Something Like an Aubade

by | Sep 17, 2019

Photo by Christopher, Outfit 2019 at Mount Taylor

It’s 6:15 in the morning and the sun has eclipsed the horizon line from my vantage point here at a posted 11,301 feet. If you’ve spent a couple seasons either as a trekker or staff member at Cottonwood Gulch, you probably already know exactly where I am. My trekkers and I have been up since about 4, we just climbed about 800 feet in elevation from our campsite at the saddle, and we are now basking in the glow of a New Mexico sunrise from the top of Mt. Taylor.

The sunrise summit of Taylor has been a Gulch tradition for decades. Alumni have pictures from over 40 or 50 years ago of themselves glowing with accomplishment at rising before dawn to climb to the top of this inactive stratovolcano northeast of the town of Grants. Taylor is one of the most prominent topographical landmarks out here in the western part of the state. To the Diné, it is the Sacred Mountain of the South — Tsoodzil, the Turquoise Mountain — one of the four boundary-marking mountains of their ancestral homeland. When the Diné returned to the Dinétah after the Long Walk to Bosque Redondo to the east, the sight of Taylor on the western horizon brought them great hope and courage. The mountain stands out in New Mexico as one of the few high peaks that aren’t among the Sangre de Cristos to the North. Estimates of its height before the eruption of the central peak over a million years ago range from 16,000 feet to a mind-boggling 25,000 feet.

This summer, I had the chance to bring two groups of Outfit Expedition trekkers to the summit, and both times, it was a highlight of the trek for both the staff and the trekkers. On one of these ascents, after a late arrival into camp the preceding night and fairly rushed set-up, dinner, and campfire, we stole as many hours of sleep as we could from the chilly, damp late July night. In our twilight hours, we hoped in dreams that the atmospheric deities would bless us with a modicum of clarity to enjoy the brilliant ascendance of our beloved Helios come morn.

For these Outfitters, many on their first trek with the Gulch, this summit experience is the capstone of their two weeks here. They’ve been in the desert for a few days now on their road loop, and the green magic of Taylor is a refreshing departure from the seemingly endless sandstone and sagebrush of the northwestern part of the state. We’ve been baking in the sun at Ah-Shi-Sle-Pah, Chaco Canyon, and Canyon De Chelly for the better part of a week, and camping in some delicious alpine scenery at high elevation is beautifully cooling. Tomorrow, we’ll be rolling into Base Camp for Rendezvous and saying our goodbyes a couple days later. For at least several years now, these youngest trekkers have summited Taylor at this point in the itinerary — the set up is perfect for a cathartic peak experience.

I rouse them at 4 — eyes groggy and tired, morning mountain dew dampening our shoes, reluctant to leave the cozy confines of our sleeping bags. After a brief breakfast, more of a morning snack really, we steadily climb at 10-year-old-proof pace through mixed aspen and pine. It’s only about a mile, but there’s plenty of uphill and we have small legs — and it is way too heckin’ early. Cries of doubt whisper through the crisp morning air despite the encouragement of staff — the trekkers see first light, will they even make it in time for the promised sunrise? A couple trekkers collapse in despair at the steepness of the slope, the overhanging clouds, and the already glowing light on the tree tops. I just can’t … I just can’t … Their peers crowd around and cheer them on. You can do it! We’re so close! Come on! Let’s go! Name chanting ensues. Watching pre-adolescents rally to support each other tugs on the heartstrings for sure. They come back to their feet, and we continue on with little over a quarter mile to go.

As I see the signage denoting the summit in the distance, I start whooping and hollering like one of my trekkers, abandon any sense of leader’s poise for about 30 seconds, and begin sprinting uphill with congratulatory shouts to my kiddos. We did it! We’re here! Awesome job, y’all! It’s been a long week on the road with these youngsters and a long summer. I’m also on a three-season contract so the full marathon of back-to-back-to-back seasons of school groups and summer treks is dawning on my tired body and wearing on my resilience. Being able to clear this last hurdle of the trek is cathartic for me as well. I’m proud of them, proud of my staff team, and proud of myself. The relief hits me like a rush of cool soothing water into my neck and shoulders, which seem to drop an inch or two as a few tears pool in the corners of my eyes.

As the Outfitters all gather at the summit of the mountain, the sky clears. Within minutes of arriving, the brilliant burning orb our earth circles around begins to crest the horizon to the east. The city lights of Albuquerque, easily visible until this moment, are now eclipsed by the brighter light of a new day. Reflective gazes overtake the slightly sweaty faces of my kids as this overwhelmingly singular morning starlight casts a miles-wide shadow of Tsoodzil on the western skies and horizon. The warm glow of the morning golden hour casts beautifully gentle light on all of these little adventurers — grinning, meditating, curled again in their sleeping bags, cuddling with their new best friends. The sky and the sunlight are all-encompassing in their thematic dominance in the desert, and today is no exception. Regal purples, oranges as bright as monks’ robes, grapefruit ruby reds and the everlasting blue of the distance dance together in an ego-dissolving panorama. Energy pulses through my nerves, blood, bones — I feel more free and alive than I’ve felt in many moons. I smile, breathe — the tears trickle down my cheeks. It’s a beautiful morning.


Christopher Densmore is a seasonal field instructor for the Gulch when his friends there are able to pull him away from his beloved home in the rainy mountains and rivers of the Pacific Northwest. He grew up in western New England in the northern cusps of what could be called Appalachia, spent a brief sojourn in college in southern Minnesota, and loves the New Mexico desert in doses. When he isn’t cozied up reading, he likes to run along the Bosque, practice unskillful yoga in spurts, and nurture his nascent guitar skills so as not to embarrass himself on trek.