39°21’05.87″ N 106°06’40.93″ W – Elevation: 14,282′
What is the allure of the high mountains? Why, at 57, do I still climb? Maybe, these are questions better left unanswered…
The iPhone vibrates at 0400 hours and the time comes to move in the dark to grab my food, gear, and keys for the two-hour drive north to climb another 14er (in Colorado mountaineering parlance; a peak that rises above 14,000′). It’s a growing obsession that I can’t seem to shake and a mysterious force pushes me from behind.
Quietly I go about the house trying not to wake my large, hairy dogs or step on a cat. Like a clumsy burglar, I try not to wake my wife as I make my way to the front door.
“Did you remember your sandwich?”, comes the sleepy voice from through the dark entry the second I grab the door handle.
“Yes. Thanks. Got everything. Go back to sleep. I’ll text you when I get to the trailhead.”
It had been 10 years since we bought the land in this remote part of Colorado and as far as lifestyle changes go, I can’t think of anything more radical than moving from a run-of-the-mill suburban setting out East to where we are now, at 8,000′. It’s one thing to rent a cabin for a week, but to actually live here year-round? Hardly anyone we told understood…
“But there are no evening lights out here!?”
Exactly. The Milky Way does that and it was still out in full force when I made my way to my truck in the pre-dawn hours that morning.
It was a long drive to get to Kite Lake and the trailhead to Mt. Lincoln. First down about 3,200′ into the gorge where the Arkansas River flows, past herds of Bighorn Sheep, then up to the high plateau I drove. Past the large herds of Buffalo by 11 Mile Reservoir and onto truly desolate open, grasslands, the early rays starting to light up the surrounding landscapes. 40 miles away, the early sun’s rays graze the tips of Collegiate Peaks, a glorious wilderness I had explored the year before.
Sipping the last of my coffee as I entered the town of Alma, I knew I was getting close now. The town was just an odd collection of late 19th century structures left over from the early days, with the occasional log structure set in-between. I missed my turn only to realize that someone had removed the sign. Really? Then it occurred to me that the small, ramshackle homes with their jacked-up Jeeps and big-tired trucks likely housed young families and that they had probably grown tired of the big city yahoos tearing through their little street on their way to the mountains.
With the last of the little homes in my rear view, I was all alone on the deeply rutted forest road when nature’s call could wait no more. Quickly, I ducked past the second row of trees, now freezing in odd places here up at around 11,000′! Quickly, I must complete my business before I am found out… Sweet relief and back into the warm truck I go.
Past the mountain shacks, past the off-grid self-built homes, past the old mine structures and the mounds of tailings, and up the switchbacks I went. Time to shift to “4-low”, let the doubled RPMs do their thang. Then, still about two miles from the main area, cars are parking, those who can’t or won’t test their skills in the now deeply potholed and rutted dirt and gravel roads leading to the top. No guard rails and the ice begins to appear, dialing up the pucker factor for the uninitiated. Past the line of cars with their city tires I drove, making my way ever higher!
The wondrously grand mountains were calling me to come closer, closer… but the crux remained just ahead, a crazy maze of washouts zigzagging in irregular patterns across the steep section of road. Now it was clear why the others turned around. But I could begin to see that there were those by the lake who made it.
What the hell. No time to shrink from adventure. Just follow the fresh tracks, mentally “shift down” into a trance, and just do it.
What had my son’s pirate t-shirt read… “Without Fear There is no Courage” and so it was one of those times to man up.
Kite Lake is nestled in a pretty mountain cirque, a circular wall of mountains like a giant, cupped hand. Weather was iffy here at 12,000′ Looked like the ceiling was about another 1,000′ up, totally obscuring the peaks within a few minutes of arriving. The sun was gone and the chill was here. Felt as though I had been beamed over to the Lakes District in the UK, it was a fantastically barren, rocky and grassy landscape. Just right. Couldn’t wait to hit the trail!
“Slower and colder than you think is natural.”, rang the wise words of the mountaineers. Always slow, lest you fight the mountain. The heat comes within a few minutes. I knew this now after years of fumbling my way to competency.
“On your left!”, the eager young voices call from behind. I don’t mind being the old dog. It has never been a race anyway, even when I was young. Go ahead, rush through it. Be the first. I really don’t care.
I knew that nothing was going to be easy on this day. Saw the quick-moving fog make its way up the slopes, like marauding banshees hellbent on disrupting anything in their path. And examining the route, I knew that the talus field was going to be a bear to climb. Wet and cold, unless I kept moving. Watch out for the loose ones.
Made my way up to the summit of Mt. Democrat first, another 14er. Ran into two climbers in their 60s and 70s operating ham radios. Everyone has their thing, I suppose. Savored the view before descending into the saddle at around 13,200′. Hardly a soul was going up to Mt. Lincoln. Did they have some weather intel I was lacking? Likely, yes. Screw it. I’m going anyway.
And up I went, following just one other hiker who periodically disappeared into the upper clouds; a ghostly figure… never stopped to rest. Never could get close to him. Never saw him again that day.
Then onto the knife’s edge and the winds died and it was eerily quiet as is only possible in the heavy fogs and so I was lulled into a false state of comfort as I neared the summit of the second peak. And without warning, the raging winds picked up with their deadly cargo of hail… hailing UP! Without my rain pants, my bottom half quickly froze and I knew I needed to get down in a hurry! No time to brew some hot tea. Oh, this sucks.
“Hi there! Called out the young couple heading up. “Are we close?”
“Yeah. Not far”, I chattered in response. “You guys sure you want to do this?”
“No sweat. We’re good.”, and off they quickly disappeared around the bend.
Without my micro spikes for my boots, I now faced the real danger of ice building up on the foot-squared rocks that made up the talus field below. One sudden, false move, and things would change for me in a horrible second.
Armed with the confidence that only trial and error can provide, I made my slow descent until I was under the raging storm above. Follow the tortoise, never the hare.
Once out of the clouds, I could see the lake down below, the grasses now glistening from the dense fog and rain. Finally, there it is! The start of the gentle gravel trail to the end and I’m out of the crazy talus field and all will be ok. Looks like I’ll live another day to tell another tale…
The sun finally breaks through the clouds, warming my soaked body and I unfold my camping chair, reach into my cooler in the bed of my truck, pop open a beer with the last 2% of my energy, grab my tasty sandwich and sit a spell to take in the view by the lake.
It seems to me that the sweet moments in life always follow a bit of suffering and uncertainty. After all, how else would we know to savor such moments?
Dozing off, I swear I hear the mountains whisper, “We’ll see you again, soon.”