On Top of the World

The first rays of light angled up the mountainside, bathing the trunks of the pines in a golden hue. On a level patch of ground we paused to admire the sunrise and drink from water bottles, then pressed on uphill. For a time the trail followed a small stream whose course, rocky and root tangled, tumbled the mountain’s fall line, straight and true.

The trail then began to switchback across the spine of a ridge, the trees becoming more sparse and stunted, gnarled by the elements as we gained elevation and approached tree line. Here too the trail became looser and more rocky, a result of greater exposure to the combined effect of time, wind and water.

A lone tree a quarter mile ahead, silhouetted against the early morning sky, stood out. “Let’s take a break there. We should get a good view of how far we’ve come, and how far still to go.”

Upon reaching the tree we slipped off our packs, sat, and rummaged for snacks. The ground below us immediately fell away into a steep couloir that funneled toward a distant bottleneck, heavily treed. Behind our backs the trail continued to climb, traversing across the couloir toward a saddle that sat beneath the peak that was our ultimate goal. “Looks like we’re about halfway there,” I commented. “How are you guys feeling?”

For my daughter and her friend, it was their first fourteener, for me, only my second.

“Tired,” came the reply, “but we’re ready to keep going.”

I pointed to the saddle. “That’s our next stop. From there, the end is in sight.”

The downside of hiking in trees is sometimes it is difficult to gauge progress, one bend in the trail looking like the next. Being out in the open has its own similar drawback. After a half hour of trudging, the saddle appeared no closer. Heads down, we traversed the couloir, still patched in places with snow, a series of steep switchbacks towards the top.

Once on the saddle, the peak seemed close enough to touch, until the sight of a hiker half way up—a mere speck against the horizon—put the scale of the mountain into perspective. We sat on the trail for one last refueling stop, each exchanging stories we’d heard of mountaineering disasters, Everest traffic jams and time spent in the death zone. A group of hikers approached from below. I advised my daughter to move off the trail. “Let them step over me,” she replied, referring to the dark side of mountaineering.

The final ascent resembled a half hour on a stair master set to ten, a scramble up a jumble of boulders, following the path of least apparent resistance. Finally we sat at the summit, settled in the lee of a couple of boulders to shelter from a brisk wind that blew from the west. Far below to the east, town appeared as a mere smudge in the light of early morning. To the south, the highway cut through the heart of the San Luis Valley, the Sangres a thin dark razorback separating one valley from the next.

I checked the time. “Hard to believe, on a normal morning, you’d still likely be sitting around in your pjs, drinking coffee.”

“This is the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” said my daughter, her friend nodding in agreement. This, from a couple of ex professional-level ballerinas. “But the most satisfying,” she continued. “I see how this can get addictive.”

The return downhill took as much time as the up, in many ways more physically demanding. I took frequent breaks, sitting in shade where available while my climbing companions took their time behind me, alternately laughing, singing, and asking how much further to go. Three tired hikers eased in to my truck at the trailhead, my daughter and her friend marveling at how someone three times their age could kick their butt on such a hike.

I marveled the same thing myself until, two mornings later, I got out of bed to discover someone had removed both my femurs overnight, causing my quads to buckle under the strain of my weight and my legs to move in jerky spasms of their own volition as I tried to walk a straight line. For the next couple of days, coherent bipedal movement became something problematic, especially walking up or down stairs as the climb’s exertions finally caught up with me.

But through the discomfort, one thing still rang true. The experience was addictive.


Sixty Times Around the Sun: Part 2

So far, so good—the day had proceeded according to plan. I’d left town early, hiked several miles into the mountains in the cool of morning, had a close encounter with iconic wildlife, and now I sat on a knoll overlooking the lake I’d come to fish, watching several large cutthroat trout cruise the shallows.

