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Illustration by Miko Maciaszek.

Mt. Sopris: Symbol in the Sky

Mt. Sopris is one of the most striking mountains in Colorado—and, for one writer, a connection to friends both living and gone.

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Five miles into the hike up Mt. Sopris, as we pass the teal blue of Thomas Lake on our right flank, I search for the spruce tree.

“Hilary, is that the one?”

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“I don’t know,” she says. “I think it’s farther up.”

I turn back toward the ridge above and continue on. The last time Hilary and I were here, a year ago, water was rushing down these trails; a hail and lightning storm had moved in during our descent. Shouting to one another amid the thunder, Hilary, our friend Stephanie, and I ran down the path. We scrabbled off the trail and stacked, single file, under the prickly, wet branches of a spruce—which provided almost no relief. I crouched at the bottom of our curious little totem pole of three; my bare legs were covered in red welts. It was August 12.

“It’ll stop soon,” I said.

“You keep saying that,” Hilary and Stephanie both replied.

Only 20 or so minutes before, we’d been heading down when we crossed paths with Hayden Kennedy on his way up. Hayden was an outstanding alpinist whom we all loved for his sweet manner and modest demeanor. I had known him since he was a day old and had watched his mother weigh him on the postal scale at Climbing magazine, where I worked with his parents. He was always kind to my sons, who looked up to him. Hayden, 27, was recovering from shoulder surgery and, with his worldwide mountain adventures at bay, embracing a change: He was set to leave Colorado the next day for Montana and a new life with the young woman he loved, Inge Perkins.

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It’s about 13 miles round trip up Sopris, and although many hikers camp midway to the summit, we were all doing it as a long dayhike. We three carried light packs, but Hayden—fit and confident—wore just shorts and a technical hoodie. He was cheery, unfazed by the lowering clouds. I gave him my last piece of chocolate and waved goodbye.

The lightning and the hail went on in protracted, furious waves that day. As we descended, hail covered the ground and accumulated ankle-high. In between the piles of white, the trails poured cold water. At first I tried to plunk along from one rock to another, keeping any part of my feet dry. Eventually I just sloshed on in resignation.

This year it’s just Hilary and me hiking up Sopris—under clear skies—passing stands of scruffy trees, guessing at which one sheltered us last year. Hayden has come in and out of our reveries all day.

As we verge onto loose talus, I ask, “Is this where we saw Hayden?”

“I think so,” Hilary says, looking around. We stop. “I have such a strong memory of his silhouette,” she says, “his tall, lanky body heading up that ridge.”

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Mt. Sopris is not a fourteener. In fact, the peak—named for Richard Sopris, who led a party of 14 gold prospectors to the Roaring Fork Valley in 1860—doesn’t even qualify as a thirteener. Its twin summits, exactly equal in height, sit at 12,939 feet. Yet it has one of the biggest vertical rises in the state, more than 6,000 feet above the valley floor. Presiding over the ranchlands, with their neat, dense rolls of hay and the long benches where elk herds winter, it is the symbol of the old mining town of Carbondale.

The drama of the mountain’s position and its classic shape and symmetry have commanded my attention since first sight, half a lifetime ago, when I came around a turn a few miles outside of Glenwood Springs. A longtime rock climber, I had moved to Colorado hoping to make a career of vocation and avocation, as an outdoor writer and editor. In the three decades since, Sopris has been a constant companion, visible from town and home and filling my side mirror any time I drive downvalley. I marvel at the mountain’s very color: slate gray, pearly gray, and fluted at the top with charcoal. The gray is an oddity, a contrast to the red rock lining the Roaring Fork Valley and the Crystal River Valley, which converge below the peak, and the yellow-greens of the sprawling pastures and wetlands.

Alone in the sky for miles, Sopris changes by the season and often by the day. My favorite aspect is not so much when it is coated with snow—though it is difficult to top the alpenglow—but during the early dustings, which drop lacy white lines that accentuate its dark features. In fall, a certain grove of aspens, boomerang-shaped, on the east side always goes yellow first. I watch for it every year.

For decades I gazed at the mountain without ever getting closer than the short approach hike to Thomas Lakes. Doing the whole peak would be long and involved, and I was busy with work—first at Climbing magazine and then at Rock and Ice—and family, a husband and two sons. If I had a full day off, it usually went to my priority: rock climbing. But I always meant to go up Sopris, and in time, my interests broadened beyond chasing more and harder routes. Things changed, and the boys grew up. I became mildly irked that I had never done it. So in 2015, when a young Rock and Ice intern asked if anyone wanted to hike it with her before she left town, I swiftly volunteered.

