Friday, July 25, 2008

Alpine Solitude


In the end of our lives we must all travel alone. We travel a well worn path without guidebook or map to a place that nobody knows. Left behind are the many connections we have made like spun silk cast out into space to those who knew us. The web is cut with amazing speed and finality as the rest of us try ineffectually to re-establish the connection.


Recently a friend of mine was killed when he was run over by a car while riding his bike one night. Having someone suddenly die like this is difficult due to the timeliness. There is no time to say goodbye and all the thoughts of things one would have done with more time are immediately brought to the forefront as guilt sets in. After a little while of dwelling on death we all remember that we must continue our lives and for me I must rejuvinate my commitment to a fulfilling life by doing something that lets me know that I am not simply going through the motions. This usually involves a great deal of physical and mental pain. If it hurts, you know you're not dead.

I drove from Mason City, IA to Colorado Springs, CO in a speedy ten hours. Then I had to drive to Moab, UT for work the next day which was another six hours. After driving back I had three days without work. I didn't really have anything I needed to do so I decided I would spend that time hiking and scrambling on Pikes Peak. As usual no one was too interested in a long arduous hike to a beautiful place and so after packing I set out alone for what would be some of the most awe inspiring days I've ever had in the mountains.

I once again decided to start from the Barr Trail and as I drove down the highway I looked at the long gash that loomed over Manitou Springs marking the path of The Incline. When I pulled into the crowded parking lot I asked which was faster. The answer came that The Incline was faster and saved about three miles off the Barr Trail. Since I had a long way to go I decided it would probably be worth it. After an hour I was at the top, gasping, and sweating. Surely, I thought, I must be punishing myself for something. The Incline gains more than 2,000 vertical feet in one mile. The slope probably varies from between fifteen degrees to at least forty-five. After sitting for several minutes and feeling mentally pressed to continue I intersected with the Barr Trail and started the long miles uphill.

I was amazingly alone for such a popular trail but so alone with those thoughts my mind had little conversation for me. I started thinking about my legs, which I've decided are the greatest two pistons on Earth. Someone told me that if you focus on pain it goes away or becomes numb. So I tried to think about the pain which was fairly easy because besides the pain in my legs the only other sensations were the dull ache in my shoulders and the heat of the sun. After thinking about how my legs hurt and how they continued to hurt I became bored with the fact that my legs hurt. Since then I've decided it's not focus on pain that alleviates it, but acceptance. When I started to look around at the trees and flowers I realized I hadn't been bothered much by the pain in my legs because I stopped wishing the pain to go away.

After hiking for several miles I got to what is generally considered the second section of the trail as the trees become more Aspen and Pine. It's also noticeably shadier which is nice. Wandering along not paying much attention I look ahead on the trail and notice a small figure trotting towards me, the sun is at it's back and it's face is masked. I first wonder where the owner of this big dog has gone off to and quickly realize that it is in fact a Mountain Lion. It quickly notices me and no sooner than I thought of getting my camera it darted into the woods with stealth and grace unparalled by the greatest dancer.

When I finally decided to walk again I couldn't help but have a much higher awareness. All cylinders were firing and I continuously turned to see what might be following me. I'd always been told that if a Mountain Lion was stalking you, you wouldn't know till it was too late. Despite this I kept thinking that I might smash it in the face with my water bottles or that my neck and skull would be protected by my pack. As I walked into Barr Camp the caretaker greeted me and asked how I was doing and when I told him of my encounter he was astonished and excited. He had never seen one while working there or in all his time hiking in Colorado. After indulging his questions and cooking some dinner I put thoughts of being mauled behind me and made for Bottomless Pit.

Making my way through the dark pine forest I realized the sun was setting behind the mountain and pushed myself faster. As I turned the ridge I came out of the trees and soon lost the trail but saw a gigantic granite face which made me wish for someone to go climbing with. Keeping to my current contour I soon found myself at what appeared to be fairly low angle slabs. My stomach churned as darkness fell. As I inched my way across the low angle slabs slowly became high angle slabs. Looking into the abysmal darkness which I had earlier noted as about 300 feet I turned on my headlamp and looked ahead. I cursed aloud as I looked at the wet, polished slab. I turned and slowly made my way back and carefully made my way back to the talus field where I picked my way over boulders and through scree while listening to a serene stream. I finally came to a flat spot and set up my sleeping arrangements. As I looked up to the infinite sky set against the silhouette of the surrounding alpine walls I felt a familiar comfort. The surrounding environment was indifferent to my presence. If I was crushed by a falling rock or simply failed to wake up there was no malice in it, I simply would cease to exist. With that thought I slid into my bivy sack and rested my weary muscles.

I rarely sleep past sunrise when I'm in the backcountry. Something about falling asleep early and the sunshine just gets me up early. For some reason I didn't awake till past nine. Despite my late rise I felt no pressure. I had no time constraints and simply needed to beat the afternoon storm. So I ate some oatmeal and packed everything up and headed for what I thought was Rumdoodle Ridge. Unfortunately, I had not really taken a close view of a topo before I left. Once again I felt myself on unfriendly territory as I made my way into fifth class terrain. Deciding to traverse farther to the north I found entry to a minor ridgeline headed towards the summit. Despite a few minor difficulties with loose rock the ascent was pleasant and noteworthy.

