We had been training all summer. We’d been running, hiking, and climbing. This adventure would be the culmination of all that training. It was our last climb before our journey into the high mountains of Peru. This was our highest training elevation before we headed into the Andes.
Our plan was to make the long drive up to the trailhead of Handies, one of the many fourteeners in Colorado. We’d camp for the night and then climb the mountain the next morning. Hopefully, we’d summit and be back down at the vehicle before thunderstorms moved in.
Our team assembled mid-afternoon. We loaded up my Xterra and headed north. Driving the many mountain passes like Coalbank and Molas, we ran into a lot of rain. It continued as we drove thru the town of Silverton and back into the wilderness. Things were not looking good. We had a much more dangerous pass ahead of us, and rain or snow could make it treacherous.
Thankfully, as soon as we arrived at Animas Forks, an old mining ghost town, the rains stopped and the clouds parted. It was perfect timing. Cinnamon Pass stood right before us. It would be slick but not nearly as dangerous as it could have been had it continued to rain or snow.
As we ascended the pass, the engine struggled thru the thin air while we climbed above treeline. The road was extremely narrow with plenty of rocky bumps and switchbacks. As we arrived at the top of the pass, things smoothed out a bit.
After taking in all the beauty of the surrounding mountains, we descended until we eventually made the turn into American Basin. There, the road became rocky again but it was only for a short while. We would be at the trailhead in no time.
Once arriving, we unloaded the Xterra and started setting up camp. I was just going to sleep in the Xterra. The ladies on the team would share a tent. We needed to get that set up before the sun went down and temperatures dropped.
As I looked around after getting our camp set up, I noticed that we had the place to ourselves. For me, it’s such a freeing feeling to be someplace so beautiful and not have strangers there to disturb you. It was just our team and the quiet of God’s Creation.
I was feeling so free that when I had to use the restroom, I decided it would be safe to go on the other side of the Xterra. Being that we had ladies on the team, I was trying to be a gentleman and put a vehicle between my business and their tent. It’s not like there was an indoor bathroom or even a tree to go behind so I did the best I could.
As I began peeing, I saw a house in the far distance. Even though it was probably just an uninhabited vacation home, I started to wonder if they’d be able to see me. After pondering it for a moment, I realized that I was probably safe from their view due to the distance. I thought, “That’s good, I’m not flashing anybody.”
And then I lowered my eyes from the cabin to see a woman walking up the road. She was certainly close enough. Guess I was flashing someone. She was probably as shocked as I was. The moment I noticed her, she did the “look up at all the mountains and pretend she didn’t see anything” move.
At that point, you can’t stop mid-stream. I couldn’t turn and risk possibly flashing one of the ladies on my team if they had exited their tent. Scarring one person was enough. No need to scar multiple people. So our stranger was just going to have to keep looking up at the beautiful mountains until I was done.
I had tried to be so careful. So much for being a gentleman. I was listening for other vehicles and heard nothing. Why would someone be hiking up the road that late in the afternoon? Well, she was scouting ahead for a vehicle that was following her. Guess we weren’t going to have the place to ourselves. Thankfully, they set up their camp quite aways from us so that we still had peace and quiet…and we didn’t have to awkwardly interact with each other after getting far more views than she probably was expecting. (This is probably far more information than the reader was expecting too. Don’t worry. You’ll survive…and maybe you’ll laugh a little too. I know I did.)
After that interesting experience, we sat down and had a simple dinner of hot dogs. Probably my favorite camp food. So simple, so salty. We finished the night off with some banana boats. We threw in some chocolate chips and marshmallows, and cooked them over the stove. Mine was actually pretty awful…but the ladies liked theirs. I just don’t think bananas should be hot…or burnt. I know, I’m so picky.
The ladies headed to bed early after dinner and dessert. They were planning on getting up in the middle of the night and summiting for sunrise. They tried to convince me to do it but I value my sleep…especially if I’m the one driving back on sketchy passes the next day. Let’s be honest. When you’re 35 years old, a good nights sleep is just as beautiful as a mountaintop sunrise. So I stayed up until midnight watching the stars and the moon. There was supposed to be a lunar eclipse that night as well but it turns out, I was in the wrong part of the world to see it. But hey, I got to see some shooting stars instead which is always exciting.