Sopris is always a big day: You gain 4,400 feet from the trailhead. The first 3.8 miles of the Mt. Sopris Trail to Thomas Lakes are pretty gentle, rising only 1,600 feet through stands of knobby, silvery aspens, meadows of wildflowers in summer, and in autumn, glens of oak brush with hip-high red fireweed blowing cotton into the breeze. The next part, above Thomas Lakes, is a haul. The trail goes first up friendly wooded switchbacks that gain a ridge; then the trees and vegetation thin out and it’s a slog up rocky scree, the trail often loose and indistinct. You join the main ridge, contour around some undulations, and have your heart broken by a false summit. Those last few hundred feet get me every time.

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On that inaugural trip, Liz, the intern, and I missed the junction back to the approach ridge on our descent. Relaxed and lost in thought, we went too far on a rocky section where the trail fades away, then had to backtrack up and across to reconnect. I considered how easily any error in the mountains would be amplified by darkness.

I went again the next year, with Stephanie. At the top, we were eating lunch when my forehead started to buzz, as if dozens of bees were boring into it. Then the top of it began to crackle with static. Stephanie turned around and said, “Oh, my God. Your hair is standing straight up.” We hastened downward, the buzzing easing as we descended. Rain and thunder reached us 30 or 40 minutes later.

The challenges Sopris posed made hiking it again even more attractive; it was something I wanted to stay strong enough to do each year. I had gained familiarity and connection with the mountain that had been the backdrop to my adult life. I had seen this peak every day, watched it in all its moods and beauty. Now I was an ever-closer observer, witnessing its transitions the same way it had stood over mine.

From a spur, I show Hilary the black scar of the Lake Christine fire, which burned across all of Basalt Mountain and is still burning during our hike, creating a thin haze that will last for months. I saw the inferno the night the fire rolled over a ridge, wide and fast, crackling and sizzling toward homes and the highway and stores. “I didn’t know it was that big,” she says. “It’s huge,” I say, “almost 20 square miles.” I had watched it all summer from my house, followed the lines of flame at night and seen trees explode and the plume recede and return anew.

Hilary and I talk the whole day—about work, places, and friends. Hilary is lively, frank, and thoughtful, and she makes me laugh; Stephanie, too. I pick good companions for Sopris adventures: It’s nine or so hours together.

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Hilary and I march along the edge, and I point out the Laundry Chutes. Nine years before, my friend Lathrop Strang, an elite skier, dropped into one, slid on glare ice, and fell, double ejecting his skis and tomahawking down. His friend Fletcher Yaw was forced to go up over the summit and in and across from the far side to get to him. Fletcher made Lathrop as comfortable as he could before leaving to seek help. Over the hours, “Lath” succumbed to his injuries. In scraps all day, I tell Hilary about Lathrop, a 46-year-old architect, artist, and former ski racer, a genial and easy presence. He’d grown up on a ranch in our area, and I knew him through friends and as a climber. My husband often climbed with him, and I did a few times, too. After Lathrop died, I could not bring myself to delete his phone number.

By the time we reach the summit, my legs are concrete, but we are there. We sit down to have lunch, and Hilary—who is from Boulder and, hence, paleo or something, usually eschewing bread—wolfs down the sandwich I’d made her. We look and look. The top of Sopris is in the middle of everything: the striated Maroon Bells, the storied knife-edge ridge to the big tent of Capitol Peak, the pointy tops of steep-sided Pyramid and Snowmass mountains. After the long, hot, fiery summer, there is no snow in the col between the two Sopris summits, and I have never seen that before. To the north is the lowest end of the Roaring Fork Valley, and just below is my hometown—6,500 people slotted into two square miles, where I have experienced community and sometimes loss.

The stormy afternoon on Sopris was the last day I saw Hayden. When we met him later that evening for farewell beers, my friends and I crowed about how cold and horrified we’d been. He just smiled and said, “I’ve been colder.” Then he disappeared into a throng of well-wishers.

Two months later, Hayden and Inge were buried in an avalanche on Imp Peak in Montana’s Madison Range. Inge died in the avalanche; Hayden died by suicide later that day. I will always think of him when I am on Sopris, a place I associate with Lathrop as well. Before I began climbing it, when I was walking around town, I would sometimes try to pick out the runnels off the east side and trace Lathrop’s last line. Now, experiencing the mountain up close, all day, brings sustained thoughts of Lathrop and of Hayden. The thoughts are sad but a solace, because I want to remember them.

All year, Sopris presides over my life, its distant faceted face staring down, immovable—on the walks that I take on dirt roads and trails around town and on my drives to office and market. But one day each year, I am the one looking down, and out, from a mountain that serves as a monument, bestowing a view of a range and a range of memories.

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