(An excerpt from my essay, “Nigh Unto the Mountain”)
The crusty black lichen clings to the pores in the granite just inches from my face. Pale etchings in the stone form interesting patterns, but soon they begin to swirl. I close my eyes, inhale, exhale, and adjust my grip on the tiny handhold beneath two of my left fingers. When the swirling slows, I gradually open my eyes again and glance over my right shoulder. The steep slope of strewn boulders and scree a hundred feet below looks to be an unfriendly landing, but the pack on my back seems to pull me in that direction. My feet are both securely planted on a narrow three-inch ledge, and my legs have not yet begun the deadly sewing machine action that comes from fatigue mixed with fear. At this point I mentally begin to write my obituary and am dismayed that I cannot think of anything good that would summarize my life without stretching the truth.
I startle when my fifteen-year-old son, Marcel, calls over the radio from somewhere up above, asking where I was located. He had just finished summiting Mount Meeker with some of the others and they are now waiting on “The Loft” with my younger son, Joel, and our good friends Levi, and his father, Thomas. Through the radio, I report that I am between a rock and a hard place. I wonder if I should say, “Good-bye, I love you,” but not wanting to sound dramatic, I refrain.
My work colleague and fellow turbine engineer, Steph, is perched on the rock face twenty five feet above and suggests that I traverse to my right where the route contains descent footholds, and even a few “bomb proof” handholds. My eyes trace a path to the route she suggests, but I clearly cannot get there unless I descend a few feet first. Down-climbing from this vulnerable position is not a good idea, especially wearing a moderately-sized backpack. I remember that she has my rope in her pack, and request that she throw me an end. Soon a coil of green and yellow 12 millimeter climbing rope slaps the back of my head. I struggle with my pack, but soon have it tied onto the line, and hoist it over my head as Steph pulls from above.
My outlook improves significantly without that dead weight on my shoulders. After a few deep breathes to re-oxygenate my blood and quiet my nerves, I slowly take a couple steps to my left, then, continuing to hug the granite as a child hugs its mother, I inch my way down to another narrow ledge below. I see it now. I should have traversed to the right at this point instead of continuing up and topping out on the dead-end shelf that is now above my head.
By the time I get up to Steph’s ledge, another younger engineer from work, Leif, rejoins us from above, and sensing my condition, he graciously offers to take my pack up the last hundred feet to the top of the cliff where one could conceivably stand on both feet without falling, even if dizzy. The view from up here is impressive. The sun is now up over the northeastern ridge of Meeker illuminating the treacherous couloir we had just ascended.
Half-way up the slope that now stretches out beneath us, our older hiking companion, Mike, had decided to turn back. He reported that on a “cooked noodle” scale of one to ten, his wobbly legs were now up to an eight, his heart rate was too high, and he was also getting a bit dizzy. He had taken one fall already negotiating the boulders. This tumble, and the resulting shoulder injury, had convinced him that it was time for him to turn back. Because of Mike’s condition and limited mountaineering experience, I had accompanied him while he picked his way back down to Chasm Lake. From that point, a well-defined trail leads all the way down to the Longs Peak trailhead where we had started our hike at 2:50 this morning. It took Mike and me fifty minutes to descend the thousand vertical feet back down to this trail below the lake, and in my hurried attempt to catch up with my group, it only took me half that time to rescale the steep slope. I may have pushed myself too hard coming back up, because that is when I started feeling dizzy myself.
Thankfully, Leif and Steph had shuttled my backpack up the escarpment to the base of this cliff. It would have been more exhausting to re-ascend with the weight on my back, but without the pack, I was also without water. With dismay, I could sense my growing thirst as I pushed myself upward. The lower atmospheric pressure at this high elevation accelerates the evaporation rate and dehydration becomes more than a mere discomfort. When coastal or “flat-lander” folks visit Colorado, they often comment on how dry and thirsty they feel, and hopefully they soon learn that they may need to double their water consumption, especially when exerting themselves at the higher mountain elevations. To feel thirsty above timberline means you have passed a potentially dangerous line. Dehydration contributes to physical and mental fatigue, including a decreased ability to make wise decisions. From my wilderness search and rescue days, I know that many downward spirals of unfortunate circumstances begin with an insufficient water supply on high country treks.
Now, without Mike, the remainder of our small expedition regroups up on “The Loft” where we joke around and eat sandwiches and power bars, and suck lukewarm water out of blue tubes connected to bladders within our packs. Most of the others had summited Meeker Peak while I negotiated the cliff after escorting Mike down to the trail. Now it is a relief to sit down. I find a flat rock and take the opportunity to lie down on my back, rest my bones, rehydrate, and soak in the intense high-elevation sunshine. After our refreshing break, we hike north across “The Loft” with renewed energy and skirt clockwise around “The Notch” of Longs Peak. Here we descend to find the only non-technical route, by way of “Clark’s Arrow.” Six decades ago, National Park Ranger, John Clark had marked this path with a white painted arrow on the west face of a large overhead boulder. This is considered the only official hiking route between The Loft and Longs Peak. The arrow is now quite faded, but to repaint it might now be considered the graffiti of a delinquent mountaineer.
The scattered boulders remind me of an unfamiliar and deserted moonscape. There are no street signs up here, but carefully balanced rock cairn landmarks have been used for decades by those willing to travel these heights. Standing with an artfully stacked cairn near our feet, it would sometimes take a minute to visually locate the next one along the route. The journey was a piecemeal affair, only knowing the next couple hundred feet of our path at a time, similar to how we often need to navigate through life. Somewhere along our hike across The Loft, we cross to the western side of the Continental Divide.
