Hiking Stories: Confronting Fear and Failure in the Weminuche

a tent in a grassy area surrounded by trees.

I sat by myself on a rocky ledge at 13,000 feet, perched halfway up Jagged Mountain in Colorado’s Weminuche Wilderness, looking north towards Leviathan Peak. Taking out my phone I made a video, not to show the vast beauty all around me, but talking to myself in an attempt to calm down. My voice was steady but my words betrayed me. “I’m just not feeling it,” was a mantra I repeated as I stared at the salty sweat crusted around my brow and the bags under my eyes looking back at me on the screen. It was my reason—or maybe my excuse—for why I wasn’t continuing upwards.  

My friend Mareya and I decided to try for the summit without knowledge of a route or a rope to help us. The ascent thus far had been what we jokingly refer to as “5th class grass”: steep ledges of grass and rock jutting from the otherwise vertical face characterized by knoblike rock towers. When I called it quits, Mareya continued on to try and find a path to the summit but returned just a few minutes later in defeat. 

Jagged was our second failed summit attempt in a row. The previous day we set out for Sunlight Peak, one of the popular 14ers in the Chicago Basin area, via the north ridge from our camp at Sunlight Lake. We gained the ridge from a steep grassy slope that funneled into the lakes below. The lower ridge had grippy rock and a clear route—an exhilarating but manageable class 3 scramble. But as we progressed, the ridge swept upward dizzily, forcing us to backtrack over and over again when we hit sheer rock walls. 

We eventually worked our way to the northeast side of the upper mountain, where a couple chimney-like scrambling moves near 14,000 feet left me rattled and wondering if I was in over my head. A common tip you’ll hear from seasoned scramblers is don’t go up what you can’t come down, and I wondered if I was ignoring good advice. 50 vertical feet below the summit, we ran out of safe route options and daylight. 

But we weren’t getting shut down due to a lack of experience. Mareya and our friend Hannah, who joined us for the first couple days of the trip, are experienced mountain guides with dozens of extended trips and technical climbs under their belts. They’ve tackled terrain from Indian Creek all the way up to Denali. Their proficiency mixed with my lack of experience and nerves left me constantly questioning my abilities and place in the mountains. So as I sat there on Jagged, gripped and disappointed in myself, I wondered if this was really for me.

Learning to love the outdoors

Indiana born and raised, I grew up immersed in traditional sports like football and lacrosse. Camping and mountain biking through southern Indiana forests and quarryland were my closest encounters with a life outdoors. Those experiences planted the seed that would finally take me to Colorado in 2017, where the next three years were filled with firsts: learning to ski, backpacking, understanding what scrambling grades are, and eventually finding a love for trail running. 

The Colorado friends I fell in with, including Mareya and Hannah, were all experienced and willing to take me under their wing. As the only newbie in the group, I consistently ended up out of my comfort zone. Heights had always been a small fear I never really tested and exposure was a new feeling altogether. What little I had done up to this point left me wary of pushing it, unsure of how I’d react if things got serious.

And any trip in the San Juan mountains can quickly get serious. Nestled in the southwest corner of the state, a long six-hour haul from Denver, the San Juans are home to popular destinations like Telluride, Silverton, and Ouray. They’re also home to big, chossy mountains notorious for their difficulty and for the hardiness of the locals who play among them. 

Before this trip, my only experience in the San Juans was two years prior at Mt. Sneffels, a popular and straightforward 14er, which was a small introduction to the vast and challenging landscape available in this small quadrant of the state. This time we planned a five-day trip starting at Vallecito Reservoir near the town of Durango, which marks the south end of the San Juans. We’d hike north then west, hooking up with a portion of the Weminuche High Route, a rugged alpine route that stretches about 50 miles between Durango and Silverton. 

The route covers mountain passes and river basins, spending ample time above the treeline. Our particular stretch would cover just over 30 miles with 10,000 feet of elevation gain through thick overgrowth, avalanche debris, exposed talus slopes, and pockets of snow remaining from winter. 

Donning our 60 pound packs we’d start with a brutal bushwhack up to Sunlight Lake, then head north by Jagged Mountain, Leviathan Peak, and up to the southern side of the Grenadier Range before turning west. From there we’d gain the northerly pass between Vestal Peak and Trinity West before connecting with the Colorado Trail all the way back to Molas Pass on the million dollar highway.

