Mon, Apr 6, 2021

Memorable Mountain Outings

         Here's a puzzle. Looking down from the top floor of a tall building, I can expect a rapid heartbeat and quivering knees. Yet, going along a narrow mountain ledge with precipitous cliffs, it's a walk in the park. Why not golf or tennis instead of mountain climbing? I have no idea but the urge to be in mountain country has always been there. Climbing was never an obsession, it was secondary, a recreational pursuit. Although, I will say this: the more I climbed, the more I wanted to climb. Looking back, blind, dogged determination was the essential character trait needed to arrive at a lofty perch. Often, there's the question: but isn't mountain climbing dangerous? The answer: yes it is, there are risks linked to climbing. Being familiar with these dangers will make for a safer climb but there are no guarantees. Before a climb, I'm reading a route description and it's classified as a nontechnical climb, meaning no climbing gear is needed. It is, however, early season, and the trail has disappeared beneath a steep snowy slope with jagged rocks towards the bottom. Gosh darn! I wished I had my crampons and ice axe. I've been in this pickle before: climbing up was so much fun, climbing down a hellish challenge. It has been my good fortune to have had easy going kindred spirits for trekking companions. When decisions need to be made, you sure don't want to be with the quarrelsome kind. Oh yes, and there's this: the thrill of those last few paces to the top.

         Longs Peak is Colorado's premier mountain, its rich history intweened with the State's history. If you are a Colorado mountaineer, you can't ignore Longs, it's a must climb. Several technical routes for the thrill seekers, the ultimate challenge being the 1000 ft. smooth faced diamond towards the middle of the east wall. As for the non technical routes, you will swear that they have been mislabeled. I first climbed Longs in the early 60's on an Indian summer day, the start of my junior year at CU, Boulder. With friends, we took the cable route, a nontechnical route to the summit. In the 1920's, two thick cables were bolted to the rock for several hundred feet to give assistance over a risky section. Above the cables, it's a scramble but not difficult. It does get close to the edge of the east face, it's splendid alpine country. My first major climb and I remember thinking, wow, I'm really doing it. The top is a surprise, it's flat as a pancake and there's room enough for a couple of football fields. Years later, I had another go at Longs taking along a neighbor new to climbing. For safety reasons, park rangers removed the cables, the concern being that the steel was a conduit for lighting strikes. The only non technical route to the summit is now through the "keyhole." It's a punishing route, 16 miles round trip and almost 5000 ft. in elevation gain. In climbing lingo, it's called a calf burner. We're at the boulder field where you leave the well travelled path and the scrambling begins. Two absolutely gorgeous ladies are on a rest break. One yells, do you have a fig newton? We're rummaging through our packs hoping that a fig bar will magically appear. Once through the keyhole, you are on the backside of the mountain high up and in thinner air. There're a series of narrow ledges above sheer cliffs, and the rangers have kindly painted yellow circles to guide the way. Climbing a steep couloir takes us to the summit. It's a blue sky day with a few puffy white clouds to the west. On top there's another climbing party of three. We are on the summit for a short while and suddenly, there's a loud buzzing, hissing sound all around us. It's a mad dash to the couloir and a clumsy race down. The lighting strike and thunder are simultaneous, We are scared out of our wits but we're okay. The other climbing party made it into the upper reaches of the couloir but it looks like there's a problem. We climb up and find one of their members on the ground, he's conscious and talking but he can't move his legs. Cell phones haven't been invented and one of their members makes a beeline for help. Shortly, the injured climber is able to move again. He insists on climb down and with the help of his fellow climber, he struggles along. We stay with them through the difficult sections, the well worn pathway is not far away. We say our goodbye and hurry on down the mountain. With blue skies and distant puffy white clouds, I would not have thought a lighting strike possible, now I know better.

         Thanks to Charlie, I have had the opportunity to make a few multi-pitch rock climbs. Charlie and I were colleagues at a mental health facility and we spent a number of summer and fall weekends being tethered together on a rope. Charlie had the training and expertise and he had a truck load of climbing equipment. During my Boulder college years, I climbed some on the Flatirons and in Eldorado Canyon and I had the basics down. It's a long weekend and we're on our way to the Elk Mountains west of Aspen. Our intention is to summit Capitol Peek, a difficult fourteener. Our route crosses the famous "knife-edge" that we have heard so much about. We're bringing along a rope but probably won't need it. A six mile backpack trek puts us at capitol lake for the night and a good starting point for the next day climb. Getting to Capitol, you must first climb a subpeak, K-2 which is 13,664 ft., a tough scramble that needs to be carefully traversed. Several hundred feet of descent on K-2's north ridge will bring you to the "knife-edge" which serves as a bridge between K-2 and Capitol. We cross the "knife-edge" on our hands and knees and the seat of our pants with a vertical drop of several hundred feet on either side. We didn't need the rope but if nasty weather had set in and the ridge was icy, a rope and climbing anchors would have been handy. We rest a while before starting up the summit ridge. Charlie's in the lead and about half way up, I'm startled as Charlie throws himself back on me. I'm able to stop his fall. Charlie had put his foot on the next rocky platform and immediately a massive section of rock had let go, plunge into thin air. We finish the climb and the day with very little conversation, stunned by the suddenness of what almost happened.

