Words and Photos by Michael Polletta
The sun was shining brightly in the deep blue sky and today was turning out to be a truly perfect day. This was more than just a trail rising up from the valley floor though. I was making swift progress toward the summit and with each step forward I was thinking about those who came before me.
After 4 hours of hiking over dirt, rocks, snow, and ice I stood alone on the 12,324 ft high summit of Flat Top Mountain in what the ancients called The Bald Mountains. Hallett Peak (known as Thunder Peak to the Arapaho) rose almost 400 ft above me, with Tyndall Glacier sprawled out below.
It was spring and the surrounding peaks were shedding their snow. Bear Lake, which was completely frozen just a few weeks ago, was now a glistening pool of crystal clear water. I was standing atop the Continental Divide, with sweeping views for miles in every direction. This was a perfect day in every way.
Rocky Mountain National Park is more than just the 4th busiest National Park in the U.S. The park has given me a “sense of place.” This sense of place has grown out of my need to understand and know the human cultural experience within this stunning place. It’s not just my experience that creates this sense of place but also knowing the experiences of those who came before me long ago.
This gorgeous, harsh landscape is also a vast battlefield. This area was an Arapaho hunting ground long before Joel Estes stumbled upon it. It was a proving ground for Arapaho men. It was also the location of an epic battle between the Arapaho and Apache.
This was my second trip to the park in just a few weeks. I had attempted to summit Flat Top Mountain but had to turn back because I started too late in the morning. As I laid in my tent that night before my first summit attempt I read an incredible story by Oliver W. Toll detailing a pack trip that was outfitted and led by veteran guide Shep Husted in 1914. The Colorado Mountain Club had raised the money to bring 2 elderly Arapaho men and their interpreter to the park in an effort to document the Arapaho history and their names for places in the area.
I soon discovered that the very trail I was planning to hike the next day was deeply rooted in Arapaho history. This very trail is an ancient route crossing the Continental Divide that’s has been used for centuries. The location of my camp in Moraine Park this evening was a site used as camp by the Arapaho. This valley where I was camping was where the oldest brother of Arapaho elder Sherman Sage was taken to recover from his wounds during their battle with the Apache in Beaver Park just north of here.
The Apache had crossed over The Divide from southwest of here. My understanding is they came down the east side of the Flat Top Mountain Trail (known as the Big Trail to the Arapaho). As the battle began the Apache were slowly pushed back up the same trail to the top of Flat Top Mountain. The Apache were eventually pushed north along The Divide to the valley where Trail Ridge Road is today and eventually retreated back over the mountains.
I had now returned to follow the ancients. This was no longer just a summit attempt; this was a re-tracing of footprints left long before me. This was a journey to listen to their voices, their pain, and their celebration. This was a journey to see with my own eyes the 12,324 ft high battlefield that straddles Rocky Mountain National Park.
As I quickly ascended the trail I could almost hear the whizzing of arrows racing by me. I could almost see the Apache and Arapaho camouflaging themselves in the thick forests as they climbed toward the summit. I stood in awe on the summit, having covered just over 4.5 miles in 4 hours, and gaining almost 3,000 ft. Hundreds of acres were spread out all around me, with views extending for hundreds of miles. This is a hallowed place to those who came before me. It is a place that deserves to be honored and remembered. It is a place whose story deserves to be told. It is a story that deserves to be continued, with each of us adding our own chapter to it. John Muir said, “Of all the paths you take in life, make sure a few of them are dirt.” Next time you take that path I encourage you to understand and know that path and create your “sense of place.”
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Check out Flattop Mountain and Hallet Peak: