Thursday, August 30, 2012
It's called an Alpine Start, they tell me. The general idea is to wake up in the middle of the night so you can hit the trailhead hours before dawn. For experienced hikers, this is the best way to ensure you have time for a full hike on and off the mountain before the afternoon heat or thunderstorms. For inexperienced hikers, it is an excellent way to ensure you have no sense of how ridiculously steep your mountain is until it's too late.
I am in Colorado with a group of fellow New Yorkers who have hiked all over the world: comparisons of Patagonia, Peru, the Alps, and Kilimanjaro are a popular topic. In contrast, I have recently completed a few day hikes outside the city, and I went skydiving last year. What I lack in experience, I am determined to make up for with, well, determination. And I'm, like, really excited to see this sunrise, you guys.
Our goal for the day is Quandary Peak - 14,265 feet high. My first fourteener! From trailhead to summit, we will be hiking a rise of 3,000 vertical feet over 3.5 miles. In the dark, I can not see the mountain above the trees, but if I could, I never would have believed people could climb it. Goats maybe - wild mountain goats, with their tiny brains and lack of natural predators, who'd long ago culled all fear and logic from the heard. Goats, with their four sturdy hooves and hard muscles would much better suited to this climb than we soft, bipedal people.
Even if I could have seen our peak, I could not have imagined our trail. At a distance, it was imperceptible. Up close, it was only a vague staircase of boulders and gravel, angling at a 60 degree incline toward the sky.
We make our Alpine Start at 4:15 am, nearly 2 hours before dawn. We hike the first hour with headlamps, through what I imagine is a lush forest. It smells like damp pine, like my mom's flat backyard. There are more stars than I can count, and more than I have time to appreciate. Aside from the enormous and repeated steps up, there are no sights or sounds to tell me how high we've already hiked: 800 feet.
I don't notice the sunrise - not at first. I notice I can no longer see my breath in the night air. I notice I can make out the shapes and colors of the rocks crunching below my feet. When we turn off our headlamps, most of the sunrise is still hidden behind a neighboring mountain. Every so often we are rewarded with a glimpse of color at a crest on a trail, or around a well placed curve.
Soon, I can distinguish between the inky pine needs and emerald aspen leaves in the forest around me. We are approaching the tree line - 12,000 feet - so there are fewer and fewer nearby. White wisps of goat hair cling to lower branches, but thankfully there are no goats to be seen. Yet. I imagine them higher on the mountain, validating my theory with their own secret, winding trails. Time will tell.
Suddenly, our path twists around a particularly steep incline, and at the top, there she is: Sunrise. Full on, just coming over the mountains sunrise, with pinks and purples and blues brushed with titanium white clouds. There are colors that make all of your life choices seem insignificant, yet also make that cheese stick you sit down to eat taste like a special indulgence. We break out our cameras and celebrate with silly poses - our own personal victory over morning. No matter that we still have 2000 feet and 2 miles to go.
From this lookout, I can finally see the valley behind and below us. It is startling to see how far we've come. I turn toward our trail and for the first time, I can see Quandry's false summit - a barely impressive 13,500 elevation, give or take. It is so steep, I cannot see the actual summit hiding behind it, even though it rises 700 feet higher. We crunch on, although I am beginning to have some doubts about the wisdom of mountain climbing in general.
The drop off is steep now, but at least the trail is wide and pleasant. From what I can see ahead, it only gets more and more narrow as the drop off becomes dizzying. It's still early enough that we haven't seen any one else on the trail. Later, it will be crowded with people and dogs, in brightly colored gear that reflects the light and marks the trail like a string of tiny twinkle lights. I will have to squint to see them making their way toward the summit. But for now, we are alone with just our movement and the mountain.
It only lasts a moment. Someone behind me blurts outÒIs that a goat?!?" and sure enough, we have been spotted. A small heard of goats abandons their green grass breakfast to investigate our group. There are 8 of us - maybe 12 of them? I count at least four calves. I pause, giving their horns the right of way as they come right up onto the people path. The goats intersect our group long enough to do a quick appraisal and to remind us they know a bit more about this mountain than we might assume. I am brave enough to grab my camera and snap a photo of a mother child pair, now above us on the hill.
The mother looks at me, and gives me a chin-up nod to make sure her point is clear: She may not know fear, but she knows about gravity. She has nothing to prove by climbing up a mountain just to come right back down. I realize there's no grass or vegetation up that high - no food means no goats. The top of the mountain is reserved for soft, bipedal people, pushing themselves past their own expectations.
Mother goat turns to head down the mountain, and I turn to continue my climb. Submitted by Lauren Oliver