The smell of freshly-brewed coffee pulls me out of deep sleep and slowly, I make my way into the kitchen, murky thoughts now coming into focus. Through the darkness outside of the window, I spy my truck and trailer with my kayak all pointed to the road and ready to go.
To be out in the waters before the crowds awake… that is the prize. To have it all to yourself, to watch the Moon set while the Sun rises.
With my thermos full, my spirits begin to lift as I make my way down the road to the little bridge connecting the end of the peninsula where I live to the unspoiled barrier islands along the coast. Within a few minutes, I travel along the winding road to the end of the Gulf Islands National Seashore to a little turnout where I find my secret spot.
Lightning continues to put on a spectacular show miles out into the Gulf of Mexico, the sun just now striking the tops of the towering clouds as I get out of the truck to untie my kayak. With hundreds of sorties under my old belt, the ritual is now simple and almost mindless. Familiarity now takes the guesswork out of things. This anticipation of being out on these glassy waters revives my worn spirits. This is why I get out so often.
I have found that as the world becomes ever more connected, the bad news streams ever more shrill and uncivilized, it is necessary to break free and escape the noise as much as possible. When in the mountains, I hike endlessly up until I am all alone and here in Florida, I simply push off from shore and paddle away often simply gliding to connect to my current surroundings, all thoughts of worry now vanished.
That morning, as I make my way along the still undeveloped shores along this prized National Seashore, I spy in the shallow waters a school of Stingray going about their morning business. Not long after a group of fish come out of the water and fly across my bow when in the distance, glistening in the early morning rays, are a small group of Dolphin feeding on some unfortunates.
Instinctively, I point to their general direction and approach as quietly as I might. Something tells me that perhaps it is unwise to be atop a feeding frenzy, but I do it anyway when all of a sudden, up comes one of the Dolphin within just a few feet of my kayak, out and back down, exhaling through its blowhole!
It is one thing to see this from the stern of a powerboat, but to be among these wonderful creatures early in the morning on glassy waters is quite another thing indeed! On such a calm early morning, I feel the power of their lungs as they exhale, seeing the details of their wet, grey skin and of the blowhole opening and closing. This is truly a rare sight…
After a few minutes, I think it best to retreat and to be satisfied that I have seen this spectacle at all. And so, I make a 180 and head back closer to shore when suddenly, I feel a bump from below! With my heart rate now spiking, my thoughts begin to race! Had I angered this pod? Should I now brace for another impact? What had I done….?
Then, as I begin to hustle my way back to the shore, I spy the culprit; a little guy who probably just wants to know what this large mass on the surface is. Relieved, I smile and realize that we are no different than these lovely creatures that surround us.
Simple pleasures are the best, no background worries to detract. To wander out on foot or by paddling… Sometimes, as if to encourage us to repeat this, we are treated to the occasional wildlife sighting.
There shall be no settling down for these old dudes. For once you suck the sweet high-alpine nectar, the idea of “acting our age” is really not an option at all! So, we press on and up and quickly forget the suffering that climbing brings as we seek new terrain here in the Colorado Rockies. Well, sometimes we forget.
Last time that I had attempted to climb to the summit of Mount Lindsey (14,048′) last year, I was met by an astonished young climber who said to me…
“Sir, when I am as old as you are, I sure hope that I’m also still climbing!”
Ok, I suspect that was a compliment, and I was too tired to read too much into it! Besides, the profile of the peak past the saddle at 13,000′ looked downright scary to me at the time. Truth be told, I had blown past the trailhead that led to California Peak, a far more modest peak I had meant to climb, and had impulsively decided to go ahead and climb this one located farther up the road.
From what I’ve learned from reading a couple of hundred accounts of mountaineering accidents, it is the accumulation of small errors in judgment that frequently account for tragedy in the mountains. In my case, it would have gone something like this:
Failed to research and study the routes to the summit,
Started late in the day (risking lightning strikes),
The hike up to the saddle was mostly steep, involving a couple of nuisance stream crossings at the beginning, but nothing risky. At the saddle to the peak, the last 1,100′ of climbing to the top looked much more “interesting”. Since I had not researched this peak prior to climbing, I found myself relying on the few climbers coming off of the mountain for information. Not a particular fan of exposed, Class three scrambling, I chose the NW Gully (as depicted in the main photo), but was driven back when dark clouds engulfed the mountain and hail began to drop.
