A Long Day on the High Divide: Saturday, October 3, 1992

By Ron Miller and Alan Silverstein

The Week Before:

Alan:

It was late September. The weather was nice. I was in decent shape and anticipating a free weekend. I sent electronic mail to about 70 people inviting them to join me on any of three ``gonzo'' adventures. I fully expected to do one of them alone - but not the Divide hike, because that required help to set up a car shuttle. Bear Lake and Milner Pass in Rocky Mountain National Park are about 11 miles apart as the eagle flies, about 19 miles by foot, and at least 35 miles by car.

Ron:

I received a ``hikers'' mailing from Alan with several options. I locked in on the Continental Divide option. This was a hike I'd been eyeing for several years as I'd looked at the RMNP maps. The concept of using ham radio to help coordinate the trip looked like a big plus for going this time. Combined with unbelievably stable weather patterns, it looked possible. On the other hand, a quick mileage roll of the map indicated that this would be a really long, hard day. My stomach stayed knotted for a few days as we discussed the logistics, people and weather.

After settling on the fact that I could do it, I relaxed and got excited. My other hiking friends seemed relieved that we were going on Saturday, the day that they had prior commitments.

Alan:

Monday before the hike I did something really stooopid during my regular aerobics workout. I typically include 200 step-ups on a wooden box. Part way through, I stopped to chat with an instructor and got good advice on how to do step-ups properly. Whereupon resuming, after five more steps, I missed the floor. I rolled hard on my right ankle. Excruciating pain. Couldn't walk for an hour. Limped for a week. Ibuprofen as a vitamin. You know the story...

Ron:

I was excited enough that I slept poorly on Thursday night. Friday night was going to be a short night. Four hours sleep. Oh well, I ran my second marathon in college without having slept at all the night before.

Alan:

I got in some light, careful workouts Wednesday and Friday and did whatever I could to help my ankle heal. I decided it was good enough to risk the hike. I was mentally and magazinally prepared to turn back after half a mile if necessary and spend all day at Bear Lake waiting for Ron - but I really really wanted to make the trip. Unlike Ron I got a good sleep Thursday night, but woke up an hour early Saturday morning due to excitement - and felt great anyway. Ankle wrapped, prophylactic moleskin applied to my usual blister spots, two liters of Gatorade and one of water in the fridge - I was raring to go.

Saturday, October 3, 1992:

0230: both parties mobile out of Fort Collins

Alan:

I wondered why I couldn't raise Ron on the radio... but continued down the road optimistic. After ten minutes we did connect on simplex.

0250: meet in Loveland, check radios

Ron:

After fiddling around with radios and finding my mistakes, I finally connected with Alan by way of the Horsetooth repeater. We drove up the Big Thompson Canyon while talking on the radio and scanning for deer (didn't see any).

0400: swap vehicles at Visitor Center

Ron:

The first deer we saw was grazing in a circle of light at the visitor center.

Alan:

Ron started his videotape as we swapped gear between the vehicles. I was impressed that he caught the deer in the darkness.

After necessary logistics we headed out in each other's vehicle with no further mobile radio talk, in fact no further contact at all for almost four lonely hours. I missed the turn to Bear Lake and had to backtrack half a mile... I hoped Ron was laughing as he continued ahead of me up Trail Ridge.

I saw more wildlife on the road, two porcupines and three lovely deer, than during all the rest of the time hiking. I got the most excellent spot in a deserted Bear Lake parking lot, and hit the trail by headlamp with anticipation and a bit of dread.

0430: Alan departs Bear Lake trailhead, 9475'

Ron:

The drive across Trail Ridge Road in an unfamiliar car, at 0400, avoiding various deer and elk herds, was interesting. I burst out laughing when I found that I couldn't figure out how to unlock Alan's door locks as I sat there in the pitch dark. I couldn't find the interior light control and I couldn't open the door to turn the light on either! Eventually I found the dome light switch and let myself out. After taking some video, swilling almost a quart of water and rigging the headlamp, I was ready.

