Baptism by Mountains
Different Things to Different People
Something that has always helped the bond between my wife and me, something that has strengthened our relationship and for which I am deeply grateful, is our mutual love of nature, especially its wild places. Although our specific tastes vary, we do at least both feel the draw of the mountains, particularly the Rockies. It has never proved difficult to agree on taking a trip to anyplace from Alberta to New Mexico, and together we have seen much of the best of what I feel in my mind, heart, and soul is this continent's greatest mountain range.
What we have rarely seen together, though, are the alpine heights. As I increasingly turned to scrambling and climbing to earn the rewards of solitude in mountain wilderness, my wife continued to prefer the safety and reliability of the trail; she enjoyed an occasional clamber or scramble but tended not to like the exposure that sometimes went with the routes I wanted to take, and as I continued to shun the summit trails as much as possible, my mountaineering became largely a solitary endeavor.
Thus it was that it became more and more difficult to communicate the inspirational and palliative powers the mountains exerted upon me. My wife (Katie) understood that I had a need rather than a desire for the mountains, but she did not really understand why. When we did still hike together, our ways often parted at the passes, where she would turn back and I would continue up. Katie was happy with a leisurely walk back and being able to enjoy the sights, sounds, and smells at her own pace, and I was happy forging on alone to find my own temporary Eden somewhere windswept and untrodden. It was a nice mix; we got to spend time together in places we loved but still had the chance to experience them on our own terms as well, and when we met up later, we related to each other over a cold beer or a glass of wine the best parts of our solo travels that day.
But I still wanted Katie to understand somehow what the mountains really meant to me, what was so important about those cathedrals of rock, ice, and snow that haunt my thoughts daily. And she kept not seeing it, not out of fear or stubbornness or indifference but rather because she was satisfied with her understanding of and connection to the mountains as they already were. I respected that and accepted that it was unreasonable, even selfish, of me to expect someone else to see something exactly as I did as if I had some monopoly on how to interpret it, but I was nevertheless frustrated because there was an important part of me I wanted to share with her but didn't know how to without her seeing through my own eyes and doing what I do.
And so it was we went out to Colorado for Labor Day Weekend in 2007. Much of the Colorado high country, especially that which is accessible by day hiking on a three-day weekend after flying into Denver, is too crowded for my tastes, but we needed to get away for a bit by ourselves, and there is no place like Colorado if one wants to get into the alpine world quickly and conveniently. It is perfect in a way no other state is for a three-day weekend of alpine hiking and climbing. Besides, I planned the trip around mountains that weren't likely to see much traffic even though they were within about an hour's drive of Denver.
I'd spent two weeks out in some of the wildest parts of Wyoming earlier in the summer, but Katie had been home with the kids, the younger of whom was still too young to travel at the time. We hadn't even been parents for three years yet, but we had already realized that time together without the kids doesn't come easily or often. My parents generously offered to watch the kids, and we made our plans. When the day to fly to Denver finally came, we got on board the plane, Katie a little sadly and I with mountains in my eyes.
Hey, I love my kids and all that, but we're talking about the mountains here!
Into the Mountains
We made base camp at a motel in Georgetown, an I-70 town in the Colorado Rockies that is in the shadow of great mountain country but amazingly free of the traffic jams, tacky tourist shops, and stores for the well-heeled that plague so many of Colorado's resort communities. Sleeping in the car and bathing in streams is often the norm for me when I go to the mountains on my own, but the idea doesn't go over too well with my wife. I made a show protest over spending the extra money, but secretly I was glad to be sleeping with a mattress under my back.
On the first day, we drove our rented Wrangler up Santa Fe Peak and hiked to the nearby summit of Sullivan Mountain. I continued on to Geneva and Landslide Peaks, but my wife passed on them. It was her first hike in several months, and though the going wasn't hard, she didn't like the looks of Geneva's northwest ridge (the upper part looks like a knife-edge but is really a walk-up if you want it to be) and had a headache from either the altitude or my vigorous treatment of the 4WD road up Santa Fe peak, which I'd done and enjoyed two years before and was eager to do again. Or maybe the headache was from both.
Later, we drove up to Webster Pass, an easy 4WD route from Montezuma, and we watched Jeepsters negotiating challenging Red Cone. The "idea light" must have gone on in my eyes and my wife must have noticed it, because she told me that trip looked dangerous and scary. I took the hint. So instead, I hiked up Handcart Peak, just about a mile away. My wife stayed in the car despite my assurances that it would be an easy hike (it was).
