“To live is the rarest thing in the world. Most people exist, that is all.”
? Oscar Wilde
Just having come back from weeks at sea level in Boston and Florida, I had been craving elevation. I had been gone for all but 10 days in the month of June – first visiting back in Santa Barbara for my baby sisters graduation from high school, then backpacking in Yosemite, then driving back home to Colorado for 10 days before flying to Boston and then Florida. Whew. When I left Colorado at the end of May, most of the Rocky Mountain high country was still pretty socked in with snow.
I had only been home for two days from Florida, and I was beyond itching to get up to the mountains. Not only because every part of my body was craving it, but because I was leaving to hike in the John Muir Trail in less than 8 weeks and I now had to move into full-blown preparation and training mode. Part of that training was getting up to the high country as often as possible to get my body starting to acclimate to higher elevations, and to see how I handled high elevations.
The highest elevation I had ever hiked at before moving to Colorado was around 10,000 ft in the Sierras (day hiking) and I hadn’t ever had any physical effects from the elevation other than sucking some wind (which is to be expected, of course). But, knowing the JMT would take me up to the highest mountain in the lower 48, I wanted to at least test myself a few times above 14,000 ft before I left to know what to expect (and I felt lucky to have this luxury, most JMTers don’t have 14ers in their backyard).
Fortunately, with the long summer days, there was plenty enough light to do a hike after I got off work, but the full-force summer monsoon season of Colorado didn’t much want to cooperate with this convenient schedule. I woke that morning hoping luck would be on my side, and afternoon thunderstorms would give me a nice window to at least do the short hike 1.5 mile hike from Summit Lake up to the summit of Mount Evans. I also had some good friends in Santa Barbara getting married the next day, and I was really bummed I couldn’t make their wedding, so I had an idea that required the top of a mountain that I wanted to pull off….
I got off work, and though the weather had showed perhaps some cooperation, as soon as I was ready to walk out the door the radar showed thunderstorms conveniently started to build dramatically right over the Mount Evans Wilderness. Figures. I had all my crap ready to go, and was feeling super excited to just be in the mountains, and so I had a moment of debate: I likely wouldn’t be able to hike. Driving in those storms can be as scary as hiking in them. Was it worth it? Maybe. Do I have anything else to do? No. Will I regret not at least aimlessly driving around up there listening to music and seeing what sort of adventure, or lack-of-adventure, could possibly unfold? Probably. Do you want this afternoon to be just like every other post-work afternoon and waste it doing something boring and meaningless? No. The deal was sealed. Always side with a potential memorable adventure.
Getting to Evergreen, the rain started pouring down. The thunder kicked up. I was questioning the potential for anything memorable to come from this ‘adventure’ other than perhaps remembering “that one time I was stupid enough to think that driving around for a couple hours in the mountains in a raging thunderstorm with all of my hiking crap in the backseat might be a good time”.
I turned onto Squaw Pass Road, and to my surprise the rain started to clear. As I reached Mt Evans Road the rain had stopped! (Side note: Mount Evans Road is the highest paved road in North America). The sky wasn’t blue by any means, but it was looking mildly promising…I made the left. Nothing to lose by giving it a shot.
As I wound up the road the sky was clearing with blue on the horizon. I was getting super excited…not only by the prospect that I may actually be able to pull this hike off, but also because I was in total awe of the alpine landscape (and the fact that there was no one else around…I’ve heard it can be a zoo up there, but apparently I’m the only one dumb enough to head up there on a Wednesday afternoon in a thunderstorm).
It was my first time above the treeline in Colorado, and seeing the green tundra covered mountains surprised me, as in the Sierra, usually the alpine zone is a completely plant-barren world of granite and talus fields. The weather on the horizon looked promising.
I parked at Summit Lake, and decided to give it a shot. I had a break in the weather and with only a 3 mile round trip I felt pretty good about pulling it off. I didn’t waste any time though – I made myself immediately get on the trail and not waste any time taking photos of the rainbow of wildflowers around Summit Lake, because I didn’t want to miss this window in the weather.
Within minutes of my feet hitting dirt the magic started.
I saw my first marmot!! In the Sierras I had never seen a marmot, or even heard a marmot (I would soon learn that in Colorado, marmots are loud and everywhere in the high country….in California, marmots are pretty silent and definitely not as easy to come by). I was so excited to finally see a fat little marmot along the trail.
