In August 1982, I went out to Steamboat Springs to visit my oldest friend in the world. Mark and I have been friends literally our entire lives. Mark had just gotten a job at a hotel out there, so I got an Auto-Drive-Away to Denver and then hitchhiked from Denver. We were young, we were carefree, and we were indestructible. Because Mark had to work some pretty brutal hours, I decided to hike up into the mountains for a 4 or 5 days.
Mark drove me out to the Routt National Forest. He dropped me at a trail head and said he would be back at the agreed day and time. I had no map and I had never hiked in in anyplace even remotely resembling the Rocky Mountains. But I had my youth and the fearlessness begat of ignorance.
I had a liter of water, a 6.5 pound Eureka Timberline tent, my 3.5 pound Sears mummy bag, and an ensolite pad. I was carrying a Hudson Bay trail axe and a Sven saw. I had six days of food, and clothing for three seasons. I was told the weather could change drastically and quickly up in the mountains. (I had beautiful weather the whole time.)
My trusty Svea 123R and 2 liters of white gas were securely packed. My Boy Scout mess kit was ready for cooking just about anything. I also had a canvas fishing vest that someone had lent me which was full of fishing gear, including a few pounds of lead shot, dozens of lures, and couple spools of various weight of monofilament line. I had two fishing rods, one with a closed reel and the other with an open reel. I had a nylon mesh hammock and two very thick paperbacks. As I was alone, I was expecting to get a lot of reading time.
I was carrying my gear in my external frame pack that I had bought at the Boy Scout store in Chicago in 1979. I had modified the frame so that I could extend the top using aluminum dowels and cotter pins. Then I would strap on the tent at on top of the pack. All in all, I was carrying about 65 pounds of gear for my short 4-5 day trip up into the mountains.
The trail was clearly marked and off I went. It was about 11 a.m. or so. The trail sloped up at a fairly gentle pitch as I started my first solo hike ever. I was feeling great! There were several day hikers moving along the trail quite bit faster than me. After an hour or so, the trail petered out at swampy area. I was sinking into about 3 inches of mud as I trekked. I could see a trail up above and ahead of me, but the trail I was on was headed down into the muck and bugs. I thought to myself, “Eventually, this is going to go back up and meet that trail.” So for another ten minutes I slogged deeper into the bog. Finally, my feet sunk into about a foot of boot sucking muck and I realized that I had taken a wrong turn somewhere. So, I backtracked and after about 45 minutes, I saw a young couple with day packs springing along the trail headed up the mountain. They sure looked happy! I sure felt stupid!
I was pretty thirsty by this time and had a few big gulps of water. I started up the real trail. It was now around 2 p.m. As I hiked, the trail got steeper and steeper. My pace slowed and I started to sweat buckets. The sun was bright, but the air was cool and crisp. After another 90 minutes or so, I got to a part of the trail that ran high above a tumbling creek. The slope was pretty severe. I must have been approaching something like 8500 feet. This prairie boy was beginning to huff and puff a bit as I climbed higher and higher. I was pretty fatigued. I had never hiked on such a pitch and I had never walked in any territory anywhere near this altitude. And, while I had hiked rocky paths before, I had never been on one that sloped down across to my right side quite so much.
I was pretty much alone as 4 p.m. approached. My feet were dragging a bit. I tripped over a rock or a root or something. Down I went. Pitching off the right side of the trail, my right foot went to land on the ground and missed. There was nothing there! I started going off the side of the mountain. I grabbed out with my left hand and caught a small scrubby pine tree that was maybe 2-3 feet tall. So, there I was, hanging on to that little pine, my legs scrabbling for some sort of purchase and finding none.
