Next Stop: The Summit of Missouri Mountain! (Elevation 14,067′)

How do you stay awake, after the alarm comes to life at 0300 hours?   After a couple of cups of coffee, an omelette prepared by my loving wife at 0330… why it’s all about some loud (inspirational) music blaring in the truck as I motor on out to climb another of Colorado’s famous “14ers”, 54 defined peaks in the state that rise above 14,000′.

With four bars present on my iPhone, I dial up some fiery Louisiana Blues and on comes Clarence Frogman Henry wailin’ on some tune called, “I Ain’t Got No Home”:  perfect.

So while a lonely pair of headlights makes it way along remote dirt roads to a trailhead some two hours away, I’m mentally preparing for a very long, long day.   The plan unfolds:

0300:  Wake up your sorry 58 year old butt,

0400:   Drive off for a two hour’s drive through the Colorado Rockies

0600:   Arrive at the Missouri Gulch Trailhead

1100:   Summit

1430:   Return to the Trailhead, open up cooler, savor one tasty IPA

1500:   Drive back home

1700:   Arrive back home and stumble on in to regale wife with heroic tales of mountaineering…

Yeah, plans.   At least it’s a nod to some serious and responsible planning, but things always slip.  And so, as the sun began to rise, painting the the tips of the pretty mountains surrounding me on all sides, so my mood and anticipate rose as well.   It was going to be another fully-charged, great day to be alive!

Pulling into the parking area on time, I had expected to see a good number of cars.   Most serious hikers and climbers arrive well before sunrise so that they can summit and come down before the expected early afternoon thunderstorm unleash their fury (lightning, hail, rain…) .   Missouri Mountain was my sixteenth attempt, having summited on the prior 14 of 15, the latter unsuccessful due to a nasty hail storm near the summit! (Mt. Lindsey).

 

Over the pretty bridge over the creek I went, hoping not to encounter any enterprising, toll-taking Trolls, a gateway to the upper basin on a perfect day!   From the research, I knew I’d be in for a good 10 miles (16 km) of hiking (roundtrip) with a total elevation gain of 4,712′ (~ 1,420 meters).  Barring any ugly weather or surprisingly challenging terrain, this could be reasonably done at my slow pace.

Clear Creek
Crossing Clear Creek by the parking lot.

And up I went; over the wobbly, skinny logs over the upper creek, up the steep trail, past the remnants of an old log cabin and them up onto an amazingly beautiful basin with a clear and robust creek flowing down in the middle.  Frogman Henry’s catchy, little blues tunes were still ringin’ in my old ears when I came upon another hiker, a guy originally from Louisiana stopped at a fork in the trail at around 12,600′:  Dave.

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Breaking up above tree line, with Missouri Mountain just coming into view (center).

“Hey!   Fantastic morning to be alive, ain’t it?”, I said to him enthusiastically

“Heck yeah!   But, I’m totally gassed.   Not sure I want to continue.   Climbed a 14er yesterday…”

“Oh man!  Two in two days?”

“Yeah…”

I’ve found that there are typically two types deep in the wilderness; those who really want to be left alone… and then… people like Dave and I who enjoy the surprise of finding like-minded people with stories to share along the trail.   And so, having planned to drop my pack at this point for a decent break before heading up the steep wall to the saddle above, another good 1,300′ or so on slippery scree and rock trail, I spent time to chat with Dave.

After about 10 minutes, I politely broke and told Dave that if I did not keep on truckin’, I’d be doomed… a mental thing.   He laughed and waved me on, wishing me well as I did him.

After about 10 minutes of pure “Hell on Steep Scree”, something told me to look back; and there slogging up the mountain was my new buddy for the day, Dave!   I did not want to get into his personal space so I kept on my pace up the mountain and planned for another decent break at the saddle.   Only a couple of minutes behind, Dave crested the ridge and once, again, we picked up our effortless conversation from our point about 1,300′ below in the valley!   Next stop: the Summit of Missouri Mountain!

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Summit! Ok… Dave’s sign is a few feet off. No sweat. Close enough!

“Hey… why don’t we hang together on this last 0.7 miles (1 km) to the summit.   Looks a little sketchy.”, I suggested

“Sure!”

And for the balance of the climb and the descent back down to the trailhead, we teamed up for an epic day on top of the world!   Dave told me that he was an EMS Tech and I tried to impress him with my having recently joined my county’s mountain Search and Rescue!  All good along the ridge.

On the way down was a dude in his late 50s or so, with a smile that seemed to stretch from one end of the horizon to the other.   Mental note that would serve me well later that day…

The photos included pretty much speak for themselves.   It was a fantastic day and we were mildly delirious to return to our respective vehicles in the parking lot after a long day, particularly for Dave who had bagged two 14ers in as many days!

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Dave, negotiating a Class 3 portion of the trail at the ridge line.
7
Portions of the trail along the ridge (13,700′ to 14,067′) were a bit sketchy, requiring some careful placement of hands and feet.
8
Back down in the valley at the approximate place where we had met earlier that day. Dave (at left) pointing back at the Fear-Factor ridge line from which we had just descended!

