Moving Through Grief, Joy, and Everything Else in the Indian Peaks

Exploring the strength, peace, and power we gain from running through mountains.

Written by
Lisa Jhung
·
10
min read
Summary
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Section 1

Between 320 and 280 million years ago, what’s known as the Ancestral Rocky Mountains formed as what are now the continents of Africa and North America were merging together. Over time, leftover sedimentary rock eroded and a geologic event known as the Laramide Orogeny, which took place between 70 and 45 million years ago, created what we see as the Rocky Mountain range. Today’s Rocky Mountain range spans roughly 3,000 miles in length from northern Alberta Canada to New Mexico. The range juts across British Columbia, Alberta, Washington, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Utah, Colorado, and New Mexico. In Colorado, an 18-mile-long, 15-mile-wide segment of the Rocky Mountains separates Boulder County to the east and the Grand County to the west. Seven peaks, 55 lakes, 73,932 acres, and 133 miles of trails makes up this section of the Rockies, known as the Indian Peaks Wilderness. 

I always book a window seat on the right side of the plane when flying from Denver to San Diego. With both of my parents in ailing health for a number of years, I frequently made the trip out west for a two- or three-day visit. And every time I flew—to sit next to my dad in his wheelchair or drive my mom to the beach for just a few steps in the sand on her deteriorating body—I’d stare out the window of the airplane at the mountains below and to the northwest of Denver International Airport.

Photo credit: Lisa Jhung

The trails winding up and down snowcapped peaks. The lakes that sit just below cirques, their blue water framed by sandstone, limestone, and gray shale. The ridgeline that connects the mountains I’ve come to know well. I’d identify peaks and lakes I’d run to on weekend adventures, routes I wanted to tick off on my next outing. 

At home in Boulder, Colorado, I stare at maps. The good, old-fashioned paper kind. I choose routes in the Indian Peaks with trailheads between 40 minutes and an hour’s drive from my house. I pick my runs based on summits and lakes, mostly lakes. Depending on my fitness level, my company, or simply my mood, these runs range between five miles and 18. With the terrain climbing hundreds to, sometimes, thousands of feet in elevation over rocky terrain and crossing creeks, I’m usually on the trail between two hours and a full day. I never start my watch and don’t care about the pace. I stop often to take photos, splash mountain water on my face, sometimes jump in a lake, pet my dog. I run with a pack large enough to carry the fluids and fuel I need—energy chews, nut butters, gels—a rain or windshell, sometimes thin gloves and a beanie, a lip balm, a simple first aid kit, and my phone for a camera. The pack is also small enough to not hinder my movement, not weigh me down.

"I never start my watch and don’t care about the pace. I stop often to take photos, splash mountain water on my face, sometimes jump in a lake, pet my dog"

I already feel heavy as I’m driving down the long, bumpy dirt road to the trailhead of a route I’d been craving on the flight home from this particular trip to San Diego. My mom’s Parkinson’s had been advancing quickly. My dad’s dementia had taken away his ability to communicate, and to stand. I had arranged with my husband, even before boarding the plane, that I needed to head to the mountains the weekend after returning home. He’d take the boys to their soccer games. I’d be home by 1 or 2.

I left early, sipping coffee, craving trees. In September, the aspen trees on this particular trail flutter in the breeze, often against the clear blue sky. I needed to hear the movement, see the contrasting gold and cerulean. 

Photo credit: Lisa Jhung

My yellow lab and I moved along the trail together, the sound of my breath syncing up with the jangle of her dog tags. Her tail wagged, my heart pulled down the trail and toward a lake I’d been to before—one that took my breath away with its beauty, its peace. 

When we got there, I sat. I tore open a bag of energy chews. Stared at the light glistening off the water, splashed a good amount of it on my face. The dog swam. I exhaled.

02

Section 2

The Continental Divide runs 31,000 miles from the Canadian border to the Mexican border across the highest ridgeline of the Rocky Mountains. The “Great Divide,” as it’s also known, separates the eastern and western watersheds in North America. When precipitation or melting snow flows downward on the east side of the Continental Divide, first into alpine lakes and small streams, it eventually ends up in the Atlantic Ocean by way of the Mississippi River, the Missouri River, and the Rio Grande. Any water flowing from the Divide’s western flanks heads west toward the Pacific Ocean by way of the Columbia or Colorado River. A 16-mile segment of the Continental Divide Trail makes up the highest ridgeline of the Indian Peaks Wilderness.

In the car, we talked about The Bachelorette. How Tyler’s pants were so tight and how Connor seemed so nice and normal. Charlie thought it was funny and  wanted to know more. The three of us girls—Sara, Kara (as in Olympian, Kara Goucher, who yes, watches The Bachelorette) and I—indulged, laughing as we drove down the long dirt road towards the wall of peaks, some still covered in snow. 

Kara had run the Leadville Marathon about a month prior, but hadn’t done a mountain run like this—rugged, slow!—before.  

