Thursday, January 20, 2011

Climbing Longs Peak

For the past two summers I have worked as a park ranger in Rocky Mountain National Park. I had the privilege of living in a house that overlooked the continental divide and I stayed in the room of all rooms. Two of the walls were windows that looked right out over Longs Peak (the only 14er in the park) and every morning I woke up to a gorgeous view of the sun beaming across the peak. It was smiling at me and calling me to come explore. I felt like I would be betraying the mountain if I didn’t summit it, even if getting to the top would be difficult.
The journey started 1:30 am with the sound of my alarm. My friend Julie and I anxiously forced down some cereal, grabbed our packs and headlamps, and headed out the door to make our second attempt up Longs Peak. I looked at the sky, trying to get some sense of whether there were clouds socking in the mountains, but it was too dark to tell. At the end of the previous season we had attempted Longs and were unable to make it past the keyhole (the transition point of trail where it turns from a hike to a scramble) because it began to snow, causing the last two miles to be too dangerous to attempt. We were both hoping that the weather would cooperate and this attempt wouldn’t end with the same disappointment.
It was a little before 3 am when we reached the trail head and began the 8 mile, 4,850 foot elevation gain trek up to the summit. The first 6 miles were hiked completely in the dark. It is a completely different experience just using the light from your headlamp to get up trail. You can’t see your surroundings or what the terrain is like up ahead, so it makes the journey much more exciting. Also, because Longs Peak is such a popular trail (on a typical day in the short window where the peak goes non technical there are around 200 hikers that attempt the peak), you can see all the headlamps in the distance zig- zagging up the mountain. It is an amazing site.
We reached the keyhole right as the sun was peaking up over the horizon. Deep red, orange, and yellow streaked the sky and below us was an amazing view of the terrain we had just hiked through blindly. There were also only a few light wispy clouds in the distance. We were thrilled and began to prep ourselves for the intense scramble up to the summit.
From the keyhole to the summit, the “trail” is split into four sections. The first is the ledges, where, as noted by the name, you are hiking on a ledge. We got through that section with no problems and made our way to the trough, which is sometimes considered to be the most strenuous portion of the trail. There is loose rock and it’s extremely steep, so your legs really have to work. My legs were burning when we reached the top of the trough, but the summer of hiking had been good preparation and it wasn’t anything I couldn’t handle. I was beginning to think that this hike wasn’t as bad as most people portrayed it as. After the trough, we reached the narrows. This section was a little more frightening because the trail narrows down to about three feet wide and there is a drop off on one side. We were lucky that we were ahead of the crowds, because it was fairly easy to pass across without fighting all the people. Finally, we hit the homestretch, the most exposed portion of the trail. Because of the mass amount of use, it has become very slick and to make it even worse, due to recent storms, there was water flowing over the steep rock face making it even more slippery. One wrong hand or foot placement and I could have slipped to my death. I was so lucky to have Julie there for support. My nerves would have got the best of me if she hadn’t been there to encourage me.
After what seemed like an agonizing eternity on the homestretch, we reached the summit at 8 am. We looked around the huge summit and were surprised to find that we were the first ones to get there that morning. What was even better was that were there by ourselves for about five minutes and there was no wind, both being rare because of the mass amounts of people that summit each day and because there is always wind due to the exposure. It was an amazing reward for everything we had gone through to get there.
A few weeks before our incredible summit, I was talking with another park employee about the places we had been in the park. For his job, he frequently rode in a helicopter which would drop him off on various peaks. He bragged about all the mountains tops he’d stood on and at the time, I was jealous that he had been on so many peaks. After reaching the summit of Longs Peak using my own hard work, I realized how much he was missing out on by skipping the journey. Even though he had been on all of those mountains, he had nothing to take away from the experience. Each peak was nothing more than a check mark on his list.
I have discovered that there are two ways to travel through life. You can take the easy route and ride a helicopter to the summit of a mountain or you can take the difficult route where you have to hike, climb, and, at some portion, crawl up the trail. Sometimes you will be clinging on to the rocks for dear life and wonder why you ever took the hard way, but in the end you will have gained an experience and feeling of self worth that you would have not gained other wise. There is no depth to the destination if we don’t make the journey, even if the journey is a hard one. A destination is just a destination without the journey that gets you there. Now when I look at Longs Peak, it’s not just an outline out my window. It is a peak that tested my limits and left a deep imprint on my soul. I know what the stream of headlamps looks like as it floats up the mountain, what the fear of falling to my death on the slippery rock on the homestretch feels like, what the thin, cool air feels like when it enters my lungs while a victory dance on the summit, and what the congratulating arms of a fellow ranger feel like when they’re wrapped around you when you return to the trail head. I have truly lived the experience and I wouldn’t trade the fear or physical strain for anything. The glory wasn’t just about being on the summit. It was about the entire journey starting at 1:30 am, all the way up to the summit and back down to the trail head. The journey created a much more rewarding experience than if I would have taken the easy route and just stood on the peak.