My instincts instructed me to haul my old butt off of this mountain … NOW with my cowardly self quickly complying as I returned safely to my cozy home last year.
But… I simply had to return to step on the top of this glorious peak. Having sipped from the chalice the year before, I was determined to revisit this, as I had come tantalizingly close to her pretty summit.
And this time, I had done the research and had found a great climbing partner in my new friend, Ed, a retired National Park Service Ranger with 35 years of experience in some of our country’s wildest places. I had joined our county’s mountain Search and Rescue group a few months back, and had come to enjoy Ed’s company and trusted his judgment; the kind of climbing partner that infuses confidence with every step up the trail.
So off we went to find our start in the early morning in August. Passing the large boulder field, we made our way up to ever more glorious views of this pristine wilderness. And up we went, slowly… surely, possibly even elegantly, but that would be for others to judge. Ok, likely not elegantly.
At the saddle (main photo), we stopped to reassess our route options and chose the same one as I had come to know the year before. Now, mind you, at 58 and 68, our options were not quite what they may have been 40 years ago…, but young spirits prevailed and after a good break, we made our way up the final 1,100′.
Class three climbing in this setting required helmets and three points of contact as we carefully wound our way up.
“Ed, I’m seeing leftover snow, ice, and probably mud on our route. Your thoughts?”
In his typical manner, Ed quickly quipped,
“Hey, it’s your climb. You make the call.”
So I did and slowly, we traversed along the rocky and ever faint path to the bottom of the gully, carefully placing our feet and hands and testing our holds. Frequently, we stopped and rotated lead positions always mindful of rockfall, snow, mud, and ice.
Three years into my early retirement and now I find myself on this insane (by my standards) route up one of Colorado’s 53 14ers with a much more experienced mountaineer and I begin to ask myself how wise it is to proceed. But quickly, I mute the voice of doubt.
And up we go, carefully maneuvering past the crux of the route, a deep V-shaped line where we calmly find our way along the side of the gully for sound purchase of footholds along thinner and thinner ledges, I notice the quickly moving and darkening clouds and my heart sinks.
“Crap, Ed! Looks like ugly weather making its way behind the mountain again this year!”
“Yup. And we don’t want to have to call our Search and Rescue friends! I would rather die here before I ever make that call!”
“Agreed. Let’s break here and have lunch, enjoy the view, and wait this out for a few minutes.”
So, it was that we sat on this gnarly slope, goofing off, trying to keep warm as the first of the grapple begins to hit our helmets.
I look at my Garmin GPS and note that we are at 13,812’… about 200′ from the summit.
Without much conversation, we decide we’d prefer to live and so we grab our packs and ever so carefully retreat off of this glorious mountain to give it another shot next year.
200′ from the top; the Tortures of Tantalus.
But it was a wise call as we turned around once more to see the entire peak being hit hard with hail.
Back at the trailhead, I reach in for a couple of tasty IPAs, pop them open and hand one to my climbing partner.
“Well Ed, I think we made a good call. What do you think?”
“Hell yeah, we did. AND… we didn’t have to call Search and Rescue to get our sorry asses off of this mountain!”
How do you stay awake, after the alarm comes to life at 0300 hours? After a couple of cups of coffee, an omelette prepared by my loving wife at 0330… why it’s all about some loud (inspirational) music blaring in the truck as I motor on out to climb another of Colorado’s famous “14ers”, 54 defined peaks in the state that rise above 14,000′.
With four bars present on my iPhone, I dial up some fiery Louisiana Blues and on comes Clarence Frogman Henry wailin’ on some tune called, “I Ain’t Got No Home”: perfect.
