No Rest for Old Mountaineers

The iPhone vibrated against my ribcage at an uncivilized 0500 hours on “Day 2” of our mountain adventure.   Somehow, it was a TedTalk from a couple of years ago on the subject of activation energy that infused a bolt of temporary vigor and willpower to get me to leave my cozy and almost warm sleeping bag to start our day’s adventure.

My good friend, Paul and I had driven over five hours two nights ago to arrive at a remote campsite in another high alpine valley, in fact just a  kind of flat spot next to a pull-off by a gnarly forest road at around 11,400′ to begin our weekend of “fun” with the goal of climbing two mountains.

We’d climbed a mountain in the same range the day before and now hoping our aging bodies would recover mercifully to allow for today’s hike up Uncompahgre Peak at 14,309′ (4,365m) the tallest mountain in this region and the 6th highest of the Colorado 14ers (regional parlance to describe mountains that rise in excess of 14,000′).   Having carefully examined the route on Google Earth before our departure, it seemed quite benign; almost a casual stroll in the Highlands, if you will.

But the very nature of the word, adventure, reminds us to keep a wary eye for the unexpected.   Would it come in the way of a flat tire on a steep, unpaved and deeply rutted and rocky US Forest Service road leading up to the trailhead, personal injury, or in the need to assist in helping a fellow hiker return safely down?   Never can predict.

And, once again, the cruel cycle repeats…

  •  Recover from last hike and forget the pain, close call(s), discomfort,
  • Feel a growing agitation,
  • Locate source of agitation (or not),
  • Leave impulsively for the mountains to climb again…   repeat (i.e., lesson not learned and no hope of ever learning it!)

Oh, the human mind…  you unpredictable thing!

Signing in to the kiosk that early morning and seeing hundreds of names in the register from earlier in the year, anticipation grew as we once again set foot on brand-new trail.   The weather was just right as we ascended into the higher plateaus and… soon, there she was, in full splendor; Uncompahgre Peak beckoning us, rising a good 2,500′ from where we stood.

No need for scheduled breaks for it seemed that every few minutes, we’d see another angle, a changed light, and another chance to capture this wonderful spot on Earth.

View down from the summit looking down to the trail that led up here.

Up we went to find climbers returning from sun-rise ascents, Marmots eyeing us quizzically like natives in the Peruvian Andes, tents grouped upon magnificent perches with dizzyingly stunning views of the peaks beyond, and fellow hikers way up on the mountain making their way to the summit.

And up we went with anticipation of expanding views to the valleys below.

Hiking down, savoring views missed from behind!

Stopping for a much-needed break at around 13,500′, we spied the approaching group of three climbing up at a brisk pace,

“Looks like the trail runners we saw yesterday, eh Paul?”, I remarked.   The young ladies had literally been running up and down valleys that day.

“Oh to be young again…”

“Yeah”

… except as the three passed us, the husband trailing behind stopped to chat.  They were in their mid-seventies with bodies of 20 year olds!   His wife and her girlfriend were in the process of bagging their 41st 14er and for her 70th birthday, he had surprised her with a planned  through-hike of the entire length of the Colorado Trail (486 miles with about 88,000′ of elevation gain and loss).  What a “gift”.

The old chap knew very well the effect this comment would have on us…

Mindset, reasonably healthy respect for our bodies, and a will to push through imaginary barriers largely created by society’s relentless efforts to numb us down… (nice try) and the world’s adventures await you as well.

Why, maybe in 15 years, I’ll be the 72 year old with some funny stories to share with fellow hikers…    or with some luck in 30 or, hell,  why set timid goals …in 45.   Why not?

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Inspirations…

Sipping wine late into the evening, I watch the sun set behind the wonderful Sangre de Cristo mountains across the valley on this still night and wonder what my mother, a true Austrian alpinist would have thought of what my wife and I have pulled off.   My gaze drifts over to the Austrian Pine that we had planted in her honor and know that in a hundred years, others will sit here and have their own thoughts … when the young tree then towers majestically in their presence.

We don’t have forever to get in our groove in life, do we.   Best if we find a way to forgive ourselves and others and quietly move in the direction of that soulful piano player in the distance calling us to smile, dance a little, and savor our existence on this planet of ours.

Looking at these ancient photos of mom and her friends roped up high in the Alps, I’ve got to believe that these were some of her best moments; precious and uninhibited moments disconnected from the travails of humanity and its fabricated problems… a place where the views grow to farther horizons with each step up.

