On the Electrical and the Sublime
[An adventure and accompanying photos by special guest Patricia Franco @alpinefish43]
"An experience of the sublime “is produced by the feeling of a momentary inhibition of the vital forces followed immediately by an outpouring of them that is all the stronger,” making it an emotional response to an object one is not necessarily attracted to, but also repelled by . The chaos presented to us by the natural world invokes a feeling of the sublime, as does its “magnitude and might”—so long as we can view such might from a safe distance."
After having an experience of the sublime from a less-than-safe distance yesterday, I decided to go back through my notes on Kant’s essay, “Observations on the Feelings of the Beautiful and Sublime.” I remember back in my undergraduate days when asked if I had had an experience of the dynamically sublime, I kind of stumbled through a brief explanation of my experience climbing Mount Katahdin at the end of my stint on the Appalachian Trail. I felt so absolutely doltish after opening my mouth because I immediately realized as I was saying it that it was absolutely not a sublime experience. Perhaps an ecstatic one, but not sublime. There is an element of terror in the sublime that Kant was explicit in pointing to, while he was also insistent that one view this spectacle that simultaneously attracted and repelled our sensibilities from a safe distance. Kant held the belief that viewing the sublime from a distance would make us “recognize our physical powerlessness,” while simultaneously judging ourselves as rational beings independent of nature (and thus superior).
The summer following my semester studying Kant, I got dropped off in a small bush plane somewhere in the middle of the Frank Church Wilderness in Idaho to do trail work on trails that I saw very little proof of anyone using. Sometime amidst the drought and heat of that summer, the wildfires started flaring up, presenting me with my first real experience of the sublime.
We’d been spending days with handkerchiefs wrapped around our faces, coughing up black soot, and watching the bloodied sun and moon shine through the black clouds of smoke that billowed up from the acres of burning forest. We kept doing our assigned tasks, making our way closer and closer to the burn until one day we came face to face with it. I heard what sounded like a freight train roaring from about a mile away which only grew more intense and more deafening the closer we got. We suddenly began to receive orders on our walkie talkies to turn around from some helicopter that was dropping off hot shot crews above us, but my coworker and I felt we had to see it with our own eyes before retreating. We finally reached what seemed to be the edge of oblivion. It was too loud to talk, but we stood awestruck watching entire ponderosa pines be consumed by the fiery tongues of flames. The hissing of the sap catching fire, the crashing of trees to the forest floor, the magnitude, the might, the chaos, the indifferent destruction – it was a sight I’ll never forget. I did not feel independent or superior to the forces of nature then, and still don’t to this day.
There is an inherent risk when travelling in the backcountry, just as there is an inherent risk in opening your car door and driving down the road. There was a time in my life when I made the decision that there were certain risks that I personally found made life worth living. I’m not by any means telling anyone that they should go out running in bear or wolf country, or should go out to watch a forest fire, or even climb a mountain if you find that to be a risk not worth taking. However, I’ve found that my life has been most rich when I am combining a slight risk with insights and preparations that I feel help me mitigate any seriously life-threatening situations.
The other day I was arriving back at my truck after summiting Mount Princeton and a woman was circling around it, peering in as if she was going to find someone in there. When I ran up to my truck and inquired what she was doing, she expressed concern because a storm was rolling in and she was wondering where the owner of this truck was. She then asked me if I had summited and when I affirmed that I had she said, “You are hands down the most unprepared person I have ever seen on a 14er.” I found that comment to be misinformed for a few reasons. One being that she assumed that there was something in her 20L Osprey pack that could actually protect her from a lightning storm above treeline, while the only thing one can actually do for themselves is to get down, and to get down as fast as possible. Another being that she assumed that everyone travelling in the alpine zone needs the same set of gear, the same amount of food and water, the same layers, etc. For those who travel fast and light, the best “preparation” is being fit enough to get oneself down the mountain quickly and safely, which is something I’ve spent a great amount of time training my body to do. While this may make my water bottle and compressed rain jacket look like I’m taking mountain travel lightly (no pun intended), that is absolutely not the case. It is an endeavor I take with the utmost seriousness. Mountain travel is something I’ve devoted nearly all of my time and energy to, and it’s something that I’ve given up most modern day amenities for in order to pursue it as deliberately as possible.