I looked down and realized that I was basically looking down a rock strewn cliff. If I started to fall down, I could see little chance of stopping until I hit the creek several hundred feet down below. Suddenly it struck me, “Damn! I’m in serious trouble here.” I had a good grip with my left hand, but my pack was flopped over my right shoulder, inexorably pulling me down. For some reason that I never quite understood, I suddenly felt quite calm. I actually ran through my options. First, take a look at that tree. Am I OK there? Is it going to hold? Yes, it looked well rooted, good and sturdy. Next, find a foothold for the right foot. One try, two tries, three…nothing. Then, I did get my right knee hooked on a slight bump of rock. It wasn’t enough to push against, but it gave me a small bit of relief. Well…now what? Should I try to get out of the pack, let it go, and then try to get back to the road? No. Can’t do that. How do I get my left arm out of the shoulder strap? I can’t let go of the tree. My knife was in the pack, so I couldn’t cut the strap away. So…. I need to figure out how to move this pack. I thought, “If I relax my right shoulder the pack will slide down my arm. Then I can get some leverage and maybe throw it back up toward the trail.” I let the pack slide down, then I jerked my elbow up and back. The pack went up, but came back down and yanked me down. I held on. I thought about it again. “If I can throw the pack back up toward the trail and swing my right leg back and up toward the trail, maybe I can roll up onto the trail.” I let the pack slide down my right arm again. This time when I threw the pack back over my left shoulder, I kicked back, up and around with my right leg. And, there I was…lying, turtle-like on the trail, looking at that blue sky with puffy white clouds going by. It was very quiet. I could hear my heart beating and my breath was coming in deep sucking breaths. I could hear the water in the creek down below rushing over the rocks on its way down the mountainside.
I unbuckled my hip belt, and slid out of the harness. I stood up and suddenly realized that if I had gone down, I probably would have died. If not, I sure as hell would have broken some bones. And the only one who knew what trail I was on wasn’t scheduled to be back for 5 days.
For the first time in my life I realized that I could actually die if I screw up. That is a pretty sobering thought. I sat there for about 10 or 15 minutes and just collected myself. Finally, I put my pack on and carefully continued my climb up the trail.
As it got on toward 5 p.m. the switchbacks started. I had been told about the switchbacks. Just stay on the trail. Don’t try to climb from one level to the next. Stay on the trail. I was really sucking for air by then. I must have been approaching 9500 feet, maybe even 10,000. Remember, I had never hiked in real mountains. I was born and raised on the flat lands of Illinois, where the air is thick and full of oxygen. My lungs were burning pretty good as I climbed another hour or so. Finally, I came up and over a little cut in the trail and I was looking down at the most beautiful little Tyrolean lake. I knew that the lake was at 10,400 feet. That much the sign at the trailhead had advised me. So, I figured I was at about 10,600 feet and I was sucking wind. I had heard about the thin air. I had been told that it’s hard to breath up that high. Yeah, yeah, sure...Hey, I was young, I was strong. I wouldn’t be affected by a little altitude. But actually trying to fill your lungs when there just isn’t anything to fill them with…well, suffice it to say that was my second epiphany of the day!
I strolled down to the lake. I believe it was Mica Lake. It was a crystal blue bowl of icy water. And as I walked around the shore, I came to the prettiest little camp site you would ever want to see. I set up camp, and started a fire. I sat and watched the fish jump. I decided to try and catch a few.
I got out the neato fishing vest, with all the lures, and line, and shot. I proceeded to casting. And I cast some more, and then some more. There were dozens of fish jumping all over the lake, but not a one took any of my lures. Oh well, I finally went back up to the fire pit, set up my stove and had some freeze dried dinner. “I’ll catch a fish or two for breakfast” I thought. As the sun set, I crawled into my tent and laid there with a splitting headache. But I was so tired from climbing up that trail that I fell asleep and didn’t awake until the sun shone on my face and woke me up.
When I got up, the sun was coming over the mountains to the east. The mountains went up a few thousand feet higher than I was camping, with peaks towering over the little lake. I felt like I was in a giant bowl. The sun shine reflected off the peaks to the west and gave my little valley the oddest morning light I have ever seen. The air was sort of gold and pale purple. But the air wasn’t really any color, it just seemed that there was color in the air. It is hard to describe, but I was more feeling the color than seeing it. It was weird. I sat for a long time in my little net hammock and just looked at the way the sun was rising.