The next day, Sunday, I tackled Ruby Mountain from Horseshoe Basin as my wife wandered the tundra slopes below and took pictures. In the Class 4 rock bands and steep, loose scree slopes on the peak, she failed to see the adventure and saw just sweat and pain. Okay, there was sweat and pain, but there was adventure and splendor, too, and my time on Ruby just might rank as my favorite mountain experience in Colorado to date. That afternoon, we had lunch in Breckenridge (cringe) so we could take Boreas Pass Road over the Divide (never again-- talk about too many clueless drivers on a backcountry road too friendly to regular vehicles) and Guanella Pass Road back to Georgetown.
Monday dawned gray and chilly, but the cloud ceiling was high enough that the mountains were still visible and worth visiting. We checked out of the motel, headed up the narrow, rocky road to Waldorf, and then drove the remaining distance to spectacular Argentine Pass, which at 13,200' and on the Continental Divide is one of the highest road destinations in Colorado and, for that matter, the entire country. And it was from Argentine Pass that we decided to follow the short route to Mount Edwards, among Colorado's hundred highest peaks. What appealed to me about Edwards were not only its ease of access and great views but also its relative obscurity (relative is the operative word here; Edwards is no wilderness secret) due to its famous fourteener neighbors Grays and Torreys. Atop Edwards, it's quite possible, even in summer, to sit in solitude and count the 10-30 people on or near the summit of Grays at any given moment.
The previous days had provided plenty of warmth and sunshine, but this day felt more like something from spring or fall. For the first time on the trip, we donned long pants for a mountain outing and bundled up with gloves and waterproof windbreakers, as the breeze was constant and cold and the signs of imminent rain rather abundant and in close proximity. It turned out that we only faced a few minutes of sprinkles and snowflakes and that the sun played peekaboo enough that day to give spells of warmth and brightness, but it was good to be prepared, anyway, as I'd learned long before that Colorado is one of the worst mountainous regions of the U.S. in which to gamble with the weather.
It was an uneventful but pretty hike. I like the mountains on moody days when storms threaten, so the clouds didn't bother me too much beyond occasionally ruining a scene I thought might make a nice photograph. But there were enough times with decently lit subjects in front of dark backgrounds to keep me interested and happy. And the lack of calendar-quality skies allowed me to notice things I normally don't-- the beautiful quartzite pieces and other fascinating rocks littering the tundra in places, for example. In fact, my wife found one rock streaked with silver, and I found one containing amethyst. It wasn't enough to retire on, but it was nice nevertheless.
Another highlight was the huge procession of ptarmigans that barred our progress for a few minutes as they scurried across the path in front of us and made their distinctive calls. It was Katie's first time seeing ptarmigans and only my second despite all the time I've spent high in Colorado, though I imagine many Colorado natives see them often enough that the little birds don't register much anymore, somewhat like deer in the suburbs.
"I get it now."
So we got to the summit, enjoyed the views all by ourselves, and headed back after several minutes of just sitting there taking it all in. But while we were there, Katie turned to me and told me that this had been a great experience. My sarcastic reply was to ask what it was that had made the experience great-- the fabulous weather or the immense difficulties in attaining this summit. Her response was that something about the mountains had struck her in a way it never had before, that for the first time she had seen what I see up there. "I think I get it now," she said. She couldn't quite articulate it, just as I never can, just as many others never can, but she said it had something to do with the sweeping views, the endless mountains, and the sense of raw nature all around. It was a good moment, really a great moment, both for her and for me. I was happy not because she had finally seen my point but because she had been so obviously moved by her surroundings.
At first, I was surprised by her reaction. After all, we'd been to the mountains so many times before. But as I thought about it, I realized we'd only been to four Western summits together: Pikes Peak and Mount Evans in Colorado, Lassen Peak in California, and Avalanche Peak in Yellowstone. The first two have roads almost all the way up and very short walks for the remaining distance, making those mountains mob scenes much of the time. The third is a real hike but very popular, and anyone who has stood atop Lassen on a summer afternoon can probably agree that it is hardly a moving or wilderness experience doing so. Avalanche has more of a wilderness feel to it, sitting as it does on the edge of the vast and rugged North Absaroka Wilderness, and we started early enough to have the summit alone for a bit, but the steady traffic we encountered on the way back down diminished the overrall experience. So her reaction suddenly made a lot of sense to me and reminded me of my own feelings the first time I left the trail and scrambled to an alpine summit.
I announced plans for a detour to McClellan Mountain on the way back, but Katie passed. I asked her if she'd soon be ready to take on some exposed Class 4; she said she wouldn't. But when I brought up the idea of easy Class 3 without much exposure, she said she'd think about it.
It's a start.