For quite some time I had been reading about ice climbs located near Corinthian Column but had never seen it. Now that I was looking down the northern cirque I could see it quite well. As I ascended I inhaled the smells of rock and dirt. I looked down on the clean pink slabs and across to the green ledges of mountain grass and flowers. As I looked up I saw mountain goats climbing fearlessly up ahead of me and so they led me all the way to the top. As I reached the top of the ridge I noticed the cars on the road to my right. Walking into the summit house it started to rain. My solitude broken, I felt somewhat angry at the hypoxic masses. What do they know of tired? What does she mean she can't breath? What a bunch of weaklings. I slowly calmed down and laughed at myself. People experience excitment in different ways, who am I to judge those who only wish to indulge in the summit and not the beautiful journey to get there. I sat and talked for a short while with the few people who asked about my hike up. While they all seemed impressed I saw no hint in their eyes they wished to try the same thing.

For several agonizing hours I wandered through the summit house. Without money I was only able to salivate at the donut eating throngs. After several hours the rain subsided and I headed down the Barr Trail. Halfway down to the Timberline Shelter I stopped to peer into The Cirque on the southern side of the East Face. Peering down to where I would later sleep tonight I felt a short burst of adrenaline as the steep bowl opened underneath me. I continued on and after a while I became lost in the trembling of my weary legs until I heard a squeak and looked up to see a marmot staring back at me. It simply sat still hoping I would go away, but instead I took a picture and it scurried away as I continued toward it on the trail. A few thousand feet of descent later I came to the Timberline Shelter where I decided to cook dinner. Inside an older gentleman offered me some hot choclate and pita bread. Having little to offer myself I simply thanked him and enjoyed the company.

After bidding farewell I set out for the bottom of The Cirque which required I go uphill. Casually making my way through the alpine meadows I eventually saw some rock cairns, evidence of previous travelers. A twinge of mild dissapointment soon faded. I might not be the first to walk there but perhaps I will later be the first to climb some new routes in there. As I entered along the trail it was obvious one of very infrequent use. The squeaking of marmots became almost too much as I searched for a flat spot to lay down for the night. With the clouds I could not see the stars but the silhouette was still there letting me know my place. As I lay there I slowly drifted off to sleep only to be awoken a few hours later by an odd sound by my pack. I quickly opened my bivy sack and turned on my headlamp. Nothing there, maybe the weight was just settling. I lay back down and carefully listen. Something is chewing on my pack. I sit up quickly and I see a Pika looking back at me. It quickly runs off and I decide my pack might be safer in the sack with me. While a little cramped I soon find the Pika not interested in trying to come inside with me. As I slowly start to drift off to sleep I hear the crack and rumble of rock fall. Instinctually I try to get closer to the wall but being stuffed in a fabric sack I move mere inches. Upon realizing this I curl into a ball and wait what seems like several minutes, while probably only being seconds. It's difficult to hear where rock would be coming from because of the echoes in The Cirque and I doubt I was actually in any danger but I'm slightly shaken nonetheless. After a while I finally fall asleep.

In the morning I awake before the sun. I bring my thoughts down to the level of what is before me, soft clouds and the advancing red and orange light. As the sun is about to peak above the horizon I look at the wall behind me as it alights in bright alpenglow as if on fire for a brief moment and then fades to a more neutral gray. I watch the clouds go by as the sun rises unabated and continuous. As the clouds burn off I urge myself to rise and after some internal cajoling I pack my things and head out.

My solitude is quickly broken as I reach Barr Trail. The few people I saw while ascending have been replaced by a hoard. After several small parties an entire football team passes by, all asking how far, missing the point of the endeavor entirely. With little interest in trying to explain the task ahead of them I descend quickly to Barr Camp where I trade my trash hauling services for a bag of Skittles, which I'd be craving for a while.

The remainder of the descent is lost in tired pain. I went from abou 11,500 feet to 7,200 feet over the course of eight miles in three hours. I wasn't in a hurry but gravity rushed me a long and who am I to resist the will of nature? As I finally reached the car I slumped into the drivers seat soaked in sweat. The change in altitude also meant a change in temperature of nearly thirty degrees. Hot, tired, and exhausted I drove home to once again join the burgeoning masses in that ever present parade of life.
One might ask why I chose to do something dangerous at all, let alone by myself. Sometimes we must enjoy an experience with others. To share the fear and the joy is to spread the burden or gift amongst friends. In solitude we bring the whole of the experience upon ourselves. Our decision making is not influenced or anchored by that of our cohorts because of their anxiety or skill. The inner turmoil of risking ones life is the essence of life itself becuase if one never chooses to risk a fall, how can they be sure they cherish life at all?

1 comment:

GB said...

Damn, dude, I thought this was another solo, but then realized that it was probably a bit more dangerous.

Two things: 1) sorry about your friend; 2)sounds like you're both enjoying yourself and wishing you had just a bit more to keep you busy. On #1, I don't have an answer except that the pain goes away at some point, hopefully for you it'll be sooner than later. On #2, I'll be out in September, and then we can talk more about the good stuff we've been discussing via e-mail lately.

#3 - keep writing, as it is good stuff.