When I woke up the next morning as the sun was coming up, I saw our ladies sitting in their sleeping bags in their camping chairs. Apparently, they got lost on their way up the mountain in the darkness. They lost the trail and eventually decided to turn back. They’d still get a chance to summit with me when I finally got out of my sleeping bag which would be an hour or so later. Being that the sun was not up enough for my liking though, I pulled my sleeping bag over my head and tried to get a little more shuteye. Sorry ladies, I need my beauty sleep.
The next time I popped my head out of the bag, I noticed that the parking lot was no longer a quiet and peaceful place. We certainly no longer had it to ourselves. It was filled up to the brim and was enough to get me out of my bag before it became even more packed. You don’t want to get stuck in traffic jams on a mountain that frequently sees lightning. That said, we had a quick breakfast and were headed up trail.
As we ascended, we passed by many people. There was a group working on the trail doing general upkeep. We also passed another family from the lowlands. It was their second time attempting the mountain. The first time, they got turned around by lightning. This time, they started earlier determined to summit before the lightning moved in. We passed by them and wished them good luck as they stopped to take a breather.
Being that I had climbed the mountain before, I noticed that the trail had been redirected since our last summit. This is what probably led to the ladies getting off trail in the dark. My wife followed where the old trail was, not the new trail. It’s an easy mistake to make in the dark.
But we wouldn’t get lost this time. The trail and the stream of people made it really easy to find. About halfway up, we passed by a beautiful high alpine lake. Many people stopped to grab a rest and take in the beauty but we kept pushing ahead.
Our weather was perfect at the time, blue bird skies with not a cloud in the sky. But we knew that the weather up on the mountain can change rapidly. We knew that lightning storms could build or blow in at anytime, and we wanted to be off the summit before that happened so we pushed on. We thought, we can always stop on the way back down if the good weather continues to hold.
The higher we ascended, the more our fellow climbers began to struggle. Their lungs battled at that elevation with the thin air to pull in enough oxygen for their bodies just to take another step. After all of our summer training, even the ladies on our climbing team began to slow. That’s when I saw the trail widen to allow room for passing. I also saw the summit. It was so close. Seeing it gave me a shot of adrenaline. There would be no stopping. There would be no rest. I was climbing with speed. I could feel the effects of the thin air on my body but a stubbornness to fight against the effects of that harsh environment I was in would not hold me back as I stormed my way to the summit.
Once reaching the summit, I took notice of my surroundings. I saw beautiful views. I saw big groups of people who had also summited. I checked on the ladies to see their progress. I then checked the weather. There were some small clouds starting to form in the distance but it didn’t seem like anything to worry about. Even if they did build into a thunderstorm, we’d have plenty of time to enjoy the summit and get off of it before any danger moved in. With us in the clear and not worried too much about the weather, I was able to snap some pictures and have good conversation with the many others that had made the climb. One guy had just gotten back from the Andes so we had an especially interesting conversation.
After my arrival fifteen minutes later, the ladies on our team reached the summit. They were tired but happy to be on top. We celebrated with a team picture. As the ladies sat down to the lunches they had packed, I spent the time exploring the summit some more looking at other possible routes for future ascents. I even got a little jog on the top in to push my body a little more. I knew I needed all the exercise I could get in preparation for Peru. So I figured that as long as I was above 14,000 feet, I might as well push myself a little more. I always feel good running downhill or on the flats but it’s the uphills that will really make you feel it especially at that elevation.
After I returned to the team eating lunch, I grabbed a few bites to eat as well. That’s when I looked up to see that the small clouds I had seen earlier were no longer small. They were growing and growing fast. It also seemed like their direction had shifted, and they were now heading our way. Despite still being under blue skies and thinking that we had plenty of time, I told the ladies to pack up and start heading down. I was going to stay up top and snap a few more pictures of the coming storm and then catch up with the team.
As the rest of the team descended, I pulled out my phone to snap four more pics. With that, I put my phone away and decided it was time to go. I thought, “I need to catch up with the ladies before they put too much distance between them and me.” It was at that moment that I started to feel something strange on my hands. It started out as tiny sensations of cold. My first thought was that maybe it was starting to drizzle a bit. Then the sensation turned into what felt like my hands tingling.
Lastly, I felt not just a tingling but I was getting shocked. I was getting zapped as if someone was dragging their feet over carpet to build static and reached out to shock me, only these were multiple zaps quickly over and over again. I instantly knew what that meant. Though the storms had not reached the summit yet, a storm was building right on top of the summit as I was standing there. The air was becoming electrified. It meant that I was in great danger of getting struck by lightning. It meant it was time to get the heck out of there and fast.