So while a lonely pair of headlights makes it way along remote dirt roads to a trailhead some two hours away, I’m mentally preparing for a very long, long day. The plan unfolds:
0300: Wake up your sorry 58 year old butt,
0400: Drive off for a two hour’s drive through the Colorado Rockies
0600: Arrive at the Missouri Gulch Trailhead
1430: Return to the Trailhead, open up cooler, savor one tasty IPA
1500: Drive back home
1700: Arrive back home and stumble on in to regale wife with heroic tales of mountaineering…
Yeah, plans. At least it’s a nod to some serious and responsible planning, but things always slip. And so, as the sun began to rise, painting the the tips of the pretty mountains surrounding me on all sides, so my mood and anticipate rose as well. It was going to be another fully-charged, great day to be alive!
Pulling into the parking area on time, I had expected to see a good number of cars. Most serious hikers and climbers arrive well before sunrise so that they can summit and come down before the expected early afternoon thunderstorm unleash their fury (lightning, hail, rain…) . Missouri Mountain was my sixteenth attempt, having summited on the prior 14 of 15, the latter unsuccessful due to a nasty hail storm near the summit! (Mt. Lindsey).
Over the pretty bridge over the creek I went, hoping not to encounter any enterprising, toll-taking Trolls, a gateway to the upper basin on a perfect day! From the research, I knew I’d be in for a good 10 miles (16 km) of hiking (roundtrip) with a total elevation gain of 4,712′ (~ 1,420 meters). Barring any ugly weather or surprisingly challenging terrain, this could be reasonably done at my slow pace.
And up I went; over the wobbly, skinny logs over the upper creek, up the steep trail, past the remnants of an old log cabin and them up onto an amazingly beautiful basin with a clear and robust creek flowing down in the middle. Frogman Henry’s catchy, little blues tunes were still ringin’ in my old ears when I came upon another hiker, a guy originally from Louisiana stopped at a fork in the trail at around 12,600′: Dave.
“Hey! Fantastic morning to be alive, ain’t it?”, I said to him enthusiastically
“Heck yeah! But, I’m totally gassed. Not sure I want to continue. Climbed a 14er yesterday…”
“Oh man! Two in two days?”
I’ve found that there are typically two types deep in the wilderness; those who really want to be left alone… and then… people like Dave and I who enjoy the surprise of finding like-minded people with stories to share along the trail. And so, having planned to drop my pack at this point for a decent break before heading up the steep wall to the saddle above, another good 1,300′ or so on slippery scree and rock trail, I spent time to chat with Dave.
After about 10 minutes, I politely broke and told Dave that if I did not keep on truckin’, I’d be doomed… a mental thing. He laughed and waved me on, wishing me well as I did him.
After about 10 minutes of pure “Hell on Steep Scree”, something told me to look back; and there slogging up the mountain was my new buddy for the day, Dave! I did not want to get into his personal space so I kept on my pace up the mountain and planned for another decent break at the saddle. Only a couple of minutes behind, Dave crested the ridge and once, again, we picked up our effortless conversation from our point about 1,300′ below in the valley! Next stop: the Summit of Missouri Mountain!
“Hey… why don’t we hang together on this last 0.7 miles (1 km) to the summit. Looks a little sketchy.”, I suggested
And for the balance of the climb and the descent back down to the trailhead, we teamed up for an epic day on top of the world! Dave told me that he was an EMS Tech and I tried to impress him with my having recently joined my county’s mountain Search and Rescue! All good along the ridge.
On the way down was a dude in his late 50s or so, with a smile that seemed to stretch from one end of the horizon to the other. Mental note that would serve me well later that day…
The photos included pretty much speak for themselves. It was a fantastic day and we were mildly delirious to return to our respective vehicles in the parking lot after a long day, particularly for Dave who had bagged two 14ers in as many days!
After crossing the bridge, I had the pleasure to meet Dave’s wife and friendly Lab, both who had climbed with him the day before. Then, perhaps the funniest part of the day unfolded.
Sitting behind my pickup truck in the parking lot, flip-flops on instead of boots (!), one IPA going down the old gullet, a lady’s voice calls out from across the lot…
“How was your climb?”
“Uh… great! Thanks!”
