Saturday, July 14, 2007

End of an Era?

Okay, this may have been my last major set of 14ers – making the total 19 (really 20 if you count Redcloud twice) – between the ages of 55 and 61. Naturally one never expects to get old, but one also doesn’t think ahead of time of feet that turn to hamburger meat and bone joints that feel like vise clamps after ten hours of trekking at altitudes over 10,000 feet. This is serious stuff. And the aging process doesn’t do much for the exposed parts of one’s body.

In the first picture, taken July 10, 2007, you see heroic me at 13,500’ approaching the summit of Sunshine Peak (14,001’), in the background. To get here, I’d already climbed for five hours and summited Redcloud Peak (14,034’) for the second time, the first being four years ago in snow serious enough to make me worry about the ice bridges warming up in the blazing sun 3,000 feet below over the roaring Silver Creek that I had yet to traverse again on the way down. This time there was little snow, so I was able to head on with little to fear other than sunburn and blisters. But the only safe way to Sunshine is over Redcloud, then back again, meaning three more miles of serious climbing at an altitude always over 13,500’ and higher. For me, that meant 20 steps, then a minute of rest, then 20 more steps. I’d forgotten my ipod (it is really hard to think straight even at the trailhead at 10,500’), so I had to amuse myself listening to my pounding heart.

The next picture shows clearly the route back to Redcloud, more than one and a half miles in the distance.

The third picture is sunburned me, back on Redcloud on the return hike, clearly showing my age (and sunscreen).

The entire trek took 10 hours and covered 12 miles. Returning to my camp site (picture four), I doused myself in the snow melt of Silver Creek, hoping to bring my body temperature back down to normal levels after the high altitude exposure to relentless sunshine. To be perfectly honest, Colorado at altitudes above two miles high is a little much: the trees end at 12,000 feet, and so does the shade. And it’s not just the sun from above that gets you, it’s also the relentless reflection off the rocks at your feet. In fact, if you fail to put sunscreen under your chin or on the backs of your knees, you’ll be one hurting puppy in the evening!

The next set of pictures show an even more grueling hike, that I did the very next day (stupid me). The first picture shows the approach of the 12.3 mile roundtrip trek to San Luis Peak (14,014’). One hopes that that is the peak itself in the distance, but one is wrong. That little dot of snow down to the left of the main peak in the picture is actually on the ridge to San Luis, meaning the “peak” shown here is nothing more than the end of a very long, torturous, exposed ridge climbing up to the real summit.

Thinking I had time (I was wrong) to smell the roses a bit, I stopped

to take some pictures of the profusion of July wildflowers (below). But when I got to the saddle at 13,090’, I was dumbfounded to find I still had much of the hike ahead (see marked picture below, showing the return route from the summit)). At this point, considering my pounding heart and the thickening of the darkening clouds overhead, I was wondering if 61 was pushing it a bit. Being the child of the 60s I am though, I advanced my ipod to my Mountain play

list and tuned into Leslie West cranking out “Hard Times,” and plodded on. The next picture, looking back down from the summit, shows the final mile of serious trekking over 13,000 feet.

Summiting to the blasting sounds of Nantucket Sleigh Ride, I didn’t hear the approaching thunder and was only really aware I’d over-stayed my welcome at high altitudes until it started hailing at the saddle a thousand feet below on the return trip (notice the rather harrowing route in the picture above). For just the second time on 19 treks to 14,000 feet, I pulled out my rain gear, pausing only once in the next six miles to try my hand at some old fashioned black and white photography (below).

Frankly, I was pretty pleased with myself for nailing three 14ers in two days, until I got back to the Jeep and pulled my boots off. My ankles and knees were just fine, and my stamina, although not quite what I remembered when I started this rather absurd hobby six years ago, seemed good enough. But my feet, even with good boots, were a mess, and I could tell there was not to be a fourth summit like today’s on this trip. It’s not the uphill that gets you, it’s the downhill, and 24 miles of high-altitude trekking, at least half of which was downhill, in two days, clearly was more than my feet had in mind for this trip.

So, this could be the end of the story.

