Clouds begin to appear, ever so slightly revealing themselves just beyond the next ridge line. In what was once an ocean blue sky stretching out to every horizon, clouds like puffs of cotton the color of charcoal are seemingly stacking atop each other with each passing minute. It is as if they have climbed up the backside of this mountain, now anticipating our meeting at the upcoming high mountain pass. The surrounding peaks are slowly becoming swallowed like boulders in a swollen desert stream, inundated by the rushing flood of dark churning clouds. As look up, my head unconsciously turns with my wandering, widening eyes and I realize this flood, this storm, has now encompassed me as well. In the fine line that exists between paralyzing fear and overwhelming awe, I find myself . . . exposed.
It is a place I have found myself many times before, and oddly enough it is a place that I long to find myself again and again. As someone who has spent the last 10 years working as a river guide, I have found that there are many parallels between the river and the trail, but none more special to me than those moments of exposure. Whether it be in the midst of chaotic whitewater or the humbling power of a storm, there is a certain sacredness in realizing you are in the midst of uncontrollable grandeur. Some of the most impressive, unnerving, and awe inspiring storms I have ever experienced happened while thru hiking the Colorado Trail with my wife last summer. Lighting bolts darted back and forth across the sky. Hail pelted us along treeless ridges, one day in particular assaulting us on four separate occasions. Rain fell in sheets, completely soaking us through multiple times. For the first time I can remember, thunder pounded so close and with such force that I felt it inside me, like my heart was the epicenter of this deep, echoing boom that was making its way to my fingertips and toes. Immediately following some particularly impressive displays, Laura and I would eerily turn towards each other, eyebrows raised and eyes wide and round as if looking through a magnifying glass. We would not say a word.
While in the Weminuche Wilderness, making our way across an open, high stretch of trail, we found ourselves once again in the midst of the madness. It was just before making the steep drop into the Elk Creek drainage. Thunder bounced off towering rock walls, and the wind made the rain and hail fall horizontally. It was intense. Lightning began flashing all around us, to the point that it became impossible to tell which direction the storm was coming from or where it was going. We kept going back and forth as to what our next step should be. Do we hunker down and wait it out, or make a push for the Elk Creek descent and find some cover? No matter what we decided, what we did know is that there would be no spectating here. This would be felt.
Finally there was a lull, just enough of a break to make a dash down into Elk Creek. The worst of the storm had passed, and as we made our way down the steep, winding switchbacks, we began to realize the rain had left us a gift in its wake. The sheer, vertical rock walls that line the sides of the drainage were now the birthplace of waterfalls. Every few steps seemed to reveal another one, thin streaks of water tumbling down barren cliffs. The following few miles became some of the most memorable of the entire hike.
There is a deep truth in these moments of chaos and terror, in the awe and humility. So often life can be insulated and predictable. Whether physically, mentally, or emotionally, it is always easier to hold back. In the “real world,” we do not have to put ourselves out there. But in holding back, we miss out on a chance to learn a little more about ourselves. A large part of my passion for the rivers and wild places of this world is rooted in the fact that nature exposes me. In the torrent of storms and raging rapids, there is no place to hide. There is the element of risk. Not the vain risk that is taken solely for the sought after reward, but the humble risk of seeing what we are made of for our own sake. The humble risk of being ok with not having complete control. It is the humble, seemingly nonsensical risk of putting “life” on hold to walk 500 miles through the mountains. It is the risk of finding yourself in that fine line between paralyzing fear and overwhelming awe and realizing . . . this is sacred.