It is 53 degrees F on a July morning and we are going to get an early start. Looking up, the highest peaks still have some snow on them. The sky is crystal clear. We’re going on another long hike up to the Continental Divide in the Colorado Rockies. The temperature will go up into the low 80s.
This is a family affair. We are not skiers, but hikers. The mountains are as beautiful in the summertime as they are in the wintertime. But when you have lots of kids, hiking is a significantly cheaper family activity than skiing!
I hike for the physical exercise. You have to be prepared for these kinds of hikes. On the way up between 11-14000 ft, you’ll notice that the air gets thinner and breathing becomes more difficult. But as you go up, you will be breathing some of the cleanest air you will ever breathe.
In a steep ascent your lungs are sometimes heaving for air, and your heart pounds fast. On the way down, it can be the other way around — your heart is fine, but your knees are screaming and your feet are pounding as all your weight puts added pressure on them. At the end of the hike, you are dog tired and there is nothing like putting your aching feet in a cold mountain stream.
But I hike for more than the physical exercise. There is something spiritual about hikes for me. They are, in a sense, like spending time in a highland cathedral.
Living in suburbia, it is so easy to get caught in a heads-down focus on work, shopping, and maintaining the yard and house. But hiking is both earthy and glorious, all on the same day. Earthy — because it is trail, rocks and dust, and making sure you don’t put your foot down wrong and twist something. Glorious because the beauty is astounding — sublime. A hike is an exposure to majesty. The exalted peaks are so big, and you are so small. Like the ocean, the mountains bring perspective to your life. They put you in your place. And, if you happen to be making a camping trip out of it, the extraordinary overnight star display underscores this point even more. It makes me think about the one who made them all and the scriptural witness that God is “resplendent with light, more majestic than mountains” (Psalm 76.4).
The beauty of a hike unfolds sequentially as you journey. At the onset, a hike is wrapped in the brilliant display of dazzling alpine wildflowers. Their growing season is very short, but at its height, the carpet of Indian Paintbrush, Colorado Bluebells and Columbine, are more beautiful than anything a human artist could express on canvas. A bit higher up, massive peaks and ridges become clearer, patched by glistening white snow- fields juxtaposed against the bright blue sky. Very little compares with the literal mountaintop experience of reaching the summit, standing, as it seems, “on top of the world.”
The beauty is not only limited to views above the treeline. All the way up you are passing through different ecosystems with their own attractiveness. There may be a lush green forest split by a fast-running stream of snowmelt. There is the occasional waterfall. There is the open meadow with the unexpected appearance of a large bull moose — hopefully a safe distance away. There is the side of the mountain covered with aspen trees where the trail starts its steep ascent. It makes the Stairmaster at the health club seem like a joke. There’s the joy of reaching the tree line where mosquitoes gasp and die, and the trees suddenly get short and then disappear. The trail then winds through scrub oak, and when that disappears, then tundra. There’s the zig-zagging trail that takes you to a mountain lake. And then, at last, the final ascent across rock fields and boulders to the top.
Weather plays a part in a hike. You often experience different micro weather systems within the span of your hike. You might experience fog, a sunny day, and rain showers in the span of a few hours. I have been near the top in July when it has started snowing hard! Thunderstorms are also quite typical in the afternoon. You want to summit before they arrive and get off of the top, (below tree line), when you start to hear the thunder echo through the mountains. Did you know that lightning can travel through rocks?
When hiking you have to learn to fear — to fear the mountain. This is not a sign of weakness but of respect. For there are dangers and you must be mountain-wise. The serious hiker will have the right shoes and stay hydrated. You have to fear the rock, the weather, the storm, and some creatures you may encounter (bear, moose, mountain lion). It is not paralyzing fear, but healthy fear. Without it, you could be in serious trouble. With it, you will thrive.
I love hiking for the journey itself. It is a hard walk, covering many miles. To succeed you must stay on the trail and avoid detours. As you hike you will meet other people. You can’t ignore them or drive around them. You must encounter them and talk to them. It could be that you will depend upon them if you get in trouble. There is a kinship on the trail. They are on the same hard path.
Of course, there’s no assurance you will reach your destination. If a storm moves in too early, you may not even get to the top. So, you have to be sure to enjoy the entire journey, not just the summit.
A serious hike is a journey that succeeds by plodding. It is one step after another. You can stop and take a rest, but then you must continue. You will have others to encourage you. But when you are tired and wonder if you will make it, the best thing to do is to just take the next step. One step at a time, and bit by bit you make progress. How much like life itself!
That’s why I hike.
Dr. Donald Sweeting serves as Chancellor of Colorado Christian University.