In which we move to Colorado and almost die on a mountain

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When Ken and Cara moved from Brooklyn to Colorado, all they wanted was a change of pace, to trade the grind of long commutes and a dysfunctional city for fresh air and a slower pace of life. Maybe a little adventure. What they couldn’t have known was that just over two months after moving, they’d be trapped on a mountainside, tears freezing to their faces as they shivered, staring at their useless cellphones, the last light of day leaking out of the thin air.

Man. I should totally write one of those pieces for an outdoor magazine, shouldn’t I.

The biggest problem with this story is we didn’t die. Didn’t come close to it. Maybe if you ask Cara, she might tell you differently. She’ll tell you that, once again, I went out of my way to kill her. And the worst part might have been the indignity of it all. The scuba lessons I signed her up for came with about six hundred things that could go wrong and kill her. Swimming with sharks? Well, duh. They’re sharks. Glacier hiking in Iceland was a day of extremely high winds, crevasses and deadly ice caves.

But snowshoeing? You don’t die while snowshoeing. Hell, we’d been snowshoeing a couple of times before. It was a fun way to spend a day.

Outside Magazine writer: The two were about to make a number of rookie mistakes that often cause trouble for those new to winter sports, well-meaning people whose enthusiasm far outstrips their skills.

The writer would be blaming the victim. And the writer would be correct.

One of the reasons we moved to Colorado was to drag our asses out of the house on the weekends. We’ve been doing a mostly okay job of that. But with winter closing in, even the hiking trails just outside of Boulder are getting a little more inaccessible with each passing weekend. Last weekend, we ended up doing a measly two miles at Chautauqua because the trails were iced and we didn’t have crampons or other traction. And we knew that higher elevations were already blanketed in snow.

So I hopped onto the old Amazon machine and ordered us some snowshoes and spikes and we made plans to hit the Eldora Mountain Resort Nordic Center for some snowshoeing. It was close by and the trails looked manageable, probably even easier — and better mapped — than the couple of places we’d hit in Breckenridge back in 2012.

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Saturday morning rolled around and we loaded up the Subaru … Did I tell yall I got a new car? I’ve never owned a new car before. I ordered it way back in August and it just got here two weeks ago. It’s a Subaru Ascent. Of course moving from Brooklyn to Colorado, I HAD to get a Subaru and me being me, I had to get the biggest one. Cara’s got the Subaru Crosstrek. So we’re totally those people. Anyway, I love my Subaru. Where was I?

Saturday morning rolled around and we loaded up the Subaru and headed up into the mountains, a lovely drive up Boulder Canyon and through the town of Nederland. Just as we were getting to the resort, it started snowing and the wind started blowing.

Outdoor Magazine writer: Perhaps it was the first sign of trouble to come, one of many warnings that the young, attractive couple didn’t heed.

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Hey, they always make the victims young and attractive, so I’ll roll with it. I’d also make us each weigh less, but that becomes important to one of my jokes later on, if I can remember to tell it.

But sorry Mr. Outdoor Magazine writer, the snow blew away within fifteen minutes and the sun beat down upon the mountain. While we waited for the Nordic Center to open, we walked up to the lodge for the alpine skiing area, sat for a bit and enjoyed a $5 bottle of Dasani. Because even if Eldora is a small, local, family-friendly ski resort, they’re still going to stick you on the food and beverages. (There was a perfectly fine water fountain on the other side of the room that I didn’t notice until after I’d bought the water.)

Then we shuffled across the parking fields to the Nordic Center. (If you’ve ever only seen ski resorts on TV or movies, you’ve only seen the pretty side, the white powder, the beautiful people. In reality, your first glimpse of any ski resort looks something like a strip mine from sci-fi dystopia set on an mud planet.) We bought our passes, strapped on our snowshoes, adjusted our poles, and set off.

Did Ken talk to the people inside about the trails? Did he ask, perhaps, “Hey, we’re still new to this, what’s the best route?” or “What kind of conditions are the snowshoe trails in?” No. Ken did not. And because we weren’t renting equipment and had our own, they might have assumed we knew what the hell we were doing.

The plan was to do the outer perimeter by taking Twisted Snowshoe Trail up to Lone Star Loop and coming back down. According to the map, the distances were totally doable. So off we went.

