The alarm rang at 5:45 AM. It was only a little over a week since I’d finished the Appalachian Trail and I’d been mostly relaxing, but I was ready to get back into the mountains. My wife Amy and I had spent more than a week in Indiana and Michigan visiting with friends and family before making the long, boring drive from the Midwest to Colorado. It was flat, and there was a lot of corn, but I was in a car and moving fast…much different than the past few months on the trail! We crossed the vast expanses of Nebraska and eastern Colorado, passed through Denver, and then started making our way up the steep grade into the Rocky Mountains…ahhh…I felt instinctively back at home, comfortable in the mountains, and ready to be on the trail. I mentioned to Amy that she could drop me off there and I’d hike to my aunt and uncle’s house in Breckenridge, but she said no. When we arrived in Breckenridge my aunt and uncle showed us around and we started planning a hike…time to get back on the trail!
A little after 6 AM my uncle Jim (trail name Seat Belt) and I loaded up the truck with our gear and my aunt drove us to the trail head. It was a weird feeling to be putting my hiking gear back into my pack and securing it to my back, but this time was different. I removed my tent, sleeping pad and sleeping bag and left them at home. We were doing a day hike, or a slack pack, whichever you prefer to call it. I placed my phone back in the waterproof bag and put it in my hip belt pocket. I grabbed the rest of the toilet paper from the bathroom and put it in a plastic bag, it is always good to be prepared. We packed food…I still had some trail mix I had used on the AT so I threw that in along with some apples and energy bars. It was nice knowing that I could take fresh fruit with me on the trail and not worry about extra weight. Once everything was in my backpack I closed it and took a look…much smaller! I think I could get used to this day hiking stuff! Aunt Karen dropped Seat Belt and me off at the trail around 6:30 AM. From there we would climb through a valley, past several tarns (mountain lakes formed by glaciers), and eventually scramble up a rocky slope to the summit of Pacific Peaks and make the same type of descent down the other side and down the adjacent valley. I grabbed my trekking poles and we started. My feet felt great in my hiking shoes, my legs were used to the uphill strain, and the pack was featherweight! The only thing that hurt was my hands pressed against my trekking poles. Over the past week my hands had been sore and the top layer of skin had been pealing from the wear and tear of hiking in Maine. Today my hands felt raw and tender to any pressure from the trekking poles, but no problem…we were back on the trail!
We took our time climbing through the valley, stopping to take pictures of wildlife and the views and enjoying the great morning. Back on the Appalachian Trail I wouldn’t have taken this luxury and I would have pressed on, but the scenery in the Rockies was so much different that I really enjoyed taking it all in. When we neared the end of the valley the trail disappeared and the rock walls ahead of us looked daunting, making me think that most hikers typically turn around and head back down. Of course, that wasn’t Seat Belt’s plan! We hiked on, blazing our own trail across a vast rock field that would put the rocks of Pennsylvania to shame. Eventually the rolling hills of rocks ran out and we faced a steep wall with no apparent route up. We started climbing an old miner’s donkey trail until it vanished under an old rock slide. From there we picked our way up the loose rocks, being careful not to cause another rock slide or slide down the steep slope ourselves. This was much different than the Appalachian Trail hikes, and although I don’t enjoy this type of hiking, I never felt like we were in danger…well, not that much danger. We eventually made it up the slope and climbed another rock ridge to see Pacific Peak towering above Pacific Tarn, the highest lake in the United States at 13,420 feet above sea level. We picked our way up a rocky spine to the top of Pacific Peak and summated at 11:00 AM. The top of Pacific Peak is 13,950 feet above sea level…50 feet short of being considered one of Colorado’s 14’ers, but still pretty darn high considering the tallest point on the entire Appalachian Trail is Clingmans Dome at 6,643 feet above sea level. I could feel the elevation for sure, either that or the breathtaking views from the top made it hard to get air.
Seat Belt and I took our time on the peak, taking pictures and enjoying the views. We headed back down the other valley to meet Amy and Aunt Karen at Mohawk Lake. We stopped at Pacific Tarn to refill our water bottles from the highest lake in the US…that water was fantastic! In order to get to our rendezvous point we had to travel down another steep rocky slope that looked more like a play slide for truck sized boulders than something we could climb down.
We looked for the path of most resistance…the path of least resistance would be straight down and we preferred to find a route with rocks and ledges that we could use to keep us from sliding several hundred feet at a time. At one point I did lose my footing and slid down about 30 feet while my water bottle fell out of my pack and made a much longer tumble down to Seatbelt. As I took my steps carefully I watched for any signs of rockslides, which was difficult because most rockslides I saw were actually caused by Seat Belt…he thoroughly enjoys rolling big rocks downhill and watching them crash…I prefer to not think about that as the next tumbler could be me! The climb (controlled slide) down the face of the rock wall took a lot longer than we intended and by the time we met Aunt Karen and Amy at the lake they had been there waiting for over an hour.
The day’s forecast had called for storms and the rain had held off so far, thank goodness, but I didn’t really want to chance it! We started heading down the trail and halfway to the truck the clouds rolled in and the sky opened up. Suddenly there was a deafening crash and a flash of lightening right in front of us; it had struck just a few hundred feet away. Time to get off the mountain! I headed down and caught up with Amy as she was standing with a group of people who had just seen the lightening strike. They were all pretty shaken up and one young man asked “Are you the AT hiker? What should we do?” I said “I’m getting off this mountain!” I walked past on my way down and everyone else started following me. When the lightening hit it shook some people up and they wondered if they should take shelter or head down the trail to where the lightening had struck. Amy said her husband (that’s me!) had just finished hiking the entire Appalachian Trail and that I would know what to do. Of course, the AT is much different than the Rockies and I’m not that much of an expert on wilderness survival…but one thing I did know is that I was sick of hiking in rain! I didn’t care where the storm was, I was hiking as fast as possible to the dry truck so that we could drive home and I could take a shower, put on dry clothes, and sit in the dry cabin all night. As I walked past everyone and they started following me downhill I heard the young man’s mother ask her son “Are you sure we should go?” and he said “Yes mom, he just hiked the Appalachian Trail!” Well, if they only knew my real motives…I was sick of rain! We made it to the truck, but not before getting completely soaked. When the tailgate opened the three dogs wasted no time climbing in and escaping the rain. We all piled in and headed to town. Amy made the comment that “That was fun!”…I said “Yup, now try walking for the next 4 hours in that rain, setting up your tent, climbing in, and waking up in the morning and putting your wet clothes back on and doing it all again.” Not my idea of fun! It was a great hike but I was hungry! I ate the apples, but I couldn’t put down the trail mix…I think it was too soon after the trail. When we got back to the house we left the wet gear out, cleaned up, and spent a dry night enjoying the Olympics. Yup! I think I could get used to this day hiking stuff!