THREE DAYS BACKCOUNTRY CAMPING IN GLACIER GORGE, ROCKY MOUNTAIN NATIONAL PARK
We’ve been coming to RMNP (Planet RoMoNaPa as Jinks calls it) every year for almost a decade, and lately more than once a year. We’re avid summer hikers, love snowshoeing in the spring, and the fall colors. So backcountry camping seemed like the logical next step. Actually, we’re so in love with Glacier Gorge and wanted to spend more time there, especially beyond Black Lake, without having to do the long hike in multiple times. So on March 1, the first day the Backcountry Office begins to take reservations for the season, we were on it.
Having secured the coveted site, then commenced hours and hours of research and acquiring the necessary gear. We finally got it together, stuffed the truck full, and headed west. We first had eight great days in a condo with our entire family. It was a wonderful week, full of lots of memorable hikes. And then they went home, and we entered Phase Two.
Day 1 : Packing up, moving out of the condo, and hiking in to our campsite. I had never carried such a heavy pack, and was a little nervous about doing it. It wasn’t as hard as I had thought, and Jinks would say it was because it wasn’t that heavy! He had the real load. But still, mine was much more than I was accustomed to, and I’m anxious to weigh it when we get home, as it’s still all packed. (EDIT: approximately 32 pounds, not shabby)
But after arriving, I realized it did take a lot out of me, because there was nothing left! I was exhausted. We set up camp, and rested and hung out.
Day 2 : It’s a bummer to find out your air mattress has a hole in it. The ground was hard, and I was cold all night. I slept in sweats, a hiking shirt, and socks. About 4 am I put on my hooded fleece and a second pair of socks. That helped. It’s also a bummer to realize you’ve forgot the snack food. A bag of Clif Bars, cookies, cheese and crackers, and trail mix was left in the truck. We had carefully planned meals, but nothing in between. That can be tough when you’re doing things that take a lot of energy. After a breakfast of oatmeal and coffee, we headed up the trail to Shelf and Solitude Lakes. I love climbing up there—it’s a little tiring, it’s steep, but not scary, because it’s not rocks but tree roots you’re climbing over. We got up in an hour, and spent some time admiring all the views. We climbed up the shoulder that juts out from Arrowhead. I swear I could see almost the whole world!
Then the two guys headed off to Thatchtop. I watched them a while—they got smaller and smaller until they disappeared into nothingness. They were gone for a couple of hours and I enjoyed just being there, sitting at the edge of Solitude. Yes, it was a lake, but I was also "at the edge of solitude," a place that’s often hard to find in our crazy world.
I finally begin to hear a familiar sound, the sound of Jink’s trekking pole hitting rocks, but they still were not visible to me. I was poring over the landscape, and finally saw a speck of red move down the mountain, Pip’s hat. They had summitted the big pile of rocks and were returning. Do sounds really carry so much farther in the mountains, or are they just drowned out by all the cacophony of our world? How far do you have to go to experience quiet?
We fixed a spartan lunch—ramen noodles, and watched the afternoon clouds begin to build. We got poured on going down the mountain, but I didn’t mind, because we have raingear, and stayed warm. When we reached the bottom of the mountain, it suddenly cleared off, and we parked on a big rock in the middle of Shelf Creek, spread out our gear to dry, and Jinks fixed coffee. He loved his Jetboil stove! It’s funny how enjoyable just hanging out on a rock can be in the mountains.
Back on the trail, it was fun to look and see where we’d been. At the very top of the trees is the "corridor" we’d entered the huge rock shelf that contains Shelf Lake and 200 feet higher, Solitude—how different it looked from this perspective.
Back at camp about 4 pm, we’ve got work to do. Pumping water, packing and repacking gear, trying to keep camp tidy, and soon it was time for supper. Those Mountain Home dehydrated meals are quite good—the best we had was the chicken breast with mashed potatoes, and that kind of made up for the lean day, with an orange for dessert. After supper, an evening of rummy, where I put them all to shame!
Day 3 : I stayed warm last night! Jinks and I traded mattresses. He’s my hero. It rained in the night. It always sounds like its raining harder than it is, because of the drops hitting the tent right over your head. More water pumping, more oatmeal and coffee—hot chocolate for Pip. Our "kitchen" was located down the steps, a short trail to the right, and around a fallen tree, to a big flat rock where Jinks was head chef, running his stove. We had a bear vault, and hung a bag in the tree for what wouldn’t fit in there and trash. It was Pip’s job to lower and raise the bag each meal. After breakfast, rifling through the stash, we found a bag of trail mix, which was a cause for rejoicing, and we took both ramen noodles and Indian food with us that day. We ate like kings, or maybe hobbits—ramen noodles for second breakfast at 11 am at Frozen Lake. We were socked in by clouds and I felt like we were on the moon. We could hear climbers on Spearhead, shouting "Belay on!" but never saw them. Frozen has such a remote feel.