Alan:

Within a few minutes I knew I could walk on my ankle. Also that banging my foot against a rock would cause a sharp pain. I proceeded up in the darkness on the very familiar trail with unusual care, concentration, and deliberation. As usual I paid attention to time and distance - more than most people do, but I like the numbers.

0450: Ron departs Milner Pass, 10758'

Ron:

I was on the trail by headlamp at 0450. I'd been on this trail several times this year, so this was basically just a transit and the darkness made little difference. I left my radio off since there was no possible way that I could reach Alan directly or indirectly with 15 miles of mountain ridge between us.

I stripped off my fleece shirt within 15 minutes and concentrated on not going quickly. It's hard to walk slow at the beginning of a hike. There was no wind in the trees and just the slightest hint of air movement once up on the tundra.

As I broke out of the trees, I became aware that there were ptarmigan birds rustling around in the tundra and calling an annoyed bird call at my passing. (Never caught one in my light.)

Just a little farther up the ridge, the lights of Grand Lake became visible.

The trail occasionally faded to a hint as I continued along but it wasn't a big problem. I stopped once to scan with my headlight to be sure I was on the trail. I was.

Alan:

I made my way up in the darkness past various landmarks. I was pleased to see that I was making typical time, about 1000'/hour and/or two miles/hour.

I reminded myself that the purpose of any hike is to enjoy and return... I wasn't enjoying myself much hiking in the dark with a sore foot on a familiar trail, but knew from experience that the real fun lay ahead. I just had to keep on till sunrise, and sure enough it would (and did) become worthwhile.

I decided I could make at least the 4.5 miles and over 2800' to Flattop Mountain, and still limp back down if necessary before Ron arrived.

0600: Alan reaches timberline, ceases using headlamp

Alan:

I was disappointed and a bit concerned that I couldn't raise Ron at 0600. (We'd agreed to try every hour on the hour if out of recent contact.)

Ron:

I'd been moving right along following the trail until I no longer needed the headlight in the gray light of dawn. Overconfidence combined with the difficulty of aiming uphill led me off slightly to the east and I finally noticed that I was hiking on the flat top of a ridge that was curving off toward Forest Canyon. Rats! I returned to the edge of the ridge and viewed Azure Lake and the western side of Mount Ida in the red glow of dawn.

I took video here and turned the radio on. No repeaters, no nothing. I marched off to the west to regain the proper approach to Mount Ida.

0654: observed time of sunrise

Alan:

It was cold but calm before sunrise. I enjoyed the lights and sky-reflecting lakes far below. Unfortunately the sun broke the horizon just before I got high enough to see it again as I neared Flattop. Nonetheless I welcomed the warming rays. It was about 40 deg cold.

Again at 0700 I was disappointed I couldn't reach and check in with Ron. I had solid copy on both the Horsetooth and Estes Park repeaters. Oh well, I had lots of half-white, half-grey ptarmigans for company along the trail.

0715: Alan reaches Flattop Mountain, 12324'

0725: Alan departs Flattop

Alan:

My ankle was sore but functional. I was eager to turn right, go north, and visit Terra Nueva (for me). So I limped gently downhill and immediately discovered that going down was noticeably painful at times. Hmm... It was a Good Thing that I was doing the mostly-uphill direction of the trip. Well, I still wasn't having enough trouble to be concerned, and had plenty of time, so the decision again was ``go''.

0745: Alan reaches saddle, 12160+'

Alan:

I'd been on a good trail until this point. Now it was time to take a deep breath and depart it. I didn't see a trail again until nearly 12 hours later after sunset. Fortunately the intervening terrain was almost all ``user friendly''.

0758: Alan reaches Ptarmigan Point, 12363'; first radio contact with Ron, on Mount Ida, 12880+' (via Horsetooth; we never connected on Estes Park)

Ron:

I started hearing the Horsetooth repeater as I continued to gain elevation. I removed my pack and positioned the radio by looking at the signal strength meter. We talked about how things were going. I was kind of surprised at Alan's position. It seemed like I'd barely begun my hike and he was well along. (I was to have this concern throughout the day. Falsely, it turned out.) After discussing the radio strategy, I got out the cameras and took pictures and ate and drank. I'd been up here before but the view was still spectacular. The sun was up now and it seemed that things were warming up. The day was now well and truly begun.

