4:45 a.m.—Alarm buzzes annoyingly in my ear. I smack the snooze button.
4:50 a.m.—Alarm buzzes annoyingly in my ear. I contemplate letting it go, then smack the snooze button.
“Hike Mount Sopris,” we said. Climb 4,396 feet before the weather hits. Knock it off the bucket list. Everything was packed and ready to go, I just needed to get up….
4:54 a.m.— Wait, did I pack my knife? I never did find my Life Straw. I still need to put the battery in my camera. Get up Jenn, get up. Like a zombie lugging myself from the grave, I force myself to stand from my warm bed. My alarm buzzes annoyingly before I unplug it.
This is the hardest part I tell myself. Once the sun comes up and we are on that mountain, I’ll be so grateful for that stupid alarm.
5:15 a.m.—I shuffle into the 39 degree dark and throw my backpack in my roommate’s car. Jordan appears moments later, throws his own gear in and we are off.
5:30 a.m.—We pick up our friend L.J. from the bus station and set out to the Thomas Lakes trailhead. The vents blast heat and I struggle to stay awake.
5:50 a.m.—Cows line the parking lot across from the trailhead. There are three other cars but no sign of anyone. I pull myself from the car, sling my bag over my shoulders and sweep the area with my headlamp. It reflects off cow eyes and dark silhouettes of trees in the distance. At 8,570 feet, we begin our trek.
6:00 a.m.—The finest line of light begins to rise from the horizon, but we are blanketed in woods. We say very little, and already my backpack feels like it’s 200 lbs. The trail shifts between uphill and flat, rocky and smooth.
6:30 a.m.—We break from the forest into a stalky field, giving us a view of Dinkle Lake below and more of the Elk Mountains range to the south. Alarmed cows moo loudly in the tall grass and scramble to move from our path. The stars begin to disappear so I shut off my headlamp and pull my video camera from my bag….only to realize I left the battery at home. I then pull out my GoPro, only to realize the battery was dead (ahgg but I just charged it!!) I take my Canon DSLR camera from around my neck, grateful when the shutter clicked.
L.J. laughs at all the equipment I bought; I cry at all the dead weight I’m carrying.
L.J. and Jordan, leaving me behind as I take too many pics
Our destination ahead
6:50 a.m.—We head back into the trees. The sunrise lights the clouds orange and patches of golden Aspens glow. Autumn is already in full swing up here and I’m fully awake, snapping 1,000 pics.
Jordan looking like a true mountaineer
7:44 a.m.—We come across the first of two Thomas Lakes, four miles from the start of the trail.
8:00 a.m.—Passing the second lake, beautifully lined with gleaming Aspens and reflecting a brilliant blue sky, we continue on through campsites before eating lunch in a boulder field.
8:40 a.m.—We take another break as the trees and air begin to thin.
9:20 a.m.—Passing the treeline, the trail gives way to jutted rocks and craggy outcrops. When we want to look around, we have to stop so we don’t break an ankle. I am definitely feeling the altitude gain; I think Jordan is too. We both opt for frequent breaks.
A grouse we spooked on the trail
Viewing Thomas Lakes
10:05 a.m.—The top looks so close! We rest again, guzzling water and admiring the shimmering blue Thomas Lakes from above.
10:23 a.m.—Clouds speed by overhead and lightly pelt hail at us. To the south over Aspen, the storm of all storms looks to be approaching. We pick up the pace.
Storm clouds rolling in
10:25 a.m.—Picking up the pace—not a good idea. I gasp for air and join Jordan to sit on a rock. I check my phone. 11,420 feet in elevation, 1,545 more to go. L.J. seems unphased by the altitiude and plays music from his bluetooth speaker for motivation.
10:35 a.m.—The storm of all storms suddenly disappears, giving way to sun and blue sky once again. I begin laughing for no reason, is there such a thing as an altitude high?
The spine of Sopris stretches out before us and we start climbing.
Little bits of life in an otherwise desolate area
11:20 a.m.—Many stops later and four miles from the lakes, we finally reach the east peak of Sopris—the second-highest of the mountain’s two peaks. The west peak looms three feet higher a half-mile away. Another storm of all storms seems to be brewing over Aspen.
“So…are we committing ourselves to the other peak or are we calling this good enough?” I asked, still trying to catch my breath. Without hesitation, Jordan and L.J. were committing. Part of me was hoping they wouldn’t, the other part was glad they did.
