Cold mountain air penetrated my mummy bag each time I moved, the soft blue I fell asleep to was there when I opened my eyes, birds chirped hesitantly, I lay refreshed from having a nights sleep. I didn’t move all that fast those first few hours, took some time to wander around the campsite, the stream, sit in my hammock and read some philosophy from Seneca, relight my campfire to warm up and munch on some teriyaki chicken & rice. I packed it all up and headed out, the long shadows of the morning stretched across green, flowery fields between the hills of the gulch. I figured I’d head towards Grays Peak, it seemed to be popular and a good entry level fourteener, I’m ok with entry level in unfamiliar territory.
My map didn’t load, no service, I drove looking for familiar roads and features. Mountains surrounded me, paved roads turned to dirt, campers were milling about their sites, I recalled one route to the Grays peak mentioning something about a Chihuahua, I saw a sign with the word next to a few hikers and rolled down my window.
“Hey, I was driving around looking for the trailhead to the Grays peak, am I near it?”
“Oh, I tried to drive to that, but there is a weird turnoff I missed, it’s down further, not sure how to get there.”
I was a tiny bit defeated, I was hunting for fourteener glory and it seemed as if I was in the wrong area, I later realized I was at the completely opposite side of the mountain from the standard route. The hiker mentioned a cool lake six miles up the trail, I packed everything up and decided to check it out. It was getting late and I didn’t want to burn another hour or two driving around, I wanted to get lost in the woods.
A rocky trail extended in front of me, steadily rising up into a wet valley full of marshland, streams and small pools. I walked past two four wheeling jeeps cautiously working through ditched out gullies on the trail, we all had a laugh about that, I considered asking for a lift to the upper trails. Wind rhythmically caressed the green stalks of the marsh plants, I stopped to stare for a while and listen to the wind. Rocky peaks surrounded me in the valley, I wondered if one of them was Grays, but I just had no way of knowing. They were tall, smooth peaks, touched by grassy patches, gentle foothills and so beautiful, it’s hard to replicate the richness of their colors, the depth, the feeling through photography and words. Scents of tinder and dirt were on the air, the hissing of and swishing of the wind were broken by faint chirps of the musical birds, the clinking of metal grew louder as I walked onto a campsite.
I introduced myself to two older men setting up a campsite, Mike and his quiet friend. “You fellas sure picked a remote place to set up camp!”
“That is definitely true” Mike said with a friendly laugh. We talked about our plans, he was going to prep the campsite for his family whom he was going to pick up later, I asked him about the mountains around us. We walked out to the open where Mike pointed out Torreys peak, and the saddle that lead to Grays peak, obscured by a smaller mountain in the foreground.
“Damn, so those are the fourteeners here huh? Wonder how far they are from here.” I could see a path up from where I was, towards Chihuahua lake, up a low lying valley to a saddle that connected Torreys to Grizzley peak, a thirteener. So far as I could tell, if the climb to the saddle wasn’t too treacherous, we’d be in business.
“Do you have a map of the area?”
“Just my phone,” I left out the part about having zero reception, a practically useless object at this point.
“I just bought a map of the area today, let’s take a look.”
Mike pulls out his map and unfolds it on the hood of his truck, we find that there is no trail access to that side of Torrey’s peak.
“I don’t see any safe route up either of those mountains, you shoulda hit it from the other side where the main trail is.” Hope I had been steadily building slightly dissipated as to whether or not I might be able to attack Torreys from the south, Mike continued.
“But, if you still want to hike for a bit and not get yourself killed, check out Chihuahua lake, it’s quite a sight.” I agreed and he wouldn’t let me leave without his map, good guy and much obliged for assisting an ill prepared hiker. I mentioned if I was in the area on the way back I’d give him the map back, he said either way it didn’t matter. I continued, higher and higher up the valley to the foothills of the big fourteeners. I kept staring at the hill below the saddle connecting Torreys and Grizzly.
“Shit I got this” I said to myself, confidence and some trepidation in the same breath. I saw trails leading up Grays peak as my view widened, I waved at a couple hikers heading down and eventually made it to the top with that quintessential gassed out feeling you get walking around where your lungs have yet to be adapted. Making my way down, I was very impressed how infrequently I fell on my ass from slipping on loose gravel, some points I even felt as if I was glassading down the rocks as I did in the snow at Rainier earlier this year. I fell, and decided to use it as a chance to refuel a bit.
