Thursday, August 12, 2004

3.4 miles, my ass!

Yesterday a coworker and I hiked to Medicine Bow Peak, the highest point in the Snowy Range (the mountains due west of Laramie). Our intrepid National Forest Service claims the trail is 3.4 miles from the parking lot by Mirror Lake to the peak itself, so according to them a round trip checks in at just shy of 7 miles. I'm no geographer, and I've never done any kind of survey work, but I'm here to tell you that trail is longer than 3.4 miles. Much longer.

Or maybe the switchbacks made it seem longer. Or perhaps it was the small rocks that played havoc with your footing along the "first" and "third" mile of the hike. For all I know, my oxygen-starved brain simply lost its ability to accurately judge distance.

No matter. We made it to the peak. It was worth it.

Medicine Bow Peak looks remarkably like a smooth eastward-facing ridge, an appearance that doesn't change whether you're viewing it while plummeting west through the I-80 pass into Laramie, 30 miles away, or from the base of the mountain itself. In the summertime the whole ridge, a total of maybe 2 miles wide, looks ash gray. Sometimes, like this summer, snowfields are visible even from town; according to locals the snow usually completely melts away by August.

It's not until you actually try to climb the bastard that you realize just how rocky it is.

Like I said, the trail starts at a parking lot at (I'm guessing) 10,000 feet. The peak is at 12,013 feet, and (I'm guessing again) at least 50% of the elevation is gained in the first mile or so of the trail. It winds through a stand of evergreens, makes several switchbacks through high prairie grass, and soon encounters the first of many rock fields.

The first mile basically scales an eastern face on the southern "end" of the ridge. After the first mile and 1000 ft. of elevation, the trail takes an abrupt left; instead of going along the ridgeline in a direct south-north path along the other peaks on the way to Medicine Bow, the trail meanders through a high rocky prairie behind the ridgeline. The middle mile is therefore the easiest: not very steep, good purchase, and a spectacular view.

But the "middle mile" is also the most suspicious. I think it's more like two miles from the end of the first section of the hike to the beginning of the last section; as marked, the "ascent" is .9 miles. The first section is about a mile, and remember that a one-way trip is 3.4 miles. That leaves 1.5 miles for the middle section. That's the longest damn mile and a half on the planet.

It does end, but only after playing bait-and-switch with your pride. At several points in the middle mile a rocky peak will loom in front and to the right of the trail. "That's gotta be it," you tell yourself. "Okay. That's the one," you say after passing by the previous peak and seeing another one. "Jesus, tell me this is it," you wheeze when you see the next one. This happens at least five times as you proceed north behind the ridgeline. The kicker is that you never actually see Medicine Bow Peak until you're about 100 yards from it.

With just under a mile to go, a sign directs you east, uphill. It's a brutal .9 miles: steep, rocky, and windy. Finally, after circumventing yet another couple of peaks, you see what has to be Medicine Bow Peak: the trail climbs through Volkswagen-sized boulders to what is obviously the highest point on the ridge. It's not what I'd imagined: instead of a huge slab of granite with a terrifying cliff, it's a gigantic boulder field with a steep (but certainly not terrifying) eastward dropoff.

And the view is spectacular. Since the ridge faces east, that's where your eyes are naturally drawn at first. Laramie is a smudge. Northeast of Laramie, Laramie Peak is clearly visible 60 miles away. To the south, the Colorado Rockies jut into the skyline; I'm sure some of the "Fourteeners" are visible but I couldn't name them for the life of me. The entire southwest horizon is composed of the Rockies. Due west, more mountains dominate the south half of the view, giving way to southern Wyoming's notorious high desert in the north half. Directly north, Elk Mountain looks just huge. The Ferris Mountains are a pale ridge way off to the northwest.

It took us two hours flat going up; it took 1.5 hours coming back. J and I sat on my tailgate drinking water and listening to the tourists' accents. We both got cooked pretty well by the UV rays at 12,000 ft. Today I'm still a little dehydrated... but I climbed that hill. Not everyone can say that.


Blogger Rosellen said...

Last summer I ventured up a Norwegian mountain with A,A, and J. Supposedly we were going up only "half-way," to a little hut that had once been used by the milk maids in the summer. (The intimation being that the girls/women would bring the milk down to the farm in the valley and climb back up 12 hours later to do it all over again.)

I can still see parts of that trip, can still remember how breathless I was from the last stretch of uphill meadow, but wish now that I'd kept such minute detail, as you did, Paul, of what it was like every minute along the way. To accomplish what you did and to write it all down is a gift to yourself and to all of us who will probably never manage that same trail.

But that's what this Blog's about, right?

7:49 AM  
Blogger Chad said...

Welcome to Wyoming man. There are many peaks to climb, and many incredible trails to traverse.

10:54 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

No pictures?!

9:41 PM  

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