There shall be no settling down for these old dudes. For once you suck the sweet high-alpine nectar, the idea of “acting our age” is really not an option at all! So, we press on and up and quickly forget the suffering that climbing brings as we seek new terrain here in the Colorado Rockies. Well, sometimes we forget.
Last time that I had attempted to climb to the summit of Mount Lindsey (14,048′) last year, I was met by an astonished young climber who said to me…
“Sir, when I am as old as you are, I sure hope that I’m also still climbing!”
Ok, I suspect that was a compliment, and I was too tired to read too much into it! Besides, the profile of the peak past the saddle at 13,000′ looked downright scary to me at the time. Truth be told, I had blown past the trailhead that led to California Peak, a far more modest peak I had meant to climb, and had impulsively decided to go ahead and climb this one located farther up the road.
From what I’ve learned from reading a couple of hundred accounts of mountaineering accidents, it is the accumulation of small errors in judgment that frequently account for tragedy in the mountains. In my case, it would have gone something like this:
- Failed to research and study the routes to the summit,
- Started late in the day (risking lightning strikes),
- Climbed solo.
The hike up to the saddle was mostly steep, involving a couple of nuisance stream crossings at the beginning, but nothing risky. At the saddle to the peak, the last 1,100′ of climbing to the top looked much more “interesting”. Since I had not researched this peak prior to climbing, I found myself relying on the few climbers coming off of the mountain for information. Not a particular fan of exposed, Class three scrambling, I chose the NW Gully (as depicted in the main photo), but was driven back when dark clouds engulfed the mountain and hail began to drop.
My instincts instructed me to haul my old butt off of this mountain … NOW with my cowardly self quickly complying as I returned safely to my cozy home last year.
But… I simply had to return to step on the top of this glorious peak. Having sipped from the chalice the year before, I was determined to revisit this, as I had come tantalizingly close to her pretty summit.
And this time, I had done the research and had found a great climbing partner in my new friend, Ed, a retired National Park Service Ranger with 35 years of experience in some of our country’s wildest places. I had joined our county’s mountain Search and Rescue group a few months back, and had come to enjoy Ed’s company and trusted his judgment; the kind of climbing partner that infuses confidence with every step up the trail.
So off we went to find our start in the early morning in August. Passing the large boulder field, we made our way up to ever more glorious views of this pristine wilderness. And up we went, slowly… surely, possibly even elegantly, but that would be for others to judge. Ok, likely not elegantly.
At the saddle (main photo), we stopped to reassess our route options and chose the same one as I had come to know the year before. Now, mind you, at 58 and 68, our options were not quite what they may have been 40 years ago…, but young spirits prevailed and after a good break, we made our way up the final 1,100′.
Class three climbing in this setting required helmets and three points of contact as we carefully wound our way up.
“Ed, I’m seeing leftover snow, ice, and probably mud on our route. Your thoughts?”
In his typical manner, Ed quickly quipped,
“Hey, it’s your climb. You make the call.”
So I did and slowly, we traversed along the rocky and ever faint path to the bottom of the gully, carefully placing our feet and hands and testing our holds. Frequently, we stopped and rotated lead positions always mindful of rockfall, snow, mud, and ice.
Three years into my early retirement and now I find myself on this insane (by my standards) route up one of Colorado’s 53 14ers with a much more experienced mountaineer and I begin to ask myself how wise it is to proceed. But quickly, I mute the voice of doubt.
And up we go, carefully maneuvering past the crux of the route, a deep V-shaped line where we calmly find our way along the side of the gully for sound purchase of footholds along thinner and thinner ledges, I notice the quickly moving and darkening clouds and my heart sinks.
“Crap, Ed! Looks like ugly weather making its way behind the mountain again this year!”
“Yup. And we don’t want to have to call our Search and Rescue friends! I would rather die here before I ever make that call!”
“Agreed. Let’s break here and have lunch, enjoy the view, and wait this out for a few minutes.”
So, it was that we sat on this gnarly slope, goofing off, trying to keep warm as the first of the grapple begins to hit our helmets.
I look at my Garmin GPS and note that we are at 13,812’… about 200′ from the summit.
Without much conversation, we decide we’d prefer to live and so we grab our packs and ever so carefully retreat off of this glorious mountain to give it another shot next year.
200′ from the top; the Tortures of Tantalus.
But it was a wise call as we turned around once more to see the entire peak being hit hard with hail.
Back at the trailhead, I reach in for a couple of tasty IPAs, pop them open and hand one to my climbing partner.
“Well Ed, I think we made a good call. What do you think?”
“Hell yeah, we did. AND… we didn’t have to call Search and Rescue to get our sorry asses off of this mountain!”
Yeah… bonus. Maybe next year.