Probably every mountain climber can relate to the trouble in explaining to non-mountain-lovers why one keeps going back to the mountains, spending, some say wasting, all that time and money just to do something that carries no seemingly tangible value yet involves a considerable amount of risk. Okay.
Rather than try to explain what’s beautiful about the mountains-- the colors, the clouds, the wildlife and wildflowers, the inspiring forms, etc.-- which doesn’t really explain the yearning, the outright need, that many climbers and hikers feel in their cores; and rather than explain the fact that in the mountains I find my only complete peace, inspiration, and redemption, sometimes I simply tell my story, the story of my awakening, and it is only then, as I relate my feelings from those days, that people at last begin to understand. They may never go out and try it themselves, and they may still think I should grow up and focus on "truly important" things, but it helps them to relate an experience to a feeling and that feeling to a deep and lasting change-- most people have undergone something of the sort somehow, somewhere, some way. Thus, the emphasis on how, since why too frequently just produces nods and sounds nice and poetic but still doesn’t help “unbelievers” understand.
Many others like myself who see the mountains as their purest way of experiencing either God’s peerless Creation or Nature’s perfect majesty, whichever you prefer as long as you don't impose it upon me, can remember an experience or experiences that changed them forever. I talk not of the curiosity that led us into the mountains in the first place but rather of the moments that seared into our beings a sense of oneness with the mountains, a oneness that, as if fed to us through some unseen umbilical cord from our spirits’ womb that is the mountains, sustains us wherever we are, however far away the mountains may presently be. On a cold, rainy winter day as I glumly look out the window while I sit at work, I remember that I have the mountains, and that lifts me. That oneness with the mountains is what makes us, as Tim Sharp
put to me so simply but flawlessly once upon a time, “…Climb because [we] can’t not climb.” Thank you, Tim; maybe that's what I should tell people.
So this is my story, but it could be yours, too, with some dates and places changed. The story occurs in four different places and over two summers. Maybe many of you will relate to it and share your own similar experiences in return. Maybe some of you will find solace and company in seeing in writing that at least one other person is as crazy or addicted as you are. Maybe a few of you will even find in here the words to help you answer the concerned or doubting looks and raised eyebrows that you face, just as Tim helped me to do. Maybe my own mother, the next time she visits this site and reads in my trip reports about the trouble I’ve sometimes gotten myself into, can start to comprehend why I do this even if she will never accept it.
Kearsarge Pinnacles— Kings Canyon National Park, California--- July 11, 1999
Everything changed here. In the afternoon, an end to thirty-six hours of nearly constant rain inspired a little wanderlust. I decided to find Kearsarge Basin’s upper lake, nearby and just a little bit higher than the campsite my brother Chris and I had made. I found the lake, and it was pretty, but there was still a lot of daylight left, and I still had a lot of energy, curiosity, and an urge for something more. What drew my gaze the most were the pinnacles of the basin, most of which looked unclimbable (then, not now) but which were tantalizing nonetheless. Now, many years later and with significant climbing experience gained, I probably would try one of the highest, most imposing ones (actually, I returned in July 2012 to do exactly that), but my untested self back then opted for a mostly snow-free couloir just left (east) of one of the lower and easternmost pinnacles. It doesn’t really matter now. What did and what still does was the experience I had and what it meant to me.
Kearsarge Basin, dawn
The couloir was always steep and sometimes loose, but the going was more tiring than challenging. At the top, seeing what lay on the other side of the ridge, I could only stop and gape. Before me was a world I still see and hear. It was a world typical of so much of the High Sierra-- raw rock that seems to glisten in the sun, sparse evergreen forests, and water rushing far below. I especially remember the water; as I looked over and into a vast canyon, the roar of the river down there rose up through the halls of stone and filled me with an indomitable love for wild, rugged beauty. I wondered how many other pairs of eyes among the thousands that venture into the High Sierra each summer had ever seen what I was seeing at that moment. A few, no doubt, but still just a very few in a relative sense. And the distance from the trail, the height of my perch, and the remoteness of the terrain I saw gave brief plausibility to the thought that no one else had in fact ever beheld that view. I felt so alive and so much as one with the world around me.
From the ridge, I scrambled to the pinnacle, doing at most what I now know to be Class 3 moves. I did not climb the final ten feet or so to the summit. I could do it easily now and probably could have then if I’d mustered the nerve, but such moves and exposure were new to me, and I passed on the challenge.
But the outing changed my life. It was not my first time off-trail, but it was my first off-trail experience of that length, difficulty, and reward. Something awoke in me that day: a yearning to go farther and higher, especially higher, than the trodden ways would take me. No longer could the beaten path satisfy me. No longer could I hike into the wilds without needing to find my soul and my completion somewhere higher and less attainable. Here began my need for fuller escape and spiritual sustenance, my need to seek the world that few of even the hardiest hikers ever reach. I am not at peace if I cannot do this, and no actual trail has been able to give me true satisfaction ever since.
