| The Battle Between Seasons: Hallett Peak
Captions on top of photos.
This adventure was filled with first-time experiences – my first snow camp in single-digit temperature, my first excursion into Tyndall Gorge, my first summit of Hallett Peak. And, after owning a Parks Pass for three years running, this was just my second trip into the spectacular Glacier Basin of Rocky Mountain National Park. Considering that I live in nearby Boulder, it is about time that I know The Park on better terms. This is the start.
Lately, I've been reading stories by famous mountaineers. I have been influenced by their stories and their writing. I am not a writer and I have never been strong with words. I apologize if this report is overly verbose and dramatic. After all, this was only car camping combined with a hike up the easy route of Hallett Peak. It's just that these first-time experiences connect deeply with me and I have no better way to explain the moment. Sometimes a picture just doesn't tell the story. And sometimes it does.
Unknown hikers cross Dream Lake in a ferocious wind.
The Battle Between Seasons: Hallett Peak
A cold night in Moraine Park Campground, Rocky Mountain National Park: March 20, 9 PM
The calendar claims today as the first day of spring. But in Rocky Mountain National Park, old man winter will not let go. An unrelenting arctic wind tears across the Continental Divide. Even the tallest spine of formidable rock is no match for the speed and fluidity of wind. The interminable force of gravity seems to help the wind reach terminal velocity as it pours like a tsunami into the eastern recesses of the park. Here, at the bottom of the park's largest valley, I have pitched my tent for the night. In warmer months, Moraine Park is the most popular campground in Rocky Mountain National Park. More than two hundred campsites provide safe respite for families seeking a casual taste of the wilderness experience. Tonight, Moraine Park is as wild as it will ever be. My tent is just one of four tents pitched within the snow-covered campground. A small hill, large boulders, and a stand of trees hide my nearest neighbor. In the howling wind and bitter cold, I might as well be camped in the Himalaya. I feel that far away.
In the distance a never-ending phantom train roars down an unseen track. My tent shivers and then shakes violently in its wake. I question my lazy decision to not stake-out the guy lines. I question my crazy decision to camp here on this frozen night. I turn in my down bag and seek solace in a book. My headlamp illuminates the icy haze of my breath as I read a chapter in Beyond the Mountain, the immersive story of Steve House. I imagine the difficulty of sleeping while tied to a 3-foot wide ledge on Nanga Parbat. I imagine the odd sensation of just a few precious layers of synthetic material separating my life from death. I imagine an insufferable night with no escape from the harsh environment. With trepidation, I reach out for the zipper of my tent door. I pull on it. At first the zipper resists and then hesitantly releases. My headlamp shines through the frosty vestibule window. I see the reflection of a red taillight. Suffering is an option; I can bail at any time.
I close the book as another phantom train approaches. I turn to lie on my back, face up. In the center of the tent a candle lantern swings like the light of a ship put out to sea. The tent walls move in and out like the surging tide. The moment is ethereal and I secretly smile. I take advantage of the luxury of car-camping and unpack my big beloved Grado headphones. I slip them over my ears. The soundtrack for Terrence Malick's movie The Thin Red Line streams from my player. I recall images from the moody masterpiece: Anxious soldiers, confined to the hellish bowels of a dark and dank transport ship, prepare to invade Guadalcanal. The soundtrack slowly fades to silence as the candle lantern swings back and forth. This tent is my ship. The cold wind is my roiling sea. Reluctantly, I remove my right arm from the warmth of my sleeping bag. I reach up and extinguish the solitary flame. Tomorrow, in the battle between seasons, I will launch my assault on the granite fortress called Hallett Peak.
My tent and vehicle at Moraine Park Campground.
Earlier that day, Bear Lake Trailhead, Rocky Mountain National Park: March 20, 2 PM
I've come to Rocky Mountain National Park to summit Hallett Peak, the towering monarch of glacier-carved Tyndall Gorge. The peak's modest 12,713 feet of elevation ranks 847th in the state of Colorado. Lacking noteworthy height, Hallett Peak's claim to fame is its unnerving beauty. It vies with Longs Peak as the most photographed mountain in the Park.
On the road to Bear Lake, from far left to right: Taylor Peak, Otis Peak, Hallett Peak, and Flattop Mountain.
My summit attempt will be tomorrow. Today, I prepare my pack for a quick afternoon reconnaissance mission to Emerald Lake. I won't be alone. The large parking lot at the trailhead is filled with cars and the area is buzzing with activity. I hear six languages spoken - English, Spanish, German, French, Chinese, and Slavic - as I walk a hundred yards from my parked vehicle to the trailhead. On the right is Bear Lake, a popular location for visitors who seek just an appetizer in a smorgasbord of feasts. Many are happy with a pretty picture of Hallett Peak and don't travel much further than Bear Lake. On the left is the trail to Emerald Lake, my objective for the day. I strap snowshoes to my boots and begin the two mile walk on the well-packed trail.
