Alas, the sand that has accumulated in the lower chamber now exceeds that of the upper, but that has only motivated me to squeeze the most of my remaining days. And maybe, if we “adventure” more, we may in fact find ourselves scooping some of the sand back to the top! It’s a nice thought, yes?
I returned to mountaineering ten years ago. My mother had died recently and she reminded me of her technical climbing days in the Austrian Alps back in the late 40s and early 50s. Carefully, we turned the pages of that treasured photo album of her youthful adventures. I often think of her when I climb.
These day hikes to high peaks are a bit insane at this age, but so worth it in the end. For something like this, I awake at four in the morning, grab my prepared gear, a cup of coffee, and go. The billions of stars overhead, where I live at almost 8,000′ (2,438m) are so brilliant given the lack of light pollution, that I might almost drive without my lights. Sometimes, I simply gaze at this in silence and wonder how gravity keeps me from drifting up into space. Have you ever had this sensation?
Grand spaces make us feel small and temporary and restore a childlike awe and respect for our surroundings. The big, light-filled cities have so many sensory distractions that we forget.
Here, the Sangre de Cristo mountain range rises about 6,000′ (1,828m) up from our valley floor to 14,000′ (4,267m), in a few areas. Extreme forest roads allow us to gain access, but they require 4WD, high-clearance vehicles to properly navigate. In some portions, the grade is 20° and driving up is assuredly not for the faint of heart.
And as the pirates exclaim… “Without fear there is no courage!”, of course, I’ve not quite learned where courage ends and stupidity begins. Perhaps, the answer is found in the risk-reward formula? I never pause long enough to think, because when we overthink we often don’t “do”.
So the first phase of this type of adventure is a drive up one of these roads in the dark. Best to have a cover to the thermos. And you turn off from the open valley and onto increasingly bumpy and rocky roads and the silhouette of the peaks is now barely visible with the early rays of the sun. You finally meet the end and park, exit and now you are in the thick forests and you begin to wonder who is watching your every move. Mountain Lions are quite crafty.
Over the rushing creek, you are cold, a little tired, but you press on, knowing that soon the warm sun will light up a fabulous high alpine setting, one that will provide a surprising surge in your spirits and energy. And you follow your headlamp faithfully until that happens.
Soon, you find ourselves above tree line, the glorious cirque (a circular formation of mountains) now suddenly alight with the early alpenglow and an unbelievable feeling washes over you, reminding you that this is all worth doing.
And up you go, now climbing the magnificent path before you and you look up and simply cannot believe your good fortune; to be alive, feeling alive, and no one else is here to disturb the moment.
Now the mountain lakes are to your left, their waters perfectly still in the early morning, and over there… is a lone sentry on a rock outcropping; a Bighorn sheep looking down at you. Quietly and gently, you continue your journey upwards, periodically looking down to see that the peaks that had previously towered above you are now below. This is incredible. Where are you getting your will to continue?
The early breezes begin, rippling the waters at the lower lake as you approach the upper one, creating moving patterns. A waterfall connects the two and you look at the snows still remaining from the winter before. Suddenly, more of the magnificent creatures appear out of the willows and you look up to see eight of them, all stopping to gaze at the human in their alpine valley.
Not a sound to be heard… save for a gentle breeze.
Up higher now, as the sun begins to bring light to the entire cirque, now looking down on the upper lake as you find the trail to the ridge line and you see the final 45° segment to the summit. Up high now, you have a view over to the valleys below; the San Luis Valley to the west, the Wet Mountain Valley to the east.
Looking up, the final push to the top comes into view and the worn trail now disappears into the large, steep boulder field, marked occasionally by a rock cairn, but you continue. Up a few hundred feet with the sheer, north facing slope dropping off thousands of feet to your left, you do not allow yourself bad thoughts. You know what happens if you do.
You look up to find an older climber heading down. Incredibly, you find that he is in his mid-70s, yet seems quite natural in this setting. You exchange brief comments, he turns to point out the way up and you pass wishing him well; he descending and you finding the last few hundred feet to the top. Something in the old man reassures you that you have a few more years in the high mountains.
Finally, you find the upper rock-strewn plateau and you are so close. There! There it is; the high point. Happy to drop your pack, you find a flat rock on which to sit and you take in the precious and hard-won view. Now the upper alpine lakes are so far down below. Not a cloud in the sky.
For a few minutes, you have this entire summit to yourself. The two women who have tailed you up for the past three hours arrive and more pleasantries are exchanged, and you give each the quiet space; the code of the mountaineer.
The day has been a long one; 4,464′ feet of climbing (1,361m) to 14,070′ (4,289m) and 14 miles roundtrip (22.5km), but no gain without a little pain.
Way in the distance, I’m sure that I can see my wife sitting on our front porch, our old Newfies by her feet…