A lot of people may just skip over this story of my personal experiences during a trip to a special mountain, in a summer I'll never forget, but within lies a deeper meaning to all who have shared a special experience in these mountains, to all who have even made a joke of these special mountains, and to all who have never even had the chance to share a part in these mountains. I wrote this, not thinking it was an uncommon experience, but in thinking that maybe we should all take a good hard look at the many unforgettable memories and experiences these special mountains have provided us. For all of us, let’s think about what the mountains have given us. Then think about what we've given to the mountains.
I had just driven from Denver up to Estes Park with my dad and some friends after arriving from Pennsylvania around lunch. We planned to spend a week in the Rockies climbing and hiking some peaks. Estes Cone was on the list as an evening hike for our arrival day and to acclimatize. Everything went smoothly as we were all in awe at the site of such huge mountains. It had been four years since I'd seen anything over seven thousand feet, my last time being in the Alps in 2000. It was a great feeling to be in such a magnificent mountain setting such as the Front Range for my first time in the Rockies. My dad and other buddies in our party welled up with joy, excitement, and astonishment at the views in every direction. I thought to myself quietly on our way to Estes Park, "This is gonna be quite a trip", without knowing the awesome experiences we would share throughout the week.
We arrived at the trailhead around 7:30pm and though we'd hike to the summit of Estes Cone. We were greeted by the friendly park ranger at the Longs Peak Trailhead around 7:00 and he gave us some news we didn't really want to hear. We knew it would be tough to get to the top before sunset but in such a mood of excitement from being in the mountains I wanted to be "Gung-ho" and try anyways. The ranger suggested that we probably wouldn't make it to the summit by nightfall and definitely wouldn't get back to the trailhead by nightfall even if we did make the summit. We could tell that he realized he had discouraged our excitement a little since we were from PA and ready to climb a mountain. In reaction he said, "You guys got flashlights right? Cause you'll need em!" He remarked with a tricky grin on his face and told us he had climbed the cone many times before even in the dark on clear nights. The last thing he told us was to see how far we could get and that if we didn't get to the summit by sunset, we should head back to the trailhead.
Once again our excitement had returned and we headed off on the trail. As we hiked down the trail we kept a pretty brisk pace and not a thought of the altitude came into my head. Being from a place in PA that's only about three hundred feet above sea level, this would come back to haunt us. We continued on the trail making great time as we passed the landmarks of Moore Park and the Eugenia Mine. We could see the sun was definitely getting lower but were making excellent time and almost to the pass. We still kept our confidence in making the summit before sunset.
The sun was going down faster and it was 8:00 as we reached Storm Pass. As we stood on top of the pass, my friends said they didn't think they wanted to continue on because they were having trouble getting enough oxygen. In my arrogant jaunt to get as much done as possible on this trip, my buddies told me and my father to continue on with the light left, and so we did without giving a second thought. The steep part of the ascent then began and I began to have second thoughts as to whether or not we could reach the top before sundown. We continued at a punishing pace but I was now beginning to feel it. Every time I'd see a break in the "krummholz", I'd say to my dad, "I can see the ridge crest, we're almost there!" Of course it wasn't the crest but just my inexperienced eyes playing tricks with the downing light. Finally after what seemed like nearly an hour (in reality 15 minutes!), we reached the summit block as the sun continued to fade. The evening shadows were now creeping heavily in the valleys.
My dad, being scared of class three stuff, decided not to scramble up to the true summit. I continued up over the last few ledges to the summit and a vision was etched into my memory that I'll never forget. What an opening panorama of the Rocky Mountains on my first trip! As I stood on the summit, the sun just started to go down on the western horizon, lighting up Ypsilon, Chiquita, Chapin, and the rest of the Mummy Range along with Sundance Mountain. The range was lit with an orange glow and it was a sight I'll never forget. I wish it was describable, but it was just one of those days that only happens once. My dad finally yelled up to me that we should be getting back to the lot because of the fast approaching darkness. I was reluctant to leave after only five or ten minutes on top. I wished I could sit there forever in that moment. All I could think within my swelled up temples was that there was no place on earth I'd rather be at that moment.
Estes Cone will forever hold a special place within my soul, in being my first Colorado summit, and in giving me the great honor of literally showing me its true colors. I'll never forget that evening as I sat on the summit rocks and I will always be able to see that splendid panorama in my mind. We then started to descend as did the sun! By the time we were at Storm Pass we were in the dark. As my father and I approached my buddies they asked if we reached the summit. We both exclaimed yes but felt a kind of disappointment in not being able to explain what we had witnessed in those few minutes on top. As my friends started off, my dad leaned over and whispered in my ear, "What a way to start the trip, eh." I knew that he was at a loss of words, but also that there was an unspoken understanding of being in a dream world of disbelief, which only comes within certain experiences throughout a lifetime. We continued very quickly down the trail and I started to feel my first bit of the altitude. I really started to feel it and can't remember a few spots on the hike down. I remember my conscience making fun of myself for being so dumb and also for how I was paying for it. It was but a little price to pay for reaching the summit and I'd do it again. I laugh about it now, but it was quite the night and quite a start for my dream trip in the Rockies. We finally did reach the car about 9:00 and boy did it feel good to sit down. The night carried on as we talked about my dumbness in getting to the summit, but we all agreed that it was well worth some time in the dark, especially my father and I. I remember before going to sleep that night thinking about the amazing scenery still to come. I thought to myself, "If the trip was over after just today, I won't have a hint of regret." From that point on I didn't care anymore about how high the peaks were. I realized that elevation is just a number. Beauty and memories are not measured in feet.
It turned out that we didn't even make the summit of a fourteener on the trip after attempting Sherman and Castle Peak. We made the summit and memories of some smaller peaks like Sheridan and Sundance that won't ever be beaten even by a Mount Everest. The memory of my short time on Estes Cone will live forever, even after I die, but I know that my dream trip to Colorado and Estes Cone in June of 2004 definitely won't be my last, or even second to last. And so I will end by thanking the mountain of Estes Cone, for one of the greatest memories of my life and for sharing your love and beauty with the many lucky people who sometimes take your very existence for granted. You can at least know that there will always be one person in this world that won't ever take you for granted.
"There have been joys too great to be described in words, and there have been griefs upon which I have dared not to dwell, and with these in mind I must say, climb if you will, but remember that courage and strength are naught without prudence, and that a momentary negligence may destroy the happiness of a lifetime. Do nothing in haste, look well to each step, and from the beginning think what may be the end."