C O L O R A D O
Location: Rawah Wilderness,
north-central Colorado near Cameron Pass.
This was one of the most memorable trips Andra, Frank and I took in 2001. This was the year I was working seasonally at Dinosaur National Monument, so I was away from home most of the summer. The few weekends I was home, we usually didnít go anywhere. Since I spent all my working days hiking and camping, there was not a strong urge to do so on my time off, as there is now that I am locked away in a tiny office eight hours a day, five days a week. Those were better times, recreationally speaking. At any rate, this all resulted in fewer backpacking trips. In fact, this is the only mountain camping trip I recall undertaking the entire year. No wonder it was so memorable. Singular events stand out well.
We began this hike early in the morning on July 4 at around 8500 ft. Our destination was a mountain lake, around 11K ft. We chose this remote location for two reasons. Foremostly it looked like a nice place on the map and a good time to go. Another reason was that Frank is absolutely terrified of firecrackers, and on July 4th cowers for hours in the dark laundry room behind the toilet as the popping and booming continues on into the night. We hoped to alleviate his fears by spending a nice quiet evening at a mountain lake. The hike was almost entirely uphill, with several rigorous stretches and plenty of switchbacks, through lodgepole pine/aspen forest and, as we got higher, deep and dark spruce/fir forest. We were in the wettest area of Colorado, and no fire had raged here for a very long time. All the trees were huge, and the undergrowth thick. It was very green this year, as opposed to the year before when fire restrictions had been in place. The hike took a long time since it was about 8 miles up.
We arrived at around 4PM to the lakes, which were right at timberline. The two lakes were separated by a thin strip of rocks that let water sluice down slowly. Upper Twin Crater Lake was larger and seemed deeper than Lower Crater Lake, which is a pattern Iíve seen in several mountain lakes. The lake nearest the cirque walls always seems to be carved much deeper by the glacier that is now long gone. Patches of dense krumholtz subalpine fir formed a labyrinth of vegetation around the lake on the east side. The north side of the lake was the outlet, and poured water down a very steep slope into a roaring creek far below. A concave solid wall, several hundred feet high, rose up from the water of the lakes on the south and west, forming the continental divide. Our first order of business was to cook a nice dinner...spicy rice of some sort with crackers and granola was the fare of the evening. Shortly thereafter, we set up our tent about 300 yards from the lake in a grassy clearing of the krumholtz. I tried fishing in the lower lake, but it was windy and the water was choppy and my fly line kept getting tossed about and stuck in the grass behind me and around me. I gave up and read my book. It was a very pleasant evening. At 8, just as we were contemplating going to bed, a massive boil of cloud so dark it gave me chills reared up over the wall of the lake to the west. Within minutes it began to sprinkle, and we scrambled to get our gear watertight for the evening. By the time we got into the tent and got our gear under the rainfly, water was pouring from the sky. Then the lightning came. The fireworks really started. Lightning lit up the landscape in searing flashes, not followed by, but accompanied simultaneously by, earsplitting cracks and booms that were felt in the chest. Did I mention Frank hated firecrackers? He hated lightning much more, and we covered him completely with a blanket to give him security. I wasnít too thrilled myself. The lightning and thunder was coming from all around, and it was clear that the storm was right over us, and not moving quickly. Lightning was hitting the top of the wall on the other side of the lake, and further down the valley to the east. The lightning was so close and so loud that neither of us could bring ourselves to sit up in the tent, and we both lay flat on our backs, watching the tent fabric light up like a projector screen every few seconds. We, of course, were keenly aware of the danger of the situation. Options were few. The rain was so hard that we couldnít very well pack up and get out, besides, that would take at least 20 minutes, and the storm would be gone by then (hpefully). Hiking down to tall timber was unattractive because it was a long way off over rocky, open ground. We considered moving the tent closer to the krumholtz patches so that they would be the tallest thing (as opposed to our tent). We finally decided this was worth effort and we got