Sometimes you just have to bend the truth...
"I thought you said we were almost to the top!" Well, I had said that a few minutes ago, but, as was normal for the day, I had blatantly lied. We were much closer to the top, having just climbed the last of the upper switchbacks, but the relatively difficult rock towers lay ahead. We wouldn't have a chance of reaching the summit unless we could successfully negotiate this section of the trail, which can look near vertical to anyone who hasn't been on a high mountain before. "Don't worry this part is easy" I exclaimed. What was one more lie in the dozens I had already used to get us this far?
This story really begins in the summer of 2003. Myself and several friends had rented a condo in Sun Valley, Idaho for a week of mountain biking. We had decided to take a "rest day" in the middle of the week to recover from the trails and maybe do some hiking. I had researched the area beforehand and decided it would be fun to try to climb one of the higher mountains. Hyndman seemed appropriate since it was relatively close and seemed very straightforward. None of us had ever climbed before, so anything harder seemed like a bad idea. My friend's son, however, had a different idea. He thought we should attempt Borah, since higher is better, and Borah is the highest! I didn't think we had much chance of success, but agreed to the idea. Everyone else thought we were crazy and would never succeed, but at 3:00 AM on our "rest day" we set out on a three hour drive from Sun Valley to the trailhead, and were on the trail by 6:30 AM. The trail was extremely steep, and we were not prepared for what lay ahead. Four hours later we finally reached Chicken-out Ridge, but thought continuing further would mean certain death! We turned around and made our way back to the car. I wasn't really disappointed in not reaching the summit, but vowed that the next year I would return to face Borah again, and this time reach the top. I didn't know what sort of skills such a feat would require, but I was prepared to do whatever it took.
On the summit of Elbert, July 2004
Early the next year I decided it was time for a career change. Serving as the Sr. Systems Administrator for an advertising firm was a good job, but sitting in a cubicle for day after day wasn't my idea of fun. I decided to go back to graduate school, but first I would take the ultimate road trip. In June, 2004 I quit my job and headed out west. The goal was to hopefully do a lot of climbing and biking, and end the summer by attempting Borah once again. My wife took a couple weeks of vacation and came with me to Colorado. The first day we drove from Denver to Fairplay, camped at Horseshoe Camp, and attempted Sherman the next morning. The wind was horrible and ruined any chance we had of reaching the top. Not discouraged, the next day we drove to Kite Lake and summited Democrat. It was my first 14er, and my first successful summit! Two days later we climbed Elbert. My wife flew home a few days later and I continued around Colorado, climbing Quandary, Democrat, Lincoln, Bross, Grays and Torreys, and several peaks in the San Juans, including Uncompahgre.
The view from the top of Borah, August 2004
I then headed to Utah and Nevada and climbed Wheeler, Kings, Pfeifferhorn, and other peaks around Salt Lake City. After leaving SLC I drove back to Sun Valley and climbed Hyndman. The next day, Friday, August 13, I reached the summit of Borah in three hours. My quest was complete! During those three months I had covered 158 miles climbing 21 major peaks totaling over 61,000 feet in elevation gain. I had learned many things, but the most important was that a good mental state was the key to succeeding on these mountains. While they also required some physical fitness, believing that you could reach the summit was much more important. And to get others to believe sometimes you have to lie.
The next summer (2005) I was performing research for my thesis. This work put me out west again, this time in Oregon, Washington and California. I had decided to take a few days and do some more climbing, this time with a friend I had met the previous summer on Hyndman. I wanted to do a big peak in the Cascades, and, as stated previously, bigger is better, meaning it had to be Rainier. I decided I better prepare for this with some real training, so I attended a snow class with Timberline Mountain Guides out of Bend, Oregon, which ended with a summit of Mt. Hood on the second day.
Summit of Rainier, June 2005
A week later I and my friend were camping in Glacier Basin on our way up the Emmons Glacier route on Rainier. We made it to Camp Schurman the second day, and, in near perfect weather, woke up the next morning at 1:00 AM to head for the summit. The climb was long and we were tired from packing our gear the previous day. "There is the summit" my friend exclaimed. No it's not, I thought; he had said the same thing an hour ago when we were below the last rise. But maybe this time it was true, after all it has been a long time and we should be getting there. Of course it wasn't the summit, and he knew quite well that it was not, but every little lie gave me more motivation to keep going. At 9:30 AM we summited Rainier, certainly my greatest achievement to date. Again, physical strength was secondary to the mental belief that I could make it.
The summer of 2006 was supposed to be spent at home. I had been threatened by the wife that if I stayed out west again for 3 months I would be in big trouble. So we planned a shorter vacation, taking a week to canyoneer and bike in and around Zion and St. George, Utah. My dad was flying out for a meeting in Ephraim the next week, and we were going to drive back home the following weekend. Driving home meant driving through Colorado, of course, so how could I resist the idea of taking my dad up a 14er. I hadn't done any climbing this year so far, and an attempt at Bierstadt failed after me and a friend ran into a three hour hail storm 1/4 mile from the summit on the drive out to Utah. So I planned a small detour through the San Juans on the way home, including one day of serious 4x4 fun and another attempting to climb Uncompahgre.
On the way up Engineer Pass, July 2006
I figured that the trail was easy enough and the elevation gain low enough that we would have a fair chance of reaching the summit. That is, of course, if I could convince him that the scramble up through the rock towers to the summit plateau was possible. We spent the night in Ouray and the next morning headed to Lake City.
