It’s July, and I have been officially furloughed since March18th. After the “Stay at Home” orders began in Los Angeles, my days consisted of enjoying being home, writing, making videos and, like the rest of the country, … waiting. Normally my year consists of working on films and TV shows. This year would have been no exception as I had just signed on to do two films in Atlanta, back to back, as a stuntwoman. I love my career but my true passion is hiking peaks and traveling to the ends of the earth in search of amazing stories for producing adventure films. For years I have told my friends that I wanted to hike some of the “14’ers” (Colorado’s 58 mountain peaks over 14,000 feet in elevation), and that one-day I would take a summer to accomplish that task. Well, living with the posture of “the glass half full,” the pandemic provided that unique opportunity for me.
I set off on May 27th with my Jeep filled to the brim with camping gear. My trip was twofold, explore Colorado and get some time there with my mother. My father passed just under five years ago, which left my mother, a lifelong alcoholic, depressed and incapable of living alone. Being alone is not for everyone and the pandemic hit her harder than most. Fortunately, I arrived just in time to help get to her to a safer place where she could manage in these difficult times.
During the six weeks I spent in Colorado, the whole world and I went through some very low lows. Gladly, I also reached some awesome highs. The culmination of my trip was summiting Longs Peak. That peak is located in the Rocky Mountain National Park near Estes Park, Colorado. Even though it’s not the tallest of the 58 Colorado 14,000 foot peaks, it is the most notorious!
The hike to the peak traverses 15 miles, gaining more than 4,500 feet in elevation! The sheer rocky summit sits alone and experiences sudden shifts in weather that can put even the most experienced climbers in peril. A campsite called “The Boulderfield” lies near the end of the alpine zone, which is six miles into the hike. My plan was to camp there before attempting the summit.
This was my first attempt at solo backpacking and I wondered, what’s the worst thing that could happen? My thoughts were clear and I felt ready. A few years prior, I had backpacked with a group to the summit of Kilimanjaro. I also recently solo camped in Utah and have hiked solo more times than I could count. Before this hike began I had to pick up a few essentials in Estes Park, a bear box to store my food (campers in RMNP are required to have a bear box), and a permit for camping at the Boulderfield (which I had reserved weeks in advance). Backcountry permits can be reserved on www.recreation.gov, which is also where you make your entrance reservation, a new process due to COVID-19 restrictions, that limits the amount of visitors.
Packing for my first solo backpacking adventure was a challenge. The Bear Box was heavy and barely fit into my pack, leaving little room for anything else. I placed all my food and scented items in the box, followed by clothes, toiletries, coffee, water and, of course, my cameras. On the outside I strapped a sleeping bag, tent, poncho and flashlight. For most people the hike itself would be exciting enough, but for me, it was pure joy just strapping on my backpack (now over 30 pounds). Pack on my back, I begrudgingly walked to the trailhead. This would be the first of many “Oh crap!” moments. The next came shortly after passing a sign stating, “Boulderfield – 6 miles – estimated hiking time 5-8 hours.” “Oh crap!” Alice what have you done? I assumed at my normal pace that I would hike, what I thought was, 5 miles (not 6), in about 3 hours, but with the pack on and the fact it was already 2:30pm, I knew I was in for a real adventure.
With vigor and a little worry I started walking. Fearing I wouldn’t make camp before dark, you could say I had more than a little pep in my step. Trying to take my mind off the enormous weighted backpack, and the time of day, I relied on nature to put my thoughts at ease. Squirrels, plants, and rows of wild flowers lined the path. The trail rose slowly, but steadily, up. I passed a waterfall and refilled one water bottle. As I followed the path deeper into the park, the ecosystem began to change before my eyes. Large trees got shorter and rocks became bigger. Longs Peak alpine zone is also a lightning zone and storms can appear out of nowhere, so it is important to watch the weather and confer with park officials to ensure you are as prepared as possible.
Once out of the tree line, the views of the Rockies were incredible. I stopped a few times to give my shoulders a break and refuel for the miles ahead. The trail passed slowly, as my normal pace decreased to 1mph. A few hours later, I finally reached Chasm Lake (at 3.4 miles), mentally and physically exhausted, but overjoyed to be closer to my camping site.
At the trail junction to Chasm Lake there is a privy and a place to tie horses or mules. What I would have paid to have a horse carry my gear, God only knows. But then again, I did this hike to see if I could do it, right? Continuing up the trail, I stopped to fill my water bottle again. This time in a large patch of snow. My second water bottle was reserved for day two and I feared drinking it too soon. It was already past 6pm and I passed the last hiker I would see that day. I asked her the distance to the camp and she responded that it was 2-3 miles. “Oh crap!” Three more miles!
As I made my way up the switchbacks I was greeted by a large family of Elk, munching on a bed of grass under a beautiful sun-dipped skyline. Chasing the oncoming clouds I rose out of the switchbacks and onto a giant field of rocks. This was the homestretch, another 30 minutes and I would arrive at the Boulderfields nine rock-built campsites. I hurried into camp, to set up my tent just before the sunset. Sitting in the campsite enjoying a PB&J, I had the chance to revel in the sunset, the rise of the moon, and the appearance of the Milkyway. I breathed in deeply, fighting the thin air, and then retired to my tent for the night. Outside I heard marmots from time to time, but mostly woke up only to the silence of the mountain.
Around 5:30 am I started to hear voices of hikers coming into the campgrounds. After a warm cup of coffee, a nibble of bread, and a thorough emptying of my pack, I headed up the big boulders toward the “Keyhole Route”. The ascent to the summit on the Keyhole Route has three sections: “The Keyhole”, “The Trough” and “The Narrows”. The Keyhole is like a giant natural gate. On the other side is where the real challenge begins. With a ledge on one side and a wall on the other, the area is rocky and winding, but can for the most part be walked on, upright! The views of alpine lakes, snow drifts, and mountains were now incredible. As the trail narrowed, it required scrambling on all fours. I leaned forward to grasp a hold and my cell phone slipped out of its front pocket on my pack. I watched it as it slowly tumbled down the mountain, falling about 75 feet, or so I thought. “Oh Crap!” (Number 4)!
The phone was long gone, but I told myself, a few photos and videos lost were better than my life. I would borrow a phone from someone to check in with my boyfriend before our agreed upon time, at 4pm. I continued, ascending up and over rocks not meant for walking on and through an area called The Trough. It really is a steep, almost vertical trough of rocks. The pitch is about 65 degrees, and the thinning air, and trickle of people coming and going, added to the challenge. It seems the pandemic had not deterred many people from enjoying a Colorado summer. When I finally reached the top of this area, with a few other hikers, I was mystified and terrified by seeing the tiny prominence we were sitting on.
It was thousands of feet down on both sides and there was nowhere to go! Well … there was a way to go … albeit small and narrow. And this is where The Narrows begins. Part of me wondered how a trail like this was even legal, and the other part asked whether or not I should keep hiking. Encouraged by others, I swallowed my fear, and continued with trepidation, keeping my focus on the wall, and not the cliff to my right. I had many moments of terror as I continued slowly along this narrow section, devoid of ropes or safety equipment. With an 80-degree pitch, the last section looks more like it should be rock-climbed with ropes rather than scaled without equipment. I sat there for a few minutes, unsure if I should continue at all. Slowly, but surely, I crawled my way up, making sure to only concentrate on where my hands and feet were going, and not on what lay behind or below. As my hand made its last reach to the flat summit, my fear and anxiety were replaced with relief, and an utter sense of accomplishment. 14,259 feet! I was at the summit of Longs Peak … quite possibly the most difficult of the 14’ers in the state of Colorado!