Conundrum Hot Springs? Let’s go!
This is a guest post by David Kettlehake
Six months ago my two best friends from high school texted me with a simple question: “Want to go hiking with my son and some of his buddies in Colorado and see the meteor shower in August?” Heck, that sounded like an awesome adventure! Hiking in Colorado? Meteor shower? Hanging out with old friends? Without thinking, I answered, “Sure – I’m in.”
The first thing to keep in mind is that I’m from Ohio. That’s an important fact, since where I live in the Buckeye state it’s about 900 feet above sea level. At that slight elevation, the air is so thick you can almost spoon it into your mouth. Important fact number two is that my friends and I are 58 years old, and we had never attempted anything like this before. But hey - what, me worry?
We arrived in Denver on Wednesday evening, and caravanned to Aspen the next morning. Aspen is around 8,000 feet above sea level. From there we drove about twenty minutes to the trailhead for Conundrum Hot Springs. Still no worries.
We strapped on our 47-pound packs, and headed out at about 3:00 in the afternoon. Within 100 yards of walking uphill, I clearly remember thinking, “Uh, oh – what the hell have I done?” The backpack was heavy, sure, but the air was so thin I was already gasping for breath. I couldn’t believe I had to go another 8.7 miles, the last two miles of which was extremely uphill.
This was not going to go well.
The young hikers in our group had done this the year before. They were also from Denver, so were more acclimated to the altitude. Us old guys weren’t so lucky. But we took breaks every so often, drank water (although not nearly enough), and munched on high protein snacks. Several hours in and my legs were aching, and it was getting more and more difficult to catch my breath. But if there was a plus side, the scenery was astoundingly beautiful, even though I missed most of it: my gaze was down and I had to diligently concentrate on carefully putting one foot in front of the other on a rough, sketchy trail.
Four hours (and many dozens of breaks) later, it was starting to get dark. The younger hikers wanted to reach the Hot Springs as quickly as possible in order to secure a good site. One of them, Mary (who we affectionately called “Crazy Mary” due to her inexplicable good mood and high energy), remained behind with us old guys while the others went on ahead. We suffered a little trepidation about this, mainly since we were concerned with potential hazards such as bears, indistinct trails, bears, cold, drop offs, darkness, and bears. But in the end we agreed, and off the young studs went.
Headlamps on, we continued our hike, now at around 11,000 feet. The trail grew more challenging as we went, and several times we weren’t sure we were on one at all. Creeks were crossed, scree fields were navigated, and more breathing breaks were mandated, each one longer than the last. The temperature plummeted. And still we hiked on.
Around 8:30 or so, Crazy Mary insisted that we weren’t far from the Hot Springs. She was still full of spunk and good cheer, but it was clear that us old guys weren’t. She came up with the bright idea that she should go on ahead, grab a few of the youngsters, and bring them back to us. They could carry our packs, which would make the final leg of the journey easier. “Easier” sounded awesome, so we agreed. She left us with a walkie-talkie, and off she went. I’m pretty sure she was skipping as she vanished in the darkness.
We waited. And waited some more, but Mary and the others never came back. We were in a very rocky, hilly section of the trail, and there was barely anywhere to sit, much less pitch a tent. It was completely dark, and the temperature had dropped at least twenty degrees. We decided to keep going, even though we could barely navigate the trail. I can’t speak for my two friends, but I was getting worried. And tired. And cold. And hungry.
Yes, this was all kinds of fun.
After another thirty minutes of stumbling along, we finally raised Crazy Mary on the walkie. She insisted we were on the right trail and almost there – which was nuts, since she had no idea where we were. Hell, we had no idea where we were. Needless to say, our levels of frustration were peaking higher than the Continental Divide.
We finally got my friend’s son on the walkie. As well as we could, we described where we were, and he directed us to set up camp right there. It was nearly 10:00, and we were in no mood to argue or disagree. We managed to set up our tents, climbed in fully clothed, and tried to pass out. After several hours of leg cramps and bad attitudes, we were out cold.
The next morning, bright and early, my friend’s son showed up at our site. We were about to tear into him for abandoning us the night before, but he quickly apologized and explained that they’d had some trouble. One of them had started vomiting due to the high altitude, and another had suffered a complete physical breakdown because of the thin air and the stress of the hike. Suddenly the old guys were looking pretty good!
The rest of the trip was spectacular. The scenery was jaw-dropping, the Hot Springs were a delight, and our Saturday day hike to 13,500 feet was fantastic.
But the evenings were cloudy and we couldn’t see the meteor shower.
Oh well, there’s always next year.