         San Luis Peak is the last fourteener summit that I stood on. As far as climbs go, It is an easy class 1 walk up. Easy might be a misnomer, the climb is 12 miles round trip with an elevation gain of 3,600 ft.. Its claim to fame is its remoteness, the most difficult fourteener to get to. I hadn't planned on climbing this mountain, it was a quick, impulsive decision. Chica, I said let's go for it! It's your chance to climb a fourteener. Who's Chica? you ask. Chica's my dog, a black lab that my daughter dropped on my doorstep and I'm still thinking of ways to get even with her. I'm older and my interest in climbing mountains has faded being replaced by short and long solo treks into wilderness places where other travelers seldom go. We're car camping adjacent to the famed Continental Divide Trail at the edge of the La Garita wilderness. Chica thought we were going to the park for a short game of go fetch the ball and then home for a quick nap. Chica, I said: we're here for a while and each day we'll be up at dawn and off on a long hike. Chica begins to mumble and grumble. Well Chica, you are bonded to me and that's what we are going to do. Chica tells everyone that bonding with me was the worst mistake of her life. I haven't given up on chica, it's just a matter of time and she'll love the wild and become a fantastic backcountry dog.

         The sun is peeking over an eastern ridge but it's still nippy, and I'm dragging Chica out of the tent. The agenda for the hike will follow Stewart Creek for a while and at timberline, we'll go off trail to the southeast and aim for a high ridge. It's a cool morning and the trail is flat and Chica is moving along at a good clip, stopping every now and then to check out some scent. Remembering past hikes with Chica, I'm convinced that she has absolutely no wild left in her. Her instinct for survival is zero. Once on the north slope of Utah's High Uintas, we were packing out after a long trek through some pretty country. Chica was out ahead of me when I noticed she was walking slower and wagging her tail. She was headed straight for a mamma moose who was stomping her hoof. I got her stopped just in time. Believe it or not, there was a similar time in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, we were hiking the cottonwood trail and there's a section of the trail that goes up steeply and flattens out and then goes up again. Chica was in the lead and once again, there she was tip toe along and wagging away. My heart stopped beating for a minute or two, looking up to the next high landing was a black bear staring down at Chica and no doubt thinking here comes my lunch. Chica, I yelled. Quickly, the bear stood up on its hind legs and did a quick turn about and then took off.

         We have made our destination, and Chica is sprawled out on the tundra, giving me the steady look that says, not one paw further. I'm surprised to find a good trail winding up the backside of the ridge and then angling towards the slope that goes to the top of San Luis peak. Gosh! I'm thinking it can't be more than a half mile to the top. Chica, I said, let's go for it. Chica has a frightened look and seems to be saying, I'm not a wolf, I'm a lab, swim out and get a duck dog. Chica follows me, her tongue dragging on the ground. The mountain top comes quickly, Chica's first and last fourteener.


Mon, March 22, 2021

Struggling To Stay Young As I Rapidly Grow Old

Memory lapse in we elder folk, I'm convinced, rarely happens. It's just that spending so much time embellishing the past causes the present to get a little fuzzy.


Fri, 30 Apr, 2021

Are You Trying To Kill The Kids!?

The car is parked in the driveway, the rear slightly sagging under the weight of heavy packs. Paul's in the front seat and Niki is popping in and out of the back seat mumbling again and again: my dad and my brother are crazy. Our destination is Wyoming's Wind River Mountains where a multi-day crossing will take us on an ambitious alpine route.


Wed, Apr 14, 2021

Hold On: The Party's Not Over

A June morning in 1959 and Denver Union Station is bustling with activity. In front of the station, a fleet of Greyline buses are parked at a slight angle awaiting the arrival of a few hundred midwestern tourists. A three day excursion through Colorado's mountains, a trip of a lifetime.