Surviving the Rockies 4.13-4.18 2016
Backpacking through the Rocky Mountains during Colorado's surprise April snowstorm takes the prize for my most challenging adventure yet. We arrived at the park without realizing the immensity of the storm due the next morning and after a brief visit with the park rangers, our entire itinerary was scrapped. Before we knew it we were trudging up slopes through waist deep snow with over 50lbs on our back. As far as the eye could see, there wasn't a soul in sight risking to hike we had embarked on. Each step forward was equal parts physically and mentally exhausting.
Day 1, 12:30pm. It was unbelievable how sneakily the weather turned on us. Today was beautiful, in the mid 50's. We set off with our packs fully loaded: mine at 54.5lbs and Mike's just over 50lbs. With five days of trekking set out before us, all we had to navigate with was a map and compass. Nearly five hours in, we realized we were headed entirely in the wrong direction. Off to a great start!
Day 1, 5:00pm. Before we knew it we were hitchhiking right back up to where we started! Cory and his dog Tarzan gratefully picked us up and drove us back to Glacier Gorge. What great guys! At least now I had some idea of how miserable I was about to become lugging all that weight uphill. We had about 2 hours til the sun would begin to set, leaving us with an hour to begin our actual ascent and set up camp for the night.
Day 1, 6pm. As we headed up towards Alberta Falls for the first night, the trails were deceivingly easy to trek. The mountains already had about 2.5-3ft of snow everywhere, but at this point everything near the trailhead was packed down and easy to traverse. This was great for the first day and allowed us to ease in to the challenge ahead of us.
Day 1, 7pm. It was getting dark, but wow it was getting beautiful. We were ascending quickly and neither of us had fully acclimated at 9,500ft. Breathing was a constant challenge and it was time to set up camp.
Day 2, 10:30am. The ascent continued and within a few hours we were reaching nearly 10,000ft in altitude. Today we set out further, towards Black Lake which the Park Rangers warned would be a challenge to get to. With the extreme weather setting in I couldn't help but worry how seriously stuck we could get. The pace at which we were going would be at least halved with 2-3 more ft of snow, making it impossible to get back in case of emergency. Not to mention I woke up quite sick this morning, leaving me all the more nervous about today's trek further into the wild.
Day 2, 2pm. We had peaked at a little over 10,000ft in altitude and were en route to Mills Lake. The clouds rolled in, bringing the weather with it. What a view.
Day 2, 3:30pm. Upon reaching Mills lake, our first big challenge was figuring out how to navigate around it. At this point trails were no longer an option. It was important we stay safe and not risk falling through, but other than carefully walking the edge, options were limited.
Day 2, 3:45pm. First moment of panic. The powder gave in along the edge of the lake and both Mike and I sunk in getting stuck briefly. Better get those snowshoes back on!
Day 2, 5:30pm. At this point we had spent nearly an hour trudging up hills and untouched territory through 2 feet of powder. There were no trails, deep snow as far as the eye could see, and I was beyond intimidated. My fever had started setting in it would take more than a day to make it back. All we could do at this point was set up camp before the snowstorm hit full blast and made conditions all the more treacherous. I passed out in the tent and Mike continued the trek up to Black Lake with the final hour he had before the sun set.
Day 3, 10:30am. Waking up to the storm. On top of the 3ft of snow outside, we just got another foot, totaling nearly 4ft of snow. I woke up incredibly groggy and sick, scared, tired and ready to give up. Today would be our first test in snowshoeing through fresh powder. Not to mention, there was at least another full foot of snow on its way.
Day 3, 11:30am. One of the more dangerous parts of our trip. It snowed so much the night before it was now impossible to follow even our own tracks back. There was so much snow you could drop through without a clue as to what lay underneath, so the lesser of our two dangerous options was to navigate back on the stream. We were advised to be extremely cautious around streams and water sources. There was so much snow hiding on top, one wrong step and you could find yourself breaking into water. This marks one of the most mentally strenuous segments of the trip.
Day 3, 5:30pm. Survived the hike along the stream without falling in. Now to ascend upwards for night three by The Loch. This marks the most physically challenging part of the trek. We easily hit over 45 degree inclines up this segment and were clearly in avalanche territory if descending tomorrow morning. Tonight we were expecting at least another foot of snow, totaling upwards of 5 feet in some locations. Fortunately with our snowshoes we were only sinking past our knees for the time being.
Day 3, Some time in the afternoon. Mike stands on top of the world. If only we could see beyond the clouds. Would the storm ever end?
Day 3, 10pm. Feverish but feeling well enough to play cards and talk late into the night. The storm sets in full blast for night two and Mike is a champ for sitting outside through it to boil water for us both. Side note: the tent looks inaccurately spacious. It was far from it.
Day 4, 2:30am. We wake up frantically gasping for air. It's so difficult to breathe. I step outside the tent in the freezing cold of the storm to realize our tent has been nearly buried under the snowfall. The storm blew the snow right up along the walls of the tent, burying and suffocating us! Time for a quick, miserable, mid night snow removal.
Day 4, 11:00am. We spend a good hour digging out our tent with pots, because of course we didn't bring shovels like we were told to. Today we descend down from the Loch in waist deep snow. We've now received peak snowfall and the sharp ascent from yesterday will be a challenge to get down. Hopefully no avalanches!
Day 4, 12:30am. Late start once we're all packed and it snowed so much our knee deep tracks had nearly vanished overnight. There was so much snow it was like sifting through clouds of powder! This experience was exhausting yet magical. We were waist deep in many sections and the grand total easily hits five feet of snow.
Day 4, 4pm. We were on our final trek out for the trip. The storm had calmed and we were making our way towards Emerald Lake. Tonight we stopped and camped alongside Dream Lake, which was beautiful, yet eerie and haunting with the fog rolling in. I should mention that finding a frozen hooded jacket slung on a sign made it the perfect setup for a horror scene. Dream lake? Or Nightmare Lake?
Day 5, 5:15am. Mike ambitiously set his alarm for 5:15am and boy am I glad he did. For the first time since day 1 we could see the sun! It was dark as we begrudgingly left the tent and began our final climb toward Emerald Lake. At around 5:45 the sun really started showing and we couldn't risk missing it. Before hitting Emerald Lake I spotted a huge mound of snow to our left with no clue what lay underneath and we dangerously bounded up for a view. Somehow we made it to the top, only to realize we were standing on the tips of trees and there could be nothing at all underneath. This was risky, but I'm glad to say neither of us fell through!
Day 5, 6am. What a breathtaking view. No better way to end our adventure. We survived and were rewarded with the most magical sunrise.
And now for some victory poses.
Day 5, 12pm. And thus marks the end of our adventure. When we got back to the entrance, the Park Rangers were surprised and in full admiration. They claimed we ought to win backpackers of the year which was nice to hear! It seems they didn't think anyone would have been foolish enough to trek out into the wild with the storm we endured. I just couldn't wait to get home, where I could once again feel my toes and pee comfortably in the middle of the night. Until next time Rocky Mountain National Park! We'll see you this summer.