Into Thin Air

The mountains as medicine

by Cat Braza

Part 1: Flattop Mountain and Hallet Peak (summited July 4, 2015)

If you hike this twinset of mountains on the Fourth of July, as I did, you will not regret missing the cheap barbecues or Pabst Blue Ribbon or fireworks or parades you digest passively and robotically every year. Witnessing this cross-section of America is arguably the most uplifting and reverently patriotic thing you could do to celebrate.

An unfortunate yet popular hikers’ temptation is to quit after summiting Flattop. The hike is so exhausting that many attempters, particularly tourists hailing from low altitudes, write off the views from Flattop as “good enough” and head back down.

These people are breaking the unwritten hiking rules surrounding the FHOT (Flattop Mountain, Hallett Peak, Otis Peak and Taylor Peak) mountain set: if you summit one of these mountains, you must summit at least one of the others. After completing Flattop, Hallett is another mere 25 minutes to the summit—if one can simply muster the willpower to climb its steep boulder pile. Atop Hallett, you will reap unmatched rewards in surreal views, endorphin levels and philosophical perspective.

Excerpt from journal entry from Thursday, June 4, 2015 (unedited):

“I woke up feeling sad this morning without immediately recalling WHY I felt sad, which is one of the worst feelings, because you feel like the sadness has permeated you and doesn’t even need reason as a backbone to exist. I skipped breakfast because I got out of bed too late.”

A slew of similar journal entries all repetitively confirm how my summer in Rocky Mountain National Park began. I had wanted to work there since high school, and I had filled out the enormous job application, and I had paced for half an hour on a sidewalk in January awaiting the nerve-racking interview, and I had filled out all 36 pages of forms when I got the job and I had packed my entire life into three backpacks. Then I arrived, and an episode of my depression hit and that was it. I wanted out.

Somehow, I convinced myself to not leave, and by the end of August I had enjoyed the best summer of my life. It wasn’t that I was able to ward off my depression completely. Rather, I found an activity that made me feel so cleansed and so enlightened that it could scare the sadness away for weeks at a time. It’s funny how hiking was my least favorite activity as a kid, yet climbing mountains was what saved me this past summer.

When you have depression, regular life feels a bit like drowning. In contrast, when you climb to the top of a mountain, above where even trees can survive, you feel like you’ve resurfaced, like you’ve broken through the thin skin of the water. The great irony of summiting mountains is that a place with very little oxygen is the same place where you can finally breathe life in freely. I am unsure whether it’s the adrenaline or the endorphins or the anaerobia or the brisk air rattling me like a morning alarm clock, but being on a mountaintop wakes me up. It is the only time when I feel absolutely certain that life is worth living. I realized this while eating a green apple atop Hallett Peak, my first big mountain summit, on the Fourth of July.

Part 2: Twin Sisters Peaks (summited Friday, July 10, 2015)

In a sense, Twin Sisters is a bit of a con artist’s ticket to accessing the national park’s splendor because if you summit, you gain access to stunning panoramic views after a “mere” 2,000-ish feet elevation gain. Doable though it is, the hiking route became difficult to navigate after an epochal storm two years ago that killed eight people in the Front Range region and created a large rockslide down the west side of the mountain.

Although restoration efforts have since improved trail conditions, hiking across a landslide still adds a psychologically unsettling feature to an otherwise conventional mountain trail. You’re peacefully engulfed in forest when suddenly, you’re supposed to walk across a steep boulder ravine between two long orange ribbons of plastic. You’re exposed and there are no aspen branches to keep the sun from staring back at you. For about two minutes, it doesn’t feel natural anymore.

When I flip through my daily journal entries, it doesn’t seem that I felt depressed even once between late June and late July, which is remarkable. I attribute that to newfound friends and hiking mountains.

My mental health did teeter just slightly the week I was assigned to be a camp counselor for fourth graders, one of whom I’ll call Caroline. Caroline is the daughter of an ex-Olympic athlete who committed suicide two years ago, around the time of the infamous storm that caused the rockslide on Twin Sisters. Her father had since remarried four times to tumultuous effect, mistreating Caroline and her younger siblings. She befriended select counselors, including me, and divulged her life story to us. She was extraordinarily empathetic and mature for her age. Alone in my room, I cried over Caroline even before the day of our hike to Lake Haiyaha.

Maybe we should not have taken fourth graders on a hike with so many steep drop-offs—or maybe we just shouldn’t have taken someone like Caroline. The drop-offs inspired her to start talking about suicide. “I’m going to just jump off one of these cliffs,” she grinned, maybe half-joking, “and join my mom in heaven.”

I’ve dealt with suicidal thoughts of my own before, and this declaration shot panic through my system in a way Caroline will never be able to understand. “No…no, you’re not. You’re not. Stay with me, all right?” I seized her hand, even though that’s not usual policy for dealing with older campers. I was surprised when she didn’t resist, gripping my hand right back.

“Have you ever seen ‘The Hunger Games’ movie?” Caroline asked me. “Well, you know how Rue goes to die in a beautiful place? That’s what I want to do. And this is definitely a beautiful place. Life is so boring and sad on Earth.”

“Caroline,” I started, my mind racing. “You told me that you want to become an Olympic swimmer just like your mom was, right?” She nodded. “If you try to die so early, you’ll never get to win one of those gold medals. We’ll never get to see you on TV. There are so many wonderful things in life you’ll never get to experience.”

I stopped her during that hike and looked in her eyes because I was terrified. Caroline didn’t so much mark a point in my summer during which I felt depressed; rather, it was almost worse to see a version of my depression mirrored in a person so much younger than me. “Caroline, you have to trust me on this,” I told her on the banks of the glassy lake.