out in the rain and frantically (and profoundly quickly I might add) yanked up tent stakes and dragged the tent by its corners twenty feet to the base of a rock uprising topped by small, shrubby trees. Frank didnít want to leave the tent for us to drag it and I had to drag him out from under the blanket first. We got back in the tent and still the lightning was coming from all directions. I comforted myself by thinking that if it does hit us, weíll never know about it, so why worry? I believe it was about as high a probability of death Iíve ever been subjected to. As we lay in the tent, again, flat on our backs staring wide eyed at the light flashes every few seconds, we both thought more and more about the metal poles that held the tent up, both crossing at the apex of the tent, almost forming a nice little x-marks-the-spot for a lightning bolt. We talked it over, and decided that being under a slightly taller tree was better than being under a slightly lower metal frame. The rain had slackened to a steady shower and we grabbed Frank and a blanket and ran out of the tent to the nearest grove of fir. We had to crawl on our hands and knees to get under the low limbs, but the tight weave of the needles provided a good shelter from the rain. At least we felt safer from the lightning. Plus, we could watch it clearly. Dozens and dozens of strikes shattered the ground right before our eyes all around. Frank burrowed as deeply as he could under the blanket and shivered from fright. The storm seemed to be moving at a snails pace, or maybe it was just that big. Anyway, it was after ten o'clock when we finally decided the majority of the lightning was hitting to the east and not around us anymore. The rain had slackened to only a drizzle, and we walked back to the tent and got in. Just as we got comfy, a lightning bolt hit the ground behind us, and very close. The tension returned, and we both fell off to sleep with ears keenly attuned to the sound of nearby lightning.
The next morning was bright and clear as a bell. We had breakfast and reflected on the night before. Thatís whatís called ďlearning it the hard wayĒ. I will never again camp above or near treeline. We packed up camp right off to be ready to head down the instant any dark clouds were spotted overhead. I spent the morning fishing in the lower lake and pulling in a bundle of rainbow trout, somewhere around a dozen, although I lost track in my excitement. The upper lake had bigger fish, but they were more finicky as well, and I watched many of them glide right past my fly without so much as turning towards it to get a better look. I kept two of the larger trout, and went off to find Andra around lunchtime. She had stayed closer to the outlet of the lower lake where we had camped, reading a book from a comfy perch on a rock ten feet from shore. She has this ability to walk through freezing water indefinitely. I tried wading in the lake and my bones ached within seconds. I offered her a fish, but she declined. Not much of a fish eater. I cleaned the fish and cooked them for lunch. It was about then that the consequence of fishing under a July sun without a hat all morning rammed home in the form of a pounding headache. I tried hoisting my pack and plodding along the trail, but every step sent a hammer of blood ramming at all points of my skull and neck. I persuaded Andra to allow me a short nap, which helped a little. At around 1, thunderclouds rolled in and we were in heavy timber in no time. We passed people still on their way up to the lake, even though thunder boomed in the not-so-distant distance. The sky was dark and the air thick and hot. Frank was only too happy to lead the charge back to the car. We didnít make it that far before the sky opened up and drenched us head to toe. We put on our jackets with hoods and all conversation halted as we trudged down the muddy trail with the sound of the hood fabric on our ears blocking out all other sounds. My fishing pole, tied to the back of the pack, fell off somewhere during that time. I had always felt I would hear it if it ever fell off, but since I had my hood on, and the rain was crackling all around, I heard nothing. When I discovered the missing item, I ran up the trail as far as I thought it might have fallen but found nothing. The trail is steep, like I said, and it probably fell off the trail and slid into the undergrowth somewhere. It probably still lies in the same place to this day. The rain ceased before we arrived at the car, and the sun came out. The lasting effects of the trip have been that I have purchased a new and improved fly rod and reel and Frank runs for cover, typically the dark and windowless laundry room, the instant he suspects lightning in the area.