These shots were taken about 65 years ago, but nothing much changes on the looks of those who find themselves high up in the mountains.   The grins are all the same, the elegant and stylish clothes a little different, ok.

 

So, intuitively, we understand that we stand at a crossroads in life and the choice is ours, really; do we squander our gift of time with distraction, or… do we say “screw that” and find what makes us come alive!   The choice is ours.

When my mother died in my arms in our home that summer of 2006, she passed on to us her torch to live life to it’s extreme potential, without harm to self, to others, or to our planet.  The people she touched along the way… all felt a piece of that energy as well.  She had inspired many, many who would call me over the coming weeks to tell me how she touched their lives.

Yes, indeed.  I hear the distant music playing its soulful tune and the call is clear; waste not a minute of the time you have left.   Find and reconnect with old friends, make new ones, and go out and spread some inspiration of your own.

Tomorrow, my wife and I will take a short drive across this wonderful valley to hike at our leisure, the Rainbow Trail; what a delightful name for a trail, yes?   Later, this weekend, I pick up my good friend Paul for what promises to be another epic hike up to a remote mountaintop in the San Juan Mountains (Uncompahgre Peak) smiling on the way up, giddy at the top, and possibly skipping with delight on the way down.

It’s a great life…   Why not be an inspiration to others along life’s Grand Journey?

Cheers

Savoring the Sweet High Alpine Nectar

Like the recent Solar Eclipse, sometimes life lines up nicely and you realize that it’s ok to be content.   Lord knows there is enough out there trying to bring us down.

“Deflector shields up, Scotty!” … keep it all out, I say.  Let only the good in.

Scrolling through the thousands of iPhoto shots taken within a three hour’s radius of our house, I sometimes shake my head in disbelief.   Are we really living in this mountain paradise or will the alarm soon ring and we be brutally returned to the grindstone?

No.   This is where we are now.

Hiking up above tree line, to mountain lakes surrounded by imposing mountain walls, not a soul here to disrupt your moment, save for the occasional Marmot!   And don’t you turn your back on these furry thieves for a moment… for they WILL steal your well-earned snacks!

Sitting on the grassy slopes above the lakes on a lazy summer day, looking down hundreds of feet to the pristine mountain lakes, the sun and puffy clouds dancing, casting their playful shadows all around, and you know that life doesn’t get much sweeter than this.

Way below, a hiker and his trusty hiking doggie are making their way up… and soon they will be passing by on their way farther up the trail.

And I sometimes wonder, is this what Heaven will look like?

 

 

Feeling Alive Above Treeline

The Snows have mostly melted above 12,000′ here in the Colorado Rockies and I find that some of the most pleasing days up in the mountains come in late May/early June when the upper trails are clear, but the remaining snowfields are still present, creating a stunning contrast of dark blues, stark whites, against a texture of rock.

This is my third summer in Colorado, having spent the first two gaining skills, losing weight, and going higher and longer, mostly solo.   In the summer of 2015, I climbed for a total of 32,300′, last year for 102,000′ and this year I’m hoping to break 200,000′.  At 57, things don’t get any easier, but maybe… just maybe, an aging body’s reach can be helped with a stronger mindset and, of course, a durable sense of humor.

I had spied Mount Herard over the Great Sand Dunes back in September of 2007 when I raced through Colorado stopping off at interesting spots along a wide loop, thinking quietly as I sat on High Dune about 700′ over the trailhead… just how cool it would be to climb that magnificent mountain in the distance someday, someday.

Years later, while volunteering to build trails on the Western slope of the Sangre de Cristo mountains, I once again marveled at the awe-inspiring grandeur of this setting while touring the Baca Wildlife Refuge and saw that magnificent peak once again.

Sangre de Cristo Mountains
View over to the Sand Dunes and the Sangre de Cristo Mountains from the Baca Wildlife Refuge.

And it was during a random Internet search of things to do at the Dunes that I had stumbled by chance upon a YouTube video of a really interesting hike to the top of this mountain and so, the wheels were set in motion to get up this peak soon!  And the “Die was Cast”!

Finally, yesterday, pushing off at around 0500 hours, I drove down our wide valley in search of the Medano Pass, a rough forest service road that traverses the range through a Bison Ranch.   And as I made my turn onto the pass just as the sun was grazing the tall prairie grasses with the first rays of the day, there they were… three large herd of Elk making their way into the higher plains.

