On Saturday I awoke at 5a.m., intending to hike Mt. Flora (13,146′) and neighboring peaks with the Colorado Mountain Club. I hadn’t been at altitude in weeks, partly because I had been nursing a tweaked knee, partly out of fear. The longer I’m away from the higher peaks, the worse I feel and the harder it is to get back into it. I worry the altitude will knock me out like it did when I first moved to Denver, that I’ll be the slowest in the group or develop an intense headache that would make the trip torturous. But I had done this particular hike before, and it’s relatively close to Denver; it seemed like a safe way to re-enter the high country.
At around 5:45a.m., as I finished breakfasting and readying my pack, lightning crackled outside my window. Rain pummeled the pavement. I knew the mountain forecast called for precipitation, but a storm pounding at the door rattled my resolve. I checked the weather online. Rain everywhere.
At 6a.m. I called the trip leader to find out if we’d hike a different trail below tree line (most of Mt. Flora is exposed). He said the plan was to drive towards the mountains and reassess en route. He stressed that lightning was not in the forecast for the area we’d visit, even if there might be rain, sleet or snow. That was good enough for him, although I imagined the worst: a soaking wet slog up a mountain. I told him I’d let him know if I decided to cancel. We were meeting at 6:30a.m.; I had to make a decision quickly.
I sat on my bed in my hiking clothes and tried to figure out what to do. Most people, if faced with a fierce storm here and uncertain weather elsewhere, might get under the covers, save the hike for a milder day. But if this is called common sense, it doesn’t always serve me. One of my commitments to myself, which sometimes I fail to honor, is to spend one day a week outdoors, ideally in the Rockies. It’s less about recreation than restoration; the mountains are where I reconnect to myself, thanks to nature’s miraculous ability to vacuum anxiety, angst and negativity. Having reneged on this commitment recently, I knew I needed to be outdoors, with or without the group, simply to reestablish my integrity. But when I hike alone, I rarely stay out for more than a few hours, which isn’t always enough. I glanced at my clock. Ten minutes had passed and I was still hostage to resistance, paralyzed by indecision. Then the phone rang.
“I’m at the meeting spot and it’s not raining here,” the leader reported. Maybe I, too, could take this trip one step at a time.
“OK,” I said. “I’m coming, but I’ll be a few minutes late.” Usually, trips leave on the dot.
“Don’t worry. We’ll wait for you.”
If you’ve ever seen a mountain goat leap, that was me. I grabbed my backpack and boots and ran out the door. In my haste I forgot my hardcore foul weather gear: ski goggles and waterproof mitts. It was mid-May, after all. I was the last to arrive at the meeting spot; hardly anyone had cancelled.
On the way to the trail head the clouds parted, revealing bright blue sky over snow capped peaks. As I sat in the cushy front seat of another hiker’s SUV, taking in the changing vistas, I relaxed into relief. Then, some celestial stagehand closed the curtains, enveloping the landscape in gray. Snow fell as we began hiking. Towards the summit, the wind picked up. Graupel pelted us, as if prankster chefs were dumping boxes of kosher salt onto our heads. Some pellets landed behind my glacier glasses, stinging my eyes. My purple fleece gloves, now damp, chilled my fingers. A woman lent me a spare pair. At the top, snow swirled around us. The cold air slapped my cheeks like a Zen master urging me to wake up.
“Shall we continue to the next peak?” the leader asked. I nodded along with everyone else; I felt fine. In the saddle between the two mountains, the wind died. We celebrated the reprieve. At the next summit, it whipped us again. As we retraced our steps, the gusts stopped long enough for us to sit for lunch. I returned the gloves, which weren’t that warm, thinking I wouldn’t need them anymore. But the pelting and whipping resumed, and my fingers became frigid. I windmilled my arms, sending blood to the fingertips. A man offered his insulated mittens, heavenly toasters for my hands.
We continued, trying to locate the narrow trail under fresh snow. Above, a blue patch of sky appeared, only to vanish moments later. We plodded downhill, surrounded by mist. And then, that stagehand opened the curtains, revealing the surrounding peaks. I fumbled for my camera but wasn’t fast enough. Again, we were enshrouded in white. I wondered if the glimpse of scenery had been real or a stage set constructed by our collective yearning. Minutes later the curtains parted long enough for me to photograph the vista, still partially obscured by gauzy clouds.
As we began our final descent, more and more mountains popped into view against a blue sky. I started to cry, my tears obscured by my high-tech mirrored glasses. Maybe they were tears of joy at the sheer beauty of the scene. Perhaps I cried because I remembered for the umpteenth time, after forgetting again, and again and again, that the deep peace I experience in the mountains is inside, always available, even if it seems elusive.