My lungs screamed at me as I slowly lifted one foot at a time, willing my oxygen deprived muscles to keep propelling me upward. My mind cycled through the extensive list of literature I’ve read about mountaineering, and quickly deduced that I would have a long ways to go if I wanted to climb any sort of serious mountain. I had to remind myself that I had improved a lot since the previous day, despite how difficult the climb was. Everything up until we reached the tree line had felt like a breeze, but once we got to that elevation, what looked like a gentle slope had become a nearly impossible slog that felt like it would never end.
The destination we were striving toward was Chasm Lake, an alpine lake that lies in the shadow of Longs Peak (the highest point in Rocky Mountain National Park) at 11,760′ above sea level. The hike began at around 9,400′ and wound upward through a charming forest interspersed with waterfalls. The forest was beautiful, but now I can only remember it in a hazy sense. The hike through the forest feels like a dream, vague and fleeting.
The real trek began when we entered the subalpine zone, where the trees grew increasingly short and scraggly. We had hiked to about 10,700′. Suddenly we could see for miles. Silhouettes of distant peaks spread out behind us as far as the eye could see, but my attention was invariably drawn to the scene that was towering before us in the distance. Longs Peak rose from the tundra in the direction we were headed. It looked impossibly far away, but I was still feeling strong.
We stopped for lunch just before the subalpine zone gave way to tundra, where we left all semblance of shelter behind. Now we were completely exposed to blazing sunlight, and even more worrisome, the threat of late afternoon storms which we could see clouding the distant horizon.
As we started to trudge upward, I noticed myself tiring quickly. I had felt so strong until this point, but now I felt completely deflated, as though the mere act of putting one foot in front of the other was an impossible task. I lagged behind most of the group as I struggled to breathe and chided myself for not taking cardio seriously. This went on and on for what felt like an eternity, the distant peaks never seeming to get any closer.
When I finally noticed how much progress I had made it happened very suddenly, and at exactly the right moment. I was beginning to feel defeated and wondered how I could possibly keep going upward, when we crested a hill and the land abruptly opened up to reveal one of the most strangely beautiful scenes I have ever witnessed.
I was now looking down at a colossal valley framed in front of desolate jagged peaks. A waterfall dropped down to a glittering turquoise lake that was edged with lush grasses, a welcoming oasis standing in stark contrast to the forbidding summits that protected it. The incongruity of the scene mirrored my own emotions as I felt simultaneous elation to be experiencing something so beautiful, and dread of the rest of the trek in front of me. If one thing was certain, it was that I was going to make it to Chasm Lake now no matter how hard the hike. There was absolutely no way that I could give up when everything around me was begging to be explored.
Luckily for me, I was quickly offered a small respite. The trail leveled out a bit as it hugged the wall of the gorge, offering dizzying views (actually the dizziness was probably a result of the altitude) of the void below. The jaw-dropping sights along this section of the trail made the walk seem much faster, and it wasn’t long before we were crossing over the top of the waterfall. We were surrounded by rocky, barren peaks, but wherever there was water, life sprang forth in abundance. Lush grasses grew from spongy earth, and marmots and pikas scurried along boulders as we passed by.
The verdant sanctuary stopped short at our last major hurdle. A rock scramble towered above us, the only obstacle left between us and our destination. Under normal circumstances I would have described this feature as more of “a steep trail” than a rock scramble, but at 11,700′ I was dizzy and I struggled with exhaustion brought on by the sheer effort it took to lift my limbs.
At some point I got separated from Vince and Bonnie. The rest of the group had already taken a slightly different path than us and had disappeared amid the huge boulders that surrounded us. Now I was on my own and I pressed upward until I crested the scramble and finally saw Chasm Lake, the most hard-earned sight I have ever had the pleasure of witnessing.
My dizziness, shortness of breath, and exhaustion were immediately forgotten and I bounced across the last few boulders standing between me and the edge of the lake. Max, Carolina, Kasey, Amy, and Andrew were already there, and I could see Vince and Bonnie headed toward a nearby patch of snow. Soon, James and Sarah appeared and the whole group was reunited. Everyone began to chatter about the difficulty of the hike, and how utterly beautiful the lake was. We posed for pictures, and ate trail snacks. Amy and Vince jumped into the frigid alpine lake, an act of certain lunacy in my opinion. The overall mood was giddy as we settled down to relax at the water’s edge and enjoy the view we had worked so hard to reach.
We rested by the lake for a while; long enough to draw the attention of an opportunistic marmot who had clearly learned to associate humans with food. We didn’t offer it any snacks, but I did jump at the opportunity to photograph it.
A strong wind had materialized while we giggled at the marmot’s antics, and threatening clouds loomed a little too close to us. Goosebumps began to rise on my arms as the wind pummeled my skin. With more than a hint of regret, we agreed that we should begin our descent before the weather had a chance to get worse.
We picked our way back down the rock scramble, and beheld a different view on the way down. Instead of staring up at towering peaks, we were now looking down into the valley, a less imposing and more inviting landscape.
I stole a few glances back at the otherworldly pinnacles behind us, trying to commit them to memory. This experience was too precious and rare for me to not appreciate it as fully as possible.
The descent from Chasm Lake was much easier and faster than the climb had been, but downhill hiking comes with its own set of challenges. By the time we made it to the bottom of the trail, I was sore in places that I didn’t even know could get sore, and entirely ready to eat a huge dinner and relax for the evening. We ended the day with a cookout at the cabin, and played some card games before crashing into bed, anticipating getting up early for our final hike the next morning.