Tuesday, January 25, 2011

The Alternate Reality of Mount of the Holy Cross

I may have mentioned before that I like to walk up mountains.  I am not sure if this is diagnosable in the DSM-IV, but this neurosis can be particularly harmful if not kept in check.

Some of the symptoms include:
  1. A willingness to get up before dawn so you can walk really far in less than ideal conditions in the hopes that you won't trip, fall, get eaten by bears, or any other number of rather horrifying things.

  2. A desire to get to the summit of a mountain, even though there is no tangible reward, and the closer you get to the top, the farther you are from the end.

  3. A cavalier attitude about the possibility of getting lost and starving to death.  Slowly.

  4. A strange attraction to overpriced clothing and gear (also known as "the magpie affect", or "look, there's a shiny object!")

  5. A complete disregard to your fears, phobias, and other God-given survival instincts.
Any one of these symptoms can lead you into an early and painful death.

So when my friend Myriah asked me if I wanted to climb Mount of the Holy Cross with a group from her work two summers ago, I was all, "Uh... sure."

Because I am obviously not right in the head.

Mount of the Holy Cross gets it's name from a cross-shaped collier that is usually filled with snow on the northeast side.  There are times in history when this particular image was extremely well known and thought to have religious significance.   We didn't go up that side, which was probably for the best.  That walking route is not only longer, but the actual cross on the mountain looks to me like the mountain got into a knife fight and lost.  It doesn't look like anything "holy" to me.  Just mean.

We left at 4AM, so we had climbed pretty far before it started to get light.

The night before, we had camped at the trail head, which was probably not our brightest idea.

I had had to work the day before, so we didn't get to the campground until close to 8PM, just in time for it to get dark and start to rain.

We had the added benefit of using a borrowed tent neither one of us had ever seen set up before.  After some struggling, we managed to get it into some semblance of a tent shape, with the door opening into a big rock. But we could get in. Good enough.

When the alarm went off at 3:30AM, I sat up and put my head through a huge puddle of water sitting on the roof of the tent.  This was an old school lightweight pup-tent, and it used nylon under tension instead waterproof fabric.  When I touched it it dumped on me.

It is never a good sign when the first words out of my mouth upon waking is a shouted "FUCK!"

This mountain, even though it is one of the smallest 14ers in Colorado (that's the mountains about 14,000 feet), has a really bad reputation.  This is my first "view" of the mountain.  It looks really freaking far away.

I felt wrong as soon as we got up.  

I didn't have a map, and was unclear of the route.  My mom had spent a good 20 minutes telling me to be careful, and not get lost, people disappeared without a trace up there.  She and Dad had been called in to help on a search years back and with hundreds of searchers and helicopters, and they never found a trace of the missing hiker.  And that was on a sunny day.  

I didn't like being surrounded by mostly strangers.  

I didn't like that the group would not stay together.

The mist was setting off some kind of mild asthma and it made my chest hurt horribly.  

We got to Halfmoon Pass, and I realize we had just climbed 1,000 feet, and we were going to have to descend just as far and then climb back up the valley on the other side.  This really pissed me off.

I tried my best to pretend I was all gung-ho to go, but I really just wanted to sit down and watch the sun rise some more. Maybe have some coffee.

People vanish and they are never found.

It seemed to take forever to descend into the valley, way longer than the climb up.

It wasn't a vortex into another reality, but a pretty common problem I have when I hike in the dark.  My brain kind of shuts off the dark parts, and I am always surprised by how far I went when all I had to see with was the cone of a headlamp.

Even though we were miles in, it turned out I was going stupid slow.

The land surrounding it is wild and goes for miles.  The mountain itself tries to deceive you with identical looking gullies, one being the way home, and the other 500 routes leading to madness.

I don't know if it was the fog, which was sticking around way longer than expected, the strange lush forests and muted thumps in the woods, or just my brain imagining what it would be like to be lost in this wilderness, but I started getting a creepy feeling bordering on panic.  It seemed completely stupid, but I just couldn't seem to get past it. 

Finally at about 12,000 feet (the second time), I stopped.

"I don't want to do this," I said.  "I want to go back".

Myriah admitted that she was experiencing a pretty severe migraine as well.  So we turned around.

I remember thinking, "Crap, I'm a failure."

One of the hike leaders, Steve, said he would walk us back, which made me feel completely embarrassed and upset that we ruined his day, but not enough to change my mind again. He wouldn't let us go back on our own.

The relief I felt turning around was tangible and overrode all other emotions.

I was so relieved that it took me a few minutes to realize that the three of us were all alone.  On a trail that was packed with people minutes before.

Where's the trail?

We had walked right off the trail and were headed to an alternate universe.

All that relief I had felt moments before evaporated.

The mist had thickened up again when I stopped. 

"Hey," I said.  My voice was kind of quiet.

"HEY," I said louder.  The other two looked back at me.

"Where's the cairn?" I said.

I was tired, too.  Simply beat.  I wanted to cry because I was going to have to walk back uphill again to find our way.  I was pretty sure the direction we were going would spit us out no the exact wrong side of the mountain.

It was the second time that day that I dropped the f-bomb.

We all scanned the surrounding area, but visibility had dropped to about 20 feet in any direction.  I started to wonder if we were about to walk into another dimension.  One with... dinosaurs.  Or faeries.  You know, not the cute little Tinkerbell faeries, but like, the creepy monster faeries from old school faery tales.  The ones that turn milk sour and steal firstborn babies.

Or maybe, faeries riding dinosaurs.

Anything was possible.

"I see it!" Myriah shouted.  There was a momentary break in the fog, and we could see the pile of rocks beckoning from a hill to our right.  What's funny is that until the moment she shouted, I was under the impression that it wasn't a hill, but a drop off.

The mountain was playing tricks on me.

Although, I really shouldn't be that surprised.

My personal sense of direction is so bad that I could get lost in a closet.

It wasn't until we were well on our way back that the clouds opened up for a brief glimpse of the actual mountain.  I had an overwhelming impression that it was happy to see me go.

We made it back into the valley in what seemed like no time after that.  As I struggled back up Halfmoon Pass, I realized that I was pretty ecstatic that I was off the mountain.

But it still bothers me that it won.

It's been over 2 years since this attempt.  It may be time for me to meet this psychopath of a mountain again this summer.

(Photos from August, 2008)

No comments: