Saturday, August 28, 2010

Mission impossible

It was a dangerous decision. According to the presentation we had yesterday, the chances of us all returning alive were slim. We were supposed to be staying in our nice safe bear-proof physics office.  Yet we ignored it all and went for a hike. We didn't even bring along an expert.

The chosen site for our inevitable demise was Maroon Bells, one of the best known beauty spots around Aspen. A bus ran from the town up to Maroon Lake where a trail led up to a second pool, Crater Lake. So popular is this wilderness park that no cars are allowed inside the boundaries between 9am and 5pm, unless they have a special overnight permit. To further minimise damage from people, no electricity or water system is run up the mountain. Instead, solar panels provide basic power to the information station and the toilets are the latest flush-less compost systems (a.k.a. pits).

In fact, such precautions are still not enough to guard against environmental damage. A short way into our walk we passed a dispenser bin for "disposable travel toilets". These were bags for ... poo ... that backpackers could use (multiple times per bag, no less) and carry their poo with them to dispose of in the trash at the end of their hike. Apparently, the weather conditions in the Rockies are such that human waste can only decompose four months of the year which just isn't long enough for the annual influx of campers. But don't worry -- the instructions said reassuringly -- the bags are double lined to prevent against leaks.

While Alaska has the highest peaks in the USA, Colorado has the highest average elevation of any of the states. Where we started in the Maroon Bells scenic area, it was 9,580 feet and we walked to around 10,100 feet. The path weaves through a thick forest of Aspens from which the nearby town takes its name. Aspens (we learnt on the bus on the way to the park) reproduce by setting down a long root system from which genetically identical trees spring. Biologists consider the resulting cloned forest (which can extend to 100s of acres) an individual body, resulting in the Aspen being classed as the largest single organism on Earth. I watched the thousands of quaking trees and was irrefutably reminded of 'The Day of the Triffids' in which bioengineered plants move to take over the world. It was an unnerving concept but with one silver lining; our bus driver told us that the population of fast growing Aspens were protecting the slower growing juvenile pines who would eventually mature and take over the mountain side. Perhaps I should buy the URL in preparation for the necessary rename and secure my fortune.

The path through the military tree infestation was rocky underfoot and surprisingly hard going, possibly due to the altitude. Of course, then we mislaid the path entirely and became horribly lost.

.... back at the Physics Center yesterday's speaker was probably pouring himself one very smug cup of coffee.

We survived on wild raspberries and were shrieked at by a pika (I might have provokingly called it a tail-less rat) before rejoining the actual route half an hour later and continuing on to the lake. Bouncing over to the water in relief, I proceeded to sink ankle deep into the mud and be laughed at thoroughly by my advisor while I painstakingly hauled my way free.

It was sad. And muddy. And wet. I complained. No one cared. That was sad too. And muddy. And wet. Bah D:

Once I was free and promised many facebook profile pictures from everyone's camera, our group of seven split into three parties. Two people went on for a three day hike (complete with a poo bag), two went to nab a local peak and I with the more sensible British contingent continued on past the lake for an hour and then turned back.

As we reached the first lake again, we came across signs placed by the US Forest Service. Their name for 'The Maroon Bells' is 'The Deadly Bells'. Apparently, climbers die frequently by underestimating how unstable the peaks are, causing ropes to slip and rocks to fall on even experienced mountaineers. Of course, there was now nothing to worry about. We were safely on our way home and our companions ... well ... they had laughed at my mud incident.

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