“Mind if I ask what mountain your were on?”
“Did you happen to see a guy with a bushy, red beard (not her words exactly)?”
“Yeah! I saw him! He looked very happy to have summited!”
So we began to chat and realized that he should have been down before us. We had not seen him along the one trail heading down and I got a little concerned… as I realize, in retrospect, so was she.
Something dogged me as I bade her farewell and drove off; a feeling that I should not have left before her husband returned. Darn… bad call. Lesson learned.
Then, about six miles farther down the dirt, forest road I see him under a tree! Without looking in my rearview mirror, I instinctively (and rather dramatically) slam on my brakes effecting a massive dust storm behind me…
“Hey there! Your wife is waiting for you at the parking lot!”
Ha, ha, ha… life is funny, eh? “PJ” jumps into my truck for the ride back to the trailhead. Turns out, we both fled Maryland for Colorado and are both now hooked on climbing! PJ, looking very relieved, kinda looks like a more fit and outdoorsy version the bearded fella of the Grateful Dead.
I laugh all the way home, reflecting on this hilarious and satisfying day, set in a dramatic terrain filled with like-minded explorers all drawn to the beauty of this magnificent landscape.
… another day not wasted. Check.
“I’m a lover not a fighter…”, the Louisiana Blues lyrics carry me all the way home to my loving wife.
Why not see what is possible in our short lives…? I’ve found that some of the great pleasures of discovery await only when we quietly slip away from the noise and make our way into wilderness.
I’d been climbing up into the Sangre de Cristo mountain range for a couple of years now, ever since retiring early to Colorado from the Washington, DC area. Thankin’ me lucky stars that I’d thought to spend the time to craft a simple plan to break free before we were too old to enjoy our freedom!
And so here now was a chance to return the good Karma that I’d felt when I had gone down to climb in Ecuador shortly after my mother’s death. Reminded me how fleeting life was… Ten years had passed since I had seen Roger. He had led our small group of eager mountaineers for a glorious tour of some of Ecuador’s high volcanos, some of which we managed to summit. Now, it was my turn to repay that favor!
Joe and Emilie and their fun dog, Uschi came rolling up in their customized van, having recently ditched their jobs in Ohio in favor of living on the road! That evening at the house was wonderful, as the wine flowed and the tasty fish sat sizzling on the grill. Great times that, at this age, we knew were precious and certainly worth savoring.
And as the sun set and the Milky Way rose, as it were, anticipation grew as we plotted our upcoming adventures in the mountains across the valley, 18 miles away. Rocking on the chairs on the front porch, I pointed out certain peaks and described the characteristics of each of the valleys, lakes, and cirques. I knew that there was simply no way of making a bad decision!
Loading up my adventure-rigged F-150 the following morning, the four of us piled in for a gnarly ride up a remote forest road to a trailhead up at 9,850′. We’d disembark, grab our heavy packs, and hike up about five miles up to about 12,000′ at the upper South Colony Lakes, spend the night, and then press on for a sweet climb up to the summit of Humboldt Peak, one of Colorado’s 14ers (one of 53 peaks that rise above 14,000′). The promise of blue-bird skies had us on a natural high as we made our way up into the mountains.
It had been ten years since we’d climbed together and back then, I was certainly the weak link, but no more. I’d logged in almost 162,000′ of vertical gain since January and I felt worthy to hang with my bros and sistas. Felt great, both physically and mentally!
Having been up here a few times before, I knew this trail would be a guaranteed hit and, judging from the widening grins of my climbing partners, I could see I had made the right call. With the sun now set well behind the imposing headwalls, it was getting cooler and we quickly deployed our tents, grabbed our fishing poles and made our way to the lake to fish.
While I must admit that my fishing skills lacked in a big way, thankfully Roger (pictured at right of photo, above, snagged a sweet trout within the first couple of tries! Bonus! We’d grill her up and split the prize among us, making a rather Spartan meal of mashed potatoes topped with fish!
