Several days deep into an exciting backcountry hiking adventure in Rocky Mountain National Park I was with phenomenal hiking companions, Steve and Tate. We were driving in the dark, down a dirt road, searching for a spot to crash in Roosevelt National Forest. Anything would do. We just needed a couple hours of sleep. At 2a.m. we'd be headed out on our final hike, Longs Peak, the highest summit in the park.
When we pulled off the dirt road to a primitive camp spot it was well into the night. Exiting the vehicle, with the engine running, our headlights and headlamps illuminated broken glass scattered around a fire with the charred remains of the last guests trash. Spray painted on a tree at the camps perimeter read "R.I.P." surround by the classic cartoonish gravestone. My mind tells me there was one of those smiley faces with X's for eyes on another tree but that could be my imagination trying to get at me. Either way it had a creepy vibe and still being new to backcountry camping, bears were occasionally a thought in my mind. We were also out of options.
We started a fire first before setting up camp because it was dark and cold. You know when it just gets cold enough and you blow into your cupped hands, continually rubbing and squeeze them together and they just won't warm up? It's like that. The darkness is no cozy blanket either. So, it was also established that we were gonna sleep in the truck and therefore no need to set up tents... Not because we were scarred... We were only gonna be there for a few hours. It just didn't make sense to waste the time and energy on setting up camp. That's what you'd say, right?
Sitting around the fire, munching on snacks, anticipatory conversation floating through tips of flames, back and forth. We were excited to see the view from on top. The Keyhole and Narrow always get mentioned in any conversation about Longs. Some talk was reminiscent of the already established highlights of the trip, some about the challenges we would soon face. The campfire is our board room, our locker room, our round table. Our Club.
Soon enough we were talking about sleep... then an old pickup truck cruised by. There was a guy standing in the bed. I couldn't give you a good description of him except that he looked like this wasn't his first forest rodeo. It appeared he was trying to steady what looked like a rather large, unsecured propane tank. They were moving at a decent clip for the quality of road and visibility. We all agreed, they were definitely up to some backwoods shenanigans...
"Tate, you should sleep outside under the stars. Don't bother with the tent." I suggest.
C'mon. Do it. All that stuff on the trees is just kids out here messing around. It's nothing."
"Nah, Im good."
"It'll be just as cold in the truck as outside. At least you'll get to stretch out.
"Besides the prime backdrop for the next high school horror movie, the possibility of bears and the truck full of dudes speeding to somewhere thats gonna get set on fire or blown up, what reason do you have to believe it won't be a beautiful experience?"
You can imagine how this kept on until Tate broke...
"Be a man."
"I'll get a tarp. There's glass."
Tate is a champion. One of my favorite people. He slept outside in the dark, cold forest, home of bears; luxuriously, on a tarp, in his sleeping bag even. Tate has never backed down from a challenge on our adventures or in life. Solid as a rock.
The chill of the cab had a bite as Steve and I began chuckling ourselves to sleep. The sharp pierce of the cold radiated in our bones... Tate must have been nippy... Cold nights are hard; not wanting to leave what little warmth that would collect in our cocoons, yet, begging for the morning suns' mercy that would break the nights' glacial grasp.
It was really cold. There are colder places I know.. I just hate being cold. When Lord?! When will our time come?! When will we feel the warmth sun again?!
That time was coming... It would not be the most beautiful. It wouldn't be #picoftheday on your Instagram or replace the professional back drop on your computer. You would frame it. Because its the best sunrise you'll ever experience. It's exactly the salvation you were languishing for.
It was a sunrise I cannot forget. It's a moment that has forever drawn me to mountains.
The parking lot at Longs Peak is packed by 2:00a.m. later arrivals are left with no other choice than to add many extra steps from where they will park on the road to the trailhead. Both shoulders are packed with vehicles full of adventurers, explorers and enthusiasts. Some have began the trek to the trailhead, squeezing by the parked cars and those still arriving on the now narrow road. It's slightly chaotic. What keeps it level is the positive energy. Everyone is excited to be there.
The road is thick with enthusiasm and anticipation. You can see it on everyones' face. Those who just parked and are exiting their vehicle, pooling together backpacks at the side of the car, are rife with it. It all begins.
We arrived early enough that where we parked did not add enough distance to be of consequence. Steve had no problem getting us to where we needed to be. He is a veteran of the peak. He swam in the thickness. I believe at the time he was in double digits for summits of Longs. Steve exuded confidence in hiking with his experience that easily transpired to others. I'm glad I received some. A good man to have on hard hikes.
The buzz around the message board, bathrooms, and log book is electric. Chatter is sparking everywhere from all the groups of hikers. Some with adrenaline pumping and others who know they will have to overcome challenges they have not faced before, all sharing their thoughts.
"I'm so pumped!"
"Are you ready?!
"I'm freezing. Let's get moving."
"I just hope I make it to the top."
"I wonder how I'll handle the altitude?"
"I can't wait to see what it looks like from up there!"
"Does everyone have enough water?"
At the log book you sign in your name, group size, departure time, destination and date of expected return. It's a reminder. Rule #1: Do not die. They track this for basic data collection. How much use the trail gets? How many summit attempts are successful? Normal stuff like that. More importantly though, the "do not die" part. It's so they know when and where to start looking.
Longs Peak is the only mountain in RMNP that is above 14,000ft on its' summit. It is the highest peak in the park at 14,259ft. Longs prominent profile can be seen from almost anywhere in the park. Beside the height, its' flat top and distinctive notch on the east face are distinctive features identifying the peak. Longs looms over everything.