Alan:

I was relieved to hear from Ron, and definitely starting to enjoy the adventure. I decided that as long as I was there I might as well add a bit of distance and vertical by following the cliffy edge of the Divide east over several small high points. The view east and down was tremendous - then, and throughout the day.

0815: Alan departs Ptarmigan

0830: Alan reaches saddle, 12240+'

Ron:

I departed Ida for the 500' notch over to Chief Cheley. Three-fourths of the way down, I stopped to remove my long underwear drawers.

0836: Alan reaches Notchtop, 12280+'

0846: Alan departs Notchtop

0850: Alan reaches saddle, 12240+'

Alan:

My ankle was still sore, but functional, and getting no worse. I had a day's supply of Ibuprofen with me but none in my system so I wouldn't mask any pain - unless necessary in order to get down. I often renewed mental efforts to pace myself (as I would have anyway) and watch my footfalls (as I was sharply reminded any time I walked and rubbernecked simultaneously).

The day was turning out phenomenal. Calm, or just lightly breezy, warming up nicely. Peaceful, lonely, quiet.

Ron:

It seemed to take a long time to cross from Ida to Cheley. I suppose that shedding clothing and fiddling around took some time but I was concerned that the pace might be awfully slow. Distance in the clear air is deceiving. I knew that this notch would take 45 minutes since I'd done it earlier this summer.

0905: Alan reaches Knobtop, 12331'; contacts Ron on Chief Cheley, 12804'

Alan:

I was a bit late on this hourly contact because of some fast and exhilarating scrambling up the boulders to the summit of Knobtop. It was my second visit, but the first was 15 years previous, during my first month in Colorado.

I think it was here that my first radio battery pack died - despite a recent full charge, it was a goner, probably due to several summers in a hot car. I cut back to limited radio use, rather than monitoring, to avoid draining the second pack (which lasted the rest of the day) and having to switch to an emergency backup method.

Ron:

I stopped to get the video camera about every 10 minutes from here on as I worked south down the ridge from Chief Cheley. The ridge stayed pretty high except for a notch that would be an easy descent down to Highest Lake. I skirted some dips in the ridge by going on the lake side. There were some big rocks that required time to get past.

0920: Alan departs Knobtop

Alan:

Although the halfway point in miles of the trip (for me) was partway up Sprague Mountain, and I knew the worst terrain was well north of there, I felt my real point of no return was to continue north from Knobtop. It was a long, long 1.7 mile stroll over 600' downhill across tundra and scrubby willows to my next waypoint. I decided I could bail out east from Sprague Pass if necessary and still pick up a trail and return to Bear Lake. My ankle was if anything doing better, so off I went into the Great Unexplored Reaches of Bighorn Flats.

I could see Sprague Mountain pretty clearly in the distance, but beyond and around it was a jumble of unrecognized summits.

1020: Alan reaches Sprague Pass, 11708'

Alan:

An hour to do 1.7 miles downhill? I could tell I was slowing down and taking it easy on my foot. But as I reminded myself throughout the day, given the beautiful weather there was no rush. My optimism grew. I'd covered nearly half the distance and vertical and was feeling OK.

Several times I had the bizarre thought, ``I just have to make it halfway before I re-injure my ankle, and I'll finish this trip one way or the other.'' Of course I laughed at the foolishness of the notion. I admit it, I experienced get-there-itis.

Ron:

I continued cruising the ridge. It was surprising that it didn't drop much from Cheley. It curved around more easterly and connected to the ridge comprised of Cracktop, Mount Julian and Terra Tomah Mountain. The spur ridge to Cracktop looked nearly trivial as I passed by but I knew that this day had just begun and I had already put four hours work in. No Cracktop today.

The view into the distance was somewhat daunting. Tundra and mountains marching off into a hazy distance. I really couldn't pick out my target. I knew that I was going that way but where, precisely, was yet to be determined. The view was reminiscent of a fantasy painting of some mystical mountain wonderland. But it was real and awesome!

