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Elbow Falls is nestled in a tree-lined valley of the Rocky Mountains. Hiking trails abound. Spring floods often change the valley, catching hikers unaware. Here’s what happened to one pair of venturesome hikers.
Larry and Shannon were new to being a couple . . . and they were enjoying it more and more. They’d discovered hiking was among their many shared interests, much to their delight. One afternoon, they set out from a trailhead at the falls, hiking downstream along the top edge of the steep valley, 300 feet above the Elbow River.
“There’s a great little beach I’d like you to see,” Larry said. “It’s on a bend in the river downstream . . . a nice hike from here. This trail should get us there”
He was remembering a visit a few years earlier, and a hike down to the river shore. Shannon also remembered hiking in the area. Their chosen trail began to angle downwards. It came to a ‘Y’. One branch went back up and one seemed inclined to go down. They headed down.
Half way to the valley floor, the trail suddenly ended. A large section of bank had slid down to the river, now 200 feet below. Spring floodwaters had poured over the bank from the mountain valley behind, causing an avalanche.
The disappointed twosome looked at each other. They discussed options and agreed their hike should not end like this. Both were wearing sturdy footwear.
“We can always take the lower trail back up,” Larry said. “You know, the other one we were thinking about taking.”
Shannon remembered that trail and nodded, feeling reassured. They’d rejected it in favor of this one. It looked more interesting.
“Okay,” she said gamely. “We can work our way down.”
Grabbing onto shrubs and small trees beside the washout, they began gradually edging down. Halfway to the river, the shrubs and trees ended. It was too steep to go back. The bank was dry. So – both giggling like elementary school kids – they sat down on the loose dirt and slid the 150 feet to the shore of the glacier-fed river.
They came to a stop with their feet inches from a sharp drop they’d not to seen from above. Directly below was the ice-cold turbulent river, eight to 10 feet deep.
Carefully, they made their way across the slide, above the sharp drop, and down on the other side to the shoreline. They headed on for the beach Larry had described, and came to a bend in the river. There were lots of sharp turns – that’s how it go its name. The beach was around the other side this bend. But the shoreline was gone, and the bank rose vertically at least 200 feet.
Spring floodwaters had taken away the shore, leaving only a scattering of rocks and boulders next to the high vertical bank.
Getting to the beach wasn’t going to be quite as easy as Larry thought. He was a bit embarrassed and, truth be known, too stubborn to turn back. And he was encouraged by recollections that from the beach, there was a gradual slope up to the upper trail. From there, they expected an easy walk back to their car.
Undaunted, the intrepid hikers . . . often balancing precariously on unstable boulders . . . jumped from rock to rock. They edged their way around the vertical rock outcropping. Occasionally, a loose rock gave way. A foot here and there went under the ice-cold water.
Finally, they made it to the beach . . . or, what was left, as it turned out.
They reached a huge flat rock and rested. There, they were treated to a spectacular view downstream of the turbulent river roiling through a narrow gorge. Great view, but no beach . . . it was long gone. And they wouldn’t be able to go further downstream, even if they wanted to. At that point, the rock wall of the gorge rose straight up at least 125 feet on both sides of the river.
They climbed up 15 feet and rested on another flat rock sticking out of the steep cliff. Larry looked around for the trail he remembered . . . the one heading up a gently sloping valley from the beach. It was gone. All that Larry could see was a steep bank where the valley had been. Spring floods had swept it away.
They agreed neither had any interest in climbing this 150-foot cliff of dirt, sand and loose rock.
Moments earlier turning back had not even been a consideration. Now, it was their only alternative. Worse yet, long shadows were beginning to shroud the deep valley. Mid-day had turned into afternoon.
It was tricky navigating back upstream along the shoreline. Loose rocks again threatened ankles. Their footwear was soaked again. He wore hiking boots. Being a warm day, Shannon had chosen sturdy hiking sandals. She’d been confident the prominent grips made them suitable for their plans. They were, until then.
As they made their way back upstream, they kept looking for signs of that ‘lower trail’. Nothing. An hour later, still no sign of it. They rounded a bend and to their surprise, there was the falls. High above them were the railings of the lookout where they’d left earlier in the day. They’d walked all the way back along the shore. There was no trail up to the lookout anymore. Nothing. Just sheer rock.
“Oh shit!” Larry said, realizing every single trail was washed out. Spring run-off had been unusually high that year.
They began to retrace their steps, looking for a means of ascent. Shannon’s sandals were making ‘squish, squish’ sounds as they went.
Finally, they came to a narrow stretch of riverbank that seemed less steep than elsewhere. That stretch of dirt and sand and rock reaching upward to bushes and trees. It seemed shorter than the rest, maybe 100 feet. They decided to make their way gingerly, angling back and forth switchback style, up to the nearest grove of trees.
Larry wished he’d brought that rope he’d left in the car . . . he was sure they wouldn’t need it. Usually didn’t. Shannon wished they’d never tried this hike . . . she was resolved to wear hiking boots, next time. And did.
Shannon went first.
It took just three or four steps. Her sandals quickly filled with dirt and sand. The other bad news was the sandals had stored large quantities of water. Dirt turned to slippery mud, causing her feet to slip around. The oozing water eventually wash away the mud, leaving sharp sand and pebbles that felt the size of boulders.
Now . . . it’s one thing to navigate a steep cliff. It’s quite another when the cliff is composed of unstable dirt, sand and gravel . . . and big loose rocks much larger than anyone should stand beneath.
Shannon began to find truth in the saying ‘two steps forward, one step back’ . . . as did Larry close behind. After much struggle, they sat to rest. The roots of an aspen tree above them were tantalizingly close, laid bare by spring runoff.
They began to head out . . . and up. Their goal: those roots.
Shannon went first again. Larry was close behind.
In a few minutes, she was almost within reach of one large root. A few more steps. She reached up. Her feet slid back. Again, she climbed up, and her feet slid half way back. She tried again. No luck.
Shannon looked back and down at Larry, obviously frustrated and becoming tired. Larry could see it on her face.
She looked back up, and set out again, determined.
Larry looked up. There, above him, was a shapely derriere.
‘Hmmm,’ he thought. ‘Dare I?’
They hadn’t known each other all that long.
He feared the action he was considering might involve a lot more intimacy than he should presume to take . . . perhaps too much for newly-mets.
Shannon’s feet slipped back. Up went his hand.
‘Hmm,’ he thought again. ‘Nice bum!’
The boost was just enough for Shannon to grab the root and pull herself up behind the tree. She helped Larry scramble up beside her.
They looked at each other. They smiled knowingly. And then Shannon and Larry made their way back to the falls and the parking lot.
On the drive back to town, they burst into laughter simultaneously. Their relationship had become a lot more . . . ah . . . intimate.
‘The Elbow Follies’ is Copyright © 2013 by James Osborne All Rights Reserved