Mountains at this elevation begin to separate themselves from the rest. You're not an alpinist but you are crossing into an area of the outdoors that will certainly take your life if it is not giving the respect it deserves. Mistakes have big consequences up there. 69 people have died on this mountain at this time. Many falling hundreds of feet to their death. That's a long way down. Others have been struck by lightning at the top. Surrounded by clouds, your are the only target. People come all that way and push it even when the weather turns. It's called summit fever. The desire to reach the peak becomes so great that safety protocols are ignored.
In the dark of night with the cold still gripping our bones we passed through the Goblin Forest. Our headlamps illuminated the nearby trees giving the forest a fantastical feel making it worthy of the name. Your imagination allows you to see beyond the branches into the depths of darkness that hide the little beasts. You can feel their beady eyes watching you. It's the same feeling you got as a child fleeing the basement monsters. Only, in the forest there is no door to slam, shielding you from their pursuit. The goblins are tattletales. They let the mountain know you are coming. And they throw things. Wind, more cold, loose rocks and boulders, darkness and elevation are their weapons.
The wind hits once we break the tree line somewhere around 11,000 feet. The warmth you've built up evaporates. Whisked away. You are now in a constant battle between venting your clothing to keep from sweating and sealing every possible leak to keep from going numb. The trail is chunky, in sections, with rocks ready to roll your ankles, threatening you with an even more punishing hike in the cold. Loose rocks and boulders can be sent careening down slope with inattentive steps. With every foot forward you are increasing risk.
A reprieve from this madness is the snake line of headlamps visible ahead of you. Others who passed through the forest, above the trees, are plodding along. It's uplifting because you cannot see the challenges ahead of you but you do know if they got that far, you could too. Also, it is a cool image, watching the lights wind their way up the mountainside. For some time now the only things you have seen are what is directly in front of you, captured by your headlamp. Nothing worth a shutter click. A few feet of trail, rocks and Steves boots. There is distance between groups but the headlamps link us all together. An unbroken chain of challengers moving onward and upward ignoring the burn in their legs because we all know, we aren't even close yet.
3.5 miles into the hike the trail connects with the Chasm Lake Trail. Here there is a pit toilet so it is a natural gathering spot. Hikers are taking breaks, drinking water, eating snacks and waiting their turn. The enthusiasm found at the trailhead is replaced with some grumbling. The stand still pace invites the cold back in. Extra layers are pulled from packs. Some stretch and move to stave off the chill as they wait.
"I've gotta pee soooo bad!"
"Where are we?"
"This is impossible!"
"Why did we do this?!"
"How much further?"
The energy and buzz from the trailhead hasn't completely evaporated but is definitely taking blows.. Not even to the most challenging sections of the mountain people are already feeling beat down, including us. It's been hours in the dark and cold. It is hard to gauge how far you've come unless you pull out a map. The end is not in sight. Yet, we continue... up.
The air is getting thinner. Deep, heavy breathes are consistent now. We are taking brief rests from time to time. Still looking forward to the lamps ahead of you, chased by those behind, the darkness quietly begins to loose its grasp. Life is illuminating.
As we continued to take breaks, each time I looked to the east. Waiting for the sun to finally snap the cold and begin its' work. And each time, nothing. The world is getting barely lighter and barely warmer. When? When will our time in the sun come?
On our final rest before the rise, Steve, Tate and myself had caught up to each other, tightening our group. We stood ready to greet the sun. It had reached the time when we knew if we were going to see the sunrise we had to stop and wait. We had to allow the cold to encapsulate us again. Others were thinking the same. The seconds before the rise were filled with palatable anticipation and silence all across the mountain. Our sweet release is coming.
Just as the first sliver of sun broke the horizon the silence was shattered by a weary hiker.
"GET UP YOU MOTHER F*$#&R!!!"
We all agreed. The crowd erupted.
YOU CAN DO IT!
Whistles and cheers could be heard everywhere on the mountain. It was exhilarating!
Just like that. Salvation.
Everyone. The whole mountain cheered with encouragement for the sun. It's rays blasting the face of Longs. We all cheered on the sun. Hands thrown up in the air clapped. Fists pumped as if punching back at the cold. The exuberance could be seen and heard ahead and behind us. Everyone was collectively engaged at that moment in elevating the sun to do what it does best. From darkness to light. Rejuvenated. The energy felt at the trailhead was now ten fold stronger, louder and vibrant. It felt unbreakable. I was enthralled. I've never been apart of anything like that. It was absolutely amazing and one of my most cherished memories. From the dark, cold creepy woods to the start of something new, captivating and warm. If this is adventure, I never want to come back.
A sunrise is a special event. It is a moment of gratitude for me. You are alive another day. For a lot of folks it went the other way. It teaches you not to take things for granted. It proves you are a part of it all because you're still here. It brightens the beautiful places you've been and the spectacular things you have seen. It adds to your life.
A sunrise brings light, warmth, happiness, rejuvination, satifaction, clarity and opportunity. It is a new begining, a chance for new ideas and to accept challenges. The sun is dying and so are you. Yet, each and every day the earth rotates and the sun illuminates your life.
This event taught me there was more to what I was doing that day than just hiking to a moutain summit. Backpacking and adventure has earned a solid place in my life. It's more than just the act of doing a thing. It's an experience. If you experience something special, it's ok to share it. You don't know the profound effect it can have on anothers life. Give them the opportunity.
Gratitude reciprocates. What will you do with your life and the time you have? How will you shine?
Hours later we set foot on the summit of Longs Peak. To get there we scrambled up the Boulder Field through the Keyhole, skimmed the west face and up The Trough, crossed the Narrows and finally bear crawled The Home Stretch to the summit. It was all quite amazing.
That sunrise was something else though.
Find some high ground. Cheer on the sun.
Keep killin' it!