Back on Top of the World

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Four in the morning is such as strange time of day.  It feels almost surreal.  Everything around you is so much quieter than we all have become accustomed to seeing it.  It is a time when the streets of your home town, even the blocks surrounding your home, feel strange and distant.  For many of us, it is the only time that our surroundings appear restful, as nearly every other time of day, the streets are full of people; people in motion, with agendas, and tasks to attend to.  It is almost as if you are experiencing a completely different place than the one you experience on a day-to-day basis during normal waking hours.

The few people you do see out and about at this hour have widely differing experiences.  There are some for which it is still last night.  The parties, after parties, drama, and other events that had been unfolding since the previous evening are still unfolding.  They have not transitioned to the next day yet.  For others, though, the new day has already begun.  They are starting some sort of project that has already carried them into the new day.  Basically, although the calendar says Sunday, some people are still on Saturday, while others had moved on to Sunday.  It very much reminds me of the International Date Line, which physically separates one day from the next day.  Only here, it is much murkier.  And having been on both sides of this line, it is definitely a challenge to make sense of everything I see around me.

I woke up at four in the morning in order to climb Quandary Peak, one of Colorado’s “14ers“, located in Summit County, just under two hours from Denver.  Climbing “14ers” is one of Colorado’s pastimes, and a rite of passage I first accomplished just over two years ago.  Unfortunately for anyone that hates early mornings, those climbing these peaks are generally advised to get an early start for safety reasons, as the weather here can be somewhat chaotic.  Sometimes unexpected weather here can lead to horrible results, even on days when inclement weather was not expected.  It is recommended that most hikers begin these climbs by 7 A.M. to minimize such risks.  So, I woke up at 4, to get ready, and get to the trailhead by 7.

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I have only climbed three other 14ers, so I have little experience to compare this particular hike to.  But, from the very beginning this hike seemed anomalous.  Most hikes, particularly Mount Bierstadt, begin relatively flat, with steeper grades coming farther into the hike, and closer to the top of the mountain.  This hike, however, had some fairly intense grades right at the start of the trail.

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Still, it felt like we spent a considerable amount of time, 40 minutes or so, hiking before we got above the tree line.  There is some variance as to the elevation of the tree line in Colorado.  On this hike, it certainly felt like I climbed to nearly 12,000 feet in elevation before getting above the trees.

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The other aspect of this particular trail that sets it apart from nearly every hike I have ever undertook is how much of this trail is covered by rocks.  The portion of the trail above the tree line, which is most of the trail, is more than half covered by rocks.  This is well more rock coverage than I remember from the other 14ers I have climbed.

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And then there were the mountain goats.  I probably encountered roughly a dozen of them today.  Most of them hung out a little bit above the tree line, but there were a couple of them that were actually spotted closer to the summit. I was surprised to encounter the first mountain goat I came across today.  I was even more surprised to keep encountering them, sometimes in packs.

Unlike many other mountains, Quandary Peak’s “intimidation factor” actually slowly builds up as one approaches the summit.

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While the mountain does appear big from the start, it appears somewhat gentile in nature when compared to some of the other mountains I have hiked.  From this vantage point, still below the tree line, it almost feels as if there will be a slow, steady, and merciful climb to this peak.

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Just above the tree line the mountain’s summit comes into clear view, appearing significantly less gentile than it did just 30 short minutes ago.

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The closer I got to the summit, the more I realized that the last 1000 foot climb would not be gentile at all.  In fact, this final stretch resembles any other 14er I have experienced or seen posts about.  This final section, leading up to the summit, will be a place where I will trudge to the top, focusing one exhausting step at a time.  This is the way it always goes down.

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Despite the fact that I have already successfully hiked to the top of a mountain that is technically a few feet taller than this one, it was hard not to feel a sense of accomplishment when reaching this summit.  Looking down on the intense terrain I had just navigated, and the mountains that surround me, all of which are below me, I was once again on top of the world.  And, once again, I had earned it.

As the day progressed, I saw more and more of two types of people on the trail.  First, large groups of either high school or college aged people.  But, also, I began to see more people wearing headphones on their hikes.  And, unlike the trail runners in headphones I encountered on Bierstadt, the people wearing them were not all trail runners.  Or, well, they were not all running.  Some were climbing the mountain at a fairly leisurely (for an intense climb like this) pace.

It made me wonder what this experience was about for these particular individuals.  How does having music on change the experience of the scenery around you?  I can imagine it having a negative impact on the connection one can make with nature at a place like this.  I am for certain that it would have a negative impact on one’s ability to share experiences with others.

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As was the case with the other 14ers I had climbed a couple of years ago, I was fortunate to have good company with me for the journey.  The experience, like many of the others I write about, would not have been the same had I taken them on alone.  My friend and I were discussing a mutual acquaintance who was hiking one of these 14ers solo.  I know that I would have significantly more trouble motivating myself to get up at the hour of 4 A.M. for a solo excursion.  For me, connecting with others plays a significant role in a lot of what I do, and I would have a hard time finding myself wearing headphones at a place like this.

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