Sunday, March 22, 2015

Voices On The Edge

“You may encounter many defeats, 
but you must not be defeated. 
In fact, it may be necessary to encounter the defeats, 
so you can know who you are, what you can rise from, how you can still come out of it.” 
― Maya Angelou

The Blue Lakes Trail, Colorado

The year of preparation and anticipation buzzed by me since I'd read the article in Outdoor Photographer Magazine featuring the Blue Lakes Trail in Colorado. Nestled between rugged ridges and peaks over 13,000 feet in the Mount Sneffels Wilderness area sits the Blue Lakes Pass. Within the pass, this trail visits three spectacular glacial cirques, meanders past a breathtaking waterfall, all the while set among fields of seasonal wildflowers.

Cirque landforms are found situated high on mountainsides, surrounded on three sides by steep cliffs, all thanks to alpine glaciers. The unusual turquoise color comes from the buoyant particles of sediment, known as rock flour, in the lake water. These particles distort the wavelengths of light reflecting back more of the blue-green spectrum. The amount of rock flour influences the color of the lake, and depending on the concentration, the color blooms to anything from dark blue to a brilliant turquoise.  

I've been a casual hiker and backpacker most of my life, but my intention for this hike was the photography. Once I'd read about the color of the lakes in a few hiking logs and noting the striking landscape, I knew I had to photograph it.

 As a freelance photographer based in Phoenix, Arizona, I had some concerns about the elevation and the strenuous rating of the hike, especially because I was strapped to a camera backpack weighing almost 30 lbs. This trail boasts a 2,300-foot elevation gain from the trailhead elevation of 9,350 feet. I'd been known to have issues in the past with hiking higher elevations, since I'm acclimated for desert hikes barely above sea level.  

For photographic sky drama, I planned to hike this area during the summer storms. I secured a cabin in the area for several days in case I needed extra time. During the months that lead up to the hike I had plenty of time to read the trip logs, study the terrain and wildlife.

Earlier in the season, I'd had a bout of altitude sickness while hiking at Utah's Zion Canyon Overlook Trail and Bryce Canyon's Queens Garden Trail, which loops the Sunrise point and the Sunset point all in one in one day. The exertion of both hikes in one day exacerbated the condition and I had to leave the elevation. For this trip, I consulted with a physician friend before I left as to which signs and symptoms would be an automatic "go home". High Altitude Pulmonary Edema (HAPE) symptoms, as we discussed, could be life threatening and would be a deal breaker—as in, go home. I knew what to look for. 

I headed off to Colorado but didn't do the hike the first few days, giving myself time to acclimate to the altitude, and spent those days with smaller, easier hikes and photography, also making sure I was hydrating well. 
I'd planned on hiking early and followed the National Weather Service site to time the storm clouds that would be moving in by 2:00pm. I changed my starting time from dawn to noon. This was my first mistake. However, I noticed spectacular monsoon clouds at around 11:00am, convincing me to leave for the trailhead earlier. I had the usual safely precautions in place, friends who knew where I was headed and when I should return, and surprisingly I had cell phone reception the whole time. I'd read of another couple’s encounter with a mountain lion on the trail and kept that in the back of my mind as well. 

The trail is set deep inside the forest and quickly ascends in steep switchbacks. After the first mile, I was heavily slowed down by the altitude and couldn't regulate my breathing as well as I wanted, which in turn caused my heart rate to increase and stay high. The added weight of my 30lb camera backpack made the hike even more difficult than I had expected. I had to stop often to slow down my breathing and attempt to lower my heart rate, though each higher switchback made that almost impossible; however, I was determined not to quit. 

The storm I had so hoped would be a wonderful backdrop to my images was now a very threatening wild entity. I'd see a white flash peripherally and the earth-shattering roar of the unleashed thunder had my attention for sure. The rain let loose into a sheer downpour and I realized I left my rain gear sitting next to my SUV. Mistake number two, packing my gear in a hurry at the trailhead. I had a light jacket tied to my waist but it wasn't waterproof. My camera bag is water-resistant and has a rain guard, so at least my equipment was safe. The temps quickly dropped as the rain came down, but I didn't find myself cold, the cooling effect instead helped the mild case of altitude sickness I was starting to notice. 

The rain continued and the lightening was striking on the side of the mountain across from the trail. As the hike opened up and the trail became exposed, I had to decide if I wanted to continue. I decided to keep going even as I was horribly behind in my own schedule.

I couldn't help but wonder if my tripod would become my own personal lighting rod. I was soaking wet and had to stop almost every 30 feet to slow my breathing down, now feeling slightly sick. My calculations of hitting the lower lake at 2:30 PM were now way off. I knew I had to leave the lake to start my descent by 4:00pm, given my slowness, or risk steep slick and muddy switchbacks in the dark and rain going back. I did have the proper equipment to descend in the dark, but I had no desire to use it. 

At one point as I was heading up the narrow trail, a small river of water came running down. The switchbacks were getting steeper and I was pushed to my absolute mental and physical limit as it then started to hail. After about 2.5 miles, I didn't think I could climb further. I was soaking wet and the reality of the situation was becoming daunting. I may actually get to the spot I wanted to photograph and won’t be able to shoot much of anything if the scene is in a complete downpour. It's now windy, hailing and temps are much cooler. My clothes are soaked, my energy is spent trying to breathe, my heart rate won’t slow down and I'm fatigued at a level I've never been before on any hike. Emotionally, I'm wrestling with myself every single second, wanting to quit, chastising myself for my mistakes and yet pushing myself to continue at the same time. To make matters worse, I can't eat anything to gain energy because of the nausea from altitude sickness. Yet, I don't feel it's anything but extremely annoying at this point, not life threatening. 

It's one of the clearest and most memorable moments of the hike. Standing in the middle of the hail and thunder, tripod resting under my chin, I close my eyes and quiet all the inner turmoil going on. I retired the ego's voice and seek to find myself. In the quiet, with only the sounds of nature in the background, it's just me, the mountain and the storm. A voice that comes through loud and clear only asks one question.

Who are you?  

Amidst all the rhetoric that the ego dishes up, I find my true voice. In a moment of clarity, it cuts through all the doubt, fear and internal commotion  and reminds me that I am capable. 

It's simple, step up to the plate or go home. Just do it or don't. 

So, who are you? In the end it was an amazing and profound experience. Pushed to your own personal and physical limits, you WILL make a choice.

I reached the lake at 4:00pm and crossed a slick rocky river to get into position. I could have cared less if I'd fallen in. I was already soaked and I had but minutes to spare. I extended my deadline by 30 minutes to get my shots and then I had to leave. Ironically, it was then that nature showed me a little love and the rain subsided. The sky lightened a bit as the sun broke through and I had those 30 minutes to get my shot. As I packed up and headed out, it started to pour again. The image that I walked away with is almost exactly as I had pre-visualized it over a year ago but I could have never guessed what getting that shot would have entailed. Nor was I prepared for how incredibly beautiful the hike was. No mountain lions materialized on the hike, although upon returning to the trailhead the next morning I ran into one face to face. That's another story. 

Heading back down the trail was like skiing in the mud as the steep descent was laden with standing water, slick rock and slippery fine mud. I arrived safely back at my SUV at 7:00pm as it was beginning to get dark.  

I sat on a log and took off my hiking boots, cold, exhausted, muddy and physically sick. My leg muscles were shaking and my jaw hurt from clenching as I tried not to fall on the way down with the heavy gear on my back. When I looked at my reflection in the SUV window, I looked like a different person. Full of dirt and debris, like a drowned rat with a huge grin. Now, perhaps more than ever, I knew who I was