I did not understand why I heard so many cars going by at 3 A.M. We were camping in a really good spot, along Notch Mountain Road only five miles from the trailhead. Wasn’t the purpose of camping near the trailhead of a 14er (Mountain with a peak 14,000 ft. or higher in elevation, a popular activity in Colorado, particularly in late summer) to be able to sleep a little later? In our spot, we were able to wake up shortly after 5 A.M. and still arrive at the trailhead by sunrise.
The strange thing was, the trailhead was already so packed we had to park half a mile away!
Over the course of the day, we would find out the reason why. The most obvious reason is that The Mt. of the Holy Cross is not just a “14er”. It is a 14er with a warmup hike, a climb of roughly 1200 feet in elevation, followed by a descent into a river valley before the primary 3500 foot steep ascent.
Hiking several days after a full moon has two advantages. First, the moon does not rise in the night sky until an hour or two before midnight, making it possible to see the stars before going to sleep. Then, in the morning, the moon is still out past sunrise.
The opening ascent, which summits right around the tree line is a significant hike of its own. There are probably plenty of people who live more sedentary lives who would not even be able to make it to this summit, which was spectacular at this early hour.
Right after getting to the summit, the trail turned in another direction and suddenly, the mountain the we were going to climb appeared before us while the moon was still prevalent in the morning sky.
It was an image of power, challenge and intimidation in front of us. We had just completed what many would consider a satisfactory hike of its own, a climb of a little over 1000 feet to a scenic panoramic view. Here, it was just a warm up. The moon, still mostly full and bright highlighted the challenge that laid ahead. It may as well have been screaming LEVEL UP.
After seeing the mountain, there can be nothing more disconcerting than descending, giving back the elevation gain we had worked for at the beginning of the day. We descended from near tree line (11,600′) back down into a river valley with Aspen trees nearly 1000 feet lower.
Long distance cycling taught me how to manage situations like these, psychologically speaking. Terrain, on trips like these, are kind of like a metaphor for life. Parts of it are naturally going to be harder. Parts of it are going to be easier. Sometimes you can anticipate it. Sometimes, it is unexpected. When climbing, during the more challenging parts of life, all you can do is toughen up – grind it out. When on a descent, or during times when life takes it a bit easier on you, it is seriously best to just enjoy it, and not worry about paying the price later. We can’t change the terrain, the wind speed or the trail conditions. All we can do is get the full enjoyment out of the experiences that work in our favor.
Around the river valley, there were a serious of campsites, another reason that the trailhead parking lot was so full. Apparently, many people who hike this mountain pack into one of these campsites and then tackle the main ascent in the morning.
After the campgrounds, the climb got intense quite rapidly. It wouldn’t be long before we reached treeline and encountered typical conditions associated with 14ers; A rocky, steep trail with full exposure.
Instantly the full beauty of the heart of the Rocky Moutains was visible in all directions.
I knew I would soon reach the point where I felt exhausted and delirious.
The step scramble up the rocks seemed to go on and on forever. Every time I reached what appeared to be some kind of crest, the trail would just turn in a slightly different direction and the rocky climb would continue.
This very intense section of the mountain, at high elevation, also felt like a metaphor for life. Sometimes, we work really hard at something, complete a task and feel like we have “made it”, only to determine that another, equally challenging task lies ahead of us. It is like working hard to get an advanced degree, then working hard to land a job, then working hard to prove ourselves and get a promotion, or having to work our way into a different, more appropriate position. If anything, the downhill part of this hike was part of that metaphor. Many of us take part in endeavors that we later realize were counterproductive.
The final scramble to the top was so steep it proved ideal conditions for mountain goats.
There was one adverse condition, common to 14ers, that I did not experience that day. That was bad weather of any kind. In the mountains, it is common to encounter chilly winds, even in the middle of summer and afternoon thunderstorms. Consistent with the hot, dry summer of 2020, I relaxed on top of the mountain in a t-shirt, without having to crawl behind rocks to shield from the wind.
I was still almost too exhausted to enjoy being at the top of the mountain. It always feels amazing to be at the top, but I felt quite delirious. I was almost feeling too delirious to make sense of everything. I ceased thinking about every aspect of the experience being some kind of metaphor for life and just gazed around, with no energy for any thought beyond feeling on top of the world and gazing out at the rugged terrain in all directions.
The descent turned out to be almost as exhausting because I keep my dog on leash, she pulls, making a steep descent even scarier, and she spent most of the descent trying to capture small chipmunks.
Luckily, she finally succeeded, and once that adrenaline rush wore off, even an energetic 2-year-old Siberian Husky had to acknowledge that this hike was indeed exhausting.
With a round trip total of around 5500 feet of climbing, this was the most challenging hike I had ever undertaken. It was challenging enough to make me stop thinking of metaphors for life and start seeing just what is. When I reached the crest of the final climb on the return trip, I simply enjoyed one of my favorite foods and gazed back upon the mountain I had just finished climbing.
Suddenly my exhaustion made sense. I mean, come on, look at that thing!