Bear-Proof Keg, Cliffhanging Mark Rough Rockies Hike

John Detrixhe
John Detrixhe on a ridge near the 12,565-foot Andrews Peak. Photographer: Jeremy Engdahl-Johnson via Bloomberg

The scratches on my arms and lack of bathing probably made me seem a little unhinged, even by backpacking standards. Could I thumb a ride looking like this?

My hiking partner and I were a few hours from finishing our four-day backpacking trek in Rocky Mountain National Park. We had seen high-altitude lakes and some of the nation’s most beautiful mountain peaks. And every day’s hike was more challenging than expected.

On our first full day, for example, we left the trail and bushwhacked through forest to climb above tree line and get to the peaks we were aiming for.

The inspiration for an off-trail adventure was sparked a year earlier when I visited the park with my parents. We had hiked some of the trails but I was hungry to be atop the mountain peaks. I wanted to stay in the park at the end of the day instead of taking a shuttle back to the hotel.

On this trip we climbed multiple peaks, 12,000-foot mountains, along a ridge to get to our next campsite. We carried 40-pound backpacks in an 11-hour journey during which we each drank about four quarts of water. I had thought the hike would be about seven hours.

“People take it for granted since it’s so easy to get to Rocky Mountain National Park -- they don’t realize the terrain can be pretty intense,” said Bronson MacDonald, 40, a rock climber who has lived in Estes Park, Colorado, off and on for about 20 years. “And you’re at high elevation.”

At these elevations most people find breathing and exertion more difficult. Some people suffer altitude sickness.

Advance Planning

While my backpacking partner and I were on a park trail less than 24 hours after takeoff from LaGuardia Airport in New York, the planning had started months earlier. I studied routes, discussed my plan on the RMNP Forums and reserved backcountry campsites in May.

Three months later I was in the Kawuneeche Visitors Center, off U.S. Highway 34, getting a $20 camping permit from Stuart Findley, who works for the National Park Service as a visitor-use assistant.

MacDonald started rock climbing in New York’s Adirondacks when she was 18. For hikes, she said she favors Gem Lake in Lumpy Ridge, a series of cliffs north of Estes Park that are the backdrop of the Stanley Hotel, which inspired Stephen King’s novel “The Shining” (a sequel has just been published).

“It has beautiful views of the entire Rocky Mountain National Park,” she said. It’s a steep hike in places, but “it mellows out.”

Wild Place

The national park has 147 lakes, 100 peaks higher than the 11,000-foot line at which trees stop growing, and more than 3.5 million visitors each year, according to Lisa Foster’s “Rocky Mountain National Park: The Complete Hiking Guide.”

“To me, it is the most special section of preserved land on Earth,” Foster wrote. “It is a wild place, and for good or bad, adventure will be met in this arena.” (Foster mentions MacDonald in her book’s acknowledgments as a hiking and climbing partner.)

My most intense experience with panic and fear in the mountains was short-lived but memorable. Using directions in Foster’s book, my hiking partner, Jeremy Engdahl-Johnson, and I were scouting a route around cliffs that the guide suggested we “skirt.” After about 30 minutes of doing so, I realized that I was beyond hiking, had started climbing the cliff, and that I couldn’t find my way down.

Cappuccino Fantasy

My throat closed up a little while I waited for my friend to give me directions to retrace my steps. I imagined the embarrassment of park rangers having to rescue me. I made shushing noises to myself. I fantasized about being back at work, making cappuccino.

With Engdahl-Johnson’s help, about 20 minutes later I had backtracked from the cliff and burst through trees and bushes that scratched my arms and ripped my clothes. I didn’t notice or care that I was bleeding.

Unexpected emergencies happen in the wilderness, even for people who are prepared. On my second night, park officials from a ranger station near our campsite told us they were looking after a camper who had gotten ill.

The 17-year-old hiker was a Boy Scout, about four badges from Eagle, who had become dangerously dehydrated from a stomach illness. As he was too weak to ride a horse, the rangers eventually arranged for a litter carried by six people to move him to a site where he could be evacuated by a helicopter.

“It felt like they moved heaven and earth to take care of us,” said the hiker’s father, Tom Dykes, from Dallas, after they returned home.

Flood Damage

At other times, there’s nothing park rangers can do. During the week we were there, a man was killed and another injured trying to climb Longs Peak, the lone mountain in the park that’s higher than 14,000 feet, according to the Estes Park Trail Gazette.

In the past two weeks, Colorado has been battered by flooding and mudslides that washed away homes and businesses, causing more than $2 billion in economic losses, according to catastrophe risk modeler Eqecat. There are 60 people missing from the disaster and 5,950 have been evacuated as of Sept. 21, according to the Colorado Office of Emergency Management.

Rocky Mountain National Park has been “incrementally” reopening, according to the National Park Service website. Estes Park is no long closed and most trails on the west side of RMNP are open for day use. All of those on the east side were shut as of Sept. 18.

Since I was out of the park before the floods, I had other worries -- namely bear. The park service’s Findley said a campsite on our route had been closed the previous week after a bear ripped into a tent that had food in it.

Not Bullwinkle

He made sure we had a bear-proof canister -- a 3-pound black-plastic food container that looks like a small beer keg -- and suggested that we not leave it where a bear could roll it downhill.

“It happened to a guy last year,” Findley said. “He never did find his food.”

A moose, which I briefly, heart-stoppingly thought was a bear as it strolled by my campsite one morning, was the only big animal we saw on our trip. Four days later we had crossed the continental divide and had backpacked about 30 miles.

That’s when Engdahl-Johnson and I met MacDonald in Estes Park at Ed’s Cantina and Grill, where she’s a manager and event-room coordinator.

We had given up on trying to hitchhike about 40 miles back to our rental car. We were drinking iced tea and beers and eating pork quesadillas as we waited an expected two to three hours for a taxi, when MacDonald gamely offered to drive us for $50.

Richer Person

MacDonald also knows Foster, who was injured earlier this year in an avalanche in the park, according to CBS Denver. Her climbing partner was killed. MacDonald said she is healing physically and emotionally and has gotten back to hiking.

It was Foster who probably described our trip, and the park, best in her book:

“You will no doubt come back a richer person, more at peace, and ready to face the other elements of your life,” she wrote. “See you out there!”

(John Detrixhe is a reporter for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own. The National Park Service website has details on camping, hiking and planning your visit.)

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