Like a train now speeding out of the terminal, the lampposts of time seem to be passing by at an ever increasing speed… And, I suppose, one could whine about that or, draft-up a Bucket List and stay busy! Life’s been great, despite my best efforts at tripping myself up. A team of skilled guardian angels still have more time on the clock, إن شاء الله, (God Willing).
2019 was another incredible year in early retirement, having climbed another 10 of the 53 fourteen thousand foot peaks here in Colorado without injury or death. And while it may seem more prudent to give it all up, I feel strangely as if the years have (mercifully) been pealed back to when I was 30 or so. I feel as good as I have ever felt, having shed about 25+ pounds since retirement.
It is a bit unsettling, with all of our “smart” devices, to be targeted now for a myriad of pills, AARP, and Medicare plans. If only they knew; neither my wife nor I take any medications at all! Rather, we medicate ourselves by living a healthier lifestyle of hiking in the mountains in Colorado and walking endlessly on the beaches when in Florida.
Last 4th of July, I found myself in town for the annual parade in the frontier town of Westcliffe (population; 600), pulled up my camping chair and basked in the high alpine sun to a wonderful celebration of the town’s many people on display. Time… it’s having the time to calm down enough to enjoy these precious moments in life. How many years had I spent glued to my iPhone wondering if my next client was going to give me some more business? Always distracted, always stressed… I wondered if that little cowboy realized just how luck he was.
No doubt, getting older kinda sucks in a way. I’m starting to feel some joint pain in my right shoulder and my hands hurt a little after a hard day’s work. But, all else is good shape and I have no intention of slowing down! Ok, well maybe a little. I’ve decided to give up competitive racketball and tennis and even downhill skiing, so that I may continue to hike, climb, kayak, and workout. It seems like a fair trade. No complaints.
Yes, the clock is surely ticking and it’s not likely to stop. So what are our options? Bemoan the slipping away of youth or snap to and shore up our mindset? I’ve learned to choose the latter. There’s so much left to do.
The voice inside your head asks… “Are you a Man or a Mouse?” And it continues to dog you, shaming you to step up and answer truthfully until you can bear it no longer.
“Psst, buddy. Hey, you goin’ to your grave without ‘adventuring’? Gonna play it safe here on out, are you?”
The sorry truth be told, like millions around me, I’d followed the predictable script laid in front of me by family and my immediate social circle: education, professional job, marriage, 2.4 kids, an oppressive mortgage…
How on earth do we ever train our minds to accept a 1.5 hour commute in eight lanes of traffic? Starched, white shirts, expensive ties, a stuffy suit, a pretentious European car. Why, yes, I sure looked the part and I was “unique”, all right, just like the thousands of other poor souls with blank looks all around me crawling at five m.p.h. towards our respective offices… robots mindlessly obeying society’s commands.
It was one summer day in 1996, with my sunroof open, that I spotted an ultralight craft flying about 400′ or so feet above me, while stopped in traffic. The smart-ass was flying above us, following the contour of the road.
And perhaps that’s when it hit me hard… “How can I do this for another 20 years?”
Fast-forward to 20 July 2018: 1,800 miles West, 9,820′ higher up, 1.6 (dirt) lanes as I approach the North Cottonwood Trailhead and the parking lot is filled with US Forest Service and Colorado Fouteener Initiative vehicles. Yup, a crew of eager men and women in their early 20s have arrived to do incredibly challenging work repairing, redirecting, and building trails up to about 13,800′. God bless ’em. I had spent nine days building trails here in Colorado over the past three years, but the work they were gearing up to do above tree line was far more difficult.
Having awoken at 0300, downed coffee and a hearty breakfast, I’d made my way north to the town of Buena Vista, hung a left on CR350 as the sun was just making it’s way above the mountain ridges in my rear view.
Anticipation grew as I began to visualize my day’s adventure. The Collegiate Peaks, named after some of our nation’s more famous universities, rose in front of me like slowly waking giants looking down on my truck.
“Come on old guy, let’s see if you can muster the energy to stand on one of our heads…”
Transitioning from paved to dirt roads signals that the trailhead is nearing quickly and that, regardless of how far up I find myself today, this new day granted me by God shall not be squandered; grateful I was that I’d have another chance to walk up high into another mountain paradise.
With numerous peaks climbed over the past three years, the drill is now committed to muscle/mental memory. Parked at 0612 and over the first bridge by 0625; no wasted motion, no second guessing. Today’s challenge was going to require almost 4,700′ of elevation gain and 14 miles of hiking (roundtrip). By now, I knew what I was in for and settled in to a sustainable (slow) pace. Go too fast, hit the wall and falter. No race, enjoy your surroundings. The young and restless will pass you, driven by “best times”. Not my game. Saunter, behold, relish the beauty all around. Why ever rush? Did that for years in the corporate world.
Driven on by the promise of a spectacular valley, one that I had not yet discovered, propelled me on to hike up, leaving the remaining trees behind me, the large swollen creek down by the parking lot now but a small trickle as the sun lights up the craggy wall to my left.
I’m all alone for the moment, save for the sound of a gentle breeze and the awakening birds in the high alpine.
Stopping for a break at around 12,600′, hydrating and eating my energy bar, I pulled out my small spotting scope and saw only two other climbers ahead of me on trail, higher up. Looking down, I saw no others! This is what brings good energy into this old mountaineer’s bones… solitude in a spectacular and almost untouched alpine setting early in the morning!
As I neared the high ridge before the summit, I dropped my pack and took another decent break as I surveyed the last few hundred feet to the summit. Being a very conservative climber, I calmly scanned the remaining terrain for a reasonable route through the exposed boulders.
“Ok. There it is. That’s how I’ll get up.”
Experience has taught me never to rely on climbers higher up to show one the way. Sometimes it is the proper way for me, but other times, it is not. Had I followed the younger climber directly up from me, I would have found myself upon a very exposed, Class3 route on the spine when another, less taxing route lay to the right.
Yet, the smooth boulders with the narrow ledge leading up to the last 60′ was anything but calming!
Finally, after five hours of climbing, I was on the summit of Mount Harvard, deep inside the Colorado Rockies, with another glorious view of the world below! The two young chaps at the summit were pleasant company as we discussed our day’s experience.
… in the back of my tired brain was the thought of negotiating the down-climb from the summit to the safer saddle below. But, best not to let unsettling thoughts creep in too much, eh?
After savoring the hard-won views for a few precious moments, I headed down a couple of hundred feet, past the upper crux, onto safer ground, unpacked my lunch and simply enjoyed the warmth of the large rock on which I sat, as I beheld the infinite views of the world below!
How does life get any better than this?
And just who was that smart-ass in the ultralight airplane so many years ago, taunting all of us who were involuntarily stuck in that hellish traffic? A messenger of sorts, perhaps?