Verdant green lodge pole pines blanket the Mount Holy Cross Wilderness region. A cobalt sky profiles rolling mountain tundra while gray rock peaks push against the universe. In the valleys, snow-fed sparkling rivers cascade over boulders, while wildlife munches, stalks or chirps its way through the dark forests “too silent to be real.” In that wilderness, the “circle of life” maintains a certain perfection known only to those who dare enter that wild kingdom.
Driving along a dusty mountain road, my friend Al and I crossed over a frisky river leading into a quiet canyon. We followed that river for a half dozen miles before stopping at a trailhead.
“This is it,” I said. “Turn into that spot and let’s get moving before that sun sets any further.”
“Beautiful flowers,” Al said, pointing to a group of red Paint Brush.
We hoisted the packs onto our backs and stepped onto the rocky trail. Ahead of us, aspens, pines and wildflowers sparkled in the late afternoon sunshine. The trail, filled with tree roots and gray rock, climbed steeply.
A sign read, “Welcome to Mount Holy Cross Wilderness.” Up we sped on our determined path toward the “Walden Pond” of the Rockies. The trail cut through pines and then, it cut through trembling aspens. Soon, it sliced through a meadow filled with white, red, pink, yellow, purple and orange wildflowers. We walked waist deep through one cut of flowers and deep vegetation. Purple bell shaped flowers reached four feet, but didn’t give off any scent. However, all the flowers together wafted a delightful perfume across our nostrils.
To our right, a large meadow exploded with yellow, white and red flowers. But of course, the trail climbed steeply through them. We labored, took a short break and watched the changling sky shift from sunlight to deep blue with golden clouds being tinged by the setting sun.
“Need to get our butts in gear,” I said. “The darkness will be hitting within 45 minutes.”
“I’m with you,” Al said, grabbing a last swing of his water bottle.
We climbed from 8,500 feet toward our 11,000 foot base camp. The trail steepened again, but our determined efforts made great time as we raced the sunset to our destination. Up, up we climbed to a beautiful, almost magical white water stream tumbling over rocks and trees in front of us. Its white music played through the evening air. Deliciously intoxicating!
After crossing the stream, we headed along a ridge until we reached heavy rock formations and a last stand of thick aspen. Inside the aspen, four foot high white, pie-faced flowers covered the forest floor like someone threw a thousand white Frisbees at a four foot level. Every once in awhile, a purple flower shot up into the field of white flowers, but the aspen trunks dominated while green grass outlined every part of the woods.
Still higher, we hiked into deep forest pines, big rocks and fallen trees. A few squirrels chattered at us as we passed by them. Overhead, a lazy hawk soared into the last gleaming rays of the sun. The sky turned radiant blue with silver-gold clouds skidding across the heavens on the final chapter of the day’s story.
“I smell the lake,” I said. “I think we might beat the darkness to Magic Lake.”
“I’ve got my minor’s lamp,” Al said. “So, I’m good to go.”
Another 20 minutes, we stepped over several dead logs until, up ahead, the last rays of light reflected off the glass still waters of Magic Lake. In front, a perfectly still surface mirrored the snowfields at 13,000 feet above the lake. Tall pines surrounded Magic Lake while they reflected their silence upon the water.
We stepped into a grassy spot near the shoreline.
“Oh my God,” Al said. “You weren’t kidding…this is amazing…so utterly beautiful.”
“Yup,” I said. “This place pulls my spirit to center.”
We pitched the tents, unrolled the air mattresses and opened the sleeping bags.
Of course, a fire made the perfect answer for the perfect day. Soon, the flames licked the night air as a slim stream of smoke curled into the pine canopy and on up toward the stars, now popping out, one by one.
Soon after, we cooked up a steaming hot pasta primavera. While we waited for our dinner, the night sounds dominated.
Have you ever sat by a camp fire,
When the wood has fallen low?
And the ambers start to whiten,
Around the fires crimson glow;
With the night sounds all around you
That makes silence doubly sweet;
And the full moon high above you,
That makes the spell complete;
Tell me were you ever nearer to the land of heart’s desire,
Than when you sat there thinking with your face toward the fire?
How does hot pasta primavera taste after a two hour 2,000 foot climb with 40 pound packs?
“Uhmm, good,” Al sighed. “Man, this is the answer!”
“Yup, well,” I said. “Wait till’ you taste my raspberry crumble.”
“Can’t wait,” Al said.
I cooked up the freeze-dried concoction and served it to Al after he finished his pasta.
“Talk about a perfect taste treat after a perfect day,” he said.
“You see that 13er reflecting off the lake?” I said. “You’ll need it to reach the summit.”
“I’m ready,” Al said.
We hit the sack as the Big Dipper, Orion, North Star and a million other twinkling galaxies spanned the ink black of space above us.
