I’m not much of a “group” backpacker. In fact, except for one memorable hike in which my wife and I held onto each other in a tent, expecting at any second to be conveyed into the afterlife in a flash of light and noise, almost all my memorable backpacking experiences have been on solo hikes.
So, you can imagine I wasn’t particularly excited recently to be leading an overnight backpacking hike for novice backpackers. There were ten of us in the group, including my friend, Gerry, who was along to provide additional knowledge and expertise. To my great surprise, the hike couldn’t have gone any better and I had a great time leading it.
Ten seems to be a magic number for me. Just two days before the hike I had returned from Hawaii, where I had shared a beach house with my wife and eight other people. This was the second time we had gone on holiday with this same group of people and the second time I have enjoyed an unbelievably relaxing and fun respite from work. The key is to go with low-maintenance and interesting travelers who believe in Lao Tzu’s adage that the wise traveler has no fixed plans and is not intent on arriving. These kind of people are not knocked off balance by schedule changes and contingencies and they often have a fun sense of humor, too.
I chose Emmaline Lake for our destination because it is one of the prettiest lakes in Northern Colorado, sitting as it does at the base of the Comanche Peak in the Comanche Peak Wilderness, and because it is only a 3.5 mile hike to good group camping at Cirque Meadows. In fact, the first 3.5 miles is along an old dirt road that allows easy side-by-side walking most of its way, and makes for informal conversations that help group members get to know each other and keeps their minds off the distance and (often!) weight of backpacking. Although to everyone’s credit, my harping about going as light as possible made the average weight of the packs closer to 20 pounds than to the usual 40 for inexperienced backpackers. I didn’t hear a single complaint all weekend about how much a pack weighed.
Normally, you can expect mosquitoes at Cirque Meadows, since there is plenty of marshy water nearby. Perfect moose country, although they refused to reveal themselves on this trip, even though there was plenty of sign of them around and on the trail. One group of campers had chosen a site with a great view and easy access to water. But the wind was up and their two tents had been blown to smithereens by the time we passed by. All we could do is throw a few more heavy rocks on the mess to hold them down until their owners returned. We pitched our tents in a more sheltered location, further from water.
Our plan was to set up a camp in Cirque Meadows, then move up the additional two miles of trail to Emmaline with snacks and water, and a couple of saws to take out any trees that might have fallen across the trail. It was a good plan, but it immediately ran into an unexpected problem for the end of June. Snow. Lot’s of it. Especially so as we got up to about the 10,000 foot level. Day hikers, who had pushed past us in the morning, were now returning with dire warnings about how much snow was ahead of us. “We turned back at a vertical wall of snow,” one group reported to us. My group of hearty hikers was undaunted and didn’t hesitate to press onward.
We slipped and post-holed over drift after drift, none particularly difficult, until we did, indeed, come to what looked like a vertical wall of snow. I remembered this particular chute from previous visits to Emmaline Lake. It gets your heart and lungs going pretty good without snow. I also thought I remembered it was close to the top and the lakes. Perhaps if we could get over it…
All but one of us wanted to press on, so after issuing instructions to the person staying behind to not move from this spot until we returned, we carefully started kicking steps up the slope. We put the thought of having to come down the slope out of our minds. Plenty of time to worry about that later.
Of course, I was wrong about how close the top of the chute was to the lake. When we got to the top, we saw another steep, snow covered climb ahead of us. We were now about three hours into a two-mile hike, so another three of us decided to turn back, but the bulk of the group still wanted to push forward. What the heck, I wanted to see the lake, too.
Eventually, we got to within sight of Cirque Lake, which lies just below Emmaline Lake, but the wind was blowing hard and cold and we decided that even if we made it to Emmaline, we wouldn’t be able to linger there for more than a moment to take a quick picture. We decided in the interest of time and safety to beat a smart retreat back to camp.
Coming back down the snow fields was an adventure, but all made it safely without falling, and the group was together again as we make our way back to Cirque Meadows, where we were mostly camped by ourselves. This was a surprise, because we had seen 67 people on the trail that day, although all but a few were day hikers. One small group of backpackers was heading up to campsite 3 in the Travel Zone. A great campsite if there is no lightning and no wind, but…We didn’t check in the morning to see if they had been blown away overnight.
We decided it was probably too dangerous to make a campfire in the wind, but other groups weren’t as prudent. I did walk over and reminded a couple camped and picking up firewood near us how dangerous conditions were and how gun shy everyone in the local area is about wildfires. They didn’t tell me they wouldn’t have a fire, but I didn’t see red flames overhead from the safety of my tent, so I presume my warnings weren’t in vain.
If we thought we saw a lot of people on the trail on Saturday, we were wrong. In the two hours it took us to get back to the trailhead on Sunday morning, we saw an additional 92 people heading up to the lakes, including a group of 64 first year students from Colorado State University who were attending an orientation at the nearby Pingree Park Campus. Not to worry, though, because according to their leaders they had been trained and were well versed in Leave No Trace principles. I can only hope so!
The trip ended with burgers and beer at the Mishawaka Inn. I hadn’t been there in years, and was pleased to see it hadn’t changed much since the late 70’s when I first arrived in Colorado. Great food, slow service, and plenty of beer. Perfect for sharing tips for what each of us had learned over the weekend. A great ending to a wonderful, non-solitary weekend.