Mount Parnassus to Bard Peak
The night before, I debated with myself about attempting Longs Peak. I hadn't even considered Mount Parnassus or Bard Peak. In my 5th week of unemployment, I was restless, perhaps more so from the feeling that my relationship with my girlfriend was slowly deteriorating. I knew the midnight drive to RMNP would be difficult given my current state of mind, so I went to bed with no expectations. At 7am, I woke as usual to make coffee, breakfast, and lunch for my girlfriend. Then, I sat down on the computer and looked up some Front Range mountains on Summit Post.
Without really thinking about it, I chose Mt. Parnassus. I read through the vague available trip reports, printed a small topo, and packed my camelback with the minimal essentials. Even though it was getting to be the time of year when a larger pack becomes necessary, I packed only a fleece jacket, rain poncho, one of those disposable emergency blankets, and a bandana as extra protection. I was wearing shorts, so, as I was walking out the door, I grabbed some light running pants. The forecast called for a large system moving in with light snow/rain; but, I thought I could beat it.
The drive down I-70 was uneventful, and I arrived at Exit 218 about an hour after leaving Denver. I donned my socks and hiking boots, threw a compass and knife in my pocket, and started up the Watrous Gulch trail at 10:15 am. I was hoping to make the summit very quickly and after a mile or so of fast hiking, I thought I could do it by noon.
The trail moved me quickly through the woods, neither assisting nor hindering the effort of my lungs to keep pace with my intentions. The air was still and quiet, except for the dull drone of traffic on the I-70 corridor. As I approached 10,500 feet, the hum of civilzation slowly drained from my mind, leaving me in a precarious balance between the security of mankind at my boot heels and the ephemeral glory of silence, from which the enlightened revelations of man can emerge. I passed fields of aspen and birch that had been toppled by the force of a glorious avalance. The trail was covered with dying butterflies who had outlived their brief purpose. What was my purpose, I wondered?
As the trail turned north, I was suddenly accompanied by a delicate creek, whose soothing voice gave harmony to my heart's tempo. My legs echoed my thoughts, but my heart was about to explode. Bending over, I rested my hands on my knees and tried to breathe. With the nearby water trickling across tiny rocks, and the colors of early autumn swallowing the land, a quiet thought stirred my consciousness: I am mortal and there will come a time to die. If that time was now, would that be anyone's regret?
My last grandmother died a few weeks back. Since I left home for the military twenty years ago, I never really looked back and lost touch with my extended family. She was a great woman in her youth, but age took its toll early. A woman with fortitude enough to survive the loss of her first husband to lung cancer only to watch the second succumb to Alzheimers Disease. In 1999, her house and everything in it burned to the ground in a fire caused by a wood-burning stove. She had nothing left except the support of her family and, believe me, that's hard to come by in my family.
But that is the nature of my bloodline, I suppose. We survive. In the September woods, a mile from my own dysfunctional civilization, I stood, breathless and alone, comtemplating my mortality.
Mount Parnassus loomed graciously to my right, the ridgeline of Woods marking the horizon directly in front of me. The gentle creek whisped underfoot, and I left the trail at a faint junction that circled some pines and faded into open tundra. I chose a direct ascent toward the ridge, just left of what appeared to be the summit of Parnassus. On Woods, the silhouetted figure of man inched along the darkening horizon, a reminder that a path is merely a juncture of what came before and what lies ahead.
Every minute or so, I stopped and looked at the sky, checked my time, and chose a spot ahead as my next short objective. The slope was shallow at about 30 degrees, but I was racing the weather. I argued about whether I would make it in time, but I never would have turned back. Not that day.
About halfway up, a brisk wind swept down on me like a distant, uninvited memory. The sky was simultaneously white and irreverantly dark, replacing the spaoradic blue with veins of stained lace that I knew contained snow and rain. I paused to change into the long pants and add the fleece jacket under the camelback. I put the bandana under my hat to cover my ears and create a warm barrier between the sweaty ballcap and my head. I was surprised when light snow flurries began to fall, and I wondered if it was wise to continue without gloves. But, it was not that cold and I had at most another thirty minutes until I reached the summit. At that moment, the wind shifted and blew the storm back to the east. I had my window of opportunity and climbed swiftly to the summit of Mount Parnassus.
