What We Missed While Hiking in the Dark…

You miss a lot of scenery when you hike in the dark, as I mentioned in yesterday’s post. Dan wanted me to write more about the descent of that hike, which was one of his favorite parts of our trip to Colorado, so I promised that I would share more with my readers in a gallery.  In hindsight, I wish I knew more about my camera so that I could have captured some dark shots in the first part of the hike.  But, alas, readers will have to stay tuned while I learn how to use my camera just a little bit better.  All shots are taken with my Cannon PowerShot S110, a point-and-shoot with a lot of room for customization in both the shutter speed and the lens (not that I know how to do either; I just play around with things to see what happens).  Imagine our surprise at finding these postcard-ready shots on the trip down the mountain; we couldn’t stop talking about the whistling marmots, the hawks and falcons flying overhead, and of course, the incredible length of the trail we had just climbed.  We even heard a rattlesnake–and took off down the trail soon after.  Sorry, folks; I have no desire to capture images of dangerous animals.

Next up? A review of Estes Park and Rocky Mountain National Park, and some tips on what to do and where to go when you plan your Colorado summer vacation.

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What We Missed While Hiking in the Dark… by Katie Piper Greulich is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
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Such Great Heights: Long’s Peak, Colorado

Morning at the Keyhole, Long's Peak, Colorado

Morning at the Keyhole, Long’s Peak, Colorado

When I was starting kindergarten, I remember driving by the school with my mom, staring with not a little terror at the tornado slide sitting front and center in the middle of the gravel playground.  From my little kid perspective, the slide was massive, towering above me at 9 feet tall, slipping and sliding in twists and curls around an axis that didn’t seem like it was as sturdy as it should be.  Tumbleweeds and dust devils swirled past it, making the whole playground look less like a happy place of childhood fun and more like a gunfight scene in Tombstone–this is not too much of a stretch because I lived in Southeastern Colorado and everything looks like a scene from Tombstone.   Its presence in the playground was not encouraging to me when I jumped on the bus for the first day of kindergarten.

My mom dutifully took me to the school playground when no one was around (except for my little sister, who was not helpful),  cheering me on as I climbed the slide and climbed back down, over and over again, never descending via the gleeful, twisting slide.  She made a valiant attempt to ensure that I started my school years both well-adjusted and fearless, as a five-year-old should.  I remember her sliding down with me after several failed ascents, and I also remember vowing to never slide without her again.  I didn’t, not until the second grade when the whole situation was just getting embarrassing.  Then I held on white-knuckled and closed my eyes, sliding into the gravel, screaming. It was not graceful.

Besides, in Southeastern Colorado, you don’t need to be high up in a tree or on a slide to see the world.  With the whole countryside sweeping out before you, you can see what needs to be seen from a safe spot, feet firmly planted on the ground.

This is a big deal for me, who can barely see anything due to a severe astigmatism that continues to baffle my ophthalmologist, making my contact lenses swim around on my eyes. It was inherited from my father and exacerbated by reading in the dark under the covers. I often feel like my eyes are playing tricks on me, messing with perception in decidedly unsafe ways.  When I moved to Kentucky, with its hilly alcoves and winding roadways, hiding houses and deer and tractor-trailers,  I think I developed a new phobia: a feeling of suffocation distinctly tied to my mistrust of vision.  I started climbing things, just to get to a good view.  Seeing became survival.

5:00 am, in the Keyhole Hut

5:00 am, in the Keyhole Hut

I have been hiking since, summiting several peaks and taking in many, many panoramic views. Each time, I feel elation and peace, rather than the irrational fright of my kindergarten days. Last weekend, Dan and I visited Estes Park, Colorado with the intention of climbing something tall.  We chose Long’s Peak, a 14er with a “hard” difficulty rating, made more difficult by limited acclimatization time and dodgy weather patterns.  The hike is a long one, 14 miles total, and requires hikers to depart the trailhead no later than 2:00am if they wish to summit that day.  Ironically for me, most of the ascent is done in the darkness of early morning, which makes it more dangerous because you can’t see the edges of the boulders and you often lose parts of the trail, especially in the Boulder Field.  And it kind of defeats the purpose of climbing something to get a magnificent view if the only part of the trail that you can see are the rocks and scrub two feet ahead of you, illuminated by your head lamp.  We climbed for several hours through that forest, reaching 11,000 feet by the time we broke through the tree line.  The more we climbed into that darkness, the more I felt at home in the air, even as my discomfort with the darkness grew.  It was a challenge for me to feel safe without sight.  But I tried to focus on smelling the dry, piney woods at night, listening for rustles and rattles along the narrow trail, bordering on blind.

Several hikers on the trail forwent the use of headlamps entirely, relying on night vision to get them safely up and down the trail.  Hats off to you, guys.  A couple of days later, an Estes Park resident told us the story of Enos Mills, one of Rocky Mountain National Park’s founders, who had to descend the mountain after becoming completely snow blind, feeling and hearing the trail he had blazed the day before. For the marmots who scuttle across the tundra or sure-footed big-horns, falling off the mountain is a rarity.  But for humans, with our imperfect balance and our weak constitutions, Long’s Peak can be as dangerous as it is beautiful; most of the yearly death count on Long’s Peak is attributable to falls.  Seeing the trail is necessary.  As one of Barbara Kingsolver’s characters states in her new book Flight Behavior, “Vanity was one thing, but out here in the damn wilderness, one needs to be able to see.” I had been reading her book on the plane the day before, and I couldn’t agree more.  My anxiety grew as we climbed further and further past tree line, a nervous little tweak at the base of my spine, and I couldn’t wait for the sun to begin its show on the other side of the range.

The air is thin up there, and our bodies were working hard.  We stopped every twenty minutes to breathe, acclimate, and gaze up at the stars peeking through the lodge pole pines, and then as we climbed higher, down at the lights of sleeping Estes Park below us.  Aside from those lights, the trail on either side lay in darkness, holding its beauty for us to see upon our descent.

We climbed higher, taking a short stop in twenty-mile per hour wind gusts at the foot of the Boulder Field.  This is where the base camp lies for overnight backpackers, and the buzz on the mountain was all about clouds and wind, and the low possibility of making a summit that day.  It takes an hour to cross the Boulder Field in the dark, finishing with a short climb to the Keyhole, a low spot on top of the ridge, about 1,200 feet below the summit. We arrived there  just before 5:00am.  We huddled in the tiny hut built below the Keyhole, discussing the choice to continue to climb despite the clouds and the altitude or to head down.  I wanted to continue.  I was breathing well, and strong, and feeling stronger with every step, even though I had climbed 4,000 feet that morning.  I wanted to get at the top, and I wanted to see the summit view, looking across all of Eastern Colorado and past the Continental Divide to the west.  I knew it would be spectacular to look at all of that space below me, stretched out for miles, all for me to see.  I knew the sun would be up soon, to warm the rock face and light the narrow, slippery trail along the Narrows and the Homestretch.

The Summit of Long's Peak, just after daybreak.

The Summit of Long’s Peak, just after daybreak.

I felt the adrenaline of the hike–and the hope of sunrise–pushing me onwards and upwards, when all of a sudden, an urgency in my gut pulled my butt back to the stone seat.  And yes it was both the urge to pee (a symptom of hypoxia) and the urge to get down.  I can only explain it as instinct.  “Get down,” it said, “now.  Take Dan down.  Take yourself down. See the sunrise on the trail below, and marvel at the views and take pictures of this hike.  Look for bear and bighorns and falcons in the light below.  Don’t risk the Narrows, where one or both of you will fall.”  It seemed certain, up there, where the air is thin, that one of us would fall, or get sick, or panic in a tight spot, or get struck by lightning from one of the storm clouds rolling in.  It wasn’t worry that was causing my hesitancy; it was certainty. I looked at Dan’s pale face and goofy grin, elated to be sitting at the top of the highest ridge he had ever seen, and decided that we had had enough high altitude for one day.

I have read enough Jon Krakauer books to know not to ignore that gut instinct when it is truthful; worry is its tattling little sister, but instinct is stronger and forceful, and impossible to ignore if you are a sane person (and many of the individuals characterized in Krakauer’s works are not sane). I have never felt instinct so keenly before.  It was not the panic of the tornado slide or the aching anxiety knot that I always feel in my spine, although it certainly grew from those seeds.  It was calm, clear, and definite. So as the sun rose on Long’s Peak in that early morning air, 13,000 feet above sea level, Dan and I watched the sun peek over the tops of the Rockies.  And then we headed down into a world full of light.

He looked at me: “Now I can tell people that I haven’t just seen the Rocky Mountains; I have been on a Rocky Mountain.”  I laughed and agreed, and started taking pictures of the trail below.

