“You’re not lost if you don’t care where you are,” or something to that effect is a famous quote. I repeated it in my mind several times 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 teenage backpackers. Typically, I was confident about wherever Mike was leading us. But not so in this instance. His assistant mountain guide, Dennis, was with me at the back of the line and kept muttering about how we were going up the wrong mountain.
The visibility was like pea soup out in that high mountain world. 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 there was a magnificent alpine world of massive peaks, summer snowfields, jagged cliffs, and remote valleys surrounding us. But, for the moment, they were out of sight and out of mind.
I wouldn’t have thought 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 magically 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, I realized how well prepared they were for the conditions, 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. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we had plenty of experience. It was then that I realized that even if we were indeed headed up toward the wrong summit, we would be okay. We’d be fine because we were prepared. At that point, I quit worrying about where we were or weren’t going. Instead, I focused my energy on pondering the strangeness of the surroundings and relished the mystery of the moment.
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 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 in front of me, much less any 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 was inclined 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 too warm for that. I knew where the combination of physical exertion and non-breathable rain pants would take me.
As I walked through the cloud, my prevailing thought was how 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. Then, 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 we were on a high point of some sort. With complete confidence, he announced that we’d made it to the summit of Chiefs Head. As he made his announcement, he reached down into the pile, pulled out the summit register tube, opened it up, and took out the signature tablet. Then, 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 uttered the words. But almost seamlessly, he immediately pointed out that someone had switched summit registers, probably as a prank of some sort. So the congratulations abruptly stopped when he made the official announcement. But the resulting confusion was soon averted by his pronouncement of what had probably happened. I felt the relief in the air as everyone realized that we hadn’t been walking uphill for hours in the fog to little avail. So, to prove his trickery point, he began walking down the other side into the fog while describing how the Chiefs Head ridge continued down to the south, was mellow, and easily walkable. He soon melted into the cloud, all the while continuing to talk.
It became eerily quiet as his voice faded away. Everyone stared into the blank spot where we’d last seen him. After a few minutes of looking at the fog and listening to the silence, I became concerned. But then he suddenly reappeared and announced that the mighty East Face of Mt. Alice was not far to our side and that we actually were 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 an alternative walkable ridge that would eventually take us to our destination. And so, we all relaxed as we concluded that we wouldn’t have to backtrack. I knew we had everything we needed to comfortably and safely get to where we were going. It was at that point, I realized 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.