Hiking a mountain of any size is a special thing, something I’ve had the privilege to do a couple of times. Recently I hiked to the top of Handies Peak (14,058 ft.) near Lake City, Colorado with my wife and brother. We started on the trail at 6:15 AM and took us 7.5 hours to complete, but complete we did!
It was an especially beautiful hike with carpeted tundra and wildflowers almost the entire length of the trail. The valley in which we began, the American Basin, is known for its flowers, but we were about three weeks too early to see it in its fullest expression. The signs were there though with many varieties on the verge of blooming. In addition to the beautiful color and green draped mountainsides, we were early enough in the season for there to be some snow still around creating little streams running down the valley.
Further up trail, we encountered a frozen lake. As Kirsten and Aaron moved on up the trail, I was left alone and in the quiet could hear the ice cracking and popping in response to the rising morning temperature; sometimes very soft, but others like a mighty tree crashing to the ground.
As I climbed throughout that morning, I reflected on the beauty of the place, of the tundra and tiny flowers, the bright orange and green lichen attached to large and rugged rocks. I listened to the sound of the morning birds, the “eeeep!” of the yellow-bellied marmots, the breeze across boulders, the sound of water rushing downward over rock. This is a place where I am acutely aware of the great belonging of all things, this family to which I belong, where the birds and butterflies, the streams and moss all announce my place in the family of things.*
Particularly enjoyable was the morning sun slowly illuming the cliff faces, the mint green grasses, the bright orange lichen, the pedals of wildflowers, and transforming the valley. On the way down from the summit, with the sun fully in the sky, it was as if I were on a different slope, because of how the light transforms the surroundings and presents the world anew; a good reminder that this happens on our most ordinary of days too.
We reached the top (not without great effort) and found a spectacular view of snow-dappled mountains on every side, and to the east, another valley surreal in its beauty, covered in deep green tundra, an azure-green alpine lake, and pines in the distance. We meet a nice girl who took our picture, then another hiker, and then we walked back down.
Atop the peak of Handies were a number of white butterflies chasing each other around. This really struck me. The last 500 yards or so to the top is mostly scree (loose, small rocks) and no vegetation, so why was it these butterflies were here? The girl we met on the peak mentioned she had seen butterflies on other peaks, but as I’m prone to over-interpret a butterfly’s meaning, this just seemed more of creation’s gift, that these fluttering spirits were here at all. A small bird came by as well, landed on the rocks of the peak and hopped around. I asked, “What are you doing here?” but she left too soon.
On Handies, I was constantly reminded of the saying, “There is no such thing as an easy 14er.” It took us four hours to summit a 2500 foot elevation gain. The air is thin and you are almost constantly going uphill. Climbing a mountain, even a Class 1, is hard, no matter its elevation. A mountain will humble the best person, put you in your place and remind you that you’re not quite all that, but it will also show you what you are capable of; such is the gift of struggle.
Why climb a mountain? George Mallory famously answered, “Because it’s there!” President Kennedy said it another way regarding space travel, “We choose to go to the moon in this decade…not because it is easy, but because it is hard.” And perhaps for me, that is part of it. Why run a marathon? Why take the most challenging advanced academic program? Why teach a new course when you don’t have to? Why push when others around you ease back? Because it is the challenge and how we respond to it that marks us.
The other is to be in and with nature in this way; this very unique, rugged landscape that only a mountain can provide. To be with the sky and sun and marmots and alpine insects, birds and streams. It is a kind of prayer, a kind of belonging that enlivens the spirit and sticks with the soul.
*Credit Mary Oliver