I had left my pack at the bottom before the grass gave way to gravel, when I met up with it again I sat for a while and rested a bit more.
I came to realize later in the trip that my friends had already formulated an acronym for the types of trips I like to take, WWPPAT. “What would Peter, umm, dude what does that mean,” I asked my friend Chris when I met up with him later in the week. The Wild Wacky Poorly Planned Adventure Trip, he stated with excitement and a hidden smile in his eyes. I can’t say that I disagree with the title though, it’s more or less a style of travel I have been perfecting since I came to terms with my tendancies for procrastination. Imagine, I have not only accepted this, but have come to seek it as a way to allow the nature of a trip to develop on its own almost without my own imput, giving it a life of its own.
Buy a plane ticket, grab your gear, and leave with minimal reservations if any or knowing where to go. Make it up as you go, see where it takes you. Certainty is only in the uncertain. How does this make you feel? If it gives you anxiety, that’s a good start. Fear, even better.
My pack weighs in at 32 pounds, I’ve done this before but was suspicious of it being more than 40 which would cost me a ridiculous amount of money due to check in fees, it felt heavy in my arms but I ended up making it. First time flying with Spirit airlines was interesting, I wanted to be frustrated with the hoops they make you jump through, checking in your bag online with threats of 100$ pricetag at the gate, paying 7$ for crappy seats, 15$ for seats closer to the front of the plane, ect… After landing, I thought to myself, I could fly with these guys again, not scammy just different, seats were fine, plane was new and nice, I ended up paying less than 100$ to fly to Colorado, yeah, I could do this again.
Denver, the mile high city, felt more like a mile high Los Angeles, grimy, crowded, expansive, smoggy, beauty looming in the distance. My uber driver, Anthony was a kickass dude. A restaurant consultant in a fest or famine type of business fleshed out the rest of his income with his own personal taxi service. He taught me it was good to hike fourteeners on sativa, where to find the Chipotle of the indian frybread world (what?), and to make sure I drank a shitload of water and wore sunblock (aww that’s cute, I’m from Arizona but thanks for the advice).
My current goal, make it to my relay rides rental car, a turbo charged Acura RDX (cheaper by 200 dollars for the week than the crappiest Enterprise car that was available), conveniently left in a downtrotten neighborhood with the keys in the cupholder and the doors unlocked, so I soon came to find out. Anthony and I laughed at the apartment complex down the street labeled, “Aparments,” I wondered if this was the phonetic spelling of the pronunciation of apartments with a spanish accent. We found it, I got in, found the keys and drove off, it felt like I just stole a car. It was currently 10AM, I had been awake since 5PM the previous night and worked a shift at the hospital, I was feeling a bit off but strong, I ate my frybread burrito with buffalo meat and hominy with a sweet and spicy salsa, I was starved, I have trouble eating airport food, I hate paying the location premiums.
Next goal, go to REI, get advice on where to camp & hike, and be off into the wild!
“Hey, I have some questions about hiking around here and camping, anybody here you know might be able to help me?”
“Try me” said the mustache toting employee near the maps section.
“Ok, I’m sorry to put this on you, but I came here with zero plans, I’m looking to sleep next to a babbling brook tonight, and hiking a fourteener tomorrow, what do you recommend?”
“Um, listen man, we can’t plan your trips for you.”
“Hah, yeah, I get where you’re coming from, I just figured local advice would be much better than sifting through the internet.”
“Sure man, I get where you’re coming from, let’s check out the map.”
He showed me the front range, told me to stay away from Grays & Torreys peaks a bit more south because they were the most popular, although there was some premium camping nearby in a ski/mountainbike town called Keystone, I decided to go that route anyways and arrived in Keystone Gulch Road a shadow of my self, sleep deprived, hungry, yet when I settled I was so greatful to be there, soft hiss of wind passing through the pine needles, my little campsite glowing orange from a campfire, warm food hydrating, hammock nestled alongside a charming stream. I sat, devoid of thought, just sensing my surroundings, staring through things, it was blue still yet I zipped myself inside the tent, in my bag. The crackling of my campfire and swishing of the wind lulled me quickly to sleep.
Sunny skies bake white sharp peaks, an ocean of billowing white foothills unravel from the highest points, snow burying the creeks, the meadows, and the old mining roads that scatter these parts. The steady hum of the helicopter permeates from within it, only broken by the loud melodic thuds that the blades make against the air as it turns. Speed (our guide) surveys the mountains with our pilot, we circle a peak twice then descend for the landing. I look to my friend Raj, unsure about the expressions on his face, joy, terror, probably a combination of the two, he sees me looking at him and he asks me.
