We wake to the sounds of tiny green hummingbirds fluttering their wings as they slurp down the rainbow of wildflower nectar that adorns the hillside outside our windows. We arrived in the early afternoon, fresh off an 18 hour drive from Iowa, trying to coax our lungs to suck as much oxygen out of the thinner air as possible as we acclimate to being 10,000 feet above sea level. The drive up the mountain to the cabin had been exhilarating and unnerving, as we inched up nine miles of narrow, switch-backing, boulder-filled road. After hours on the interstate highway through Nebraska and eastern Colorado’s vast grasslands and developments, the alpine forest that the road winds through seems to be an enchanted forest of towering aspen groves, steep rocky ledges and vibrant plant life. The cabin that we are calling home for the week is a solar powered log structure situated precariously on the side of a steep slope, filled with rawhide couches, braided rugs and knotty pine accessories. The only neighbors are a group of wiry cowboys who run horseback pack trips out of their camp near the base of the mountain and a defunct ski resort that never got off the ground, the lifts sitting abandoned and rusty just up the road.
With plans to spend the day on the trail, we fill our packs with trail mix, raingear, water bottles and cameras. After grabbing some trekking poles and lacing up boots than haven’t seen mountain soil for over a year, we set off up the road in search of the trail that we mapped out last night by gas lantern light.
We are soon shedding layers and gasping for breath as the sun begins to dry the dew on the leaves, and we methodically work our way up the unrelentingly steep road. A tall green and red pole looms in the distance and as we approach, the old ski lift reveals itself, a silent and still giant that has been sleeping its whole life. We wonder briefly if the cowboys at the base of the mountain come out to play with the lift in the slower days of winter. Then we are back on our way up, by this point a little more used to the physical exertion and altitude as we continue up the mountain side.
Eventually we come to the end of the road, and there is a sign waiting for us. Unfortunately, it is unreadable thanks to years of weather wearing it down. The trail splits in two directions, so we pick left based on the topo lines on the map, figure we can rely on our map reading and compass wielding skills if we must and head out. We walk through a thick pine forest for the first 200 yards and then come to a steep grassy meadow that is completely ablaze with wildflowers of all kinds-red gilia, bluebells, mountain daisies and countless more. The mountainside is humming with an energy that can be felt to the very core of our beings, and we are treated to our first view of the other side of the mountain and the ranges that lay to the east and north. The meadow extends toward the facing peaks and melts over into the deep valley below. By this time we have lost the trail and are picking our way across the expanse of flowers and rocks, drinking in the views while doing our best to avoid tumbling down the hill and congratulating ourselves for bringing the trekking poles. We spot the trail down below and make our way across the higher ground so as not to lose our elevation just to gain it back again later. At a clump of aspens and short brushy pines, we join the trail and are able to fall back into the rhythm of walking, taking one step after another, sinking into the pattern of the mountain.
Despite our well laid plan to avoid losing elevation, we start to drop down into the valley as we follow the trail. We cross tremendous washouts caused by runoff from a long and snowy winter and marvel at the power that water has against something as old and massive as a mountain. The simple truth that ancient rock of a mountainside can be so effortlessly stripped away forces us to recognize the impact that we have on the fragile ground where we walk. We are reminded that the influence of humanity across the expanse of the planet is leaving a mark that cannot be erased.
Continuing on the trail, we come to an immense snowfield that lies like a wool blanket over hundreds of trees, their roots lifted free of the mountain by an early spring avalanche. We detour around the pine needle and snow medley and locate the trail on the other side of a shimmering, quick flowing and rock-filled stream. Surveying the crossing, we take tentative steps out into unknown waters, hoping the rocks will hold our weight as we rely on them to carry us to the other side. A successful traverse, and the journey back up the mountain continues. A series of steep switchbacks regains us some elevation and we steadily put one foot in front of the other, feeling our lungs and the elevation wrestle as we progress up into the basin that we hope will provide some relief.
We cross another stream and round the bend into the basin. It is a breathtaking sight and more green than we have ever seen at 11,000 feet. Here is a place that is truly alive, and flourishing even while the climate continues to change and humans continue to go on living in ways that seem ignorant of the increasing impression of humanity on the planet. The wildflowers are out in abundance, waterways flow through fields of waist-high grasses and waterfalls thunder down the rocky hillside along the basin walls. This stretch of our day is a welcome opportunity to take our eyes from the trail and breathe in the sounds, smells and images before us. A marmot watches us eat our lunch of trail mix and cheese from his perch in a nearby boulder field, and we watch him, for a moment living in the same world-just creatures surviving in the wild.
