Tuesday, 3 September 2013

Farewell Road Trip (2): Cowboys, coyotes and my first mountain summit

The easy hike at the start, as the sun rose
Rocky Mountain National Park, CO, was our home for the second week of the trip. Colorado is the highest US state, on average its elevation is 6,800ft (2070m) above sea level with nearly 20 peaks above the magic 14,000ft (4,300m).  The altitude takes some getting used to, so we planned our first major mountain climb for our fourth day there: the famous Longs Peak, 14,255ft (4,340m). Dire warnings were provided by the guidebook and rangers; most definitely not a hike, it would require some difficult scrambling, with huge sheer drop-offs, where one slip would be fatal.

My nerves and a 2am alarm (you have to be off the summit by noon before the afternoon thunderstorms) meant little sleep.  The first three hours to the boulderfield was an easy headtorch-lit hike. Then it got more interesting: we climbed through 'the keyhole' to start the scramble along narrow ledges, up a gully, along more narrow ledges to reach the final ascent on slabs to the summit. Snow on the slabs blocked the best route up, but after a few sketchy moments we summitted at 9am to a huge sunny windless plateau with dozens of Colorado peaks laid out before us, and hoary marmots sunbathing on the rocks.

We didn't die, yay!
I was not looking forward to the descent with, as it turned out, very good reason. The snow had started melting, coating the rock slabs with water above the 3000ft drop off.  A good quantity of coaxing from Mark later and we were back at the keyhole, feeling the effects of altitude lessen with every step. We celebrated my first proper mountain summit with our first meal out of the trip: deep pan American pizza (if you think of it as a kind of pie it's quite nice). 

Our next few days were less adrenaline filled: drives along the highest paved road in the US, early morning bird watching near the elk 'nursery' meadow, watching three young coyotes streak down a sun dappled hillside, and collecting Nicky Smith late from the airport as we watched a herd of bighorn sheep with lambs cross the road.

Singing the national anthem precedes all N. American events
And a truly American cultural experience: our first rodeo.  The Estes Park rodeo is apparently the best small rodeo in the US, easy to believe as you watch the cowboys (and girls) compete at sunset in front of the mountains. Our favourite events were the female 'trick riders' troupe racing around the stadium and the calf roping round: calf and cowboy are released simultaneously from the gates and the cowboy has to rope the calf, securely tie it and remount the horse in under 14 seconds. Awesome.

A quick stop at the restored Carousel of Happiness in Nederland (best $1 spent of the trip) completed our stay and we headed west to Mt Zirkel. 

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