I’m hiking up Aspen Mountain (aka ‘Ajax’) and gasping for air. Two days ago i was holding my breath 40′ below the surface in the Bahamas, freediving for my dinner. Now my heart is beating a tango as i place one foot in front of the other.
My chest is sucking in lungfuls of air like a desperate sailor bailing a sinking boat. More, faster, i need more!
It started out as a quick 5 minute walk after dropping my son Mark off at his summer job at Aspen Bike Rentals. Walking down Durante Street, i saw the ski slope a few yards away. It literally ends right at the town’s edge.
What the heck, i’d rather walk a trail than a street, so i turn left and let my feet find their way up the green carpet of grass on the ski slope.
After a few minutes, my body is liking it, why not go further? Fifteen minutes later, my body is starting to sweat and my body’s thirst for air feels good. Why stop now/what’s over that ridge?
45 minutes into the hike (straight up), i stop to look around (and catch my breath). The town of Aspen is below me, its maze of shops and streets, a bit disorienting from street level, make perfect sense from above. It is a jewel, as pretty as the peaks around me. With my breath caught up, i turn and look up the slope.
Am i halfway up? Why not go to the top? How much longer can it be?
I’m in sandals, not the best for hiking, but they seem to be working fine. I’ve got no pack or food, but the gondola is running, and i imagine there’s a chalet or store at the top. I’ve got my wallet, i can always buy a ticket on the gondola for a ride down. Plus, it will be hard going to hike down this steep slope in these sandals.
I weigh the choices back and forth, but its an easy choice, for my body keeps turning upward, following the slope, the gondola and the ridgeline. I tell myself its a logical decision but my feet are moving before i’ve even thought it.
Another 45 minutes later, i am huffing and puffing and doubting the ‘wisdom’ of my choice. The summit is nowhere in sight and i’m stopping to catch my breath every few minutes. I brought no water (who needs a water bottle for a walk down the street) and the sun is beating down on me. I can deal with being dehydrated and sunburnt, but my lungs, they are working overtime!
As i wait for my breath to catch up, i see another hiker marching steadily in my direction. As she gets closer, i see she is at least a decade older than i, and the bounce in her step tells me that either 1) she’s an olympic athlete, 2) she’s a local who does this daily, or 3) i am in terrible shape!
Then i remember, i am from the ocean! I live at sea level, no wonder my body is gasping for air. I’m comforted by this logic, maybe i’m not in that bad of a shape at all, and as my athletic friend passes i ask her if we’re halfway or more to the top. “A bit more than halfway” she replies. A ‘bit more’? In a flash, i’m suddenly out of shape again.
The look on my face must be evident. “Why not take the path, its much easier than going straight up the slope” she offers, and off she goes. I contemplate the wisdom of her words, i know that! And while i’m a ‘straight up’ kind of guy, well, with this altitude acclimatization going on, i switch my track from slope to trail.
20 minutes later, i’m on the top. Halleluia! I revel in the beauty around me. I find a water faucet and park myself like a camel, slaking my thirst from the cold fountain until i get a brain freeze. My legs are mumbling a mix of complaint, pride and elation, while my head and eyes keep sweeping the skyline, drinking in all the ridges and peaks. That one over there looks very inviting…
(PS: the photo above is from another hike a few days later; the continental divide at Independence Pass)
Joebaby is a shamanic nature guide, writer and dolphin whisperer who champions a joyful approach to life. www.DolphinWhisperer.org