ROCKY MOUNTAIN NATIONAL PARK, Colo. - Dilemma hit with fist-to-the-gut urgency. It wasn’t fear. Real men do not fear Rocky Mountain challenges.
Concern, however, is an acceptable alternative.
“We need to do some evaluating,” I said.
My friend Matt and I were on a 9.8-mile-round-trip quest to reach Sky Pond, one of the most breathtaking places in breathtaking Rocky Mountain National Park.
We had reached the place where adventure met danger. Timberline Falls is a spectacular 25-foot rush of water 4.2 miles into mountain wilderness. It’s created by runoff from Lake of Glass and is at the end a peak-lined valley.
Getting there was easy by Rocky Mountain hiking standards, spectacular by any measure. You start at Bear Lake or at Glacier Gorge Trailhead. That’s around 9,180 feet in elevation. Along the way you pass Glacier Creek Gorge, Alberta Falls, The Loch (it’s a large lake that has a great view of 12,668-foot Thatchtop Mountain and also, in the distance, Timberline Falls), forests of pine and aspen, a whitewater river, a canyon, a valley and tundra. When you get above timberline you sometimes are accompanied by marmots, which are basically large mountain ground squirrels that, as we soon learned, have a knack for surprises.
Finally, you reach a steep stone staircase that leads right to Timberline Falls and decision time.
Water splashed over a rocky cliff. The rocks were dark, flesh-cutting hard and wet. It seemed like the end of the trail. It was not. Jammed into those rocks about 20 feet up was an arrowlike sign that said “Sky Pond.” It pointed upward.
An hour or so earlier a park ranger had told us that when you reach the falls, scramble up the right side to reach the Lake of Glass and the trail to Sky Pond. Scramble is a friendly sounding word that does not describe what needs to be done.
We arrived to discover we would have to scale what was, in essence, a cliff. One slip and we would fall, and likely break something, and not just our egos.
Another thought - the only thing worse than scrambling up such a cliff would be going back down it.
“We really need to evaluate this,” I said.
Matt seemed ... disinterested. We were on a mission. Failure was not an option.
An elderly couple who had arrived just after us had a different approach. They stopped to eat lunch next to Timberline Falls.
“No sense in getting killed,” the man said. “The view is great from here.”
“We’re happy,” the woman said. “It’s a great day.”
“Yes, Matt,” I said. “It’s a great day and a great view.”
Matt was disinterested.
Just then a group of fly fishermen arrived and quickly scrambled up the cliff as if they were acrobats. Then came a father and his two pre-teen sons. They rushed up the cliff, as well.
Matt was no longer disinterested.
“Let’s go,” he said.
So we did, climbing the way mountain men did during the Lewis and Clark era.
I went first. There were few places to grab on to, and those were wet and slick. Slivers of ledge about as wide as a checkbook provided tiny room to stand on. Those were wet and slick.
I did not like Matt at that moment.
Still, I was patient and careful and, eventually, successful. So was Matt.
After that it was a short hike to the shoreline of Lake of Glass, which is surrounded by peaks. It has water so clear you can see the trout swimming just beneath the surface. The fly fishermen caught trout to their hearts’ content while following the park’s catch-and-release rules.
We watched for a while, then headed another half a mile or so to Sky Pond. It’s nestled at 10,620 feet beneath 13,152-foot Taylor Peak, 13,015-foot Powell Peak and a rugged formation called the Cathedral Spires, which have colorful names like Petit Grepon, the Foil, Sharkstooth and the Sabre. They tower more than 2,000 feet above the lake. Taylor Glacier, which is a permanent snowfield, is at the upper end of the basin.
Scaling the Cathedral Spires, by the way, is considered one of the great technical climbs in North America, way beyond our skill level.
We settled for taking pictures. We munched on bagels and granola bars. We talked with the father and his two young sons, which gave a marmot time to steal their lunch.
I decided that Matt was, OK, after all.
Eventually, we had to leave. That meant going down Timberline Falls.
There was no fear. There was, as you now know, concern.
Yes, we made it.