Everything Has Changed and Nothing has Changed.
When I was a girl my father introduced me to me to backpacking. He took me on my first trip when I was nine years old. We went to a national park in Tennessee called The Big South Fork. I loved it. My father hadn’t been backpacking since his 20’s and he thought it would be fine to use his old pack from his younger days. He failed to realise that in his 40’s his waist had expanded so much the belt on his backpack no longer fit. Technology in outdoor sports had improved vastly. He could have bought another pack that was lighter and more practical but my father was a frugal man and camping equipment was expensive.
That camping trip was three days of bliss for me. It was like being in a the jungle. There were ferns all over the forrest floor it was so hot and humid when my dad removed his baseball cap I could see steam rise from his head like he was and angry cartoon character. I had a blast much to my fathers surprise. He later told me later that was the hardest camping trip he’d ever been on. Between carrying old and shoddy equipment, with a child too scared of snakes to go to the stream to collect water for the dinner, and cooking over an open camp fire with wood perpetually covered in dew; it was a lot of work for my old dad. But I was hooked. And that’s when my dad told me about Longs Peak.
Longs Peak is a 14,259 foot mountain in Rocky Mountain National Park Colorado. It's a well known peak that many tourist try to summit but only 50% of the people who try each year ever make it to the top. My dad knew about it because he tried, unsuccessfully to climb it twice. And when I was 11 and then 13…or was it 12 and then 14? I can’t remember exactly. Dates are always very fuzzy for me. My father and I tried to climb it together and both times we were part of the unsuccessful 50%.
The first time we got up to what is called The Key Hole and I was exhausted so we turned around. The next time we made it all the way through what is called The Trough to The Narrows where I took one look at the cliff we had to navigate and had a panic attack and started to cry. I was, and still am, afraid of heights. My dad hugged me, told me it was ok and we headed back down. The following day we were camping in The Boulder Field and I was so angry and disappointed in myself for not making it to the top I asked my dad if we could try again that day. He was now in his early 50’s and aware enough of his own body to know that two days in a row of scrambling over rock would be too much for him (and me) he said no. He explained it was ok, we did our best. He hugged me again and said that might be his last attempt up the mountain as he’s older now and it doesn’t feel quite as easy as it used to. He was right. As I got older the idea of spending my summers in the backcountry with my father didn’t seem cool. We slowly grew apart because of my petulant teenagerism and his perpetual alcoholism. My went through a messy divorce, I moved to New York for college. Gone were the days of long chats on the trail. We were barely talking.
My dad died suddenly in January 2012 of a heart attack. At the funeral I told my brother and sisters I’d like to spread his ashes on Longs Peak. Backpacking with my dad was always our time together and my younger sister and brother did eventually start taking trips with us. But they didn’t take to it quite like I did. Camping was always our thing. And that mountain was our proverbial Everest. Finally, seven and a half years after his death, I’ve booked the flight, the exact campsites and route my father and I took on our last trip and I’m going back. I leave on Friday.
Two weeks ago I started to train for it just like my father taught me. I put on my hiking boots and backpack, load said pack down with a bunch of hardback books and walk. When I was a teenager in Ohio I absolutely fucking hated it. Walking around our neighbourhood, along country roads, and into town with what looked like a small village on my back was humiliating. I tried to avoid it as much as possible. I never saw the point of it either. If you take a smooth piece of paper, put it on a table and iron it, you might come close to the topography of Greenville, Ohio. It. Is. Flat. Not the best training ground for the peaks that awaited us out west.
Now I’m no longer 13/14. I’m 33. And I’m not training in the flatlands of America but in London Town. I walk around Regents Park. It’s pretty and if I get up early enough to avoid the prams it’s very peaceful. The park boarders the London Zoo and if you know where to go, there’s a place where you can dip off the paved path and into the bushes to watch the monkeys over the fence. It’s very exciting especially since there’s no monkeys in Ohio or Colorado. London can be very exotic that way. After my stroll through the park I head to Primrose Hill to practice walking up hill. It’s not nearly the elevation climb I’ll cover in Colorado (about 5,000 feet) but the view is nice at the top and I’ll take what I can get. I’m not embarrassed to do this anymore. Yes, on my way past the tennis courts one morning a guy was grinning at me with the amused “Where the hell did you come from?!”expression. And I’m pretty sure I ruined two ladies’ picnic when I plopped down, beside them drenched in sweat at the top of Primrose Hill to look at the London Skyline. But I don’t care. They now have something to tell people.
“Hey Carol and Susan, how was the picnic?”
“It was great. We think we saw a white Sherpa…is that a thing?”
Now, I get why my father made me do it all those years ago. It gets you used to the weight and feel of the pack. So you know how it moves when you walk, and if you need to adjust the straps. I’m only admitting this now because he’s dead but, my dad was right. It’s good to practice.
When I headed out my first practice walk I snapped a picture of myself with my pack on and sent it to my family. My sister wrote back, “Is that the same backpack dad got you when you turned 12?!” Yes, yes it is. As I’ve moved around over the years my camping equipment has slowly diminished. But I still have my backpack and sub-zero Northface sleeping bag from when I was 12, my head lamp and my rain pants my dad bought me when I was 18. They still fit. Now before you get all excited and think Oh my god she fits into clothes she could wear at 18?! I need you to know I’ve had the frame of a 30 year old woman since puberty. I’m just glad my face finally grew into my body type.
Like my dad did with me on our first trip I’ll be walking into the wilderness with 20 year old equipment (but my pack belt still fits thank you very much!). Yes, like my father I could buy new stuff. But camping gear is still very expensive. I’m not frugal like my father. I just decided to spend what I could have on a backpack to stay in a four-star hotel after the hike. It feels right to take this pack with me. It will be it’s last trip out. I’ll leave it in Colorado when I’m finished.
I have no clue which 50% category I’ll make it into this time around. No clue. I get to Colorado early to do some day-hiking and get acclimated to the elevation. I set out on the big trip on September 4. I’m older than I was the last time, and though I’m not in the best shape of my life I don’t think I’m in any worse shape than my un-athletic teenage self. Same pack, same trail, same mountain. And just like it was before, it’ll be me and my dad. Doing the one thing we enjoyed most together. Hiking.