It’s an odd feeling, wondering if you’re about to die. In that moment, perched on the side of a mountain with my longtime hiking companions, as my nostrils filled with the thick smell of atmosphere, my hair stood on end, and the air grew ghostly still, all that went through my mind was, “This is going to hurt.”
But I guess if you’re going to go, being in a place you love doing something you love with people you love isn’t a bad way to do it. And then there it was: a flash of blinding light, and an instantaneous blast of thunder.
How did I find myself on the side of the South Maroon Bell in the middle of a thunderstorm? My hiking partners and I had done our research on the 11.5-mile, class 3 climb up to the summit of the South Maroon Bell, one of the most photographed peaks in North America. Although this was our first summit attempt of this Colorado stunner, we were experienced hikers, with a handful of class 3 and 4 Colorado 14ers under our belts that summer, including Capitol Peak and Pyramid Peak in the same range of mountains, the Elks.
The morning of our summit attempt, nothing seems out of the norm as we unzip our tents to delicately frost covered grass and a peaceful silence. Our drive to the trailhead from our campground near Aspen was bumpy but quick. It was still dark when we pulled into the Maroon Lake parking lot, and a few stars poked out from behind the clouds as we strapped on headlamps and started the popular hike to Crater Lake. After stopping to de-layer, the landscape got lighter, and we continued on our quest for the summit. We began slowly ascending Maroon’s east slope as we made our way to the southern ridge. It’s a steep initial climb, but the rising sun began to illuminate the surrounding landscape, offering us a distraction from our aching legs.
The route doesn’t become class 3 until the ridge that looms above us, but Mother Nature has added an extra degree of challenge. Rocks tumbled from above, set off not by a hiker but by the freeze thaw of changing seasons, hurtling at random toward us. We buckled helmets around our chins and remained alert on our way up the slope toward our goal, hopping around them like Frogger dodging traffic. The sun moved higher than we would like, but we welcomed its warmth.
No longer blocked by the ridge, we assessed clouds in the distance as we gobbled down snacks and water. Based on reports, we came to a consensus that there should be a big enough weather window to summit and descend before the storms rolled in. But as we make our way along the class 3 climbs, a slow realization takes hold: This portion is taking longer than we anticipated, with sporadic patches of ice and snow turning typically easy footing treacherous. We stop again and discuss an ominous patch of clouds developing in the distance.
It’s easy to say that you’ll always make the right decision, that when it comes down to it you’ll know what is right and do it. But after you’ve spent hours on a mountain, lungs aching and muscles burning as the summit looms so tantalizingly close, it’s not always that easy. But storms move fast at 14,000 feet, we make the difficult decision to turn around.
As we begin our descent, the clouds develop into a much more treacherous mass, and we realize we should have made this decision hours ago. An unspoken fear starts to simmer: This storm is going to catch us. The only question is when.
Seconds, minutes passed: Time felt non-existent as we ran from the storm. But when it finally catches us, it doesn’t just hit—the rain and wind, thunder and lightning consume us. We’ve moved off the ridge and along the east slope by this time, high above tree line, but the clouds engulf us, and we can’t see more than 50 feet in any direction. We smell smoke, and our hair begins to stand on end. Terrified, we drop metal-filled packs and trekking poles and ball up in lightning position.
As we crouched there, no summit bagged, waiting to feel electricity rip through our bodies, I vowed to myself that if we made it through, I would never put myself in this position again. Even so, balled up as the weather blasted us, as the time between flashes of light and thunderous crashes increased, I realized my desire to stand on top of that summit hadn’t diminished—it grew. But this experience would change the way I chased summits from that point forward. It would force me to evaluate risk versus reward and to serve as a constant reminder that the summit is only half of the challenge.
When we opened our eyes, we were still alive.
Once the imminent danger had finally passed and our adrenaline had finally slowed down, my hiking partners and I made our way back down the mountain. Each step we took was closer to sitting in temperature-controlled cars, to burritos awaiting us in Aspen, and to the sweet sound of safety.
But something deeper developed within each of us on that hike. Even as we talked about our next attempt to conquer the South Maroon Bell, a collective realization settled over our group: to keep pursuing hiking and climbing passions with a raised awareness of safety, of remembering that the mountain will be there another day, but depending on the decisions we make to reach its summit, we may not.
Written by Katie Botwin for RootsRated.