Passing them as I made my way higher to the pass, the alpenglow upon the peaks of the high mountains were like Sirens taunting me ever closer into their embrace, and willingly I went… naturally.

The drive up the pass is half the adventure and when I found my spot to park, the gentle early morning breezes picked up heralding what was to be another epic day in the high alpine regions of this incredible mountain range.

Medano Lake
Looking down from the couloir at Medano Lake below.

Having registered at the trailhead’s sign-in sheet at around 0718, I found myself up at the high alpine lake at around 0930 and up at the saddle at around 1015.   The view down to the lake and out to the valley below was simply breathtaking.  And then it was over the crux of the hike to the summit, the upper ridge to the keyhole offering passage to the final segment.

Ridge line to the false summit
The path taken to gain access to the keyhole (an opening in the rock at the false summit; allowing me access to the gentler, final slope to the true summit).

At this point, I had been hiking up approximately 3,550 feet and staring at a somewhat daunting last 850 feet and it is at this point best to rest, drink water, and survey one’s surroundings and assess one’s energy levels.   Feeling oddly strong and confident, I chose to press on to the top; something always a little riskier when going solo.

“Slow and steady”, came my inner voice reminding me that safety in the mountains always wins over a human-manufactured need to summit… always slow and steady.   And this time the voice added “and just see what happens, step-by-step”.

Looking East out to the San Luis Valley
Photo taken approximately half-way up the ridge line with a view over to the San Luis Valley.

There’s a mysterious, involuntary and almost indescribable feeling that wells up in one’s soul when alone so high on a mountain’s exposed ridge, peering down to the headwalls that only moments before appeared so daunting looking up from below!   And each slow step steadily heightens this view and you realize… just how small and insignificant you really are in time and place.

View to the Spanish Peaks
Once through the keyhole at the top of the ridge, the promised, gentle grassy slopes appear with a clear path to the summit!

Great relief to make it onto to easier terrain!   Now, up at over 13,000 feet, the mind shifts to auto pilot at seeing the faint and easy path to the summit.

The Great Sand Dunes
Looking down, from the summit of Mount Herard (13,350′).

… and there they are, the magnificent Great Sand Dunes so far below, with a number of other peaks in the distance, many over 14,000 feet high farther South.   Like a grand mirage, this rare view I had all to myself yesterday.  And I simply sat down on the grassy slope and held this view for a time thinking just how beautiful our planet is… and though I am not religious, I certainly felt humbled by it all.   Looking down at the Dunes, I recalled the day back in 2007 that I had stared up at this point wondering what it would be like to climb it … and now here I was.

Western ridge line.
Climbing down the north ridge line with a view to the east ridge below.

Of course, those of us who’ve read mountaineering literature in our comfortable, worn leather chairs during winter months are reminded that the going down is typically the most dangerous part of the day’s journey…   Easy to fall into a mindless daze and not focus.

Looking North
View over to more of the mountains (looking North) that rise above 14,000 feet.

And as I descended down through the valley to the lake below and then through the dense forests that led to the trailhead…  I turned back a few times to bid farewell to my temporary place high up… a wonderful terrain so far removed from the hectic pace of our modern world.

Ah, and of course, the prize, one cold beer waiting for me at my truck!   Sitting in my camping chair, reflecting on the day, tension largely dissipated, a smile came over me; I’m doing things now that I’d never imagined I’d ever do when I was far younger…  and life is great, each day precious!

 

Chasing the Horizon

My wonderful soul mate had once again cut me free to explore this magnificent place here in the high mountains of Colorado.   Feeling thankful that I had the privilege of another day on this beautiful planet, the sun winking over the low ridge line over to the East, tickling the tops of the tall, swaying grasses as the world around me began to stir.

And as the dueling fiddles played out their joyful notes over the radio, like playful birds on a Spring day, the dust beginning to kick up behind me as I drove across the valley, I could feel the energy of the early morning build.

It’s not easy to convey what it’s like to live out here, in big sky country where noble game outnumbers busy people, where the early rays light up the belly of a hawk sitting up high on a telephone pole, where the Antelope run freely and the Bighorn dance so gracefully upon the granite walls…

It’s a place that reaches deep inside of you, Mother Earth’s gentle hands cupping your hopeful soul with promises of a big day whispering in your ear if only you’ll surrender to the call.  You’ll find that when your bars vanish from your iPhone, that you’ve very likely stepped into an awe-inspiring valley or found yourself under the shade of the mother of all mountains, and now you feel the bars inside you multiply as you feel small and somewhat vulnerable.