Spanish Peaks— Lee Metcalf Wilderness; Madison Range, Montana--- July 5, 2000
It is possible that this was the best hiking day of my life. If my experience at the Kearsarge Pinnacles the year before had opened my eyes to and awoke an appetite for untrodden ways and solitary discoveries, this day fed and enlarged my pull to them, and a hike two days later would cement it and make the urge forever a part of me.
Starting out just before dawn, I hiked from camp to the highest of the Jerome Rock Lakes where, needing more, I chose to climb the cirque’s wall for a more sweeping view. From my perch on the south (far) end of the ridge above the lake basin, I beheld the entire ridgeline and knew that by ascending, traversing, and ultimately descending it, I could make a grand loop back to camp. And so I did-- standing atop the highest point, savoring views only climbers enjoy, saying “Good morning” to yellow, purple, and white tundra flowers (so tiny), and knowing for sure that everything really was forever changed.
The summit and ridgeline I climbed/traversed
Descending, I stopped at a tarn in the basin below me. No trail leads to it, and one only knows of it by noticing its inconspicuous presence on a topo map or by spotting it from the ridge above. I can’t remember how it was that I first noticed it, though I think it was from studying the map, but I know that seeing it from above made me want to reach it. The water was cold, clear, and still, and I felt as though I had found a little secret. I spent maybe half an hour there, just enjoying the sun and the warming morning air. It had been cold and windy on the ridge.
The off-trail tarn
In the afternoon of this glorious day, I hiked south to Lake Solitude (and had its namesake) and up to a ridgeline crossed by the trail. Atop the ridge, I forsook the trail for the tundra slopes above. Had I not done so, I would have missed more lovely tundra flowers, Lone Mountain, and heartbreakingly beautiful views of the Spanish Lakes basin. What a day!
Spanish Lakes Basin
Pine Creek Lake, Absaroka Range— Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness, Montana--- July 7, 2000
The afternoon trek I made from my camp by Pine Creek Lake stands out as the greatest ever for me, and it cemented my love for sights, thrills, challenges, scenery, and solitude that trails do not give me anymore. My favorite trek of all time took me atop the trailless ridges above Pine Creek Lake and led me to views of wild country that almost no one sees; even fewer touch it. The climb was tiring and challenging (for back then) but also exhilarating-- I faced scree that made me lose much of each ascending step, sharp rocks that punished hands and boots, and narrow ridges little wider than my foot and which threatened fatal falls of hundreds of feet; sometimes much of my body leaned out over that empty space, and one loose rock or lapse in concentration could have led to a premature union of my body and the earth. I had never before felt such awe, accomplishment, and ecstasy all at once, and I have not since, not even on harder routes. Whenever I think of what made me so reclusive and disdainful of “regular” people and life, so devoted to maintaining the fitness and the will to taste true wilderness and splendor, and so removed from mundane concerns and attached instead to something higher and grander, I think of this day and what I did here.
Absaroka splendor from high above Pine Creek Lake
And at the end-- walking, often sliding, down a small glacier back to rock fields and then to a stream from beneath the glacier and finally following that tumbling stream past small waterfalls to the head of Pine Creek Lake was a fine finish to a finer day.
--- that may be the word for how I felt this afternoon while on this adventure. There I was atop the world, far from its concerns, up where the world is nothing but rock and sky. I have never since felt so alive as I did this day-- pure elation.
I did not want to leave. In a way, I didn’t. I probably think of this place every day. It defined and defines me. A part of me is always out here.
Deep into the wilderness from the high ridges
Lavender Col— San Juan Mountains, Colorado--- August 7, 2000
In August 2000, my adventures in the San Juan Mountains became the sealant, so to speak, of my transformation.
The many ranges of the Rockies can delight and amaze for a lifetime and still leave one feeling as though he has seen but a little, but for me, a few ranges in particular, for their own reasons, stand apart from the rest-- the Rocky Mountain Front in Montana, the peaks of Glacier National Park (also in Montana), the ice-draped Canadian Rockies, the Absaroka and Gros Ventre Ranges of Wyoming, and the San Juans of Colorado are on that short list.
The San Juans are the grandest of Colorado’s mountains, and they are a vision of all that is best in that state-- among the highest (only the Sawatch Range is higher on average), the most colorful, the most riotous wildflower displays, a visual and aural feast of aspens, and ruggedly dramatic. This lofty realm is a dream for hikers and climbers. What the San Juans lack is true wildness, except perhaps in the heart of the vast Weminuche Wilderness, but they are at least among the wildest of Colorado’s alpine realms. With a little effort, one can find places out here that let him pretend he is the only one ever to have set foot there.
