It was a long, long drive, with seven people and seven backpacks piled into the chambers of a rented Dodge Caravan. 24 hours of road time, plus stops and rest breaks makes for a lot of time to think. It was the thoughts, the wonder, the curiosity, the fantasy of my boots on the dirt of a new state, Colorado, that kept me driving.
We departed our homes on Saturday, early in the morning, and we slid the van into park at the trailhead late Sunday evening. The sun had already given up on us, slumping behind the tall maroon and granite colored walls of our new home for the next week.
Upon stepping out of the van, we dizzied ourselves from the lack of oxygen at 10,000 feet. One fourth the oxygen we were used too wasn’t enough to fuel our energy hungry bodies. Lifting the 40 pound backpack was difficult, and slipping up the mild slope onto the first trailhead seemed impossible. Gasping for air, we slowly climbed, stopping frequently in a feeble attempt to pull more nourishment to our muscles. It was clear that the 8,000 foot difference in elevation would make this trek a difficult, if not impossible one. We, however, have came this far. We would not turn back now. We had four 13,000 plus foot passes to climb, and 5 days to do it. We were committed, determined, and would not return home without our rewards.
Dragging our oxygen deprived bodies up the now darkened trail was a long, painful affair. Our headlamps illuminated the trees,granite cobbles, and our breath as we slowly, continuously moved up the trails. Panting was our new war drum, rolling in tune with our footsteps. We were taking breaks frequently just to keep from dizzying ourselves. Breathing almost felt useless. Very little was going in, or coming out of our lungs. Our bodies were weak, and tired. One of the group members was feeling sick from the altitude, and resisted the urge to lose herself over the newly acquainted rock that would be our footing throughout our journey. The urge to turn back was already upon us, but we wouldn’t give up so easily.
Exhausted from the two day drive, we worked our way about two miles up the trail to our first camp spot. We pitched our tents, slung our food bags over the trees, and collapsed into our sleeping bags. Sleep came effortlessly, and swiftly in the cool night.
The next morning we awoke from our slumber feeling much better. Crawling out of the tent, I was pampered with my first batch of sunshine since we had arrived last night. For the first time I was able to see beyond the short throw of my headlamps radiant energy. Beyond the picket of trees, to my surprise, was a towering waterfall we had unknowingly camped below. Amazing! The water skipped playfully down the grey rock and crashed softly onto the ground just beyond our camp. What a pleasant surprise. Although this was enough to fuel my mind, my body needed something special. Breakfast was the traditional; oatmeal from a ziplock baggie, but it was enough to boost our spirits.
We packed up camp and set out on our first days hike. We wanted today to be a short day, that we could take some time to relax and acclimate to the high altitude. We huffed and puffed our way up a rocky path towards our first “pass” as it’s called out west. The climb was gentle, and short, but surprisingly difficult. Our bodies were just not adapting the high altitude yet. Every few feet we would stop, gasping for air. Something so simple, so mild, was completely tumbling our humble low altitude bodies. Having a fourth of the oxygen, we felt like we were breathing from half of a single nostril. Try that going up a few flights of stairs, and feel our pain. Jeff stated it was like hiking with a pillow over his face, and I agree.
We found camp nestled in a dense patch of trees, just above a glacier fed river, beneath the solid, maroon colored walls of Aspen. The day was spent “acclimating” while getting in some quality time with the rest of the group. Meal recipes where compared, and snacks where shared and traded as the backcountry bartering system began to develop. That evening, the regular flow of rain came out the camp. We retreated into our tents and enjoyed another night of deep, soothing slumber.
The next day would be our first accent to the top of the first pass,