Travel slowly on foot, solo, and your senses will awaken for you to see and hear things you may never have before.   Now you find yourself high up in a valley that makes you want to drop to your knees and pray to ask, “Am I really here?”, or have you not quite yet stepped out of that wonderful dream…

You’ve not seen a soul all day nor has your peace and tranquility been interrupted by a human sound since you’ve quieted the engine that brought you here hours ago.  And as the gentle, mountain air begins to heat up and rip through that unbroken Aspen grove, their wonderful leaves dancing before you, an irrepressible smile wells up.

To once again see this world through youthful eyes as you step ever higher on the fading trail, a glorious alpine valley that asks nothing of you but an open heart and a good spirit.

And you know that you’ve finally broken free and you wonder how you could have ever followed all of those red lights for so many years.

Up high on the rock pinnacle standing sentry, a lone Bighorn Sheep turns to look down upon you, it’s kindly face seemingly inviting you higher.   You keep trusting your instincts as your labored steps take you high above the alpine lakes, to the summit now lit up with the full force of the late, morning sun drawing you to it.

Up onto the last of the steep switchbacks, looking up to the high ridge line that promises you endless views and you hear it, now faintly for the first time…  a pair of fiddles playing a soulful melody and you again look up to find a mother and child swaying freely, the little girl’s hair blowing in the wind.

Now you surely know that your last heartbeat happened way farther down and this is where your contented soul shall rest, for this is what Heaven on Earth must surely be.

 

Taking the Back Road Home

Always play it safe in life, and your outcomes are likely going to be fairly predictable.   And though it took me a while to finally believe it, my wife is the true risk taker in our family.   So I was not really surprised when she turned to me earlier today and asked if we could take the more “interesting” (read, untested) way home.

“If the snow is too deep or it looks too crazy, we can always turn back”, she said calmly, her devilish grin betraying her concern.

Still unable to drive for another week due to foot surgery, I was her hostage and had no real voice in the matter.   Well, in-fact, I too was itching to explore this high mountain pass, but quietly had visions of hobbling 20+ miles back to civilization had we experienced a problem.   But I kept my unmanly worries private.

Since our move to rural Colorado in May of 2015, we’ve fanned out all across our area to find interesting and challenging routes into the mountains.

And off we went, deploying our two cell phones as navigational aides (Google Maps and Viewranger apps).  We had become familiar with the terrain, the landmark peaks, and so the risk was somewhat minimized. A quick scan of the north-facing mountain sides revealed that snow had largely melted above 10,000′ and the last two days of sunshine would have dried-up much of the dirt roads.

And up we went.   Up above the hippy-artsy town of Salida, up on exposed roads with undiminished views over to the Collegiate Peaks, and then up and into the deep woods, still hibernating from Winter.   Only one pickup truck passed us going the other way in the two hours of driving the 43 miles of road.   But there was plenty of wildlife to see; wild turkeys, mule deer, a magnificent hawk, and even a couple of curious horses and a mommy and baby cow.

As with anything that involves absorbing a bit of discomfort, the end result is almost always satisfying.   We’d pulled off a couple of times to listen to the perfect stillness and much of my joy was in watching my wife enjoy this crazy drive.

The deep mud ruts promised to suck us in a couple of times and the steeper, muddy switchbacks got a bit insane near the top, but it was all worth the extra hour-plus that it had taken on the way home.

Absolutely… slow down and take that interesting road you’ve always passed on by.   Who knows what joy and freedom await you?

Waiting on a Second Life

He wondered what it must have been like back in the day.    Rolling off of the assembly line and into the shiny showroom,  buyers admiring her graceful lines, ladies in fashionable dresses and wearing white gloves, men in proper suits and sporting their fedoras.   Who would have been the first to drive her off of the lot?

Duke Ellington is playing on the brand new radio as his mind drifts.

And he wonders what places this forgotten automobile had seen in her long life?   Had it been an ordinary one, going to and from home and work, or had its first owner had the luxury of time, energy, money, and a romantic eye to the horizon?   What had been this car’s fate back in 1938?

His thoughts travelled to a world long faded from view and far away that evening in the empty car lot.

