July was a bit of a rough month for me in that I incurred a couple of injuries mostly by being careless. Vince and I had made a spontaneous decision to try to trek a 12,000′ mountain in August (which may no longer happen, but that is a post for a later date). This plan sent me into a last minute training panic, and I started pushing myself harder in both cardio and strength training while also getting less and less sleep. Looking back, it seems inevitable that I would eventually hit a wall, and that happened in the form of pulling three fingers in my right hand while bouldering at the climbing gym.
I was having a particularly ragey climbing session that day. I had been underperforming for a couple of weeks, which I’m sure was mostly due to exhaustion, and I got frustrated enough that I tried to hang onto a small hold as my feet came off the wall. This ended in me stressing my middle, ring, and pinky fingers, an injury that is still bothering me (although it’s improved enough that I’m climbing again at least). This only served to pique my frustration because it meant more time off from climbing, which inevitably translates to setbacks. The hand injury saw no improvement for about two and a half weeks, and a week after the initial injury, I managed to sprain my left ankle. So at that point, I was hobbling around, unable to rely on my right hand or my left foot to do much of anything. Instead of running and climbing, I was lying on the couch after work icing my injuries, trying to heal before our upcoming weekend of hiking in the Rockies with some of our friends. I was looking forward to the trip, but I was definitely worried about doing 8+ mile hikes on a sprained ankle.
Fast forward another week and we are on a plane to Denver. My ankle wasn’t swollen anymore at this point, and I could walk on it without much pain as long as I didn’t twist it too much. My hand was another story. I had strained more muscles in my wrist earlier that day at work (I gave some muscles an extra workout to try to take pressure off of my injured fingers), and it was sore and painful to the touch. I knew it was going to be a challenging weekend for me, but I was very happy that I would get to spend it in the mountains with good friends.
We arrived at our cabin, a cozy A-frame with a mountain view, fairly late. The group was a little different this time around. There were a few friends from Grand Rapids, but we had picked Colorado as a central location to meet up with friends who had moved away to various states. In total we had me, Vince, and Bonnie (who have all made appearances in previous posts). Also from Grand Rapids were Amy and Max. Then Sarah and James flew in from Ohio, Andrew from Oregon, and we were planning to meet up with Carolina and Kasey who live in Colorado. Our plan was to hike to Sky Pond the next morning and meet Carolina and Kasey at the trailhead.
Morning came and we ended up getting a later start than we had anticipated. By the time we arrived at Rocky Mountain National Park, all of the parking lots for Sky Pond were full and there were rangers turning people away. We regrouped in an open parking lot and inspected a map to find a backup plan. After a brief discussion, we decided to try to get to Spectacle Lakes. We had no cell service in the park so we could only hope that we would meet up with Carolina and Kasey back at the cabin later.
Parking was similarly scarce in this area of the park, but after circling a few times, we found a couple of spaces and began our hike. The beginning of the hike was very mellow. The elevation gain was gentle, and I was surprised to find that my ankle felt okay, and the muscles in my wrist were loosening up nicely. Soon we came upon the first landmark of the trail, and the spot where most other vacationers seemed to end their hike, the Roaring River. Somewhere downstream from us was Horseshoe Falls, but we couldn’t see the waterfall from our vantage atop a tall bluff.
We continued on after a short break and the trail stayed fairly level for a while, hugging the bluff and providing unobstructed views of the the river and Ypsilon Mountain in the far distance.
I was growing suspicious with how easy the hike was as the trail reached a bridge that crossed the river. Vince and I spent a decent amount of time in Colorado between 2011 and 2015, during which I was notorious for not adjusting to altitude smoothly. I have to admit I was much less adventurous back then, and less physically active. I had never tackled a hike of the magnitude of our current endeavor, and my expectation was that I would struggle, so the ease of the hike seemed too good to be true.
It turned out my doubt was not unfounded. Shortly after the bridge, I began to notice the altitude. My breathing became labored, and every step upward was more difficult. Fortunately I wasn’t the only one feeling worn out by the sparser oxygen. The group began to take frequent breaks to rehydrate and catch our breath.
