Life Lessons at Ice Lake

ice-lakes-flowers2What is your life trying to teach you about yourself? Go on a hike and you’ll find out!

Five years ago to the day, I hiked Ice Lake Basin near Silverton, CO with my husband and a friend. At the time I was living on the Front Range and not used to hiking above 10,000 ft., so I was having a hard time making it up the steep trail. I felt so drained of energy and out of breath that after an hour I decided to stop and catch my breath and go no further. My hiking partners forged ahead another ten minutes or so, but out of consideration for me, they, too, made the decision to turn around.

This time when I hiked this same trail, I had been living at 7,500 ft. in Ridgway for two months, so I was better acclimated to the altitude. As I passed it, I made a mental note of the spot, where, five years earlier, I had stopped and turned around. I had no reason to stop this time, I felt fine. To my shock, just a few minutes past that point, the trail made a slight turn and opened up to the most magnificent flower-filled meadow! In the distance I could see Ulysses Grant mountain and the Ice Lake Basin. Had I kept going just five more minutes, I would have been treated to this incredible view!

I was astounded that had I not stopped where I had, I would have been rewarded with this treat five years earlier. I wondered what this said about my life. Don’t quit, you can be very close to your goal? Sometimes you’re closer to what you love than you think? I could interpret this “message” in a multitude of ways. I just laughed to myself and kept going.

Ice Lake
Ice Lake

From that point, the trail ascends another mile and a half to a turquoise lake situated at 11,000 ft or so. It also gets steeper, way steeper, and much more precarious in a couple of spots. In fact, one stretch of the trail is perhaps 8 feet wide, rocky and sloped over a dramatic drop-off. Uphill, you just have to scramble and GO. Not so on the way back. You have to psyche yourself up for navigating it downhill. Five years ago there was no way I could have done that. I have a phobia of heights and steep declines. So even though I would have seen something magical had I kept going five more minutes, I wouldn’t have been capable of doing the rest of the hike due to the difficulty and steepness. It took me five years of experience and conditioning to be rewarded with the brilliant jewel at the basin.

ice-lakes-valley-belowThis day, I was able to handle the descent in that spot by singing songs out loud and acting (and feeling) goofy. The singing took my brain away from panic mode and allowed me to maintain my momentum when in the past, I would have been frozen in terror with vertigo. I don’t know how I decided to try this strategy, but I did, and it worked brilliantly for me.

The hike was also telling me that what is true for me one day may not be true for me a different day. It was telling me that I can always change my mind and circumstances if I choose. It was telling me that there can be more beauty ahead, but it won’t always be available to me, not until I’m ready. Or maybe it won’t ever be there for me because life isn’t limitless and neither is the body. How many hikes will I never do? Thousands.

In hindsight I also realize that my hiking partners five years ago didn’t tell me about the meadow up ahead. They must have seen it. Was it not spectacular then? I’m not sure why, maybe they were being kind and not letting me feel regret. Maybe they didn’t want to push me when I wasn’t feeling well. I can only guess what lesson the trail is trying to teach me about that.

The View from Here

Precipice Peak in the San Juan Mountains
Precipice Peak in the San Juan Mountains

The first time I saw the outline of Precipice Peak was maybe 7 years ago, on our way to visit Ouray and Ridgway again to look at parcels of land. It was among a cluster of peaks to the left (northeast) of Ouray that were part of the San Juan mountains. You can see it as you approach Delta, and it gets darker and clearer as you drive south on Hwy. 550 into Ridgway.

Precipice reminded me of a droopy soft serve ice cream cone. It was unusual and unlike the smoother, broader mountains of the Front Range. It was jutting and had “character”. It was instantly one of my favorites, after Mt. Sneffels.

We have a view of Precipice from the deck of our house, along with Courthouse Mountain, the Cimarrons, Chimney Rock, Coxcomb and others. My eyes are instantly drawn to the floppy peak every morning as I’m sipping coffee and looking east from my living room. It’s a 13er, so it’s towering and visible for many miles.

What came up for me on this hike was the correlation of an imagined future and a distant mountain I’d never seen up close. We just moved to the small town of Ridgway, a move that’s been in the planning and dreaming stages for 6 years. Back in the city, I used to imagine what that life in the country would be like. I imagined the access to nature, the quiet, the solitude, the lack of traffic and industrial noises. I imagined being able to hike out my front door and seeing wild animals daily. I imagined the privacy I would enjoy.

The view from around Courthouse and to the Sneffels Range from the trail.
The view from around Courthouse and to the Sneffels Range from the trail.

I also looked forward to the day I would drive the 20+ miles up a 4WD road to get closer to Precipice. Would it be mind-blowing and towering and lush with flowers? Would I been in awe?

The day I hiked up Courthouse Mountain, I rounded a bend in the trail and was surprised by clear, unobstructed view of the face of Precipice across the narrow valley below. It didn’t appear any more breathtaking than the other views from the trail, but this was the mountain I had been gazing at from afar for year. There it was!  At this closer distance, I could see things I couldn’t from 20, 50 or 70 miles away: waterfalls and craggy spires, the delicate green, mossy texture of the uppermost slopes. It’s not just a big, rocky ice cream cone. It’s something old and eroded and teeming with tiny grasses and delicate flowers. It tells the story of ancient volcanos and impossibly high winds. It is scarred by the freezing and melting of miles of snow and ice.

The parallel is that, in life, when we finally experience that which we have been anticipating for a long time, it’s not exactly as we imagined, because it is far more complex, beautiful and surprising than we could ever imagine.