September 2012


Last week I sat alone on a 13,000 foot mountain pass. Elk Mountain peaks shot skyward around me. A westerly wind pulsed erratically, numbing my fingers slightly and bringing with it the chill of fall. I gazed out to the dual points of Snowmass Peak, followed her ridge to the chunky shape of Hagerman Peak, and then down to where Snowmass Lake sat glittering in the sunlight. In the comfort of familiar mountains, I was searching.

Curiously, four years ago nearly to the day, I sat at that same spot. The westerly wind blew, my fingers were numb, Snowmass Lake glittered. I searched. My inagural Colorado summer was ending and I faced uncertainty: what now?

That search spurred a monthlong solo roadtrip around Colorado where I paused in any town I thought I could call home: Marble, Crested Butte, Silverton, Durango, Durango again, Crestone, Colorado Springs, Golden, Frisco, Leadville and Buena Vista. Along the way I climbed peaks, met strangers, met friends, slept under stars, slept in my car, skied down sand dunes, meditated in temples, drank beer and marveled at the enchanting golden hues of fall in the Rockies.

As the weeks wore on, however, I was feeling worn myself. Opportunities existed in Durango, but I wasn’t sold. I felt like there was more to see, yet as my meager funds began to dwindle, the shadow of desperation crept in.

At a coffee shop in Frisco, the barista, Clair, boosted my morale. “You’re on the road?” she asked enthusiastically. “I just packed up everything I own and moved here from New York! If you need anything, or if you decide to live in Frisco and need a place to crash here is my number.” She scribbled her digits and I felt a surge of new energy and support. On the road again, I drove through Alma (elevation 10,578, population 179), Breckenridge and into Leadville. I had an idea.

Somewhere along the trip, a gypsy friend of mine had mentioned that Rock and Ice magazine was in Carbondale and that somebody he knew had interned there. A quick email sent to the editors from a Leadville coffee shop confirmed that the internship was open. I set to work on a cover letter, molding my future with each sentence. That night I slept at a trailhead on Independence Pass, my tired body caccooned in a down sleeping bag in the backseat of my VW Golf. The next morning, on arrival into Aspen, I got the acceptance email that secured my fate to live in the Roaring Fork Valley.

Four years rocketed by, years filled with blissful powder days, hair-raising climbing leads (and inevitable falls), miles of backcountry hiking, guiding climbing, writing, exploring. Eventually there was Nepal, and a brief break in mountain life spent in San Francisco. But then it was back to the Roaring Fork.

And now here I am, or there I was, resting on that saddle of Buckskin Pass, facing a new but similar uncertainty: what now? Though life in these mountains charms and invigorates me, I feel deep within myself that the time to search has arrived again. This valley, though it is beautiful, is not the only beautiful place to live, learn and find inspiration. Perhaps I’ve outgrown it; my time here satisfied some deep physical need for the outdoors, but now the need has shifted, to an environment more intellectual.

So I’ll do what I always do to find what I’m looking for: Travel.

First to San Francisco, then Seattle, then perhaps Vancouver (after my recent trip to Jasper, I’m hooked on Canada). And eventually? Boulder, I think. Or Fort Collins. Both offer close proximity to peaks in addition to universities and learning environments. I’m letting things evolve, staying open.

This strategy is as unnerving as it is freeing. But if I’ve learned anything over my short life of travel and movement, it’s this:

When you open yourself up to what life can bring, oftentimes what you get leaves you pleasantly, delightfully surprised. And most often, it’s just what you’re seeking.

Morning light on North Maroon, en route to Buckskin Pass, August 2008.

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The morning started slowly–perhaps too slowly–with coffee, oatmeal and friendly banter with neighboring campers. Our goal for the day was to reach, and perhaps touch, the toe of Le Grande Brazuea, one of Jasper’s largest icefields. No established trails led to the glacier, which means that 4.5 miles of Canadian bush stood between us and our goal. We packed extra snacks.

At last, as 11 o’clock rolled around, we stuffed our daypacks into the sea kayak and kicked off across Maligne Lake. The glacier-fed waters were still, milky turquiose. Our paddles gently broke the silence–splash, pause, splash. Rock walls loomed above evergreen shores.

We pulled onto the gravelly shore and began picking our way up the pocketed creek bed (Canadian ‘creeks’ are often as wide as Colorado rivers. The full girth of this creek ranged from 50-100 meters). “I hope you have the heart for bushwacking,” Brendan remarked. He was fresh out of the Wyoming backcountry where he’d spent two months searching for wolves in unmarked territory. His skills were sharp.

“As though you doubt me?” I replied, slightly annoyed. “This ain’t my first rodeo.”

Initially, the terrain was easy. We walked among creek stones, navigating small tributaries as needed. But then we made our first mistake: rather than stay close to the riverbed with an eye out for game trails, we headed to tree line, hoping to gain the advantage of altitude.

And then progress slowed to a crawl, literally–over branches, under evergreen boughs, between spiny bushes. Spongy moss carpeted the forest floor, enveloping our boots, making for snow-like conditions that required extra effort of each step. When we reached a boulder field bordering a sheer rock cliff, we thought the worst was over. Wrong, the worst was yet to come. Beyond the boulder field was a thicket of bushes so thick the rubbery branches tossed us around like pinballs. One hundred yards took 10 minutes, easily.

“Every time I bushwack I hate it,” Brendan growled as we re-entered the mossy forest-maze. “It’s harder to give up when you’re alone, but when you’re with other people it’s easy; everybody is miserable.” We weren’t giving up yet, but the enthusiasm in my eyes was dimming. How much heart did I have for this after all?  “It’s just so unrelenting,” I replied, “I can see no end in sight.”

The playful gurgle of water lured us to the creek where we paused for a break. The surging current rushed, giggled and splashed, its peaceful white noise weighted our eyelids and soon we were both fast asleep.

Fortunately the latitude of Alberta is such that summer days are elongated, with sunlight stretching into nine or 10 o’clock in the evening. When we woke at 4pm and checked our map, we realized we had about 1000 feet elevation to gain; doable even if it meant we’d be paddling home in the dark.

And then, we were shown a way. First: logs across the creek. Then: a game trail.

The trail climbed and plunged like a roller coaster along the now torrential creek. We cruised from mossy forest floors to exposed cliffsides, our glutes burning from the unforgiving uphill. The glacier-fed creek morphed into a dirt brown waterfall plunging over house sized boulders. Suddenly the sporadic game trail spit us out onto a moraine–channels of rock piles deposited by the receding glacier. We charged up the rocks, now so close to our goal.

Of course each high point on the moraine was a false summit, however. The going slowed. Then quickened. Then slowed. Until at last we were surrounded by an amphitheater of snow, ice and peaks in every direction.

Le Grande Brazeau wrapped around the peaks before us, its bulk extended well beyond our line of sight. Waterfalls poured out of abrupt edges where glacier met moraine, formed thin creeks that merged in a dirty alpine lake. There was no green, only brown, slate grey, dirty white, blue ice.

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Brendan turned to me, his face lit up in delight. “This is my country Manass, this is it!”

We laughed, smiled, photographed until at last a sobering time-check curbed our fun. We shouldered our packs, bid farewell to the glacier. Headlamps at the ready we braced ourselves for the descent, each of us quietly hoping for an easier way out. And we found one, but that’s another story or another time.