Sunrise at the Boulder Field

Sunrise at the Boulder Field

Want to see more pictures of what we missed in the darkness of the trail? Come back this week for a full gallery of Long’s Peak and Rocky Mountain National Park photos.

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Such Great Heights: Long’s Peak by Katie Piper Greulich is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
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Got Elk?

I do!

This elk from Twin Owls Steakhouse was the best meal I had in Estes Park this weekend, where Dan and I have been testing the limits of our VO2 capacity and continuing our 2013 summer quest: seeing a bear. Read the blog this week for a full review of Estes Park and a short essay on overcoming my fear of heights via excessive worrying survival instinct.


Colorado Elk Medallions with Sweet Potato Mash and Veggies. Paired with Alta Vista Classic Malbec, 2011–we recognized this vino from our Argentine winery tour!

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Got Elk? by Katie Piper Greulich is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
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Chicken Broccoli Cheese (Some Potato): What To Pack For The North Country Trail

There is something innately masochistic about foot travel, especially backpacking. There will be physical discomfort involved, even when you are your most prepared. Unless you happen to be a barefoot runner, with thick, asphalt-denying soles, chances are strong that you will get blisters.  Unless you consistently carry 20-30 lbs of backpack throughout your daily activities, you will have sore, aching shoulders.  Hip flexors will tighten up and it won’t feel great to get up and hike after a short night sleeping on the ground.  You can, however, be a little more prepared and be a lot more comfortable–and it will make the beauty of the trail that much easier to enjoy.

Pictured Rocks is one of the loveliest national parks I have ever seen, and I should know; I didn’t see the inside of an Embassy Suites on a family vacation until I was 12 years old.  I just assumed that “vacation” meant tent camping in Colorado’s San Jose National Forest, where I would spend the week fishing with Grandpa B and losing all of my Jolly Ranchers in poker tournaments with my brother.  I haven’t been to Yellowstone or the Grand Canyon, but Pictured Rocks is a primal geological wonder of sand, forest and water. The grandeur of Lake Superior contrasts sharply with the minutiae of the forest trail.  I marveled at feeling both very large and very small as we trekked through 35 miles of the 42 mile North Country Trail. Enjoy this gallery, and read further to hear about how we packed our bags.

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Dan and I are backpacking newbies.  We have often spent entire days on the trails, especially in Kentucky’s Red River Gorge, but after covering 14 miles, we are happy to return to a soft bed and pizza,–and wine.  Nothing makes a long day of hiking better than a good glass of red wine, which is perhaps why I loved Argentina so much. The next day, we usually sleep in, drink coffee, and re-fuel with pancakes.  Backpacking has none of these comforts–and it has torturous potential.  It is physically and mentally grueling, and you can make it even more so if you are like us and packed 3 lbs of canned soup and no cook stove.   When you find yourself salivating at the prospect of half-heated chicken broccoli cheese soup, turned a pallid grey color from ash, or eating a packet of tuna salad for dinner, you know that you should reevaluate your nutrition plans.

Readers who are advanced backpackers will surely make fun of us greenhorns, as you should.  I worried about this trip incessantly for two weeks, trying to figure what to bring and how to use it.  I was afraid of getting sick from drinking lake water (we didn’t; we filtered it).  I was afraid of a bear or two taking all of our food (as my mom says, bears are more afraid of us than we are of them).  I was most afraid of reaching that mental state when hunger turns into anger and attacking the bear trying to take my food. I did reach that point a couple of times, but the bears wisely avoided us, so nothing worse happened than my having a short panic attack–and that was at the beginning of the trail. And it turned out that we were prepared for some things, but not for others.  Especially eating.  Lesson learned: buy and pack a small backpacking stove and freeze-dried food.  The stove is important at Pictured Rocks; not all campsites allow fires, and a packet of tuna for dinner is not really that appetizing.

Lesson Two: Sleeping pads.  We slept on the hard ground, inside warm, comfy sub-zero sleeping bags.  But sleep can’t ease soreness away if  a tree root is lodged so deeply into your shoulder that you can’t tell where the root ends and your bones begin.  A yoga mat would have been well worth the extra weight in the pack, and the Cliffs at Pictured Rocks are the perfect location for a scenic sunset vinyasa.

