Summiting Mt. Elbert for sunrise

Day 12, 7/19
Miles: 5.9 on CT, 14.9 total
Mileage: 169.3 – 175.2

Before going to bed we meet two guys road tripping through Colorado who are also trying to hike Mt. Elbert in the morning. We talk about our plans and somewhere in the conversation, one of us comes up with the idea to hike it during the night, and be on top for sunrise. This plan seems brilliant to me, as I was on top of Mt. Whitney for sunrise last year. We set our alarm for 1am and call it a night.

I don’t fall asleep easily, one because I am trying to go to bed at 7, and two because it is still light out and noisy, being camped by a trailhead. Eventually I do drift off, and 5 minutes later, or maybe 3 hours later, we rise in the night to a dark sky and bright stars beaming through the trees. We put all of our layers on and pack things up quickly, then the guys come to join us and we are off, hiking into the woods at 1:55am.

Simone and I leave our packs by the Mt. Elbert trail junction, and I take the lid off of her pack to use it as a giant fanny pack of sorts, along with my puffy coat and rain coat tied around my waste. I’m rocking some trail style, for sure.

We walk up, up, up this steep, dark trail, only able to see 20 feet in front of us. We visit with the guys and time passes quickly, and so does the elevation. Eventually we hit tree line and we can see the city lights of Leadville below us. The stars are out, the moon is shining how it does, providing us with a beautifully dim light to walk by. Eventually I turn my headlamp off and let my eyes adjust to the natural lighting, just light enough to show me where the path leads.

The trail is steep. Very steep. One step at a time we make our way up towards the top of this giant mount of rock we somehow find elation in climbing on. We stop several times to look up and squint our eyes, wondering if we can see the outline of the top, or if the mountain is just playing tricks on us. It’s cool in the middle of the night, but the temperature is right enough where I only need to be wearing my hiking shirt and rain jacket, for now. I feel amazing. I’m in some kind of ecstasy, climbing up this hill, and I turn around occasionally to yell off into the sky, hearing my voice echo back from below. We can now see little bright dots of headlamps below us, a few of them slowly making their way towards us in some sort of an assembly line in the night.

Just as the sky is beginning to give it’s first previews of color, we crest the top and stand on top of Mt, Elbert, at 5:15am. I yell again and we high five and jump for joy, and I hug Simone as she sheds a little tear. She says she’s not sure if it’s from relief of being done with the climb, or if it’s from joy of standing up this high, over 14,000 feet for her first time. Probably both.

We get the summit to ourselves, just the four of us, and we pace around in circles trying to take in as many moments of the view as possible, taking mental pictures and real pictures over and over again. As the sun slowly rises, the scenery below me is changing each minute. I get to watch the skyline turn to a shade of pink and then orange. I get to see the mountains turn from a dark grey to a tinted red/orange/pink. The sun starts to shed more light, and therefore give us a better picture of the lakes dotted below and the hundreds of snow-spotted peaks unfolding into the distance. To the west, the clouds turn bright pink as they hang directly above the mountain tops, making for an elegant, picturesque scene.

My heart is full. These are the moments I live my life for, I think to myself. I would go through every bit of pain, sorrow, heartache or heartbreak that life brings (and sometimes the trail brings), just to rest in moments like these. I remember being on the summit of Mt. Whitney last year, at the end of an incredible 24 day journey with mom, feeling the same kind of peaceful elation and freedom I feel now. I remember knowing that this is what I was made to do. Some kind of deep contentment, a full spirit, a joyful heart. Moments like these, where I work my ass off, put in the time, the effort, and then stand on top of the mountain that I just conquered (real mountain or the mountain of the day), they put everything back into perspective for me. Everything back into it’s rightful place. I am perfectly content. I need nothing more.

We stay on the summit until after 7am, walking around, snapping more pictures, visiting with the growing number of people who are arriving on top. It’s hard to leave, but finally we do. Down we walk, down the steep slippery path that we scrambled up. Now, though, rather than a peaceful, quiet early morning accent, there is a steady line of people walking one after the next up this giant hill. It looks like a line in Disneyland, except everyone is sweating more.

“Thank GOD we are not coming up right now!” Simone and I discuss, as we pass what seems like a hundred or more day hikers still lined up the mountain. All the way down people are asking us over and over again “how far do I have left” and “what time did you start to be coming down so soon”, or my favorite question “did you make it to the top already?” I want to respond by saying “already? I’ve been walking since 2am. And yes, I made it to the top, I wouldn’t be coming down if I didn’t”. Instead I smile and nod, thankful that I am not a part of this zoo-train. We make it down to our packs at 9-ish, or something. We sit, take our layers off, eat, rest. 4.7 miles to Twin Lakes, and we are done for the day.

It is only noon when we arrive in Twin Lakes. The first thing my eyes see is a sign that reads “BBQ. PORK. BRISKET.” Omg! Food! We throw our packs down and order a giant, BBQ sandwich stuffed with three kinds of meat and everything my heart desires. Two CDT thru-hikers are relaxing in front of the general store and we relax with them, talking, swapping stories and picking their brains about thru-hiking. We grab our resupply and sort through it, putting a lot of it back into the box for others to take from. We talk and laugh and eat into the afternoon until we manage to catch a ride back into
Leadville, where we will get a bed for the night at the Leadville hostel. Back to Leadville, for the second time.

To be continued: The Leadville hostel, the coolest hostel there ever was, and a Nero day.

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