We walked down to the outlet and began our descent down there, trying to avoid the worst of the wet, slick rock slabs. Once down in the gorge, we decided to skip Green Lake, as we’d been there before, and head straight for Blue. And that’s what we did, headed straight for Blue. There’s probably a better way. We ended up in a lot of krummholz (tangled bushes, actually small trees) that had streams flowing through it. I stepped down once and my boot just kept going, into water just below my knee. My boot and sock were soaked. Rats.
We got up to Blue Lake, which in my opinion is under-rated. Blue sits on a HUGE flat shelf that you wouldn’t even know is there if you didn’t go see if for yourself. Walk to the back of it, and you get a beautiful view of Mills and that whole valley. The sky was black down there, and it looked like it was raining hard. Jinks wanted to do lunch there, but I talked him out of it, we’d just had "second breakfast", and those clouds were ominous. So we went down toward the trail to Black Lake, and when it was in sight, sat down and had palak paneer and chicken tikka masala with rice. I bet there weren’t too many folks having that kind of meal in the mountains that day! It was just vacuum packed stuff I bought at the little Indian grocery store here at home and put in the Jetboil until it was warm. The instant rice we made right in the ziplock bag. It rained a little and we climbed in a hole under some bush. The rightful inhabitant is probably a bear, but he didn’t come home while we were there!
We hiked home in a downpour, an hour or so. I don’t mind hiking in rain a bit, but it’s nice to have some place to dry off and warm up when you’re done. We’d hung some wet things up in the tent when we left that morning, hoping they’d get dry, and instead they turned the tent into a sauna, and now everything was wet. Another lesson learned. I changed into damp dry clothes, got in my damp sleeping bag, and shivered. It poured rain for the next two hours, and I couldn’t get warm. I was beginning to think it would never stop. How were we going to fix dinner in a downpour? And would I ever warm up?
And then I had a brilliant idea. There was no reason we couldn’t just hike out of there, four short miles, get a motel room, a hot meal, and dry clothes, and then run back up in the morning and break down camp and carry it all out. At least I thought it was a brilliant idea. Jinks threw back his head and laughed. Jinks Jr. looked at me in horror and said, "Mom, no!!!" Fortunately for all of us, at that moment it stopped raining and we had two hours to cook a warm supper and dry out a bit. We stood by the stream after dinner and watched the clouds moving in and out over the peaks—it was magical. At 8, the rain started up again, and we hopped back in the tents and read….my headlamp went out, we were out of batteries, and so Jinks and I read our individual books with the same headlamp. It required some coordination, but that’s what camping is all about—teamwork, huh? I was warm, I was happy, there was no place I’d rather be. I was so glad wiser heads had prevailed and we got to experience one more night in that idyllic place.
Day 4 : It rained hard most of the night. But I awoke at 5:00 to quiet, except for the large drops falling off the tree onto Pip’s tent next to us. I got up, and saw the moon through the clouds and the tall pines. Another enchanted moment, the forest so very still after the rain. I crawled back in my sleeping bag after a bit, and slept another couple of hours.
We took our time with breakfast—more oatmeal and coffee and hot chocolate. No one really wanted to leave. But then we began to pack up, and soon headed down the trail.
I’m not sure we would have gone for it if we hadn’t gotten that particular site. But having now done it, there were surprises. Camping was fun on its own, but fun in a different sort of way. It was WORK, something you don’t always associate with vacation. It sure wasn’t a day at the spa or a cushy resort. But it was immensely satisfying and soul-enriching.
It’s important to me to choose the right book for any kind of trip. It sets the mood. I was reading Hannah Coulter by Wendell Berry, and loving it. I just found Wendell Berry’s fiction, and it is a treasure. I’m sure I’ll read everything he’s written. This story takes place in a simpler time, in a simpler place, rural Kentucky in the first half of the 20 th century. But I spent a good deal of time also reading Jinks’ book, Better Off: Flipping the Switch on Technology by Eric Brende. This M.I.T. graduate made the decision to leave technology behind for eighteen months, to live without electricity, motors, e-mail, and telephones. He suggests our labor-saving devices are really sucking the life out of us. It was a thought provoking read.
I got to experience three days without much technology at all—pumping my water through a filter from a stream, no climate-controlled environment, no television, no internet, no outside communication. Everything we did seemed to be more work than usual, but somehow I had more time than ever to dream, to think, to just be. Did I get bored? NEVER! I felt more fully alive than ever. I loved every minute, as long as I was LIVING in the minute. (Worrying about being cold all night was a short-term bummer, but it wasn’t in the present, just worry about the future.)
Two days after our trip, I still feel very much affected by what I experienced. We’ve always loved the mountains, but backcountry camping added a whole new dimension to the experience. We’ll be back.