Rocky Mountain hiatus (2/2)

Post 2 of 2: A few weeks ago I took a backpacking trip in Rocky Mountain National Park with my son, my return to a particular high country campsite after 40 years. Here’s the second half of my notes, edited to seem even more insightful than the first.

Timber Lake

Timber Lake with the route to Mt. Ida via the “V” in the background. (Click to enlarge.)


Made Timber Lake today, a “long, hard slog.” Quite a few day trippers up here, mostly fishers. One group of 3 with day packs, shorts and sleeveless shirts just left for the trailhead nearly 5 miles away. It’s 5pm, with maybe 3 hours of light left. Good luck with that. I’d hate to be stumbling around on the trail in the dark.

Cooking has been a challenge. Fires are prohibited and only stoves allowed. This means balancing cooking equipment, eating utensils, ingredients, and cooked food on rocks, logs, or the ground. So I was delighted to find the only flat spot in the entire park at Rockslide Campsite: the stump of a dead pine felled by a jack with a Euclidean sensibility. Even better than merely flat, the cut surface is within 1-2 degrees of perfectly level, as the water in my bottle reveals.

A fisher coming down from the lake alerted us to moose ahead. Minutes later we saw them, a cow and her calf, both aware of us, alert, but unwilling to move from their creekside forage 40 yards away. We paid homage and moved on.

Timber Lake is smaller than I remembered, and comprised of three distinct basins, but still cold and still clear.

Rain during the night, light rain. Cozy.

Above Timber Lake

View of Timber Lake from Mt. Ida with rain and hail on the way.


Cold, clammy morning. Clouds began to break apart about 11, allowing a trip up Mt. Ida. Rain kept menacing, however, with the temp alternating between 50 and 70 degrees, depending on the sun. Got within a few hundred feet of the 12,800-foot summit, when hail and approaching dark clouds hung with streamers of rain convinced us to turn back.

Nick came face-to-face with the moose cow and calf on the return trip, maybe within 20 feet. The cow quietly turned away, and after a second the calf followed. By the time we covered the 20 feet, they were out of sight.

Hail continued from the lake to the Rockslide Campsite, turning to rain just as we zipped up the tent. Sun 15 minutes later, with rain 15 minutes after that, lasting an hour or so. Ate dinner early, not knowing how long the dry spell would last.

On Mt. Ida

Nick and I on the shoulder of Mt. Ida.


Hiked out with nearly the same loads we carried in (I overestimated our food needs). The sunny, cool morning was a relief, considering the five miles of lunges my legs suffered on the way down.

An excellent adventure, sweaty at times but always relaxed. It’s comforting to know that hard physical labor is still possible at my age, although it helps to have a good companion to set the pace and lend a hand over the tougher spots.

The trail, the lake, the mountain have all changed a great deal in 40 years, but that’s more a statement of the weakness of memory than the power of nature. The two trips could not have been more rewarding in their different ways. I’ll cherish them both, the one when I wondered what I was going to make of myself and the one when I knew and wondered if it was too late to do better.

Rocky Mountain hiatus (1/2)

Post 1 of 2: A few weeks ago I took a backpacking trip in Rocky Mountain National Park with my son, my return to a particular high country campsite after 40 years. Here’s the first half of my notes, edited to seem more insightful.

Creek at dusk.

Timber Creek at dusk. (Click to enlarge.)


We reached Timber Creek Campsite–3 miles from the trailhead in 3 hours–with no signs of altitude sickness. The trail up to the campsite would look exactly like Timber Creek if it were under water.

Flecks of light in the creek–iron pyrite. I wish my 2-year-old grandson Oliver were here so we could pan for gold (son Nick is no fool).

I estimate one-half of the trees on the mountainsides are dead. (Ranger later says they’re the work of four kinds of pine beetles, all native to Colo., which are usually held in check by harsh winters. Within a few years, Rocky Mountain National Park will burn to the ground. Just a heads up, taxpaying nature-lovers.)

Mule deer with red antlers.

Blasé tourist mulie. (Photo by Nick Heckman.)

I’m going to get sunburned! But it sure feels good now.

A mule deer wandered through camp soon after the tent was up and I was changing out of my shorts. He got as close as 15 feet over the course of 15 minutes. His new antlers were bright red and festooned with partially shed velvet, which dreadlocked around his head. After losing interest in us, he moseyed off to rub his unwanted dreads against some bushes.

In bed from 8pm to 9am–slept maybe 9 of the 13 hours while trying to adjust to mummy bag confinement and the cold (mid 30s, I’d say). Thought I heard a bear in the night playing bongos on our food containers, but they were untouched in the morning.

Long Meadow.

Long Meadow. The muddy patches to the right provide animals with salt and other trace minerals.


Climbed to Long Meadow today, a short (1 mile) hike up a steep trail criss-crossed with tree trunks and other guerrilla-like hazards. The meadow was open, golden and still. With more than a mile of grassland in sight, the only wildlife we saw were several gray jays and an eagle.

Bear scat everywhere we hiked. At last, the answer to a long-pondered question: No, he shits on the trail.

Water filtered from Timber Creek is the most refreshing I’ve ever drunk–cold and thin, like January air, with a taste like the essence of hydrogen and oxygen.

Rocky Mountain hiatus, Part 2.

Then, meet Now

Next week I’m off to Rocky Mountain National Park for a short backpacking trip. I’ll be returning to a campsite that I first visited in 1970. Then I was hitchhiking from Madison, Wis., to California and back, and found myself dropped off in Estes Park, Colo.

I had inadequate equipment for backcountry travel, even for that era, but on a whim I snagged a permit for a lakeside campsite chosen at random. The trail was five miles in, climbing from 9,000 feet to 11,000 feet. No sweat, I thought, a remarkably blasé attitude for someone who ordinarily lived at 863 feet above sea level and carried nothing more than books between classes.

Still, I was young then and fairly healthy, and, as they don’t say but should: Ignorance is not only bliss; sometimes it’s the only way things get done. I made it to the campsite and even beyond, to the continental divide, another 1,800 feet above the lake.

The trip was an experience of extremes. On the one hand, misery. My boots were barely better than those worn in Braveheart. I froze at night in a sleeping bag you could almost see through. My meals were a routine of peanut butter and bread.

On the other hand, magnificence. Peaks to the horizon on all sides, the views devoid of human activity. Quiet consisting only of wind and other species’ voices. And the stars! The glorious stars whose number and whose light was ten thousandfold what I was used to seeing from the bottom of the atmosphere.

In those days I had no life plan, no foreseeable career, no possibility of family other than the one I was born to. In short, I was a slacker a full generation before the term was coined. Alone in the wilderness then, I wondered what my future would be like in years to come, and how I would get there.

Considering my prospects four decades ago, I eventually got damn lucky with my marriage, children, and work. I don’t know what I did to acquire such a fulfilling life, much less deserve it. All I know is that I’m reaching back in time to say, Hey, I made it. And as proof of my good fortune, on this return trip I won’t be alone. I’ll be climbing with my 27-year-old son, Nick. Magnificent.

Then, meet Now.