“Are you mad?” my friend asked.
“Course not,” I replied.
But I was, a little. Not with her, but for years I’d wanted to climb Cloud Peak and Bomber Mountain. At 13,166 feet, Cloud Peak is the tallest mountain in Bighorn National Forest. And I wanted to pay my respects at the site where a World War II plane crashed into what is now called Bomber Mountain.
I’d badgered my friend for years to climb with me. This year, she relented and convinced her husband and son to join us. I’d been in the Bighorn mountains before, but not in a place like this. Massive boulders dotted a lush landscape. We passed deep blue, crystal clear lakes. Towering peaks surrounded me.
I’d mentally prepared to turn back in advance of the regular afternoon thunderstorms that can roll in quickly making exposed mountainsides especially dangerous. I knew the hikes could take all day as we moved slowly across the boulders that covered the mountains.
But there in the stunning Cloud Peak Wilderness, with perfect weather, we’d headed back to our campsite having barely started up one mountain and not even seeing the other.
I didn’t want to be mad. I didn’t want to be one of those people who cared only about ticking mountain summits off my checklist. I wanted to feel like a day in the mountains is never wasted, no matter what you do. I wanted to be present, taking in a stunning landscape not everyone is fortunate enough to ever see and sharing that moment with friends.
But I kept thinking of all the things I should have done differently. Especially the research.
Everyone told me that, though the non-technical trail up Cloud Peak was primitive and undefined, it was basically a highway. Bomber, I’d been told, was equally as popular. When I mentioned I wanted to climb both peaks, people familiar with the area turned up their noses. It was overrun with people, they said.
I looked at a map. I read a few blog posts, but mostly I figured we’d just get in the line of people marching up the peaks. Yet on a Friday in August, we saw only one person the whole morning.
One member in our party had climbed Bomber Mountain a decade earlier and knew Cloud Peak sat adjacent. This is true — if you approach from the other side of the mountain. By the time we’d realized our mistake, we’d also learned that one member of our party was terrified of boulder hopping. This poses a problem when climbing mountains covered by massive rock fields. Another member, on his first backpacking trip, was already exhausted. By the time we split up — two heading back to camp, two of us willing to at least attempt Bomber — the day was halfway gone.
A few short hours later the “go higher” half of our expedition called it, too, still only a third of the way up. It was afternoon. We were low on water. We didn’t even know exactly where the wreckage was on the mountains.
I could downplay the terrain and hike all I wanted, but the truth was, we weren’t prepared.
Turning around was the right choice, but I didn’t like it. I had planned to write a story about Bomber Mountain. It was literally my job to climb the mountain.
I looked out from the mountainside. A nearby waterfall cascaded over boulders. Rock walls surrounded a vibrant turquoise lake. Peaks lined the horizon. I took it in and felt … like the whole weekend was a failure.
I recently interviewed Jake Urban who summited the Grand Teton twice in a day. He said it really wasn’t about the record, or summits, but about being outside in his incredible backyard and spending time with friends.
“Yeah right,” I thought. “Easy for the person who climbs the Grand twice in a day to say.” But I thought about his words as I looked again at the waterfall, the lake and the mountain faces rising to the sky. I’d always associated “Summit Fever,” that compulsion to reach the top of a mountain at any cost, with people far more hardcore than me. I follow marked trails up nontechnical terrain. I like the views from the top of mountains. I’m not a natural athlete, and I like the satisfaction of pushing myself to do something that others, and sometimes my own mind, think I can’t. I like completing things, an obvious way to measure success.
I reconsidered our weekend. No one got hurt. No one got lost. No one cried because they’d been pushed beyond their physical capabilities or too far from their comfort zone. The trip hadn’t been Type II fun — the kind that’s only enjoyable in the rearview mirror. The trip had just been simple, normal fun. When had I forgotten that was not only OK, but ideal?
I sheepishly later told a friend who has climbed Cloud Peak we hadn’t summitted — or even found it. She surprised me with an offhand remark about how it was just another mountain summit. Yes, there were beautiful views of peaks below, but hadn’t I seen a million of those views from other summits? Isn’t that momentary view only a small part of the experience? Isn’t a trip to the mountains also about the alpine lakes and wildflowers, she asked.
I thought about the moose that arrived in camp our first evening and stayed just far enough away for all parties to feel safe, but close enough we could see each other all evening.
I thought about filtering water from the stream while looking at the reflection of the tall mountains surrounding us as the morning sun glowed on the rock faces. I thought about that feeling I got on the trail when I looked across such a vast landscape and felt so small but so connected.
I stopped answering questions about the trip by saying “Well we didn’t summit” and instead said “It was amazing,” because it really was.
I want to go back. Yes, I still want to climb those mountains. I’ve already started my research and will be far better prepared. But even if I go back and don’t make the peak tops, I want to enjoy the magic of the mountains.
And that’s something I think I can successfully do, summit or not.