Field Essay: Tramping in the Tundra Part. 3

Field Essay: Tramping in the Tundra Part. 3

"Somehow I never seem to tire of just standing & looking down the lake or up at the mountains in the evening even if it's cold. If this is the way folks feel inside a church, I can see why they go."    -Richard Proenneke

After returning to Grand Lake from the trailhead, me & Geraldine spent the day filling up our stomachs with hot food & coffee & returned our bear canister. Once deciding we had ventured enough throughout the town, we attempted to find a spot near Grand Lake to park for the night to sleep. We ended up camping at Still Water Pass inside of the Arapaho National Forest, it was such a beautiful spot. You can't really lose with free dispersed camping, but man did I lose some sleep that night. It was a mixture of how cold it ended up getting & the fact that the full moon was brighter than anything I'd ever experienced before in my life. I woke up to the sound of Geraldine starting the car & we were on our way back to Estes Park via the Trail Ridge Road (but not before getting some gas station coffee). Morale was high & our drive was going peacefully by in the early morning mountainsides, we threw on Eddie Vedder's "Into the Wild" soundtrack & sipped our 89 cent coffee's while the landscape rolled itself out before us.

We made it back into Estes Park & had a few hours to kill in town before heading up to the Longs Peak trailhead. Took our time eating lunch, charging our phones & taking whore baths at Starbucks then went & picked up another bear canister for the next two days of backpacking. Arriving at the Longs Peak trailhead, I was getting super excited about this last leg of the expedition. The summit of Longs was towering over us ominously the entire drive over, we got out of the car & began getting our gear packed for our last two days in the RMNP. Two middle aged men (coincidentally from Kentucky) dragged themselves out of the forest over to their Trailblazer with dirty faces & smirks of euphoric achievement. I casually acknowledged their grace & anxiously asked them if they had summited today, which they proudly responded "Yes! it was a long ass day but we did the damn thing. It was worth everything." As they peeled out of their day hiking clothes, they told me the hardships of their experience & how beautiful the climb was. I couldn't get there fast enough, I thought to myself. They drove off & our backpacks were loaded up, we slung our gear on & headed to Goblin's forest for the night. A little over a mile into the trail was where we'd rest our heads tonight, we setup camp & ate a nice dinner before turning in rather early. 

We woke up in the middle of the night, broke down camp & headed up to Boulderfield. Just as the sun was rising we were making our way out of the tree line & onto the open tundra once more. The many switchbacks gave us beautiful views of the mountains, tundra snow caps, ponds & open fields of lush green & yellows. I was increasingly focused on how much closer we were becoming to Longs Peak, I was now able to see the texture of the granite monster that stood tallest in all the RMNP. From the trailhead to Boulderfield we gained  3,360 feet, there were incredible clear skies & the temperature was holding perfectly. 

As we arrived to Boulderfield, the sun was high on our backs & the sounds of strong winds blowing tent shelters around camp were coming & going. I reinforced our tent down with many of the granite boulders that our tent was surrounded by, the wind force was real up here. We swapped gear from our backpacking packs into our daypacks & began our scramble across the beautiful Boulderfield, heading up towards the Keyhole (a notch in the thrashed ridge between Longs Peak and Storm Peak). After making it to the Keyhole, we were faced with the most incredible views of Glacier Gorge, a seriously life altering encounter for me. Me & Geraldine took a moment at this point to count our blessings & to get our selves together for the summit hike before us, we were ready.

We followed the bull's-eye markers for reference points on the western ridge leading up to the Trough (13,300 feet), a gully filled of loose rock & slick granite which climbs 600 feet up the east side of Longs where we'd climb to the upper section of the ridge which connects Longs to Pagoda Mountain (13,497 feet). This was without a doubt the most dangerous feature of the climb in my eyes, there were so many areas of weak loose rock that could give at any moment. I focused on my footing & made sure to keep my hands free of objects so I could scramble quickly & confidently up the pass. Once we completed the Trough, we trekked over The Narrows which honestly wasn't as sketchy as I had assumed, but it was still a place to think carefully & to remain self aware, a huge Cliffside was just six inches from my boot heels.
 

Geraldine & myself were alone at this point (Most people summit Longs early in the morning/afternoon & descend soon after to get any bad weather possibilities out of the way) & we were loving it. We began climbing the last 300 feet up the Homestretch & I awaited right beneath the summit for Geraldine to catch up so we could summit together. As she made her last couple steps up the granite slab, we joined together & summited Longs Peak (14,259 feet).

Photo: Geraldine Chavez

Photo: Geraldine Chavez

The flat long summit welcomed us with open lonely arms, we had the entire summit to ourselves. I joyfully walked along it's ridges in amazement & quiet resounding pleasure while snapping these film photographs. Me & Geraldine logged our names in the guest book which is lodged into a plastic tube tucked away in a crumbled granite boulder & continued to consume the best view of the Rocky Mountains you can find. For a moment we weren't alone, three rock climbers who ended up being RMNP climbing rangers were just summiting as well. We greeted them with praise & they returned the gesture. We swapped cameras back & forth for summit team portraits & they quickly headed back down the mountainside. Me & Geraldine decided it was time for us to also head back to basecamp, so we began our descent.

Photo: Geraldine Chavez

Photo: Geraldine Chavez

We enjoyed the scramble down the mountain, taking our time for the safest measure. Our only company on the entire hike down was the view of the painterly like Glacier Gorge, not much to complain about. The weather was still beautiful without any signs of storms approaching, we were in the clear & it was the middle of the day already. Me & Geraldine decided to go off the side of the rocky route down the Through to fill up our hydration bladders with some white ice from a nearby snowcap on the mountain face. The snow was incredibly cold & felt great on my now chapped lips & sunburnt face. After filling up our bladders, we continued onward down the mountain & made it safely back to Boulderfield for the night. That evening we made a nice warm dinner & I ended up getting creative with a leftover Folgers cappuccino packet & some of my collected icy slush to make the world's best "Tundra Treat" there ever was. The cold sweet delight was the perfect way to end the week of multiple achievements (65 miles hiked & thousands of feet in elevation climbed). We crawled into the tent after we finished eating & quickly drifted to sleep as the sun was setting over a rush of reddish clouds flooding into the Boulderfield. The next morning we woke up to the most beautiful views of the sun easing over the horizon & mountains below us, deep oranges & dark purples. After breaking down camp, we began our descent tramping in the tundra heading for home with another beautiful adventure behind us.

All images shot with Kodak Portra 160 film.

George Barnett, a Kentucky native that spends the better part of his days in the remote wilderness backpacking & roaming to find the next mountainside of inspiration. He & his son Levi Barnett have a untouchable relationship that only the tree's & lakes can comprehend. George searches for truth in conservation, the purpose of nature & it's inhabitants.