Al unzipped his tent to see the still glass smooth waters of “Magic Lake.”
“It doesn’t get any better than this,” he said.
I crawled out of my tent, “You got that right!”
We gobbled oatmeal and apples for breakfast. Later, we tore down camp and hung our packs in the trees for animal protection. We carried all food with us plus water. We looked beyond the lake to the notched mountain peak in front of us.
“You game?” Al said.
“I’m with you, dude,” I said.
We hiked into the woods, not finding a trail, so we blazed our own. It climbed steadily upward until we crossed a small creek loaded with flowers and green grass. From there, we found a stash of purple columbine flowers.
Breaking out of the woods, we climbed toward a ridge that led toward the rocky peak ahead of us. A small trail allowed us to switchback to the ridge. Once there, we found ourselves engulfed with tiny mountain tundra flowers on our way into a rock field. Big ones, 50 tons, small ones, 10 tons and many others at five pounds. We picked our way through the rocks, and then, through snow fields, and back onto the scree.
Along the way, more flowers, lichens, butterflies and bees. Also, spider webs between rocks! Talk about positive attitude and expectation!
With every break in the rock fields, we hit a grassy area with thousands of pink, yellow, purple, white and red tundra flowers. All of them smaller than the head of a pin! Just amazing!
Upward we climbed, from rock to rock. We rested, then returned to the climb. We drank water, then returned to the climb. Step by step, hour after hour, we hammered toward the top. Around noon, we reached the summit of the notched mountain at 13,271 feet into the sky.
“Some folks left a small jar with a pencil and paper to sign your name,” Al said, handing me the jar.
“Can’t imagine too many people up here,” I said. “I’ll be darned! Quite a few folks reached top in July already!”
We signed it and sat down on top of our world. Around us, snow capped peaks dominated! Mt. Massive, Elbert, the collegiates, Gore Range, Capitol and thousands of peaks poked their jagged summits toward a raging blue sky. We ate, drank and talked about the climb. We filled that blank space with a story that never would have been told unless we packed into the wilderness.
John Muir said, “Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wildness is a necessity; and that mountain parks and reservations are fountains of life.” 1898
To mountain climbers, we fill in the blank spaces of unappreciated flowers or blazing sunsets. We herald the rising sun full of expectations. On the climb up, a marmot stood up, looked at us and said, “Welcome to my world.” Later, a pika squeaked his language and scurried back into his hole. Above us, hawks soared on thermals for the pure joy of a day of flying. As climbers, we become part of the wildness of the wilderness. We step into the dream, the fantasy and the reality. We make a story where none existed other than the indolent apathy of the universe to our presence.
While summiting a mountain creates tremendous satisfaction, we must all come down from that peak. We must slip back into the mainstream of our lives.
Al and I moved back down through the rock fields, past the flowers, into the snow fields, past the tundra, into the woods, down the steep embankments and soon, we reached “Magic Lake.”
“I’m so sweaty, I’ve got to jump in,” I said.
“Here’s the perfect spot,” Al said.
I stripped and dove into the ice cold, snow fed waters of “Magic Lake.”
“Yeeehiiii,” I screamed. “Not too bad!”
Around me, I saw two pound trout swimming past! Steller jays watched from the trees. Squirrels chattered like machine guns. Dragon flies danced in the air.
Later, we slung the packs back onto our shoulders for the hike back down the mountain. With one last look back at “Magic Lake”, we headed into the wilderness for another two hours.
At the bottom, a little weary and thoroughly filled with visual and spiritual joy, we looked back at the high peaks we summitted. Now, we share our story and we created a story where non existed until we stepped into the wilderness. For those that sally forth into the rough country, good tidings and spiritual bliss.
As my dear friend John Muir said, “How deep our sleep last night in the mountain’s heart, beneath the trees and stars, hushed by solemn-sounding waterfalls and many small soothing voices in sweet accord whispering peace! And our first pure mountain day, warm, calm, cloudless,--how immeasurable it seems, how serenely wild! I can remember its beginning. Along the river, over the hills, in the ground, in the sky, spring work is going on with joyful enthusiasm, new life, new beauty, unfolding, unrolling in glorious exuberant extravagance,--new birds in their nests, new winged creatures in the air, and new leaves, new flowers, spreading, shining, rejoicing everywhere.”
Read many of Wooldridge's adventure books: An Extreme Encounter: Antarctica; Into the Wind: Adventure to Alaska; Bicycling Around the World; Bicycling the Continental Divide: slice of heaven, taste of hell; Handbook for Touring Bicyclists, Strike Three! Take Your Base, Misty's Long Ride: Across America on Horseback; and more. www.barnesandnoble.com ; www.amazon.com ; www.borders.com; www.frostywooldridge.com