When I got to the Cloud Peak trailhead at 7 am, I was already tired. Throughout the night, expectations of a 22 mile day and a 13,171 ft tall peak loomed over my brain. But standing at the trailhead I was ready to go with my trekking poles, sawyer, snacks, and layers. My confidence radiating in the morning sun like the golden painted the tips of the lodgepole pines.
11 miles remaining, I started forward. The first eight miles were relatively flat and easy to follow. Only gaining 1,333 feet over 8 eight miles. I paralleled a babbling creek draining the lakes that reliably provided water to West Tensleep Lake. I danced down the trail as I put one pole in front of the other - even twirling them once in a while to the sound of my own feet.
The three alpine lakes, Helen, Marion, and Mistymoon shimmered in the bright sun and blue sky. After these, I turned off the defined path into a large glacial valley. A natural shift occurred where the trail became steep and rocky. Instead of dancing down an easily beaten path, I started backtracking, bushwacking, and hopping across terrain I walked between flat meandering creek filled meadows and steep rock falls. Scrambling with my hands to help stabilize me on teetering boulders.
3 miles remaining, the wind cursed me and I cursed the misleading rock cairns. No matter my own efforts to correct it, the trail remained 500 ft west of my own path. The boulder field made me feel more like a disoriented mountain goat than a strong and capable woman.
1 mile remaining and I was back on the official trail. Slightly winded, I reached the saddle that overlooked a dramatic scoured cliff. The cliff stood more than 500 feet tall over blue alpine lakes. As I turned my focus from my feet to the sky, I could see dark clouds creeping in from the southwest. In the opposite direction, Cloud Peak stood in all her boxy glory. Being so close to the summit, a boost of confidence pushed me forward and I knew I could reach the top before the inclement weather hit the peak.
0.5 miles remaining. The trail disappeared once again. It took twice as long to scramble over giant boulders that replaced it. My trekking poles became a hazard as the wind pushed me off rocks - adding scratches to my already scarred shins. Worry grew in my chest. I didn’t want to turn around this close to the summit, but I did not want to break my leg on the top of this peak. Alone.
The summit was close, but the dark sky, snow, and heavy wind portrayed it just out of reach. So I made a call that is always hard to make and with only a small amount to go up, I started moving down. My legs trembled as I followed the water down valley - making it to the defined trail once again. My shame and disappointment mirrored in the now grey skies over the three alpine lakes.
As I continued down, a battle ensued in my mind. My domineering side screamed that the day was a waste because I didn’t lay a finger on the small pile of rocks at the summit. It fought hard, taking jabs in the name of expectations and “should”s. Calling out threats of judgement and perfectionist standards. My gentle side fought back with small senses of accomplishments. Whispering that the day didn’t have to be defined in summits and extremes. I could just recognize the small achievements.
The beat of my own steps clunked down the trail and settled peace in my brain. That was the reason I was outside. To enjoy myself despite the summits, the miles, and elevation. Photosynthesizing the sunlight into what I needed. Just being.
Back at the beginning, I remembered the elk bugle. The call that started the day at point A and ended at point A - throwing expectations off a cliff to embrace the hodge-podge of points in-between.
The Cloud Peak Wilderness is located on the Očhéthi Šakówiŋ, Cheyenne, and Apsaalooké (Crow) land