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Life's Great (Continental) Divide

The Continental Divide in Rocky Mountain National Park is a place of reckoning and, given its trackless nature, a place of choices. To a young man who came of age here, it offers perspective on paths not taken.

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To the clap of late-afternoon thunder and the splatter of rain, I make up my mind. Fear of stray lightning overwhelms my fear of pushing through a herd of elk–even three bulls brandishing massive racks. I shoulder my pack and march purposefully down from the exposed tundra of Rocky Mountain National Park through scattering wapiti and into the safety of the trees. Great ionic exchanges between sky and ground are core to my memories of the park. Just above timberline on Longs Peak my ice axe once hissed with electrical charge as I ran headlong for the forest. Another time I watched a bolt sear the ground just across a valley, burning into it like a yellow tornado. This afternoon’s weather isn’t violent yet, but I’m taking no chances. It’s my first day deep in Rocky Mountain in over a decade, and sometimes I’m not sure where the memories leave off and the present picks up.

These peaks along the continental spine are where destinies divide, mine included. A drop of rain, sweat, or a tear strikes the ground and begins its journey. A small ravine, a rock bulge, and the moisture flows eastward, over ragged cliffs, and toward the Mississippi. Or maybe the landscape twists a nip here, turns a tuck there, and the droplet slides westward into the Colorado River and off toward the Pacific. Rocky Mountain is a place of life-altering consequences.

Or at least it was for me.

I first came to the park when I was 23, half-way through a two-year effort to purge climbing from my system so that I could concentrate on a life in science. Five years later I waved good-bye, by then a professional mountain guide writing a series of climbing guides. In hindsight I should have known that you can’t expunge mountains from your psyche, especially in a place as enchanting as Rocky Mountain National Park.

In the morning I wake to the eerie whistles of bugling elk, to a cow and calf grazing a stone’s throw distant, to glorious solitude. This park greets 3 million visitors each year, but I wouldn’t know it from my chosen hiking route. I saw half a dozen people yesterday during the first couple miles of hiking. I’ll see just four more later today, then none until I drop out of the high country at the end of my journey. Once again I’ve found that with creativity and a bit of extra effort I can be as lonely as the black bear I watched crossing the divide earlier.

Other than the trail I followed into my first campsite (park regulations dictate sleeping below timberline), my route will be entirely cross-country tundra hiking. My plan is to follow the true Continental Divide south from Trail Ridge Road for three days, crossing nine peaks above 12,000 feet, including three 13,000 footers, before dropping into Wild Basin at the southern end of the park.

How you come to appreciate Rocky Mountain National Park depends entirely on how you approach it. From the west, the land slopes upward to the Great Divide at a steady but manageable pitch through classic Rockies high country. Trees dissolve to tundra, and at the 10,000-foot contour you might break into a zigzag course to catch your breath. As you crest this gentle mountainside, suddenly there’s nothing but space underfoot. The eastern flank is cleaved away into vertical walls 1,000 feet high, as if a giant has taken a monstrous pickaxe to the land. During my earlier life here I spent my days on the craggy eastern face of the mountains. Occasionally I’d glance from the top of a cliff I’d just scaled to see the mountain’s “backside” sloping westward. “Over there” was a place of gentler beauty that wasn’t my direction at that time. Now a dozen years older, I’m back to explore this undulating landscape.

I hike up talus and tundra onto gentle summits ignored during my youthful obsession with challenge. With a modest mileage goal for the day, I find there’s plenty of time to sit and reflect on a favorite topic: how life gets in the way of plans. In the naivetß of my youth, I would chart the direction of future events with absolute certainty. I thought I knew my life’s flow-into this rivulet (two years off to climb), along that ravine (graduate school), down the gully (a professorship), toward the Pacific (research in Arctic ecology). But Rocky Mountain’s captivating cliffs threw the first of many wrinkles in my plans. My life was redirected by a job guiding clients up rock faces, then swerved toward building an outdoor business, was swept up by writing, and carried 180 degrees off-course toward the Atlantic. I never would have guessed it. And I can’t say I regret it.

In the middle of the afternoon I come face-to-face with my former self at McHenrys Notch. The notch and its namesake peak are infamous as the great obstacles to easy walking along the park’s crest. My intention is to hike west off the divide to the timbered cirque where my permit says I must spend tonight, bypassing McHenrys altogether. But in my gut I carry a niggling adrenaline-tinged demon of youth. What does this mountain really look like?

At first glance my decision is sealed. The peak is a complex pattern of smooth granite facets too sheer to scramble up unroped. But as I’m walking down my eyes keep drifting back to McHenrys. At last I see it, a ramp leading diagonally across the west face to the summit ridge. It might go.

Sure enough, the route is a good one. Rarely during 500 feet of vertical scrambling must my hands leave the trekking poles I use for balance. A light touch here, a grabbed rock there, and I’m up. In my younger years, stronger but less wise, I might not have found this cloaked passageway through the crags. But now the youth trapped inside this 41-year-old body is swelling with giddy joy. The ascent, while easy, has awakened the climber within, strumming that internal chord that accompanies so many of my most joyful motions. The vertical dance.

That night on a rock ledge below timberline, I watch the moon rise full over the shoulder of Mt. Alice. Great sweeping white-granite walls curve upward all around. Moonglow bathes my cirque with such brilliance I could read by it. But I wouldn’t consider reading. I don’t need to be transported elsewhere. The here and now suffices.