The trail twists past boulders and trees. The dense forest hides a fierce monster. Above the trees a relentless wind rages. And at my destination on the banks of Emerald Lake, I find it a challenge to stand in the wind. I breath in the stunning beauty and retreat back into the cover of trees.
Hallett Peak seen from Bear Lake.
The massive north face of Hallett Peak dominates Tyndall Gorge.
Sunlight and shadow flirt among the trees.
The spires of Flattop Mountain crown Emerald Lake. Dragon's Tail Couloir is on the right and Dragon's Tooth Couloir is on the left.
The next morning, Moraine Park Campground in Rocky Mountain National Park: March 21, 6 AM
The bright orange tent fly amplifies the morning alpenglow. My dry eyes adjust slowly to the ocherous haze that fills the tent. I sit up. It appears a blizzard raged overnight inside the tent. I used a synthetic 20-degree bag as a quilt. The flattened bag is coated with crunchy hoarfrost. Beneath the frozen quilt is my warm and dry down bag. Beneath my bag is a Primaloft air matress and heavy foam pad. I combined these luxuries with an Advil PM. It's a recipe for a good night sleep, with one apparent mistake. I closed every vent before sleeping. Now I laugh.
The Diamond Face of Longs Peak glows softly in the morning sun. Mount Lady Washington, the Boulderfield, and Storm Peak cradle the diamond.
Later that day, the summit of Hallett Peak, Rocky Mountain National Park: March 21, 3 PM
I traverse the line of fire as an unseen canon unleashes a salvo of ice pellets. The projectiles sting my exposed face. I pull the balaclava higher and higher, until no skin is exposed to the never-ending icy barrage. The balaclava's fleece material is frozen with condensation from my breath. I shape the stiff frozen material around the bridge of my nose like a surgeon would shape a surgical mask. My sun glasses fog. I pull the dark shades away from my face to ease fog on the lenses. I take a few steps upward through snow and rock. The gusts pound on my back. And then suddenly I am on the summit. Hallett Peak is mine, and mine alone. I celebrate my short-lived victory with an emphatic cry and joyous dance. This is a wild place and inhibitions do not exist here. I am free like the wind.
I soon become breathless and need to sit. I take refuge behind the large summit cairn. I clear snow and drop my pack on the icy cold rock. I've walked five tiring miles to achieve this modest summit, this sublime reward. I am exhausted, elated, satiated. From my throne-like vantage I look out over spectacular Glacier Basin. The wind-fueled battle continues to roar around me. Ice pellets stream overhead, reflecting sunlight like fiery embers in the sky. In this incomparable place I am reminded of words said at the end of the The Thin Red Line. "Oh, my soul, let me be in you now. Look out through my eyes, look out at the things you've made. All things shining."
I smile. In the battle between seasons I have come out the victor.
My route to the summit starts at Bear Lake. I take the trail towards Flattop Mountain.
The route climbs the 25-degree east slope of Flattop Mountain.
The immense north face of Hallett Peak fills my periphery. The exposed rock is 1.7 billion years old.
Longs Peak commands the view.
A lone hiker climbs up ahead.
A cornice hangs from Flattop Mountain.
Flattop Mountain earns its reputation.
Longs Peak on left, Hallett Peak on right. Photo taken from near the summit of Flattop Mountain.
Organic snow sculptures at the top of Tyndall Gorge.
The Tyndall Glacier rises to the saddle with Hallett Peak.
The final four hundred feet of climbing.
I reach the summit of Hallett Peak. Omnipresent Longs Peak stands tall in the distance.
A close up of Longs Peak.
To the southwest is the North Inlet, Grand Lake, and Shadow Mountain Lake.
Tyndall Glacier hangs from the top of the gorge. Across Flattop Mountain is Ptarmigan Point, Sprague Mountain, Mount Ida, and in the distance, the Never Summer Range.
Two miles to the south rises Taylor Peak, elevation 13,153 feet. I study the north slope of the peak - it is my next objective. I'll go for it in April.
I enjoy a few gusty minutes on the summit of Hallett and then retreat. The wind chases me back to treeline. The hike back to my vehicle is uneventful and Hallett Peak soon vanishes from my rearview mirror. A week later its shining beauty remains etched in my head.
Hike Data -
Trailhead: Bear Lake, 9,475 ft.
Hike Distance: approx. 10 miles
Vertical Gain: approx. 3,300 ft.