One of the things that make living in Denver so special is looking west every day and seeing the backbone of the continent rising into the air. The “purple mountain’s majesty above the fruited plains” was written specifically about the snow-capped peaks I get to look at every day. From my house, I can see all the way from Longs Peak on the north end to Pikes Peak on the southern end of a chain of high mountains called the Front Range. 100 miles of eye-popping, jaw-dropping, testicle-flipping peaks of 13,000 feet or more that on a clear, windy day seem to be just out of arm’s reach.
In winter, the sight of that snow-covered line sandwiched between the indigo foothills below and the sapphire skies above can stop you dead in your tracks to just gaze in wonder and pleasure. “Surely, ‘tis a privilege to live in Colorado,” we often say, and not lightly but because we really mean it. The people who live along the populous eastern “downslope” side of the Front Range are reminded of the blessing every day and most of us count that blessing multiple times over 300 times a year – every day the sun shines!
Between Denver and Rocky Mountain National Park runs a string of the craggiest mountains on the Front Range called the Indian Peaks. For about 30 miles, the Continental Divide runs along the tops of the Indian Peaks. All the snow that falls on the West side of these mountains ends up in the Colorado River and eventually ends up in the Pacific Ocean (although that is only after Los Angeles sucks it completely dry and then pees it out and the sewers empty it into the ocean. The river itself, mighty as it is through the Grand Canyon, never makes it to the ocean, but disappears into the California Baja desert.) All the snow on the Eastern side ends up in the Gulf of Mexico where it just might wash away the oil spill – although it will probably take a couple millennia.
My brother-in-law, John, and I were looking at that Divide one day from his porch on Twin Sisters and decided we had to cross it on foot – because it is there. And thus, a dream was born; and soon a plan was hatched to go Over-the-Top and stand on the Indian Peaks with one foot in each continental watershed. So, in the summer of 2004, we made our first assault on the Divide, hiking up Glacier Basin to Thunder Lake in the shadow of the high pass where there was (supposedly) a trail Over-the-Top. Alas, there was no trail; just 40 stories of broken scree going up from the lake. We studied the scree field through our binoculars, trying to suss out the path that would accommodate our old knees and 50 lb. packs. After a few half-hearted forays, we decided that discretion was the better part of valor and turned back to hike the 9 miles to civilization – disappointed, but comfortable knowing that the journey was as rewarding as the destination, especially when you’re in God’s country.
Two years later, we decided to try it again. We left REI with lighter equipment and better maps. We decided on a different trail and felt confident that we would, on this sortie, stand on the Divide and shake our fists at the heavens. (After which, we’d drop to our knees and thank Heavens.) The route we chose was the Devil’s Thumb trail. We would camp overnight at Devil’s Thumb Lake and then hike Over-the-Top the second day and loop back around to return. Easy peas-y, lemon squeeze-y. Only it wasn’t. The Devil wasn’t going to show us his thumb; he had in mind a different digit to show us…
John and I rendezvoused in the hippie mountain town of Nederland – home of the Frozen Dead Guy and most of the people east of the Continental Divide who still drop acid on a semi-regular basis. We had a fabulous breakfast at a dirty little hippie café and then car-pooled to the trail head where it began to rain. Again. I should mention that after a completely dry June that year, this first weekend in July had brought rain to the Front Range. It had rained all night but we weren’t afraid. We’d been to REI. We had all the right equipment. Right? Right!
We should’ve turned back when we found we had to park 2 miles away from the trailhead because the road to the trailhead was under water. Multiple FEET of water. But, it was barely drizzling; just a fine mist and we are men, not wussies. Stupid men, to be sure – because we believed we were NOT going to be denied our goal because of a little H-2-0. You’d think a couple of born-and-raised mountain boys would know that if it is drizzling at the 9,000 foot trailhead, it could easily be snowing at our 11,000 foot camp site, even on the 4th of July. But, hyped-up testosterone combined with an over-stimulated Pollyanna complex ruled our pre-frontal cortexes that day, ruling out any chance of making a responsible decision, so we shouldered our packs and headed up the trail. At least we wouldn’t be sweating much that day. Figuratively maybe, but not literally.
The rain kept getting worse so about a mile in we stopped and I threw my Bronco’s rain poncho over my head and draped it over my pack. John had worn his rain gear, so he didn’t worry about covering his back pack. This would turn out to be extraordinarily poor judgment. The temperature was about 50 degrees. Yet, we didn’t even think about turning back.
It was a beautiful trail, lush with the kind of water-drenched foliage you don’t often see on the drier Eastern slope of the Rockies. The trail was in full bloom with vistas of green to drink in and wild raspberries to eat up. (Our post-climb research would reveal that the Devil’s Thumb trail is a natural moisture alley, funneling the clouds down this valley that get broken up by the high peaks elsewhere on the Front Range.) So, while we marveled at the flora and marched happily forward, the rain started to find the nooks and crannies of our clothes and packs and equipment. The trail was so overgrown with amazing greenery that a machete would have come in handy and we were constantly pushing our way through the soaked underbrush. Our shirtsleeves and pants legs started to soak up the water. The rocky path alternated between being a trail spotted with puddles to being a rushing stream disguised as a trail. Water-proofed boots and jackets and ponchos were no match for this five-sided deluge.