After crossing the bridge, I had the pleasure to meet Dave’s wife and friendly Lab, both who had climbed with him the day before.   Then, perhaps the funniest part of the day unfolded.

Sitting behind my pickup truck in the parking lot, flip-flops on instead of boots (!), one IPA going down the old gullet, a lady’s voice calls out from across the lot…

“How was your climb?”

“Uh… great!  Thanks!”

“Mind if I ask what mountain your were on?”

“Missouri”

“Did you happen to see a guy with a bushy, red beard (not her words exactly)?”

“Yeah!   I saw him!   He looked very happy to have summited!”

So we began to chat and realized that he should have been down before us.   We had not seen him along the one trail heading down and I got a little concerned… as I realize, in retrospect, so was she.

Something dogged me as I bade her farewell and drove off; a feeling that I should not have left before her husband returned.   Darn…   bad call.  Lesson learned.

Then, about six miles farther down the dirt, forest road I see him under a tree!   Without looking in my rearview mirror, I instinctively (and rather dramatically) slam on my brakes effecting a massive dust storm behind me…

“Hey there!   Your wife is waiting for you at the parking lot!”

Ha, ha, ha…   life is funny, eh?   “PJ” jumps into my truck for the ride back to the trailhead.  Turns out, we both fled Maryland for Colorado and are both now hooked on climbing!   PJ, looking very relieved, kinda looks like a more fit and outdoorsy version the bearded fella of the Grateful Dead.

I laugh all the way home, reflecting on this hilarious and satisfying day, set in a dramatic terrain filled with like-minded explorers all drawn to the beauty of this magnificent landscape.

… another day not wasted.  Check.

“I’m a lover not a fighter…”, the Louisiana Blues lyrics carry me all the way home to my loving wife.

 

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Rockin’ in La Plaza Major (de Madrid)

Summer of 1977

Madrid, Spain

Funny, the ancient memories that slowly come back to life as we get older and have more time to reflect.   Sometimes all it takes is an old tune not heard in 40 years to bring things back to life.   Incredible to think it has been that long since I lived in Madrid.

Real Summer jobs were no fun.  Sure, the paychecks were more steady than playing rock and roll in smokey bars, but life’s so short and even at 17, I knew you had to grab your fun while the going was good and carefree.

And that sure was the case in Madrid back in the day.   No restrictions on the weekend and pocket change got you a Metro ticket to the heart of the city.   So, I’d drag my acoustic guitar in its case and head down to the old center to play for “bar cash”.

Back in the day, I had “big”, blonde hair and a bit of a wild attitude and so when I emerged from the depths of the underground, suddenly the streets were alive with people on their way to restaurants, discos, and cafes and I knew it was just a flight of stairs up and through the grand arches into the old Plaza Major.

Past the steamed up window of the place that sold fresh Calamare sandwiches, a place almost impossible to resist.   Then a little more into the center and I’d open my guitar case and let the old rock n roll tunes begin…

Johnny b Good, some Lynyrd Skynyrd, and a few classic tunes from the Stones.

… and some Aretha, naturally.   “R   Eee  S  Pee  Eee  See  Tee!”

but, Johnny b Good was by far, the crowd favorite.

Easy and recognizable tunes and before long, I’d have a sweet crowd of about 40 to 50 people merrily singing along.   It really didn’t matter that I kinda sucked…   so long as I projected the right energy, all was good.   There was always an extrovert in the crowd who helped me woo the crowd.   Always.

… and then, the pile of Pesetas and coins would build and when things finally died down, I’d smile and thank the crowd and not infrequently, would be invited to party in the area at the outdoor cafes, the nearby discos, or the Flamenco places that were around the corner down cobblestoned streets and a couple of flights down in some dungeon.

Magic was always in the air on the weekend in Madrid.

And as I sit now in my camping chair in my garage high over the valley, here in this remote part of Colorado enjoying another glorious sunset over the mountains in the distance, I smile as I reflect of a simple and carefree chapter of my youth, now long, long gone.

… well, not in spirit.

Keep the Horizon a Mystery

Why, if you are not careful, Life will seem like you have stepped in between two large mirrors where your days past and future all seem the same.   Never let that happen.

Stepping into Custer County’s Search and Rescue Barn that afternoon to be interviewed for the unpaid position of mountain rescue, I had to laugh for a split second inside my head as I approached the two leaders of this fascinating organization.   One had served in Vietnam while the other of similar age had rushed back from his golf game wearing an elegant polo shirt with “Alfa Romeo” stitched in an equally elegant font:  Ying/Yang!   Nothing in this remote mountain valley is what it appears on the surface.

“Alec.   These are standard questions we ask our prospective members.   Are you ok with that?”, asked the military veteran.

