Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Mt. of the Holy Cross attempt - the universe says otherwise

Ever since my first 14er climb in 2010 I have had a mild obsession with hiking all of Colorado’s peaks over 14,000 feet (of which there are 58). This personal goal and journey is one I can only begin to attempt when the temperature rises and snow melts here in the high country. When I first began to hike I took signs to the top to hold for my summit photo. I quickly realized I did not need this addition as I remember every peak and every climb based on who I’ve hiked with and the challenges I’ve faced. Hiking in the high country is my happy place, somewhere I can go to decompress and unwind. There is no greater feeling to me than packing my car full of gear, filling up the camelbacks, shopping for the perfect trail food and driving off to the land of no cell service and tent sleeping. As I whittled down the list of peaks I also ran through my hiking partners. Some friends had finished all their 14ers and weren’t interested in hiking them twice while others were content with one big hike a year. My husband at one time would humor me and join but after the birth of Charlotte he found the perfect excuse to stay home.

Mt. of the Holy Cross was my first selection to hike this year due to its close proximity to Denver and relatively easy terrain and short distance. I have only three 14ers left in the Sawatch range and the other two are Harvard and Columbia which are a combined hiking trek that would make for a very long day in even the best conditions. Running out of hiking partners, I needed someone who would be willing to join me that wouldn’t shy away from a challenge. Someone strong enough mentally to hike 11 miles yet easy enough to talk to and share a 2 man tent with. I needed someone with a flexible schedule who could leave on a weekday and who didn’t mind letting me take the lead climbing. My friend Margaret was the perfect fit.

Margaret and I are both yoga and fitness instructors. We actually met at the training center we both teach at currently. Yoga teachers make the best hiking companions because they are fit, easy going, and take challenges in stride. We also have a pretty rooted belief in the universe and how it will not only provide for you but also give you signs for what is to be. In theory these signs would be pretty straightforward and ones we would acknowledge and follow. Our Mt. of the Holy Cross hike was full of signs from the beginning…yet the stubbornness inside us both refused to listen.

It started with the gate to the road being locked. I pride myself on checking weather and trail conditions and being up to speed down to the cairns to spot on every mountain I climb yet there was nothing about Tigiwon road being closed. We arrived at the gate at 9pm after a late start (another sign) and decided we might as well get to hiking the road to the trailhead. The road was 8 miles which would add an extra 16 to an already 11 mile round trip hike. Our intended plan had been to hike in from the trailhead and camp overnight in order to attempt an early summit push. Obviously this was not ideal but we set out on the road and walked in the dark for 3.5 hours. There’s something both beautiful and frightening about hiking alone in the wilderness underneath the stars. At 12:45am we finally called it and pitched our tent which we could not get properly set up (another sign) and settled in for three hours of sleep.

Friday was beautiful. The weather was perfect and the trail conditions started out fantastic. The grade was gradual and we enjoyed the sunrise and the sounds of nature all around us. In the woods there’s no cell phones to distract you, no traffic or too many people around. You can really enjoy someone’s company and get to know them with each and every step. Sometimes there’s just silence too and it’s not awkward it’s refreshing. Margaret is probably one of the fastest people I’ve hiked with and she stayed close behind me for pretty much the whole journey as our dogs trotted together in front of us. Somewhere along 11,700 feet however the snow on the trail began to pick up and it got harder to find our way. Mosquitos were horrible and any time we tried to stop and check the compass or map we’d be eaten alive. I had brought bug spray but the canister wouldn’t spray right (thanks universe!) leaving us at the mercy of nature. We punched through snow drifts that were waist high and kicked steps into others to avoid sliding down the mountain as we traversed. Somewhere in the trees the trail became impossible to see and there were no foot prints to follow anymore. No one had been back there yet it seemed and if they had they left no trace. I lost my camera at one point when I set my pack down and it rolled away. Signs, signs, everywhere signs and we couldn’t read them. Wouldn’t read them. We wanted to keep going as we knew the summit was only a few miles away but we had no choice but to make the call to turn around.

At 10am after about 12 miles of hiking we made the decision to head back for the car. The mountain would always be there but if we kept going and got lost there was no guarantee we would return safely if ever. People call the holy cross wilderness the Bermuda triangle because hikers have died back there getting lost. One man who disappeared during the summer was only located from tent remains the following year. We didn’t want to be a statistic so we finally listened to the universe and began the long journey back to the car.

A year or two ago I don’t think my ego would have allowed this type of decision. I have always reached the summit of each peak I climbed but I won’t say there weren’t bad decisions made doing so. My ego has always been bigger than my fear and it’s constantly urged me forward on and off the mountain. Now that I have a child though things are different. I realize life is not just about me and I can’t let my decisions ruin someone else’s life. Our egos can often get the best of us and lead to decisions we ultimately regret. It’s what gets people trapped on ledges on high peaks they can’t climb down, it’s what causes a bulging disk in the neck from lifting too heavy, it’s what makes us feel like superman for a moment but flat on our faces the next.

At 4pm after 26 miles of hiking and no summit, Margaret and I made it back to the car. We didn’t have a summit under our belts but it didn’t matter. This hike made me realize that this truly was about the journey and not the destination. We didn’t blame each other, the weather, the mountain or the snow. We chalked it up to experience and enjoyed the fact that at 10am on a Friday morning we were hiking where no one else was instead of sitting behind an office desk. We saw and experienced things most people never in their lifetime see or get to do and for us that was enough for the day. We made plans and the universe had others and that’s just how life can be sometime. You can be angry or grateful for the lesson.

The best part is we get to go back again in July and experience the mountain for a second time. I never hike mountains twice because I have so many other peaks to obtain….but I guess the universe wants me to see this one again.

This time I’ll be listening.