Jordan looking….we’ll just say cold
Mt. Sopris….12,965 feet
11:58 a.m.—The trail becomes unforgiving with rocks, the wind is relentless. I stop to put another layer on and am nearly blown off the jagged boulder I’m balancing on. Hail comes again, slamming into us sideways, and hurts. It’s an unspoken agreement we need shelter. Fortunately, unideal weather is frequent at 12,000 feet, and past hikers had piled rocks into a circular wall in various places for protection. We chose one further down the hill to cut out the wind and listened to the splattering ice chunks against our fortress.
And there’s the hail…
Hiding from the storm
12:05 p.m.—The hail dies down, but more storm clouds loom in the distance. There seems to be a pattern with the weather—impeding doom, then clear skies as it sweeps to the east at the last second. So close to the second peak, we press on.
12:20 p.m.—I all but ran to get to the west peak. At this point I was pretty much over the rocks. My feet were beginning to hurt and we weren’t even at the turn around point. So close…
12:28 p.m.—When I finally made it to the highest rock on the highest peak of one of Colorado’s highest mountains (based on vertical relief, not altitude) I forgot about my feet and the weather and the distance we still had to go. For a moment I forgot about pretty much everything as I stared at that view in front of me. This was it, the reward for my first mountain ever climbed.
“Ok we’re here, now let’s get the hell off this rock,” Jordan said. I agreed, but I still needed to take 1,000 more photos.
The east peak as seen from the west peak
Me and Jordan
Me and L.J. rocking out white girl style
12:39 p.m.—Now we really did need to go. If I said “the storm of all storms” earlier, I was mistaken. With a fresh one rolling in, we weren’t so sure it was going to miss us this time. Straight-shot, beeline, very little stops—that was our plan on getting down.
1:01 p.m.— First stop.
1:20 p.m.—Second stop.
1:39 p.m.—Third stop.
2:01 p.m.—Need I go on?
We’ve lost the poorly-marked trail, but at this point we had already descended the west peak and ascended the east, and were well on our way to making it back down to the tree line. I swear my feet were in shreds and all toenails missing, and the rocks just wouldn’t end.
3:25 p.m.—Trees! Finally we are back in the trees and back on the trail, but it taunts us with smooth, flat ground for ten feet before organizing another rock bed. I start laughing for no reason again.
3:35 p.m.—It’s official, I’ve lost all toes. I can no longer feel my feet, so it’s my knees I’m noticing now. I remember when I wished for a downhill on the ascent.
I wish I was grateful for what I had when I had it.
3:40 p.m.—I collapse by the second Thomas Lake. I have long since been out of water so I test out my Life Straw for the first time in the wild, drinking straight out of the lake. I hope that wriggling little bug doesn’t get sucked up.
3:55 p.m.—Somehow, we get lost from the marked trail. We stumble into someone’s campsite, ask for directions, get back on the trail. I mistakenly think we are close to being back and get a new wave of energy.
4:52 p.m.—We’re back in that cow-filled field again, but the cows are gone. I try not to think about how long it took to get to that field from the car. I want to cut my legs off.
5:05 p.m.—We pass by a woman carrying what looks to be 500 lbs. of stuff on her back. L.J. asks her how much farther, though he seems to be least affected by all of this. She says a half hour at most and we stagger away from each other. To make myself feel better, I try to imagine her pain.
“I can’t wait to never do this again,” Jordan said.
5:10 p.m.—L.J. makes a joke about going back to the top. I want to laugh but can’t anymore. I consider camping right there, one mile from the car, having nothing to camp with. A giant black cow mooed in the woods suddenly to my right; I mistook it for a bear and scrapped the camping idea.
5:38 p.m.—Repeating “you put one foot in front of the other,” I thought about Christmas and happy things until the car came into view. Nearly 16 miles roundtrip, we were finally done. I actually dreaded sitting down because I didn’t think I could ever get back up again.
6:00 p.m.—Driving into the town of Carbondale, we looked back at what we just accomplished. Literally.
Thank God we got down when we did.
The storm of all storms!
6:20 p.m.—Face-planted on the couch, moving only to get more food. Very slowly. And in pain. Ibuprofen became my best friend.
No, I don’t think I want to hike again anytime soon.
8:30 a.m.—I wake up, stand up, feeling actually pretty good. Better than good.
I feel addicted.
I might want to hike again sometime soon.
There’s something humbling in climbing to the peak of a mountain. It could be the challenge of weather or the altitude. It could be the grade of incline, the mileage, or the trail itself (or lack thereof). It might even just be the hiker.
It could be a combination of it all, brought together to create one hell of a trek.
On yesterday’s descent, some people we passed said the climb to Sopris was more difficult than climbing some 14,000 foot peaks, due to various factors like the trail’s vertical relief.
I don’t know if that’s true, but I’m thinking I’m going to have to find out for myself.
Until next time….
Venture on ➳