daring to be alive
Only those who risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go. ~T.S. Eliot
Yesterday, I summited my first 14er. At least I think it was. There’s a chance it happened as a kid in Alaska, but I didn’t note that in my brain’s bank of “kickass things I’ve done,” so I’m going to count yesterday as my first. Our plan was to hit Columbia first, and then just pop over (I make that sound so easy, right?) to Harvard before following the Harvard trail back down to the foot of the mountain. Oh, the best laid plans, and all that….
Buena Vista was about a two and a half hour drive from Lakewood, getting us there and on the trail by 11:10am (Side note for any of you thinking of doing a 14er: Don’t start this late. It’s just stupid). We start the trek, noting how beautiful and peaceful it is in there, despite all the campers with whom we are sharing the trail, and after about a mile of relatively flat hiking, we realize that we’re going to have a bitch of a climb ahead of us. With just shy of 5,000 feet of gain in about three miles, this one was going to be a doozy. A gorgeous doozy.
We move forward, mostly in silence, and much like washing your car ensures that rain is soon to come, I launch into a story and round a switchback that presents us with our first steep climb. Wait… did I say our first steep climb? Ah, well that climb never stopped. We went up and up and up until we reached the scree field, and then we went up and up and up again. It was nearly three before we reached the top of Columbia – a full 14,073 feet above sea level. Of all the places on the planet I’ve ever landed, this was the highest. Standing there, I watched the path I’d just taken grow smaller and smaller until it disappeared into the tiny trees below. Dizzy from altitude, dizzy from adrenaline, dizzy from the view, I turned to look forward… to look where I wanted to go. My mind went immediately to my students, because that’s a phrase I often use in my class. “Look forward to go forward.” In life and in yoga, right?
Another climber at the top told us that to get to Harvard, we needed to drop down and follow the trail just to the east of the ridgeline. That was such a good tip. If only we had followed her advice… It can’t have taken us more than twenty minutes to find ourselves off trail and traversing over the top of the ridgeline. We scrambled over knife-edges, and we hopped giant boulders, each landing coming with a not-so-silent prayer that it was stable. We were fooled by some, and at one point, I slid an easy ten feet down the side of the mountain until I finally caught my foot on a solid rock. We were stopped in our tracks, quite literally, by sheer cliffs and had to turn back to find a route that didn’t mean certain death.
The summit points of Columbia and Harvard are only separated by three miles, but it took us over two hours to cover just one. Getting to the top before nightfall was doable. Getting down the scree field and onto the trail wasn’t. I’m not afraid of the edge. I walk the perimeter of my limits, finding a way to expand them. I do things that make people cringe. Hell, I do things that make myself cringe. But, I do know the difference between adventure and stupidity, and we were so close to blurring that line. As the sun grew increasingly closer to the horizon, we pushed harder and harder, but with only two hours of daylight and an uncertainty of where the trail that takes us down the mountain was, we decided that Harvard was going to have to wait for another day.
That picture above this story? That was one of the most thrilling and terrifying moments of my life. I was clinging to that rock in a strong, but easy way as I moved from the place I was to the place I was going. I stopped for just a breath to look back, to look down, to look forward, and to think about how I was creating a metaphor for my life in that moment.
I think about that moment… where I stumbled upon that feeling that people spend their lives looking for. You know the one. It’s that feeling you get when you’re about to leap into the unknown or make the scary choice, unsure of what it will bring. It’s that moment where time suddenly stills and you are stuck between decision and consequence. You know that turning around isn’t an option because you’re already propelling forward with such a strong force that swept over you, and it wasn’t even really a decision that you made. It’s that moment where your heart splits wide open, and you’re this perfect storm of excitement and fear, and all you can do is watch yourself fill up. It’s this moment that makes you feel strongly, passionately, completely alive.