Past Timberline

When I was 12 or 13, I went with a friend to summer camp near Rocky Mountain National Park. It was a church camp. We slept in log cabins without heat or electricity, we ate in a communal dining hall, and we spent our evenings in an A-frame church built in a meadow on the other side of a little stream. Our counselors were in their early twenties, nice young adults who could coach kickball, bandage a wound, and referee an argument.

From where the girls’ cabins were situated, we had to skitter down a steep hill to the dining hall to eat, then hike back up to our cabins to sleep, and skitter back down again to use the bathroom or take a shower, and this was in addition to the real hikes we had to sign up for every day. By the first night, our legs were toast.

The food was terrible and I refused to eat most of it, so I subsisted on a bag of red licorice nibs my mother sent with me, along with whatever bits and pieces I could manage to swallow down at meal times. Altitude makes for poor sleep, and since the cabins had no heat, it was freezing as well. A girl in our cabin had diabetes and went around with apples and little containers of orange juice. The other girls were awkward, toothy, pious.

There was also a lot of Jesus talk and choir singing that I didn’t care about in the slightest. I wasn’t going to camp for the church part; I wanted to meet a cool boy and have my first kiss. But the revelation was cruel: cool boys do not go to church camp. Within a day or two, my friend and I were over it. We wrote letters to our parents asking if they could pick us up early, and if at all possible, could they pick us up in a limo.

Our parents did not pick us up.

When I finally did come home, I was 15 pounds lighter (and I didn’t have any weight to lose) with dark circles under my eyes. My mother was appalled at the sight of me. And then my sister told me it had been 100 degrees when I was away. I was beyond mad that I had missed out on this newsworthy occurrence.

Church camp may have been lost on me, but the hiking part—the real hikes—hooked me.

Past timberline. As a kid, going “past timberline” sounded like a place only the lucky could reach where the answers to all of life’s mysteries would be revealed. You mean, there was a place where it was so high, where the air was so thin, that trees could no longer grow? I longed to see this for myself.

At camp, when I found out the Raspberry hike (named for a mountain? I never could figure it out) promised this adventure, I quickly signed up. After hours on the trail, sure enough: the trees were suddenly below us and there we were, blinking in an otherworldly light. The trail continued through a field of short grass and brown scree; we stopped to peel away clumps of mint-green lichen that spread over the rocks. The wind was much colder and the sky seemed to be in our eyes instead of above us. Clouds floated by, making pictures on the land. Faraway lakes formed by melted snow were as clear as mirrors. Everything up there was flooded in crystal-white sunshine and I loved it immediately. If life’s answers hadn’t all been revealed to me, at least one was: You can go higher…you can go where no one else goes.

I didn’t fully scratch my hiking itch again until I was 30, when my boyfriend and I decided to hike a fourteener one July. Colorado, if you don’t know it already, is the kingdom of fourteeners, our word for peaks that are 14,000 feet or more in elevation. Yes, there are higher mountains in other states, but here everyone from weekend recreational types to serious mountain climbers have listed the conquering of Colorado’s fourteeners on their bucket lists. There are even maps you can buy where you check off how many you’ve done.

We decided on Mount Yale, one of the Collegiate Peaks in the Sawatch Range, and set up camp near the trailhead the night before. The conditions were familiar: poor sleep, cold temperatures. But at least we had eaten well. Up by the crack of dawn (you never want to get caught on a mountain past noon because of the possibility of severe storms) and we were on our way. I had bought new hiking boots for the occasion, and a backpack. I felt like a certified mountain girl.

The trail up Yale is deceptive. It meanders up and down gentle rises in elevation, winding through a speckled forest and along a beautiful stream, awash in wildflowers and ferns and aspens, making it seem like some Hobbit-y fantasy world in which any minute a fairy could pop out from behind a tree and tickle your nose with her wings, until you come out into the open and suddenly the summit is ahead of you—and straight up. Past timberline.

We started to climb. And climb. And climb. Within minutes I was struggling for breath and my hip flexors were rigid with pain. My new hiking boots felt like concrete on my feet. My hands began to swell and my fingers looked like sausages. My boyfriend, who had climbed other fourteeners before, scrambled with billy-goat urgency ahead of me on a path that switch-backed up the side of the mountain, taking us the agonizingly long way to the top. We stopped to drink water and eat granola bars and catch our breath (really it was me catching my breath).

There were other people on the trail that day, and I remember one girl in particular—she looked to be in her teens—who carried no backpack and wore no hiking boots, just a pair of old track shoes, athletic shorts, and a sweatshirt, the cold wind whipping her brown hair around her face, her bare legs long and strong, and she was hiking so steadily and so serenely, so completely without effort or shortness of breath, that I stopped my huffing and puffing and worrying that I was going to embarrass myself by not being able to summit, and just watched her. She never stopped. She was a gazelle in slow motion, putting one weightless foot in front of the other. She kept her hands at her waist in a calm, patient posture, and when the going got tough, she’d reach out gently to grab a rock and ease herself forward. She looked as if she had been born up there, where even the trees eventually bowed down and said, “You go on. I’m stopping here.”

I wanted to be like her.

Eventually, after making our way over the scree field and climbing up the last few precarious boulders at the top, we made it. There was a little canister tucked into some rocks where we could record our names and the date for posterity. We sat for awhile, drinking more water, eating more granola bars. My hands were so swollen and cold by that point that I could hardly hold on to anything. My nose was running down my face and my cheeks and ears were bright red, but the view, oh my God, the view. There isn’t anything like it. We were sitting on top of the world.

Because, you see, the earth, with its unexplored trenches and dark canyons, its virgin forests and rivers and oceans, its planted hills and plowed valleys, its busy towns and chugging cities, all availing themselves to our ceaseless human endeavors and pedestrian affairs, also gives anyone who is curious enough a foothold to go higher. To get above the madness. To get closer to the stars.

It must pale next to climbing Everest or any mountain in the Himalayas.

But even in Colorado, even at 14,000 feet, it is something.

I have never forgotten that feeling. I’ve since climbed other fourteeners, Bierstadt by myself and Grays with a friend. The feeling at the top is always the same. It is always one of religion. Not the religion they feed you in church camp, but the kind of religion that predates time, the kind you understand the minute you realize you’re connected to all things at once: to the earth underfoot and the universe overhead and the pumping of your own heart passing life through your veins.

This past weekend my boyfriend and I hiked around the foothills of Boulder among the broken-down fences and houses of long-dead pioneers, through wide open space where grasshoppers bounced along beside us in the heat. I have not hiked past timberline in awhile. But if I want to, it is there. I can go where some of us are just now learning to go. I can go where there is a serene girl inside me who stands on a mountain top with her hands at her waist, the wind whipping her hair.