I signed the log at 12:25 pm and noticed one other entry for the day at 10:30 am. Their comment: "Weather moving in." I found that to be an exaggeration. I hadn't seen anyone all day except for a distant pair of hikers who were picking their way down the Woods-Parnassus saddle thirty minutes earlier.
The summit took longer than I had hoped, but I now looked on to my next objective, and I was moving so fast that I thought about nothing else.
Woods was out of the question, since the storm front seemed to be hovering over it. I thought I could make it to Bard Peak, but I doubted I could retrace my steps without being hit by the encroaching storm. The map suggested that any descent into the southern basins would ultimately lead to the same place (relatively speaking, of course). It seemed to me that the storm was hitting the peaks and nothing else, so all I needed to do was drop below 12,000 feet, and I'd be safe.
As I began the ridge traverse to Bard Peak, I noticed that a shift in wind had brought another weather system from the southeast that looked like it was descending directly onto my destination. I tried as hard as I could to jog, walk fast, anything; but, at 13,000 feet, lung capacity wins every time. Regardless, I stood atop Bard Peak for a glorious minute, ran to its eastern sub-summit, and hastily descended into the basin. A few flurries and very light rain sprinkled my fleece but otherwise passed right over me. Turns out my assessment of the weather and my escape route was right...so far.
I descended to about 12,500 feet and was able to traverse to the west, crossing into the next basin. By this point, Parnassus was gone, completely swallowed by a white cloud. As a result, I couldn't get a bearing on my exact position, and I assumed that I'd crossed all the way back to the direct line that I'd taken to get to Parnassus...which of course was an error in orienteering. Thus, as I descended, I started remarking to myself, "This doesn't look familiar." And, for some reason, I had to pee every ten minutes. I felt like I was marking my territory.
Finally, I decided to follow the stream down the gulley, even though in places the terrain was untrodden. Every once in a while, I found a clue to human existence (for example, a cell phone cord) and, eventually, a very faint trail appeared. I took this as a sign that I actually could use a compass, although I stayed on the southesterly trail remnant, even though I knew I should be heading in a more south-southwest direction.
2:00 pm. I consciously noted the elevation and remaining daylight, wondering at what point a person chooses to erect shelter before it's too late. For a moment, I thought about my girlfriend and what she would think if I wasn't there when she returned from work and saw the map that I'd left for her.
I did not have a headlamp or matches. I had expected the drainage to lead me into Watrous Gulch, but it didn't. Another mistake was that my topo was not detailed enough. I thought it would be safer to stay on the faint trail, as it was still descending toward the highway, even though I thought I could hike through the thick woods due south and pick up the hikers trail back to the trialhead.
I made the right choice; but, then again, maybe not. If I hadn't had a compass, there is little doubt that I would have been lost. The "trail" ulitimately faded in and out into a maze of game and lost hiker trails that went everywhere and yet seemingly nowhere. Surrounded by forest, there was no way to get a bearing on my location. I passed a burned out fire ring and wondered how long ago someone had sat here, and if intentionally. I second-guessed which drainage I was actually in and lost confidence in my exact location. I had to trust the small amount of civilized instinct that remained...and my compass.
I skipped through some trees, over the creek, and found a more established but severely overgrown hikers trail. This was not the Watrous Gluch trail, but I hoped it would merge at some point. The hike out was taking too long, so I knew I was in the wrong place. Eventually, I reached 10,200 feet and heard the I-70 traffic. I saw the road, but I was too high. Did I pass the trailhead already? The trail wound around, and I spotted some trucks parked on the side of the highway. I thought I was directly above the traihead, but the trail continued west parallel to the highway? Confused and hanging onto broken limbs and dusty tree trunks, I descended toward the vehicles. I broke out onto another trail, which took me to a parking area. The first thing I saw was a sign across the highway that said "Exit 221 Bakersville." Crap! I was three miles east of my car! It was 3:00 pm.
The slog up I-70 was long, uphill, and into a headwind. I cursed myself for being stupid. My punishment would be to walk the entire distance, even though I really wanted to hitch a ride. Every time a truck passed, I wondered if a shard of scrap metal or hubcap would slice off my head. It took everything I had left in my tired legs, but I made it back to my car at exactly 3:45 pm. It was a very strange feeling to be back in my house taking a hot shower only an hour later. Even stranger, my girlfriend never even knew I was gone, and an argument precluded the telling of my journey.