I stir into semi-consciousness at 5:08 a.m., my senses finally making contact with the ringing of my watch alarm that has been sounding for the last eight minutes. I got little sleep last night as I rolled up to the Leadville Fish Hatchery after dark. I read well past midnight, completely engrossed in Walter Bonatti’s The Mountains of My Life. I have not read close to as much as I would like this summer with the opportunities to do so usually to the detriment of sleep. The full moon shines bright out of my truck window as I pull myself out of my cot without the need of a headlamp to prepare breakfast. I knock on Tony’s truck window to wake him. He gets up immediately and starts making coffee. I have my bag packed with a light camping setup and three days worth of food.
I have been busy this past month, with numerous guests staying at my house, so I wanted to venture out alone for a few days and nights into the Sawatch to recalibrate before leaving on a long trip to Europe the following week. I am also looking to get my hiking legs back under me for Tor des Géants, which is five weeks away, and make sure my quadricep tear has fully healed. Tony and I chat about the best lines to take on each of the 14ers to come, a mental, visual refresher for me of some of Colorado’s most spectacular hiking and running terrain.
I set off at sunrise at an easy clip through the woods up the eastern flank of Mount Massive. It is a glorious morning with only a slight nip of fall in the air. Removing any expectation of time or effort, the climb comes easy and I am nearly surprised when I top out on the summit ridge. I snap a couple photos on a throwaway film camera I had picked up in Japan, but forgotten about it until I found it in the bag I am using for this trip. I find hiking downhill on a steep trail to be strenuous, so I run/hop down the southwest slopes to the North Halfmoon Creek Trailhead.
The river crossing to gain the road that leads to the west ridge of Mount Elbert is quite a bit shallower, with a less-powerful flow than three weeks ago when I was here with Seb. He was nearly thigh deep crossing the creek and had to carry a large rock in his hands to weigh himself down–an amusing memory.
Up a little ways, I stop to rehydrate at a small, clean water source, drinking several bottles as I know that the exposed west ridge always takes its toll. As I gain elevation on the lower sandy slopes, I find myself stopping every few hundred feet, not from the obvious difficulty of the terrain, but more from a thought stunting my forward progress. My wife was quite sick a few weeks ago and I am suddenly overcome by a wave of emotion thinking about the situation despite the fact that she is now fully recovered. The issue was serious enough to make me pause, to take a step back and truly appreciate what is important to me in life. It is cliché to say that love and sharing a life with someone is truly what matters most, but at the height of vulnerability it is impossible to hide real emotion. Something inside of me tells me it is time to go home, to spend my remaining days in Colorado with Deanne rather than alone in the mountains.
There is a certain degree of selfishness in mountain pursuits, a longing for something more than what is right in front of you. I have often been asked what I mean by “having a relationship with the mountain,” to which I have answered something along the lines of “the mountain gives and it takes, creating an exchange between the traveler and the environment.” In this moment, I do not feel any exchange with the mountain, rather a shift in perspective. I bring a certain viewpoint, baggage, into the hills and sometimes leave transformed. Yet, the mountain remains indifferent to my musings and reflections, to my joy and fear. That transformation happens within, triggered by the journey I have undertaken. Sometimes I need to go far and hard to find what I am looking for, other times like today, a simple walk will suffice.
The wind picks up and blows a grouse feather out from the mesh of my hat that I had placed there earlier. I watch it flutter, pausing momentarily on a tuft of grass before disappearing out of sight. The hat was given to me by my good friend Willie, who visited last week from Montana. It is faded black, with a large elk and the state’s name on it. I had not seen Willie since college over eight years ago, but we picked right back up as if we had never been apart–monkeying around in the hills, drinking too much, and overall just having a good laugh. True friendship is that way. True love is that way also. While the solitude of being in the mountains brings me balance, it also reinforces my need to share this life with my family and friends–birds of a feather.
I scramble up the last thousand feet to the summit of Elbert and text Tony to let him know I no longer need him to pick me up in a few days. I tell him my instincts are calling me home and I cannot really explain why. He replies, “That’s what mountains are for, thought/reflection.” Indeed, they are.
Call for Comments (from Meghan)
- What powers do the mountains have over you, over influencing your mind to change its plans or, perhaps, its will?
- Have the mountains reminded you about the relationships you have with people at home, or at the very least people not on the mountain with you?