One of the best moments hiking toward a mountain summit is gaining the ridge. A mountain usually has 2 or more ridges descending from its summit, and sometimes (but not very often) there is a route that picks up the ridge much lower, down at the forest floor, and it’s possible to hike all the way to the summit following the ridge. Ellingwood Ridge on Colorado’s La Plata Peak roughly falls into this category.
More commonly, ascent routes work their way from the forest floor up along the sides of these enormous massifs, sometimes switch-backing for thousands of vertical feet up through and across gullies toward the ridge. Steep and frequently loose, uphill hiking along the side of the ridge is a slog.
Then comes a glorious moment. The grade relents just a bit. Up ahead there is not just more rock but a growing expanse of sky. A few more panting steps and there you are straddling the ridge! The views behind you are now joined with new views of the other side. The world opens up and the vastness of the mountains, and the smallness of your position, comes into humble perspective. Often you can see the rest of the route to the summit, and whether that remaining stretch is long or short, technical or an easy stroll, having that target come clearly into view is a reward unto itself.
Ah, the ridge! Hiking along the mountain’s backbone is some of the best hiking there is. Above tree line the exposure is magnificent, and I’ve seen hikers lose their cool just taking in the huge expanse of space. Moving along the ridge is sometimes blocked by gendarmes, cliff walls and other obstacles that must be circumnavigated. But the goal when passing these obstructions is to get back to the ridge as soon as possible!
Reaching the summit offers a whole other set of rewards – 360 views and the satisfaction that comes from knowing I can go no higher today. But do not underestimate the breathtaking experience that is also part of the journey – the exquisite excitement of gaining the ridge.