The Day the Game ChangedWith it being late February, confined to the cold flatlands of northeast Indiana, I once again find myself pouring over topographic maps of the Elk Range, obsessing about how I am going to spend my seven precious days later this summer in the mountains of Colorado. While I have always been a bit obsessive when it comes to planning my hiking trips, the planning has been much different for the past four years as compared to the 10 years prior. I started thinking about what changed, and then I realized I can blame it on my friend Rob and the day we hiked up to Boulder-Grand Pass in Rocky Mountain National Park. Prior to this hike in 2006 I spent my time planning trips by looking at trail maps, and saw…well I saw trails. Now I find myself looking at topo maps and all I see are opportunities.
It was our first big day of hiking on this short four day trip to Rocky Mountain National Park. The prior year on my hike in Wild Basin I took the left fork in the trail and headed out to Bluebird Lake. This year my plan was to take the right fork, and make it to Thunder Lake. The weather wasn’t particularly good this day as it was overcast and it drizzled from time to time. I remember being somewhat disappointed as I knew the views to the ridgelines would be blocked due to the low lying clouds, and 6.8 miles seemed like a long way to hike and not get rewarded with spectacular scenery. We stopped along the way for the obligatory photo ops at Calypso Cascades and Ouzel Falls, and then made the long haul through the woods towards Thunder Lake.
As expected, when we reached the lake, the clouds were still lying pretty low, and while the terrain still looked beautiful, it wasn’t what I had hoped for. We continued on to the far end of the lake and made it to the inlet stream, and here is where Rob changed the hiking game for me. I was ready to call it a day; head back to our campsite and enjoy a big steak and several cold beers. But Rob wanted to keep heading up above the inlet stream and do a little exploring.
My initial reaction was panic. The trail ended here, and without a trail I would be out of my comfort zone, and I literally did panic. You see, up until this point in my life I had always been a trail hiker. All my hikes in the mountains had been confined to the well groomed trails provided by the National Park Service. Trails made me comfortable and made me feel safe. Now Rob wanted to lead me to who knows where with no preconceived plan. I had a right to be a little nervous, so I told him I wasn’t going any farther.
In reality the trail really didn’t end there. I could see a faint trail leading up a slope so I reluctantly followed Rob, but I didn’t feel all that comfortable. I didn’t know where Rob was going and in reality he didn’t either. He was just doing a little exploring. It should have been fun and no big deal. But initially it wasn’t fun. I guess it was just the fear of the unknown. Eventually I did start feeling a little more comfortable, realizing I wasn’t going to get lost, and I started looking up towards the ridgeline and an open area that looked like we might be able to get to. I didn’t know it at the time, but it was Boulder-Grand Pass. Rob and I had no specific agenda, and as we headed up the terrain we traded ideas about how far we wanted to go. The weather seemed to be breaking, my confidence was starting to rise, and we kept pushing each other farther up the mountain. After a while I started to think that getting up to that pass sure looked like a fun way to spend what was left, of what up to this point, had been a somewhat disappointing day.
Eventually the trail did end as we approached Lake of Many Winds. And ironically this is where I started to get comfortable. We did some exploring in the area and finally I told Rob that we needed to try to get up to the pass, so we made our way around the lake and took a look at the final climb up what Rob would later refer to as the “insane talus slope”. It was several hundred feet of Class 2 scrambling on somewhat loose boulders and talus. I was all ready to give it a try but Rob looked at me like I was crazy. I headed up first and Rob now was the one reluctantly following. I found scrambling up to that pass to be quite fun and one of the highlights of the day.
I was stunned when I got to the top of Boulder-Grand Pass, which was big and wide open, with breathtaking views off to the west. A whole new world had just opened up to me as I suddenly realized that this is what you get to see when you leave the comforts of the trail! My hiking adventures would never be the same from this moment on. The game had definitely changed.
Rob didn’t enjoy the scramble up to the pass as much as I did, but after he made it up he convinced me that we should try and climb Mount Alice, as the long tundra slog to the summit can be made from Boulder-Grand Pass. I was more than content with what we had accomplished but I agreed to give it a try (it’s amazing what a little confidence will do for you). We were probably less than a half mile up the slope when we took a good look at the weather and decided that this wasn’t a great idea. More clouds were rolling in and retreat seemed prudent so we headed back towards the comforts of Thunder Lake Trail and the long 8 mile hike back to the trailhead. It started raining shortly after we left Thunder Lake and it rained the entire way back to the car. But at this point I didn’t care after getting such a rewarding experience on Boulder-Grand Pass.
On the way back to our campsite we stopped at the Visitor’s Center and I bought the Falcon Guide to Hiking Rocky Mountain National Park which came with a Trails Illustrated Map. Over the next few days Rob and I voraciously read over the routes outlined in the book, studying them on the topo map as well. A whole new world just opened up to us, and we were excited to say the least.
The next day we headed up into Glacier Gorge and to Black Lake. With my new found confidence I was more than content following Rob on the faint trail that leads far up into Glacier Gorge, where eventually the trail ends.
With map in hand we made it all the way to Green Lake near the base of Pagoda Mountain. The jaunt over to Frozen Lake was calling, but the weather wasn’t cooperating so we made the turn for home. The highlight of the day was the excellent view of Longs Peak we enjoyed from Glacier Gorge, and the next day we would successfully summit Longs.
So I’ll still blame it on Rob. If it wasn’t for him I’d still probably be limiting myself to the comforts of the trail. As I said earlier, prior to this hike up to Boulder-Grand Pass I spent my time planning trips by looking at trail maps, and saw…well I saw trails. Now I look at topo maps and all I see are opportunities. Now if I would just get over the number 3, as in Class 3, I can only imagine what other new worlds would open up to me.