I hadn't really wanted to drive to Lake City via Engineer Pass from the Ouray side. I knew it was a relatively difficult road for a stock vehicle, especially my Jeep Grand Cherokee, which was loaded down with enough bikes and equipment to noticeably cause the back end to sag. But the alternate route required driving to Silverton and was significantly longer. So we headed out of Ouray and onto the "road" to Engineer Pass. "Don't worry," I said, "I've driven this before." I actually had driven to Engineer Pass before, but that was in the giant Dodge with a 6" lift and 35" BFG A/Ts, and I hadn't gone all the way to Ouray. The road was much worse than I expected, but I made sure to not express this idea to my dad, who was already thinking this was a bad idea. I knew we would be fine if we could make it the first three miles or so, and I also knew if it got too bad I could easily turn around in the relatively wide rock path that was supposed to be a road. I had outfitted the Jeep with a transfer case skid and BFG A/Ts, but other than that it was stock and had lots of weight in the back. I just went slowly and kept the larger rocks under the wheels. Dad would frequently get out of the Jeep to "spot," but in reality I think he was worried we would slide off the side of the mountain at some point. I kept telling him that we were almost through the bad section and that it would get better higher up, which was partially true. We had made it only two miles the first two hours, but we hadn't sustained any vehicle damage, despite wishing I had installed rock sliders more than once. By this time he knew I was lying when I said we were "almost there," but we were doing fine and eventually he quit worrying. We made it to the top of Engineer Pass in one piece and then down to Lake City. We had some food and walked around for a while, since I was in no hurry to turn around and drive up to the Nellie Creek trailhead. I knew the road was almost as bad at the one out of Ouray, but felt confident that the Jeep would make it. Around 5 PM we headed back out of Lake City on the way to Nellie Creek.
Creek crossing on the way to Nellie Creek TH, July 2006
"This won't be as bad as the other road, don't worry" I lied again at the entrance to Nellie Creek. I knew it was going to be almost as bad, and I was sort of worried about the big creek crossing as there appeared to be a lot of water in the creek below. But we had all night to make it the four miles to the trailhead, so it wasn't too bad. Immediately we started off with some big rocks that the Dodge could have easily cleared, but the Jeep could not.
On the way up Uncompahgre, July 2006
Driving slow and deliberate, and lying about the quality of the upcoming road the entire way, we made it to the big creek crossing. I was relieved to see it was only about a foot deep, and after stopping to take some photos, we continued on up the road. The rest of the road was fairly easy, although some big muddy ruts made for some fun in one section. We reached the trailhead an hour after we had started up the road, and set up camp. Half of the battle had been won, and I had gotten my dad to the trailhead. Now I just had to get him up the trail to the top of Uncompahgre.
We woke up at 6:00 AM after having slept through the 5:00 alarm. The weather wasn't looking great; lots of clouds and some wind, and of course our approach from the east didn't allow us to see what was coming from the west. But I figured we would just head back if it started to storm, so we got our gear and headed off. Dad immediately took up a pace that I knew he couldn't hold, and I was having trouble keeping up myself. We hadn't acclimated at all, other than sleeping at the trailhead, and I knew we had to go slow or we wouldn't make it. I finally caught up with him and we stopped to rest for 10 minutes. I took the lead and, unsure what pace to take, decided to walk slow enough to keep my breathing normal. This turned out to be quite slow at this altitude, but the pace was much steadier so we covered lots of ground easily. We eventually reached the bottom of the upper switchbacks, and decided to take a long break. "Don't worry these are the hardest part of the climb," I lied, "once we make it up these switchbacks we are practically at the summit." Yes, practically, except for the rock towers and the rest of the summit plateau. I had the GPS and knew we still had at least a mile to go, but dad appeared to be doing fine, so there was no reason to tell him that. "We're almost to the top!" I said as we rounded the last corner. Maybe technically that wasn't a lie because I didn't say to the top of what.
Climbing through the rock towers, July 2006
We rested at the top of the switchbacks for a long time. I didn't really know the best way through the rock towers, but I knew I would have to pick my route carefully in order to give dad a chance of making it. I didn't attempt to lie once we started heading up the rocks; anyone could see that this wasn't the easy part of the trail and that there wasn't really a trail at all. Dad kept following me up very slowly, as we made our way up to the summit plateau. At the top we rested again for a while, and then began the final push to the summit. Again I didn't have to lie that it was close now, because it actually was and there was no turning back. We made it to the top at 10:00 AM, approximately four hours after we had left the trailhead. My dad, 66 years old, had summited his first peak, his first 14er, and not an easy one at that! He had survived the drive up Engineer Pass and Nellie Creek, and he had climbed to over 14,300 all because I had kept lying to him, telling him it was easier than it actually was. Just like on Rainier, those little harmless lies had given him enough confidence to keep pushing, and to eventually reach the summit.
On the summit of Uncompahgre, 25 July 2006
Now, don’t take this the wrong way. I am not advocating that you go around lying to people, especially while climbing or doing any potentially risky activity. Certainly pushing someone farther than they should go can have detrimental consequences, and everyone has their limits. But if you are confident about a person's abilities, and your own ability to turn back if the situation gets too difficult, lying to someone that the summit is "just over this ridge" can be a way to boost their confidence and get them to achieve goals that they would normally think to be too difficult. Anyone who is decently fit can climb a mountain. It just takes the right mental state and the belief in yourself that you can make it to the summit.
So remember, the next time your climbing buddy says "just a little farther," you know they are lying. But somehow in the back of your mind you think that maybe it is just a little farther, and this might be all the inspiration you need to finish that climb and reach the top!
[img:250096:aligncenter:medium:On the summit of Uncompahgre, 25 July 2006]