Photo credit: Lisa Jhung

The four of us ran toward the Divide, crossing a couple small creeks across wobbly logs, and enjoying the shade of the pines. At around 11,000 feet in elevation, Kara and I sat on the trail just below the Divide. She’d been experiencing vertigo, so the other two continued to top out at 11,316 feet to look down the other side while the two of us sat on rocks on the ridge’s shoulder, looking east across miles of pines and the landscape sloping downward towards the Colorado Front Range and the Plains in the distance. 

The other two rejoined us and we all began our descent, running toward the second lake. When we reached it, Charlie immediately took his shoes and socks off. “Going in?” he asked.

I was an obvious yes—I love water and have a hard time not jumping in lakes. Sara reluctantly agreed and the two of us shed our shoes, socks, and shirts (down to sports bras). I imagine Kara’s competitiveness—the kind that makes her a champion—kicked in, because she begrudgingly yelled, laughing as she joined the shoe-shedding: “YOU GUYS AND YOUR F#%KING ADVENTURING!” 

That snowmelt water was dang cold, but great. We let the sun warm us up, dried off our feet with our socks, kitted up—refreshed—and ran on toward the car. 

“YOU GUYS AND YOUR F#%KING ADVENTURING!” 

It's this kind of effing adventuring that sticks with you, eases whatever stresses are going on at home, even in the future, and makes friends better friends. Kara joined me on a handful of mountain runs that summer and the next, through the pandemic. She’s now suffering from runner’s dystonia, but we hope to get out on a gentle mountain ramble together again. Maybe we’ll even jump in a lake.  

03

Section 3

Long before settlers moved out west and took the land that we today recreate upon, the Indigenous people of the Ute, Arapaho, and Cheyenne tribes lived and hunted among the mountains. They lived off the land and cared for it as it was the land that sustained them. This Native American history is imperative to acknowledge; peaks in the wilderness are known as Pawnee Peak, Apache Peak, Navajo Peak, etc., named by botanist Ellsworth Bethel in the 1900s. The Indian Peaks region was designated the Indian Peaks Wilderness in 1978. It is managed by the U.S. Forest Service, and protected by organizations like the Indian Peaks Wilderness Alliance, a non-profit run by volunteers.

Between us, we have eight kids spread throughout elementary and high school. We all work—a realtor, a therapist, a marketing director, and a writer. For years, we’ve headed to the hills on occasional summer weekend mornings, chatting and running, running and chatting. Talking partners and kids, youth sports and middle school social drama, physical health and mental health, you name it. 

During the pandemic, these outings became even more of a lifeline than usual. 

There’s a 15-mile loop in the Indian Peaks that I strive to be fit and healthy enough to do every summer. Some years I can pull it off, some I cannot. Some weekends one of us can do it while the other three can’t (or vice versa), due to Little League tournaments, shuttling kids to sleepaway camps, torn ligaments, family travel, strained muscles, etc. Mid-July 2021, mid-pandemic, the stars aligned and the four of us hit the trailhead just as the eastern flank of the peaks turned pink from the rising sun.

Photo credit: Lisa Jhung

As we ran slowly through the pines, a couple of us saw movement in our peripheral vision. A large black bear stood gnawing on grasses, looking at us from maybe 30 feet off the trail to our right. We kept running for a few steps before remembering that we shouldn’t—never run from a predatory animal—and slowed to a brisk walk. We broke into song (which two of us do sometimes anyway). A few minutes down the trail, we marveled at how cool it was to see her/him, but also how cool it was to be out of harm’s way.

Miles later, we passed a familiar lake below the ridge, and a familiar pull tugged at me. I crave the Divide, the feeling of being on top of the world, or at least on top of a ridgeline spanning two distinct sides, two worlds. Cresting the final push to reach the point where you can see down the other side, where any melting snow or falling rain would drain west, fills my lungs with what feels like extra air. I breathe it in. I need it. And through this pandemic, which started one month after my father passed away and four months after my mother passed away, I’ve needed it more than ever.

On that particular day, as we ran the couple miles along the Continental Divide Trail between our southernmost point on the route and our northernmost before dropping back down on the return end of our loop, I banged the shit out of my shin on a granite rock protruding onto the tight singletrack. I yelped a couple expletives, downed a couple Advil, and ran on. I still have the scar to show for it. But what I left up on that ridgeline in skin, I gained in filling my soul.  

"But what I left up on that ridgeline in skin, I gained in filling my soul." 

Every time I return from a run in the mountains, I leave behind a little piece of anxiety, stress, agitation…grief. I pull strength, power, and calm from the rocks, the dirt, the peaks, and the cold, freshwater mountain pools. Most often I come home and stare into my maps to appreciate where I’d just come from. Then I plot out where I’m going next.  

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Author Bio

Lisa Jhung

Boulder, Colorado-based Lisa Jhung is a freelance writer, editor, and author of “Trailhead: The Dirt on All Things Trail Running” (VeloPress, 2015) and “Running That Doesn’t Suck: How to Love Running (Even if You Think You Hate It) (Running Press, 2019). As a journalist, she specializes in writing about outdoor sports and adventure. Her articles have appeared in: Backpacker, Men’s Health, Men’s Journal, Mental Floss, Outside, Runner’s World, and more. Follow her on Instagram at and check out more of her work on her website.

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