land of short, stumpy trees and wide open tundra. The space feels larger and less claustrophbic up here. Surprisingly, the air is 10 degrees warmer above treeline, and I am feeling hot. I stop, though I am in haste, and shed my outer fleece layer. As I hike farther above treeline, I see little dots of white light on the trail ahead of me, how far away is impossible to tell. The eastern horizon glows deep orange, like infrared, hinting at the coming heat of the sun. A thick layer of gray smog lays over the plains, cloaking all details but the tiny twinkling city lights. Deep sweeps of wind scour the tundra periodically from the west, chilling me to the bone through my clothing, but when they pass, it is warm again. Hard to get comfortable.
By 6:15 it is light enough to see without the headlamp so I turn it off and walk along the dim trail by the incidental light from the eastern horizon. Sunrise is still 40 minutes away. I reach the junction of Chasm Lake and Longs Peak trails, and meet two guys from Ohio who are attempting Longs Peak. They are lamenting their lack of energy at altitude, and I am glad I donít have to worry too much about that sort of thing, having not come directly from sea level. I roll on, snapping photographs of Longs Peak in the pre-dawn twilight as I go. Peacock Pool and Columbine Falls pass by on my left. I cross the stream several times, and pass by the ranger cabin, which smells of wonderful frying bacon. I almost knock and ask for a snack. There is a group of men already at work at this early hour on the rebuild of the ranger cabin destroyed in an avalanche a few years ago. I pass by, presumably unnoticed. Beyond the rangers shack, I encounter the only stretch of this trail. I use my hands to keep from slipping on the wet rocks, and make my way up the steep route to the lip of the cirque, and the very shore of Chasm Lake. I congratulate myself on arriving before the sun does.
It is cold, cold, cold at the lake, a deep body of dark blue that is utterly bereft of plant life. Not so much as a sprig of grass grows along the shore. Instead, broken rocks and jagged boulders form the shore. It is barren and foreboding, especially when cloaked in pre-dawn shadow. A wicked wind blows from the west and chills me utterly. I am happy to have long johns on now. I set up my tripod and camera with bumbling frozen hands and less than 4 minutes go by before the eastern face of Longs Peak begins to glow with a deep orange brilliance that seems to come from within the mountain as the rising sun glimpses over the horizon. The sun rises slowly but inexorably behind my back, and the light spreads like syrup down the face of the mountain just as it has for the last thousand years. Waves chop in the lake as wind swirls over the crags and down into the cirque. It is transcendent and elemental. It is the reason I walked 2 hours in the darkness in blasting winds to get here. I snap away with my camera, resting my freezing hands from time to time in my pockets from the frigid wind screaming in over the gray mountain. I continue to snap shots as the sunlight changes rapdidy from orange to yellow to white, and by 7:00, the show is largely over; the light transformed to ordinary sunlight.
I find a sheltered spot out of the wind but in the sun to eat breakfast of dry frosted min wheats, and take in the eastern horizon with my eyes, enjoying the way the ranks of mountains fade with distance until they are lost in the haze of the horizon. I take a few more pictures of myself at the lake, then pack up and begin to head down around 7:30.
The hike back proceeds under a perfectly clear sky, and with the sun up, the temperature rises. In fact, I find it essential to seek out a hidden spot and remove my long johns before continuing down. After a long hike spent mostly daydreaming the miles away, I arrive at camp around 9:30 and take a short nap in the tent before packing up at 10. It is 55 degrees as I leave camp, and the short walk down puts me back at the parking lot by 11, where I get some snacks from the car and eat lunch at a picnic table by a creek on the south end of the parking lot.