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April 2001

Backpacking Colorado’s Elk Mountains

When it pours, good rain gear and a great sense of humor help you find the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

The skies grant no mercy the next day, as we ford the numbing North Fork of Crystal River and make another long, hurtful ascent to a meadow at nearly 12,000 feet, where we pitch our soggy tents. After dinner, we cram into the largest tent to play cards, commiserate over our meteorological misfortune, and laugh at Gary’s jokes about his leaky tent (“You’re going to find me tomorrow, floating down that valley”). From a cliff half a mile away comes the cracking rumble of a rockslide, the sound carrying for a full minute.

Raindrops perform a drumroll on our nylon roofs all night long. Come morning, I awaken groggily from a vague dream involving sunshine, a tropical beach, and a mixed drink with a piece of fruit the size of my head in a shallow, wide glass. The image smears and runs like a doused watercolor painting as I realize that once again, it’s raining. I can smell the dampness, and its cold envelops me even inside my sleeping bag.

A steady mist sprays our gear as we eat and pack up. It matures to a deliberate shower as we pant up into the clouds at Trail Rider Pass. From out of the fog somewhere ahead comes Gerry’s shout, “Lovin’ it!” On the other side, we view Snowmass Lake, an emerald oval crammed tightly between cliffs and evergreens like a jewel set into a crown.

Soon, the shower intensifies to a monsoon, turning the trail into a gully of slick, ankle-deep muck. We plod on silently, hooded heads bent, faces dark as the sky. Some of us begin to behave like people held against their will for years, likely to snap at any moment.

Rounding a bend, I hear Guido curse, then Gary echo. I look up to see Snowmass Creek surging across our trail in a crotch-deep torrent, moving with enough force to sweep away a cow. We test the water—frigid. Only by crossing upstream of a beaver dam can we manage to negotiate the current. No one looks pleased about the icy bath ahead. Well, almost no one. Already in up to his thighs, Gerry shoots me a glance over his shoulder. He’s grinning from ear to ear.

Beneath a dripping pine tree, we agree to hike out today, preferring a long, hard day to the prospect of another cold, wet night. We’ve had enough.

Like prisoners on a forced march, we string out through the numerous switchbacks on the slow hump up to Buckskin Pass. But at the pass, the rain ceases, and we’re treated to a heart-stopping Colorado Rockies panorama of mammoth piles of broken rock and snow. As we descend—at one point tredding beneath a 20-foot-high snow cornice that curls over us like a frozen wave—the clouds dissipate, as if swept aside by a giant hand. After 4 days of interminable rain, we’re finally basking in a warm solar glow.

We drop our packs to soak in the view. Gerry dances an impromptu jig. An hour later, we dismiss any possibility of missing the glorious evening now unfolding and park at a campsite overlooking North Maroon and Pyramid Peaks and the valley we’ll hike down tomorrow. As stars slowly riddle a clear sky, we laugh about our suffering and vow to return together. Our shared misery has bonded us in a way that 4 days of sunshine never could.

What we’ve found in the Elks is a miracle, one witnessed only when the sky bursts open after days of rain.

Just before bed, our worries washed away, we take turns shouting—”you guessed it—”Lovin’ it!”

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