Outdoor Magazine writer: It had turned out to be a beautiful sunny morning, the wind light, and the temperature almost perfect at 30 degrees. 

Hey, I can handle the setup, jerk. It had turned out to be a beautiful sunny morning. Just right for Instagram pictures! Steps into the trail system, the scenery really is breathtaking. I mean, hell, the scenery is breathtaking just driving the fifteen minutes to work every morning. But this was next level.

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After a bit, we hit a couple of steep inclines that were trickier than anything we’d seen in Breckenridge, but it gave us an opportunity to learn how to use the snowshoes to climb such things. (Luckily, I’d watched some YouTube videos, so I wasn’t completely clueless. And, yes, I realize how clueless it sounds to say, “I’d watched some YouTube videos.” But that’s also how I learned to install a ceiling fan, so bite me.) After what felt like forever, we’d gone maybe half a mile, assuming the GPS on my watch was correct. (It was.)

A couple of women overtook us on the trail. They were the size of birds, and they were practically hopping up the side of the mountain in their snowshoes and spandex as if out on a morning jaunt. They were going the same route we were, so we just moved aside and let them go.

Reader, we’re not complete idiots. While we were (still) enjoying ourselves, we realized it was taking a little longer than we’d anticipated. So when we came to the turnoff for Snowshoe Hare trail, we thought, “Hey, we can do the top next time. Let’s just cut across and enjoy ourselves.” But no one had been on Snowshoe Hare trail yet. So it was unbroken powder. I walk about ten yards in, packing it down some so Cara could have an easier time of it, then said, “Screw it. Let’s go the long way. It might be longer, but if the trail’s already broken it’ll be easier.”

We got back onto Lone Star and started heading up. Not ten minutes later, the two little tiny super athletic women came bounding back down. Farther up the mountain, Lone Star hadn’t been broken in yet, either. More powder. Cara and I took a break and decided we’d try Snowshoe Hare after all. It wasn’t even a mile across. We’d take our time. And a straight out-and-back seemed lame.

As were heading back down and right before we got to the turn-off for Snowshoe Hare, we ran into another woman — one of these skinny, rugged Colorado women who probably fights bears for fun after dropping her kids off at school and knocking off two hot-yoga classes. She asked if we’d been to the top. We explained that we hadn’t because of powder. “Ugh,” she said. “I don’t really have time for that.” I told her Snowshoe Hare was powder, too, but she decided to go that route anyway, saying she’d break the trail and we could just follow behind her.

Mind you, none of us were under the impression we’d follow right behind her. We all wanted our space. And, from a discussion about her space-age looking snowshoes, we’d learned that her previous pair of shoes were “racing” snowshoes.

Outdoor Magazine writer: The couple thought they’d just scored a small break. The more experienced snowshoer would pack down the snow, making the going easier. As it turned out, the snowshoer’s light shoes and incredible speed did little to break the trail. She’d be the last person to see them alive on the mountain.

Once again, we were off. It was slow going at first, but we felt we were really in the wilderness now — as much as one could be in the wilderness with cross-country ski trails looping somewhere around you and the sound of the ski lifts carrying over from the Alpine section of the mountain.

And then, just like that, we couldn’t hear the lifts or see any cross-country skiers. The going got slower. There were steep declines. There were steep inclines. The trail no longer ran through flat sections but along the edge of the mountain so that your left side was continually pushing through the powder there, threatening to drag you tumbling down into the trees.

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There were tears. There were curses. There were repeated consultations of the map, which was practically useless at this point. We drank some water. We ate some snack bars.

Outdoor Magazine writer: The couple talked about going back the way they came. Not exactly sure where on the map they were, they figured it would take just as long to retrace their steps as it would to push forward. So forward they went. It was yet another mistake — in a long line of them — made that day.

Look at that map. Go on. Just look at it. It doesn’t look like much, does it? And judging by my watch, we’d only gone maybe a mile and a half. But it had taken us over two hours. And we were both getting tired and frustrated. Cara had fallen down a couple of times. Her shoes had caught a root. Once she might have stepped on them. At one point she said, “We should have gotten smaller snowshoes like those other ladies had.” I’m not the smartest man in the world, but I knew that then wasn’t the time to say that snowshoe sizes are based on weight and that after a year in Colorado we might be able to get away with those smaller ones, but we weren’t there yet. (There’s that joke I was telling yall about higher up. I hope it was worth it.)