He could begin to see the older man shaking hands with the new buyers of his modest home, somewhere near Taos, New Mexico.   Yes, that’s it.   Now, his wife is smiling at their fresh possibilities, their  Airedale Terrier jumping willingly into the back seat as they drive off into the dust and on down to places yet to be discovered.   He’d deposited the royalty check from his last novel and now it was time for the two to explore.

Finally, the line approached and off they were, unencumbered with regret, second thoughts, or the slightest doubt.  Dues had been quietly paid over the years and no-one had been betrayed in their quest to live free.  Oh, certainly, there were times when the floor seemed soft like quicksand and their vision obscured with distraction, but somehow, they found a way to lean forward in the direction of their dreams and the day had finally come.

Reaching in the back seat, the woman opened the case to her prized violin, brought it to the front and began to play an inspiring melody that seemed to match the moment perfectly.  Looking to her, he noticed tears running down her cheek as she settled in to her instrument, her white scarf flowing in the wind along with the notes in the air.  Rare, they knew, that such freedom could lift their souls so effortlessly.

“Hey there, she’s a beauty isn’t she?”, exclaimed the salesman.   “Sure is.   I’ve just got to wonder what she’s seen in her long life.”

“An old lady called me a few weeks back and said she had something she thought I might be interested in, something that had been gathering dust for years.  Imagine that!  I’m closing up, but you’re welcome to stay.  Just shut the gate behind you when you leave. Oh!  And here’s my card.”

He smiled and turned away as the salesman returned back to his office in the warehouse, turning off, one by one, the bright lights outside.  The breeze picked up a bit and there was a sudden chill in the evening air.

Returning to his daydream,

The young, Bolivian child looked up and turned to see a plume of dust winding its way across the altiplano.   Cars were rare in 1938 and the sound it made was quite unusual.   The closer it came, the more excited he became.   And as it neared, it slowed down and stopped along the old, dirt road.  Roosters fluttering their wings by the mud brick hut near the road.

He could see two people in good spirits with a large piece of paper in hand.

“Excuse me please, child, could you tell me in what direction the village of Challapata may be?”

The excitement in the little boy was contagious as he pointed with great enthusiasm in the general direction of where they would need to go.  Mount Sajama was beginning to reveal herself in all of her glory as though rising magically from the far-distant horizon.

Bidding him farewell, they continued down the primitive, lonely road to their next day’s paradise and before long the land was once again still, save for the sounds of crows above.

“She’s had a great life”, came the voice from behind.   Turning around, he found a beautiful older woman, half sad, but somehow come alive, her long, gray hair flowing in the gentle breeze, a note clasped in her hands.

“I can only imagine”, he said as he walked slowly over to her.   “Did you know the owners?”

“Yes, I certainly had.   They used to live in New Mexico years ago, when they decided to sell it all and travel down to South America.  Had a wonderful, carefree time for almost a year.”

Stumbling back as he felt himself get a bit dizzy, recovering quickly to see if he wasn’t dreaming.

“My word…  really?”

“Yes, dear.  I can tell you all about it if you have a little time”, the evening sun revealing a weathered face filled with stories to tell, sad eyes almost, but a gentle and inviting look to the old woman.

“Of course!   Please do.”

And in her wistful way, she began to unfold a wonderful story of exploration, of dreams, of writing poetry on the beach, of quaint villages and wonderful, simple restaurants along their route to the tip of South America.    He’d been the love of her life and theirs had only grown sweeter with time.  Rare, she knew.

So when the illness was diagnosed the year before, they understood that they had little time remaining and so it was that they had embarked on their grand adventure to the end.

The old woman’s voice was strangely comforting as she told her story.   The sun was getting ready to disappear, casting its growing shadow on where they stood.  Turning to the old car, he asked her,

“It must have been a magnificent chapter in your lives…”

No response.   And as he turned around to ask again, she was gone.  Disoriented, he looked everywhere and could not imagine how she could have vanished so quickly in the open space and then he noticed a piece of paper left under the left windshield wiper; something not there the moment before.

Carefully unfolding the note, it read,

“When the sun has set, no candle can replace it”, a serpentine line drawn from the words into a violin being lifted by two hearts.

Leaning on the old car, he wondered what had just happened.  Had he imagined it all? Maybe though, perhaps… maybe not.   More and more, he was surrendering to the notion that there were no coincidences in life, just the occasional guides along the way if we should ever slow our thoughts and open up our minds.

[Image:  Icon4x4.com and filtered through the Prisma app for artistic effect.]