I continued on to the views overlooking Hayden Gorge. This was a reason for this trip. I was doing recon to see if Hayden could be a reasonable backpack trip. (I'd just had a partner get cold feet at the bottom of Hayden, partly due to the uncertainty of being able to climb out of the gorge up onto the Divide ridge. This rerouted us back to bushwhacking to get out of Forest Canyon the following day by way of the Mount Ida ridge.)

The views into the Gorge were awesome. With no wind and warm sunshine, I took my time strolling along the tundra on the canyon lip and marveling at the quiet wildness of the gorge below. One overhanging snowbank showed chopped steps in the snow leading out of the gorge. This was one of the few signs of other humans around.

1032: Alan departs Sprague Pass

Alan:

After a short break to admire Sprague Canyon, Snowdrift Peak, and the arcane (even obscene) Eureka Ditch pouring west slope water down the eastern side of the Divide, I shuffled up the mountainside ahead of me. Just 1000' to lunch and a long break! The hillside was wonderfully grassy. After a while I realized Nakai Peak to the west presented a large, relatively flat cliff face, a natural radio mirror...

1100: second simplex contact, bounce off Nakai Peak

Ron:

At the southernmost view of Hayden Gorge, I heard Alan call on the radio by direct path. He was climbing Sprague Mountain. I seemed to be within reach of the mountain summit so I replied that I'd be coming up. I still had the 12,000' saddle to descend to but that wouldn't take long. The climb up Sprague was of incomprehensible distance since I was still uncalibrated as to distance. It was a 700' climb from the pass. I chipped away at the altitude in rest-step mode.

Alan:

I did pretty well on the way up Sprague's south side, but should have checked the map more often. I thought the true summit was a rocky point east of a saddle from the main bulk of the massif. So I traversed over that way to the saddle, talked with Ron some more, and got halfway up the pinnacle before realizing the main summit was higher to the west (but not by much!). I blew 10-15 minutes. No big deal, I was turned around and on my way up to the real top in short order.

1151: Alan reaches Sprague Mountain (true summit), 12713'

Alan:

Yee-haw! It was still a gorgeous day, hardly a cloud in the sky and only a light breeze to dry me off. I called Ron on the radio to discover he was 200' below and making good progress. We couldn't have planned it better if we'd tried.

Sprague was the only ``non-virgin'' peak on the route, of eight total named summits I visited. It possessed a register of sorts in a jar. Most of the peaks didn't even offer summit cairns. Sprague's register had been placed a year ago to the day and contained 11 signatures - including ours.

1200: Ron reaches Sprague Mountain

Ron:

It was nice to sit down for awhile and enjoy the view. I was surprised at the altitude of the snowbanks hanging into Hayden Gorge since they were above us as we sat on the summit of Sprague! I'd descended a long way!

Alan:

Actually they were lower, not higher - it was an optical illusion engendered by the profusion of ridges and summits to our north. The snowfields were ``most of the way into the distance'' up a long, varied, grassy ridge, but still several hundred feet lower. What I guessed to be the summit of Chief Cheley - close, but not exactly right - was just a tad higher than us but looked imposing on the distant skyline.

Ron:

We lingered for quite a while (90 minutes) eating, viewing and taking pictures. It was most instructive to have Alan tell me that that little tiny bump, waaaaay over there was where I was heading. My sense of scale was totally wrong. It looked like about 30 minutes walk over to what he pointed out as Knobtop. The clear air and bright light really affected my sense of distance.

I briefed Alan on what he would be seeing next but found it difficult to really describe. And seven hours of work was hard to recall in adequate detail.

1335: both depart Sprague Mountain

Ron:

As I left the summit, I felt the barest headache, a hint of nausea and the clear indications that I'd already done a full day's work. But there was no place to go but onward. Ibuprofen took care of the headache, the nausea disappeared, but the weariness remained.

Alan:

On the other hand, I felt pretty well rested and ready to proceed. I could tell I'd already covered a bit of ground, but my ankle was doing well. It was tough saying farewell to Ron, though, to return to solitude broken only by occasional radio contacts. It was weird, too, heading off in opposite directions. But where he'd just been, I was eager to explore.