We scrambled across a few wind-blown rock and ice patches. Another hour went by.  We were still on Snowshoe Hare trail. According to the map, the halfway point seemed to be a black-diamond cross-country ski trail called Fatty Mills. We had not come across such a trail.

We came to a flat stretch. We ate another bar. Calmed down some. Then headed off again. But every time we started in a downward-seeming direction, the trail would turn back up.

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Another hour passed. We were still on Snowshoe Hare trail. We hit another patch of rock and ice. The light was changing. Cara started to get frustrated again. I started to get worried.

Rationally, I knew we were within the confines of a park, no more than two miles (if that) from the Nordic center. No way would we die on the mountain.

But the non-rational part of my mind was having none of it. We were three hours in with no end in site. It was going to be another three, four, five, seven hours before we made it back. If we ever made it back. The sun was going to start going down soon. We’d sit up here on the trail, not even huddling for warmth because we’d be pissed at each other and ourselves for being so stupid. I’d close my eyes to die and the last thing I’d see in my life is those stupid little blocks from the that dumb iPhone game Toy Blaster because I’m so addicted to it, the shapes have imprinted on my eyes.

We pushed on. We were coming up on hour five. We still hadn’t come across signs for Fatty Mills trail. I made a mental note. When we came across that trail or within fifteen minutes, whichever came first, I was calling ski patrol to come get us. There would be no shame in that. I only hoped one of our phones would get enough reception to make the call. (My one bit of intelligence on Saturday was having us both put our phones on airplane mode so as not to drain the battery).

Another fifteen minutes went by and … there was a sign. I could see it through the trees. I sped up a little. Not only was it a sign, it was a sign for Lone Star Loop snowshoe trail, which meant we’d crossed Fatty Mills (or that the map was garbage). It also meant we were closer than we thought. We were basically home free, a mostly downhill jaunt toward the Nordic Center and warmth and water and bathrooms.

Outdoor Magazine writer: Wait. You two survived? Then what’s the point of this story? No one wants to read about an out-of-shape middle-aged couple who almost get stuck on a mountain but then come down again.

I told you at the beginning that we were alive. That’s the problem with you feature writers. You’re bad at listening, especially if it gets in the way of your narrative arc. And it’s no reason to say hurtful things. We’re gonna start dieting in the New Year. For real this time.

Besides, home free is a relative thing. What looked like a short hike on the map took us another hour and a half. It’s like they ran the return portion of the trail over the most indirect route possible. We walked by some really lovely scenery down here, including a couple of lakes. “Fuck these lakes,” is something I actually said at this point.

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And we came across what was clearly once a murder cabin. If someone had jumped out and killed us both, I think we would have thanked him for ending the misery.

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We came across an elderly Japanese couple snowshoeing in the other direction at 3:30 in the afternoon. Where the hell were they going? Maybe the mountain needed a sacrifice that day and since we were going to escape, the Japanese couple would have to do.

But we made it. We made it back to the Nordic Center at 3:45, fifteen minutes before closing. We’d set out that morning at 9:30, for what we thought was going to be a couple hours of snowshoeing fun.

Six hours. Four miles. We’ve both run our worst marathons in less time than that. And, insult to injury, it was only 11,000 steps. I challenge you to be on your feet for six hours and walk only 11,000 steps.

Outdoor Magazine writer: The couple took off their equipment and headed for the car. They drove back toward Boulder in silence.

Well, not really. We drove back marveling at a few things: our own stupidity, the fact that we made it, and the biggest miracle of all, that we didn’t turn on each other on the mountain. Chalk it up to being together long enough to know how to handle each other during times of stress. Like I know that trying to help, touch, or talk to Cara while she’s freaking out is exactly what will get me pushed off the side of a mountain.

We made it back home, managed to shower and put on clothes and then go out into the world again to eat. We had Mexican food. And a margarita each. Then came home to snuggle on the couch with the poodles and were passed out cold by 10 o’clock.

Outdoor Magazine writer: That’s your ending? 

That’s all I got. Peace out.

 

 

 

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