I reasoned the hot, uncomfortable feeling emanating from my feet inside my boots as the after effect of the arduous hike. I’d worn these hiking boots for years, without issue. As I sat and rigged my rod, keeping half an eye on the movements of the fish, surely I thought, the discomfort would diminish.

The fish cruised close to the lake’s narrow outlet, where over time the current had stacked a tangle of logs, now bleached by the elements. An occasional zephyr swept down from the mountains, churning the lake’s surface for a minute or two, but when the air settled the fish still maintained their station. Rod rigged, I stood and walked cautiously down towards the water’s edge then, keeping a respectful distance, unfurled a cast toward where two fish swam leisurely, seemingly unaware of my presence.

The instant the fly touched the water, both fish, and two more I hadn’t noticed, turned and darted straight for the center of the lake’s deeper reaches, leaving a trail of stirred sediment in their wake.
Tough audience, I thought. I retreated back to the higher ground and sat, waiting to see if they’d return. A few minutes later I located another, close in, working its way toward me while keeping to a deeper channel next to the bank. I decided to set up an ambush.

I moved down and cast my fly right on the edge of this channel, twenty feet ahead of the fish, and waited. As it approached, I gave a little twitch of the rod tip, imparting a slight motion to the fly. Ignoring my offering, the cutthroat swam past and stopped right in front of me, turning slightly and seeming to stare straight at me, mouth and gill plates working rhythmically as it moved water through its gills. For a few seconds we stared at each other. It was difficult to escape the feeling I was being mocked, or admonished, or both. The fish then turned and retraced its path. I cast once more, landing the fly a few feet ahead of it, and was treated with the same disregard.

Very well, I’d take my talents to the other side of the lake, where hopefully the locals would be a little less cultured. I refastened my pack and headed for the far shore where the trees grew close and snow still lay in their shadows. The water here was deeper, and several fish lay beyond a drop off where a small stream flowed in to the lake. Crouching low, I cast onto the stream where its waters merged with that of the lake. The fly drifted with the current, and one by one each fish moved out of the way as it floated toward them, then resumed its station once past.

I began to pay more attention to the pain in my feet. The extra half mile of hiking to get here from the far shore had set them aflame. I thought of the first aid kit sitting in the back seat of my truck, that I’d told myself I likely wouldn’t need. I consoled myself with the thought that the discomfort was greater when hiking uphill, and the bulk of the return hike would be down.

For the next half hour, I continued my battle of wits with the fish at the stream mouth. Multiple changes in flies, angle of approach, at one stage standing in plain sight a mere rod length from them, dancing a nymph inches from their faces—nothing would induce a take, or even a flicker of interest save the energy expended in moving out of the way.

The angle of the mid-afternoon sun told me it was time to leave. I broke down my rod and began what turned out to be a two hour hobble back to my truck, all the while imagining the twin delights of slipping off my boots and sipping the cold birthday beer I’d left under the back seat….or had I? I now remembered the beer, sitting in the fridge at home, left behind in my haste to make an early start to the day. Through the pain, I laughed. I’d wanted a memorable experience to celebrate my 60th, and been given exactly what I’d asked for.


Sixty Times Around the Sun

It seemed an appropriate way to celebrate the completion of my sixtieth journey around the sun. I’d rise early, head to the mountains, and then with a pack on my back hike to a lake a friend had told me about, located a couple of miles inside a wilderness area. I’d spend the day alone in the high country, reflecting on life, time’s passage, and the contradiction that is the length of the days but the brevity of the years.

The road towards the lake ran straight as an arrow shaft, through the heart of a landscape dotted with silos and center pivots, the scent of wet rabbit brush heavy in the air. To the east a range of mountains rose up off the plain like a wave frozen mid-break, the peaks shrouded in sullen, multi-colored clouds. In the opposite direction, more mountains smudged the horizon, patches of snow capturing the first rays of morning.