That being said, the more time one spends above treeline, the more often one puts themselves at risk for being caught in a storm, no matter how much one tries to mitigate that risk. Similarly, the more often one base jumps, climbs, rides their bike, skis, etc., the higher their chances are of accident, injury, and potentially death. For those whose lives are devoted to athletic pursuits outdoors, the risks are known and do not act as a deterrent but as a means of informing their decisions and responses to unforeseen situations.
My personal undertakings in the alpine zone put me at risk of being caught in storms. This risk can be attenuated by starting summit attempts early in the morning (this is sometimes easier said than done when you have two jobs, are sleep deprived and sick, and have the knowledge that you can probably get away with starting later than most people due to general physical fitness). This is the situation I found myself in just yesterday on Mount Elbert. Ryan and I had plans to go up Black Cloud and down Echo Canyon, but we both woke up overtired from multiple days of pre-work summits to rainy skies that dissuaded us from jumping in the car and driving over to the trailhead. Instead, we drank our coffee with leisure, I read a few chapters of my book, and when the rain subsided, we decided that we’d give it a go; albeit later than we originally anticipated.
All was well and I couldn’t have been happier to be heading back up that route for the second day in a row. The skies seemed clear above us, though a storm seemed to be moving in from over La Plata, but not at any sort of threatening rate. When I got about halfway across the ridge I saw Ryan running down from the summit and I felt the wind pick up something fierce. The clouds started making their way more quickly toward Elbert now and I decided that when I made it over to Ryan I’d just turn around and run down with him to avoid getting caught in the oncoming storm. As we ran along we tried to make conversation over the loud gusts of wind about what a beautiful day it ended up being and how this had to be the best way up Mount Elbert. While Ryan stopped to perhaps reinsert his headphones(?), I ended up slightly ahead of him, hopping along the ridge’s talus field until I was suddenly struck with a debilitating feeling all over my body.
My ears were suddenly consumed by the overpowering sound of what I can only describe as a circuit breaker that had water poured onto it and was now short circuiting inside of my body, concentrated most noticeably in my head. My fingertips felt as though they were on fire and I began to shout incoherently. As I looked back at Ryan, I saw him shaking out his hair as if there were hornets attacking his head (which I later came to find out is exactly what he thought was happening). This went on for what I am guessing was about one minute – and then it stopped.
From what I could remember back to a lecture about high country storms during staff training for Colorado Fourteeners Initiative, the electrical current that you feel in the air and the rocks usually precedes a more violent lightning strike. During this lull of electrical current pulsating through my body, I mentally prepared myself for a lightning bolt to strike down on the two tallest things on the ridge: Ryan and myself. I looked at Ryan for what I assumed would be the last time – and then the electric current came back with full vengeance.
I felt crippled again. The sound in my head combined with the electrical current moving through all my extremities and my core was more than I could take. The moment of zen acceptance I just had quickly faded back into screaming “What do we do?!” along with other obscenities. Ryan’s answer was obvious “We need to get down!! GO!!”. I started haphazardly plowing through snow fields that I’d so carefully skirted around on my way up. I couldn’t think and I certainly couldn’t make my body respond to the common sense idea that I should go down the exact way I came up, probably because every rock my feet touched only amplified the feeling that I had just grabbed a hold of an electric fence.
Then it stopped again, this time for long enough for us to run back to treeline through the painful deluge of graupel that stung my face and legs beyond belief, but which was preferable to the electricity.
Needless to say, we made it down safely. There was never the spectacle of thunder or lightning to accompany the black clouds or the electrically charged talus field, a spectacle which I had seen many times above treeline with no physical consequence. Sometimes when you take a risk – when you are forced to confront the sublime – you merely experience the emotional response of fear or awe and thus you can remain on your pedestal of assumed superiority. Fear does make you feel certain things, as Kant suggested, it can make one feel “a momentary inhibition of the vital forces.” Yet he continues on to say that a sublime experience will be “followed immediately by an outpouring of [the vital forces] that is all the stronger.” The instinctual flight for life that followed the acceptance of death before the ‘magnitude and might’ of the natural world was, for me, the strongest outpouring of vital forces I think I’d ever experienced.
