We set out on the trail at around 3pm, trying to ignore the voices in our heads telling us that we were just a few sammiches short of a picnic. So what if the clouds seemed to be building directly over (and only over, I might add) our destination....maybe it's late enough in the afternoon that by the time we reach treeline they will have dissappaited....I mean, what's the worst that could happen?...we'll just hike to treeline and make a decision there.
So, we set off at the trailhead at 2:49pm, going against everything everyone ever says...."get an early start"...."gotta beat the weather"...."don't even bother if it's past 6am".... we made great time along the steep but well-kept trail, passing several people all wondering where the hell we planned on going. We just kept telling them assuredly that we were going to the top for a sunset summit. After a quick roll of the eyes from most, or a semi-sarcastic "good luck", and even one "AWESOME!", we just kept going, staying focused on our objective....we were going to beat the odds today.
We reached the top of the first set of switchbacks, taking a brief moment to relish in there straigtforward approach to treeline, and kept going without hesitation. We hadn't heard thunder or seen lightening so it seemed harmless. We decided to get to the ridge and make an assessment from there. Although I was still adament on making the summit, my anxiety began to grow the farther from we got from the shelter of the trees below. I found myself stopping every few minutes and taking a long, hard look around. As we passed the last rock outcropping big enough to crouch under, I became extremely hesitant. We stopped for a discussion, coming to the conclusion that it would be best to wait at the rocks and see what happened with the darkening patch of clouds over the summit. We sat for about 15 minutes, just long enough to realized how exposed we really were in our mind-comforting rock shelter, how far of a run it would be if we did have to retreat, and just how steep the trail was below us. Maybe it was best if we went down to the little group of shrubs and the tree just above the switchbacks which led to the forest.
We sat there for maybe 20 minutes, damning ourselves for losing altitude on our silly descent to what really wasn't a protected area anyway. We didn't know what to do, even though we did know what to do. Every inch of me was saying "get your ass down", but that was admitting defeat...so definite....yada, yada, yada. Suddenly, our minds were made for us as a crash of lightening bolted to the valley floor directly in front of me, followed immediately by a deafening clap of thunder. Oh, crap...it's right above us. Without a word, we took off at ankle-breaking speed down the trail, skidding around the switchbacks as if were being chased by an axe-murderer, and darting into woods first chance we got. We sat there for a few minutes, watching the lightening trying to figure out where to go....should we wait it out or go back down?
The longer we sat, the less dramatic the storm became, but the clouds continued to accumulate above us. The thunder seemed to trail off, and the lightening stopped altogether. Had we sat it out? It was after 5pm....shouldn't the clouds be thinnig by now? Why are they only gray over the summit of La Plata? They've thinned everywhere else. At close to 6:00, we had talked each other into going for it. If we left now, we just might make it to the top and off the ridge by dark. We had headlamps, and that's what they're for, right?
We got to the rocky ridge, still a little apprehensive since the clouds seemed to like it just fine right over us, and no where else. We carefully picked our way up the rocks, making sure to look back at the way we came since we might be descending in the dark. Attaining the summit was uneventful, except for the reality of the clouds....they really were only above us and no where else. We need to get down NOW! We didn't even stop at the summit really, not able to rest with the thought of our descent. We both wanted to be off the ridge by the time full darkness set in. Funny thing is, we didn't even turn on our headlamps until we were within half an hour of our car.
Something or someone must have been looking out for us that day, because as soon as we were a safe distance below treeline in the thick of the forest, and after the most amazing sunset ever, we began to see lightening flashes along the ridge we just came from. The intensity only grew as we sat in the truck at the trailhead counting our lucky stars.
The next day, while having a drink after work, James overheard a guy at the bar talking about summiting three 14er's in the past week. Of course, James asked which ones, and one was La Plata. Turns out he was one of the guys we passed on the way up. He said that he and his hiking buddies were taking bets on whether or not we made it. Well, now they know.
Haytraci, good story. I think everyone who climbs in Colorado can empathize. Just for good measure- sitting in a gap beneath a tall rock and the ground, also known as a spark gap, is like hiding from lightning underneath a tree. I turned around on Quandary in a very similar situation but did not have the heart to reascend after the storm. Gutsy.