The alarm rings.
Groggy eyes greet a fuzzy surrounding. Queue the mental game, come on Timo, you’ve done this before, get up and out of your sleeping bag! …But it’s so warm in here, body heat trapped and circulating around me for an entire night. I’ve created my own paradise. The game lasts a few minutes before reality kicks in. I have only an hour to get ready for a day in the basin. Wake at 3 am, out of camp by 4. It might seem excessive but there are things that make it worthwhile. Like the billions of stars layered thick into the infinite. It’s so clear you can see the fabric of the Milky Way smeared across the sky. There is no light pollution, nothing to distract the eyes. It’s important to acknowledge that the world will continue to function on a level outside the grasp of civilization. We’re really only visitors on a planet we didn’t create. Remember to respect.
Before I can look up in admiration I have to actually leave the tent. This is the hardest part of my day. After consulting with my brain we’ve decided to try. Quickly pulling back the sleeping bag I sit on it in a moment of disorientation…s&*t! What comes next? Pants! Of course! So begins the frustrating process of dressing. At 3 am, frustration comes standard. Using my headlamp to see I get my clothes on, put my backpack at my side, slip my hikers on, and exit the tent.
I walk and stumble to the wall tent, a 14X17 foot behemoth where the crew cooks their meals and hangs out. On the way I fill up water, 3.5 liters minimum for me. Breakfast is usually ramen or oatmeal, whatever’s closest to where I am standing. When everyone has arrived in the tent we slide into our customary Neanderthal speak, where words are replaced with a series of grunts. No one is really awake yet.
We eat, prep lunch, and make coffee or mate. After we clean our dishes and wait for the caffeine to kick in someone looks down at their watch. 3:55, close enough to roll out.
There is no starting bell or whistle, just an expectation to be where you’re supposed to be when the time comes. I try to take off a few minutes early; the morning hike has become one of my favorite parts. Headlamp leading on I walk to my first of many stream crossings. Yellow Gulch is easy, a few hops and you’re over. Needle Creek is variable, the entire month of June it was too high so we forded the freezing water in sandals. But now the water levels are down. There is a rock hop we use to jump across; it’s exhilarating hopping across wet rocks in the pitch dark with a full pack.
First obstacles complete, we link up with the basin trail and turn right, towards higher ground. This is usually when my coworkers stride out to accommodate their own pace. The trail is easy to follow even with cover of darkness. My breath fans out in front of me, dissipating into the cold air. Even the summer gets its fair share of nippy mornings, a small holdover from harsher times. The stars outline my path like a cosmic welcome mat, or on less fortunate days, the concussive flashes of lightning illuminate the enormous spires of earth and rock that wall our reality. A grin creeps the corner of my mouth.
When I reach the junction for Columbine Pass the introduction is over. I take a left and begin to climb. Today my pace is strong, no headlamps behind me yet. I begin to mentally prep for the main part of the elevation gain ahead. When I let my mind wander, I’m distracted enough to forgive the burning in my legs. This section ends at another creek crossing, third of the day.
Here comes the big climb. I’ve split it up into parts: this first part is steep. I gain a couple hundred feet after the first few switchbacks. Walking along I turn my sights down basin and see them all below me. 8 headlamp lights, bobbing in the darkness like drunken fireflies. It conjures a calm sensation for me. Seeing the procession of headlamps is an iconic image in my mind.
Can’t stop now! The second part runs a long diagonal between two streams. I’m beginning to breathe heavily, but the distance I’ve put between myself and the fireflies should be enough to coast.
On to section 3! Another large switchback and a steeper slope greet me but I know I’m almost there. The twin lakes sit in a small basin above ours, when I cross the lip of the upper basin I know I’m there. The sharp mountains and crags all around me point triumphantly skyward like crooked teeth.
I am alone for a few minutes and savor the solitude. I have entered the land of Marmots and Pikas: the alpine. As I wait for my friends I sit on a rock and stare at my surroundings, the enormous bulk of Mt. Eolus visible to the left. The next part of the hike will take me there.