Then, not much farther up the trail, I saw my first pika! Unfortunately, I was not quick enough to get a photo of the little guy as he darted across my path to hide under a boulder.
I was feeling super happy and satisfied about this little jaunt so far…I saw two high elevation animals I have wanted to see for so long. It wasn’t raining. I wasn’t dying trying to breathe, (though it was noticeably harder, it wasn’t as horrible as I thought it might be). And more than all of that, I was just stoked that I was hiking at over 13,000 feet after I got off work. I live somewhere now that I can do that? So stoked. There was surely no way the day could get better!
Then the day got better.
Up ahead, on the ridge above me was a herd of bighorn sheep!!! They were grazing in a line moving methodically along the mountainside, surrounded by wildflowers, and not paying much mind to me.
I had never seen bighorn sheep before, and to be honest, it didn’t even cross my mind that I could potentially see them today. Marmots, yes. Pika, yes. But bighorn sheep totally took me by surprise. I wanted to stay and gawk at them and take a million photos, but I knew I had to keep pushing to the summit while the weather was good.
Another 30 minutes later, I made it to the summit of my first 14er. I was breathing. It wasn’t raining. There was no wind. I had seen enough wildlife to blow my mind for the rest of 2014.
When I reached the summit a couple was up there enjoying the views, and able to take a photo of me to send to my friends that were getting married the next day. I was really happy I got to do this.
Then, 5 minutes later, as if everything couldn’t have gotten more magical – a huge rainbow appeared. Standing on the summit of a 14,265 ft mountain with a rainbow right in front of me. Stop it. Total magic. This was starting to get ridiculous.
I wandered around the summit for a bit and enjoyed the views, and then got on the trail to head back. I started thinking about the bighorn sheep I saw earlier and wondered if maybe I would see them again on my way down. I doubted I would be that lucky. I then turned a corner and my mind was blown. Like completely blown.
In my path and all around me – completely blocking the trail – was a herd of maybe 30 mountain goats, of which about 10 of them were tiny-fluffy-die-a-little-inside-from-a-cuteness-overdose babies. I had just rounded a corner and found myself in the middle of a heard of mountain goats. Shock and awe. It took a good few seconds of processing time.
A few of them looked at me, most of them paid me no mind and kept eating, and digging, and frolicking.
Come on…seriously? Mountain goats? I’ll be honest here – I had no clue mountain goats even lived in Colorado. I had never even put an ounce of thought into the potential of me ever seeing a mountain goat during the course of my life. Sure, I’ve seen plenty of nature documentaries that show hardcore mountain goats clinging to some steep, high altitude, rocky ledge in a raging Canadian blizzard….but I never thought I’d see a whole herd of them lounging in my way on a hiking path amidst rainbow-colored wildflowers after I got off work on a Wednesday afternoon. This just blew my mind to another solar system. Parts of my mind still haven’t come back.
I stood there dumbfounded for a few minutes, and when I realized they truly didn’t care that I was there, I took a seat and pulled out my camera and hung out with them for a bit. During this time I witnessed the cutest thing I have ever seen in the wilderness – perhaps even cuter than a sleeping baby bears (maybe tied) – I watched a baby walk right up to a cairn along the trail and head-butt it. I think he was taking his mountain back.
After about 15 minutes with them they started to move on and when my path cleared, and continued on.
A half an hour later I made it back down to Summit Lake.
Later, I learned some pretty fascinating things about Summit Lake:
- Summit Lake is actually the highest city park in North America (12,830’)
- It was designated the first National Natural Landmark in Colorado
- The eastern side of the lake is considered one of the best examples of Arctic tundra in the contiguous United States
- Coolest fact of all – the area around the lake is habitat to some extremely rare alpine-arctic plants, some of which only live here and above the Artic Circle. I think that’s pretty neat.
Heading home the sky broke with a bit of blue, and put on a beautiful show at sunset.
I don’t know what was going on in the universe, but I probably should have played the lottery. Stars were clearly aligned. This day was something special. I was reminded that life is only as monotonous as you make it, and that seizing even a potentially insignificant afternoon after work, and seeking something new or different can lead to some pretty incredible and memorable experiences.