8:30am. We arrived at the Glacier Gorge Trailhead, bright-eyed and bushy tailed. As one of the more popular regions in the park, we had set our sights high. Sky Pond.
Nestled between Taylor Peak, Powell Peak, and Thatchtop Mountain, Sky Pond couldn’t have attained a better moniker. At 10,900 ft. this jaw-dropping lake had become that of myth in the weeks leading up to our trip. I familiarized myself with the trail and day by day, fixated on reaching our goal. In my mind, the hike to Sky Pond had become a beast we were meant to conquer. I write this with sore, shaky hands to tell you how the beast kicked our ass.
The hike started about as optimistic as it gets. Sunny skies, relatively warm weather, fresh legs, and smiling faces. We knew snow was in the forecast later in the afternoon but hey, we came to Colorado for some winter weather. Our California naivety welcomed thoughts of the cold, white stuff.
In a matter of hours we’d be experiencing the heaviest snow day of the season in the middle of the most difficult hike we’d ever been on. Confidently unaware of this, we set out.
This first leg of our trip was mostly spent taking frequent breaks between huffing and puffing our way through this weird new thing called altitude .
Greeting passing hikers and lofty ambitions of reaching Sky Pond kept us chipper. We arrived at our first stop, Alberta Falls. It was frozen over but still a sight nonetheless. We came to a fork in the trail eventually. One leading around a bend to the west, the other, straight up the falls. We opted to go straight up. Out first mistake of the day!
At this point, we were really the only ones hiking up river, so we enjoyed the solitude. After stopping for a drink of ice-cold river run-off, we reached the top of the ridge. Though not our destination, we plopped down for a morning picnic overlooking The Rockies.
As the morning went on, more hikers began to arrive. I love meeting hikers. We did not meet one person who wasn’t smiling, considerate, and helpful. There is a reason people from all over the country flock to these undeveloped lands. It’s impossible not to be overflowing with wonder and vigor. Among the people we met: a happy-go-lucky family from North Carolina, an adventurous couple from Dallas, and countless other passing encounters with out-of-breath, beaming mountaineers.
We eventually hit what looked like a dead end and gathered the only way to our destination was to hike back down the falls until we hit the fork in the path again. We would later discover we had only been 100 yards from a junction to our desired path when we got “lost”.
About halfway back down the falls we spotted tracks leading up over a small ridge in a direction we knew our desired path to be. I climbed the ridge and at that moment spotted a couple hikers about 25 yards through the trees. We hollered at each other across the gap until we were sure they were on the path we wanted. Excited to unhook our snowshoes from our packs (this is the only time we’d be excited to do this), we strapped in and blazed a trail across the otherwise-unwalkable deep snow. After consulting God (our trail map), we confirmed we were back on track. Sky Pond here we come.
We spent the next half hour or so enjoying a leisurely hike along a path hanging off a steep slope of a neighboring mountain. We were surrounded on all sides by giants. It never felt so good to feel so small. These mountains are special.
At last it began to snow. We loved it. Coming from the West Coast, this was somewhat of an event for us. The only thing I remember thinking while walking through the tree-lined paths was that we were walking through a living, breathing Christmas card. The path eventually spit us out into a clearing at the bottom of a gorge. This is where the tone of our trip began to change.
The gorge was maybe 150 feet across. In varying degrees of steepness, I’d gather all in all it was around a 300-500 foot climb in elevation. As an aside, keep in mind distance works differently here. An 8.4 mile hike on paper doesn’t always translate. After factoring in elevation, difficult terrain, bitter cold, and aching bones, an 8.4 mile hike feels like a 16 mile hike.
As the snow began to fall thicker still and the temperature began to plummet, Claudia began to express her doubts. The incline was killing us, the wind was picking up, and every breath was a heavyweight bout for oxygen. I did my best to ignore the pain and offer encouragement along the way. My words of encouragement were literally met with thunder.
With frequent breaks, we began to chip away up the gorge. We eventually crested the top and forced our way through the snow until we saw it. The Loch. The first of three lakes on our planned adventure. It did not disappoint.
Completely frozen over and cradled between mountains, it felt like we were sitting in the palm of a colossal hand . We collapsed on a log overlooking our first official reward for our suffering. After scarfing down protein bars and squeezing hand warmers into every available crevasse of our bodies, Claudia and I had a very frank discussion about moving forward.
The minute I plopped down on that mossy log I was ready for that to be it. The end. Bye Sky Pond! My body can’t take any more. This was my first marked point of hesitaion, but Brian urged me forward: “We’ve come this far!!” He reminded me to look up and around at the majestic beauty we came for.