A struggle between peaks

Looking back at it now, it’s a heck of a route. Where it lacks in mileage it makes up in attitude. We earned every mile once we left Vallecito Creek, checking off nearly every term for “tediously moving through the mountains:” scrambling, bushwhacking, slogging, postholing. But my mind was consumed with thoughts of summiting Sunlight, Jagged, and Arrow Peaks. I pictured reaching Molas Pass, weathered but victorious, with a few classic summits under my belt. All the time between was just getting us to and from the goal. 

By the time we got off Jagged, I was dreading the possibility of attempting Arrow, the most technical peak of our route. My confidence was shot and I continually tried in vain to hide my disappointment. Typically I’m chatty and engaged when out in the mountains. But by this point I was powering along, head down, more present in the recesses of my mind than in the perfect alpine environment surrounding me. 

And it was perfect, because weather would have posed a major problem for us if it wasn’t. We spent three full days at or above 12,000 feet and camped as high as 13,000. Emergency descent routes were not straightforward and would put us deeper in the wilderness. But for all six days and five nights, we had full sun with little wind. Anyone who has backpacked can tell you that is a blessing.

The next two days between Jagged and Vestal were hard and beautiful. Talus turned to scree fields that tested both our strength and patience. Long miles, high elevation, and heavy packs wore us down. The task at hand and the beauty of our surroundings pulled me out of my funk, and for bits of time, I forgot about our goal. 

We formed a band and wrote songs to commemorate our hatred of talus slopes, those vile rock piles that grabbed our ankles and shifted beneath our feet. Candy was rationed out and enjoyed like fine caviar. We held vigil over the receding alpenglow each evening and after dark, I rambled around our campsites taking photos—no headlamp necessary thanks to an almost full moon—and drinking in the calm, still evenings. But Arrow still loomed ahead.

Redefining failure in the mountains

We made our final camp in a grassy nook among boulders and evergreens between Vestal and Arrow Peaks. As we cooked dinner, we took stock of our trip and looked up at the face behind us. We were thrashed and our route information on Mareya’s phone was no longer loading. Since Arrow was the most technical peak on our route, Mareya joined me in questioning if we should go after it or just finish the rest of our route the next day instead. 

I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t relieved. The conversation was brief; both of us agreed to finish the remaining 12 miles the next day and return to Durango. As we settled in to enjoy our final night in the mountains, released from the stress of another peak attempt, I considered everything that had transpired. 

I was disappointed to not summit a single mountain, and I still questioned my abilities and appetite for technical ascents. My competitive nature doesn’t let me off easy, no matter how illogical. What could be chalked up to a lack of preparation, route knowledge, and time, I instead took as a personal lack of grit. 

But as the clouds turned tangerine orange and navy blue I also saw the perfect weather, the epic peaks I traversed, the good friends, and the days unplugged from my phone. We were lucky to get the trip we did. So finally, I let myself have some pride in what we accomplished: backpacking a mostly off-trail route through some of the most rugged terrain Colorado has to offer.

There’s a reason we are drawn to summits: the accomplishment, the feeling you get looking out over the surrounding lands from above, it’s addicting. But before this trip, I thought I didn’t deserve to be in the mountains at all unless I was that fearless, idealized version of myself. I couldn’t just exist in these places; I had to be achieving something. Accepting your own shortcomings is a hard pill to swallow, but this toxic mindset was ruining my love for the mountains.

Instead of seeing this journey as a learning experience, I saw it as a personal fault. But accepting my “failures” on this trip was as much about accepting my skills as it was facing reality — fear is natural; it’s just something we learn to deal with.  

A trip’s worth isn’t measured by summits, and neither is my worth as an outdoorsman. Looking back on the trip, I remember the relaxing sunsets, jokes while bushwhacking, and morning coffee as first light hits—more so than what I didn’t do. Luckily I didn’t need to change myself, I just needed to change my perspective.

About Alex Eaton

Alex Eaton is a writer and photographer documenting a year spent on the road throughout the American west. You can follow his journey and see more of his work on his website at www.alexreaton.com.

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