Ron:

The south side of Sprague Mountain was really tall! The descent felt more like the view out of an airplane cockpit than a view of the grassy tundra. Cloud shadows out across Bighorn Flats reinforced the impression of being airborne while descending to Sprague Pass and the Eureka Ditch. The clouds were sparse and with no vertical development - no problems.

The ditch was flowing with water which meant that there was relatively reliable water on the route but, unfortunately, we hadn't known that so I had nothing with which to treat or filter water.

1400: Alan reaches next saddle, 12000+'; hears Ron and Jaime, can't contact them

Alan:

Getting down to the next pass was easy and uneventful, except to my surprise I encountered old melted tracks in a small snowfield at the bottom. (Ron missed them, but saw footprints up a major snowfield that I overlooked - that's how it was.) Someone had been this way within the last several weeks. It was one of the few signs of people all day. Continuing north I did run across fresh bootprints now and then in the dirt, but they had to be Ron's.

Ron:

At the 1400 radio check time I found the Horsetooth repeater very strong and conversed with Jaime, N0SHA, who had not been able to make this hike. Alan was not reachable which was no surprise.

1407: Alan departs saddle for the long march toward Mount Ida

Ron:

The flats across from Sprague Pass went on forever. It wasn't unpleasant moving over the tundra. Unfortunately, Knobtop didn't seem to get closer. I started trying to obtain safe (enough) drinking water by scooping handfuls of snow into my wide-mouth water bottle and mixing it with the liquid water present to help it melt. There were just enough leftover autumn snowdrifts that I could find enough snow to pack the bottle. Unfortunately, it didn't melt very quickly and had the consistency of an insect spiced slurpee (there were lots of eensy insects lying dead in the snow.) The snow was a helpful supplement but not enough.

Alan:

I also filled my first empty bottle with snow, much earlier, and like Ron, used it late in the day after finishing the water I started with. I usually fill my bottle with previous winter snow, and it's usually clean but for a bit of grit if you dig down. Well, this fresh autumn snow looked just as clean, but when melted it turned out to include unexpected protein...

1438: Alan reaches first saddle up, 12160+', after dropping 200' from inadvertent high point

Alan:

Oops! Usually it's a lot easier to pick a good route going down than up, and this was no exception. The view over the edge down east was glorious, but I didn't expect to top out by following the edge. It was disheartening dropping to the next saddle. After that I trusted the map more and forced myself to traverse west around rather than going over the next two small summits - and it paid off by saving me hundreds of vertical feet.

1500: Alan reaches second saddle, 12360+'; hits Horsetooth, no Ron

Ron:

I could barely hear the repeater at 1500 as I was still moving up the flats to Knobtop. I copied Alan's transmission in the blind that he was at the second saddle. Now, he had some work ahead of him!

1512: Alan reaches third saddle, 12280+'

Alan:

It was a quick traipse around a rocky pile, even a bit downhill, to the last gap before resuming steep ascending. On the way up the complex terrain to the next ridgeline, an east-west section, I could see that Cracktop wasn't far off the route to the east, and not hard to reach either. (Which was surprising because it was nasty and cliffy to the north, east, and south of it.) I decided ``what the heck, I'm here now'' and added it to my itinerary. It sat just east of the Divide, which in many places was more an abstract concept than a clear linear feature.

On the way I wondered and worried about the ``huge boulders on the way to Cracktop'' reported to me by a friend who'd been on this same hike many years ago. Best I could tell, he meant a raw section of the ridge line above the third saddle, well below Cracktop, and pretty easy to skirt on the west but for a short stretch. It would have really slowed me down, though, if I'd been pedantic about following ``the top of the divide'' (where I could find it).

1545: Alan reaches Cracktop, 12760+'

Ron:

The fatigue was really settling on my shoulders now. I was feeling tired and dehydrated, the sun was beating down. The weather was moving toward exhaustion. It was still overwhelmingly beautiful to be out here but I was ready to go home.

Alan:

I also felt rather tired when I got to Cracktop, and for the first time of the day also a bit rushed. I'd have liked to linger longer but I had miles to go and summits to reach. I downed food and water and added another patch of moleskin to a toe that doesn't usually get sore. Resource management... Intellect attending to details, inner child on a natural high, all systems ``go'', or at least ``can do''. It was hours more before I felt ``tired of this game and ready to go home now.''