I turned west and in what seemed like the blink of an eye the plain was left behind and I found myself driving through steepening countryside clad in pine and budding aspen, the river that accompanied the highway flowing a deep green, filling its banks. After a time I turned off to follow a gravel road that became more potholed the higher it climbed until it ended at a trailhead. On the tailgate of the truck I sorted my pack for the day, stuffing waders, fishing pack, extra clothing, lunch, snacks, water filter….. I shouldered my load and set forth upon the trail.

The first mile saw a series of steep switchbacks through pine mingled with groves of aspen, the ground underfoot a damp carpet of rust-colored leaves, the air still dank and fresh with the cool of morning. Next came a succession of small meadows where the trail skirted their perimeters to avoid swampy centers, alive with the chorus of raucous frogs. Here too the viewscape opened to reveal near vertical cliffs of glacial-carved granite with snow still covering any slope with a northern aspect.

My mind wandered as I hiked higher toward the cliffs, from marveling at the sonorous pounding of a small woodpecker on the trunk of a dead pine nearby, to the implications of the greater—but not necessarily better—part of this life now in the rearview mirror.

The final ascent to the lake was made through snow and a stand of aspen with trunks colored olive green. At last I stood upon a promontory and looked out across the lake, shallow in the foreground and deepening towards the far shore where pines crowded close to the water, the terrain then rising steeply to where a waterfall cascaded from a crevice high in the granite wall beyond.

A rustle of brush and movement close to my left startled me from my reverie. A golden eagle lifted off from the undergrowth ten yards away, flying directly toward me as it gained steerage before turning, revealing fully its mottled underbelly and wingspan before sweeping low across the lake. Heart still racing, I watched for as long as I could as its form receded, blending into the light and shadow of the far shore.

I sat and watched the lake. A breeze picked up, stirring the water’s surface. In a shallow bay near the outlet a weathered beaver dam breached the surface, and I made out the silhouettes of a couple of fish cruising close to shore. So far, so good I mused as I began assembling my rod, keeping a keen eye on the fish.


What’s Lost, and Gained

We paused to refuel and rehydrate at the foot of the final ascent towards the lake. A furrow in the snow among the trees denoted the course of a stream. In two places its waters were exposed, flowing sparse and crystal-clear over a rust and tan bed that seemed to glow softly in the surrounding white. A fallen log lay across one of these patches of open water, across its topside a winter’s worth of snow accumulation shaped by the elements into the form of a breaking wave, frozen in time.

“What have you got to eat?” she asked.
“The food I brought for myself,” I replied. “You?”
“I want to see what you’ve got first.”
I rolled my eyes and showed her my selection of energy bars, and she chose out her favorite.
“I knew you’d have one of these,” she smiled.

We ate in silence, each mentally preparing for the aching calves, burning thighs and over-taxed lungs that would accompany the next half-mile of trail.

“I usually put my head down, just focus on the ground right in front of me, and count off a certain number of paces—one hundred, two hundred, five hundred, whatever—before looking up again. Other wise it seems you never make progress. Same when I’m grinding my way up a long climb on my bike. My breathing gets into a rhythm, and it seems to go by quicker.”

“I’m the same,” she said, “except I sing a song to myself.”

We re-fastened our packs and began the ascent, one foot in front of the other, the snow crunching softly beneath our snowshoes, the fluctuating tightness in my calves and shortness of breath a reliable barometer of the changes in gradient of the trail
“It’s like quarantine,” she observed as we trudged. “If you look too far into the future, the end seems a long way off. I’m trying to take it one day at a time, one step at a time.”

I knew she was missing that part of her life, the camaraderie of her housemates, the interaction with professors and fellow students, the clubs, the vibe and bustle of the city. It meant making the effort to get out and move, breath fresh air, and return home with muscles tired but mind rejuvenated all the more important.

A quarter hour later, we stood at the foot of the final push, presented with a choice. Beyond the ridge line in front of us sat the lake. A prior hiker had broken a trail that switched back and forth to the top, or we could take the direct route, shorter but steeper.