We were prepared for contingencies that we were lucky not to experience, namely, picnicking with bears.  In recent months, Pictured Rocks National Park has started cracking down on bear preparedness, mostly because rangers have reported multiple instances of campers giving their food to bears.  It is a bad day when bears associate people with food–your chicken broccoli cheese could be quickly snatched and you might have to use your bear spray (a frightening device that looks like an air horn and sprays a capsaicin spray that you must not in any way get on your person). We strung our food up in odor-proof bags inside a bear canister in a high branch or one of the park-provided bear poles. Don’t leave food or toothpaste or other toiletries in your tent–put them in the canister and hang them up. Bonus: Wolves will be less interested in your camp too. Nothing scarier than a herd of rabbits paraded through our campsite. I think avoiding a bear run-in boosted our backpacking confidence.

We were also prepared for injury, bugs and hygiene. Blisters were disinfected and bandaged nightly, making the next day’s hiking much easier.  Two ACE bandages helped me limp through the last 11 miles of the trail. Pain killers take some of the ache out of your sore shoulders and hip flexors.  And wet-wipes.  Wet-wipes are essential for boosting hygiene and morale; there is nothing better than a fresh wet-wipe to make the trail look a bit rosier.  They are even better paired with an industrial-strength mosquito repellent on skin and sprayed on tents, backpacks and a couple of outfits.  You want something with 30% DEET or above. I’m sure it is highly carcinogenic.  But I left Pictured Rocks, Land of the Thumb-Sized Mosquitoes, with three bites total.

When you hike Pictured Rocks–and you should, especially if you are a Michigander, a Buckeye or a Cheesehead (it is so close to home!)–don’t bother to take these things with you:

1. Canned soup. Or canned food of any kind.

2. 6 lighters.  Bring 2 lighters, and some matches.  6 lighters, in the immortal words of Larry David, “are a bit much.”

3. A dozen AA batteries, unless you are actually carrying a device that requires said batteries.  We weren’t.

4. Four changes of clothes.  One or two is plenty.

5. 4 lbs of trail mix.  Your tummy will not thank you later.

6. A bikini?!? Not sure why I brought that.  The lake is way too cold for swimming in early June.

And definitely bring:

1. A well-stocked first aid kit.

2. Enough food to replace the thousands of calories that you burn; Dan and I roughly estimated that we ran a calorie deficit of at least 6000-9000 calories throughout the entire trip.  That is more than enough to bring on hanger; I get grumpy when I have to give up chocolate for a week.

3. Insect-repellent.

4. Bear canister and odor-proof, water-proof bags. And bear spray. Use the former; know how to use the latter.

5. A water filter, or at least some water filtration tabs. Rangers suggest a filter, but the lake water is clear and perfect for chlorine tabs if you don’t have anything better.

6. Your camera, and an extra battery. Because there is nothing better than waking up in the woods when the sun begins to peek through the canopy.  The mosquitoes stare at you disconcertingly from their position under the rain flap of your tent, and you feel righteous, reveling in the fact that you are heavily bug-sprayed and that they are probably dying from the fumes.  Outside, you eat your Cliff bar and saunter down to the lake to refill your water bottle.  The water is so clear that you can see the fish feeding five, ten, fifteen feet below. You will want to capture that morning feeling, as your ankles and arches start to warm up on the trail after breaking camp.  Your body feels better than it did last night, and for now, your muscles are fueled and you are full.  You know that the rest of the day is nothing but moving and breathing.  Happy trails indeed.

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Chicken Broccoli Cheese by Katie Piper Greulich is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
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On Leaving the Trail: Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, Michigan

Exhausted, I sat down on the ground next to a silver birch, facing the gravel roadway of the Hurricane River Campground.  Cars and trucks pulled in, carrying passengers dressed to varying degrees of preparedness for the mosquito-ridden trails; I internally scoffed at the Teva-sandaled buckwheaters stepping lightly to the trail-head, planning to hike the 3 mile walk to the Au Sable Lighthouse. I knew what kind of blisters they would get later. I was hoping that my pathetic posture/attitude would signal to some Good Samaritan that I’d had enough of Nature and needed a ride, but it was clear that Dan and I were too dirty to be respectable hitch-hikers.  I had just finished my 35th mile on the North Country Trail, and I wasn’t moving another step.


Lake Superior

Leaning back on my pack, parked against the birch, I gazed up at the sky.  Both relieved and irritated, I battled perfectionism’s irrational whispers, urging me to take another ibuprofen and march those last 7 miles to our final destination: the Volvo, parked at the Grand Sable Visitor’s Center.  I hate disappointing myself, and I was disappointed.  My right ankle, never before injured, screamed from strain when I put weight on it; I had straggled the last 11 miles of trail alternately cursing it and praying against a stress-fracture.  I sent Dan off to start looking for a ride to the Volvo, while Perfect Katie kept whispering in my ear:

“You are strong and fit and athletic.  There is no reason you shouldn’t finish this through-hike. Obviously, if you don’t finish, you are no true strong German wife.”

