Joy vs. the Wilderness, the final chapter
After five days of hiking and camping along the Horn Creek Trail in the Sangre de Cristo mountain range, we returned to Snowy Peaks Campground in Buena Vista on Wednesday afternoon. Another former Trekker, Merrill, and his dog Macy were there to greet us with happy hour snacks and beer. Though I’d never met him, I could not have asked for a better friend. I’m quite sure fresh veggies, hummus, chips, salsa, and Coors Light had never tasted so good.
We all took hot showers and enjoyed a spaghetti dinner, followed by the most amazing sunset. I went to bed early and was finally able to get a decent night’s sleep before our big hike the next day.
After six days of acclimation, it had all come to this… Huron Peak. We woke up at daybreak, and after a quick grab-and-go breakfast of hard boiled eggs, fresh fruit and coffee, we each prepared a snack bag for the big climb. I chose trail mix, salted nut rolls, a Clif bar, and some M&Ms. Snack bag of champions.
Bill mentioned that the road leading up to Huron Peak was “a little rough,” so we left the Volvo behind and took off in Bill’s Jeep, Amy’s Land Rover, and Merrill’s 4-wheel drive pickup. As we turned off the main road and onto the gravel, the road got rougher and rougher. “This is the good part,” Bill kept saying as I popped more Dramamine. “So, when is the rough part?” I asked. “Oh, you’ll know,” he replied.
He wasn’t kidding. We passed some smaller trucks and cars that were parked at the “2-wheel drive trailhead” and continued on our way. Not long after, we reached what I thought was an impassable chunk of washed-out road and gullies. Bill put the Jeep in a different gear and said, “here’s the rough part.” I grabbed what my mother calls “the Jesus handle,” shut my eyes, and once again hoped for the best.
Somehow we made it, as did the rest of the entourage. We parked at the “4-wheel drive trailhead” and grabbed our day packs out of the trucks. This time, when Bill asked if I wanted to borrow a pair of hiking poles, I was quick to reply with a firm yes.
According to RockyMountainHikingTrails.com, Huron Peak is located in the Collegiate Peaks Wilderness Area of the San Isabel National Forest. It lies along the western edge of the Sawatch Range and is known for its spectacular views. Topping out at an elevation of “only” 14,003 feet, Huron Peak is ranked 52nd in height among all 53 fourteeners in Colorado. The only other 14,000-foot peak with a lower elevation is Sunshine Peak in the San Juan Mountains.
Just before starting out, I took a short video. The time was 8:44 AM.
I stared at the top of that mountain and knew I could make it. There was no doubt in my mind. I accepted the fact it might take me a little longer than the rest, but I was determined to make it… no turning back. More than anything, I wanted a picture of Jordan and me standing together at the summit of our first Fourteener.
So, off we went… up, up, up. I tried to keep up with Jerry for a while, but I lost him pretty quickly. Eventually I found my groove with Lucy, Merrill, and Macy (the dog). Jordan would also pop back to check on me every so often. I tried not to think about the fact that we’d be ascending 3500 feet, all in one day. Instead, I just kept putting one foot in front of the other and punching out a rhythm with my hiking poles. You’d think a person would get a lot of thinking done while they’re out there putting one foot in front of the other for 7 hours straight, but I don’t think I did. In fact, maybe that’s the beauty of mountain hiking… the sheer mindlessness of it. For me, I found it nearly impossible to carry on a meaningful conversation while I was gasping for breath, so it really became a mindless journey of mind over matter. Walk. Drink. Admire. Repeat.
Once we cleared the tree line, the views were absolutely breathtaking. It was a beautiful morning with crystal blue skies… a perfect day for hiking… or so I thought. Here’s a video two hours into our hike:
I made it to the basin where the trail evened-off for a bit and provided spectacular views of an alpine meadow covered in beautiful wildflowers. Michelle took the following gorgeous photo which still doesn’t quite do it justice:
It was about this time I ran out of water… and stamina. (Word to the wise… when the list says “Nalgene bottle,” get yourself a Nalgene bottle. At the very least, get yourself a decent water bottle with a wide mouth that holds more than 24 ounces and doesn’t squirt you in the face whenever you put a fizzy tablet into it.) I sat down to eat my Clif bar and admire the wildflowers (i.e., try not to die) and took the following video. The altitude must have been getting to me at this point, because it’s a little ridiculous how many times I say the word ridiculous.
Jordan popped back to check on me, and after a quick chat, I sent him on ahead. Lucy had also ventured ahead at this point, as well as Merrill and Macy, the dog. The sky was starting to look a little gloomy off in the distance, and without anyone having to say it, we realized we’d better keep moving if we were going to make the summit before the afternoon thunderstorms hit.
As for me, I was losing my groove. From the meadow, I could look up to the ridge and see all the people who had passed me along the way. They were as tiny as ants, marching their way up to the summit, and I thought… I’ll never make it. I finished my Clif bar and wished I had something… anything… to wash it down with.
Enter Bill. He and Amy caught up to me at this point and Bill offered me his spare Nalgene bottle filled with Gatorade. I could have kissed him. I took a good long gulp, stared at the tiny ant people on the ridge, and thought… I did not come this far to not make it. But I was going to need a little help. Desperate times call for desperate measures.
I pulled out the 70s music.
Yes, I said it. I love 70s music… the cheesier, the better. If I was going to make it to the top of this Fourteener, I was going to need my “Couch to 5K” playlist. It got me through two miles of jogging; surely it would get me to the top of Huron Peak.
Suddenly, I was in my happy place again. Amy led the way, with me in the middle and Bill pulling up the rear. One foot in front of the other. Like a Rhinestone Cowboy. Roll With the Changes. On and On. Sweet Life. Don’t Pull Your Love out on me Honey. I’m on the Top of the World.
As we neared the top, the terrain got rockier and the path got steeper. It was a little freaky (a lot freaky), but I just kept my head down and tried to concentrate on where to put my foot next. And then… lightning. Crap.
The storm clouds were gathering over the peaks behind us and in front of us. It seemed only a matter of time before they’d find Huron Peak, too. The rest of the gang had already made it to the summit and were wisely starting to head down. Lightning is nothing to mess with on a 14,000 foot mountain so I knew we had to turn around, but I was so disappointed. I was SOO close… just 300 feet from the summit. I’d come all that way, only to have to turn around at the very end.
I was very happy Jordan made it to the summit, and I’m pretty sure this will not be his last Fourteener. He seemed pretty hooked, and very much in his element.
As for me? Boy… yikes. That was all very hard and scary. But here’s one thing I know. I’ve never done anything so meaningful and rewarding in my entire life. I look back now and still can’t believe I actually did it.
After we returned home, Jerry Wetterling gave me a special gift which I absolutely love. It’s a framed print of all 53 “Fourteeners” in Colorado. I now have it sitting on a shelf in my living room so I can stare at it every day and marvel at the fact that I somehow survived. One down, 52 to go. Thanks Jerry!
Thanks also to everyone who followed me along on this journey, and to everyone who sent in a donation to support this year’s Wilderness Trek. As a group, we raised over $16,000… the most ever! All donations go to the Jacob Wetterling Resource Center to help with victim assistance and prevention programming to help keep our kids safe. I couldn’t be happier or more proud to support such an important and worthy cause.