I first saw the San Juans in July 1997 on a loop drive of the pretty but very overrated San Juan Skyway. The following July, my wife and I spent a couple of days seeing the range by car, but I acquired a hunger for a closer look. In April 1999 I came back to photograph the peaks and scout out some trailheads for a future summer visit. Finally, in August 2000, taking advantage of a renegotiated summer vacation (some proof of my love for these places is that I asked for a smaller raise in exchange for more time off in August), I came out and did some fantastic hikes. Those I did from Yankee Boy Basin were the most rewarding.
Lavender Col is the saddle one reaches when following the trail to Mount Sneffels from the end of the road into Yankee Boy Basin, one of the prettiest places in the country. The route to the col is steep and loose, but it requires no climbing skills. The view from the col is astounding; the spectacular ridges and peaks of Yankee Boy Basin and the Sneffels Wilderness surround you, and, being above 13,000’, you actually look down
on many of those peaks. Mountains fill the horizon in all directions, and even the famous Lizard Head is clearly visible. The scene is dizzying.
Gilpin Peak from Lavender Col
The ridges west of Gilpin Peak
All I could do was gape. I scrambled off-trail a little for some extra views and adventure, enjoying the changing light and shadows on the peaks. It was impossible to look away. I wish I’d climbed Sneffels, but I didn’t know the best way up (I did return to finish this business in 2004), I was fairly tired from the climb and from hiking 10 miles in the Lizard Head Wilderness that morning, and thunderstorms threatened (a few raindrops fell, but a storm never came). But I had been introduced in grand fashion to the stunning high country, the summit
country, of Colorado. That time, gaping was enough.
Blue Lakes Pass— Sneffels Wilderness, Colorado--- August 8, 2000What follows in this tale touches on religion. I mean neither to insult the faithful with my negative remarks nor to push any creed with my positive ones; I just mean to relate an experience and the conflicts I feel about religion itself, and how my mountainous pursuits relate to them.
Starting shortly before dawn, I hiked up Yankee Boy Basin past Gilpin Lake to Blue Lakes Pass, a distance of about two miles. I reached the pass just as sunlight was first coloring the surrounding peaks. My, did those mountains ever come alive! Standing there, I felt a spontaneous love of creation and a wave of thankfulness for my life, my health, my parents, my good fortune (in life, not wealth), and my wife, Katie, whose generous patience with and acceptance of my alpine journeys is exceeded only by her worries for my neck. I gave thanks aloud, one of my few "prayers" in about twelve years. Later that day, in Ouray, I bought a card, wrote to my parents of my thoughts and feelings, and sent it to them. I told them things I should have realized and told them long before.
Gilpin Peak, dawn
Other thoughts that morning--
Long ago, I lost my faith in the value of organized religion and religious institutions, seeing them as agents of man, not of the divine. Also, I do not believe in the god that people think they are worshiping in church. But at the same time, I do not entirely shun the concept of the divine. If there is a supreme being, I will not find it in a book or in a building; only out in the raw wild will I have any chance of doing so. The mountains are my temples and cathedrals; their winds, storms, and buzzing silences are my hymns; their glorious but ephemeral, and hence more glorious for their brevity, displays of flowers are my communion. Here is my salvation, where I sing praise and glory and where I momentarily suspend the existential and metaphysical doubts that gnaw at me. Only out here do I feel I can reach out and touch the face of "God," bold a thought as that may be (my father, if he ever reads this, will appreciate or at least recognize my theft of that last image*).
Perhaps the words of a famous New England poet deeply enamored of nature say it best:
Some keep the Sabbath going to Church—
I keep it, staying at Home—
With a Bobolink for a Chorister—
And an Orchard, for a Dome—
Some keep the Sabbath in Surplice—
I just wear my Wings—
And instead of tolling the Bell, for Church,
Our little Sexton—sings.
God preaches, a noted Clergyman—
And the sermon is never long,
So instead of getting to Heaven, at last—
I’m going, all along.
-- Emily Dickinson
Volcanic work in the Sneffels Wilderness
conclusion? This will never end.
But the Kearsarge Pinnacles, Spanish Peaks, Pine Creek Lake, and Yankee Boy Basin outings of 1999 and 2000 were the greatest and most meaningful "hikes" I have ever done. Since then, I have done harder, sometimes even life-threatening, things out in the mountains, but they, thrilling as they have been, have not lent the sense of discovery and awakening that accompanied those earlier treks, and they occurred because of
those earlier treks. As I have said already, those hikes and scrambles changed everything
, including me, and they are with me every day, strengthening and shaping me.
Now I am hopelessly addicted. Since these adventures, it has been more than 10 years, and my knees and ankles are sore, probably permanently, and life is busier than ever before, but the passion for high places is undiminished. If anything, it is stronger and something I need more than ever before. I don't get to climb nearly as often as I would like to, but it's just about all I want to do, and every time I do it, I feel it's what I was made to do, and what I'm meant to do.