Despite the great weather and it being Labor Day Weekend, we found ourselves all alone at the upper lake! Incredible, but we’d happy for that. And so the evening’s conversation flowed effortlessly as we enjoyed great company, our day’s accomplishment, and the glorious scenery around us. Perched high on a rock outcropping, we each silently thanked our good health and good fortunes.
It’s funny how the simple things in life give us the most pleasure. For me, some of the best moments come after struggle and discomfort, being far from “civilization” for a spell, so that we may regenerate our tired souls…
Once the sun set, we found ourselves eager to retire for the evening in anticipation of tomorrow’s climb to the summit of Humboldt Peak. The setting was indescribably awesome in the purest sense of that overused word.
Rising the following morning at 0400, I caught sight of the headlamps following the trail up across the way to the more technical Crestone Peak and Needles. Spaced apart, the climbers made their way slowly up the talus sloped terrain, gaining the upper couloir then over to the ridge.
Firing up the camp-stove for a quick breakfast prior to our climb, each of us sat in awe of the alpenglow that was lighting up our high alpine world… Nourished, inspired, and ready, Joe, Roger and I set off for the summit, leaving Emilie and Uschi behind. After some debate, we had decided that the large boulder field up higher as well as the 40-50 degree pitch would be a bit much for our four-legged partner. With some sadness, we all turned back to wave back at Emilie and Uschi, promising a safe return!
And up we went…
What fun to be climbing again with my old friends! This time, it was my turn to guide, though Joe quickly like a mountain goat, blasted up way ahead, Roger and I took our time, savoring the unfolding scenes all around us.
As is typical of the upper trails near the summits, we found ourselves in boulderfields marked (thankfully!) by rock cairns. And up we went, slowly, determined.
With the summit in view, we found a swarm of dark clouds making their way up from the south and knew that we’d have a limited amount of time to linger. Views from up here are absolutely phenomenal! Otherworldly, almost, with the dramatic headwall of the Crestone Peaks on the opposite side of the cirque, we savored our hard-won prize, sipped some Spanish wine from our bota, and traded tasty treats to regenerate our tired bodies.
All in all, it was a grand adventure worthy of inclusion in my blog! Not unlike Napoleon’s retreating army from Russia, we eventually dragged our way back to the truck, drove the insanely-rutted forest road back down to green valley below, returned to basecamp back home, dropped into comfy chairs around the fire pit, and poured more than a few glasses of wine as the sun set on the mountains across the way.
And, once again, life is great and spirits renewed!
The iPhone vibrated against my ribcage at an uncivilized 0500 hours on “Day 2” of our mountain adventure. Somehow, it was a TedTalk from a couple of years ago on the subject of activation energy that infused a bolt of temporary vigor and willpower to get me to leave my cozy and almost warm sleeping bag to start our day’s adventure.
My good friend, Paul and I had driven over five hours two nights ago to arrive at a remote campsite in another high alpine valley, in fact just a kind of flat spot next to a pull-off by a gnarly forest road at around 11,400′ to begin our weekend of “fun” with the goal of climbing two mountains.
We’d climbed a mountain in the same range the day before and now hoping our aging bodies would recover mercifully to allow for today’s hike up Uncompahgre Peak at 14,309′ (4,365m) the tallest mountain in this region and the 6th highest of the Colorado 14ers (regional parlance to describe mountains that rise in excess of 14,000′). Having carefully examined the route on Google Earth before our departure, it seemed quite benign; almost a casual stroll in the Highlands, if you will.
But the very nature of the word, adventure, reminds us to keep a wary eye for the unexpected. Would it come in the way of a flat tire on a steep, unpaved and deeply rutted and rocky US Forest Service road leading up to the trailhead, personal injury, or in the need to assist in helping a fellow hiker return safely down? Never can predict.
And, once again, the cruel cycle repeats…
Recover from last hike and forget the pain, close call(s), discomfort,
Feel a growing agitation,
Locate source of agitation (or not),
Leave impulsively for the mountains to climb again… repeat (i.e., lesson not learned and no hope of ever learning it!)
Oh, the human mind… you unpredictable thing!
