Until recently, I have always sought the safety of traveling as a group. I rarely hiked alone, rarely drove anywhere over two hours away without a buddy, and would end up sitting at home if no friends had the day off. I love adventuring with others, there is nothing like sharing a sunset with close friends, but there is something to be said for finding a quiet moment to enjoy a sunset without the weight of another conscious.
A wild goose chase for a missing climbing shoe sent me on a two-hour drive to Guanella Pass near Georgetown, CO, no friends felt like driving back to where we had climbed earlier that day and in any case, it was a Tuesday, and only a lucky few can take off camping on a Tuesday. I was left with the choice of driving a couple hours, embarking on a futile quest for a climbing shoe, returning home sad and shoeless that night, or, sticking around to hike a 14er the next day.
I decided on the second option, grabbed all the peanut butter and bananas I could find, and set off for Bierstadt and Mount Evans. There is a ten-mile loop, that, without much added difficulty, checks two 14ers of the list; it begins with a casual stroll through a high alpine meadow until the elevation starts to build as you approach Bierstadt.
Eventually the meadows dry out and there are a series of swooping switchbacks that lead to the ridge. As I approached the ridge, the sun began to peak above the horizon on the opposite side of the peak. Soon, the stars were swallowed by a hungry sun and the glow of hiker’s headlamps disappeared as they were switched off, one by one. By the time the summit was in full view, the sky ran with color, the wind howled, and I was completely alone, unable to even hear my own thoughts over the wind caught beneath the hood of my jacket.
The Sawtooth Ridge connects Bierstadt to Mount Evans, it is roughly a mile long, and covers class three terrain. As though protecting distant peaks from encroaching intruders, the traverse flaunts steep talus fields and teetering trails. However, the trail quickly appears via a system of cairns and footprints. Overall, the traverse is a simple procedure, one foot in front of the other, talus hopping down a steep ridge, until a short section of more difficult climbing over a gendarme.
From here, one more section of class three hiking leads to the summit of the Sawtooth, and a short hike up an alpine meadow until the summit of Mount Evans. The summit is spectacular, as are all mountain summits; however, set along side the mountain goats and alpine flowers, is a road, and tourists, and myriad of selfies taken and retaken.
Completely wiped and wind beaten, I nestled between a couple of boulders, ate lunch, and by lunch I mean a Clif Bar, and soaked in the sun along with strange looks from those who drove to the summit. The first part of the descent began down the same meadow you travel when approaching Mount Evans, yet, since most hikers approach Mount Evans via the Summit Lake trail, there is a brief section of trail-less hiking. The path is still easy going, traveling through the meadow until you reach a gully between Mount Stradler and the Sawtooth.
The gully has a rough, steep trail through thousands of rocks and boulders. These boulders clearly fell from the cliff sides, raining shrapnel down the gully, which now exists as river of rocks, frozen in time, until one day, a fissure gives way, and a slide is set in motion. I quickly descended the gully, wishing to spend as little time between the cliffs as possible. At the bottom of the gully, another grassy meadow opens up, dotted with beaver ponds and a picturesque waterfall, framed by the Sawtooth Ridge. With no agenda, I sprawled in the grass, thankful for the warm sun and the freedom to lie there, still, quiet, and alone.
Storm clouds loomed in the distance and I felt the familiar sensation of sleep coming over me; yet, I pressed on, through the meadow, until the air was rich enough to support plant life. The rest of the hike was mostly flat, but muddy, and I spent the next hour post holing in knee-deep mud, until the series of elephant trails snaked back to the main Bierstadt trail, and eventually to the comfort and snacks strategically left in my Jeep.
Whenever I set out on solo adventures, I do so with the mindset that I am going to figure it all out. I am going to realize what I want to be when I grow up, I plan to solve my relationship struggles, and become a better person. This has yet to happen, so far, all I have figured out is that I really like hiking.
Now, I am sitting at a coffee shop, slowly writing my thoughts in an illegible script as my hands are still swollen from the hike. During the seven hours I spent meandering through the mountains, I failed to figure much of anything out. I probably spent most of my time thinking about which rocks may be loose, really wishing I had brought gloves, and encouraging footstep after footstep with a hiker’s version of a locker room pep talk.
I am not sure why breathing thin air and sinking knee-deep in mud is my idea of a great time, but, in moments like this, nothing else exists, only the wind, the mud, and the buzzing quietness found only in nature. There is no one else to seek comfort from, you are forced to find contentment in your own thoughts. While I was unsuccessful in figuring anything out, beyond realizing that you should always bring gloves on a 14er, I did realize that, despite the wind and mud, or maybe because of the wind and mud, hiking, and being alone in nature is a rarely received blessing. There are times that are brilliant because they are shared with another, but the autonomy found in solo adventures is brilliance in itself.
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