At the lower elevations in Rocky Mountain National Park last week it felt like spring, the ground bare after several weeks of warm, dry weather. But when you look up at the cirque of mountains, it was still winter, clouds partly wrapped around the peaks smothered in snow. Crossing the bridge near the Glacier Gorge trailhead, about 9,000 feet, the snow is above the top railing, at least four feet deep.
I had my snowshoes strapped on, even though the snow was packed down, a well-trod path, and the majority of people on the trail were wearing walking or gym shoes. But I feel more comfortable, more stable and more free with snowshoes. I can wander off the trail in the deeper snow to get a better picture or to view the sharp-edged cirque of mountains above Bear Lake.
Or is that just an excuse that an older person gives when she is no longer hip and carefree, like the younger people who are comfortable walking on deep snow in just a light pair of shoes and a light jacket, not bothering with the heavy pack that I carry, with water and extra layers of warm clothing.
I encountered a group of said carefree people about a mile and a quarter up the trail, as I was descending around 3 p.m. They were heading toward Mills Lake, more than a mile up the trail.
“Can we make it in a half hour?” asked their leader, and that seemed so preposterous I didn’t know what to say at first.
“Maybe an hour if you’re in good shape,” I said, and he laughed. They were from Nashville, wearing walking shoes, and, as far as I could tell, had no supplies: no water, food or flashlights.
I didn’t want to discourage them but I wanted to be realistic. The higher they got, the snows would get deeper and the winds stronger, I told them. The sun would be setting in less than two hours. I convinced them instead to go another half mile up the trail, to a vantage point where they could see the breadth of Glacier Gorge.
Walking back down, I kept thinking about them. I should have told them the mountains in winter were nothing to fool around with. That once the sun dropped, the temperatures could drop 20 to 30 degrees, that hypothermia could set in among any of their group, especially if they stumbled in deeper snow. That climbing to the altitude they wanted to go—about 10,000 feet—was like going north into Canada. That sudden storms could move in and that winds could gust above 100 mph up there.
You need to respect these mountains—their ferociousness, their unpredictability, their wildness, I wanted to say to them. This isn’t Nashville.
But then I would have sounded like a cranky old lady.