Signing in to the kiosk that early morning and seeing hundreds of names in the register from earlier in the year, anticipation grew as we once again set foot on brand-new trail. The weather was just right as we ascended into the higher plateaus and… soon, there she was, in full splendor; Uncompahgre Peak beckoning us, rising a good 2,500′ from where we stood.
No need for scheduled breaks for it seemed that every few minutes, we’d see another angle, a changed light, and another chance to capture this wonderful spot on Earth.
Up we went to find climbers returning from sun-rise ascents, Marmots eyeing us quizzically like natives in the Peruvian Andes, tents grouped upon magnificent perches with dizzyingly stunning views of the peaks beyond, and fellow hikers way up on the mountain making their way to the summit.
And up we went with anticipation of expanding views to the valleys below.
Stopping for a much-needed break at around 13,500′, we spied the approaching group of three climbing up at a brisk pace,
“Looks like the trail runners we saw yesterday, eh Paul?”, I remarked. The young ladies had literally been running up and down valleys that day.
“Oh to be young again…”
… except as the three passed us, the husband trailing behind stopped to chat. They were in their mid-seventies with bodies of 20 year olds! His wife and her girlfriend were in the process of bagging their 41st 14er and for her 70th birthday, he had surprised her with a planned through-hike of the entire length of the Colorado Trail (486 miles with about 88,000′ of elevation gain and loss). What a “gift”.
The old chap knew very well the effect this comment would have on us…
Mindset, reasonably healthy respect for our bodies, and a will to push through imaginary barriers largely created by society’s relentless efforts to numb us down… (nice try) and the world’s adventures await you as well.
Why, maybe in 15 years, I’ll be the 72 year old with some funny stories to share with fellow hikers… or with some luck in 30 or, hell, why set timid goals …in 45. Why not?
Sipping wine late into the evening, I watch the sun set behind the wonderful Sangre de Cristo mountains across the valley on this still night and wonder what my mother, a true Austrian alpinist would have thought of what my wife and I have pulled off. My gaze drifts over to the Austrian Pine that we had planted in her honor and know that in a hundred years, others will sit here and have their own thoughts … when the young tree then towers majestically in their presence.
We don’t have forever to get in our groove in life, do we. Best if we find a way to forgive ourselves and others and quietly move in the direction of that soulful piano player in the distance calling us to smile, dance a little, and savor our existence on this planet of ours.
Looking at these ancient photos of mom and her friends roped up high in the Alps, I’ve got to believe that these were some of her best moments; precious and uninhibited moments disconnected from the travails of humanity and its fabricated problems… a place where the views grow to farther horizons with each step up.
These shots were taken about 65 years ago, but nothing much changes on the looks of those who find themselves high up in the mountains. The grins are all the same, the elegant and stylish clothes a little different, ok.
So, intuitively, we understand that we stand at a crossroads in life and the choice is ours, really; do we squander our gift of time with distraction, or… do we say “screw that” and find what makes us come alive! The choice is ours.
When my mother died in my arms in our home that summer of 2006, she passed on to us her torch to live life to it’s extreme potential, without harm to self, to others, or to our planet. The people she touched along the way… all felt a piece of that energy as well. She had inspired many, many who would call me over the coming weeks to tell me how she touched their lives.
Yes, indeed. I hear the distant music playing its soulful tune and the call is clear; waste not a minute of the time you have left. Find and reconnect with old friends, make new ones, and go out and spread some inspiration of your own.
Tomorrow, my wife and I will take a short drive across this wonderful valley to hike at our leisure, the Rainbow Trail; what a delightful name for a trail, yes? Later, this weekend, I pick up my good friend Paul for what promises to be another epic hike up to a remote mountaintop in the San Juan Mountains (Uncompahgre Peak) smiling on the way up, giddy at the top, and possibly skipping with delight on the way down.
It’s a great life… Why not be an inspiration to others along life’s Grand Journey?
The Snows have mostly melted above 12,000′ here in the Colorado Rockies and I find that some of the most pleasing days up in the mountains come in late May/early June when the upper trails are clear, but the remaining snowfields are still present, creating a stunning contrast of dark blues, stark whites, against a texture of rock.
