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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