Encore — Give Your Own Map a Glance
The Person You're Following Doesn't Know What They're Doing Either
I mentioned at the end of my first year of writing Cole’s Climb: one of the hardest things about starting off is producing work you really love, knowing that no one will see it. My encore series returns to some of these posts to reflect.
This is the third piece I ever published, and the second ever personal essay. It was originally opened by an audience of 11 people.
To the 11 of you who are seeing this for the second time: thank you for being among the first to believe in my work.
Climbing 14ers can be a jarring experience if you’re used to getting away from crowds in the woods. If you dare start one of the more popular peaks any time after 4:30 a.m., odds are you’ll be part of the Conga Line. This unbroken chain of hikers can sometimes stretch all the way from the trailhead, to the summit.
In the worst of times, you feel like you’re queueing up for a popular theme park attraction. This video shows just how crowded things get over on Grays Peak:
There is an obvious plus side to these crowded hikes: if you’re not confident in your ability to pick up the trail, you have plenty of people to follow.
Just don’t assume the person in front of you knows the way.
Last Summer I hiked DeCaLiBron — short for Democrat, Cameron, Lincoln, and Bross. But the real elites hike it, BroLiCaDe so they don’t end wind up descending an awful scree field.
The loop brings you to the top of four 14ers in a single hike.
On this particular morning, somehow, my hiking partner and I were the first to the trailhead. In the moments between my car’s dome light fading, and my friend turning on their headlamp, we were in near total darkness. Starlight flickered overhead, occasionally blocked by wispy clouds.
I could only make out the mountain ridgeline by the void it left before me. In these conditions, everything outside the beam of your headlamp may as well not exist.
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DeCaLiBron starts above the tree line, and is marked by large rock stacks called cairns. This means there’s no “beaten path” underfoot. You’re climbing up a boulder field, searching for a small pile of rocks on top of a massive pile of rocks. Add cover of darkness, and you can easily mistake a natural formation for a trail marker.
After a particularly difficult climb onto the saddleback between Democrat and Cameron, we ran into the first trail sign we had seen all morning. One arrow pointed straight ahead toward the obvious path to the summit. The other pointed down and to our left.
I cringed and sucked my teeth when I spotted the switchback trail, all too obvious from above. It snaked back down and joined up with the incorrect version I had blazed, just before the start of the suspiciously tricky climb.
Worse still: a line of dancing headlamps cut through the light purple pre-dawn glow, following in my clumsy footsteps.
I led them all astray!
I took my mind off the embarrassing mistake by watching the sunrise from the top of Mt. Democrat — which was lovely by the way.
On the way back down, I realized a few things:
The correct path up was extremely obvious, even sporting a few sign posts
My accidental bush-whack was more difficult and less direct
No one left the conga line to take the correct path; even just to see if everyone was detouring around it for some reason. Nor did I see someone stop and so much as glance at a map
Each subsequent hiker imitated my blunder with eyes trained on the person in front of them. This is something I’m almost certainly guilty of during a few earlier hikes, so I’m not one to pass judgement. And it’s hard to imagine this phenomenon happening outside of a trail this crowded.
Yet you’ve undoubtedly seen examples of it in your own life. Having others around you can feel reassuring. But it also makes it far harder to spot the wrong turns you might be making along the way.
That’s why it’s always worth giving your own map a glance once in a while, to make sure you’re still headed where you want to be going.
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For those of you who have seen this piece before, thank you for being patient with me. The last week has been extremely busy, and I didn’t quite have time to put the finishing touches on the essay I intended to release. I’ll have something new for you next Thursday morning!