It is finally dark and the van is parked deep in the woods below Mt. Elbert. This is true darkness. Lopi is curled up in the bed beside me breathing heavy, legs twitching. I am sitting in the bed three pillows propped behind my head with the glow of the laptop on my face.
Words. I am struggling to find the words to articulate the emotional day I had today. So I'll start from the beginning.
The alarm rang and I sat up alert in my bed. It couldn't be 4:30am already!? I heard voices outside the van. I wasn't the only person planning on an alpine start this morning. I pulled the covers off slightly but the cool alpine air made me pull them back on quickly. It was dark. I was tired. I could afford a little snooze I was sure I'd be moving faster than the people outside my van.
Woof woof woof! I awoke again. This time to the sound of barking and it wasn't Lopi's either. A quick glance at the clock What!? It's already 5:30am. I tried again to pull the covers from my body only to snuggle deeper into the bed with Lopi. He wasn't helping the problem nosing closer to keep warm. I through the privacy current open hoping the dim morning light would wake me. Instead I snoozed for another half hour before prying my body from the warm bed placing one article of clothing on at a time before getting back under the blanket to warm them.
It was 6:30am... hard to call it an alpine start. I ate a few miniature bagels and a gel and was on the trail finally. The night before I had come up with the plan to run Missouri to Elkhead Pass to Oxford to Belford. A loop I measured to be close to 20 miles with a serious amount of elevation gain. With the map etched in my head and mileage to trail junctions and peaks occupying my thoughts I knew I had to move quickly my slow morning wasn't helping anything. And my daily weather update from a friend in Truckee had me worried I'd be stuck in another thunderstorm.
One by one I picked people off the trail. When I pass people I often want to ask what time they started but never do. The morning dew on the bushes soak my pants as I run by and my feet feel refreshed running through the raging rivers.
All was going to plan it was 9am now and Lopi and I were on the summit of Missouri. This left plenty of time for a summit of Oxford and Belford and I was confident we would be off the summit before the storms hit. They hadn't even started building!
I had no plans of stopping on the summit but I decided to chat with the only other people up there, a group of four with two dogs. They were headed across the ridge that connects Missouri to Elkhead Pass with plans to summit Belford. I was immediately intrigued I had researched the ridge and thought it would make the trip faster. However the night before I had made the decision to not take it because of the 3rd/4th class nature and Lopi. I quickly responded "Really!? You guys think the dogs can do that? I hear it's pretty steep and exposed 3rd class." To which they laughed "Oh yeah it'll be fine if we have to pick them up we will." Against my better judgement I followed them off the summit. Which quickly turned into Lopi and I leading across the ridge. They seemed very surprised to hear I was traveling alone but I assured them I was not alone because I had Lopi!
Lopi is a strong dog and after 4 years adventuring with him. I know what he can and cannot do. And this was doable. We made quick work taking the path of least resistance until we were suddenly cliffed out. Our destination was less than a quarter mile away. To the right I could see a faint trail far below. We traversed back up the ridge and the group finally caught up. I explained the situation and we all headed down the right side. The terrain was extremely steep with serious exposure. Rocks crumbled in my hands and slipped underneath my feet. The consequences for a misstep were death. I had a bad feeling in my stomach as Lopi clung tight to my legs almost tripping me at moments. I knew if I had been alone on the summit I would have never got Lopi and I into this situation. But it was too late now. We made it even closer to Elkhead Pass but cliffed out again. This time I was done. Lopi and I were headed back to the summit of Missouri and going to finish our run the way we had planned it. The rest of the group tried a couple more times to find a way across the ridge with no luck.
Lopi took the lead sending rocks down on me as he quickly headed for the ridge. He was tired, I could tell, we had already run 7 miles and traversed across a technical ridge. Back on the ridge we headed for the summit of Missouri. Lopi's scrambling became dynamic and his movements sloppy. But he's a strong dog and we were headed to the safety of 2nd class trails. I thought the worst was behind us.