The view west across Highest Lake to Chief Cheley and beyond was stupendous. It made the detour worthwhile. Below Highest was a series of other lakes, the Gorge Lakes. More names from the map, places I'd long heard of, but now, there I was. Highest Lake, always a far-away fantasy - and still just as remote. It was a sobering thought to realize how far I must be from the trailhead.

1600: Alan talks with Ron near Ptarmigan via Horsetooth

Ron:

At the 1600 check-in we made good contact. I was walking along the dramatic edge of the cliffs between Notchtop and Ptarmigan Point and on toward Flattop. The view was simply spectacular. As I moved along after our check-in, I conversed with another ham who was parked in the Bear Lake parking lot ( N0DLW ). It was nice for me to start having people to talk to. I wondered about Alan's condition as he was heading more and more into radio blackout with the single reprieve of Mount Ida.

Alan:

I wasn't worried, just paying attention to time and distance. (I'm used to hiking alone, and even with the radio there's often no one to talk with at 0200!) It became clearer to me that I was several hours behind Ron and we weren't going to meet in Estes for pizza. I'd looked forward to that, but you know, it just didn't seem important now compared to enjoying the rest of the trip, however long it took.

1601: Alan departs Cracktop

1620: Alan reaches 12760+' point enroute Chief Cheley

Ron:

I was now on the Flattop trail and mostly waiting around to hear from Alan. I sat down for awhile and ate and drank but didn't feel refreshed. It had been a long day and wasn't over yet. I really wished I had more water. Just another two quarts! One of Gatorade... I tried to choke down a bagel but nothing tasted good. Time to break out that old standby - Lemon Drops! I sucked on lemon drops three at a time, making my voice sound funny on the radio I'm sure.

1633: Alan reaches 12680+' saddle (&^%!@$#) enroute Chief Cheley

Alan:

The most challenging scrambling of the day was in this stretch, down to the saddle and especially north up from it to Cheley's narrow, bouldery summit. On the way on the ridge around Highest Lake I enjoyed the changing perspective of the Gorge Lakes. I looked for the best angle to take a picture. Going up to Cheley's true summit I was cursing and laughing at the difficulty of the terrain. No real exposure, but some places I had to haul my tired body up by brute strength.

And of course I was still on the Great Divide, in fact a narrow and identifiable bit of it. Funny how the significance of that faded to forgotten through the day.

1642: Alan reaches Chief Cheley; can't raise Horsetooth

Ron:

I had eased on over the top of Flattop and started babystepping down the mountain. It felt like I was cheating to be starting down from my final summit while Alan was still on the way to his final summit.

Alan:

I was disappointed but not surprised I couldn't raise Ron via the repeater. I didn't think to try simplex; too mindless I guess. But I was still having fun. Alas, one more 560' gain to the last summit. I wanted that behind me and to be on Ida by 1800, so I didn't rest as long as I really needed.

1657: Alan departs Chief Cheley

Alan:

The trip down was fast but tedious. Still no radio contact, though I heard the repeater at one point and stopped to try.

1719: Alan reaches Cheley-Ida saddle, 12320+'

1721: Alan starts final grind uphill; no time to nap

Ron:

I could see the plains and I figured that I would be able to work the repeater for quite awhile yet and so I was headed down. I'd told Alan I would rest on top but the sun was getting low, there was a breeze, and I was getting cold. I put my fleece shirt on to hike in. The first time that I'd needed to add clothing while on the move. I finished off my third quart of water (snow and bugs) and transferred the final quart to my ready bottle and continued drinking.

I finally saw someone besides Alan as I was passed on the trail by two young men who were also headed down. Their wake turbulence seemed intense due to our speed differences.

Alan:

The south face of Ida was brutally steep but I took the direct route up. After each three steps my heart was pounding and I was only good for 10-20 steps at a time, with what seemed like long breaks in between. I noticed a trace of stomach queasiness and resolved to pace myself to make it no worse. I could tell I was running on reserves. But my spirit was fine and I knew I'd make the summit before long, as I saw Cheley dropping down again behind me. In fact I was surprisingly fast.

