My plan was to use the time I had free in the early morning to attack the south ridgeline of Mount Charleston, just north of Las Vegas, making a lean and speedy ascent, with hopefully an equally speedy descent, to be back in time for my meetings.
Despite in depth research prior to the trip, one element of the journey was not front and center on any park related sites. The south ridge loop … was closed. So in order to avoid trouble with park rangers, as an international visitor, I was forced to make a quick change of plans.
Instead, I walked back down the road, and made my way up another road to the North Loop Trail.
Step after step, with only my headlamp casting an insightful beam of light into the unfamiliar darkness. Prior to the trip I had looked at the North Loop trail, but only with a passing glance. I didn’t know the length of the north route, or how much longer it may take me. After traveling all that way, I had to do it…once you’ve committed, and once you’re in your short-running shorts…you’ve got to follow through.
Step after step, crunch after crunch of the coarse gravel trail, winding back and forth, through dips and valleys, up and up some more.
I remembered seeing that at some point I should run across a water-hole. This would be, in my new plans a crucial pit-stop, it held out hope, a milestone.
Soon I reached the end of the first part of the trail on a small ridge, where one can turn right, down into another area of the park, or left. Left is where my heart pulled. By now it was nearly 3:00 AM and in the faint starlight of the sable sky, I could see the haze on the ridgeline ahead, rising out above the tree-line, the peak, the goal.
Not long after starting up this new trail I came across a water source, a badly dried up, and manky trough of stagnant water. Well there goes my refill point.
I’d only brought 2 Liters of water with me…but in a moment of naiveté, I had polished the first Liter and a bit off by the time I reached the water trough.
To make matters worse…I wasn’t alone.
As I made a turn to get back on the path to continue towards the peak, I heard a rustle in the bushes, high on the cliffs above.
As a boy who grew up in the country, I rarely fear a sound in the bush. Then again, I’m not sure I had ever been so scantily clad in running shorts and a t-shirt when I had encountered an animal.
I paused. Scanning my light up into the cliffs. Until out of the darkness they beamed.
Two bright eyes.
The first thought that ran through my head…aww it must be a raccoon!
So I let out a curt “Hey!” To see if I could coax it to move, make a sound, or give some indication of the validity of my assumption.
No sooner did I let out my alarm, the eyes darted from the upper left above me to the upper right…so swiftly that I was sure there were two…but where did the first one go? I know raccoons, they’re fast … but not that fast …
Now my assumptions turned to a mental panic of the unknown. What could travel that fast and that quick? What could…
My thoughts were stopped dead in their tracks as the eyes in the dark let out a terrifying scream.
Although I had been potty-trained for some time by this point…I was certain I had just had a momentary relapse.
At that point my mind sprang into action…this was not a good situation, I was alone, on the side of a mountain, barely clothed, with a water bottle, a few power bars, and a headlamp as protection from whatever it was that made this terrible sound.
Immediately I yelled “Hey! Get! Get outta here!”
But it didn’t move, but the large mountain cat only screamed back in defiance.
“Go on! Get outta here!”
Looking down around my feet, I found a solid sized rock…if worst came to worst, I wasn’t going down without a fight.
Cautiously I kept my headlamp on the eyes. Making sure it didn’t move. Taking a few short seconds to do some critical thinking…down or up…a cougar can probably make it downhill pretty fast…better not try that. Then that only leads up…up the mountain, in hopes it wasn’t looking for a scuffle, and that I could get out of it’s range.
Slowly, step after step I backed up the trail, rock in hand, and headlamp on eyes. Step after step until finally I couldn’t see it anymore. Quietly I stepped, with my ears more alert than they had ever been in my whole life. Listening for a crack of a branch, a snap of a twig. Nothing.
Soon I felt comfortable enough to turn around, stopping every few steps to pan the woods and slopes with my head lamp…nothing.
Not long after the sun began kissing the sky, giving hints of hope for the ability to better see my surroundings, and that hopefully I was at this point getting far enough away from the cat to be safe.
By 7:30 A.M. I pulled my weary bones up the last switchback, reaching the 11,916’ summit of Mount Charleston. With low cloud-cover just above head-height I sat down, snapped a few photos, and signed the logbook.
To my right, lied the South Loop Trail, which i had loathed all morning for being closed without any mention of which on the park website, or any of the forums I’d read.
Yet there to my left was the North Loop Trail…one of the most amazing experiences of my life, I set out that morning on my first attempt of a solo ascent over 11,000’ – check. But between the trial-head and the top I learned more about myself than ever before.
As I gazed down the valley below, I contemplated. Staring down at the gorgeous lush oasis of trees nestled in this park, surrounded by mountains and ridgeline, here just a short drive north of bustling Las Vegas. I thought to myself, parks truly are great, they help us disconnect from the man-made world, and help us tap into our deep rooted connection to the environment around us.
As for the 3:00 A.M encounter with my furry friend…I wouldn’t trade that experience for anything. Outdoor adventures are inherently dangerous. We all know that. But to avoid these adventures in the name of being “safe” is ludicrous.
Friends have told me “that’s nuts, I’d never do that”. But I know it’s not nuts, in fact the climb itself was pretty moderate in the grand scheme of things.
There’s no pill one can swallow, no book one can read, that will engrain within us such a vivid, deep, living lesson that although we love the outdoors, and although we love the parks…we have to deeply love and respect the fact that when we think we’re alone in the hills, we’re sometimes reminded that we’re in their home, on their front porch. And although “leave no trace” is a founding principle of outdoor adventure, we should never wander into the wild without leaving it a changed person.
So raise a glass to our life-changing outdoor adventures, to our deepening love for nature and the experiences it holds, and cheers to the eyes in the dark.
written by Laskey Hart
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