“I…I’ve felt super sad and upset in my life, so many times before, and if I’d decided to go away from this world earlier, there are so many awesome times I wouldn’t have had. I’ve had such an amazing summer working here so far. Can you try to keep going for me a while longer? Can you do that just for me? Caroline?”

Caroline accepted what I told her without much objection and never mentioned it again. And just like that, my motherly, depression-fueled panic had no reason to continue. Still, I kept her hand clenched in mine the whole hike back, even when we had moved on to belting Taylor Swift songs. I suspect she shook me up more than I was able to shake her.

Part 3: Chapin, Chiquita and Ypsilon Mountains (summited August 1, 2015)

Each mountain in this 13,000-foot set of triplets, abbreviated as CCY, lies in such close proximity to each other that to summit one without bothering to summit the others is unthinkable. They belong to Rocky Mountain National Park’s evocatively named Mummy Range. The hike to treeline is easy to moderate, but the hike up the first peak, Chapin, is nothing short of a brief hell. The second summit, Chiquita Mountain, is an even more fiery, strenuous hell, without Chapin’s merciful brevity. Climbing Chiquita feels endless.

The last mountain of the trio, Ypsilon Mountain, is the least torturous of the three and also affords the best views. On top of Ypsilon, you are submersed dead center in a breathtaking ocean of snow-dusted mountaintops. Photographs could never capture it. It is probably the way religion is intended to feel. Afterward, you feel strange trampling down the extended fields of yellow wildflowers on the only quick route back—you just saw God, and now you’re mindfully crushing a different manifestation of Him.

I only missed one weekend of hiking this past summer. I felt the absence of a forest surrounding me, but other than that, I mentally classify that weekend as a fantastic one. Actually, in a sense, that three-day weekend at a music festival was the opposite of my experience with the three CCY mountains. The first two days of it, unlike the first two mountains, were great, but the third day was when everything shattered.

I was in line for fresh drinking water when I ran into a boy I had met eleven months before and who had been on my mind ever since then. I wanted terribly for things to go well, but shaky in my social skills and beyond nervous, my usual ability to converse and flirt flickered and faded. I mostly just remember his vacant brown eyes as my mind thrashed around unsuccessfully to think up conversation topics. That day I extinguished whatever romantic chances I used to have with him. All the shooting stars I had wished upon during camping trips had gone to waste. Afterwards, I fought hard against the immense effect this was having on my otherwise wonderful experience of that festival. Later, I floated down the nearby St. Vrain River. Looking upward, there were electrical wires crisscrossing over clouds and occasional punctuations of sunlight, formations of birds and pockets of sapphire blue. It was beautiful but I really didn’t care because I was utterly alone at this festival now. I just felt sad.

The happiness I had found that summer had unraveled like a thrown ball of yarn, faster than I knew how to fix, and for such mundane reasons. Even once I’d made myself stop thinking about the boy, the incident alone triggered an unrelated lingering, deep depression that permeated me for at least a week afterward.

Part 4: Longs Peak (summited August 8, 2015)

Longs Peak is the only fourteener (a mountain whose summit is above fourteen thousands of feet in altitude) within the confines of Rocky Mountain National Park and is considered the most strenuous hike that does not require climbing gear. It is also significantly more dangerous than the average Colorado fourteener; fatalities are not uncommon. A sign preceding the most dangerous portion of the most popular route reads as follows:

“The Keyhole Route is a climb that requires scrambling on exposed narrow ledges, loose rock and steep slabs. Sudden changes in weather may create high winds, lightning, rain, hail, snow, freezing temperatures and ice-covered rock at any time. A slip, trip or fall could be fatal. Rescue is difficult and may take hours to days. Self-reliance is essential. Stay on route and be willing to turn around at any time.”

I climbed CCY the weekend I was supposed to climb Longs Peak. To this day, I have my friends convinced that I put off Longs until the next weekend because I wasn’t prepared. That’s only partly true. The real reason is that I felt suicidal that week and had seriously been considering jumping off one of the “narrow ledges” or “steep slabs.” The sane half of my mind told me that if this was even a slight temptation, I had better not climb Longs and subject my hiking accomplices to a lifetime of possible traumatization. I had better wait until the following weekend and consider things more fully.

Thus, I hiked up Longs Peak the last weekend of the summer. Summiting that mountain was the best and most difficult morning of my life, and I never could have thought of killing myself during that time. I fell in love with that mountain and that day harder than I might ever fall in love with a person. I still carry in my head a grain of whatever truths seemed evident up there, when we reached the top at 8:11 a.m. and it felt like November and there was no oxygen and we could see Estes Park and Lyons and Boulder and all the other mountains I had summited that summer and all the other places I had cried. Atop Longs, I saw every place that housed everything I had gone through over the course of the summer, laid out in all directions.

On top of a mountain like Longs, you become aware that, yes, your poor self-esteem is correct in telling you that you are insignificant. You are a small force blanketed and comforted and loved by the much larger forces of the world around you. Despite everything else that hurts, that knowledge can keep you warm for quite a while.

Climbing mountains is a medicine with an expiration date. The endorphins and the adrenaline don’t stick around in your bloodstream indefinitely throughout the remainder of your grey, indoors life. They also don’t sit inside some reserve for you to conjure whenever you start to feel down again. Paths to happiness are difficult to navigate, although the sign atop Longs might offer a few helpful pointers. “Rescue is difficult.” “Be willing to turn around at any time.” And perhaps most crucially of all, “self-reliance is essential.”