Monday, August 24, 2009

The Weather Makers

Bierstadt Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park


The front range of the Rocky Mountains has a beauty and an allure that draw millions of people to the West every year.  In the past, they were a jutting barrier that awaited the explorers and pioneers once they had crossed the Great American Desert.  The beauty of Pike's Peak inspired Katharine Lee Bates in 1913 to write “America The Beautiful,” which includes the phrase, “For purple mountain majesties above the fruited plain."

The front range can also be deadly.  As Gretta and I drove this summer through a rainstorm to Rocky Mountain National Park on U.S. Highway 34 from Loveland, I remembered accounts of the flash flood in 1976 in Big Thompson Canyon that killed 144 people.

We encountered our own challenges on our backpack trip in the National Park, and it reinforced my belief in the Boy Scout motto “Be Prepared.”  The complexion of the skies can change in an instant, causing the beautiful surroundings to become inhospitable .

The Weather Makers
by Greg Larson

Anticipation and Preparation

Many times as I drove around Denver, I had glanced up at the peaks in Rocky Mountain National Park, and wished I could find time to go backpacking and exploring, or just sit and meditate among the crags and the snowfields.  On one business trip, I was able to take a short day-hike in the Flatirons near Boulder, Colorado.  It only increased my desire to spend more time in the mountains.

Gretta and I finally planned a major trip to Colorado, with a backpack sojourn into Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP) to be the finale of our summer adventures.  I selected and reserved two nights at the Upper Ouzel Creek Campsite in the Wild Basin, which is located in the southeast area of the park.  The campsite was six miles from the trailhead and was the closest one to the continental divide; according to my contour map it was located near the timberline at 10,600 feet in altitude.  All our activities during the early part of our trip would build our endurance and acclimatize us to the thin air.

During the spring I visualized our stay at Ouzel Creek; an idyllic picture of warm, streaming sunshine at daybreak, an invigorating breakfast as we took in the vistas and then a short hike to Bluebird Lake, nestled at the foot of the peaks and glaciers.  Ah, Gretta and I would be able to relax and appreciate the beauty of the massive peaks and the alpine flowers.

As we traveled, we snagged bits and pieces of weather forecasts.  The prediction for the coming days was for cooler and wetter weather.  After visiting friends in Denver, we stopped at a sporting goods store and purchased some additional socks, pants, and fleece clothing to add to our layers of clothes already planned for the hike.

On the day prior to our anticipated backpack adventure, we hiked four miles round trip to Bierstadt Lake in the northeast area of the park.  We approached the lake and found a vista worthy of any National Park calendar.  The lake was a sheet of glass, and reflected through the reeds the beauty of the peaks, while a mother duck and her babies waddled onto the shore.  The beauty only heightened my anticipation of the trip that would start the next day.

The Hike Begins

The next morning, Gretta and I rose early, hurried to breakfast and devoured the pecan waffles at the Bighorn Restaurant in Estes Park.  We loaded our gear, drove to the Wild Basin trailhead and stepped onto the trail before 8:00 a.m.  The sun shone on the mossy rocks and the water foamed and roared down the creeks as we started up the trail with our heavy packs.  The morning was what I had envisioned for the start of a perfect backpack trip.  We even spied a ptarmigan perched on a log in the shade of the forest!

Gretta on the trail in the early morning

A mile into the hike we stopped for a water break as the sunlight streamed through the forest.  During our break, a ranger stopped and asked us how things were going and if we planned to camp overnight.

“We’re doing great!” I said, “We’re camping two nights at Upper Ouzel Creek.  We thought it would be a good idea to get an early start.”

“That sounds like wise planning.”  He replied as he continued on down the trail.

We crossed the bridge at Calypso Cascades and took another break at Ouzel Falls.  The falls were approximately halfway to our campsite!  I warned Gretta that our path would become much steeper at the next trail split.  After a couple of steep switchbacks, the trail leveled out onto fields that were relatively empty of vegetation.  It appeared a forest fire had occurred a couple of decades ago; the trees were much smaller and fewer in number.  I could more easily see Long’s Peak to the right, and the continental divide loomed only a couple of miles ahead.

