Saturday, November 26, 2016

Colorado 1 - Rocky Mountain High

One of the things that I dislike about Facebook is that it thrusts the infinitely more exciting lives of my friends in my face, making mine look more miserable than it actually is. Occasionally, however, this also has the good side effect of suggesting vacation destinations. Our trip to Colorado was conceived during one such Facebook session when Poulami and I saw a friend's album and found the place interesting. Soon, I was noting down the names of the attractions from her photo captions and looking them up on Google Maps. Finally, after calling up the said friend and finding out a few details, we were ready to make the reservations for our first major trip this summer. And it was about time too, since teaching for the whole Spring semester followed by two summer courses would have tired me out by July.

We reached Denver by by airplane on the 6th of July. We had reserved a car beforehand which we picked up at the airport and started for our first destination which was about 82 miles away: Rocky Mountain National Park.

Our complete trip would include a few more places as well

Rocky Mountain National Park does not have any lodges inside, so we were going to stay in a tent. After driving for about two hours, we reached the Moraine Park campground and set up our little green tent overlooking a field and a hill. Dinner was whole grilled trout at a restaurant in the nearby town of Estes Park and we spent the rest of the evening sitting by the campfire and photographing stars. I was not terribly happy with the star photos that I got because our campsite was next to the road and headlights of passing cars kind of ruined the darkness, but we hoped we would get better photos later in the trip.
Trout for dinner

Night Sky with the Milky Way

This is what happens when the earth rotates

After we turned in, we were suddenly seized by the realization that we would be defenseless in case a curious specimen of Ursus americanus decided to check out the contents of our tent. Although we had locked all food and other scented items in our car, who could say if we ourselves wouldn't count as food and scented items? Finally Poulami went out and grabbed my tripod from the car, which meant we were no longer defenseless. Fortunately, we didn't have to find out whether that defense was useful against a black bear.

Next morning, after having tea and instant noodles cooked by Poulami over the campfire as breakfast, we started on our drive along the Trail Ridge Road. The road is a single-lane serpentine road that steeply climbs the mountain through trees and meadows, often with the mountain on one side and a sheer drop on the other. When we started, the trees were mostly deciduous but they gradually changed to tall coniferous forests as we ascended. We could see snow near the mountaintops, but the snow was in patches, lying on the meadows. There are many viewpoints along the road where people stop their cars and take photos. We stopped at a couple of such viewpoints before moving on.

Trail Ridge Road

Gradually the coniferous forests thinned and gave way to rolling meadows and rocky areas covered in boulders. This was the tundra region above the tree line - a region where trees cannot grow due to the presence of the permafrost (permanent layer of ice) underground. Grasses and lichens, however, thrive here and when we saw it, the tundra was covered in flowers of all kinds. It is here that we saw the snowfields - the vast areas of snow that were visible from down below- up close. As the name suggests, these are literally vast fields of snow several feet thick that persist even when the air temperature rises well above freezing. This was a sunny day and the temperature was somewhere in the range of 12-15 degrees Celsius. Some tourists had stopped by the snowfields and were walking up to the snow to take pictures standing or lying down on them. Since back home we regularly see far more snow than we would like to, we just laughed at the silly antics of these warm-clime-folk and drove on. We also saw some elk on the meadows, but decided not to stop before we reached the Alpine Visitor Center, which was 22 miles from our campground and at an elevation of 11,796 feet above the sea level.

As we stepped out of the car at the Alpine visitor center, the first thing that we realized was that the air temperature was way cooler than below, and it was terribly windy. We walked to the viewing areas at the edge of the mountain and looked below. The view was, to use a cliched adjective once more, breathtaking. In my childhood, my father used to bring wall calendars with photos of the Swiss Alps. When I looked down from the viewpoint here, it felt as if I was looking at those calendars again. Our whole view was occupied by mountains covered with rolling meadows and patches of snow. We could see forests down in the valley below and a little flowing river. There was a herd of elk grazing on one of the higher meadows above the tree line. We also saw a bear on a snow field much lower than us, but it was so far away that we could just barely make it out with our binoculars.

The view from Alpine Visitor Center

The second realization came sometime later, when we were back inside the warm souvenir shop. Even away from the cold wind and breathtaking view, we were still trying to catch our breath and that made us feel the lack of oxygen, or to be more accurate, the lack of air itself in the atmosphere. While for lazy home-dwelling people like us the thought of climbing this high carries some element of adventure, none of us really liked the feeling. The dull headache, nausea and shortness of breath didn't leave us even after we had some food at the cafeteria. Nevertheless, we still decided to climb another few hundred feet along the stepped walkway up the mountain near the visitors' center to see the flowers on the tundra.

This climb was not long, but it was difficult due to our condition, and we never found out where or how far that path went since we only went a short way on the path. Halfway along our climb when both of us were panting like fish out of water, an elderly lady took pity on us and explained the proper way of breathing and stepping at high altitudes. The climb was slightly easier then, and especially since I stopped frequently to take photos of the tundra flowers.

Flowers on the Tundra

Our next destination was Bear Lake. In the morning, the rangers had told us not to go to there as the parking lot was full. In the afternoon, however, we heard that the parking lots were beginning to clear out and it was worth a shot. So we drove directly to Bear Lake from the Alpine Visitor Center and found parking. Bear Lake was just a few steps from the parking lot, so we weren't satisfied by seeing it. A sign said Nymph Lake was just about half a mile away, and so we decided to hike there as well. That half mile hike was totally exhausting both due to our physical shortcomings and the lack of oxygen, but in the end we reached Nymph Lake, took photos, and came back.

Bear Lake

Nymph Lake

While returning to our tent, we went into Estes Park once more to fill up our car with gas (petrol) and some other grocery supplies. Then we bought a large pizza from Antonio's Real New York Pizza and drove to our campsite to eat half of it. We packed the rest of the pizza and our other stuff securely in our car and went to bed early because we wanted to start early the next morning.

The night was uneventful and our sleep was uninterrupted by bears. The sky was cloudy, so no star photography was possible.

(To be continued...)

No comments:

Post a Comment