While I’d experienced plenty of moments of fear during lightning storms, I had never truly had to feel or embody the repercussions of any risk I had taken in the mountains to that sort of extreme. The pain was immediate and debilitating, the noise was powerful and overwhelming, and I was disoriented and light of breath in ways that I’d only felt after extreme exertion (which I would not call my efforts yesterday). Nevertheless, I would not change anything we did yesterday. I think we made the most informed decisions we could have, given the circumstances of both our lives and the weather. I made the conscious judgment back when reading Kant a few years ago that while viewing the sublime from a safe distance can be enough for some people, it is not enough for me. While I love watching a storm from the comfort of my teardrop, I’m willing to risk being caught in one, all the while calculating ways to avoid that. There are certain choices one makes every day, and my choices in the summertime are often choices based around which summit I’ll be attempting, always accepting that I can turn around if, or when, things go wrong. While some people may make their choices around the weather, which I absolutely do in extreme circumstances, I try to make choices what will allow me to risk encountering the sublime, but hopefully from the relative safety of treeline or the trailhead.
Special thanks again to Patricia Franco @alpinefish43 for contributing this story.
Moved By The Mountains
Every step counts, and when you believe this, the mountains can move you. Jeremy Hendricks, a Boulder local, takes us for a run and gives us an understanding on how the trails have a deeper meaning to him. This film will explore how we connect with the mountains and are moved by them; how they shape who we are. Join us Winter 2017 for a full release.
Red Rocks Park Run in 4K
Take a morning run on one of Denver, Colorado's most popular and iconic trail systems, the Red Rocks Trail. With sounds of wildlife and rivers by morning, and top-name bands by night, this seven mile loop with expansive views will make you glad to get out.
The Rewards of the Mountain
Leadville, CO - May 2016
When I arrived to Leadville, I stopped to grab a late-afternoon cup of coffee from City on a Hill, partly for the roasted goodness, but more to bother the locals for beta on the proximate 14ers. Mt. Elbert, Leadville’s backyard mountain, and Colorado’s tallest peak, was just begging to be climbed as the sun silhouetted the mountain from the other side. The orange horizon was interrupted only by the jagged outline of the Sawatch range, with Elbert piercing the sky.
“Yeah, I have beta. It’s a mess.” exclaimed the barista as she handed over a steaming dark roast. “I was there yesterday. It’s waist deep postholing all the way to treeline.” We talked about the conditions a little while longer. I thanked her for the info, and pointed my wheels toward the national forest for a night of camping at the base of the mountain.
Seven miles into the forest, I found a backcountry camping spot along a river, where the last rays of sunlight and the shadows bounced across the valley and against the mountains on either side. The sound of rushing water echoed through the increasingly chilling air. Not long later, the only light left was that of the rising moon, and a small, crackling fire I had made to cook up a gourmet ramen noodle dinner.
I woke in the morning in the back of my Jeep, windows frosted over from a sub-freezing night. I scratched off a layer of frost, and peered outside to see the moon casting shadows over the mountains beside me, and making the river sparkle like a thousand diamonds.
After sliding on my Cloudlines and strapping my ice gear to my pack, I began the short hike to trailhead. My frozen breath floated through the air gently beside me as I rounded the corner into the parking lot. Just after getting on the trail, my headlamp illuminated a sign for the Continental Divide Trail. I followed it to the fork near 10,800ft, and split right to keep on my way toward Elbert’s summit.
The snow started here. With a rare dose of luck, the snow was frozen enough to prevent the foretold postholing. I was relieved, as I could see footprints from days before where somebody had sunk well past knee deep. I was able to avoid postholing up until about 200 feet below treeline. I had my first and only break-through of the day there.
The first drops of the day’s sunlight hit me at just about that time. Within moments I had reached treeline, and could see the top of Elbert, still some 2,500 ft. above me. As I gazed up, I saw a snowboarder carving their way down the mountain, and was barely able to hear them yell a living-the-dream shout of excitement. I’m sure it took them minutes to go down what would take me hours to climb up.
I stopped to swap my hiking poles out for crampons and a mountain axe; the snow, though only a few inches deep, was slick and steep. As I adjusted my gear, I gazed out into the distance. Leadville’s lights flickered gently, dozens of miles away. A couple of lakes glistened off in the distance, while another, just beneath, was a black sheet of ice.
I dug my crampons into the frozen snow pack beneath, and placed my axe into the snow above me as I navigated the slippery final stretch of the mountain. The snow was starting to get a bit softer, and a couple of times I had to lean into the axe to keep my position. At just over 14,000ft, even slow movement was becoming an arduous task. I crept my way to the geographic marker sign just 50 feet shy of the summit. Weathered from the elements and the test of time, the sign corroborates the effort necessary to get to the top of the mountain.
