“You’re not lost if you don’t care where you are,” or something to that effect is a famous quote. I repeated it several times to myself as we kept walking into the thick fog, headed toward the summit of Chiefs Head, in Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park. I was bringing up the rear of a group of ten, mostly teenage backpackers. Typically, I was confident about wherever Mike was leading us. But in this instance, one of his Colorado Mountain School guides, Dennis, was at the back of the line with me and kept muttering about how we were going up the wrong mountain, which caused me to be a tad bit skeptical of our route.
To say that the visibility was like pea soup out in that high mountain world would be something of an understatement. There were times when I couldn’t even see the front of the group. Enormous rock slabs and huge boulders looked downright puny as we kept weaving our way between one after another of them. I knew that there was a magnificent alpine world of big peaks, summer snowfields, jagged cliffs, and remote valleys surrounding us, but for the moment, they were out of sight and out of mind.
I was sure that we were going up toward some peak. That was partly due to the fatigue I was feeling in my legs, but also because I could see that each person ahead of me was progressively higher.
I wouldn’t have been thinking about much besides how awesome the place we were walking in was, except for Dennis’s conjectures. Even with the fog, I could see the thick clouds continually rising, falling, and then re-creating our world, and I was eager to see what each new moment had in store.
I probably should’ve been more concerned about where we were or weren’t at that point. But as I looked at the people walking ahead of me, I realized how well prepared for the conditions they all were, no matter what happened. Everyone had solid rain gear, fleece for warmth, and warm sleeping bags. And, as a group, we had sturdy tents that didn’t leak, enough food for days, and plenty of fuel for our stoves. And perhaps most importantly, we had plenty of experience. It was right then that I realized that even if we were headed up toward the wrong summit, we were going to be okay. We’d be fine because we were prepared. I realized that I could quit worrying and just ponder the strangeness of my surroundings, bask in the excitement of the uncertainty engulfing us, and relish the mystery of our location without being preoccupied with a plan.
Six months earlier, while sitting at my desk, I hadn’t pictured our trek along the Continental Divide in this way. Mike had told me that it was realistically doable by a group of teenagers. And, that it would take us through spectacular and remote high country and to the summits of several peaks, although he didn’t mince words in making it clear that it’d be something of a grind. He knew what real outdoor adventure was and said that it would undoubtedly be one. But it wasn’t until we walked into the cloud that morning, that the real adventure part began.
My initial thought was that the conditions were just miserable. I couldn’t fully see more than four people out in front of me, much less any of the distant or nearby mountains. The wet tundra had entirely soaked my boots. A persistent mist continually peppered me in the face, and my pack was heavy and getting heavier with water every minute. To top the misery off, whenever we stopped, and I had the inclination to sit down and rest, I was stymied in my thoughts to do so by the wet rocks. Putting on rain gear was out of the question since the air was simply too warm for that. I knew where the combination of physical exertion and non-breathable rain pants would take me. And that world of clamminess was not somewhere I wanted to go.
My main thought as I walked through the cloud was that it was an uncomfortable, albeit intriguing day to be out backpacking. But the realization that we needed to get to the mythical Point B on the map had me in “suck it up” mode. Just as I was thinking about how things couldn’t get much more unpleasant, we stopped, and Mike huddled us all up where we could see each other. We were standing around a pile of rocks, and I could see that we were on some sort of a high point. And then, he announced that we’d made it to the summit of Chiefs Head. In a visual gesture, he reached down into the pile and pulled out the summit register tube, opened it up, and took out the tablet, which described the peak and provided a place for summiteers to sign their names. As we all congratulated each other for our efforts, he began to dramatically read the inscription, which declared that we were indeed on the summit of Mt. Alice.
Wait, I thought, that’s not right. There was instantaneous confusion as he read the words. But almost seamlessly, he immediately pointed out that someone had switched summit registers, probably as a prank of some sort. The congratulating had come to a stop when he made the official announcement. But the resulting confusion was somewhat averted by his pronouncement of what had probably happened. And I could feel a bit of relief in the air as everyone realized that we hadn’t been walking uphill for hours in the fog to little avail. To prove his point, he told us how the Chiefs Head ridge continued down to the south, was mellow, and easily walkable. And that he would just walk over to the top of it as verification and then yell back when he got there. And so, that’s what he did.
But there was only silence that came from his direction as he completely disappeared into the cloud. It became eerily quiet as we all looked at where he’d last been seen. I was starting to get concerned when he reappeared and announced that the mighty East Face of Mt. Alice was not far to our side and that we were indeed on the wrong peak.
My first instinct was to take in a big gulp of air as I pondered the situation. But then, he and Dennis each told us that there was a walkable ridge that, while a bit out of the way, would eventually take us to our destination. And so, we all relaxed as we concluded that we weren’t going to have to backtrack. I knew that we had everything we needed to comfortably and safely get us to where we were going. And in one magical moment, I realized that I’d never be lost if I was prepared for where I was. And so, we regrouped and headed off into the fog into an exciting and mysterious world.