By then, there were only four other climbers with me on the summit. All others had already started heading down. I quickly explained to them was was happening and sternly told them, “It’s time to go!” Two of them started running down the mountain. And the other two didn’t seem too concerned. It seemed like they were going to wait for the rest of their party to reach the summit. They jumped on their walkie-talkies to radio down. What they said, I’ll never know, because I didn’t stay long enough to find out. I had warned them and wasn’t about to stick around to lecture them on the dangers of lightning on mountain tops. Like I said earlier, it was time to go. My priority was racing down to our ladies and getting them down off the mountain quickly and safely. I jumped in right behind the two who wisely heeded my warning and were sprinting down the mountainside.
Being that we were moving with speed, I quickly reached my other team members. They were actually putting on their rain jackets when I found them. I remember vividly crouching with them on the mountainside as they finished putting on their jackets hoping that we had descended enough to be in safety. I was no longer getting shocked but I knew we still needed to descend quickly to get out of danger. As I waited, I explained what had happened while thunder began rumbling over the summit. The storm was still building, and we needed to keep descending. We could also see more storms heading our way.
As we were running down in the thunder and lightning, and the occasional mix of hail, sleet, snow, and graupel, we’d come across people still heading up. It was like they couldn’t see the storms. They couldn’t hear the thunder even though it was nearly right on top of them. Or maybe they could see and hear but were just ignoring it. The skies were giving them warnings, and they chose not to heed them.
Each time we’d come upon a group, I’d also warn them. I’d quickly tell them of how the air on the top of the peak had become electrified, and I was literally getting shocked. A few turned around like the lowland family we had met on the way up. They were so close to the summit. They were even closer than they were the first time they tried to climb the mountain. Looking at his family, the dad asked, “What do you think?” Their daughter let out a quick, “Nope!” She turned around and started heading back down. Her family soon followed.
The rest of the time descending, we spent trail running…at least when we weren’t in traffic jams. Being in deadly weather on a mountainside is not when you want to run into traffic jams. There just aren’t a lot of places to pass. Many refused to get out of the way. They couldn’t move as fast but they knew the dangers and weren’t going to step off the trail for a moment to let faster people pass. They wanted to keep moving toward safety too.
Every now and then when I’d hear thunder or see a flash of lightning, I’d glance up the mountain to see people continuing to head higher. Eventually, we had descended enough to where we felt a little safer. We could see the trailhead and our Xterra. We’d only been descending for a little over an hour. Amazing how a little lightning can speed up a descent. Soon, we slowed down to a walk, partially due to the feeling of safety and partly because we had a family with a small kid in front of us. Still, they were pushing a good pace. No need to pass them at that point…until lightning struck the summit a couple thousand feet above us.
It was the classic flash-bang where you hear the thunder as you see the flash of lightning above you. It happened a handful of times and was extremely loud due to it’s proximity. The rest of my team saw a small passing lane and bolted around the family back to the vehicle leaving me stuck behind them. The little kid was extremely freaked out. I figured if I tried to pass them too, it would have really scared the kid so I patiently stayed behind. Despite the lightning being scary close, it was hitting the highest point in the area, the summit. Being that I was almost down in the valley, I still felt fairly safe. And my hands weren’t tingling and getting shocked so I wasn’t too worried at that point…at least for my own safety.
I couldn’t help but worry for the people still on the mountain, those who continued to ascend when I warned them not to. I truly thought that I’d read a headline the next day about hikers getting struck by lightning on the mountain. They had so many warnings between the weather and my quick story of electrified air I’d share as we crossed paths. But most didn’t take it seriously. They ignored the warnings. They were deaf to the life and death consequences right before them.
Looking back on the day, it makes me wonder how often we do that with God? How often do we ignore the warnings God puts before us? I think so often, we get warnings but just ignore them. If we look and we listen, I believe that God gives us a lot of warnings throughout our lives. Not because He is just wanting to control us but because He loves us, because He is looking out for us. He’s keeping us safe. He’s helping us avoid danger. He knows what will pull us away from Him and gives us warnings so that we may not drift away from Him but draw near. All too often, we don’t head those warnings as we slowly drift away.
