JANUARY 1ST, and what better way to start the New Year than with a quick night out beneath the stars?
I mean, what could be better than sleeping outside without a tent, on a summit, in midwinter, in the snow, alone? Would a soft bed be better? Four solid walls? Heating? A warm body to snuggle against? Okay… maybe.
But then again, sometimes the indoors is just too, well, indoors.
I left home and family at 9 p.m., reached the trailhead an hour later. Soon, I was on foot in the forest, heading uphill along a well-stamped snow trail, keeping my pace slow to avoid breaking sweat. The air was still, the temperature sat at 21 Fahrenheit, -6 Celsius, mild for 11,000 feet in midwinter. The only sounds were boots crunching on snow, and the strange polystyrene squeak of trekking poles breaking through an icy crust. A bright moon cast a bewitching glow, and with my headlamp off I stole through the trees, pine needles sparkling with frost. ‘Magical’ doesn’t do the moment justice.
My destination lay 1,000 feet higher: a minor summit at 11,700 feet. It marked the high point of a long ridge that reaches east from the Rockies. I’ve stood upon it enough times now that I’ve lost count of how many, and I’ve slept on it twice. But it had been a few years, and the time had come to sleep up there again. I wanted to wake early, slow things down, sit in stillness, watch the new day arrive. I wanted to savor the gentle unveiling of dawn.
When I reached the summit it took a while before I found a sheltered perch. A rising wind was whistling around the granite outcrop that crowns the peak, and the spot I’d slept upon before was the exact opposite of sheltered! But eventually I found a spot – a snowdrift beside a bulging outcrop. I stamped down a flat platform into the snow, unpacked my mat, bivvy bag, and sleeping bag, and settled in. Home.
To the east, beyond the foothills, the Great Plains stretched away. The massive conurbation surrounding Denver sparkled and twinkled, a galaxy of electric lights. Overhead, stars shone, although the moon outdid them. The only sound came from the wind, growing stronger each minute. It threw itself at the summit rocks, moaned through nearby pines. I snuggled deeper into my sleeping bag and relaxed, knowing full well it wouldn’t be the most comfortable night’s sleep of my life, but not caring. Comfortable isn’t everything. For the song of the wind, and the fresh air on my face, and for being present in such a place, I’d be richer.
I slept – twice. I also lay awake for long stretches, not exactly cold, but certainly not warm; and not uncomfortable, but not comfortable either. My gear was decades old, and conditions were definitely testing it. Time slowed, and long hours passed, spent listening to the wind, feeling the flying spindrift hitting my face. But there were no complaints. I was here by choice, and loving every second of it.
Shortly after six the first orange streak of dawn lit the horizon, a welcome sight. It meant more than it does under normal circumstances – normally, it wasn’t even noticed. But now? The simple act of sleeping out had changed an everyday sight into something extraordinary, something treasured.
The following hour was pure magic – magic that took place in slow motion. I sat upright, well wrapped in all my layers, watching sunrise develop, light grow, and stars fade, anticipating the new day, celebrating its approach. My thoughts quietened, my contentment grew. I sat motionless in the increasing light feeling increasingly… enlightened. How different the world might be if everyone slept outside at least once a year. A single night spent connecting with stars overhead, followed by the gentle unwrapping of dawn, and there’d be more patience to share, more appreciation to show, and more joy to spread around. Or so I think.
I didn’t linger once the sun struck. The temperature was biting, and the wind chill was brutal. The forecast had called for -7 Fahrenheit, -21 Celsius, and when I stepped away from my sheltered spot and the wind hit I suspected the weather folk had got it right! The wind’s full blast set me staggering, and I quickly gave up on photography. I snatched a few quick shots that didn’t really do the scene justice – and my fingers protested even at that. But it was no big deal. I could come back, and I’d already found what I’d come for. The experience was what counted, not the photos.
Back in the shelter of the forest below I walked fast. I had pine-scented air to breath, crisp snow underfoot, blue sky overhead. It was a new day, never to be repeated, different from every other.
Soon, I was singing at the top of my voice.