I decided to make some tea and then catch a fish or two for breakfast. Again, I could see the fish catching bugs on the water. I started to cast. After about two hours I had not even had a nibble! I could actually SEE the fish in the crystal clear water. What a pain!! Finally, I made some oatmeal and then decided to explore a little bit around the lake and surrounding woods. It was a really beautiful place. A few hundred feet from the lake shore the mountains really a shot up to the sky. I knew I could not reach those peaks even if I wanted to. I went back to camp and fixed up some lunch. Then I took a nap in my little hammock. After a few hours I awoke to the sounds of some guys on the other side of the lake. They were swimming and splashing in the water. I picked up one of the books and began to read. At dinner time, I decided to try again for some fish. As the sun was moving down toward the west, I was casting away not catching a thing. The guys on the other side of the lake were catching fish about every minute or so. I could tell by their whoops and cheers. They fished for maybe two hours. I gave up after an hour or so of no nibbles. I cooked a freeze dried meal, grumbling and cursing those guys and their yelling and cheering with each catch. I read for another hour or so and lit a fire. It gets pretty lonely when you are sitting by the fire by yourself and you can hear a party going on a few hundred yards away. Finally, I turned in. At least my headache had subsided during the day.
The next morning I awoke to the sounds of more fishing and more catching on the other side of the lake. I didn’t even try to fish. I just fired up the trusty Svea and made myself a big breakfast of oatmeal, tea, toast, and Koolaid. After I cleaned up and had let breakfast settle for a few minutes, I hiked around to the other campsite and struck up a conversation with those guys. They were students at some nearby college, I don’t remember exactly which one. I asked what they were using as bait to catch all those fish. They pulled out their fly rods and showed me all these flies. Some they had made themselves, others were bought at the store. When I told them that I had been casting for two days they looked at me like I was from Mars. You can’t catch these fish with a casting rod!! You gotta use flies! I had never in my life ever used a fly rod. After they finished laughing and making fun of this flatlander, they showed me a little bit about how to use the fly rod. I could see now why I wasn’t even getting nibbles. My big old lures were just scaring the fish away! So I had hauled pounds of fishing gear up the mountain only to find out it was completely useless! They thought that was just a riot! But they broke out the liquor at lunchtime and I got half-drunk while I ate lunch and yukked it up a bit with those fellas. After a while I said my goodbyes, thanked them, and headed back to my camp for a nap.
I woke up as the sun was headed down behind the mountains. I was a bit hung over, and began to feel pretty lonely again. I come from a big family and had never spent more than a few hours alone. Ever. Being alone for three days was messing with my head. I built a fire and felt a little better before turning in. I didn’t sleep all that much that night. I guess the combination of the hangover, sleeping half the day, and the loneliness really bothered me.
The next morning I got up and as I was making breakfast, the group of guys was packing out. After breakfast, I was all alone. I tried reading, but I just couldn’t get interested in either book I had brought with me. Around about noon, I had had enough. I just couldn’t stand being all by myself. So, I packed everything up, found a stout stick to use as a staff, and started down the mountain. I went slowly, and walked deliberately, remembering my harrowing experience on the way up. Even so, going down was a heck of a lot faster than going up! I hit the trailhead in maybe 2.5 hours. And that included several stops to just look at the wonderful area and smell that mountain air.
I hitchhiked into to town and was waiting for my buddy when he got back from work that evening. It sure felt good to back among people!
I have never hiked in the mountains since that trip (this is written in Spring, 2012). I started law school the next year, and then I got locked into a whole different life style for the next thirty years or so. I hope to be able to hike out west again sometime in the next few years. Next time I’ll be older, wiser, and travelling a LOT lighter!