When I was starting kindergarten, I remember driving by the school with my mom, staring with not a little terror at the tornado slide sitting front and center in the middle of the gravel playground. From my little kid perspective, the slide was massive, towering above me at 9 feet tall, slipping and sliding in twists and curls around an axis that didn’t seem like it was as sturdy as it should be. Tumbleweeds and dust devils swirled past it, making the whole playground look less like a happy place of childhood fun and more like a gunfight scene in Tombstone–this is not too much of a stretch because I lived in Southeastern Colorado and everything looks like a scene from Tombstone. Its presence in the playground was not encouraging to me when I jumped on the bus for the first day of kindergarten.
My mom dutifully took me to the school playground when no one was around (except for my little sister, who was not helpful), cheering me on as I climbed the slide and climbed back down, over and over again, never descending via the gleeful, twisting slide. She made a valiant attempt to ensure that I started my school years both well-adjusted and fearless, as a five-year-old should. I remember her sliding down with me after several failed ascents, and I also remember vowing to never slide without her again. I didn’t, not until the second grade when the whole situation was just getting embarrassing. Then I held on white-knuckled and closed my eyes, sliding into the gravel, screaming. It was not graceful.
Besides, in Southeastern Colorado, you don’t need to be high up in a tree or on a slide to see the world. With the whole countryside sweeping out before you, you can see what needs to be seen from a safe spot, feet firmly planted on the ground.
This is a big deal for me, who can barely see anything due to a severe astigmatism that continues to baffle my ophthalmologist, making my contact lenses swim around on my eyes. It was inherited from my father and exacerbated by reading in the dark under the covers. I often feel like my eyes are playing tricks on me, messing with perception in decidedly unsafe ways. When I moved to Kentucky, with its hilly alcoves and winding roadways, hiding houses and deer and tractor-trailers, I think I developed a new phobia: a feeling of suffocation distinctly tied to my mistrust of vision. I started climbing things, just to get to a good view. Seeing became survival.
I have been hiking since, summiting several peaks and taking in many, many panoramic views. Each time, I feel elation and peace, rather than the irrational fright of my kindergarten days. Last weekend, Dan and I visited Estes Park, Colorado with the intention of climbing something tall. We chose Long’s Peak, a 14er with a “hard” difficulty rating, made more difficult by limited acclimatization time and dodgy weather patterns. The hike is a long one, 14 miles total, and requires hikers to depart the trailhead no later than 2:00am if they wish to summit that day. Ironically for me, most of the ascent is done in the darkness of early morning, which makes it more dangerous because you can’t see the edges of the boulders and you often lose parts of the trail, especially in the Boulder Field. And it kind of defeats the purpose of climbing something to get a magnificent view if the only part of the trail that you can see are the rocks and scrub two feet ahead of you, illuminated by your head lamp. We climbed for several hours through that forest, reaching 11,000 feet by the time we broke through the tree line. The more we climbed into that darkness, the more I felt at home in the air, even as my discomfort with the darkness grew. It was a challenge for me to feel safe without sight. But I tried to focus on smelling the dry, piney woods at night, listening for rustles and rattles along the narrow trail, bordering on blind.
Several hikers on the trail forwent the use of headlamps entirely, relying on night vision to get them safely up and down the trail. Hats off to you, guys. A couple of days later, an Estes Park resident told us the story of Enos Mills, one of Rocky Mountain National Park’s founders, who had to descend the mountain after becoming completely snow blind, feeling and hearing the trail he had blazed the day before. For the marmots who scuttle across the tundra or sure-footed big-horns, falling off the mountain is a rarity. But for humans, with our imperfect balance and our weak constitutions, Long’s Peak can be as dangerous as it is beautiful; most of the yearly death count on Long’s Peak is attributable to falls. Seeing the trail is necessary. As one of Barbara Kingsolver’s characters states in her new book Flight Behavior, “Vanity was one thing, but out here in the damn wilderness, one needs to be able to see.” I had been reading her book on the plane the day before, and I couldn’t agree more. My anxiety grew as we climbed further and further past tree line, a nervous little tweak at the base of my spine, and I couldn’t wait for the sun to begin its show on the other side of the range.
The air is thin up there, and our bodies were working hard. We stopped every twenty minutes to breathe, acclimate, and gaze up at the stars peeking through the lodge pole pines, and then as we climbed higher, down at the lights of sleeping Estes Park below us. Aside from those lights, the trail on either side lay in darkness, holding its beauty for us to see upon our descent.
We climbed higher, taking a short stop in twenty-mile per hour wind gusts at the foot of the Boulder Field. This is where the base camp lies for overnight backpackers, and the buzz on the mountain was all about clouds and wind, and the low possibility of making a summit that day. It takes an hour to cross the Boulder Field in the dark, finishing with a short climb to the Keyhole, a low spot on top of the ridge, about 1,200 feet below the summit. We arrived there just before 5:00am. We huddled in the tiny hut built below the Keyhole, discussing the choice to continue to climb despite the clouds and the altitude or to head down. I wanted to continue. I was breathing well, and strong, and feeling stronger with every step, even though I had climbed 4,000 feet that morning. I wanted to get at the top, and I wanted to see the summit view, looking across all of Eastern Colorado and past the Continental Divide to the west. I knew it would be spectacular to look at all of that space below me, stretched out for miles, all for me to see. I knew the sun would be up soon, to warm the rock face and light the narrow, slippery trail along the Narrows and the Homestretch.
I felt the adrenaline of the hike–and the hope of sunrise–pushing me onwards and upwards, when all of a sudden, an urgency in my gut pulled my butt back to the stone seat. And yes it was both the urge to pee (a symptom of hypoxia) and the urge to get down. I can only explain it as instinct. “Get down,” it said, “now. Take Dan down. Take yourself down. See the sunrise on the trail below, and marvel at the views and take pictures of this hike. Look for bear and bighorns and falcons in the light below. Don’t risk the Narrows, where one or both of you will fall.” It seemed certain, up there, where the air is thin, that one of us would fall, or get sick, or panic in a tight spot, or get struck by lightning from one of the storm clouds rolling in. It wasn’t worry that was causing my hesitancy; it was certainty. I looked at Dan’s pale face and goofy grin, elated to be sitting at the top of the highest ridge he had ever seen, and decided that we had had enough high altitude for one day.
I have read enough Jon Krakauer books to know not to ignore that gut instinct when it is truthful; worry is its tattling little sister, but instinct is stronger and forceful, and impossible to ignore if you are a sane person (and many of the individuals characterized in Krakauer’s works are not sane). I have never felt instinct so keenly before. It was not the panic of the tornado slide or the aching anxiety knot that I always feel in my spine, although it certainly grew from those seeds. It was calm, clear, and definite. So as the sun rose on Long’s Peak in that early morning air, 13,000 feet above sea level, Dan and I watched the sun peek over the tops of the Rockies. And then we headed down into a world full of light.
He looked at me: “Now I can tell people that I haven’t just seen the Rocky Mountains; I have been on a Rocky Mountain.” I laughed and agreed, and started taking pictures of the trail below.
Want to see more pictures of what we missed in the darkness of the trail? Come back this week for a full gallery of Long’s Peak and Rocky Mountain National Park photos.
Such Great Heights: Long’s Peak by Katie Piper Greulich is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
Based on a work at apiedonfoot.com.