Storms are Brewing

A cool wind hit us and the clouds quickly darkened.  I hoped to see the next forest, find some shelter and stop for lunch.  But, without warning, the raindrops began to hit us in earnest.  We stopped and pulled on our ponchos, covering our upper bodies and the backpacks.

Lightning bolts jabbed at the peaks while the thunder rumbled and echoed around us.  Pea-size ice pellets began to sting us but we continued to plod methodically up the trail.  There was no place to hide or to find shelter, so it was best to keep moving.

Only a mile and a half from our destination, we stopped during a short break in the storm to wolf down our cheese sandwiches and gulp some water.  The rain started again and we resumed our hike.  Negotiating the trail was more difficult than ever; it became steeper, muddier, and rockier, with tall, wet grass rubbing against us as we pressed onward.  The trail was collecting run-off water and had become a small tributary for the creek.  It seemed an eternity passed while we took each step up the rugged path.  We approached a waterfall and a small creek where I filled our water bottles and Gretta treated the water with some aqua pills.  I looked at the topographic map and determined that we were only about a quarter mile from our campsite.  Our spirits rose as we continued the hike up the trail. I hurried to the top of the next climb to see if the campsite lay ahead.

Disaster Strikes!

Then I heard a bloodcurdling scream behind me!  Gretta was screaming and screaming.  With a full pack on my back, I instinctively began running down the steep path, not realizing that I was putting myself at risk.  Thoughts raced through my head from mountain lions to compound fractures. I found her face-down, under her backpack.

“Gretta! What happened?”

“I tripped and smacked my face on a rock!” she cried, “My glasses are broken and my face is numb.  I can’t get the pack off my back!”

I tore off my pack and removed hers as quickly as possible.  Then I rolled her towards me. Her face was covered with blood and her glasses were demolished.

Remains of Gretta's glasses

I found the first-aid kit and tore open a towelette.

“How bad does it look?” She cried.

I gently wiped her nose and face, and gave her a report:  “Your nose is scraped badly, and it looks like your glasses punched against your eye and cheek.  There’s some heavy swelling around the eye.”

Gretta was distraught, but I could tell that she had all her faculties and she didn’t have any serious pain or symptoms of a concussion.  Nothing appeared broken, not even her nose.  She was upset that her twenty year old boots had ceased to be waterproof; they were not keeping her feet dry.  Her socks were wet and she was getting cold.  I was concerned that she might develop hypothermia if we didn’t get to camp quickly.

We agreed that I go ahead to the campsite, drop my pack, and hurry back to her.  Then I would carry her pack and guide her up the trail.

Finally we made it to the campsite, but Gretta had paid a heavy price with her fall.  Although the fog and rain remained constant, I was determined to set up the tent and get Gretta dried out.

The Campsite
We found the RMNP stake where our tent was to be pitched, and my heart sank.  The small, slightly sloping spot was full of water!  There was no other good spot to set up the tent.

“Oh, we have a small pond for our tent!” I facetiously remarked.

“Where are we going to pitch it?” cried Gretta.

I resolved to get us both through the ordeal, grabbed a big pine stick and hacked and scraped out the rocky soil in the corner of the site, creating a channel for the water to drain.  It reminded me of playing as a child in the gutters and the ditches after a rainstorm.  The water visibly receded from the small plateau.

Sometimes during a break in the fog, a magical world would come into view.  Mt. Copeland rose 2,500 ft. just south of the creek!  The talus glistened from the rain, and pockets of sleet clung in the cracks.  The creek from Junco Lake roared over the rocks, bisecting one of the snowfields (at night, it sounded like someone had left the bath water running).  Our campsite was within the last stand of Englemann spruce, at the edge of the timberline.  The only vegetation visible above us was the krummholz that grew in the nooks and crannies.

View from Upper Ouzel Creek campsite

The rain quit for a short time, although the fog hung heavily around us.  We carefully set out the plastic ground cloth and began setting up the tent with the protective rain-fly.  I knew the rain would come again soon, so I quickly grabbed the plastic trowel and dug channels in the mud beside the tent to capture any surface drainage.  Just as I completed the task, the thunder, rain and sleet returned; we threw our gear into the tent and quickly jumped in.

