I awoke early the next morning. The sun was still hidden from my view by the peak to the east, but the shadow of the mountain was slowly slipping down the hillside to the west. When I climbed out of the tent, the other two were still asleep, so I quietly worked to get the fire back up and going. I wanted to make a cup of coffee and some hot oatmeal for my friends. The sun was just starting to peek it’s way over the mountains before us, so I decided to go see if I could catch some fish.
By the time I got back to the tent, the sun had fully risen and so had Riley. We had talked the night before about fishing in the morning, but Riley was feeling pretty sick, so I went alone.
“Did you catch anything?”
“I’m pretty sure there weren’t even any fish in there.” I said with a laugh.
With that we each filled our little cups with instant oatmeal, hot water, and a scoop of peanut butter. I’m not sure how old that oatmeal was, or if oatmeal goes bad, but that stuff was awful. I’m really not a picky eater, but I was choking those last bites of oatmeal down. We were definitely not having oatmeal for the rest of the trip, and for the rest of my life if I can help it.
The sun rises early in the mountains, so after breakfast it was still only about 7:00, but we had to eave early if we wanted to make both of our passes that day. After gathering our stuff and packing up the tent, we hit the trail. Looking at the map, we had about three miles before we made it to the first crossing, Maroon Pass. Then, we would have another three to four miles until we made it to Frigid air pass.
The first couple miles of the day went pretty easy. We were making our way through a scenic valley with mountains all around us. However, when the trail started to steepen uphill, we started to take more frequent breaks. We assumed a strategy of picking a point about 200 yards in front of us, then climb to that point before we would allow ourselves to stop for another rest. Something wasn’t right with Riley, though. He was moving unusually slow and had a blasting headache.
“Guys, I don’t think I can make it. I might have to bail” He sputtered, with a clear sense of defeat in his voice. “Can you grab the map out of my bag?” Riley said, who was now completely sprawled out. “It’s in the top pouch.”
I pulled out the map and handed it to Riley. “From what I can see, there is a fork in the trail after this pass. One way would lead you guys to the Frigid Air pass, and the other would lead down to a parking lot in a nearby town. We could just split off there. I could go get a ride back to the car and go stay in a hotel until you guys are done.” Riley said, extending the map to point out what he was talking about.
“You really don’t think you can make it?” Matt asked.
“I don’t even know if I can make it up this pass, much less three more days.”
“You know what,” I said to my friends. “I was looking at those two people up there, and it looks like they are just on a day hike. They are probably ending in that parking lot over the pass. I could see if they would give you a ride. I feel fine, so I’ll take some of the weight off of your pack so we can move faster.” At this point I felt awful for dragging Riley along on this trip. He was shaky about it to start with, and I basically had to beg his parents to let him go. Now, we were considering ditching him in the middle of the mountains? As much as I didn’t want to split up, I wanted to at least make sure he had a ride back to the car.
After some time, the rest of my party joined me at the top, and we held an ample celebration for the small feat. I also let them in on the good news I had received about the group ahead. We were all leery about the idea of hitch hiking. If Safety-city class in elementary school had taught us one thing about stranger danger, it was to never get in the car with someone you don’t know. However, this was Colorado, and when in Rome…
Now, before you get upset about us being terrible friends for letting a scrawny white kid from Iowa go off in the mountains alone… Actually, yeah, go ahead and be upset with us. That was awful, and I know it. But, don’t stop reading yet, it gets worse.
After an adequate break atop the mountain, we set our sites on the decline. And, while downhill may be a faster way to travel, it is even more taxing on the body. After about a half-mile of jarring downhill slope, we came to the fork. It was labeled by a sign pointing in two directions. They were unlabeled, but clearly marked the diverging paths; one continuing downhill, and the other crawling back up the slope and around the curve.
We set our packs down and started to sort out our stuff. I gave Riley back his stuff, and he gave us the bear spray, map, and compass. There was a large flat rock that we laid the map out on and drew up our plan. Riley was to go down to the parking lot, get a ride back to the car, then go find a hotel for the night. If it was just altitude sickness, then he would be better after going into a lower elevation. After a cozy night in a hotel, Riley would drive to a separate trail that we located on the map. There, he would park the car and hike up that trail two miles to a where Matt and I would be waiting for him between 3 and 6 PM. It was foolproof.
“What if you can’t get a ride back to the car?” Matt directed at Riley, but turned his face towards me.
“Look at him. How could you say no to that gem.”, I smiled, trying to lighten the situation.
“If all else fails,” Riley said confidently, “then I’ll have my sleeping bag and I can stay at the parking lot, but there will for sure be a park ranger down there.” After doing a review of the things we needed to exchange, we exchanged some big hugs and watched Riley begin his descent towards the parking lot. When Riley had traveled off a bit, Matt and I looked at each other. He held a concerned look on his face and all I could do was shake my head and begin our uphill battle towards frigid air pass.