Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Lightning Strike on Bear Peak (Part I)

Photo Courtesy of Layne Lawson

I hadn’t thought much about what I’d set out to do, but getting struck by lightning certainly hadn’t been part of the plan. Recently relocated to the Denver/Boulder area from the wilds of Durango, Co., mainly I just had to get into the woods, alone, and feel ground stretch out beneath my feet. The clouds were already hanging over the peak, and if I were in Durango, I would have resigned myself to a coffee shop with a good book.

Unfortunately, my opportunities for woods were a lot less on the Front Range and the wilds were definitely more urban in nature, so to speak. But, seeing as how I was already at the trail head with a bottle of water, my down jacket, and a rarely-issued full day’s pass from Mommy we go!

Since the move, all of my wilderness survival knowledge had been packed away in various mental boxes (like many other items gone MIA after the move), de-prioritized as less important to the challenges I now faced in the Big City. Besides, there seemed to be plenty of outdoorsy, and I thought therefore, hip to mountain ways, heading up, despite the clouds. Maybe they were just a thin band on the brink of breaking up?

Since I was alone, I moved at my own pace, head down, driving ever upwards and, I hoped, away from the crowds. If there was one thing I’d learned in Boulder, you can drop most of the crowds by just picking something steep…unless they’re the Boulder diehards, and there are plenty of them to fill the trails, too. Mt. Sanitas, for example, is a nightmare for the trail hound that hopes to enjoy the sounds of the birds. If you don’t keep your head down and your decision to summit that hill ASAP as your priority then you have to deal with this sound incessantly: “Excuse me, on your left.” “on your right,” as the ‘Born to Run’ converts charge up to plant their flag and compare their latest footware purchase with that of other “conquerers.” Dear God, it’s maddening. 

Anyway, so the crowd heading up Bear Peak was both lighter and seemed less poser, more appreciator, even though it’s a steep ass climb and about 4 or 5 hours…depending on who you is. I just wanted to get up into what actually felt like real woods, and not just a pretty city park. I wanted the raw, and I’d heard that if I hiked up there, I’d be in it, just a short 30 minute drive from my house. I was pretty resolute. And it happened. I slowed my pace not only because it got steeper, but because I came to a place in the trail where I had that feeling I so enjoy about the wilderness, like I was in a place so pure I could breathe it through my pores. 

My eyes stopped studying the terrain just in front of my feet looking for ankle twisters, and wandered over the lush green hills I was walking within, electrically sighing under the powerful neural massage. 

There were a couple of other hikers I leapfrogged with over the day; a couple who recently moved from New Hampshire, and another solo hiker, a gentleman from India. I lost the New Hampshire couple early on, but me and the fellow from India walked through the woods, he either 100 yards in front of me, or a hundred yards behind, depending on who needed to pee, both of us staring awed into the world in which we walked. I can only assume that being in this place, at this time, must feel like a spiritual homage to everyone who makes the traverse, but maybe it’s just me. I felt I was walking within a holy place. Huge boulders, some two stories high, glowing green with mosses and ferns, mingled with the sweet smell of rich earth and the lushness of the trees, bushes and flowers. I felt like brushing myself gently against everything, gathering the scent as an infusion I wanted to have move right into my heart. Then the climb got steeper.

At one point, I gazed straight up and caught a glimpse of another hiker's heels disappearing over the crest and, realizing the trail was to get steeper yet, I surprised myself with an excited squeal. I wanted as much challenge as the trail was obliged to bestow and seeing the trajectory of the trail through the disappearing hem of a fellow hikers shorts, I was a kid seeing her favorite ride at the park.

This is the benefit of not being able to get into the woods any ole time I had a hankering for them: When I did get into the wild, be it pine, pinyon or sandstone, I was euphoric, and as you may have noticed, euphoria is hard to come by. It’s no wonder I didn’t notice the darker hue of gray on the under belly of the clouds building over head, nor heard the distant rumble of thunder rolling through the canyons, or that earthy scent in the air you smell just before it rains. 

What did finally catch my eye was the number of decapitated trees and a whole swath of forest reduced to ghostly charred spikes, most likely from lightning-caused fires. It was at this point I started asking people coming down if they’d seen any signs of lightning. Most of them seemed surprised by the question, and answered, “Well, no, but I wasn’t looking either.” This was very confusing to me, because the dark clouds over head were almost within finger-brushing distance from the peak, if you were tall. Around Durango, no one probably would have been here as most people are well versed on wilderness safety out of sheer necessity and generally if it looks like a storm, stay down. Most wouldn’t have risked a summit, even on a little 8,500 ft peak like this one, with storm clouds like that overhead. Why didn’t I know better? Well, I’d been having some adjustment issues to moving to a city and I was confused by what I was witnessing around me. I wondered if maybe the same rules didn't apply here because the actions of so many of my peers ran contrary. And yea, I wanted to tag the peak. I’d been climbing for 3 hours and didn’t want to turn back just at the summit. Actually, I believe that’s a familiar line in outdoor literature. 

I came to another steep face where you could see the trail switchbacking, when a boulder, followed by an end-over-end log, thundered down the mountain past me, slinging rocks and mud in all directions. I heard the people above remark, “Oh! I guess it was there to keep us from going this way.” I made a Marge Simpson groan and stepped up my speed so I might have a word with the hikers who’d just sent a bludgeon practically down on top of me without so much as a “Heads up!” I wasn’t mad, just fully aware of what could have happened had I been fifteen feet further along the trail. I hated to be “that” hiker but I felt an obligation to let them know the proper etiquette in this situation.

It didn’t take me long to catch up to them: A middle aged couple with their teen-aged daughters, all of them outfitted as if they’d just had their wallets hijacked at REI. I smiled and said, hello, then explained how I didn’t want to be “that” person, but that I felt obligated because what just happened could have really gotten someone—me--hurt or killed, and I wanted to let them know what to do if it happened again. I explained that if you send rocks, even small ones, down a steep mountain like that with a switch-backing trail, that you needed to yell, and I mean YELL, “ROCK!” They were nice about my meddling and even said, thank you, and I hiked on up the trail feeling like the biggest ninny on the planet. If we all earn trail names, as we learned about in Cheryl Strayed's Wild, then I just earned the nickname of Trail Ninny. I can’t help it. A born risk-taker, ever since my daughter was born the world has filled with sharp pointy objects, and I’ve had difficulty learning how to turn off the monitor. Was it my business to say anything? Yea, I stand by that. Sharing that info may just save a life some day. But I still feel like a big ninny. Anyway, onward Ho. (to be continued)

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