Many times, those warnings are also to keep us from blowing up our lives. In John 4 of the Bible, Jesus heals a guy by a healing pool and tells him to stop sinning or something worse may happen to him. I think God tells us the same thing. Stop sinning or something worse may happen to you. Ezekiel 18:32 tells us that God doesn’t take pleasure in the death of any man so repent and live! He’s telling us to stop going down that path of sin we’ve been walking down. Sin leads to death. Dangers ahead! Turn around so that you may live!
Sometimes, those warnings are also to keep us from blowing up the lives of the people around us. He’s protecting them from becoming collateral damage. That is, if we heed the warnings. It reminds me of the Hebrew slaves in Egypt. God sent Moses to Pharaoh to tell him to free his people or bad things would come upon Egypt. Pharaoh didn’t listen and plagues soon came upon Egypt. Each plague seemed to get worse and worse. It took ten plagues for Pharaoh to finally heed the warnings. He finally let the people go…and then quickly changed his mind sending his men to chase after them. That decision would eventually cost his men their lives in the Red Sea. There were consequences to turning a blind eye to the warnings for Pharaoh and his people. God used Moses to warn Pharaoh but his heart was too hard to believe those warnings.
God often gives us warnings of coming consequence. He reminds us that there are consequences to our actions. He convicts us. Maybe it’s thru the Bible. Maybe it’s thru a sermon. Maybe it’s thru a friend. It might even be an article online that convicts us. We know what the consequences are to certain actions. I think a lot of times, we just block it out. We don’t listen. We choose not to believe God. We think: “I can get away with it this one time. The consequences are for everyone else. I’ll be fine. I can hide it. I can outsmart it. It will never blow up in my face causing collateral damage to all those around me. I’ve got it managed.”
Luke 8:17 tells us that things which are done in darkness will come to light. Things that are done in secret will be exposed. If that’s not a solid warning, I don’t know what is. If we’re truthful with ourselves, we know that when those things are made known, there will be consequences. Sin has mental, physical, emotional, and/or spiritual consequences.
But like I said, all too often, we just don’t want to hear it. We went to do what we want to do. We want to push the limits and not in good ways. We see how far we can get to the edge without fully falling off the cliff. We think, it’s the best of both worlds. We can hold close to temptation and sin without the consequence of being fully immersed in it. We walk right up to the edge and think we’re just fine. We’re good. What a lie!
When we do that, it only takes a nudge to knock us over that edge. It doesn’t take much wind at all to send us tumbling down. If we stand at a safe distance from the edge, a nudge might make us stumble or even trip but it won’t push us over the edge. Even with a strong gust, we’re safe. Unfortunately despite warnings, a lot of us still live a life walking that edge. We like to see how close we can get to the fire without burning ourselves…and sadly we often still end up getting burnt.
Thankfully, God is extremely forgiving, gracious, and patient with us. 2 Peter 3:9 tells us of God’s patience, not wanting anyone to perish but to come to repentance. That patience doesn’t give us a reason to keep sinning though. It doesn’t give us freedom from the worldly consequences of sin. We can’t continue climbing up mountains in lightning storms ignoring the warnings of those running down the mountain. Whether we listen or not, there are consequences for us and possibly those around us. Heeding warnings won’t save us but it will save us a lot of pain in this life. So lets heed those warnings when God puts them in front of us. Turn away from the sin in our lives and turn back toward Jesus.
If we’re struggling to turn from sin, let’s find someone to walk alongside us and help us turn from that sin. There’s no shame in asking for help no matter what the sin. We may not be able to do it without help, and we certainly can’t do it without Jesus. Turn to Jesus and let Him help you turn from sin. In the end, John 10:10 tells us that Jesus came to give us an abundant life. So let’s heed warnings. Let’s find repentance, and let’s live that abundant life!
That day on the mountain ended up being pretty crazy. It was a day that really made me think. There were good lessons to be learned. It was an awesome adventure. There was danger. There was beauty. Big storms brought the thunder and lightning. We certainly could have died on the mountain that day. But we didn't.
We heeded the warnings in front of us when they became apparent and got off the mountain as soon as possible. Sure, we still had a long drive over sketchy roads in the rain, sleet, and snow to get thru but that was nothing compared to running down a mountain in a lightning storm. It just added to the adventure.
In listening to the warnings, we still had a lot of fun and gained a great story to tell. With warnings, we often see them as making us miss out on something good but in reality, they direct us to something greater. Heeding Godly warnings helps us live the abundant life Jesus came to give us and living that abundant life is a true adventure. As someone who has adventured a lot in my life, there is truly no adventure more grand.