Three weeks ago I finally got the kick in the ass I needed to begin my spring hiking regimen. It was a tough week in more ways than one. To start off the week, my paternal grandfather passed away in the hospital from complications relating to his heart surgery, he was 87. I worked long sedentary hours behind a computer screen in a fairly stressful work environment doing IT security work. It requires you to be on edge and vigilant at pretty much every moment, despite just sitting at a desk. It’s exhausting. I’m exhausted, emotionally, physically, mentally.
So when the word came through that my grandfather’s funeral was going to be on Monday, the same week that I was flying back to Pennsylvania to head to our cabin and fish the trout opener I made arrangements to change my flights. With schedules being what they were that would mean one cross-country flight, and three cross-Pennsylvania drives in the span of some five days. I wasn’t ready for the emotional roller-coaster. I had to get away. Rather than self medicating with the Naked Grouse in my bar, delicious as it is, I figured another form of self-punishment was in order.
If you’ve been reading my blog you’ll have seen that I made a New Years Resolution to hike the many Wilderness areas in Colorado. I’ve done none of them, and we’re a third over with the year, and our baby is due during peak hiking season. I’ll still try to have my Fridays off of work, and eventually baby duty until early afternoon when childcare is a thing. Not because I aspire to be a piss poor parent, but because the cost difference, if there is one, is negligible between four and five day care. Still though, I want to pack some hiking in before the baby arrives and my world will be forever changed.
Wilderness areas are basically classified as “Rock and Ice”, high in the mountains and unlikely to be developed, that usually means that they have more value staying wild than being logged or mined. That also means that according to the USDA snow fall map looking at Colorado, they probably still have four feet of snow.
That’s where I went to my All-Trails list, having curated a list of hikes in as many Wilderness areas as I could, I’ve selected those with varying levels of difficulty. I’ve also got backup hikes in other areas, including places I’ve marked down in my first summer of living in Colorado. The Flatirons fit the bill as a place I’ve wanted to climb since seeing them from a distance, and despite it’s short length at 2.5 miles round trip there is a large elevation gain at 1440ft. Compulsively checking the weather forecast looking for a reason to just mope at home and pack for my trip I saw that the weather was indeed cooperating. I threw together a day pack and threw it in my truck to head to Boulder.
Arriving at the trailhead at nine meant that the main lot at the Chautauqua institute in Boulder was already full. Yoga pants and trail runners, dog walkers, and speed walkers as far as the eye could see. I parked on Baseline road, the parking meters still disabled for the season and walked to the trailhead, sighing as I saw the slabs of sandstone conglomerate piercing the sky at angles that looked like something from a Star Wars movie.
I started up the trail slowly, surrounded by a great many people, unaware of their struggles as they were unaware of mine. I knew the trail was going to be tough, I’d just done part of the trail that leads to the Flatirons several weeks earlier with some work teammates, and it left us tired in just a short distance, but we’d been full of Avery’s beer from across town. How hard could it be?
Heading up the incline I passed several other tourists huffing and puffing, myself beginning to notice that even the extremely thin FirstLite Hoody I was wearing was beginning to feel like a cable knit sweater in the early April sun. For a supposedly rainy day the clouds had dispersed and the sky was a pale blue dappled with fluffy clouds, unlikely to rain for hours.
The famous filmmaker-hermit Richard “Dick” Proenekke said that you should travel at a pace where you do not have to stop for a rest and you are not sweating. Well, I had to, and too late, old man. The hat came off, the hoody came off and it was quickly stuffed in my pack as I sucked down water, not yet even to the section of the trail where it branched off “into the mountains”. I was still on a semi-paved trail. For someone who fashions themselves an outdoorsman, this was painful.
But I was hurting, in more ways than one. The pain I felt in losing my grandfather made me want to get away from every where and everything, but here I was. Most of my Wilderness haunts were still locked up with snow, and the weather reports were questionable, leading me staying close to home. Sweat ran into my eyes, or was it a tear?
I was going to do this, at least for me. It was clear as I moved on there were people who also thought “How bad could 2.5 miles be?” began falling out, sweat pouring over their brows as trail runners whizzed by shirtless. I sucked on the tube to my hydration bladder and took another rest, adjusting my combat boots. I’d worn regular socks with them instead of hiking socks with the weather being hot and sunny. I was beating myself up again. I was already getting hot spots. Lacing up my boots again and tied them tighter.
Into the Mountains
The trail transitioned as I made it to the “top” of an incline where the pavement ends and it goes to hard packed dirt. The open field on the side of the hill turned to forest, and then to a steep rocky incline before snaking back right again to switchbacks. The trail zig-zagged up the front hill face before splitting again, one trail going to a spur, a trail to nowhere, the other helping form the Flat Irons loop. I was finally hitting my stride. It wasn’t long before I got to the intersection where the real fun began, the ascent to Flatirons 1 and 2.
The trail was steep and had a dozen or more switchbacks, at one point going through a rock field where the “trail” simply turned into rocks that had been conveniently turned over in succession such that the flat side was facing the top.
Sitting for a rest again on a large rock once clearing several more switchbacks the forest broke away and I was exposed. “Is this the top?” I was asked by several twenty somethings as out of breath as I was. “Nope, can’t be it.” the two girls looked at each other hopelessly. I didn’t know the answer as to where the top was, but I knew this couldn’t be it. I fired up my GPS and looked at the trail, not much longer. In the classic trail hiking trope I said “Not too much farther, just a little bit more to go.” In the end I was right, it wasn’t much farther, and the hardest bit of trail was behind me. Other than some light scrambling, three points of contact to get over a large slab of sandstone conglomerate I was home free.
Beating Yourself Up
I was supposed to be on a flight less than 12 hours later for Philadelphia, but I knew if I had stayed home I’d have done something stupid. “I’m not religious, but I am spiritual” is something you expect to hear from a sorority girl trying to sound wise at a bar with her friends. I’m not much of a religious guy, I don’t think I’ve been into a church save for weddings and funerals in twenty years. But there are times in your life, especially in times of sickness, death, and other seemingly unanswerable life questions that I turn to the wilderness and I turn to the pain that doing the improbable can give you.
The hike itself wasn’t improbable, it was a little over two miles and there were plenty of people, probably a dozen that made it to the “summit” area during the two hours I spent there resting and thinking. What was improbable was that I would start my hiking season out on a trail classified as hard, and it was. What was improbable was that while I was out of shape, huffing and puffing and sweating profusely that I still made it. The blisters on the top of my toes from the ill fitting boots and socks made me pay, as did my calves, and knees from the descent I eventually made. Sometimes though, beating yourself up, self flagellation, is the only way to get through the pain.
I still had whiskey, more than a dram for sure while I was fishing the week after. But the time I spent on the mountain alone with my thoughts more than made up for any other medication prescribed or otherwise.