“Yes Sir.  Happy to answer any questions you may have.”, I replied, working to maintain a crisp demeanor in front of these two who I’m certain have seen quite a lot in their lives.   Alfa Romeo?  My mind drifts to Lake Como in the Northern Italian Alps…

“Have you ever seen a dead person up close?”, question one.

I knew this one was coming.

“I sure have.   Saw a motorcycle under a semi and the rider under the truck.  Just happened.   I was ten.   Seen three others, one by their own hand.  Gruesome.   I’m ok with being close to death.   I guess you guys see this in the mountains every so often.”, came my impulsive reply.

And more questions followed and, oddly, I felt right at home in this setting; much more so than many of the interviews I could recall in the stultifying, corporate offices years ago.   Somehow, this felt natural, as though Fate had finally brought me to where I was supposed to be.   Home.

“Looking over your application, I think we’ll be assigning you to the team that goes high.”

A good feeling came over me just then as I realized not only that I’d have the privilege of joining this good group but that I’d actually find myself up higher where direct/initial contact is made with the climbers in need.

Sitting in my tomb-like office at the headquarters of Lockheed Martin back in the 1990s, why I would never have imagined doing something like this in my late fifties.   Never.  Sipping espressos in a cafe on the island of Capri, yes.   Hauling gear up high in the middle of the night here in the Colorado Rockies, never.

And why wrestle with Fate?   Fate wins.  Always.   And so, as I now begin to look back on my odd and disjointed life, I have finally begun to surrender to the greater forces and that, my friends, is actually quite liberating.

And so…

I’ve held a heavy vulture in Mongolia, worked alongside rough laborers on an 8″ pipeline in South Georgia, sailed in an elegant wooden racing sailboat with an elderly Austrian count on a pretty lake in Austria, smoked a $30 Cuban cigar on the balcony of the Hôtel de la Cigogne in Geneva, and recently followed my crazy wife up a class four smooth granite rock chute to the top of a mountain we own in the Colorado Rockies.

What the future holds is anyone’s guess…

And when this old dog returns to this wonderful valley next May, I’ll be issued some Search and Rescue stickers for my truck, some rather bright jackets, shirts, and reflective cap… and likely, the call will come in the middle of the night and within 30 minutes, I’ll be dragging myself into the SAR Barn to be briefed about a mission to go up high into the mountains to either recover or rescue a climber in need; hopefully rescue…

The road detours in the most interesting ways if only we relax our minds, surround ourselves with those with equally crazy tales to tell, and begin to see, really see…

And in the timeless words of Marcus Aurelius, we are encouraged to:

“Accept the things to which fate binds you, and love the people with whom fate brings you together, but do so with all your heart.”

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.

 

Oregon: Instilling Respect for Grand Spaces

I can still remember the day that I took my son Anthony and his cousin, Sean, climbing up on Mount Hood.  It was a glorious day, the sun shining, the skies a dark blue against the bright snow and ice above.   Strange as it is, I can almost look left in my mind’s eye and see the two of them grinning ear to ear as we went higher and higher up above the clouds that morning in Oregon.

Disguised as “vacations”, we would organize our family trips to look for potential places to retire and Oregon held a certain allure to my wife who had lived there years ago.   There was so much to explore in such a short period of time, and as usual, she had us superbly organized.    Leave things to me, and I’d likely have us camping on the beach out of a 1967 VW Hippy Bus…

Seems to me that it was our turn now to show the kids the wonders of our beautiful planet and to instill in them a profound respect for our wild spaces.  We’d been camping with them for years, but Oregon was truly grand!  The approach to this was fairly simple, just bring them there, let it all soak in at an early age, and they’d never, ever be satisfied to live an ordinary life again.   A curse, perhaps, but a spell worth casting.

I’ve come to understand that the best remedy to our man-made ills is to simply drive far away to grand, natural spaces.   To stoke up that wonderful and magical feeling of awe as we stand before treasures such as Crater Lake, the Grand Canyon, and the Impact Crater is to imbue within us an undeniable feeling that we are small and fleeting in the grand scheme of things and this, I have found, is a great relief.  None of us is really important at all.   Trade the BigFootprint McMansion, ditch your rarely used yacht, and live in the footsteps of John Muir!   Simple is good, and hey, pretty affordable to boot!

So many of our worries and ills are unnecessary if we would simply remember to leave the man-made chatter in our rear view mirrors.   There’s a James Bond type red button in your Austin Healy labeled, “Screw the drama”.   Press it now!  And as in his movies, your vexing villain will soon be ejected out of the sunroof never to be seen again.

The other day I dropped off my old hiking boots to get resoled.  It was almost as agonizing as dropping of my little ones at day care years ago.

“Three weeks or so?”, I asked.

Smiling, the healthy and fit woman in her late sixties with the long, grey pony tail, smiled a bit and answered with her eyes.  It was clear, she’d kick my ass up any mountain around here.

Two weeks to go while my right foot heals from surgery and my old hiking boots get a second life.  Can’t wait.   My son will be home on leave and maybe the four of us can take a slow, long walk into the wild.