“This is a beginner’s back-packing trail!  You are too athletic to be a beginner–I know this is your first through-hike, but clearly, you’re at least an intermediate backpacker. Your body defies the laws of athletic conditioning.”

“Stress-fracture, shmush-shmasher.  Your ankle won’t get more injured if you just hike seven more miles. It could even help!  You’re just sore.”

“If you go home now, don’t you dare blog about this.”

“You are a winner; if you ain’t first, you’re last.”

Perfect Katie is unsympathetic to any and all weakness.  I can credit her with some really great English papers and my obsessive knowledge of geographic trivia.  And I can blame her for absolutely all of my over-training injuries to date.

Dan wandered around the parking lot, halfheartedly asking for a ride; I could tell that he didn’t want to go home just yet.  I stared at the blue sky. Clouds drifted overhead as Dan returned, unsuccessful (perhaps purposely); we leaned against the birch and together pointed out clouds that looked like the rabbits that are nesting in our backyard.  We dozed and snoozed, lulled by afternoon sun and 9 miles under our belts since breakfast.  And as we waited for some brave and understanding soul to risk picking us up, I recalled the last time that I was free to spend an afternoon gazing at a big, blue sky.

Except I couldn’t.

I don’t know when I last watched clouds pass with someone; it must have been in elementary school, when my brother and sister and our neighbors would spend our summer running wild over the Colorado farm.  Or it could have been in high school, when I spent the summer mowing the lawn and picking tomatoes.  Or it could have even been in college, on a fall Saturday with one of my roommates as we gamboled across campus looking for the next party.  But I know for a fact that I had never once sat and stared at the clouds with Dan.

“How could this be?!?” Perfect Katie admonished.  “You have never spent a romantic afternoon picnicking and watching the sky with the man you have been dating/married to for 8 years?”

Nope.  And I don’t think we are necessarily unusual in having missed that particular relationship milestone, although Perfect Katie has a point.  There are a whole lot of things that we haven’t done in our 8 year relationship, including holding stereos above our heads to assuage an argument or competing in a dance-off to win each others’ affection.  We just aren’t those kind of people.

But we have, as Wordsworth states “seen into the life of things” on the trail; as we chattered mindlessly through the trees, occasionally something would make us stop and listen.  We practiced capturing that perfect moment through the lens, the moment that we realized we are part of the goings-on of this trail, that while we feel like visitors in the forest, we are  involved in life here despite ourselves.

We see into the life of things.--Wordsworth

Dan kept hoping to see a bear; thankfully, we did not.

And we have watched and heard and felt water rustling from every corner of the park into a Lake that flows as far as we can see, to Canada and beyond. It is clear water, it hides nothing, and we have seen into its depths, from 200 feet in the air.


The Cliffs

We have seen the sun play tricks on our eyes on misty trails, as relics decompose.


On the Trail to Twelve-Mile Beach

We have stood on cliffs on which we felt a Whitman-esque YAWP, even if we didn’t actually YAWP–again, we aren’t those kind of people.


I looked on the rooftops of the world–I did not sound a barbaric YAWP.

We have camped on the shore of a quiet inland lake where the only sounds are the “parp” of bullfrogs (popping up like ill-timed farts) and the whistling pines.


Trapper’s Lake

We stared down the moment when fun began to pass us by, when hiking’s simplest task–putting one foot in front of the other–began to feel like work, and we have found the strength to give up and go home, taking our stolen images with us.


And we have popped and bandaged blisters where blisters should not occur, and we have loved each other anyway.

The sweet park researcher who finally picked us up laughed at our relief as we pulled into the lot next to the Volvo; she could see the weariness of three days of questionable nutrition and poorly packed packs on our faces and took pity on us (I actually think it would have been more work for her if I had broken my ankle in the sand dunes on the trail back to Grand Sable, thus requiring a rescue). Returned to our yuppie-mobile, Dan and I peeled off our boots and socks, slipping our yuppie boat shoes gingerly back onto our feet. We ducked into the car, mocking the mosquitoes dive-bombing the windshield, and pulled away, leaving the forest, the water, and the shame of not walking those last 7 miles behind us.  We had accomplished enough.

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On Leaving the Trail by Katie Piper Greulich is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
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