Trails Lost, Life Found

Monday, 8:00 pm: Realizing that I don’t have anything to do tomorrow, I recruit my roommate Christian to climb a mountain with me. We promptly start rounding up the gear we will need for the ascent.

9:00 pm: The Wildebeest, my 1992 Nissan Pathfinder, is packed and we are en route to the Matterhorn Creek trailhead, near Lake City, Colorado, to attempt Mount Wetterhorn, whose summit sits at 14,014 feet in elevation.

11:00 pm: Arrive at the trailhead, finish packing and organizing our backpacks, immediately fall asleep on the full size futon that we threw into the back of the Wildebeest. Car camping at its finest.

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Tuesday, 3:30 am: The alarm on my watch starts beeping. It is becoming more apparent by the day that I have an unhealthy love of early mornings. Looking outside, I see that it is quite cloudy, which is never a good sign when attempting a long hike above timber line.

4:00 am: With a bit of coffee and just over four hours of sleep in our systems, Christian and I hit the trail. Christian forgot his headlamp, so he walks in front of me to benefit from the illumination of mine. Even so, the trail seems to be out to get him, though he only actually fell once before sunrise. With only one source of light, we lose the narrow winding trail several times, and have to spread out in search of it.

5:00 am: A faint glow begins to illuminate the eastern horizon. The clouds broke before we broke tree line, so we decided to push for the top. Soon, we are able to see the colossal silhouette of the peak in front of us, its sheer cliff faces daunting. By this point we had given up on following the barely visible trail, and instead cut through the alpine meadows to where we believed the route up Wetterhorn to be. We find our route, and we take it.

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6:00 am: True sunrise. I miss taking out my camera for the first rays of red light, as I am too occupied with the keeping myself on the mountain and not careening down it with the innumerable rocks we have kicked loose in our attempt for the summit. Upon choosing and taking our route, we quickly realized that it was not the line we had planned to take, nor was it even depicted on the map. With that realization, we were chagrinned to discover that we had already climbed too far to safely down climb…the only way out was further up. On the nearby cliff face, I am at least happy to hear the calls of breeding Brown-capped Rosy-Finches.

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6:30 am: Summit. The blessed summit. My legs are shaking and my heart rate is through the roof, having nothing to do with the physical exertion of the climb, but rather the sheer perilousness of what we just put ourselves through in the last hour. I finally have the opportunity to sit down, take pictures, and snack on Clif bars and beef jerky without fear of causing a rock slide with the slightest movement. Better yet, we also discovered the correct, proper, and safe route to descend back off the peak.

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7:30 am: We finally are off the mountain, blessed with a flat trail that does not require hand contact to travel. The wildlife up here has been incredible, with rosy-finches, ptarmigan, pipits, pika, and marmots around every turn. Near the end of the trail, we discover where we went wrong in our sleep deprived stupor…apparently a black sharpie amendment on a dark trail sign is difficult to see in the dark.

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9:30 am: Reunited with the Wildebeest at the trailhead, five and a half hours after we set out on the trail. While things may not have gone as planned, we realized that life had happened. Real, genuine life, the kind that cannot be obtained in any other fashion but by going out into the wilderness and finding it for yourself.

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Island Hopping

The day’s first rays of sunlight creep over the dark horizon, finding me crossing through the ocean. I have been awake for a couple of hours already, the alarm on my wrist watch jarring me awake after what seems to be only moments after falling asleep. Waking up in the total darkness of early morning can be a challenge, as it is nearly impossible to tell the time without the assistance of a time keeping device. For me, this results in panicked wake-ups before my alarm, scrambling to find my cell phone to ensure that I have not overslept.

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This is my daily routine, as I complete the field work for the project I began setting up last fall. By the end of the morning, I will have put in several hours of hiking, listening, and watching, often returning home before my roommates have woken up or eaten breakfast. With these early starts and my seeming inability to take daytime naps (I either cannot fall sleep, or wake up several hours later–completely disoriented and hopelessly groggy), I have taken to the habit of turning into bed before the sun has set on the day, a challenge equally as daunting as napping.

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Though the sunrise is far from marking the beginning of my day, the first golden illumination of the landscape is the moment of the day that I look forward to the most. I soon approach my destination, a dark, dense island of trees amidst the sea of sage. Cold fingers gripping an even colder GPS unit, I quietly make my way to a small orange flag that I had placed weeks ago when I first visited this stand of Douglas-fir. Leaning against a tree, I feel the warmth of the sun finally penetrate the cool, still air as I begin a ten minute avian census, recording all the birds I see and hear from this spot. Having completed two other points before sunrise, I know I have several more to complete before my morning is over. There are birds to be seen, and there is nowhere on Earth I would rather be at this moment in time.

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