But, looking backwards a bit, as I tried to do on this trip, the next photos – all taken on the trek to Redcloud - show three of my favorite peaks. The first pic, through some aspen branches, shows Handies (14,048), which I climbed two years ago from the same trailhead as Redcloud. This is a fun, pretty, and easy hike, good for a beginner. I drove to it in my old Sonoma 4-wheel drive pickup truck, over the notorious Cinnamon Pass from Silverton - following a very neat (and hairy) old mining road.

The above picture, taken from the saddle between Redcloud and Sunshine, shows Wetterhorn (14,015’) - the sharp peak in the middle - and Uncompahgre (14,309’) –the bread loaf to the left. These two are my favorite peaks. Wetterhorn, a Class 3 climb, tests not only your stamina, but also your mettle. A pretty hike in the first place, all in back country, the climb features a final vertical pitch of 110’. By vertical, I mean vertical, and if you fall the drop is not 110’, but rather 1,110’. What’s going on here is that you climb to a notch, then cross (with difficulty) through the notch and step across to a broad but slopped ledge at the top of a thousand foot face, which lets you find a stable perch while you survey the final approach. The trick now is to breathe slowly and stay calm. The route is about 30 feet wide and 110 feet straight up. The hand-holds and foot-holds are plenty and apparent, so the only real difficulty is thinking straight at this altitude.

Uncompahgre, shown below, is a very long and pretty back country hike, through pristine tundra below the ever looming cliff faces that hide the final approach over incredibly exposed drop offs. Although a Class 2 climb, this trek tests your mettle too because the final trail approach looks impossible, with very serious exposure, until you actually near the summit.

And, of course, this story is not complete, without a brief reference to my 60th birthday treat – the long and dangerous trek up Colorado’s notorious Longs Peak (14,255’). Undertaken with my old caving buddy from Duke, Carey Fuller, who had climbed this peak already from several different routes, we hiked the famous Keyhole route (first picture). The next picture shows the infamous “Trough,” at about 13,700’ where those who didn’t turn back after they saw the horrendous drop off and traverse on the other side of the keyhole (that’s the overhanging rock in the previous picture), often turn back here, not from fear, but from shear fatigue, as the trough goes nearly straight up (think of the angle of a step ladder) for the length of a football field. The next picture shows the “Narrows”, a long traverse at nearly 14,000', where the exposure gets bad enough more people turn back here. Carey and I made it of course, as we both tested our nerves three decades ago dynamiting the deep caves of Chestnut Ridge in Bath County, Virginia. Longs Peak is not for the faint hearted or the out of shape. It’s not my favorite trek, though, as it is crowded and so much of it is above the tree line and higher than anything around that you miss the Alpine feeling of many of the other treks into the backcountry of Colorado, such as this summer’s return to Redcloud or the beautiful hike to the saddle of Uncompahgre.

Looking back on this entire hobby, which might be closing and which began really with a cross-country trip in 1954 with my parents and my brother Doug to Garden of the Gods and Pike’s Peak, and was rekindled a generation later when Susan and I and the kids drove the 4-wheel drive trail up to Yankee Boy Basin in 1992 and I first saw Sneffels (my first 14er, ten years later), I’ll have to admit I don’t know what motivated me. I think the hobby grew as an idea, not as a goal, as I kept coming back to Colorado, first with Julie to mountain bike the Oh My God Road out of Idaho Springs, then with Susan and Marie to hike Ouray after doing three days in the Grand Canyon, then two serious mountain biking trips with Ben (picture above) and another pleasant hiking and camping and biking trip with Susan.

After those trips, of course, the kids grew up, Susan’s technology career took off, and I grew afraid of getting older. Hence the call of the 14ers.

But now, after doing the really harrowing Class 3 Long’s Peak last year and with this 61st summer’s arduous back country treks under my belt, I’m thinking I’ve successfully confronted my own awareness of mortality (and the inner demons that go with this recognition), just as I did in Nicaragua, El Salvador and Chiapas in the 80s and 90s, coming away with the knowledge I can truthfully say, “Been there, done that.”

But, guess what, I’m looking backward/forward to changing diapers! I’m told grandkids rock, so I’m ready to roll. What could be better.

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