“I vote we go for it,” she said. “I’d rather get it over and done with.”

I nodded, and we took the straight approach, scrambling on all fours the last few yards until we stood atop the ridge and looked down on the frozen expanse of the lake. Across the far shore the ground rose steeply again, above tree line, to the spine of the Continental Divide, the distant snow fields overhung by several ominous-looking cornices. Mottled grey clouds blotted out the sun, flattening the light and speaking of an impending storm.

We descended to the shore of the lake and drank once more while the dog cavorted about on the flat ground. Three quarters of the way across, a dark patch in the ice gave the first hint of spring’s thaw, of light at the end of the season’s tunnel. The wind blew, as ever, but not with the same bite as in the the heart of winter.

I called in the dog off the ice, and took in the view one last time—such time and place retains memories more special with no other person in sight. We turned our backs and began the descent from the ridge.


We’re All Getting Old

I cut a generous chunk of summer sausage from the log, sliced it in two again and handed him one of the pieces. My fingertips, pinched from the cold and slick with grease from the sausage, struggled to find purchase on the wrapper of a cheese stick, so I took the knife and, mindful of clumsiness, carefully slit a hole in the wrapper and began to devour a late river-side lunch.

Rain fell steadily from a heavy sky, the tops of the canyon walls shrouded in mist, the south facing slopes a striated mosaic of rock, snow and pine. I shivered several times as I ate; the sausage, a second cheese stick, a protein bar, and the last of a travel mug of hot chocolate.

“I’m surprised it’s taken this long for the rain to turn to snow,” I remarked, noticing the rain drops making a heavier, slushier sound as they settled on the raft. The downpour had started not long after we’d launched, several hours past, from the foot of the dam upstream. Light at first, for the last couple of hours it had increased in volume and intensity.

He nodded, continuing to stare out across the water toward the far bank. “I wish I knew what the heck the fish were eating.”

Earlier that morning in the fly shop, the guy behind the counter had enthused at the day’s potential, the overcast sky a portend of a great day’s fishing, sentiments we’d agreed with at the time. “The streamer fishing should be great, and look out for blue wings and midges coming off too.”

Now we stood wet and bedraggled mid-afternoon along a saturated river bank, proof if ever it was needed that, despite all the collective angling wisdom in the world, the angler is only ever half of the equation. Caveman had brought a brown and a cutthroat to the boat, while I was yet to feel the rush of my line tightening to a fish.
Remembering another jacket buried at the bottom of my dry bag, I gratefully added the extra layer. This plus the fresh fuel in my belly began to works its magic, shivers lessening and feeling returning to my fingers and toes.

“You fish for a bit,” I said. “I’ll take the oars.”

“Thanks,” he replied, mock sarcasm in his tone. “Any ideas on what to throw?”

“You’re asking me? Unless you’ve got a kitchen sink on you, I can’t think of anything else.”

He stood and prepared to step into the raft, a distance of three feet from bank across to boat, both slick with precipitation. He hesitated, changing angles of approach before placing a hand on my shoulder to steady his passage across, laughing as he went.

“A younger me would have just stepped across that without thinking. Now look at me. I’m getting old.”

As I too clambered clumsily into the raft, I thought of our younger selves, of how we’d have stepped across easily, of the twenty five years we’d been running rivers together. How many rivers, how many miles, how many fish, how much laughter since those times? Certainly, we were younger back then, sleeker and more agile. Certainly too, we’d spent days on rivers colder and wetter than this.

Despite, or perhaps because of, my creeping infirmity, I felt a deep gratitude for that moment, for being on that river, surrounded by so much beauty, in such company. Another thread, woven into the tapestry of friendship and life, another tale to recount when perhaps the recounting of tales will be all we have left. Until then, I’ll keep crawling, scrambling, tripping and cursing—whatever it takes.

I turned the boat midstream and pulled on the oars, out into the current once more.