A stretch, a sip of water, a last zip of the pack and we are off again, now heading up in earnest as we aim for the pass that is our window into the other side of the mountain. By now we are walking well above tree line, being careful not to slip, as it would be a long, uncomfortable tumble back into the basin that was so welcoming just a short while ago. Looking up towards the rock and snow that is our future footing, we wonder momentarily how we will manage to negotiate such steep and icy terrain. Not for long though, as the clouds from the west have started to move and darken-an ominous combination for three small beings creeping along the side of a massive rocky ledge. We press onward and upward, inching across one last seemingly endless, steep and crusty snowfield. After what seems to be the longest 30 yards ever, we reach the crest of the pass. We can see for miles to the north and south, and to the west and east there are sheer rock cliffs covered in snow and ice. The view is magnificent, but we cannot take much luxury in absorbing the scenery since we now are being chased by storm clouds. The trail is nowhere to be found from our vantage point. It is most likely covered in snow, so we head down the most logical path between boulders and grassy outcroppings. We move quickly, without much conversation since lightening while on a bald mountainside is nothing to scoff at. Snowfield after snowfield we progress downward, eventually coming to a creek-from our map it looks to be the creek that this trail will follow down the northern-most side of the mountain, so we keep moving.
The trail abruptly appears along the creek, and we move more rapidly as the sky begins to rumble. Thunder in a high mountain valley is a sound like no other-it bounces off the landscape and overshadows everything else, forcing attention on it alone. A small thicket acts as our sanctuary when the lightening show begins. We drop our metal poles well away from the trees and huddle together under a tiny emergency blanket that got stuck in a pack last minute. The rain and hail start to pound down on the earth, and once again we are humbled at the power of the natural world. In an instant, the landscape has changed from magnificent to ominous, like a dark creature emerging from its lair after a long slumber.
An hour passes. We are growing weary of waiting for the storm to pass and cold from our stationary stance under our makeshift shelter. A quick weigh of the pros and cons regarding leaving or waiting longer, and we gather our packs, secure our raingear and reunite with the trekking poles to begin walking again. By this time, the thunder has mostly passed and the lightening is keeping its distance, though the rain continues to fall. We scuttle across an open meadow in search of the trail that got lost in our escape from the storm and wind down into the deep valley of the creek, now a rushing torrent and much higher than just an hour ago. The combination of heavy rain and melting snow from the high country has made it an angry rush of water rather than a bubbling mountain brook. We hope that the trail will not turn out to be on the other side. We breathe a small sigh of relief as our path peeks out from under some damp rocks and shrubs and begin the downward trudge to friendlier ground.
Our trusty trail sinks and slips over deep washed out ravines as it snakes down the valley, back into tree cover. We cross more snowfields, steep even now that we are lower in elevation, and more slick this time from the afternoon rains. Mud washes down the slopes as we try not to look down beyond the snow cover and rock slides to the drop-offs into the creek hundreds of feet below. The trail, once solid and dry is turning into a soggy and soft route that might not be so kind to the next hikers try to pass through the hills this way. Even still, despite the treacherous terrain, the mountain is magnificent in its dewy jacket of mist, clouds rising up from the deep creek bed, and greens and browns enhanced to their full splendor. The energy from the earth’s vibrancy is palpable and we drink from it, thirsty for its realness and truth.
Finally we come into a dense forest, still following the trail that has regained our trust with the support of roots and rocks laying a solid foundation. We take a minute to debate whether or not to search for a shortcut recommended to us by a local resident, but opt to stay on the path that we know will bring us out to the road back to the cabin. Moving quickly, as the hour is growing later and later, we reach a sheer drop off and follow the marked trail down to the creek. At first glance, we rejoice and congratulate ourselves on making it to the end of the trail in one piece. There appears to be a bridge over the swollen creek, a welcome sight after witnessing the rapid rising of the waters. But this relief is short lived. The “bridge” turns out to be a broken ladder, barely perched on the edge of the far side of the creek bed. We can see where the usual creek crossing takes place on days where the creek is a gentle, bubbling stream, but the boulders are submerged in the icy, quick flowing water. Again, a debate takes place. Do we risk crossing up to our waists in a swollen river or put our trust in a precariously situated “bridge”? We must do something quickly, or risk having to figure this out in the dark.
We choose the bridge. Crawling one at a time across the shaking ladder, we manage to cross to the other side. One trekking pole is swallowed by the swells of the creek, but we are grateful that is all that is lost. We try not to think about the waterfall that lays just down-stream from our perilous crossing and continue, now trying to find the gravel road that will carry us back up the mountain to our sanctuary on the hillside.
The road is straight ahead through a thick grove of aspens. Tired, damp and still a little shaken from the river crossing, we begin the long steep walk back up. Through the enchanted forest and over the rocky tracks we climb, each content with individual thoughts and thankful to walk a more familiar path. As darkness falls, a glimmer of light from the window of our hillside home draws us in, and we fall asleep to the sounds of tiny wings beating as the hummingbirds refuel for another day of life on the mountain.
Featured Image: Flickr/Chad Weisser