The Spanish Peaks rise above the desert of southern Colorado, southeast of the rolling Sangre de Cristo range we’ve been circling the past few weeks from our trek in the Rio Grande National Forest, to our time at Mission Wolf, and out to the sand dunes nestled behind Mount Blanca. Nearing the border of New Mexico, where the Rocky Mountains are smaller and begin to peter out into the Chihuahuan Desert, the Spanish Peaks stand out, and mostly stand alone. On recommendation from our host, Joni, here at Earth Mountain Education Farm, we headed out to hike the 13,626-foot West Peak early yesterday morning. Five students decided to attempt the summit while six other stayed behind at the farm for a “solo day,” taking twelve hours alone with their thoughts and the pine needles in the forest where we’re camping.
As we approached the trailhead on rough dirt roads that climbed up to a nearby saddle, we looked up at the mountain and tried to find the trail winding its way up the rocks to the summit. We could see no possible way up the steep scree that climbed far beyond the tree line. The trail is well-trafficked, though, so we began our ascent through pine forest. In our hikes this semester, we’ve talked frequently about how “bagging” a summit—often a big part of hiking culture here in Colorado—is not the point of our climbs. That we are rather focused on being present to where we’re at, being aware of the needs of other members in our group, and honoring the mountains we climb, whether we reach a summit or pass or not. We kept this in mind yesterday as we neared the tree line, unsure what kind of challenge was waiting on the other side and if it would be realistic to continue.
As the pine trees grew thinner and the rocks approached, we could finally see the trail winding through the stones. Although steep, we could see that it was certainly safe and passable, and as a group decided to continue our ascent. Large, sturdy rocks served as stairs as we covered 1,600 feet of elevation gain in our final mile. As we rose, we could see East peak nearby and the Sangre de Cristo range further off in the distance. At first, we didn’t notice the smoke, but as we climbed above it, we could see the dark, hazy cloud from the wildfires currently raging across the state hovering in the valley below.
After several hours, we hit the final ridgeline with just a few hundred feet left to go before the summit. Sage asked each of us to pick up a small, palm-sized rock to carry in silence to the peak. As we climbed, we poured all of our frustrations into the rock we carried, and then hurled them off the top of the mountain in turn, letting them go into the wind and to the earth far below.
Although the summit may not have been our ultimate goal, it was still rewarding to see each student’s sense of accomplishment in reaching our highest elevation of the trip, and for many of them, the highest elevation of their life. To sit so high but to feel the air to be thick and full because of the weeks we’ve spent acclimating across the San Luis Valley. To know that it was possible not to conquer the mountain but to conquer any doubt that our bodies and minds were strong enough to take us there.
As I write this, I’m up on a ridgeline above the farm where we’ve been staying for the past week. Winter is coming here and we awoke this morning to frost and a light dusting of snow. I’m looking out across the valley to West Peak and the thin layer of grey clouds that floats below the rocky summit, still wondering how we managed to stand at the top just twenty-four hours ago. One of the themes of this course, and the one that feels most personal to me, is connection to the land. We have experienced it these past few weeks in so many ways. Hauling aspens from the forest at Mission Wolf that will keep the volunteers warm this winter. Making cob from the dirt here on the farm and squishing it between our toes. Harvesting the season’s final carrots and onions from thick clay. Reading the words of Terry Tempest Williams, and others.
Whether students chose to hike West Peak yesterday or to spend hours alone in the presence of the forest, the time for reflection was valuable as we cross the halfway point of our semester, set course for New Mexico and beyond, and set intentions for the month ahead, and for a lifetime of living on, with, and from this land.