This summer I tagged along with two of my friends for a spontaneous trip out west. The only clear objectives of the week were drive to Colorado and climb 14,000footers. For me, the novelty started once we crossed into Iowa, which was the furthest west I had been. We spent the night, or what was left of it, in a hazy swamp between the freeway and a gas station in a field that was lit up like a space station. Fortunately the cops didn’t come knocking on our tent and we were able to pack up at 4am and head up through the mountains. The road winding up from Denver was steep enough to make us cringe at the effort of our little 4-cylinder engine, but we made it to snow mountain in one piece.
The first night we set our tent on Devil’s thumb, a vertical rock face covered in sage. Scrambling up the make-shift trail to our perch was even harder in the inky blackness of midnight. We rose to a sun-lit valley etched with a squiggly river that shone like molten sunlight. The air was crisp with the heady smell of sage wafting up from the brush as we slid down the precipice to get breakfast.
That afternoon we made our first climb up the three peaks of Snow Mountain. Each vantage point gave a different perspective of the valley and the basin of mountains encircling us. The sun was setting as we ran back down the pine studded mountain and that night we set our alarms for dawn to tackle La Plata, our first 14,000 footer.
On Wednesday we drove through the pre-dawn and watched the sun blaze over the mountain peaks on our road trip to the base. The air was misty and chilly as we erupted from the flat forest land and began our ascent. We tackled the trail with the roar of the river echoing beside us. By midmorning we had escaped the cool forest and crossed a grassy meadow embanking the crystal river that was flowing languidly between walls of wild flowers.
Our next challenge was the switchbacks that rose increasingly steeper up to a ledge connecting to the boulder pile that would lead us to the peak. We hiked higher and higher, lungs screaming for oxygen and calves burning from exertion, after two days we were hardly adjusted to the rise in altitude.
We took a snack break and exhausted our water supply at the half way point. The peak was in sight but the second half of the climb would be harder. Following the Cairns, we picked our way over boulders, at time crawling on all fours over loose rock. The height was dizzying and the river was an iridescent band a thousand feet below. Just as the rock pile seemed insurmountable, we came around the other side of the mountain and spotted the peak. Within minutes we were sitting at the highest point of La Plata. Clouds were encroaching on the graying sky and rain seemed imminent. We barely had time to savor our accomplishment and study the rim of mountains on the horizon before heading down to evade the rain. A sun-bathing marmot gave us a disapproving look as we took yet another break on our descent. As it turned out, we had made it to the peak in a little over 3 hours but the trek down took nearly as long because of the grade.
By the time we reached the car, the sun had come out again and we had a beautiful evening. The next day, we went to Colorado Springs to see the sandy-red rock formations in the Garden of the Gods. That night, we saw a family of elk on the road back up to camp and watched the sun set over Grand Lake in a blaze of orange fire. We made the short hike to a waterfall at dusk and spent the first moments of twilight under the straits just listening to the thundering falls.