Last August I started preparing to backpack in the Rockies by buying a backpack, tent, sleeping bag, and pad. Karen and I had a short and successful trial run with my new equipment in March, but yesterday and today was my first backpacking trip to any mountains in a quarter of a century.
Finally, everything clicked for an overnight camping trip on Thursday and Friday. I didn’t have any appointments except to post an article at HealthCentral.com, and my producers did that for me after I sent her a draft of it on Wednesday. I’m feeling great, and the weather prediction was good too.
In fact, the weather was superb, especially yesterday and last night. It was as clear as I ever remember seeing it and totally without any wind for the duration of my trip.
I knew that I wanted to go to Rocky Mountain National Park. My first choice was to hike to Ouzel Lake, which would have charted some new territory for me on a 10-mile round trip. But a park ranger told me that the trail beyond Ouzel Falls, where I had hiked a couple of times, was closed by the heavy snow of this winter and spring, as were the campsites.
My fall-back position was a shorter hike — only eight miles roundtrip — to Fern Lake. I had also hiked about half of this trail, so the last couple of miles was new to me. While I wanted to camp further on this trail, both branches are still snowbound.
I really lucked out, not realizing what a challenge it would be to hike in the mountains with a heavy pack. The four miles backpacking up the mountain yesterday were the equivalent of eight or 10 miles with my much lighter daypack.
From the trailhead I gained about 1,400 feet to my campsite just before Fern Lake at just under 10,000 feet. Yesterday evening when I took a stroll to the lake I found much of the trail covered with heavy snow starting only a few feet beyond where I camped.
Even though I pared down what I needed for the trip — and it was for only one night — I was carrying 46 pounds. I even pared down too much, forgetting insect repellant and toilet paper.
Fortunately, as I was setting up camp, a young man came by, and I asked him if I could use his necessities. He went back to his campsite and got them for me. When we talked later, he said that the hike “almost killed me with my 50-pound pack”– and he was about 30 and apparently quite fit.
I told him that I vaguely remembered a rule that we shouldn’t carry more than 1/3 of our body weight. This evening I looked it up in the hiker’s bible, Colin Fletcher’s Complete Walker. He writes there that “A rough guide would be up to one third of body weight” but adds a caveat that I had forgotten. “This figure assumes an efficient pack frame and a reasonably fit and practiced body.”
I have a great backpack and am fit. But I am certainly not practiced at carrying a lot of weight around. At least, not since losing my stomach! But yesterday and today I was carrying 30 percent of my body weight — close to the maximum recommended load.
It did seem today that practice helped. Coming back down the mountain was much easier and faster.
Even though I had to concentrate on my hiking with my house on my back, I didn’t fail to appreciate — and capture — the beauty all around me. I saw a large group of bull elk just a few feet from the road, albeit in shade too dark to make good photos. I also saw a yellow-bellied marmot on the way to the trailhead. Along the trail I saw several cute little chipmunks, particularly at rest stops, like the big pool on the Big Thompson River, which parallels the trail for the first couple of miles, and then at Fern Falls.
And of course I didn’t fail to take many pictures of flowers. Most of the 156 pictures I took today were of these beauties, particularly wild roses (Rosa woodsii) and several stands of yellow stonecrop (Amerosedum lanceolatum), which I first saw and loved near Miller Rock a few days ago. Almost all of the flowers were before I got to The Pool, which is at 8,300 feet. So I plan on not hiking further up into the mountains for another month or so.
I’ve also moved beyond beginner’s luck in photographing flowers where focus is the critical issue. For shooting in low light I learned on a trip with John to the redwoods to use “shutter priority,” where I set to shutter speed to 1/80 of a second — not less — to get clarity (and then boost the underexposed image). For the flowers in bright light I wanted them to be in sharp focus, standing out from a less sharp background. That requires using “aperture priority,” which I employed on almost all of my flower photos today. I also manually set the focus instead of relying on the camera’s guess.