Words and photos by Michael Polletta
“That was the hardest thing I have ever done” I thought to myself as my exhausted body mustered every last bit of energy it had to walk into camp. I had just hiked 7.4 miles in just under seven hours with a 75 liter pack completely full of gear, clothing, food, and camera equipment. I burned 3,290 calories, gained 2,733 feet, and then descended 3,210 ft (according to my Bivy app). I honestly almost cried, yet I was giddy with complete fatigue.
I had arrived at Little Rock Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park. This was one of my “adventures” for the summer of 2018, and it turned out to be one of the greatest, yet toughest parts of my life. I’m a career firefighter in a large city. I’ve been a paramedic for 15 years, and I was on a mountain rescue team for four years. At 43 years old I’m still extremely fit. So, for me to say this was the hardest thing I’ve ever done should give you pause.
I’m an introvert so I usually relish my time alone, but this trip tested even my ability to push through complete exhaustion and mental fatigue without a cheering squad. I was completely dependent on my preparation and His grace. I had just hiked into the only official campsite in Rocky Mountain National Park that doesn’t have a trail going to it…alone.
I’m sure there are people who think I’m nuts. Maybe I am. I do things like this to find out who I am. I never do things I know I’m not capable of doing (in a perfect world where nothing goes wrong), but like Yvon Chouinard said “For me, when everything goes wrong-that’s when adventure starts.”
I had three days to complete my journey into what is surely one of the least visited areas of the park. I had just finished a 24 hr shift at work, getting about six hours of sleep total. As it turned out a key component to this being a successful trip was that a co-worker came in early to relieve me. If he hadn’t, I would’ve been searching my way through dense forest in the dark.
Although the first day was incredibly hard, it was equally spectacular. The view of Azure Lake, Arrowhead Lake, Love Lake, Rock Lake, Little Rock Lake, and Forest Lake from the ridge that descends into the valley was spectacular. As I hiked across that wide open ridge cross country style I wondered if all the tourists across the valley on Trail Ridge Road were looking at me in bewilderment.
The park only gives out one permit for the site every day, and you can’t really get out there until the summer heat melts away the cornices from the ridgelines above. I was the only human being for miles, but as I followed the faint game trails that guided me through the open meadows and spacious trees to Forest Lake the next day, I discovered the park’s bears and moose had left subtle reminders scattered among the willows, wildflowers, and grasses that I wasn’t the only creature seeking refuge here.
Forest Lake lies hidden within the western edge of Forest Canyon and provides a gorgeous setting for rest and renewal. Nature has a way of rejuvenating the soul, and is referred to as “forest bathing” in Japan. Researchers believe trees release phytochemicals that actually promote healing, and studies have shown that just allowing your body’s senses to fully experience nature can lead to tremendous health improvements. So go ahead and ” smell the roses,” it’s good for you.
This trip required extensive planning. I spent hours studying maps and Google Earth to make sure I knew exactly what route I was taking and what the terrain conditions would be like. I pictured myself hiking the route, just like when alpine ski racer is standing at the gates with their eyes closed, arms outstretched, and swaying with each turn they’ve pre-planned in their training runs. I called the RMNP backcountry office a few times to get updates on conditions, and I meticulously laid out all of my gear on a clean tarp in the garage as I gathered everything I wanted to bring. I also routinely got weather forecast updates from the National Weather Service (which is the best place to get your weather because it give pinpoint forecasts). The NWS was predicting a high likelihood of thunderstorms in the afternoon for my hike back out.
If I had listened to the advice I received from a ranger I would’ve hiked back out up the steep ridge I came into the valley on, traversed back across the Continental Divide, and returned to Milner Pass. I also would’ve been stuck above tree line in a thunderstorm that lasted well over an hour, with lightning within a few miles. Fortunately I also have experience as a ranger in the Grand Canyon. I didn’t listen to her and I sought the safety of Forest Canyon. Planning and experience pays off sometimes.
The hike out was long but joyous. I realized big game have a great sense of direction and an innate ability to find the path of least resistance through really difficult terrain. So, my hike turned into a game of finding the game trails that lead into and up Forest Canyon. I found a pile of what appeared to be deer bones, that were completely clean. Their vertebrae are huge! I discovered beach like areas along the Big Thompson River, and caught a glimpse of two moose. Black bears continued to leave their mark all around, but apparently were napping somewhere. I crossed the river a few times, reminiscing about its horrific flooding that devastated much of Boulder County four years ago; the signs of which are still evident. It was much more enjoyable to wait out the thunderstorm in the relative safety of the valley than up on the Continental Divide.
I’ve been doing solo hiking and backpacking trips for years now, but I had a new experience during this trip. For the first time ever I actually wished I had someone to share it with. As I get older and learn more about who I am, the more I realize how much I long to share experiences like this. I think that’s why I’ve started writing; so others can get a taste of the same experiences and get a better idea about who I really am.
We all crave clearly marked paths in our lives; they gives us comfort and security. I’d like to encourage you to step off the path into the wide open wilderness when you’re ready for it, and see something most people never get to see… and see something in yourself you may otherwise never see.