“We came this far!!” Ever since I set my sights on Sky Pond a few weeks back, I committed to it as a goal. I wanted to prove to myself such a feat could be conquered. In my mind, we had already made it so far, what’s a little more?
Eventually much to Claudia’s dismay, my stubbornness prevailed. We strapped into our snowshoes and crossed The Loch towards the final two lakes: Lake of Glass and the pedestal-resting Sky Pond. We departed The Loch not knowing that would be the last lake we’d see that day.
Past The Loch, the already almost non-existent crowd became just that. Although the wind and snow had mercifully let up for the time being, the altitude started to take its toll. By this time we were trekking an an altitude of well over 10,000 feet. Every incline, sometimes every 20 steps, we had to collapse and catch our breaths. Our backpacks now felt like they were filled with lead, just as our lungs did.
I turned a blind eye to our physical state and threw more encouragement into the wind, which must’ve sounded hollow to Claudia by now. Admittedly, at this point in our journey I knew my words meant nothing.
On a particularly tough incline, we ran into a couple we had met earlier (Dallas). They were coming down. I asked them for some words of encouragement. I was met with a laugh and shake of the head… not a good sign. They told us of a clearing up ahead and of the frozen Timberline Falls that needed to be scaled to reach the final two lakes. After skirting the falls, they deemed it not passable and turned back. We thanked them for the “pep talk” and I made my case to Claudia for at least reaching the clearing bellow the falls. If I was going to turn back I wanted to be forced to. I wanted to see the obstacle with my own eyes. At this point, Claudia was understandably pissed.
This hike that had started as a modest adventure had evolved into a personal game of “just a little further”. After once again beating her over the head with my stubbornness, we pushed further up the mountain.
A few tense minutes later we reached the clearing. We found the nearest boulder, fell to it, and died. After more protein bars and desperate breaths for air, we briefly resurrected ourselves to take in our surroundings.
We sat in a gargantuan bowl. Mountains on either side of us and the ridge with the frozen falls squarely ahead. I regret so much not taking any pictures here, but we were so cold and entrenched in survival mode, the thought of taking off my gloves to operate my camera was not very enticing.
One final time, I made my case. We could see the ridge. Right over the top we’d reach the lakes. We were at the precipice of the end.
Claudia, without saying a word, strapped up her snowshoes and began to make her way up towards the ridge. I followed directly behind her. Then she stopped. For a tense moment we didn’t move, we didn’t speak.
I knew I had pushed us too far. It was not easy, but I finally ripped my ambitions down and saw reason. It was going to get dark soon and chances are we wouldn’t even be able to make the scramble up the falls. It was time to let it go.
Stealing one last glance over Claudia’s shoulder at Timberline Falls taunting me, I relented. We would not take another step towards Sky Pond.
It was now 4 o’clock and we were faced with the fun-filled task of hiking every inch of ground that we had covered up to this point once more. The difference now being: 1. We had reached the edge of our physical limits 2. The snow was falling in literal sheets and would not stop for the rest of the hike 3. Thunder and darkness constantly flirted with us.
I’d be lying if I said I didn’t feel a hint of doubt lurking in the back of my head.
For the next two and a half hours we made our return journey. Back across The Loch, sliding on our asses back down the gorge (a much-needed moment of laughter), and back through the woods. By the time we were within a mile of the parking lot, our bones were screaming with every step. That being said, we made very good time as we wanted nothing more than to be off our feet in the sanctuary of the rental car. We took very few breaks and kept our legs firmly in autopilot.
Left. Right. Left. Right. Left. Stumble. Left. Right. Groan. Repeat.
At long last the trail spat our carcasses out into the parking lot. 10 hours and 10 miles later we had returned. What started as a happy-go-lucky day hike turned into the most challenging, impressive, painful, enjoyable, and memorable adventures of our lives.
Over the course of the return trip, I did a lot of thinking. I came to terms with failure. In fact, I realized to deem this hike a failure was ridiculous. Look what we just did. This was our first visit to The Rockies. Our first winter hike. In the face of bad weather and inexperience, I’d like to think we made it a very respectable distance.
When going head to head with nature you will always lose. However, just showing up to play is the victory of a lifetime. With this new perspective, I now understand the allure of such challenges. Am I glad I pushed us? Yes. Should I have probably turned us around when we reached The Loch? Absolutely.
We didn’t make it to Sky Pond but I had to remind myself of that old saying about journeys and destinations.
The one thing I took away from this trip over everything else was respect. We came very well prepared. Warm layers, snowshoes, plenty of food and water. Yet, nature still managed to humble us. I will never forget standing beneath those titanic mountains and I will never forget how ruthless they can be.
We will be back for more.
…probably in the summer though.