On August 12, 2008, orange cones block the tiny parking area at the Bighorn Creek Trailhead. Looks like the lot is getting an overhaul. I drive up the street a bit farther before it dead-ends in a cul-de-sac. Nothing up here but expensive homes. Needless to say, in Vail, there is nowhere to park. It is 10:00 pm. After driving another 1.3 miles east on the frontage road, I spot the parking area for Deluge Creek Trailhead.
This is a nice area with a river flowing on the opposite side of the road. I set up my sleeping bag in the back of the Discovery, and, just as I am about to crawl inside, Heather and Stephanie show up. Heather sets up a large tent between our two cars and it is lights out.
As is typical, I toss and turn most of the night. Conscious dreaming, but what can I do? It has been this way most of my life.
4:00 am. I am moving slowly but moving nonetheless. The air is surprisingly crisp, and the stars are brilliant. I reminisce momentarily about more glorious times when the sky was always black and the stars were always sparkling. I piss in the shadows of healthy pines, and I see the girls are awakening. More likely, they too have been awake throughout the deep darkness of the early morning. I drink a protein smoothie and eat an apple turnover. Without my daily coffee, this will suffice.
4:40 am. We walk silently and swiftly, three abreast, down the middle of the dark frontage road. An acrid stench from the sporadic I-70 traffic hovers against the asphalt. It is a very strange feeling to be on this road. We turn up Bighorn Creek Road, ascend through the narrow tunnel, and arrive at the bighorn Creek Trailhead.
It is my perception that the trail begins relatively steeply. Within minutes, I am sweating. I don’t know if I am walking too fast. Usually, I walk too slowly. Even now, the click-click-click-click of the girls’ trekking poles threatens my heels. Regardless of my trail prowess, it takes time for me to acclimate to the climb. The trail is long and becomes a very gradual ascent through the forest. Within the first hour, the girls are ahead of me, and I stop to breathe. I notice the moment, when I am alone and the first touch of light drips into the trees, that I am not the only tall shadow in this basin. I recognize my humility then continue up the path.
Even though I continually look at my wrist-watch and altimeter, I forget to note the time and altitude. My only thought is that, as the mountain looms closer, we are not gaining any significant altitude. In time, we reach the old cabin. I believe we have hiked about four miles. I take the opportunity to scare Heather, just as she peers into the shadowy corners. Boo!
We take a brief moment (probably too brief) to consider the fading trail as the end of our civilized hike and head east into the woods. Shortly thereafter, the forest clears, and we encounter a very large talus field, which, of course, we decide to ascend. This is where we diverge and take the road less traveled.
Talus underfoot quickly washes away, and we enter a steep gulley. About 10 feet wide with cliffs rising on either side, the gulley allows a cascade of water to careen down its length, barely enough to wet the rock. We crisscross for better footing, as scree slides away. We climb over a large chock stone that has fallen and wedged itself between the cliffs. Then, finally, the mountain rejects us. We spend about 20 minutes attempting several variations at the bottom of 5th class rock. I do not have confidence that we will proceed. We agree that it is not worth the risk. Heather is the last to cling to the rock, and she inches her way back down.
Twenty feet lower, we traverse north on a cliff ledge at a red rock, then up a granite crack. A series of weaknesses in the route take us higher and higher until we reach a tundra-covered high basin. We take a short break, and I eat a Cliff bar and squeeze some GU into my mouth. So far, the route has been fantastic. With a clear blue sky above us, we cross the tundra and ascend into a huge boulder field that runs from the base of the mountain all the way to the summit. The girls advance very quickly, while I struggle with the taxing climb. Several times, boulders slide underfoot, causing small rockslides. Twice, my leg is wedged momentarily beneath eighty pound blocks, but I move quickly to avoid injury. For a second, I am proud that I still have some youthful dexterity. Then, I look above and can’t see the girls. They are about 10 minutes ahead now.
Eventually, the small boulders become large boulders and attached slabs. I scramble for a few hundred feet and reach the ridge of the Grand Traverse. Heather and Stephanie are sitting nearby. I gaze over the opposite side of the almost knife-edge ridge, down the sheer cliff face then over to my left at North Traverse Peak. It seems quite far, but it is really just a 15 minute walk. The views are amazing.
It is an enjoyable scramble on easy, solid rock to North Traverse, where several young men from Outward Bound are relaxing. We snap a few photos and start the classic Grand Traverse scramble, retracing our steps for the first fifteen minutes.
The entire ridge is a scramble over amazing slabs and large boulders. As we traverse south, it seems as if Grand Traverse Peak gets farther away. The novelty of reaching one of the many gendarmes along the route subsides to the realization that the end is nowhere in sight. Many times, we descend through hidden notches, trek across narrow gullies, and ascend back to the ridge. The route finding is incredible, and we all seem to be equally capable.
Early in the afternoon, I realize how far away we are from finishing the route and how far we are from the trailhead. The distance is quite far, but we are extremely fortunate to be climbing in the best mountain weather that I have ever experienced; nevertheless, I wonder how I would have felt if I had been alone.
The route for the final summit push is straightforward but tricky, and we ascend a short but steep slab. A slip here would end fatally several hundred feet below. This is the most serious exposure thus far. My boots grip like suction cups, and the small amount of reservation in my gut disappears. Heather and Stephanie follow, and we reach the summit.
We rest for ten minutes under a beautiful and warm sun. I take several photos and squeeze some coffee flavored GU into my throat. It is loaded with caffeine, and I know I will need the extra boost for the long hike out.
We leave the summit and descend an easy but tedious talus slope toward Deluge Lake. It’s amazing how easy the route is on this side of the mountain. Still, my right knee gives out, and I’m suddenly in pain. It feels like a minor strain, but I am slightly worried. Stephanie gives me one of her trekking poles, which I graciously accept. The girls move ahead, as I pick my way carefully down the slope, favoring my minor injury and using the trekking pole as a crutch. Eventually, I make my way to Deluge Lake, where Stephanie wades in the shallow water, and Heather sits in the grass.
After a brief rest, we locate the path on the other side of the creek. We walk fast along the clearly defined trail. My cell phone beeps, and I ignore it. The trip has lasted two hours longer than I had expected, but we continue the difficult march toward the trailhead. Along the way, we cross the creek and pass some other hikers. The trail ascends almost 500 feet before finally winding its way down to the Deluge Creek trailhead. I unload my small pack at the rear of my truck, remove my boots, and bid adieu to my new friends. It is an amazing journey and a significant accomplishment.
I drive home, maybe two hours. I fall asleep on the sofa and drift into the longest slumber of the year.