1755: Alan reaches Mount Ida; 560' in 34 minutes! talks with Ron near timberline on Flattop trail, also with Jaime

Ron:

Alan made the 1800 check-in time from Mount Ida. That was the last point at which I expected to be able to converse with him on the trail. His batteries had held out and now we tried to review the trail ahead of him since dusk was coming and he'd never been on the ridge before. We talked off and on for about 15 minutes including conversation with Jamie.

Alan:

It was great being on the last of eight named summits and the high point of the day. I enjoyed the long late-day shadows. Earlier I'd hoped to blow a couple hours on Ida, maybe even nap - never mind the reports of cougars seen in the area. Well I didn't have that luxury, with sunset approaching and the trail still well below me. The half hour I spent was wonderful, though. Boots off! Food in! Drink hearty (gulp)!

I also had fun on the radio. No point in saving batteries now. I was about to go off the air except in case of emergency and I was prepared for that with alkalines. Funny, my second rechargeable pack refused to die. I talked with Ron and Jaime until there was nothing more to discuss and it was time to return to quiet, lonely solitude. Just four and a half miles left...

1825: Alan departs Mount Ida

Ron:

I probably hit timberline about this time. And the step-by-step phenomenon of wondering why the last, downhill miles to the car are soooooo long began. I switched the radio over to the Park frequency to have something to listen to. The Rangers were busy herding people away from the elk.

1842: nominal time of sunset

Alan:

I watched the sun settle behind clouds as I descended, thinking how rare it was to see both a sunrise and a sunset on the same hike. I got nervous about finding the allegedly wonderful trail before it was dark enough to require a headlamp. I weaved too far west and then overshot back east to reorient on the cliffy east side of the ridge. All the while I tried to follow traces of trail through rocks and tundra down to a saddle on Ida's north ridge.

Ron:

Darkness fell earlier on this side of the mountain but the descent was made in automatic mode. I didn't feel like stopping to take my pack off to get my headlight to find my way along a tourist trail.

1915: Alan finds trail off Mount Ida, yay!

Alan:

I could see the trail from far off, arching up from the saddle left of the ridgetop. Once on it I could and did cruise into darkness for at least 15 minutes (uphill, sigh).

1920: Ron reaches Bear Lake trailhead

Ron:

When I got to the car it was completely dark. I felt that old familiar feeling of impending hypothermia. Damn, I hate that. Reduction in my activity level now would bring on powerful convulsive shivers and a coppery taste in my mouth and a little hint of vomit compressed to the back of my throat. I've been through this after marathons in college (two), climbs up Longs Peak (two) and occasional other monster hikes. I had tried to head this off with lots of water and food (as much as I could force myself to eat) but apparently had been unsuccessful.

Oh well, if the car started, I could do my shiver and sweat routine in the climate controlled comfort of the car.

I was very disappointed that Alan would be so far behind and we couldn't eat dinner together.

Alan:

Me too, although I figured Ron wouldn't be down till 40 minutes later than it happened. He made good time. As Ron was unloading into his car, I stopped to get out my headlamp. No point in trying the radio, I could tell.

1945: Alan loses trail off Mount Ida in the dark (&^%$@!)

Alan:

Upon resuming northerly motion, I promptly lost the trail and could not for the life of me see where it went next. Optimistic and dogged, I tried to push on around the increasingly steep hillside. I really couldn't say if the trail was below or above me. It was above, but I had to drop hundreds of nasty feet on loose scree before I was sure it was well lost.

The trail was new enough to be absent from the map, which I checked several times. I knew where I was relative to the ridge and to some lakes I could dimly perceive, but not where to find the easy way home. I pushed on down and around, repeatedly finding promising trail segments that quickly petered out - must have been animal tracks. Way, way down ahead I saw car lights cruising the road west of Milner Pass...

Ron:

I didn't see a pay phone at the east visitor center so I went to the Safeway at Estes Park and called my wife to tell her I was safe, and left voicemail with Alan asking that he call me at home to ensure I met the 2300 drop-dead time. I was shuddering and shaking and could hardly talk at the open-air phone (yuck!).

