On the Ides of March of 1968, Al Hendricks, of Valhalla, New York; Dennis Alf, of Berlin, Wisconsin; and I started a 30-mile overnight trip over the 11,671 ft Rollins Pass in Colorado. In some parts of the world March 15th is considered spring, but in the Rocky Mountains it’s still winter.
In those days winter camping was only for relatives of explorers like Roald Amundsen, Sir Robert Scott, Ernest Shackleton, and a few masochistic weirdos. Cross-country skiing had yet to become popular in the U.S., and snowshoeing was an activity only for hunters and trappers. So, no surprise, we were woefully unprepared. We had one backpack between the three of us, no snowshoes, and were wearing jeans. Fleece hadn’t been invented and although we wore some wool, we weren't familiar with its virtues. I looked more like Steve McQueen in 1963’s The Great Escape than an outdoorsman. Even worse, the sum of our outdoor experience was my summer family motorboat-and-car-camping experiences, and Al’s weekend hikes on the Appalachian Trail. However, we had no shortage of youthful exuberance as we took off from Laramie, Wyoming for Tolland, Colorado. We planned to hike the Moffit Road, a gently winding abandoned railroad bed, over the pass to Winter Park. Then we’d take the train through the seven-mile-long Moffat railroad tunnel back to our VW Beetle on the east side of the Continental Divide.
By late morning we hit the trail with the sun shining brightly on the snow-covered peaks of Colorado’s Front Range. There was no wind, and the temperature was just below freezing. We were confident that we’d have no trouble hiking the sixteen miles through the three-inch-deep snow up to the “Needle’s Eye” tunnel where we planned to set up Al’s two-person, nylon pup tent. Not being math majors, we figured we would make 1+1+1=2, and could all fit in.
Hiking for only a half-hour, we came around to the north side of a ridge, and to our surprise, while the weather hadn’t changed, the snow depth had. It was crotch deep. Our enthusiasm carried us through a 100-yard stretch of this until once again the going was easy through ankle-deep snow. The pace was good and finally, just before dark, we looked up and saw the tunnel along the side of the mountain above us. Scrambling a direct route up the talus slope to the tunnel, saved about a mile of hiking but broke an, unknown-to-us, cardinal rule of hiking: “Never cut across switchbacks.” (It causes erosion and the trampling of plant life)
A Night In the Tunnel
We set up the two-man tent in the tunnel, in the dark, threw in our sleeping bags, grabbed a bite to eat and crawled in. Imagine three husky college boys squeezing into a tent designed for two skinny guys, and with a ceiling so low that only the person in the middle could sit up. Al had a high-tech down sleeping bag. Dennis and I didn’t have warm down sleeping bags, but classy kapok-filled bags with pheasant-hunting scenes decorating the cotton liners. All night we tossed and turned on top of each other while the wind howled, and the snow blew outside the cocoon of the tunnel. Hearing the blustery winds, we wondered what awaited us the next day.
The morning brought single digit temperatures but gratefully, no wind. After a frigid night we eagerly crawled from our frosty tomb to a gorgeous sunrise illuminating the snowscape. We were cold and tired but were exhilarated by the views. Woodland Mountain stood over us, with 12,236-foot-high Devil’s Thumb in the distance. There were windblown cornices hanging over the ridges along the Continental Divide. The panoramic view kept our ice-cold fingers snapping photos with our Kodak Instamatic cameras and gave us confidence that we’d have no problem finishing our trip.
Without pausing for breakfast, we packed up and headed up the long-abandoned railroad bed. Soon we encountered serious snow – mile after mile of deep snow. Whoever carried the pack sank in the snow, up to his waist, and sometimes to his armpits while the others sank to their thighs. The two not carrying the pack would help the other take the next step. We trudged on all day like that, pausing to gnaw on Slim Jims, and to get an occasional sip of water from our bota bags. (Remember those cool-looking but nearly worthless leather wine flasks popular in the sixties?). Nutrition, like clothing selection, and overall winter camping awareness was not one of our strong points.
We had nearly 18 miles to hike that day to get to Winter Park, but with deep snow, cold feet, wet jeans, and the lethargy caused by the altitude, we managed a paltry seven. It was drudgery and there wasn’t much conversation until around 3:00 PM.
Al was the first to voice his thoughts, “I don’t think we’re gonna be able to get out this afternoon.” His slow pace, labored speech, and rapid breathing told us that the altitude was bothering him more than it was Dennis and me.
“You mean we’re going to miss the 4:30 p.m. train?” I said.
“No, he means we’re not going to make it out at all today.” Dennis said.
“I don’t want to get back into that tent again,” I said.
“Me neither,” said Dennis.
“I wasn’t that bad,” Al said.
“YES IT WAS,” we responded in unison.
“Wouldn’t it be nice if we could find a wilderness cabin?” I said.
“Yeah,” said Dennis, “One well-stocked with food and a big fireplace, soft beds and thick down quilts.”
“You guys are dreaming,” said Al.
Yet fifteen minutes later we thought our wishes had come true.
“Do you see what I see up ahead?” I said.
“I don’t believe it,” said Dennis, “It can’t be.”
“It is,” I said, “It's a roof!”
And it was. A green-shingled roof was sticking up through the six-foot-deep snow.
Short of breath but with hopes higher than a hippie commune, we floundered as fast as the deep snow allowed us towards the building.
We waded through the snow toward the building, giddy with joy. We slapped each other's backs and congratulated each other on our good fortune. But once we got there, our celebration turned, first to confusion, then disappointment, and finally to resignation.
What we’d thought was a warm snug wilderness cabin, wasn’t that at all. Weirdly enough it was an outhouse. And weirdest of all, it would become our lodging for the next two nights.
(Stay tuned for part 2 in two weeks)