I wander back upstream in the still-cool morning. From an unnamed tarn just above timberline a faint ridge gains 1,500 feet before emerging back onto the sharp divide. Here at a saddle between Chiefs Head Peak and Mt. Alice, I could easily drop south to the trails in Wild Basin at whose mouth my ride home awaits. Instead I go for one more peak along the Continental Divide, an easy scramble up the rocky east ridge of Mt. Alice. Six-hundred-foot cliffs cleave both sides of the ridge, but it’s wide and the scrambling good. At the 13,310-foot summit I settle down for a snack so I can gaze across my last two-dozen miles to Ida Peak, which breaks the distant northern horizon where my journey began. So far away it’s hard to believe that I was there just the day before yesterday.

A few hours of descending deposits me on the tree-covered shores of Thunder Lake. I follow the trail past a gaggle of teenagers fresh from a nearby campground. A few miles farther I come upon a ranger talking to a group of backpackers. He asks to see my permit. He stares at it dumbfounded. People don’t enter on Trail Ridge Road and exit here in Wild Basin. I want to relate my adventure, but I can’t bring myself to hang around fellow human beings just now, especially not a ticket-book-wielder who’s analyzing whether I’ve been camping by the book. I feel storm clouds darkening in my head. Lightning still sizzles between my ears when the ranger relents, and I surge down the trail on a flood of emotions. I have no right to feel this way, I know. He’s only doing his job. But he’s wrenched me from the flow of my journey, from the freedom of “my” hills. This isn’t how I thought my hike would end.

My journey on the crest has not been long as days are tallied, but it feels as if I’ve traveled through a lifetime. I stop and look back in the direction from which I’ve come. The divide is obscured by trees. My forward path seems fixed. Sore-footed, I continue down the trail.

Expedition Planner

Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado

Hiking the Divide: The Continental Divide is clearly marked on any map of the park. I stepped onto it at Milner Pass on Trail Ridge Road and followed it to the Boulder-Grand Pass (except for descents below timberline to camp at Tonahutu and North Inlet creeks), then dropped to Thunder Lake from which a trail leads to the Wild Basin trailhead. In all, about 10 miles of trail travel and 20 miles off-trail. Innumerable alternatives exist for exploring along the Continental Divide. Just get a map and plot a route-keeping in mind that you’ll need reservations for camping, which is limited to specific sites and “cross-country zones.”

Getting there: Rocky Mountain National Park adjoins the town of Estes Park, a 2-hour drive northwest from Denver.

Season: Go late in the summer to avoid snow in the high country. In early summer (through early July), plan to carry an ice axe and maybe crampons to negotiate steeper slopes. Snow returns sometime in October or early November.

Permits: Required for all overnight camping. Permits are available the day of your trip at park headquarters, or can be secured in advance from the Backcountry Office, Rocky Mountain National Park, Estes Park, CO 80517; (970) 586-1242. There is a $15 fee. This address is also a good source for further information about hiking and camping in the park.

Maps and guidebooks: The Trails Illustrated topographic map Rocky Mountain National Park (#200, $8.99, 800-962-1643) is all you really need, though USGS 7-minute series topos of the specific section you’ll be hiking may give you peace of mind (call MapLink, 800-962-1394). Rocky Mountain National Park Hiking Trails, by Kent and Donna Dannon ($12.95, Globe Pequot Press, 860-395-0440) provides the basic story, while Rocky Mountain National Park: Classic Hikes and Climbs, by Gerry Roach (Fulcrum Publishing, $14.95, 800-992-2908) details excursions for the adventuresome. These and other titles are available from the Rocky Mountain Nature Association, (970) 586-1258, and some outdoors stores in Estes Park.

Precautions: Off-trail above timberline is no place for the unprepared. Just a partial list of the dangers includes altitude sickness, dehydration, severe sunburn, surprise snowstorms, knock-you-down winds, and snowfields. Here’s how to cope:

  • Finding shelter: If a storm or big wind blows in, you can run but you can’t hide. Plan ahead by carefully studying the topo map so you know the nearest escape route down to treeline or at least out of the wind. Let prudence be your guide during changing weather.
  • Finding your way: When clouds roll in, the trailless, treeless landscape can become indecipherable. Always know exactly where you are on the topo map and the compass bearings to get where you want to go.
  • Bolting from lightning: Above the trees, you’re often the highest point around-a real lightning rod. Typically thunderstorms build during the afternoon, so try to get your hiking done early. If you hear thunder nearby or feel a sizzling, tingling sensation, run for timberline or plant yourself in a good location to wait it out. The safest spot usually is on a slope where you’re neither the high nor the low point. Put some distance between you and anything metal, like a frame pack, tent poles, a stove, ice axe, or trekking poles. Don’t sit or lie with your spinal cord against the ground. Kneel on your sleeping pad. Don’t stop or camp under the only tree around or even in an isolated clump of trees. Read up on lightning avoidance techniques (“Swords From the Sky,” August 1994, is a good start). Your life may depend on it.

Leave No Trace: It’s hard for tundra plants to survive, so go out of your way to avoid stepping on them. Often you can hike for miles by stepping from rock to rock. Where you must touch earth, follow existing paths such as elk and peakbagger trails when you find them. When there’s little sign of man or beast and your party consists of two or more, fan out so the same plant doesn’t get trampled several times.

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