I drove home. Every time I moved a little in the car, a previously damp bit of my pants would briefly touch my skin and set me off into hard shivers.

Alan:

Eventually I'd had enough of sidehilling in the dark with only a half-moon, usually obscured by clouds, and a headlamp. I knew I was making progress, but it was tedious, painful, and disheartening since I had no reference points, including my destination. Milner Pass was ``somewhere down there'' in the nebulous darkness to the right of the road I could make out by the cars passing on it. Cursing and slipping a bit I angled steeply up the hill to the right, intent on finding the trail or reaching the ridge crest, whichever came first.

2030: Alan regains trail off Mount Ida and follows it very closely...

Ron:

I scarfed a bowl of hot ramen noodles at home and had a shower. I put on thermax longjohns and got into bed where I alternately shivered and sweated and hoped to get settled down.

Alan:

Meanwhile I proceeded down the never-ending trail. It's always weird being someplace outdoors for the first time in the dark. I had no idea how much further it was but I knew it couldn't be far... but it was. Perhaps another two miles. The trail dropped lurchingly numerous times. I minced my way down it trying not to aggravate sore knees, legs, ankles, and feet. I realized Ron would be home and off the air before I got to my car and could call him via radio.

That friggin' trail also went uphill in short stretches more often than I could count. I got to timberline thinking I had to be close, but it was still a long way down in the cold blackness. There were a lot of steps built into the trail, and they hurt.

Now it might sound like I was miserable and perhaps given enough common sense I would be, but I wasn't. Tired and sore, yes. But very very happy to have nearly completed the epic journey. My mind boggled and my feet kept moving. I took lots of breaks but they were short. I kept anticipating the fresh cold water and the Dr. Pepper at my car.

2123: Alan drags into Milner Pass trailhead

Alan:

Three hours to drop 2100' and cover less than five miles; oh well. There was my car where Ron left it! Golly, it was as dark, cold, peaceful, and lonely at Milner Pass as it had been a sunset and a sunrise earlier when I started from Bear Lake.

A personal record day hike, 16:53 on the trail, about 19 miles, 6400' total vertical feet. No one around to tell of my success. Hardly worth a hearty ``hi-yo'', even.

I assessed and decided I wasn't really in too bad a shape. A little dehydrated so I started downing fluids. Otherwise wide awake enough to drive home - but it sure seemed like a loooong trip. And I couldn't raise any repeaters along the way to Estes to call Ron by phone patch!

2230: Alan calls Ron, who's already in bed, from Estes to close plan

Ron:

I wasn't really asleep but was groggy and stupid and sweating and shivering when Alan called. I felt bad that he was still not home yet but was happy to know he was safe. Meantime I had to get my body temp back under control. It was better that I be in such sorry shape at home than be out on the trail like this!

Alan:

I knew a full meal would knock me out, so I settled for a drive-through milkshake on top of the soda, half a pound of pistachios, and two Ibuprofen. Cruised down the Big Thompson Canyon happy and awake, listening to Enya's Watermark, and was home by 2335, just in time for a hot bath.

I didn't want to go to sleep and end the day. Also I was a little scared that I'd feel lots worse when I woke up!

The Day After:

Ron:

I stretched upon waking and after my shower. Lots of stiffness over my body, lost the spring in my step but otherwise no problems. Not even any blisters.

Sunday was a good day to putter around the house. (grin)

Alan:

Amen. I was not at my peak but felt pretty decent. I only slept about seven hours. I did have blisters, nothing serious, but I could walk! Especially amazing on that sore ankle.

Ron:

Lessons learned:

  • Take the water filter, just in case.
  • Take more powerbars.
  • Space them out through the day. (Requires water. The one I had came home intact.)
  • My radio battery strategy worked well.
  • Route finding was not a problem but Alan was more prepared than me due to more detailed study.
  • I have a problem with the onset of hypothermia. Still needs work to understand and resolve (potentially fatal).

    Alan:

    Next time, go north to south and find a young stud to do the other direction. (grin)