As we climbed higher, the trail became rockier and I started to feel dizzy. I absently noted my surroundings whenever we stopped, looking at the trees almost as if I was looking through a hazy piece of glass. The vegetation was changing. The trees were getting shorter, and I noticed more and more lichen on the rocks that dotted the forest floor. We continued to slog upward at a snail’s pace, walking only about a mile an hour. There weren’t any sweeping vistas along this longest stretch of the hike, and we were excited when the trail eventually began to go downhill and we caught another glimpse of Ypsilon Mountain.
By this time it was clear that we would not be making it to the Spectacle Lakes. They were still way too far away, and we had not started hiking early enough. We determined to make it to Ypsilon Lake, eat lunch, and turn back. As we descended toward the lake, our surroundings became more lush and inviting. Wildflowers dotted the path, and in no time we were at a picturesque little spot called Chipmunk Lake.
I gingerly hopped around on some boulders to snap a few photos, taking care not to twist my ankle.
As usual, my photography habit caused me to lag behind most of the group, but I took the opportunity to snap shots of a few more wildflowers before joining everyone on the shore of Ypsilon Lake which wasn’t much farther down the trail. Everyone was eating trail snacks when I arrived, and I scarfed a cliff bar quickly while taking in the view of the lake.
Overall, I thought Ypsilon Lake was less photogenic than Chipmunk Lake, but more impressive in size, and the sheer, tall cliff face lining the opposite side of the lake was dizzying.
The forecast for the weekend was ominous, and at this point it really seemed like rain was imminent. The air was cool, and the sky dark, and I felt a smattering of tiny rain drops hitting my face. We were all done with lunch by now, but not quite ready to turn around. We could hear water rushing nearby, and I shivered a bit as we approached a beautiful little hollow with a waterfall flowing over jagged rocks.
A tall cliff led upwards, disappearing into the dense forest, and begging to be explored. Vince (in typical Vince form) was quick to scramble up the rocks, but I opted to stay behind and take photos. The lighting was perfect to break out my neutral density filter and do some long exposure. I always wish I did more long exposure, but often find that I’m not in the mood to try to battle with harsh lighting situations, especially if it means slowing down a group of hikers. On such a cloudy afternoon, I barely had to think about my settings. I attached my gorillapod (not the most ideal tripod in the world, but good for hiking) to the camera and clicked a few shots, ending up with possibly my favorite photo from the whole weekend.
I love how lush and inviting the color is in this photo, and the water has the exact level of softness I was going for. I was so pleased with it, that I gave it even less editing than usual (I try to shoot as close to end result as I can, and don’t often do extensive edits). All in all I was very pleased with how my new camera performed for long exposure, and I’m eager to play with it more in the future.
*End photography rant
By the time I packed up the gorillapod and climbed out from under the log where I had positioned myself, it was nearing 3 pm. Half of the group had vanished somewhere up on the cliff, so we spent a few minutes collecting everyone and then began the long hike back to the cars. The descent was much easier on the lungs, and was overall faster than the climb, but as anyone who has hiked downhill knows, it is much harder on the legs. I was cautious not to roll my ankle, or put too much unnecessary impact on my knees, after all, I had two more days of trekking ahead of me. Despite these efforts, I was still feeling sore by the time we reached the parking lot. Luckily I am easily distracted by wildlife, and my stiff muscles were soon forgotten when we spotted a mule deer grazing nearby.
While I would have loved to watch the deer for a bit longer, I couldn’t ignore my complaining stomach. We also still had to figure out what had become of Carolina and Kasey, a question that didn’t take long to answer. It turned out that they had gone ahead with the Sky Pond hike and were just getting back too. We met them at the park visitor center, where we all agreed to meet at a restaurant in nearby Estes Park. After dinner we retired to the cabin where we prepared for the next day’s hike. We wanted to leave earlier the next morning because we would be tackling the much more difficult trek to Chasm Lake.