It is a slow and treacherous descent down and around Clark’s Arrow, requiring hands and feet, and sometimes sliding down smooth boulders on our butts. A couple times we remove our packs and hand them down to Leif who perches below to watch our foot placement, prepared to catch us if we misstep. After descending to the “path” marked with more rock cairns, we now struggle to regain elevation up the steep boulder-strewn south slope of Longs Peak known as Keplinger’s Couloir. This is where I am slowed by fatigue and hunger, and where the general conversation revolves around where we will eat dinner at the end of the day. I have often observed that, regardless of the situation, thoughts and conversations often revolve around desires for commodities that are not currently available.
To the west, our view extends forever, beyond the expansive borders of Rocky Mountain National Park. The beautiful scene – as well as the thin air – takes my breath away. Jagged crags are visible to the south jutting out of the Indian Peaks Wilderness. Steep granite peppered with delicate lichen is all that can be seen to the north and to the east. Steph and I take turns bringing up the rear. With persistence born of necessity, we follow the group up toward the ominous tower that rises before us.
I do not remember arriving at the intersecting “trail,” but eventually I find myself stopping to look for the next red and yellow round marker that had been painted on rocks along “The Narrows” route. The brief stops are partly for route-finding and partly for breath-catching. At one point, the route takes a decidedly upward trajectory and we begin our ascent up the “Home Stretch.” This final segment is steeply sloped upward as well as sloping off to the side which offers a spectacular view down the exposed edge that abruptly drops off into certain death. Hand and footholds are carefully selected – and good ones treasured – as we ascend this final stretch of granite.
Any retained breath that I had held within my lungs up the “Home Stretch” was enthusiastically exhaled after solidly planting my boots on the summit, safely away from the edge. This peak is the fifteenth highest point in the state of Colorado, but from this vantage point, it feels like nothing could be higher. Now was the time to eat and drink and talk and smile and to look at our world from the top of it.
The perspective from here is unique, beautiful and rare. It allows me to see the big picture, including multiple familiar areas at once and to note how they are linked together through the interconnecting topography. Water from Chasm Lake far below flows into Roaring Fork that joins with Cabin Creek and on into the North Fork of the Saint Vrain Creek. In the diminishing distance, The North Fork joins the South Fork of the Saint Vrain as it flows through the town of Lyons, beyond which it is considered a river which then joins the South Platte River thirty miles downstream. A couple hundred miles downstream of that confluence, it joins the North Platte River, and together they meander through the state of Nebraska before joining the Missouri River at the Iowa border. Joined by numerous tributaries, the river gains volume until it meets the mighty Mississippi at the historical confluence just upstream of Saint Louis, Missouri. Eventually, the water that is pooled below us flows past New Orleans and on into the Gulf of Mexico, 1200 miles from where we now stand as the crow flies, which includes 2400 “river miles.”
The vastness of the territory also impresses me. We had just hiked less than ten miles, and we experienced every step. In a car on a highway, the distance we hiked in seven hours would take less than ten minutes. We were fortunate and able to slowly chew the miles rather than quickly devour them with a motorized vehicle.
After we take a few group photographs to document our success, we turn our eyes to the far-off, yet gathering cloud cover rolling in over the peaks of the Mummy Range to the northwest. Was that distant thunder? If so, it was our cue to begin our descent.
With rappelling gear in tow, we scurry over to the northern face of Longs Peak. The nimble and energetic teenaged boys surge ahead of us to scout along the edge. Soon enough, we are all standing along the top of a steep face with large iron eye-bolts protruding from the solid rock beneath our boots. Most of our group had never rappelled down an actual mountain face before, and Leif took the lead setting up the belay and giving instructions to the novice down-ropers. In the meantime, I find a small cleft in the rock and curl up my exhausted body for what I hoped would be a recovery nap. I blame my fatigue on that extra hike down with Mike, and my hurried re-ascent. Was I out of shape, or had I aged to the point where that would have sapped my energy? I ponder these questions as I doze.
Due to their minimal mountaineering experience, Leif chooses to lower the gang, one by one, with the rope attached to a climbing harness shared among our party. It was a process that consumed a very long time. Thomas, Leif, and I were the only three to actually rappel down the north face, but after what seemed to be the entire afternoon, we all firmly stand on a wide ledge with the North Face above and the Boulder Field below.
Below this ledge, we tentatively approach the edge of the precipice in the corner between Longs Peak and Mount Lady Washington. It is an enormous cliff with Chasm Lake thousands of feet below. The sight of it from this perspective makes my head spin. At our feet is a hole through the stone into this abyss that is large enough to pass a small child. I shudder as I back away from the edge.
As the boys turn and scamper up Mount Lady Washington to bag their third peak of the day, the less-youthful and more tired of us pick our way across the Volkswagen-van-sized boulders in search of the trail below. This is where wobbly legs provide a notable disservice. Once on the trail, we pick our way through the “Boulder Field Campground” and march northeast toward Granite pass. Our hike back down across the alpine tundra is long and exhausting, even though it was downhill. Ultimately—and thankfully—it was uneventful. It feels good to reenter the cool forest of Blue Spruce and Douglas Fir trees. As we descend further, the Lodgepole Pines and Quaking Aspens make their appearances, and eventually a few Ponderosa Pine trees display their long green needles.
Upon returning to the ranger station parking lot at the trailhead, I drop my pack, remove the boots and socks from my battered feet and lie on my back on the asphalt pavement, arms and legs splayed, in the ultimate posture of exhaustion. From this angle of repose, I secretly regret that I had not bagged Meeker or Mount Lady Washington with the younger guys, but as the theory goes, with age comes wisdom.
In retrospect, it seemed that we had launched our departure from the dark trailhead on a totally different day. Indeed, this had been a very long day. Yet today was mild and enjoyable compared to the punishment this mountain would dish out during a subsequent attempt.