Back from the backwoods

This week we finally got around to one activity which we’ve been putting off since Idaho.  Backcountry climbing.  One simple equation explains our procrastination:

Backpacking + rockclimbing = a really heavy pack

Josh with pack

But who can come to Colorado and resist the siren call of Rocky Mountain National Park.  Not us, though we did resist the urge to start our backcountry career by tackling the 2000 foot Diamond on Long’s Peak (the area classic).  Instead we kicked off the week with a five mile hike out to the standard RMNP introductory route, Petit Grepon.

Our first challenge was hiking upstream against the hordes of Sunday afternoon tourons. But we were certainly thankful for the well constructed trail that carried us away from the crowds and into the pristine high alpine forest.

Josh pumping water

We secured a perfect bivy site – a flat patch of dirt under a rock slab providing comfort and shelter.  After a tasty freeze dried dinner we hunkered down in preparation for our alarm to sound at dawn.  Our day didn’t start quite as early as planned given the chilly temps at 10,000 feet made it difficult to leave the sleeping bags.  But we still had enough time to enjoy the route and get down before some light showers.

Josh in Bivy site

Those showers are the reason so many climbers decide to spend the night in the park before their ascent.  It’s completely possible, with a normal size pack, to hike out early, complete a climb and return by dark.  But during the summer in the Rockies, afternoon  thunderstorms are a constant threat regardless of the weather forecast.  So smart climbers plan their day so that they are not at the top of a peak with metal equipment hanging from their harness at 2-3p.m. when the thunderstorms typically start rolling in.  To do that you have to get up really early and move really fast.  A plan which would allow us to savor our time in the backcountry. So we went with the obnoxiously heavy pack plan, which drew plenty of smug looks from the light-and-fast Boulderites we passed going in.  But it also made our sport-climbing packs feel feather-weight a couple days later.

Shelf Road, located west of Colorado Springs, is the winter destination for CS and Denver area climbers.  So on summer weekdays we enjoyed having the extensive limestone crag and adjacent campground which sit at 6500 feet, all but to ourselves.  While the scenery and rock are reminiscent of Jack’s Canyon (on steroids) the long, sustained routes climb more like Queen Creek and quickly got our forearms back in shape.  Just in time to move on to Crested Butte and get back on our bikes.  Why hang out in a place that looks so much like Arizona when we’re so close to the Rockies?

*********Josh’s not-so-close encounters with wildlife*******

Marmots are the biggest animal threat above treeline in RMNP and we’ve read countless stories about how they’ll chew up anything – ropes, shoes, packs, clothes – even when in close proximity to a person.  So even though we kept our packs literally under our heads in our bivy, we were still on full alert.  So a pre-dawn rustling sound caused Josh to jump up and reach for his trekking pole, ready to smack away the offending varmint, which turned out to be a very apologetic climber, searching for his partners.

The next night, back at camp, the ever protective Josh awoke to a metallic crashing sound followed by a growl.  He stayed on the alert, thinking that bears were messing with the nearby dumpster but when the next sound was whispers and giggles, he went back to sleep, assuming it was some drunken late-night practical joking taking place at the neighboring campsite.  The next morning one of those campers wandered over to ask us if we had seen the bears.  Turns out that he had also awoken to the crashing sound (having been sleeping under the stars), which he found to be a bear trying to get into his cooler.  Well, mama bear was at the cooler to his right, while baby bear was on his left.  So he took the first defensive measure that came to mind and let out a “growl” of his own.  That seemed to do the trick and the bears departed.  (the subsequent giggles came from his retelling of the story to his curious camp mate who had been in a tent and hadn’t seen the bear) I got a good laugh out of this story remembering a story from a old friend who had scared away a bear on the PCT with a loud fart. (just tuck these tips away for future reference, we look forward to hearing your own story some day)

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