Only one more section of technical terrain. I was hugging tight to Lopi's heels because he wasn't moving very fast. He put his front paws up on the top of the ridge and jumped with his back legs. His back legs didn't make it and he came falling down the steep face right at me. I was precariously perched on the ridge with a sheer cliff behind me. Lopi means the world to me but being knocked backwards off a cliff from a falling dog was not how I imagined I'd go. Adrenaline kicked in and I braced myself. Lopi isn't a small dog actually the opposite at 115 pounds. Instinct made me use a bouldering technique. Arms out straight I tried to catch him but maybe just broke his fall gently. My heart pounding everyone was okay! I lowered Lopi back to the ground and he quickly took an easier route to the top of the ridge. I, still shaking, followed. When I got to the summit I found Lopi laying in some snow. The summit was now crowded in 30 plus people and I was ready to get off it. In the distance I could see the storms building I glanced at the clock. 11am. Damn it! I had wasted two hours and only summitted the same mountain twice. In two hours I could have already been on the summit of Oxford.
There was no time to think should've could've would've so we bolted. Knowing in the matter of a few hours that storm would be on top of us. But I was still determined to finish the loop. Running behind Lopi in the snow a million things on my mind I caught a glimpse of his print. Was that blood? I stopped and took a closer look. It was blood. I immediately jumped to conclusions. My trip in Colorado was over. I bought him booties and I didn't even use them. How could I be such a terrible dog mom? I was sure he had reinjured the paw he delaminated weeks earlier on a run in Truckee. It looked like a lot of blood it must be bad. I sprinted to catch up with Lopi shouting for him to stop. We sat in the middle of the trail I picked up his two front paws and saw nothing. The two back paws nothing. Wait. I looked again. One of his back paws nails had gotten torn up. I assumed it was from the fall he had taken a few hours earlier. It didn't seem to bother him so I put my glove over his paw and used a hair tie to secure. Hoping this would keep it clean.
We were already over half way to Elkhead Pass and it would actually be a shorter distance to just run up over Mt. Belford then to turn around. So we pressed onward. I kept glancing over my shoulder at the approaching storm. I didn't hear sounds of thunder or see lightning so I assumed we would be fine. Just a rain storm. Right? Less then a mile from the summit of Belford we watched the storm engulf Missouri. As I passed the only other people on the mountain they were headed down. We exchanged few words. They used words like cold, miserable, suffer and I just nodded in agreement.
A few steps from the summit what I thought would be rain hit us. Blowing horizontal the snow pelted my open face and collected on my pants. I pulled my rain jacket tight against my head and continued to walk up over the summit. The snow soon engulfed us full force.
Lopi laid close to the ground and I hunkered over my legs. Gloveless with only a thin fleece jacket and leggings I was not prepared for this weather. However I felt no panic. I didn't know if the storm would last days or minutes or if I would go hypothermic before I ever found out. I was calm. I was well above 14'000 feet in pure whiteness. Everywhere I looked all I could see was white. And the sound. There was no sound. The world was silent. I was silent. I was alone. The most alone I've ever been. All of those moments when I stressed about Lopi or the weather or my hydrating or fueling. In this moment nothing mattered. Nothing was real. Was I really on the top of Mt. Belford. It didn't matter. I didn't know what time it was I never looked. Time didn't matter. I've never felt anything like it. It's hard to articulate the peace and emptiness I felt. I couldn't tell you if I was dead or alive.
But having awoke from the whiteness the storm passed. It could have lasted an hour I wouldn't know. The surrounding mountains came back into focus and the sky shown blue for a moment. A few rays of sun warmed my frozen cheeks and I felt life again. I could hear the sound of the mountains. A deep rawr of thunder in the distance and the scattering of marmots.
I picked up my things, brushed the snow off of Lopi and headed down the steep face of Belford. This time it was different. I wanted to walk and no I didn't want to walk fast I wanted to walk slow. I had nothing to prove to myself. I know I'm a fast descender. I know I could make it down this mountain in a quarter of the time. But what did it matter. I was training. The storm had passed. I wanted to walk. So I did.
I slowly walked over the slippery wet rocks enjoying the beautiful yellow and purple flowers. It wasn't long though before my desire to move quickly kicked back in and I bounced swiftly down the mountain and back to the van.
Lopi crawled wet and muddy into my bed for the third day in a row and I laid naked feet propped up trying to figure out what happened today. I guess if everything in life always went the way you planned it life wouldn't be interesting.