Based on the weather forecasts, my son Chris and I had decided to do the Twins on Sunday, 4/8/7-with hopes of getting some great views and photos of Longs Peak.
I hadn’t climbed anything since Longs in ’03, so I was a bit concerned about my stamina. The fact that I’d sprained my ankle six weeks earlier didn’t help. But when it’s time to go, you gotta go. It was time.
The night before our hike, my wife got word that our dear friend Lillian, had succumbed to colon cancer. She was a couple months shy of her 84th birthday and was the most practical, down to earth person I think I’ve ever known. Thankfully, we’d been able to spend some time with her just two weeks prior. In her memory, Chris and I decided to do a farewell toast to Lil on top, if we were able to summit.
In preparation for the climb I’d called the RMNP backcountry office the week before to check trail conditions. I was told that we’d need snow shoes if we wanted to summit. Based on that advice, we rented some.
We arrived at an empty parking lot, near the trailhead at about 7:45. The drive was uneventful except for the two herds of elk, a handful of bighorn and the snow-covered, lower canyon roadway. The only casualty of the drive was my nearly empty coffee cup which went flying while avoiding the second group of elk, dumping it’s contents on the carpet. Luckily, the carpet’s the same color as the coffee. Fortunately, we ate our breakfast burritos between wildlife encounters.
The weather was not quite what we were expecting, but we had high hopes that skies would clear. It wasn’t snowing as we got ready to hit the trail and the clouds even seemed to be lifting.
Slogged up the snowy road that led to the point where the trail actually begins, made final adjustments to our packs and clothing and pushed on. The trail was tracked by the footsteps of previous hikers, punctuated with postholes and covered with a half inch of new snow. Luckily, the old snow has refrozen due to the recent cold weather so we walked on top without the aid of the snowshoes that we carried. It was a bit tricky walking on the choppy surface, trying to avoid the postholes.
Got a couple of glimpses of Longs trying to peek through the clouds as we made our way up the lower portion of the trail. The going was slow with me leading. Chris normally burns up the trail, leaving me in the dust, but he was content to follow the old man this day. Took a break where the hitching post is at about 11. Snow had started falling lightly. At this point we were overtaken by a lone hiker. He was a British chap that was living in Washington D.C. Chatted with him a bit and learned that he worked for some top secret, hush-hush, can’t talk about-it security firm from the UK that had set up shop in DC.
He told us that he was in Colorado for a charity climb of Longs the following Wednesday. Seems the Colorado Mtn. School was leading a group up the mountain via the Keyhole Route. A few minutes later the Brit’s climbing companion arrived. She was also part of the charity climbing group and the two of them were tuning up for Longs by climbing the Twin Sisters.
Shortly after the young lady showed up, Chris and I set-out, this time sporting the snow shoes we’d rented from REI for the trip. At first I thought the traveling was easier with the shoes, but when the trail got steeper I figured out that walking in them required twice the effort. I took em’ off and continued up through the scattered trees just below treeline. Chris kept his on a little longer, but he soon arrived at the same conclusion. Meanwhile, not far from our rest stop, the British fellow caught up to and passed us.
Chris decided he wasn’t moving at my pace anymore and took off across the rockfield muttering something over the radio about “no Brit beating him up his mountain.” By the time I reached the edge of the rock strewn, open slope that led to the summit, Chris was half way across it and the Englishman almost out of sight.
Walking was easier across the rocks for me, though my speed was still slow. The altitude was starting to take a toll on me, but not on my resolve. Meanwhile, a fast moving Chris disappeared into the rocks above. From time to time as I rested, I’d glance behind to see where the young lady was. Sometimes I’d spot her and her large backpack moving slowly-sometimes not.
The snow was coming harder, driven by a northerly wind. I wished I had my Gore-Tex jacket on but it was in the pack and I didn’t feel like digging it out-yet. Chris called on the radio to report that he was on the summit but I couldn’t respond cause the radio was in my jacket pocket. When the snow started to get crazy, I dug out my jacket and retrieved the radio. I described my position to Chris, he said I was five to ten minutes away from the top. Took one last glance back into the horizontal snowfall for a sign of the climber behind me. I pushed on after seeing none.
Chris called again, wondering where I was just as I reached the top of the saddle below the summit. Kids can be so impatient at times. It was kind of like the “are we there yet?” in reverse. I waved, stashed some of my gear under a rock overhang and clambered up the rocks to the summit.
I joined Chris and sat down to collect myself for a few minutes. He was eager to drop to the shelter of the rocks below, having all ready spent 15 minutes exposed to the wind-driven snow. I convinced him that we were on a mission and dug into my pack looking for the whiskey. Once I located the goods, I set up the tripod in the hope that we could get a shot of the toast. The farewell toast to Lil probably would have been more elegant had we been raising shots of Crown Royal, but not being a whiskey connoisseur, we raised what I had-Ancient Age, Brrgggh! In spite of some technical difficulties and the weather, we got it done.
Meanwhile, the British fellow had gone back down looking for his climbing partner. She’d called him on his cell saying that she was disoriented and couldn’t see the trail. He found her in short order and brought her to the shelter of the rocks below the summit, where we joined them. We spent about 15 minutes together there, talking about things like their upcoming climb of Longs, the day’s hike up and of our departed friend, Lillian. It’s funny how quickly you can form a bond with total strangers. I never even caught their names. We wished them luck on Longs and off they went back down.
I really felt like laying down for a while on the softening snow. Chris looked at me like I was nuts for doing it but it felt soooo good. I could empathize with hypothermics who just want to lay down and go to sleep. As good as it was, I knew I had some miles to go before I could sleep and young Chris had a date on his schedule for that evening. It was time to go.
The snow was still coming down but the visibility wasn’t too bad. Once we reached the trees the path steepened and care had to be taken on the slippery surface. I was mindful of my ankle and tried to keep the tweaking to a minimum. We stopped briefly by the hitching post to eat a Mr. Goodbar. Once again, the snowfall was increasing. Chris had enough of moving at my snail’s pace and announced that he’d see me at the car. I traveled as fast as I could, but it was nowhere near as fast as my long-legged, 6’ 3” son could move.
Half-way down, the snow was letting up but the footing continued to be tricky in spots and at one point I nearly took a tumble, but managed to stay upright thanks to the trekking poles. Didn’t know it at the time, but as I neared the TH I came to learn, via the pain in my shoulders, that I’d strained a couple muscles by clutching those poles so hard.
Though that last long straightaway seemed to go on forever, I did reach the trailhead eventually. Took the shortest route to the parking lot rather than following the road. Chris had pulled the car to the gate, saving me a few steps, for which I was very grateful.
Once again, Chris and I were frustrated in our attempts to photograph Longs from the Twins. Only once in four trips have we even seen the mountain, but at least we’d gotten out. It had been a very tough day for me, but also a good one! I feel like I'm back in the saddle and look forward to my next climb. It felt really good to accomplish our mission of summiting and to toast our friend in spite of the conditions. Getting a photo of the moment was a bonus.
Finally,......a glimpse of Sunshine
After I removed my gear at the end of a snowy, overcast day, I got my first glimpse of sunshine. It came in the form of a bottle of Sunshine Wheat, and that I guess, was as close as we’d get on this day.
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