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Fourth of July adventure

Kids playing on Copa beach this morning.
My training for today was again another 6km walk around the hills of Copa, this time in warm and sunny conditions.  It was a beautiful day and holidaying kids were playing on a sand cliff on the beach.  My right arch was a little painful, but certainly tolerable, and it would be very tempting to resume running if I could be sure the pain wouldn't worsen.

Most years, when July 4th passes, I think back to the times I have been in the US on that date.  Usually, the day was marked with family picnics and fireworks on balmy evenings at the local high school, but one, in particular, sticks in my mind.

In the mid-1990s, on the July 4th weekend, my family was on its way back to St Louis, where we lived at the time, from a touring vacation in our small campervan through Utah and Colorado.  During the two-week trip, I had kept up my running and I persuaded my then wife to let me run a trail from the western side of the Great Divide to the eastern side in Rocky Mountains National Park while she drove our campervan round to meet me.

Flattop Mountain (at left) on a better day.
It had been a late winter and I was not sure which trails were open, so we called into the National Parks Kawuneeche Visitor Centre where I enquired, somewhat obliquely, about the trail from Green Mountain Trailhead across Flattop Mountain (12,324ft) to Bear Lake.  I did not let on that I was planning to run it, in case they prohibited me from doing so.  The ranger wasn’t much help and didn’t know what conditions were like, nor whether any rangers had hiked the trail yet this season.  Not a good start, but I was reluctant to scupper the idea as the opportunity might not arise again.

We drove to the Trailhead, where spice was added to the venture by the display of several posters listing details, including pictures, of hikers missing in the area I was about to enter.  I set off in shorts and a T-shirt with a rain-jacket tied around my waist and a map in my hand for the 16 mile run, which included 3,000ft of ascent and descent.  The weather was fine and the early running through pine forests, across alpine meadows and past cascading streams was magical.

After about five miles, I began to encounter some snow on the trail, although it was still quite runnable.  More worrying, though, were the ominous clouds gathering on the mountain ahead, accompanied by flashes of lightning and peals of thunder.  As I crossed Tonahutu Creek using a snowbridge, I saw two climbers, roped together and wearing all of the gear, descending the snowy slope ahead of me.  I waited for them to reach me and discussed the route of the unseen trail (hidden beneath the snow slope).  They had aborted their ascent of Flattop Mountain because of the thunderstorms forming on the upper slopes, but I felt committed to continue.  The climbers were not impressed, and one said he felt compelled to tell me that he considered me ill-equipped to proceed.  I thanked him for his input, put on my rain-jacket, for it was now getting quite cold, and headed off up the slope towards a gap in some trees ahead where I surmised the trail passed.  Where the climbers had been slowly post-holing down the slope in the deep snow because of the weight they were carrying, I was light enough not to break through the snow crust, and quickly ascended and crossed the snow slope.

My route across Flattop Mountain
Then began a steady ascent, above the tree-line, to the summit of the aptly-named Flattop Mountain.  Nearer the summit, the winds were fierce and visibility near zero in the heavy cloud and sleet.  It was impossible to see the trail, but fortunately there were stone cairns to follow across the plateau-like mountain top.  Sadly, it was not possible to see from one cairn to the next, so my pattern became to head off into the wind and fog in the direction I thought correct, but to return to the cairn after a hundred metres or so if I could not find the next cairn.  I would then set out in a slightly different direction and repeat the process until I did spy the next cairn.  I was bitterly cold and quite anxious, especially when a couple of my direction-finding runs found me at the edge of a seemingly bottomless precipice, but I remained methodical and careful, repeatedly telling myself that I was OK.  I was still capable of running and my brain was still working.

The three miles across the mountain top seemed to take forever, but actually took about an hour.  Finally, the trail began to descend and became easier to follow.  I was very cold and flew down the last four miles of steep switch-backing trail to Bear Lake in about 25 minutes, dreaming of some dry warm clothes and shelter.  Sadly, my wife’s journey with our two young kids in the under-powered campervan had been similarly epic.  Driving sleet and gale-force winds slowed all road traffic to a crawl and it took her five and a half hours to negotiate 45 miles of road in the appalling conditions with our young son asking whether “Daddy was going to die?”.

I ended up spending nearly two hours shivering in my shorts and rain-jacket in the car park, where there was no shelter, waiting for her arrival and wondering what had happened before she finally turned up and we were all happily reunited.