Lunch Among the Boulders at 14,423′

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.

Respect.

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!

Harvard1
Nearing tree line, with summer flowers in full bloom!  Mount Harvard just coming into view.    (top-left of photo)

 

Harvard3
The morning light reveals the grandeur of the world high above tree line. Mount Harvard now closer in view, behind the prominent peak in the foreground.

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.

vert_angle_deg=-15.5 / horiz_angle_deg=-2.4
Peering South, with Bear Lake (elevation: 12,374′) visible from the summit of Mount Harvard, utilizing an iPhone app (Theodolite) that records certain position data at the top-left of a photo taken.

… 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?

 

 

 

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Good Karma Way up High

Why not see what is possible in our short lives…?  I’ve found that some of the great pleasures of discovery await only when we quietly slip away from the noise and make our way into wilderness.

Upper South Colony Lake
Early morning rays light up the grand headwall of Crestone Peak.

I’d been climbing up into the Sangre de Cristo mountain range for a couple of years now, ever since retiring early to Colorado from the Washington, DC area.   Thankin’ me lucky stars that I’d thought to spend the time to craft a simple plan to break free before we were too old to enjoy our freedom!

And so here now was a chance to return the good Karma that I’d felt when I had gone down to climb in Ecuador shortly after my mother’s death.   Reminded me how fleeting life was…   Ten years had passed since I had seen Roger.   He had led our small group of eager mountaineers for a glorious tour of some of Ecuador’s high volcanos, some of which we managed to summit.   Now, it was my turn to repay that favor!

Joe and Emilie and their fun dog, Uschi came rolling up in their customized van, having recently ditched their jobs in Ohio in favor of living on the road!   That evening at the house was wonderful, as the wine flowed and the tasty fish sat sizzling on the grill.   Great times that, at this age, we knew were precious and certainly worth savoring.

And as the sun set and the Milky Way rose, as it were, anticipation grew as we plotted our upcoming adventures in the mountains across the valley, 18 miles away.  Rocking on the chairs on the front porch, I pointed out certain peaks and described the characteristics of each of the valleys, lakes, and cirques.  I knew that there was simply no way of making a bad decision!

Loading up my adventure-rigged F-150 the following morning, the four of us piled in for a gnarly ride up a remote forest road to a trailhead up at 9,850′.   We’d disembark, grab our heavy packs, and hike up about five miles up to about 12,000′ at the upper South Colony Lakes, spend the night, and then press on for a sweet climb up to the summit of Humboldt Peak, one of Colorado’s 14ers (one of 53 peaks that rise above 14,000′).   The promise of blue-bird skies had us on a natural high as we made our way up into the mountains.

It had been ten years since we’d climbed together and back then, I was certainly the weak link, but no more.   I’d logged in almost 162,000′ of vertical gain since January and I felt worthy to hang with my bros and sistas.   Felt great, both physically and mentally!

Having been up here a few times before, I knew this trail would be a guaranteed hit and, judging from the widening grins of my climbing partners, I could see I had made the right call.   With the sun now set well behind the imposing headwalls, it was getting cooler and we quickly deployed our tents, grabbed our fishing poles and made our way to the lake to fish.

Campsite
Hasty tent deployment!

While I must admit that my fishing skills lacked in a big way, thankfully Roger (pictured at right of photo, above, snagged a sweet trout within the first couple of tries!   Bonus!   We’d grill her up and split the prize among us, making a rather Spartan meal of mashed potatoes topped with fish!

Simple Pleasures!
Joe, Roger, and me, savoring our first trout from the upper lake!

Despite the great weather and it being Labor Day Weekend, we found ourselves all alone at the upper lake!   Incredible, but we’d happy for that.   And so the evening’s conversation flowed effortlessly as we enjoyed great company, our day’s accomplishment, and the glorious scenery around us.   Perched high on a rock outcropping, we each silently thanked our good health and good fortunes.

Dinner, lakeside
Roger, Emilie, and Uschi relaxing by the lake.

It’s funny how the simple things in life give us the most pleasure.  For me, some of the best moments come after struggle and discomfort, being far from “civilization” for a spell, so that we may regenerate our tired souls…

Once the sun set, we found ourselves eager to retire for the evening in anticipation of tomorrow’s climb to the summit of Humboldt Peak.   The setting was indescribably awesome in the purest sense of that overused word.

Rising the following morning at 0400, I caught sight of the headlamps following the trail up across the way to the more technical Crestone Peak and Needles.   Spaced apart, the climbers made their way slowly up the talus sloped terrain, gaining the upper couloir then over to the ridge.

Moon Setting
The moon setting over the Ridgeline.

Firing up the camp-stove for a quick breakfast prior to our climb, each of us sat in awe of the alpenglow that was lighting up our high alpine world…   Nourished, inspired, and ready, Joe, Roger and I set off for the summit, leaving Emilie and Uschi behind.   After some debate, we had decided that the large boulder field up higher as well as the 40-50 degree pitch would be a bit much for our four-legged partner.  With some sadness, we all turned back to wave back at Emilie and Uschi, promising a safe return!

And up we went…

Upper South Colony Lakes
Joe, looking down on the upper lake.

What fun to be climbing again with my old friends!   This time, it was my turn to guide, though Joe quickly like a mountain goat, blasted up way ahead, Roger and I took our time, savoring the unfolding scenes all around us.

Humboldt Peak
Nearing the summit.

As is typical of the upper trails near the summits, we found ourselves in boulderfields marked (thankfully!) by rock cairns.   And up we went, slowly, determined.

View to valley below
Looking down to the Wet Mountain Valley from near the summit of Humboldt Peak.

With the summit in view, we found a swarm of dark clouds making their way up from the south and knew that we’d have a limited amount of time to linger.   Views from up here are absolutely phenomenal!   Otherworldly, almost, with the dramatic headwall of the Crestone Peaks on the opposite side of the cirque, we savored our hard-won prize, sipped some Spanish wine from our bota, and traded tasty treats to regenerate our tired bodies.

All in all, it was a grand adventure worthy of inclusion in my blog!   Not unlike Napoleon’s retreating army from Russia, we eventually dragged our way back to the truck, drove the insanely-rutted forest road back down to green valley below, returned to basecamp back home, dropped into comfy chairs around the fire pit, and poured more than a few glasses of wine as the sun set on the mountains across the way.

And, once again, life is great and spirits renewed!

 

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.”

Slowly up and into the clouds

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.”