Thursday, September 01, 2011

Labor Day Weekend

Yesterday was my dad's 79th birthday. The occasion of his birthday generally falls near/during Labor Day weekend, which has made for some great celebrations on given years. I can't believe it's been 9 years, for his 70th birthday - we went on a "quick little day hike". We were planning on doing a hike we both knew well, subtle easy hike, not much elevation change, gentle groomed trail through the trees of Rocky Mountain National Park - when a friend told us he would like to join us, and his friend had told him about a different hike, sounded easy enough - 20 minutes up, 20 minutes back (we knew we wouldn't be quite that fast, the two of them were both 70 years old that year, and I can hike all day, always have, but I'm not fast, and I'm outta shape... So we started out on this trail, heading south, we headed south for a good ten minutes before we even began to climb at the first switchback in the trail. The grade was pretty easy still, and we hiked another good ten minutes before the next switchback... we knew we were planning on climbing to the top of this small mountain, and we should have realized twenty minutes in that we had not gained much in elevation and that this was in no way going to be "twenty minutes up, twenty minutes back" -- and that the information we gave to our families "We'll be back shortly after lunch" was now a bunch of BS. We didn't really think about it, we sipped on our extraordinarily small bottles of water and just chatted and talked on our way up the trail through the trees on the side of the mountain. With each switchback the trail became a bit steeper, and the distance between switchbacks shortened -- that is pretty standard for trails that traverse the sides of mountains. After about an hour we ran into some people, "hey how much further to the top?"; their reply "oh, not too much further, you're probably more than halfway there" -- they couldn't have been more incorrect. We hiked on a while longer, my dad was wheezing a bit with his asthma, not unusual though and I wasn't concerned, he was also mentioning that his new shoes were really bothering his left foot. We stopped at a stream (probably should have risked giardia and refilled our water bottles), and rested a few minutes for his foot and his asthma. We saw another group of hikers, "are we near the firewatch tower?"; and the reply "oh, it's wonderful, so worth the climb, it gets steeper now, but it's only a couple more switchbacks up" -- again, misinformed -- apparently descending this mountain plays with people's minds and they become delusional. We trudged on, a good couple of hours, maybe three hours into our one hour hike now. We were thinking, hmmm, they probably missed us at lunch, but we'll be back before dark, no worries - and besides, we've come this far, and we are almost there. That was probably about the time we ran across our first sign of cats in the area, a nice steaming pile of cat scat - oh and by cats, I don't mean the sweet adorable little cuddly ones that the old lady down the street has a dozen of... I mean Mountain Lions. And by steaming, I don't mean actually steaming, but I do mean still quite fresh, left there in the middle of the trail for us by a fellow forest dweller that probably was watching us right now. We are now clearly quite a ways up this mountain, and can see down to the bottom that we must be near the top, and it's becoming rockier, and the switchbacks are quite close together now, and we hike on, not mentioning the cats to my dad (who is both allergic and afraid of them), well look there, on that rock... that's a mountain lion, watching us... but he's not interested and we must be just around the corner from the top now. Another 4 or five switchbacks and a long stretch of trail, this has got to be the final stretch, and look there a cat leaving the trail and heading into the brush. How about we stop for a little rest and let him have plenty of space. Wow, good thing we are almost to the top, we are out of water. We have broken out of the trees now as well, so we've got to be close. Well that's a long enough rest, lets trudge on and make lots of noise to scare the cat off. It's nearing evening now by the way, probably why these cats are so active. Eventually, I would say at around 4:00 or 4:30 (2-3 hours into our twenty minute hike) we achieved our goal -- the firewatch tower! What an amazing view, we could see for miles in any direction, and beautiful up there overlooking the lakes and the park and the meadows. Well can't dawdle, we are out of water, have no asthma meds amongst us, even if we make it down the trail much faster than we made it up, we are racing daylight now... and of course there are those pesky cats that might get the munchies as it gets darker. Remember Dad's boots are hurting him, and we are descending now, well, even though physically going downhill is less demanding on out of shape/older folks, it is much more painful on sore feet. Dad can barely go a few hundred yards without stopping to give his aching foot a break -- damn those new hiking boots, he'll never wear them again. Still we moved along as quickly as we could, being particularly noisy anywhere that felt a little vulnerable to the cats. Now before you go jumping ahead thinking we had a bad encounter with the cats, we did not, that is not where this story is going. In fact, we are done with actual cat encounters at this point, although we don't know that for certain yet and we are a bit nervous about it. It's getting darker fast, it's late in the summer, and the sun is plummeting below the western horizon at breakneck speed. We turn a switchback to see a nice long trail stretched out in front of us and we are feeling pretty good about having covered a lot of the descent already, but it is getting pretty darn dusky - at least we don't feel as concerned about the cats down here. What is that, a guy running UP the trail, in the evening, what a dumb ass, who would start up in the near dark on this fucking long ass trail... oh it's my husband, come to check on us, very concerned because well, it's now well past "lunch time" and edging toward "dinner time", and in fact past dinner time for a lot of folks. It's about 7pm now. "Do you have any water?" we ask him, we've been without for hours now. "No", his answer. "Do you have a flashlight?", again he answers us with a 'no'. He agrees to stay with Dad and go at his pace, his foot is really bothering him now. They trade shoes in fact. Our friend and I now nearly jog out of the forest in an effort to get out before darkness completely takes over. We walk the last hundred yards or so in pitch black, sort of reading the trail by braille with our shuffling feet. As we exit the trailhead we are met by more friends, armed with lights and gun (in case of mountain lions or bears... amusing now of course). They head in to take light and more help to my husband and father. By nine thirty both the old guys are back on oxygen, have had some asthma meds, and we've all had plenty of water. In addition, we've had some beer and food - a great story in retrospect.

By the way, the fellow who recommended the "twenty up and twenty back" hike in the first place... that would be STRAIGHT up through the fire cut, a whole different kind of hiking than any of us were prepared for, that's actually mountain climbing to be more accurate, and haha, I've seen the firecut now... you'd have to be in pretty killer shape and practice to make that in twenty minutes, either direction!

After Dad returns to Denver, he sees his doctor for his foot that is still bothering him a great deal. Turns out, it's broken. He made that whole hike on foot with two broken bones in it. Yeah, he's actually that badass - and at 70 years old no less. At 79 years old he still works every day, a somewhat physical job, and he camps most weekends in the summer. He's even been known to throw a raft on a river or play a round of golf (at altitude). With severe lung damage from having breathed some toxic acids about 20 years ago and a lifetime of asthma, I would still rank him as pretty badass!

Next year both those guys will be 80, I told them I'm taking them back up there. Of course it probably won't happen, they both require oxygen quite a bit of the time now when they are at altitude (this town is just over 8,000 feet above sea level and the firewatch tower is at 10,000 feet. According to the trail advisor where I just looked up that bit of information -- it's a moderate hike, 4.8 miles, 1.5 easy, 3.3 moderate to hard uphill. Estimated 2.5 hours up and 1.5 hours down. (that's 4 hours, we took 7 hours). Also, according the advisor that I just looked up, the tower was built in 1932, the same year both of those guys were born. Maybe we will figure out how to drag them back up there next summer... high country all terrain wheel chairs maybe.