“Is the red light on?!”
“Yeah!!” I say in return, signaling that his helmet camera is rolling.
The pilot raises and lowers the chopper in quick succession to flatten the snow beneath it to create a more stable platform for the beginning of our expedition. Speed unloads the gear, and opens the door. A torment of wind, noise, and snow particles fill the cabin as we squeeze out one by one. We huddle around our gear and Speed shows the pilot a thumbs up and after another torrent of icy particles the helicopter is gone.. Silence falls among us, the soft wind plays amongst the peak, a dull whisper, haunting and exhilarating. We are alone in the middle of nowhere.
Speed looks at us to survey our expressions, we all let out screams of excitement.
“Alright boys, strap your shit on, you can ski on either side of me, meet me at the bottom of the hill.”
I throw my skis down and click in my boots. I was the first ready and without comment or concern left down the hill towards Speed.
Telluride sits in the southeastern portion of Colorado, a region I have been told by opinionated locals to be the most beautiful range of the state. I can’t argue and assume this to be true even though this is my inaugural tour. Driving into the area through twisty mountain passes, my crew and I were lulled to the beauty of the first Colorado sunset we had seen. Colors so deep and rich that I felt the sky was speaking to me personally.. We parked the car and hardly spoke, our eyes transfixed upwards, the air dry and cold, I stood shivering without any desire to return to the warmth of the car. I’ll remember that feeling forever, familiar, forgotten, almost like uncovering a photo album from your childhood. You think to yourself, oh yeah, this is when life was beautiful, silly, and amazing.
The snow crumbles beneath my skis, this being a layer of corn we are pushing through, spring snow that has already been warmed and melted during the day, to be rehardened at night. I haven’t skied on this before, and it feels unsteady at first although not disconcertingly so, the large powder skis stabilize my overexaggerated turns when I nervously gain speed on the steep mountainside. I reach Speed and eagerly look to see in his face any hint of approval. He smiles at me, “Not so bad huh?” I agree and look back to my friends Raj, Chris and Brandon. Eventually they all queue up behind me, and we stare at Speed awaiting our next plan of action.
It started really as such an innocuous pursuit, invited on the annual ski trip my friends had decided to begin I figured what the hell. The year was 2006, and I couldn’t even afford the plane ticket to Salt Lake City, no less the ski rental, lift tickets, and lessons I would need to be able to navigate the bunny hills in relative safety. Not to mention I was a big fella, that fell hard often.
I remember taking the first chair lift up a mountain, to take on the green runs which were markedly more advanced than the bunny hill I was practicing on, Sunshine chair lift in the Alta ski resort. I hadn’t learned to turn very well, I could just pizza slice and french fry (braking by twisting the front of the skis together and pushing out the rear of the skis to create a wedge), an exhausting method that worked so long as you weren’t going all too fast. Well, I fucked up, ended up neglecting the instructors recommendation to passively meander to and fro on my way down, I had the first realization of the speed rush that awaited. I ended up hauling major ass down the mountain, completely out of control, doing my best to edge through the turns and nearly colliding into a few individuals. I was so proud, I had arrived.
It was a freakin blast though, I will admit. Maybe not that first painful day, oh who am I kidding, week. But the years and ski trips that followed progressed saw the direction of my interest in skiing refine from the minute specimens in raw ore to a bar of solid love. The idea of things are usually far more terrifying than the reality of them, yet had you mentioned that to me before I were to take a helicopter to the untouched snowfields and mountains of some of the regions near Telluride, Colorado, I might have tried to persuade you that this was indeed an exception to that idea. This does however open doors, and present the subconscious to think again to overlooked regions of possibility.
So, when it really comes down to it, do you trust in your own ability to overcome challenges as they present themselves? Has life lead you to a place where you second guess your ability, or does it instead present that subtle self confidence within that says what the fuck, let’s be a yes man today, and cross the problem bridges as they come. I have been on the mountains for nearly ten years, each year presenting a new theme to my practice, my first blue run, encountering moguls, black diamonds, trees, powder, demo skis, double blacks, and then back country. Now the time has come for me to graduate the land of chairlifts, and instead receive the mountains as nature had intended, quiet, lonely white rolling clouds settled up against sharp rocky features. No rating system anymore, no grooming, no external assistance, just a guide, a pair of powder skis, and my pals.