Fear and Failure-- July 3, 2004It's a familiar story-- you know the weather doesn't look friendly, a brief cessation and restoration of sunlight inspire you to gamble, you're cruising along complimenting yourself for your good judgment and luck, and then the storm hits at just about the worst time and place.
The day started perfectly. I enjoyed a dawn hike to Pawnee Pass in the Indian Peaks Wilderness, without a doubt one of the prettiest areas in Colorado. I don't think I saw a single cloud.
Afternoon found me setting up camp at Glacier Basin in Rocky Mountain National Park, and late afternoon found me bored. So I drove up Trail Ridge Road to do a little photography if conditions would permit it (there had been rain and thunder much of the afternoon). But I love photographing dark, stormy skies, and as long as there is some visibility, I can usually find something to interest me.
And I wasn't disappointed. Enough sunlight was playing with the brooding sky to make a setting I found strongly appealing. Even better, though, was that the skies seemed to be clearing. And with about four hours still until dark, there was time to do a little high-altitude hiking for a nice finish to the day.
I chose Mount Ida as my destination. From Milner Pass, it's about a 4.5-mile hike along the Continental Divide to Ida's summit. And it's about 2100' of elevation gain. All taken, it was something easy to handle within the time remaining until sunset.
Easy, that is, as long as the thunderstorms didn't return.
For about 2 miles, all was fine-- sunshine, nice temperatures, endless vistas from the rolling tundra. Soon, though, the spectacular views west to the Never Summer Mountains started becoming less spectacular as the mountains began clouding up again. The delights continued to diminish as I began hearing thunder.
Sunlight was still on me, though. And even when clouds blocked the sun, which was already well down into the western sky, the sky above me was still clear. I knew perfectly well from experience that the storm wouldn't be nice and just stay over where it was, but I was about halfway to the summit and figured I still had time to make it. That assumption, too, was based on past experience.
Besides, I told myself, as soon as I saw lightning, I would turn around. And I hadn't seen any lightning yet.
When I saw the lightning, I did what any other smart, experienced mountaineer would have done-- I ignored my promises and pressed on. Pride and plain old stubbornness (surely, I am the only climber who exhibits these traits) all worked together to keep me going, a little faster, though, to hit that summit. I had a different summit planned for the next morning, so a retry the next day was out of the question, and I had no idea when I might be back again. So what's more important, being alive and well or tagging some summit? Too many of you know too damn well what the answer to that question is.
We laugh at the novices who do the same stupid things we do-- telling ourselves that what happens to them is due to ignorance but what happens to us is the sometimes-unavoidable consequence of adventure and daring. The "fools" didn't know any better, but we did, so who's really the fool?
Well, I realized I was losing the game as the lightning got closer and the thunder got louder, and, fifteen minutes from the summit, I knew I had to turn back right away if there was to be any chance at getting back to tree cover before the storm was directly over me.
But I wasn't so lucky. Within just minutes of heading back (which meant I was heading toward the storm, doing my little bit to help it reach me that much faster), I was in a world of thunder, lightning, strong winds, and snow pellets smacking me from every direction. My Gore-Tex jacket was doing a decent job keeping me dry, all things considered, but even with the hood up, I couldn't keep all of the swirling snow out of my face.
This had happened to me once before-- getting caught in a thunderstorm above treeline-- but the other time, there were enough rock piles around, and large enough in size, for me to find some shelter and sit out the worst of the storm. But the part of the hike to Mount Ida between the trees and the summit slopes crosses about 2.5 miles of gently rolling tundra where the rocks are mostly hand-sized at best, and I was at the base of those summit slopes when I turned around. A hasty retreat straight down to trees would mean a very steep descent into trailless country, and a leg injury suffered while heading down that steep, slippery slope could spell disaster. So I was faced with no shelter around me whatsoever and a fairly long way to any at all.
I was cold and scared-- in fact, I was more frightened than I'd ever been before in the mountains and have been since, and I've had my share of scares. Even worse was the thought that my own stupidity might keep me from ever seeing my son, who was due to be born that September. I'd written a letter for him just before I'd left for my trip, a letter explaining a little bit about who I was and where I was and what I wanted him to know if he never met me, but I didn't really want him to get that letter. Not under those circumstances, anyway.
There were just two choices: muster the nerve to crouch down and let the storm pass over, however long it might take and however cold or wet I might become, or just move and pray I didn't get hit. I moved. Fast. At times, I nearly ran.
For about 15 minutes that seemed much, much longer, that storm pounded the area as I tore along through it. The storm ended before I got back to the trees, and fear gave way to relief and awe as I admired the now-white tundra, which stayed so for maybe 10 minutes. I ran into some light rain as I hiked the remaining distance back to the car, and once back in the car, I cranked up the heater and popped open a cold beer. I don't know if I deserved that cold beer for heading out in conditions that I knew were capricious and possibly dangerous, but it still tasted really, really good. It was one of the best I've ever had.
Finish-- July 15, 2007If something keeps me from summitting a mountain, I have to go back, even if I don't really have any more interest in that mountain. And so it was with Ida. I didn't really want to budget precious trip time for a Class 1/2 mountain I'd already done (almost), but the failure from three years earlier nagged at me, and I managed to plan things so it would be at the end of my trip as I headed back to Denver after almost two weeks up in Wyoming. I was in the area, anyway, and there wasn't anything else I really wanted to do there that day, anyway.
Round 2 with Ida was uneventful-- I started at dawn, had the summit to myself, and had to admit to myself that the views were worth returning to see. I also discovered that when I had turned back the first time, thinking I had about 15 minutes left to go, I had been wrong-- it would have been more like 30 minutes. So had I kept going, I would have found myself on the highest parts of the mountain at the height of the storm, not up there on the list of really great situations in which one can be.
I'm glad I went back. Ida is a very nice mountain. And although I make an effort to do different hikes and peaks every time I visit the West, I'd certainly like to visit Ida again, not alone but with the family. I think they'd all like it, without storms.