The Weather Makers

We began to see a pattern to the storms that came in succession.  Every hour or two, the fog with relatively warm moist air, rose up the valley from the east.  Like the prow of a ship it moved towards us, looming larger, eventually overtaking our campsite.  The cool air aloft streaked from the west over the continental divide, then tumbled and mixed with the fog.  Light rain began to fall, increasing with intensity, and eventually the lightning, thunder, and sleet would create a crescendo to the storm.  After a five to ten minute break in the weather, the process repeated itself.  We were eye-witnesses to a giant weather-making machine.  These storms spewed out thunderheads and moisture to Denver and beyond to Kansas.  I gave the peaks surrounding us an unofficial title, dubbing them “The Weather Makers.”  From time to time I had to scoop the sleet off the rain-fly and scrape the trenches clear to allow the water to flow around us.

During another break in the storm pattern, I fired up my whisper-lite stove on the rocks outside the tent, boiling water for noodles and cider in less than three minutes.  I’d barely poured the water into our instant dinner when the rain and thunder began again.  We quickly drank our cider, slurped down the noodles, and once again dove into the tent.

Give me Shelter

Although Gretta still had a shiver or two, she was feeling much warmer.  But we had become prisoners in our tent.  Before the daylight faded in the evening, I peeked out and said, “Guess what? It’s still foggy!”

The tent continued to keep us warm and dry. Just before going to sleep, we played “twenty questions.”  At times we laughed so hard I felt the tears streaming down my cheeks.  Our sleep came in two-hour chunks, with lightning and thunder rudely waking us at each occurrence.  At 3:00 a.m., I heard water trickling near the tent, and contemplated building an ark.  But my immediate concern was possible water in the tent, so I strapped on my boots, pulled on the rain jacket and took the flashlight outside to see if the trenches were doing their job.  The trickle was not coming towards the tent.  The engineered channels had worked!

As the gray daylight became visible, I looked out of the tent again.  “It’s still foggy!”

The Road Back to Civilization

I leaned towards Gretta and said, “I’m entertaining the idea that we pack up and hike down this morning.”

Gretta blurted out, “I’m beyond entertaining!  Let’s pack up and go!  We don’t even need to light up the stove for breakfast.  We can just eat granola bars on the way down.”

The rain began again.  With little excess space in the tent, we had to take turns packing up our gear.  Then we emptied the tent and began dismantling it.  I loaded up my pack frame with the wet tent and some of our heavier items, and then I gave Gretta my ear band to hold back her hair and my walking stick to help stabilize her on the trail.  Although we packed up as quickly as possible, the cold and rain made every activity occur in slow motion.  Our breath was visible in the 40 degree air.

I felt somewhat defeated; the “Rain Makers” had dealt us a mighty punch.  But I was determined that Gretta and I return safely to the trailhead.  We started the long, slow descent from camp, knowing that the return trip would take 4 to 5 hours.  Since Gretta’s vision was limited without her glasses, I lead her past the obstacles and guided her over the swollen creeks.  The trail was surprisingly steep and rugged in the first mile and a half from camp.  It looked much steeper going down than it did going up the day before.

Once past Ouzel Falls, we began to see day-hikers coming up to observe the roaring creek as it spilled down the mountain.  Even though it was still raining, they hiked up in large numbers.  Many of the women turned a wary eye toward me and then asked Gretta, “Are you okay?”  We had to stop every quarter mile to recount the events.

By the time we reached the trailhead we were exhausted.  We chugged some coke from the ice chest in the car, then found a forest ranger to inspect Gretta’s injuries.  He concluded as I had……Gretta had quite a shiner, but no serious injuries that needed attention.

The 30 hour ordeal was over.  We drove back to Estes Park, found a vacancy at a nice riverside inn, ate an entire large pizza, and slept for 12 hours.

The next day as we drove out of the mountains, I kept glancing in the rear-view mirror.  The clouds were breaking up along the continental divide, but Long’s Peak was still shrouded in fog; it had not been visible for the last two days.  I guess I’ll always view the peaks in Rocky Mountain National Park with some awe and mystery, and with the memory of the “Weather Makers” cranking out the storms.  But I’ll continue to have an idyllic fantasy of sitting amongst the peaks on a beautiful day.