This is my third summer in Colorado, having spent the first two gaining skills, losing weight, and going higher and longer, mostly solo. In the summer of 2015, I climbed for a total of 32,300′, last year for 102,000′ and this year I’m hoping to break 200,000′. At 57, things don’t get any easier, but maybe… just maybe, an aging body’s reach can be helped with a stronger mindset and, of course, a durable sense of humor.
I had spied Mount Herard over the Great Sand Dunes back in September of 2007 when I raced through Colorado stopping off at interesting spots along a wide loop, thinking quietly as I sat on High Dune about 700′ over the trailhead… just how cool it would be to climb that magnificent mountain in the distance someday, someday.
Years later, while volunteering to build trails on the Western slope of the Sangre de Cristo mountains, I once again marveled at the awe-inspiring grandeur of this setting while touring the Baca Wildlife Refuge and saw that magnificent peak once again.
And it was during a random Internet search of things to do at the Dunes that I had stumbled by chance upon a YouTube video of a really interesting hike to the top of this mountain and so, the wheels were set in motion to get up this peak soon! And the “Die was Cast”!
Finally, yesterday, pushing off at around 0500 hours, I drove down our wide valley in search of the Medano Pass, a rough forest service road that traverses the range through a Bison Ranch. And as I made my turn onto the pass just as the sun was grazing the tall prairie grasses with the first rays of the day, there they were… three large herd of Elk making their way into the higher plains.
Passing them as I made my way higher to the pass, the alpenglow upon the peaks of the high mountains were like Sirens taunting me ever closer into their embrace, and willingly I went… naturally.
The drive up the pass is half the adventure and when I found my spot to park, the gentle early morning breezes picked up heralding what was to be another epic day in the high alpine regions of this incredible mountain range.
Having registered at the trailhead’s sign-in sheet at around 0718, I found myself up at the high alpine lake at around 0930 and up at the saddle at around 1015. The view down to the lake and out to the valley below was simply breathtaking. And then it was over the crux of the hike to the summit, the upper ridge to the keyhole offering passage to the final segment.
At this point, I had been hiking up approximately 3,550 feet and staring at a somewhat daunting last 850 feet and it is at this point best to rest, drink water, and survey one’s surroundings and assess one’s energy levels. Feeling oddly strong and confident, I chose to press on to the top; something always a little riskier when going solo.
“Slow and steady”, came my inner voice reminding me that safety in the mountains always wins over a human-manufactured need to summit… always slow and steady. And this time the voice added “and just see what happens, step-by-step”.
There’s a mysterious, involuntary and almost indescribable feeling that wells up in one’s soul when alone so high on a mountain’s exposed ridge, peering down to the headwalls that only moments before appeared so daunting looking up from below! And each slow step steadily heightens this view and you realize… just how small and insignificant you really are in time and place.
Great relief to make it onto to easier terrain! Now, up at over 13,000 feet, the mind shifts to auto pilot at seeing the faint and easy path to the summit.
… and there they are, the magnificent Great Sand Dunes so far below, with a number of other peaks in the distance, many over 14,000 feet high farther South. Like a grand mirage, this rare view I had all to myself yesterday. And I simply sat down on the grassy slope and held this view for a time thinking just how beautiful our planet is… and though I am not religious, I certainly felt humbled by it all. Looking down at the Dunes, I recalled the day back in 2007 that I had stared up at this point wondering what it would be like to climb it … and now here I was.
Of course, those of us who’ve read mountaineering literature in our comfortable, worn leather chairs during winter months are reminded that the going down is typically the most dangerous part of the day’s journey… Easy to fall into a mindless daze and not focus.
And as I descended down through the valley to the lake below and then through the dense forests that led to the trailhead… I turned back a few times to bid farewell to my temporary place high up… a wonderful terrain so far removed from the hectic pace of our modern world.
Ah, and of course, the prize, one cold beer waiting for me at my truck! Sitting in my camping chair, reflecting on the day, tension largely dissipated, a smile came over me; I’m doing things now that I’d never imagined I’d ever do when I was far younger… and life is great, each day precious!