A few days ago I celebrated my thirtieth birthday, in a way I had never imagined.
Waking up before the sun, I made my way to the Conundrum Creek Trailhead just outside of Aspen, bag packed and headed off. A popular tourist attraction in the summer and fall months, the park authorities shut down the roads nearby, and the only way in is through a shuttle. Luckily, it being the off-season, this process begins in a few weeks, and I was a free man.
I set off on what was supposed to be a 9-mile one-way hike just after sunrise. The slow, steady climb through the valley was complemented by forests stretching up the valley walls, capped with snow-covered peaks on each side. The birds sang, the flowers had begun to come out at this lower elevation, I was at home.
I met a fellow traveler, Michael, a reincarnation of Chris McCandless of Into the Wild, and we became fast friends through our shared loved of nature and British dystopian novels, and headed off together. At the 6-mile mark, we came across some dejected hikers coming back our way, who informed us that the rest of the trail was covered in snow chest high, and was impassible. Michael and I were not to be deterred, and pressed on.
What occurred next was one of the hardest physical endeavors I have ever undertaken, and yet the entire time I maintained an equanimity as if I were reading in my backyard home in Jersey.
To traverse the next 2+ miles, we hopped from boulder to boulder in glacier fields, tight roped along fallen trees, and plowed our way through the snow covering the forest floor, often crawling on all fours to prevent falling through. With only one change of clothes in my pack, and recognizing the need for a dry night’s sleep at the top, I pressed on in my sweatshirt and shorts, shins and hands beet red, bloody from the ice. It took about 10 hours and 8 meandering miles through the snow, but about an hour before sunset, we reached the summit.
There were only six of us on the mountain that day: 3 skiers who scaled a 14,000 ft. peak on the other end of the valley, Michael and I, and a mountain man named Jim, whose snowshoe tracks were our guiding light the whole way.
Before being joined by the others, I had some time in the springs alone. The sheer beauty and immensity of the landscape shut off my thinking mind. I made an effort to consciously appreciate the view, but it was impossible. There was no “me” to do the appreciating; the environment wouldn’t allow it.
There I sat, at 11,200 ft., in a natural hot tub in the mountains, surrounded by snow-covered peaks on each side now reflecting the sunset, with clouds slowly crawling just a few hundred feet overhead, emotionally and physically spent. The journey, as is often the case with vision quests of this kind, left my mind and body empty, truly leaving me capable of appreciating this beauty without any internal interference.
I love my friends and family dearly, and think about them each and every day, but this was undoubtedly the best birthday celebration of my life, and it took a lifetime’s worth of effort to make it a reality.
(The view the following morning)