I begin the morning stretching routine. It usually takes a few minutes before the headlamps catch up to me. Chatter is low; the slow creep of dull morning light making its way towards us. We never linger too long for fear of getting cold. Once the routines are over, we being the second part of our hike. Headlamps can be stowed for this part.
The trail to Eolus crosses the outlet at the base of the lakes and swings left. The light filters into the basin and I can see the mountains open up. It’s incredible: craggy slopes dotted by alpine flora and patches of snow holding stubbornly on to the higher parts of the peaks. It is wholly unique. The flowers and alpine vegetation give off a Swiss Alps vibe, the quintessential comparison piece every mountain range aspires to be.
Step for step we grunt up the slope. The worksite approaches slowly. Eventually we break left into a talus field. From there we climb our completed sections of trail until we come to the top of the construction.
With a long breath I let my pack fall from my shoulders and roll my neck to get the kinks out. A gulp of water, handful of trail-mix and one last look around me. I’m in talus, 13,000 feet above sea level. The air is crystal. Above me the mountain builds to the summit. Below me, the talus bleeds into alpine meadows. All across the horizon are mountains, unbroken by roads, undimmed by city lights, protected inside this wilderness. Boy, we really are out there…
The first minutes of each workday are spent the same for me. I analyze my project site, look for ways to keep building and formulate ideas. Above me the first rays of sun catch the bulk of Eolus, turning the ridge above us a deep shade of mesmerizing mystic red.
We work in teams of two, beginning our day where we left off the previous. We set steps, place gargoyles, shop for rocks, gather crush, and smash rocks: working a myriad of strategies to make our section shine. The sun rises into the sky, illuminating all that is above us. We work until it frees us from shadow. Then we pause, only for a moment, but just enough to revel in the warmth and let it flow through us. Recharge complete, we get back to it.
Lift with your legs, not your back! Be patient with each other and the rock you’re moving! Remember to drink water and put on sunscreen! Don’t be afraid to ask for help! It is tiring work to build stone staircases. Every muscle is called into action and they all must perform. Curious mountain goats watch us work.
After lunch, once the afternoon begins to approach we turn our eyes to the sky. The thunderstorm threat is real. We can also see the hikers attempting to climb to the summit and marvel at their route choices, some of them truly dangerous.
By the end of the day we are loopy. Finally we hear the call, tool up! Time to store tools and hike down. One chief difference between the morning and afternoon hike are the wildflowers. In the afternoon they are on full display.
The names of the flowers are as colorful as the flowers themselves: from Purple Fringe, Columbine, Alpine Aven, Fireweed and Primrose to Indian paintbrush, Kings Crown and Old Man of the Mountain. Green, red, yellow, blue, purple, and orange colors everywhere: it’s a feast for the eyes. No one is in a rush but gravity gives no respite and we cruise past the lakes in automatic fashion. There are many more hikers this time of day: all here to see a place that jumped the pages of National Geographic. By the time we finally get down to our camp the sun has reached its zenith in the sky and it is hot.
I drop my pack and make a beeline for the creek. There’s a section near our camp that’s chest deep, deep enough to get in and wash off. The shock of the water wakes me up immediately. I don’t stay in long, just long enough to feel alive. It’s a quick renewal of the sense and a great cap to the workday.
Dinner usually follows next. We cook, and eat voraciously in the wall tent to escape the armada of flies and mosquitos outside. It always amazes me to think of how much the body needs to function at high altitude. There are only four stoves so we take turns. I have at least two rounds of dinner to cook so I try to jump in on the stoves as soon as possible. When the food is cooked we relax in our fold up chairs and decompress. It’s a simple cool down to a labor-intensive day.
When the food has been consumed, we all pitch in to close down camp. The propane is turned off, the dishes cleaned, tables wiped, trash stowed, food boxes closed, floor swept, tent closed, bear fence powered up and lights turned off. Everyone is asleep by 7:30. So ends the snapshot of a day of work in Chicago Basin. Tomorrow we’ll get up and do it again!