Ok, gear check. I have my boots, back pack, food, water, sweater, raingear, hat, and all the enthusiasm in the world. I have the day off and I’m climbing a mountain!
Mt. Sugarloaf sits just outside Denali NP and stands 4,784 feet above sea level. I get dropped off at the trail head near the Grande Denali Lodge, do some pre-hike stretching and I’m on my way.
The start of the trail winds its way up (straight up) a muddy path through densely filled forest and shrubs. I’m so eager to begin that I’m nearly sprinting. But my pace slows as I begin to realize how steep this trail really is. The air is hot amongst the trees and I shed a few layers of clothing almost immediately.
Winding upwards, the path grows impossibly steep. At times, I find that I’m on hands and knees, clawing my way up through the mud and rocks, using roots to hold on to. I’m loving this!!
I take breaks periodically to ease my pounding chest and glance back at the progress I’ve made. Really? That’s all I’ve done? I scoff humorously at myself and continue uphill.
Still climbing, I finally see a rocky outcropping above the trees. Unable to contain my excitement, I run towards it, eager to see what lay beyond. I reach the rock pile and move to the side to glimpse up at the mountain. Out of the trees now, Sugarloaf finally shows its face. My spirit swells and my grin stretches from ear to ear. Before me, the peak reaches into the sky, preluded by an endless field of rocks and jagged points. The mountain side is a wash of brown, splashed with dark tans and ruddy yellows and intermingled with patchy moss and lichen. All around me are crumbling rocks, falling every which way. Sparsely scattered, ground vegetation holds the landscape together. I follow the trail with my eyes and watch as it climbs higher and higher, too far to see. I can’t wait!
I leap past, too excited for words. I can’t remember ever walking in such a place. The trail keeps climbing over collapsed rock structures that overlook the valley below. My anticipation for the view from the top builds with every step.
The cool air fills my lungs as the temperature drops slowly and the wind picks up with the increase in elevation. The clouds too start to close in, threatening to rain and cut my adventure short. I reach a point halfway up and decide to stop for lunch. I pick a spot on the leeward side of the ridge and satisfy my appetite with gourmet peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, trail mix and lots and lots of water. (I have been sick from dehydration too many times to forget to drink plenty water on the trail.)
After lunch, I press forward, climbing up to a tier and back down again, only to ascend a tier that’s taller still. The physical excursion, the solitude, the energy around me… I couldn’t be happier.
After nearly two and a half hours of climbing, I stop and turn. I gaze at the view before me and I’m stunned. I don’t even remember sitting down. Just that after what seemed like forever, I found myself holding my breath, as If to freeze time and capture this moment forever. The scenery was unbelievable!
I can see for miles. The brown and tan rocks at my feet flow down the mountain and descend into deep gullies filled with dark, green forest that continue further on to the rivers, roads and people. Back to civilization.
From up here, the world looks still and quiet. I’m so content, 45 minutes pass before I look at the time and realize how long I’ve been sitting. I wait, motionless, not wanting to leave, not wanting to go home. The summit is still at a distance and I know I won’t make it to the top today. You win this one Sugarloaf. I’ll be back.
I take a deep breath and say goodbye to my beautiful vista and meander back down the way I came. Stopping of course every now and then to soak up this experience.
And at the end of it all, I return home feeling triumphant, to watch the Alpenglow. A sunset so intense it bears its own name. The sky is set ablaze in a fiery hue of pinks and yellows so amazing, I question my own eyes. How is this real?
I crawl into bed, put in my IPod and fall asleep, satisfied with the day’s accomplishments.