Just yesterday, I gave a short speech on gut-wrenching adventure.
I spoke in front of my HubSpot peers as part of our company Toastmasters group. It was my first speech in the program, an ice breaker speech, where the goal was to teach the audience a bit about myself.
Over the course of 6-7 minutes, I spoke about adventurous times throughout my life. Careening down our neighborhood hills on scooters and skateboards and mountain bikes. Starting a high school breakdancing club. Climbing Mt. Shasta and Mt. Rainier, getting lost in Alaska’s Talkeetna Mountains. Studying abroad in Nepal and trekking into the Himalaya. Adventure racing. Traveling to 60+ countries as a cost-of-living analyst. It was a fun first speech, and while I undoubtedly fumbled my way through it in some parts, I thought it went relatively well.
There was one story that I left out, and that’s a story that I’d like to share below. I’ll be sharing the story by transcribing a few snippets of an old journal entry I dug up over the Thanksgiving holidays.
A bit of background — it was the summer of 2004, and I was 18 years old. I had flown from Nashville, TN out to Aspen, CO to meet up with an outdoor buddy of mine, Brandon, to visit another outdoor friend of ours, Perry. Perry’s family had a house in Aspen, and we planned to use the house as a base camp of sorts.
It was a two-week trip, and we had planned in advance to hike the Maroon Bells Four Pass Loop, a 26-mile jaunt through Colorado’s finest wilderness. We had researched ahead of time and had also planned to follow a more challenging itinerary – sticking to the trail the first day, then the morning of day two, veering off (and up) toward Snowmass Mountain, a 14,092-foot mountain that we had deemed appropriately technical for our own abilities at the time.
That brings us to Friday, July 23rd, 2004. Below is the journal entry from that day.
We awoke at 4:45am to start our ascent of Snowmass Mountain. We packed up in the cold, in a soft pink and white alpine glow, and had bagels and cream cheese for breakfast. We made for the scree field at about 6:00am, slowly hiking up the mountain.
When the sun started to come out, we stopped to apply sunscreen and lip balm. We ventured upwards, playing then “name game” until the scree field became looser and more technical. In the distance and to our right, we saw a man ascending a steep grassy slope. We traversed a small gully and followed the grass up, a much easier path.
Over the next twenty minutes, the mountain opened itself up to us. It was massive. We meandered farther up, stopping to check our map, pointing out cairns and trying our best to navigate the most efficient route. At around 13,000 feet, we hit many patches of snow, and on one I dropped my water bottle. It rolled thirty feet down the slope into some rocks. I felt sluggish and unbalanced. It was about 10:00am. We kept moving toward the ridge. We looked at the map again and picked a line between Hagerman’s Peak and Snowmass Mountain.
We reached the ridge and our jaws dropped. The guides, the book and the Internet all classified this climb at a rank of Class 3, but it looked much more difficult. We knew that the only way to get to Geneva Lake, our intended destination, at this point was to go up and over the mountain, and considering we were 80% of the way there, we made a group decision to keep going.
We traversed the ridge, scrambling, using rock climbing moves to avoid the occasional cliff-like drop offs to our left. There was no way around them. We reached the summit around 12:00pm, and because we knew the chances that an afternoon storm would roll in soon, we started heading down the other side of the mountain as quickly as possible.
At that point, it was too late. We didn’t have time to look for cairns, or at the map for the right trail. We needed to get down. We stuck to our closest route – loose rocks and boulders. During our precarious descent, the clouds rolled in. We knew how serious the situation was. Lightning kills about 100 people each year in the Rockies, mostly during the summer, in the afternoon, on climbs just like this.
With lightning flashes a half-mile away and thunder crackling and roaring overhead, the three of us descended as quickly as possible.
I slipped, and I fell about eight feet down the gully of small and medium-size boulders. As I tried to stand back up, I slipped again, and this time I began tumbling down the mountain. After fifteen feet and two or three somersaults, my 45 lb pack became wedged between a couple of larger rocks.
Perry shouted at me from above. “Hold on! Hold still!”
I tried to move my limbs.
A broken bone or serious injury at this altitude, around 13,000 feet, would have been bad news. My arms and legs felt OK, as did the rest of my body. My arms and hands were cut up and my legs bruised, blood on both knees, but nothing serious. Deep breath.
Brandon and Perry helped me back up. I tried to maintain composure on the way down, but I was shaken up. I thought about my life, my family, my friends, how I was only 18. As the storm continued to envelop us, I remember Perry yelling, “hand holds..it’s all about the hand holds!”
At 2:00pm, the storm cleared up. Seemingly safe from nature’s wrath, we stopped for a much-needed lunch and recapped the morning. Salami and cheese never tasted so good. At 2:30pm, we began heading down an even steeper slope, and wouldn’t you believe it, another (the same?) storm rolled up and over ridge – this one was even more severe.
A heavy, dense mix of rain and sleet and snow. Brandon slipped and hurt his hand. I felt the hairs on the back of my neck dart up as lightning struck several hundred feet away. The three of us kept each other in check – we stayed close but moved fast, and didn’t stop moving until we hit a river.
We followed the river until it ran into a deep gorge, and that’s when we spotted our trail.
At that point, we followed the path in a zombie-like state toward Geneva Lake. We found a nice, scenic spot, made camp and plopped down in our tent just as it started raining again. It was 7:00pm at the time, and the three of us took a nap until 8:45pm. Hungry but too weary to venture outside, we cooked pesto pasta in the tent’s vestibule. It got cold. We fell back asleep.
Reflecting back on the situation, I feel…lucky. I feel terrified. I feel alive.
I cried that next day. I thought of all the people I would have left behind.
I still shiver with the sharp cracks and penetrating booms of lightning and thunder.