We should have turned back about two hours later when I noticed my socks were squishing and realized that my pants were wet to my hip and my shirt sleeves were wet to my shoulders. But I was wearing a poncho! How could this be? The answer soaked in… It was so wet all around that our clothes were acting like a $20 Sham-Wow, sponging up water from the boot-tops up.
It was getting fairly uncomfortable when we stopped for lunch. With no dry place to sit, we were standing under a giant Douglas Fir munching on trail mix and dried fruit when a group of high school girls and their chaperone came slogging down the trail. They stopped long enough to tell us of their cold night in the snow and marvel at how tough & brave we were to be heading into the jaws of the Devil. When they told us about the snow, I remember thinking briefly that our plan had gone awry. But, then they had to compliment our toughness, and we were doomed again by testosterone and hubris, and were soon repacked and headed up the trail. The rain continued. The temperature was now in the 40’s. We should’ve turned back
We got to Devil’s Thumb Lake about 3:00 amid driving rain and a wind angry enough to rip the ropes out of our frozen hands as we tried to string a tarp in the trees to create some kind of livable space under which to pitch our tents. 30 minutes later, we were pitched and crawling into our tents to get out of the rain and dry out for the first time in 6 hours. Backpack tents are small, so it’s a yogic challenge to unpack, undress, and re-fit while trying to not let your soaked stuff touch your dry stuff to prevent further Sham-wow effects. I had just gotten un-pretzled and was relaxing for a minute – somewhat dry, finally – when I heard John yelling from his tent through the drumming of the rain & corn snow on the tarp above us, “G-&)^($* it!!! $onuva%^#*$##@!!!!! M---$%*F($^.”
John doesn’t cuss much, so I worriedly shouted back, “What’s wrong?”
Through the blue haze of the f- & s-bombs and the noise of the wind & rain, John got out an occasional coherent and printable word that made me understand that his rain gear (better than mine at keeping HIM dry) did nothing to keep his pack dry (as my poncho had) and his sleeping bag was soaked. Not a good deal when we were expecting the temps to dip near the freezing mark within a few hours. Luckily, I had a brought a small fleece blanket and had a foil space blanket in my emergency kit, and I talked him back in off the ledge by convincing him they would probably get him through the night if he wore all his clothes.
We should’ve turned back and left right then, but instead we decided to brew a cup of coffee and then start the process of making dinner. During a lull in the downpour, John grabbed a jug and headed to the lake for water. I busied myself getting my pack stove fired up and finally got a little tired of waiting for John to return with water. I mean, the lake was RIGHT THERE! So I grabbed my stove pot and headed off to get my own water.
I met John halfway down the trail. Somehow, he looked even more bedraggled and – could it be? – wetter than he had before. I didn’t get a chance to ask him why it took so long as the mystery was revealed when he blurted it, “I fell in the %@#$-ing lake!” The soft dirt around the lake, soaked as it was, had crumbled on his approach, sending him slip-sliding into the icy snow melt of Devil’s Thumb Lake and drenching his only dry clothes. Now we knew that we really should’ve turned back a long time ago.
I looked at John, shivering and dripping as we walked back to camp. “The way I see it,” I said, “you’ll never be warm enough all night without dry clothes. So, we only have one choice since I’m not willing to go all Brokeback Mountain to keep you warm. We have to break camp and head home.” (I should explain here that building a fire was not an option. Even without the wilderness fire ban, there wasn’t a stick of dry wood between here and the Wyoming border.)
John laughed a little and said, “At least the exertion of hiking down will keep us warmer than sitting here in the cold.”
“Let’s get crackin’ then,” I said, “it’s 4:00 and it’ll be dark in 4 hours. If we bust it, we MIGHT get down in four-and-a-half. You got a flashlight?”
We both did, but we were both hoping not to have to use them – at least not for too long. We broke camp as fast as our shivering, stiff-with-the-cold hands could unknot the ropes and stakes. Rolling up wet tents and tarps and stuffing our wet things into our carefully measured and weighed backpacks, we realized that we’d be carrying quite a bit of extra water weight all the way back down. But, up against the impending sunset, there was no time to waste on niceties, so the water got stuffed into the backpacks too.
A half hour later we were on the trail, moving as fast as our water-logged packs and tired feet would allow us. Half jogging when the trail was smooth and relatively level; picking our way carefully along slick rocks when it wasn’t; slogging through trail torrents above our ankles, we hustled down the mountain. There was no time, or energy, for chit-chat. We were solely focused on the goal of making it to the truck by dark. The only sounds were the rain, the click of our walking sticks on the rocky path, and an occasional grunt or moan or yelp as we struggled to remain upright in our panicky haste.
The last mile was navigated more slowly as it was negotiated by flashlight. We found the truck about an hour past sunset and tossed our packs in the trunk. We climbed in, turned the heater on to the nuclear blast setting and sat for a minute in the dark with the rain thudding on the roof and our hearts beating loud in our ears. Soaked and sore, tired and borderline hypothermic, we sat in silence while we waited for the heater to clear the foggy windows.
When we could finally see out the windows, I slipped the truck into gear and started off down the muddy road to Nederland. “Let’s go home,” I said.
“Yep, we should’ve turned back,” said John. “A long time ago.”