The change of speed causes me to wake from a brief jostling nap as we exit I-70W at Bakersville, just east of the Continental Divide. I move my head off the cold window as we pull into the adjacent parking lot a few minutes before 5:00 AM. Just before Austin turns off the Toyota Forerunner, I lean over to look at the dashboard thermometer… 24°F. Stepping out into the chill, I suspect this will be the warmest air I breathe for the next several hours.
With snowshoes lashed onto our packs, we start up the snow-packed road. I immediately notice two things.
1) The topography is sloped up at what seems like a fairly steep angle.
2) The two collegiate distance runners in front of me are traveling at an aggressively fast pace, at least for my 57 year-old body.
I stay with them for a half mile, maybe more, but at one point I see the glow of their headlamps getting further ahead with each step. My heart rate is elevated, but my primary concern is the sweat that is accumulating beneath my layers of “tech” clothing. As I unzip my jacket and stretch out my shirt collar, the warm humid air escapes and condenses on my eyeglass lenses.
It is still dark when I reach the “summer trailhead” where Marcel and Austin are waiting. This point is three miles and nearly 1500 vertical feet from the “winter trailhead” where we began our hike. After crossing the bridge and taking a few dozen steps up toward the peak in the deeper, softer snow, we stop and attach snowshoes to our boots. The grade up this trail rises before us and as we emerge into the valley above tree-line, the wind roars down from the adjacent 14,000+ foot peaks. At one point I strain to pick up my pace, hoping to slow the growing gap between me and the younger men who are again far in front of me. A strong gust of wind blows me over and I land in snow of unknown depth, my right arm buried up to my shoulder. I quickly struggle back to my feet and continue onward.
We stash our snowshoes beneath a boulder and lean into the wind for the last half mile across the wind-blown tundra. After scrambling up the slope to a plywood shelter that is dilapidated beyond recognition, I find myself hungry, thirsty, and shivering with cold. “Turning back” had crossed my mind, but when my left thigh locks up with a painful cramp, the correct decision becomes obvious. On one stretch of the upcoming ridge, the climber must straddle the “knife edge” and dangle their legs over significantly exposed cliffs dropping off on both sides. To say the least, a leg cramp would leave me rather vulnerable at that point.
After bidding farewell to Austin and Marcel, I huddle in the small cleft of the ridge in a vain effort to escape the bitter wind. It is now 8:30 AM. I remind them that I had accomplished my job – I slowed their pace enough so they didn’t get to the ridge climbing before sunrise. With crampons strapped to their boots, Austin and Marcel disappear up the spine of the eastern ridge in pursuit of the 14,275′ summit while I slide down to the trail and march back across the tundra.
With the gale force winds now at my back, I begin to notice the pains that inflict my feet and legs. I stop for a brief conversation with a couple guys who slept in this morning and got a late start. They were impressed that we made it to the ridge by 8:30, and this gave me a little vindication about the pace of my ascent. I stop at a snowy slope and using my ice axe and avalanche shovel, dig a small shelter in order to hide from the wind. My leg muscles cramp again as I crouch inside my little cave. I use this opportunity to replace the lens that had fallen out of my eyeglasses a couple hours ago. I retrieve power bars and dried figs from my pack and shove the calories down my gullet. I also stuff one of my frozen water bottles beneath my wool sweater in an attempt to thaw the slush into liquid. I eventually manage to drink about a half cup.
When I reach the summer trailhead, I call on the radio to see if Marcel can hear me, and he answers with news that they had summited and are descending via the “normal route,” down the saddle that joins with 14,278′ Grays Peak.
I continue with a leisurely pace on my descent. Both my legs are now hurting just above my ankles, due to the poor fit of a newly acquired (and untried) used pair of pack boots. I return to the parking lot by 1:15 PM, drop my pack and lie down on a dry patch of asphalt. The round trip hike was over ten miles and it now feels good to relax. I periodically try to contact Marcel on the radio to no avail and stave off the first stages of anxiety. I honestly had expected them to catch up with me sometime in the last mile. I firmly decide that I will wait until 3:30 before I call the sheriff to mobilize search and rescue. Marcel and Austin return at 2:30 PM. This was slightly over twelve hours after we woke up this morning, and an hour before I decided to officially start to worry.
This was a satisfying way to finish 2016. However, the early morning start combined with the high elevation exertion in freezing temperature ensures that any late night plans to “see in the New Year” will be reconsidered.
In my younger years, I had carelessly put my life at risk a few times during efforts to conquer mountain tops. Now it is not so much about conquest, but perhaps a motivation to experience the beauty of the high mountains in winter. Today I had no regrets about aborting my attempt at the summit of Torreys Peak, and my minimal disappointment was superseded by the joy of being up there, near the mountain. I had not conquered this mountain today, but in a more favorable season, I shall return.