Summer 2018 has been good to me. In typical Centennial State fashion, the warmer months can be distilled into some combination of hiking and climbing in Colorado, frequently venturing above treeline where outings are timed to experience maximum wildflower color explosion, warm temps, and long days.
One objective I had this summer was to visit some notable new-to-me places in my home state. I ventured south twice, first hiking in the Great Sand Dunes National Park and the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park before returning a few weeks later to backpack in the Sangre de Cristo Wilderness and hike Blanca Peak, the fourth highest mountain in Colorado. Although only a 4-hour drive south of Denver, the Great Sand Dunes offer an otherworldly type of topography, something one would expect to find in the Sahara rather than southern Colorado. Camping in Colorado in the Great Sand Dunes backcountry, where your horizon is replete with a never-ending sea of golden sand and where you have to hike in your own water supply, is one of the more novel experiences I’ve had hiking in Colorado.
In mid-July, I headed west to the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness and spent four days circumnavigating some of the most scenic mountains in the state for some camping in Colorado during prime wildflower season. The Elk Mountains are jagged monoliths of wild, loose rock, home to a handful of Colorado’s 14-ers, and site of the Four Pass Loop. Climbing over four passes above 12,000 feet (West Maroon – 12,500 ft.; Frigid Air – 12,415 ft.; Trail Rider – 12,420 ft.; Buckskin – 12,500 ft.), this backpack lived up to its reputation as one of Colorado’s best, especially considering I trampled around these trails during peak wildflower bloom. Cresting high passes and descending through mottled fields of Larkspur, Monk’s Hood, King’s Crown, Columbine, Harebell, and Indian Paintbrush is like being thrown into a Van Gogh painting, a world impossibly aflood with color, where the view around every bend compels you to plan your next adventure hiking and climbing in Colorado.
Laudable though my objective to see new places might have been, many of my summer highlights occurred a bit closer to home in a region of the state I have known intimately since I was a teenager. In June and July, I spent a handful of evenings bivying in Rocky Mountain National Park before a climb, my gaze cast up at the unadulterated night sky on the eve of tackling alpine objectives: Notchtop, Spearhead, the Petit Grepon—well-known names with a new means of getting to the summit. The equation of alpine Colorado climbing boils down to this for me: A new sport with all of its unfamiliar rules + a familiar and much-loved environment = feeling like a kid again. Hours of self-reflection produced the following missive:
Colorado Climbing | Why Do I Climb? What am I seeking up here in the vertical world? Thoughts from someone new to the sport:
I’m craving new perspectives of the mountains that have long been my home. I’m hungry for challenges, both anticipated and wholly unexpected, to my mind and body. I want to feel alive and focused, not coasting my way through the life I know, sleepwalking my way to guaranteed success among activities I’ve mastered.
I didn’t start climbing because I wanted to be humbled; I just wanted to take some cool pictures from new vantage points among the mountains that have shaped my life. But here I am, remembering what it’s like to be in the infantile stages of learning a new skill, to engage in the elementary struggle that so often accompanies learning, and to still want it after my body and ego have been bruised and all pretense of grace and ease has been buried.
Why do I climb? Partnership, of course. Many of my most treasured friendships and favorite memories have been forged in the mountains. It’s a time warp in the backcountry. A few days compresses many years’ worth of information. Conversations flow like rivers, without a clear beginning or end, so you’re left with the sensation that you’ve always been talking to this person; you’ve always known them and trusted them.
Synapses fire while you’re hanging from the end of a rope on a bluebird day in the alpine. It’s a kinetic domain in which the sky feels palpable and all senses are heightened. Words matter; actions matter; tone matters. In a world in which most interactions are routine and most conversations are quickly forgotten, it’s so beautiful, a huge relief really, to be part of an exchange where everything matters.