(Mt. Belford on the left, Mt. Oxford on the right, as seen from the south.)
My running this past week was defined by a zipper. When one is forcing existence out to the edge of its usual parameters, usually insignificant details are brought sharply into focus, highlighted, exploited. And one never really knows which small, not-even-considered component of the day is going to be brought so sharply into play while extending oneself out toward that edge, but it seems that one always is.
Wednesday morning saw me testing my recovery from back-to-back long runs with a foray up 14,421 foot Mt. Massive. The recovery was deemed good as I scaled the peak two minutes faster than my previous best, all the while enjoying calm winds and a virtually cloudless sky.
On Thursday, the weight of the fact that my summer is rapidly drawing to a close hit me and I ventured a little further afield to see what some of the area's other high peaks held for me. When I pulled into the Vicksburg trailhead parking lot for Mt. Belford and Mt. Oxford on Wednesday evening, it was mostly vacant save for the abundant moonlight showering the clearing. I hunkered down in the Roost and fell promptly asleep.
One of the perks of being a runner is that I get up and down these mountains a lot quicker than most. This typically negates the need for any pre-dawn starts. Not so with the average hiker, apparently. At 5am on Thursday morning, I was rousted from slumber by slamming car doors, rambunctious voices, and the general merriment of those about to embark on a great hike. Water bottles needed filling, sunscreen needed slathering, GPS statistics needed shouting. Walking up and down a 14,000' mountain is evidently a necessarily auspicious activity.
Ninety minutes later I rolled from the sack and began my own preparations which, by now, are remarkably regimented and habitual, and take all of five minutes. Insert contact lenses; hit bathroom; eat a gel for breakfast; remove sweat pants and put on running shorts; select and tie shoes; assess weather conditions but invariably decide on the same old thing--wind shirt stuffed in waistband; lock Roost, hide key; saunter up the trail.
This morning was different because I awoke with an Everest-sized crink in my neck. I'm talking, there was going to be no view of the mountains this morning because my neck would not allow the craning. I was going to be headed down the trail sideways. I was going to be tripping over rocks.
I passed most of the early morning hikers before treeline and soon had the trail up Missouri Gulch all to myself. But it was cold. Clouds blocked the sun, looking ominously heavy with moisture. And they were. A cold drizzle started blowing down the valley, but no problem, I'm a seasoned mountain traveler, I smugly don my wind shirt. Minutes later and the wind is dry again, but still cold. I keep the jacket on.
I arrive at 13,200' Elkhead Pass with remarkably little effort. Somehow, 3700' of ascent in five miles has become routine for me. On the long, uphill traverse to the shoulder of Belford, however, the drizzle starts again and I reach down to zip up my jacket fully closed against the moisture. But it's stuck in the fabric, and my bare fingers have been curled into useless, bloodless claws by the cold and I stop and fumble frustratedly with the tiny little zipper and with little control I abruptly break the zipper off with my clunky thumbs and just stand there with the jacket whipping violently in the now quite strong wet wind, barechested and frozen fingered, and the irony of my parents' recent comedic birthday card--subject: finesse--hits me quite hard so I laugh right out loud and try to shake the hair out of my face but my crinked neck spasms like the cramping calf of an 800 meter runner and I can't believe the literal pain in the neck this has all become so I just do what I always do when I'm at a loss and I turn and continue to run up the trail.
Belford's 14,197' summit is lonely and windswept and cold, so I glance around for a while, but I have to turn my whole body because my neck won't allow simple rotation and this sort of takes the fun out of gazing at the mountains, especially since the wind always seems to be in my face and blowing water at me. Plus, my jacket is wide open and I feel silly so when a hiker approaches I scamper down the crumbling ridge to the 13,500' saddle that bridges Belford and 14,153' Mt. Oxford. Here the sun pops out for a minute and it's like coming in from splitting firewood with my Dad at home in the winter and standing next to the woodstove in our kitchen and just feeling the radiating heat, watching the steam rise off of my soggy, numb fingers, and I can't believe the cheer that the sun adds to the situation, not that I'm not enjoying myself. Seriously.
The 700' climb to the summit of Oxford is nontrivial--as is any incline above 13,000'--and when I get there, it's more of the same. My goddamn neck. I'm looking at Columbia and Missouri sideways. I think about what a nice loop the Pine Creek and Colorado trails would make with all of this. I stuff my hands in my armpits while crossing my arms to try and close off the jacket. And then I take off back down the hill to repeat the descent and ascent to Belford.
And this is when everything stops and the wind and rain cease to exist--at least on a conscious, I'm-cold-and-more-than-a-little-miserable level--because across the abyss, perfectly framing Mt. Belford is a fairy-tale rainbow. The pot of gold is on Belford's summit and the Roy G. Biv spectrum is as if painted in oil. It is stunning, and almost unbelievable. Moments of beauty like this don't happen in reality. Or, moments this beautiful only happen in reality. Of course, soon enough the clouds shift, the sun disappears yet again, the rainbow fades, and I am back again on the summit of Belford.
On the descent back to Elkhead Pass and down Missourri Gulch everything is much better. The downhill nature of the trail necessitates that my gaze be angled down, thus relieving the neck, and the temperature warms dramatically and I am again shirtless and skipping down the rocks, the Magnetic Zeros playing in my head, back into the forest, across the streams, and back to the Roost where I fix the zipper and it is hard to even remember the suffering that had been occurring up high.
Friday brings more of the same, but this time on Elbert, and minus the rain. On the summit, a man talks without shame to his wife on a cell phone and comments that the windchill is 15 degrees. I can only chuckle to myself as I sit hunkered down in the rocks in my shorts and once again broken-zippered jacket. This time the two halves of the zipper simply refuse to mate. I guess altitude affects people's judgement in different ways. This man overestimates the severity of the temperature. And I serially underestimate the importance of a zipper.