Humbled by the Storm

A humbling experience found in the midst of a fatal storm


Photo by Andee Erickson

A view of the summit after storm clouds pass.

None of us had ever hiked a 14,000-foot summit so when a park ranger at Rocky Mountain National Park told my two friends and I that we would probably want an ice axe in a few tricky areas, we just numbly nodded along at the unfamiliar vocabulary.

This is the point in time where our climbing adventure began to turn into a humbling experience for us all.

Between the three of us we were sharing one small backpack filled with water bottles, snacks, rain jackets, and a map. Clearly we carried no ice axe.

As we continued inquiring about the route we slowly began feeling nervous as the ranger asked us how comfortable we were with class three climbing.

“The route traverses through a lot of loose rock where you can…” he hesitated.

“It’s okay,” we assured him. “Be blunt with us.”

“You can slip and fall 1,000 feet,” he said.

“Or die,” a nearby woman uttered.

We learned the woman had hiked this summit the day before with her husband and though they began at the recommended starting time of 4 a.m., It took them 12 hours.

We definitely didn’t have a day’s worth of food and water for three planning to endure over 5,000 feet in elevation gain. Not to mention it was already 11 o’clock when we arrived at the trailhead.

Both the woman and the park ranger recommended a shorter day’s hike that we could fit in before the usual afternoon storm would set in.

Laughing at our ignorance, we set out instead for a peak that topped off at a little over 9,000 feet, but would prove to be strenuous in rapid elevation gain.

The terrain stayed physically tolerable until we passed tree line. Using our hands we scrambled over rock the last two-thirds of a mile.

I began noticing dark clouds in the distance behind us and I pointed them out to my friends thinking we would need to reevaluate our situation. Not sensing any concern or hesitation, I continued to follow them to the summit, feeling a bit uneasy.

After a few long minutes, I noticed the unwelcoming clouds had progressed our way but still, we kept going. My pace quickened thinking the faster we made it to the summit, the faster we would be leaving the exposed rock and instead be heading for the tree line.

My instinct told me to turn around. I knew it was stupid of us to continue, but I also knew I couldn’t successfully justify turning around to them. Not this close to the end.

I’ll admit I didn’t want to forfeit a rewarding view after an exhausting hike any more than my friends did.

Not that I was even able to enjoy the view once we reached it; I was too focused on the grim view ahead.

A few minutes later a clap of thunder shook me back onto my feet. I snatched the water bottles, threw them in the pack, and flew down the mountain, looking back only to make sure they were following.

I didn’t slow down until I was well into the woods again, but my friends weren’t close behind. I started to wonder if I had overreacted by running down the mountain, while they were trying to enjoy their surroundings.

Later we would be humbled knowing that very clap of thunder produced a lightning strike that killed one and injured seven just a few miles north of where we were.

I took this storm encounter as a profound reminder to respect weather and Mother Nature and to never ignore their unforgiving authority. I realized how arrogant it was to stand upon a small mountain of exposed rock in the face of a storm cloud, even though I knew it was wrong.

I learned quickly that day that it doesn’t require an ice axe or an accelerated vocabulary to be in tune with your surroundings, sometimes it’s as easy as trusting your instincts.