Well first things first, Happy New Year! We have transitioned to a new year, but it has yet to feel "new". It is like we are still in our old pair of boots, the miles have changed, but the boots are still ragged and worn. Yet, these boots are getting close to being replaced. They have a few more miles left in them until change will be brought upon us. That is how it feels, and of course we are going to use a hiking metaphor, but we digress again, Happy New Year! Hope everyone had a safe and happy holiday season. Should we start off this post by saying, new year, new me? No, that would not be accurate. It is not the year that changes you, but the day, and your mindset in each moment. Then should we say new day, new chance? Yes, that feels far more accurate. New chance to find rest in the exhaustion, new chance to reach further reach deeper, and a new chance each day to change and grow into the best we can possibly be. So, new day, new chance, let us all seize it. Let us go higher and higher to reach that alpine zone inside of ourselves and that alpine zone of the wild.
See for miles, embrace the views, embrace the elements!
Alpine travel is by far one of our favorite environments to hike in. What do we mean by alpine travel? Well, it is a very broad context. It can cover everything from peaks and ridgelines of 4,000-5,000 ft mountains all the way to 13,000-14,000 ft mountains and above. It can even surpass 15,000 ft but to do that type of hiking you either will have to be in Alaska, or travel outside of the states to find incredibly high mountains. The travel on these types of mountains above 15,000ft also are "alpine travel" but in a completely different world than what we are referencing. So, let us define alpine travel in the 14,000ft and below mountains.
Simply put alpine travel is when you hike above tree-line. It is the moment that you leave the comfort and the blanket of the forest and start to ascend to a mountain pass, mountain peak, or ridgeline. The elements have dictated that no trees shall grow past a certain threshold. Wind, snow, avalanches, sheer cliffs, rock, the mountain has began to change its colors. As you begin to climb towards the alpine zone in lower alpine zones, you start to see small changes around you. Thinner trees, more rock in each footstep, the brush thins, and begins to be replaced with high alpine flora. To reach the threshold above tree-line is a journey onto itself, and it may be through miles, or one step you may find yourself stepping out of the trees and all in front of you is just broad open expanses of land, a beautiful sight.
Depending on the trail there will be a sign announcing your transition.
Yet, not all alpine travel is made the same. Yes, all have similarities of being above tree-line, rock, and open landscapes, but the different types of travel are evident in the different types of elevation. Let us take for example alpine travel around 5,000-6,000ft on the Appalachian Trail. Let us head to the White Mountains in New Hampshire, one of our favorite mountain ranges on the AT. Much of this travel was in alpine zones. Yet, for the most part there was a well-defined trail, it being the Appalachian Trail of course. The ferocity of the peaks are somewhat mellower, calmer, not as sheer. The wind and the elements have molded these mountains over hundreds of millions of years at lower elevation, and have cut much of their sharp edges into well-rounded peaks. When you are climbing from peak to peak, you will be moving over much rock. Yet, occasionally in little pockets tucked into the mountain you will be back in tree-line in the blink of an eye, for a few hundred feet, and then in the same blink be back into the open expanse of alpine travel. It is an alpine environment where you are never terribly far from tree-line.
Let us now travel to alpine travel in the High Sierras on the PCT. Both are considered high alpine environments but they could not be more different. The sharpness of the mountains are more intense. The walls of rock in front of you beckon you towards them with a call that can be felt for miles before. You are travelling mostly anywhere from 9,000ft to 13,000 above sea level and the tree-line varies with each mountain pass and each new valley. There were some passes that the trees left us to the valley floor quickly at 9,000ft. Then there were some that they only left when we had to climb the wall in front of us in the last 1,000ft of elevation gain. Again, being the PCT there was a well defined path and much of the travel was through rock and snow, yet the feel was completely different.
No Trees! Only Snow, Rock, and Freedom!
Let us now travel to the Canadian Rockies on the GDT. Another high alpine environment but another new world. A world of difference even compared the the Rockies in the United States. These were new mountains, or at least new in the sense of mountain time. Only a few hundred million years old, just baby mountains in time but not baby mountains in stature! The ruggedness, sharpness, of these mountains had no comparison in our travels. The wind, rain, snow, and elements were still cutting year by year into the mountain. They had yet to round the mountains, they were still in the process of creating spires and epic climbs. The elements were rougher and more raw. Every time we crested above tree-line we were met with epic beauty but also epic brutality. No trail only wilderness. Wind funneled quickly into our faces, storms formed directly in front of our eyes, steps must be secure or a tumble could turn serious, each movement had to be well-defined and well thought out. Not the same as sitting into a pace and cruising on the PCT or AT, but now alpine travel that demanded our full attention for each step. A whole new world.
There is a special feeling when you crest above the trees. For one view point, for a few hundred feet, for a mile or two, or for an entire section of many miles. You have already been made to feel so small within the trees and the vastness of the life and world below in the valley. When, you change worlds to alpine travel, your feeling of being just a small hiker traveling through the world, changes to just being a speck being pushed by the wind wherever it wishes. A complete world around you and inside of you, but nonetheless when compared with the vastness of the mountains in front of you, the trail, the next 100 miles, the next 1000, the rest of the world, the rest of the universe, your physical speck in this mixture becomes smaller and smaller.
When you become smaller you see and feel bigger. It is a truly contradictory statement and feeling, or is it? A beautifully true statement and feeling. The power of the vastness before you makes you take into account how big not only the next miles are in front of you but the world itself. When each step becomes a new world, and there are trillions upon trillions made everyday by billions upon billions of people, you begin to realize how little it all matters. How little the frustration that plagued you a few steps ago can evaporate into the wind, how little your yesterday should affect today, how little the worries of tomorrow can echo into the valleys, and how little and fragile life becomes. By seeing and feeling how small you are, the vastness and grandness of the entire world open up in front of you and inside of you. There is not a bigger feeling out there.
The smaller you feel, the more you will see and understand.
You have the next footstep in front of you, the next vastness of a whole new world in that moment. You now have millions and even billions of moments and worlds ahead of you. If all you can do is find the peace and calm to be in that moment. If you can let go of yesterday, let go of tomorrow and see now. See the world in this footstep. Feel the wind against your face, see the sun crest below the horizon, feel the bite of the cold upon your skin. Feel the rock beneath your feet, listen to the tune of the mountains, feel your heart and mind speak to each other. Then take the next step, and the next, and the next. With each new step you find new strength, learn more about the world that is always changing, learn more about yourself, and grow. So, as we travel again into the alpine zone above the trees and also the alpine zone within our hearts, let us travel out of 2020 and into 2021 with that first step. That first step into a new year, a new year that may not feel drastically different than the step before, yet it is a completely new world.
To each new step and each new world within,