The Crestone Eagle, September 2002:
Living with the Earth . . .because it is beautiful
article and photos by Clyde Lovett
The thoughts herein are from the wide-eyed enthusiasm and discovery of a novice hiker who has been granted permission to visit the world of altitude. This world compares and does indeed evoke the awe of ocean reverence, deference, respect.
The spirit of the ocean—my love and home for 17 years—lives here too. It is the earth, our mother—she is everywhere.
A tale of the visit, the climb, the return—with a sense of the voyage
The first step of this tale is to ask the mountain, for the mountain decides. The hike begins by asking permission. A clenching of hands and a deep bow, the journey begins from a foundation of reverence. The trailhead would be an appropriate place to present the request, but the edge of the forest, or the first rest stop could also be substituted. It’s up to you, always, the plural you, you and the mountain. This is the only relationship that matters in the now, in the present moment of your journey. Past and future are indeed important, for the seeds of our destiny are rooted in our past.
The approach is tedious and discouraging. Those moments of gasping for air and feeling fat and out of shape and wrestling with the notion of letting go of the other world weights. Mon dieu, that peak is way up there. Release the wrong thinking. Sweat it out. Knowing that euphoria is a potential outcome is a useful motivation, and perhaps a saving grace for the approach.
As the scenery gives way to more wild and deep forest, so does consciousness shift. It is the first moment of coming close to the earth; the senses awaken. A sense of progress mixes with fresh raspberries and the strong smell of elk all around. With confirming fresh scat, physical and spiritual awakening seem to ride in parallel. The fat layer sweats through, and a 30 second break allows for rejuvenation. Wind rustles the aspens like so many fairy spirits. The detail of the final approach comes into marginal view, just barely visible through the trees..
Signs of the past flank the route. There are mills, abandoned, sheds, cabins in a century of disrepair. They are but skeletons of the lives gone by, of those who attempted to convert the place that we know into uniquely financial gain.
Marginal trails give way to logical paths. This country is not traveled, not marked, and the route must make sense to be seen. Separation becomes nauseating, like what I knew of seasickness; it is a divorcing of self from place, and the way to survive is be more with place. The creek water that runs from my fingers through my hair, across an unseen scalp, tracing the contours of my face, becomes baptism into the mountain which controls my destiny. The earth, the soil around me, wiped across my face, like ritual, like war paint, like love paint—the touch of application and exhale, and I am ready to continue.
The transitional time between trailhead and mountain is over. In front of me is avalanche chute, steep and unmarked. It yields to grass, and the trees fall behind; I have made the ridge and can see the god-like mountains across the canyon, the Crestones. Their greatness humbles me, as does the peak that lies along my path. Only rock, tiny plants, spiders in webs spanning boulders and thin air keep us apart. It is time for my first break, of length, for reflection, food, water, writing and listening.
Beneath, thousands of feet below, lies the Baca, the road map, as seen from above. The smoke or haze of the Valley and the sweeping precipice of my route to this point bridge with the huge detail of the height which remains above me. The final approach looks impossibly steep. Had I not been there before, I would think it impossible, that my best route would be to recoil down the mountain to safer ground. There is nothing safe in the future of this venture. So onward I go, into a strange blend of known and unknown, of safety and terror, of confidence and doubt.
The ridge is the guide. Its spine leads the way. Getting lost is rather impossible, but taking a dangerous route becomes increasingly probable, and the stakes increasingly higher. Were I to trip and fall by the abandoned and century old saw mills of two hours ago, I would get up and sweep off the stuck grass and dirt and keep going. But with every step the danger grows. Tripping and falling comes ever closer to injury or death. The steepness increases, the safety decreases, and there is a demand for clarity and presence of moment.
Increased clarity creates increased presence—an infinite circle. All flatland activities go away—notebook, camera, video camera, food and snacks. The time has passed for these things.
The only thoughts which occupy my mind are those of the route to the summit. There is only one thing that matters—survival. The desire to remain present as father of beautiful children and husband to my beautiful wife is the filament which induces, draws me onwards, protects and motivates.
The rock face, the final 800 feet to the 14,080 foot summit is marked by distinct vertically disposed crevices. I can not remember, for sure, the way I went up last year, when my friend and mentor Paul led the way. No, now I must rely on that which seems right, and which feels good. The steepness of this final piece leaves no room for error for someone of my skill and experience.
An experienced mountaineer may find this ascent to be as perfunctory as I would the landfall on a foreign shore at night after weeks at sea. You can tell that it is right, or not, and this way seems to be the way, and so I climb; all that is of interest is up. Below the feet is history, and the exposure is, thus, dramatic, yet past. The next grip of rock, the next way to a foot higher is the only focus. Difficulty in the ascent is not a thing to be feared, but rather a puzzle to be solved, again and again, until you find yourself on the ridge of the local world, with the best view and highest height, and the time for thanks begins.
Summit is that place closest to god. Permitted to visit, I am destined to descend. Only judgment deciding how long to spend in lofty company, in paradise beauty. Thunder and the approach, at eye-level, of the transporting weather systems drives down this lowly mortal, back to the earth, with best hope that the experience is remembered, sore legs and all.
In reflection I query, “Why climb a mountain?” And the age old adage, “Because it is there,” is so miserably off mark. The climb, the quest, the journey, the mountain is beautiful, and no reason exceeds.