I couldn’t figure out which part was worse; the fact it was 8 o’clock in the evening and darkness was already beginning to fall or that there was now more than 1000 feet of elevation in between me and my sleeping bag.
We had just hiked down from Summit Lake on the Mount Evans trails to in between the two Chicago lakes – the only time that our hike in to a worksite is all downhill. Ordinarily, this is a positive, because who wouldn’t want to cruise downhill while wearing a heavy pack, as opposed to slogging up. But this night was a little different. We’d just driven to Mount Evans after working on Grays and Torrey’s all day and prepared to hike down to what would be our basecamp for the next three nights. I was excited; the area we were going to be working in was absolutely gorgeous, twin alpine lakes ringed high by gray and black streaked granite cliff walls. But in all the haste and confusion of packing, in all my excitement about trying out my new hammock for the first time, I forgot my sleeping bag.
The thought hit me like a rock, but not until it was too late. We had just crossed a crusty snowfield and what would be our basecamp was in sight. When I realized what I’d done, I felt like and idiot – and the other people in my crew agreed with my sentiments too. But there really was nothing I could do. Even if I could survive tonight without it, we were going to stay down there for three nights, so I’d need my sleeping bag at some point. I decided that I might as well go get it now. After helping set up camp, I scarfed down a quick dinner, checked that my headlamp had sufficient battery, and then set off.
By this time, it was night. I was helped by the moon, which had only just begun to wane and was still sitting fat and bright up in the night sky, its light reflecting off scattered patches of snow. But my trail was still tough. It was all uphill and a portion of it went through an area that had recently suffered a bad mudslide that had taken out four or five hundred steep feet of trail, which meant I had to scramble up, sometimes on all fours for stability. There were no other lights, no other people, except for the far off twinkle of the lights of Denver that began to come into focus as I climbed further and further up the walls of the canyon. Climbing in the dark like that is a curious sensation; your whole world shrinks down to the tiny bubble of your headlamp, everything else ceases to exist expect for the ten feet of trail you can see and your feet, sluggishly but rhythmically churning along uphill.
I felt a great sense of relief when I made it up to our work truck, where I found my sleeping bag safely stored in the back of the bed. But I was still exhausted – it was almost midnight – and I didn’t have the confidence in myself to hike down such a treacherous trail safely. So I unrolled my sleeping bag and curled up in the cab of the truck, drifting off into sleep until morning.
Ordinarily when I get caught in situations like these, I can see very few redeeming factors to mitigate the general stinkiness of whatever I’ve gotten myself into. I mean, I hadn’t planned on going for a hike that evening, and even if I’d had, I had no intention of climbing 1300 feet back up to our work truck. But sometimes nature has a way of surprising you when you least expect it.
As I was waking up the next morning, still groggy and clearing my head of cobwebs, I happened to glance out of the cab of the truck. I was in effect surrounded, ringed in, by a group of scraggly looking bighorn sheep, the closest ones not more than five feet away from outside of the truck. Seeing them really brought that moment and my experiences of the last twelve hours into focus for me. It reminds me of how fresh and true oftentimes that tired clichés can still be – that often you don’t even have to search for the silver lining to a situation, because it’s standing five feet away from you licking something off the ground, completely unaware of your presence. So even though I have no desire to do that same hike up from the Chicago lakes to Summit lake in the middle of the night again, I can still appreciate it for the experience, for being able to look to the soft glow of city lights down on the plains that look so close, to being able to be the only person appreciating the rugged beauty of Mt. Warren, outlined in the glow of the moon, to being able to wake up in the company of a group of sheep, undisturbed and tranquil.