Just ten feet above, I stood on the summit. The blue skies contrasted the hundreds of snow covered peaks in every direction. Shadows rolled across the contour of the landscape. My jacket whipped across itself, making a buzzing sound as a result of the wind funneling up the side of the mountain. But, in this moment, in a way, everything was silent. Everything was still. This is the reward of the mountains. These are the “good tidings”, as Muir would have said. We may not have control of everything in our life, but if we can endure everything above us on the way to the summit, we have done everything we must do to reach the reward at the top.
Ultrarunning Magazine Article
I STOOD UNDER THE JAGGED SKYLINE OF FROZEN HEAD STATE PARK, SCANNING THE BRIARS FOR SIGNS OF MOVEMENT. I was at mile 18, and despite being four hours into the race nobody had passed through. The sounds of cracking branches and the distant yells of some athletes pierced the sky on occasion, making it known that they were coming.
Slowly. Surely. Painfully. A nearby spectator shook her head, and with a sigh, recalled similar situations from past runnings of Barkley events.
“If you ain’t ever prayed, this race will make you pray. If you ain’t ever cussed, this race will make you cuss too.”
Another spectator’s words followed: “Whoever comes over that hill first is going to be bloody, muddy, and having the time of their life.”
A few tense minutes passed, then branches shook, rocks tumbled and a loud grunt broke the silence. I rushed over to the edge of Rat Jaw to see which unfortunate runner had the privilege of blazing a trail up a hill that might as well have been covered in barbed wire. Along with the rest of the spectators, I was surprised when two runners appeared from the thicket of thorns beneath us. They made a final push up the last ten meters of the hill, falling on loose dirt, rocks and briars as they half-scrambled to the service road. The look of relief on their faces quickly faded when they realized they had to climb three more stories of stairs to the top of an observation tower to make it to the official checkpoint.
The whole scene played out exactly how I expected it to. I’d heard the stories about Barkley. The blood and hundreds of cuts on the arms and legs of the first runners accentuated the widely held notion that the 50k race is designed to lead to a DNF, just like its infamous 100-mile counterpart. An hour passed before the next runner made his way to the top after having gone off course for quite some time. Unlike the Barkley Marathons, the Fall Classic was marked, though with serious minimalism, which resulted in multiple routes for runners to guess their way to the tops of the various hills. Unconventional gear was spotted all day long. Utility gloves and shin guards were some popular pieces of apparel, and one racer said half-jokingly that the cloth- printed map could double as a tourniquet if need be.
After a few hours on top of Rat Jaw, I ran down to the next checkpoint to catch the runners at the 26.2 mark. As I approached, I could hear an unmistakable, raspy, Southern drawl heckling runners.“Ya going to keep on going? There’s only nine miles left, all of them gradual downhills straight to the finish.”The race founder, Laz, stood in the middle of the trail, almost like an obstacle. Athletes either accepted the invitation to keep playing his game, or added their name to the ever-lengthening DNF list.
This course is designed for the runner seeking a challenge to their will to finish. There are plenty of hills, including some signature hills from the Barkley 100 and a significant amount of challenging trails.
One athlete in particular got a bit of a different speech from Laz. I spotted Josh Berry on the trail, blood down his leg and skin flapping at his knee. Some tough love from a rock left him cut down to the bone and sent him sliding downhill, which should convince the average person to call it quits.
Laz even made a fair argument: “You’re not going to make a PR. There’s no Boston qualifier at stake. You’ve got a good [wound] there. We could call the paramedics and get you to the hospital for some stitches. You’re going to need them.”
Even the most sincere invite to sign the DNF list couldn’t sway Berry from finishing the truncated 26.2 version of the 50k. He picked up his hiking stick and turned his sights to the trail ahead. One step at a time, the trail disappeared behind him until there was nothing more to cover, and he crossed the finish line.
The day pressed on, and I moved to the finish line to capture more photos. The finish line atmosphere was a testament to the spirit, heart and determination that trail runners of any distance have. I watched people limp, bleed, cry, cheer and sprint as they came down that lone stretch of flat ground. I had only witnessed small pieces of their race experiences, but once again, I was reminded why I love this sport so much. Cheers to all of the athletes that were out there, crushing mountains, wading through thorns and living out the sport with grit and perseverance.