Thursday, June 25, 2009

Holy Cross

Mount of the Holy Cross is one of the most revered summits in North America. Today I gained its summit. My reflections about this peak follow. It’s a fitting testimonial to my love for wildlife and wilderness.

Holy Cross

The road dead-ended into a clump of spruce at 10,000 feet. Darkness and summer cold brought with it an inevitable uncertainty of what lay ahead. I was a stranger here. On the far side of the continent I had passed rainy winter afternoons dreaming about snows on Holy Cross. Now I would try to climb this majestic mountain myself. Others’ photos would be replaced in my mind by my own memories – memories surely made more enduring by a sudden transition from sea level to the heart of the Colorado Rockies.

The woods were still but for my heart fighting hypoxia. Lightning illuminated mountains in the distance. The Milky Way radiated the sky to the east. Four miles off was East Creek, a place where I would unceremoniously descend to find a few hours of altered sleep. The altitude caused me to waver across the narrow, snowy trail. I made stumps into bears eyeing me from the edge of the trail.

Thursday morning broke cold and wet. Altitude now gave me a throbbing headache and nausea. Weakly I started up the long slope to the summit ahead. How would tiring footsteps become long miles of grueling ascent? I passed the time pondering how many steps might give me the top of Holy Cross.

To a climber in self doubt the day’s first unobstructed view to a summit provides optimism where there really should be none at all. By ten in the morning I was above treeline, and only rock lay ahead. My head pounded with pain but my spirit lifted.

Soon I was fighting time. Forecasts called for storms, and early afternoon brought the first squalls from the west. Fighting vertigo, I stumbled to the summit. It was the first time I stopped to absorb the beauty of the land. The spires of dozens of mountains leapt into view.

A walk off a stunning mountain summit leads to me to ask questions. Did I spend long enough at the top? Did the climb live up to my expectations? Did I give the mountain enough time? Little time is all I had, and many would never get the chance to give Holy Cross any time at all. Swirling storms gave my strides down-slope a sense of purpose.

The Colorado Rockies is a tortured place. Private property and barbed wire have fragmented the land. Disputes have followed: who can cut the trees, tap the gold or hold back precious water from a neighbor below. Nowadays denizens of skiers are deposited on Rocky Mountain slopes to track powdery snow. Indeed, I was jetted here just yesterday, leaving the sands of Carolina to make my own mountain memories.

However, it is entirely possible in the Holy Cross Wilderness to take your mind back to another time, when the Colorado Rockies was untamed land stretching hundreds of miles in all directions. My visit here comes full circle. On my hike out daylight fades to darkness. A wind spills off the mountainside and whistles down the slope. A raven cackles from the ridge below. A thrush sings its sweet melody in the woods beyond. Water thunders from the far cliff and then echoes off a hill faraway.

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