This photo was taken 41 years ago this month while backpacking in Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP) with friends. We had just finished our freshman year at Colorado State University, and were ready to celebrate before scattering for the summer. It was warm and sunny the day we left, and we could see for miles, with hardly a cloud in the sky. How deeply good it feels to exchange a mental burden for a physical one, to walk off the inner sludge that final exams cause to accumulate, and to finally be able to greet spring with exuberance and open arms.
Taking to the mountains is a kind of spring-cleaning for the soul.
We hiked up to 11,000 feet to base camp among the fir and spruce at Lawn Lake in the Mummy Range. We were the only ones there. After making camp in mid-afternoon, we hiked around the lake, wished for fishing poles, had a leisurely dinner, and planned out our route to, weather-permitting, summit the Mummy, and, with luck, even Chapin, Chiquita, and Ypsilon mountains the next day depending on their snow cover. When you have grand plans in the mountains, you go to bed and get up early. We were bedded down before dark.
The RMNP website expressly warns about the vicissitudes of the wilderness: “Plan ahead and prepare: Plan your trip carefully. Prepare for extreme weather.” And for good reason. I can recall a July day backpacking in the park’s Never Summer range when a cloudless sky on a high plain at lunchtime became a menacing black, cold, and lightning-laced fury within the hour. We were caught high and unsheltered, forced to abandon our packs, spread out, and squat low on our haunches while the booming thunder shook the ground. I was 15, and my cheery camp counselor told the others to stay away from me, because with my mouthful of braces, the lightning would seek me out first. To this day I don’t know if she was serious or teasing. I remember finding the storm curiously invigorating-I was afraid and awed at the same time.
While sleeping the deep sleep of a college student freshly emancipated from classes and exams, the night got colder. Much colder as it turns out. We awoke around 4 a.m. when there was a muffled thump, and my tent-mate and I were immediately pinned inside our tent and sleeping bags. What in the world? I could just wriggle my arms free to push against the weight and find a flashlight. Imagine our surprise when, unzipping the tent fly, there was 3 feet of snow up the sides of the tent, the snow from the spruce having dumped with a tent-collapsing thud. Oh Oh. We were NOT prepared for snow, much less a blizzard of wet, heavy snow. Of course, back then, there were no cell phones or emergency GPS gizmos. The snow was already up to our knees, and it was steady. We could wait it out, or get out before it got deeper. We hoped, by going down, the snow would abate. So, by 4:30 a.m. we were packed and headed out by flashlight. It was a slog, sometimes the snow up to our hips. But, by noon, we were safely down, and headed into Estes Park for hot coffee and the best waffles the world has ever known.
The wilderness of life has its own storms. Illness. Job loss. Poor decisions coming back back to bite us. Weather disasters. Family strife. One night we lie down in peace and happy anticipation, only to be slammed awake, smothered by the fear, anxiety, and panic of an unexpected storm. The Bible has a consistently affirming message: “Do not be afraid.” “I will never leave you.” “God is the strength of His people, and a refuge in times of trouble.” I can’t promise that the outcome is always as good as hot coffee and waffles. Knowing God, it will be far, far better.