Estes Park, CO – Rocky Mountain National Park. Fifth in a series of six articles.
We were warned. On Day One of my 42-mile hike, she told us. Repeatedly. ”Tomorrow’s the BIG day,” Phebe would say. I was like, “yeah, yeah, yeah.” So the Universe again smacked me and my attitude down and not only was I humbled by Day Two of the hike, but I was also challenged, surprised, elated and proud of myself and my colleagues. I learned a lot of Hiking Tips, first-hand. It was without a doubt one of the hardest physical days of my life…and I loved every painful minute of it.
Vicki and I said goodbye to the comforts of the Estes Park Lodge and along with Kris and Katherine we were driven down a long road to an innocuous looking trailhead for the start of our hike to Storm Pass and Estes Cone. Let’s just say, it did NOT paint a picture of what we were in for that day. Level, lacking in rocks and horse poop this lovely little meadow was like the evil queen tempting Snow White with the poisoned apple. ”Come my pretty, eat the apple. Isn’t it lovely? Doesn’t it look so yummy?” ”Yes,” my inexperienced little brain screamed. ”What the heck is Phebe talking about…this looks like a piece of cake!” my naive, cocky self thought. One would think by now I would have learned, but no…and trust me when I say, I had the cocky beat out of me by the end of this day!
My first mistake came long before I hit the trailhead that day. In the packet of materials Phebe sent me prior to the hike I chose to skip over the part about hiking boots. I have a very good pair of Merrill hiking boots so I’m thinking I’m good, right? WRONG! My boots are like hiking sneakers and work beautifully for my Summit County hikes and the fun little hike behind my house, The Bluffs. I know you Uber hikers out there are starting to snicker and grin and you should. I needed better boots, heavier with ankle support for the hike that lay before me that day. With all the rocks and roots, your feet are all over the place. My hiking hero Vicki had the best boots of all of us and she said it even hurt her to watch my ankles and feet twist and turn over the terrain. So Hiking Tip Number 1 – learn your course, know your terrain and get the right damn boots! Of course, I didn’t learn that lesson until the end of the hike, when Phebe told us we had 45 minutes to go and I nearly laid down and cried because my feet were in utter agony. But more on that challenge later.
Hiking Tip Number 2 – use poles! I had been introduced to the use of hiking poles the previous day and while I’m sure they helped I had no idea just how much they help until we started up the very long, steady ascent to Storm Pass. Very quickly my sweet and innocent little meadow became a mean and angry mountain and it was all uphill. Unlike the chatty camaraderie from the day before, we four were now focused. And except for Katherine’s realization and the laughter that ensued when she discovered she’d been hiking the whole time with her pole covers on, the conversation was clipped and limited. Probably by the fact that as we went up in altitude our lungs were hogging up any and all O2 they could get, and our hearts were pumping blood faster than Usain Bolt runs the 100 meter sprint. Once again, Phebe was an expert at reading us and giving us plenty of much needed water breaks. Whenever you hike – easy to hard – hydration is critical. Vicki and I both carried Camel pouches in our packs, plus three additional big bottles of water. And we finished it all every day. So Hiking Tip Number 3…one little Aquafina ain’t gonna do it! Never hike unprepared without adequate water – it’s more than simply refreshing when you’re sweating and breathless. It is life saving.
Climbing to Storm Pass, elevation 10,300 feet, is all up. And that “up” taught me Hiking Lesson Number 4. Know in advance what your hike is going to look like in terms of the physical challenge. And fuel up properly. Yep, you’re right…I didn’t do it. I was running late and breakfast was minimal and quick. Now, I have strong legs…and have never had a problem feeling weak on a hike but half-way up the Pass I told Phebe that my legs were struggling, feeling weak. ”Why?” I stupidly asked. She turned and looked at me (she probably wanted to smack me upside the head) and simply said “because it’s hard!” I hate when people say “Duhhh” in writing, but here I go…”Duhhh,” I thought. Add to that the fact I didn’t eat enough for the physical challenge and I was Gumby hiking up that Pass, thankfully with hiking poles that really came in handy!
Lunch was never so welcome. We stopped along the path, devoured our food in double time. No lounging and napping-we had a mountain to climb. Or should I say, another mountain. On our lunch break Phebe asked who wanted to climb up to Estes Cone. It’s another 700 feet straight up. She pointed out the mountain to us from our cozy lunch spot. Frankly it looked so far away I was convinced it was in Wyoming, but she assured us it was much closer. Being a group of slightly competitive overachievers, we all elected to “cone it” so off we went to the base of that mountain that looked to be hundreds of miles away.
We reached the base and were greeted by a corral of horses. Actually, I knew those suckers were hiding somewhere, because the poop trail had returned! There are several youth camps and programs that bring the kids in on horseback to hike the Cone. Wimps! After a quick water break, the second hardest part of my day began.
The “path” up the mountain was all rocks dictated by cairns, piles of stones that serve as markers on a trail. It was straight up and it was tough. And it seemed like it would never end. As we ascended, several youth groups were descending, running down the rocks like nimble little ants, laughing and talking like their lungs weren’t ready to explode like mine. Ahhh, youth…damn it! We met one of the fabulous Park Rangers just before we reached the Cone and she said it was all ours. We tossed our poles at the end, as hiking became rock climbing to the summit. It was scary, it was exhausting, it was intense. And once we were all up in the Cone, it was exhilarating! At 11,009 feet you can see forever. It was windy too, very rocky and a little scary if you don’t like heights (ummm, me and my bud Vicki.) After lots of pics we headed back down and that’s when it hit. My feet. They were gone. Well, at least it felt like they had been cut off at the ankles. All that was missing were the bloody stumps. Thus began the third hardest part of my Day Two hike.
Because we were hiking to our next inn, there would be no car service or ambulance ride for me. We had five miles ahead of us to Baldpate Inn and when Phebe told us that, it was all I could do to not just lay down and cry. But an amazing thing happened. No, my feet didn’t stop hurting…in fact they just got worse. But I learned a great Life lesson – hiking, if you haven’t figured it out yet, tends to be a great teacher. Despite the excruciating pain I was in, no one was going to come in and carry me out. No dramatic airlift rescue. No alien ship to kidnap me then deposit me at my home for the night. Scotty wasn’t going to beam me up…
No, I had to put one foot in front of the other despite the pain and my bad hiking boots and walk my ass out. There was no other choice. I wanted to quit, I wanted to sit, lay down…anything. But I also wanted to finish…the fact that massages were waiting for us was, I confess, a huge motivator. But just like in Life, it may hurt, but the only choice we have is to keep going and push through the pain. No one else is going to do it for us. Sometimes, when we can’t run we have to walk – every painful step – to get to the place where it won’t hurt anymore. For me, it was the Baldpate Inn and once I got there it was an Oasis in the mountains. Plus they gave me a bucket of ice water to soak my feet in – instant hero worship for that young man!
I was hurting. I was exhausted. I was numb. I was dusty and dirty. But I did it. I did what I didn’t think I could do. I sat there grinning and grimicing at the same time as I dipped my feet in the icy, feet-saving water. That was one of the hardest days of my life; I was in pain, I couldn’t feel much of my body and yet I felt invincible, euphoric…happy.
“Why?” I wondered. Then Phebe’s words came back to me….”Because it’s hard!”
And that’s Hiking Lesson Number 5 – “I’m not telling you it’s going to be easy, I’m telling you it’s going to be worth it.”
And it was…