If we take away all that confines us to discover the most natural state of mankind we would find the species living in perfect freedom. “Free to order their actions, and dispose of their possessions and themselves, in any way they like, without asking anyone’s permission—subject only to limits set by the law of nature.” These are the thoughts of John Locke. You might recall that he wrote of freedom in Two Treatise of Government of which in great part was derived the U.S. Declaration of Independence.
But in this modern life we have so many forces working against this idea of living free. Government, corporations, religious and civil powers, political institutions, and general expectations of society are just a few examples of that which erodes this pure state of living free.
I think about this concept of freedom every time I am in the wilderness. Perhaps these thoughts have been suggested by a book I refer to often: Mountaineering, The Freedom of the Hills.
The wilderness governs itself; it’s truly free. This is the basic premise from which wilderness area rules and regulations are established.
John Muir famously wrote, “The mountains are calling and I must go and I will work on while I can, studying incessantly.” He wasn’t always a student of nature. He had an accident that left him temporarily blind while working as an inventor of industrial efficiency. This accident changed his life, helping him realize his true calling: to “devote the rest of my life to studying the inventions of God.”
I believe this sense of freedom and the wonderment of God’s handiwork is why I feel so strongly compelled to be surrounded by unspoiled nature.
And so I went to spend another weekend in the splendor of this creation and to taste again the freedom of the hills. I chose to do a sunrise summit on the highest peak in Colorado – Mount Elbert at 14,433 ft above sea level. What could be more inspiring than that? How about a second summit, South Elbert at 14,134 feet? So, that’s what I did. A couple friends joined me.
A few logistical delays kept us from our intended plan of meeting at the 2WD trail head of the east ridge route before 7pm on a Friday night. And so after only an hour of attempted sleep we were out of our tents and preparing for the 4+ mile hike up the mountain.
At 3am after a 2-mile 4WD road drive we arrived at the upper trailhead to begin our trek for a short stent on the Colorado Trail before turning left onto the South Mount Elbert Trail. It was a steady climb up to treeline until the break of day. We didn’t make the summit by sunrise, but we paused to enjoy the sun breaking through the remaining clouds from the rain storms of the previous day.
On the way up we met a Colorado Trail hiker breaking camp who took a detour to gain the summit of Elbert along his journey. I later quizzed him on his gear and thoughts of the trail, as I have a keen interest in hiking that trail in its entirety someday.
The hike up the east ridge is a bit of a slog after gaining the ridge at about 12,250 feet. But it makes for a peaceful morning. The trail becomes less steep and quite enjoyable after 13,750 feet.
The first views of La Plata Peak come into view.
The arrival at the summit is as spectacular as I remember it from a couple years ago. Mount Massive is such a fresh view.
A panoramic view of a group of 13ers on the left (Casco Peak, Frasco Benchmark, French Mountain, Mt Champion, Deer Mountain A, K 49, and Mount Oklahoma) and the series of 14ers on the Mount Massive series is a sight worthy of some study.
And then the view to the east is not less impressive.
Looking deep into the western ranges one can quite readily point out Snowmass, as it still contains the most obvious mass of snow on the horizon, even well into July.
The shiny rocks on the summit are witness to the previous day’s weather and what most probably would have been a slippery experience a short time before the sun lessened the risk for us later arrivals.
The summit does get a bit crowded not long after sunrise. So, the advice of this adventurer is to arrive as early as possible, if a little serenity is on the agenda.
One of the most unique experiences of this summit was witnessing how clouds are formed at these altitudes. Seemingly without source, clouds started forming from the updraft of the valleys below. Clouds were formed literally out of thin air before our eyes. They would soon block out the sun, dropping temperatures and increasing humidity. And then moments later they would pass and the warming sun would return. Simply an amazing experience!
Undoubtedly, I very much enjoy my time on the summit of these great mountains.
The descent path for the day was the Black Cloud Trail, which follows the south ridge and circles east to gain the South Elbert summit.
After a couple hundred feet of elevation gain and a mile of trail, we reach the second summit of the day: South Elbert.
The trail down from the South Elbert summit is not always obvious. There are many social trails up here. We eventually hooked up with the real trail - not in great condition.
But the flowers were blooming. We sat for a short rest and appreciated the view – no need to pass many words.
The trail fell into the forest.
Soon after we witnessed the recent results of a devastating microburst; severe weather events with winds nearly as powerful as tornadoes that can lay down young-growth forests.
The sound of rushing creeks reminds us that the end of the trail is drawing near.
The day was just over 4100 feet of elevation gain and nearly 10 miles of trail.
A couple tips:
This brings me back to thoughts about the freedom of the hills. It is one thing to selfishly seek out things of nature for ourselves, but there are others trying to do the same – sometimes in the same place and time. John Locke also talks about freedom co-existing with peace, good will, and equality – that the law of nature is based on reason and justice. So while we are out in the wilderness living and being free – be sure to also engage in civility and respect for all of God’s creation.
I love the idea and practice of living free. These mountains offer me opportunities for peace and freedom I don’t often experience in any other activity. I hope you find your freedom in the hills too!
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