person should set his goals as early as he can and devote all his energy and
talent to getting there. With enough effort, he may achieve it. Or he may find
something that is even more rewarding. But in the end, no matter that the
outcome, he will know he has been alive.” Walt Disney
Magic mingles in the mist,
especially at 14,000 feet, where nature pampers itself with waterfalls, rocks,
trees and wildflowers. The mountain
mists await, so let’s hoist that heavy pack onto our shoulders and tread into
the mountain throne room of the wilderness.
The door bell rang at 6:15 and my
friend Paul ambled into the front room.
“Dude,” he said. “Let’s get movin’ up
that road, times a wastin’, move it!”
“Just gettin’ my pack squared away,”
In the front room, I finished the
last of my packing.
The pack felt like 50 pounds, maybe
more. Nonetheless, we looked forward to
a big adventure to climb four 14ers in a five day pack trip in the mountains of
We talked about climbing those 14ers
near Durango in the spring. A train ride
on the Durango/Silverton narrow gauge railroad into the San Juan Mountain Range would dispatch us into some rugged wilderness
where cool winds whisper through tall pines and the white music from cascading
waters frolics across bucolic meadows.
I threw my gear into Paul’s car and
we sped off at night fall. We talked
philosophy for the next six hours before we stopped to see a heavy meteor
shower lacerating the night sky.
“Wow!” I said. “Did you see that
Lots of laughter as we watched white
hot meteor tails ripping through the ink black of space!
The ride from Montrose down the “Million
Dollar Highway” kept us swerving through endless curves. We watched the dark
mountain peaks as if they were monster waves lapping at the night sky. Those
mountains provide an endless opportunity for wilderness playground magic.
Next morning, we leaped out of the
sleeping bags with our eyeballs dragging off the tent floor nylon from only
three hours sleep. In town, we bought
late-minute supplies and fruits. Later, we grabbed our packs and headed toward
the steam locomotive—some 100 years old and still chugging up mountain grades.
Quite a sight, the old train! Its black engine belched smoke out of the
stack and steam released from the valves like a tea pot in the morning. It made us feel good, and a bit old fashioned
with a slower pace to match our spirits.
The brakeman heaved our packs into
the box car and moments later, the “Clang, clang, clang” of the engineer
signaled the crunching, jerking start of the journey to the drop-off point at
Needleton. A shrill blast split the morning air as people waved from the
sidewalks. The whistle blew that
lonesome call to adventure that I’ve heard around this planet many times, and
once again, I sped off with a dear friend on a new journey.
People waved from intersections and
gravel road crossings as our train chugged toward the mountains. The cars jostled back and forth in a rhythm
that settled well into my soul. It didn’t take long for the train to grind into
steep climbs which carried us into a deep canyon along the Arkansas River. At
one moment, we rode beside white water and watched the swirling currents crashing
over rocks, and the next , we soared high above the water that reflected
blue/green far below us. Everyone
snapped pictures of themselves and the scenery.
The view up the canyon showed us needle pointed peaks and barren cliffs.
Always, the rushing water of the river sounded steady and peaceful.
Two hours into the trip, we stopped
at Needleton where we grabbed our gear and walked over a narrow foot-bridge. We
slapped each other’s hand in a ‘high five’ and headed into the wilderness along
a dirt trail. Tall lodge-pole pines and undergrowth allowed no views of the high
peaks, but their presents seemed to vibrate around us. We reached a river that became our constant
companion for the next four hours.
The trail cut through deep woods
where wild flowers bloomed sporadically—red, orange paint brush, golden
daisies, purple/blue Columbine and deep crimson lilies.
Paul, ever the speedier hiker,
vanished into the woods ahead. I came upon him when he stopped near a waterfall
where a foot bridge crossed a rampaging river.
We stopped for pictures and pieces of fruit.
The climb steepened and I creaked
under the weight of my pack, but as always, with each footfall, however
labored, it brought me nearer to my destination. I am fascinated at my mental state when I
labor hard to climb a mountain with a heavy pack. It’s hard work, yet I bear the burden with a
I breathed deeply and relished
vividly clear air. The stillness calmed
my soul. It makes me wonder at these
times why I’m not a forest ranger. I’d be happier at my work and healthier with
Two and one half hours into Chicago
Basin, the forest opened to a huge panorama of cliffs on my right and a large
waterfall on the river below me. Above,
snow dotted the tundra in patches while rock slides cascaded everywhere. I
stopped to watch a marmot on a rock who gazed at me with indolent interest.
After 15 minutes, he decided to skeedaddle and I pulled on my pack for my
Crossing a newly formed avalanche
chute, I witnessed where 15 inch pines by the hundreds had been snapped at the
base and swept along in a violent river of snow. It’s an awesome feeling walking in the wake
of something so powerful that had occurred only a few months earlier.
Into the woods again, the climbed
steepened until I broke through a meadow where a riot of wild flowers glistened
with dew drops reflected in the sun. A
small stream cut through the verdant field.
I danced through endless
flowers! Grand! Inspiring!
Enthralling! I snapped a dozen pictures!
On the other side of this flower
meadow, I met with Paul who had chosen a nice spot seven miles into the valley
in a pine grove overlooking a river.
Above us, raging waterfalls roared down the rock faces of the high
mountains surrounding us. Through the evening
light, more wild flowers waved in the breeze that sifted through the valley.
We cooked two pots of food and
laughed at our good fortune. Near dusk, the high ridges near the 14ers lit up
with the last light of the day. It gave
a roller-coaster light affect to the highest rock faces. The sun set, which quickly turned the peaks
to dark profiles butting up against the night sky.
I sat on a rock watching the stars come out one by one when Paul came
up to talk. He laid down on a rock
ledge and I decided to join him. The meteor shower continued with white streaks
slicing the sky like fireworks on the fourth of July. That show soothed our spirits while lying on
rocks among towering pines. We both
stared up at the million twinkling stars.
We talked about everything and
nothing—like two friends might do when they spend time together.
We retired to our tents.
A cool wind blew gray wisps up the
valley in the morning. A slight rain
cleansed the air by morning. It also cooled it, which forced me into my sweater
and Gore Tex jacket.
After breakfast, we packed our gear
and took off—up an immediate steep climb beside a waterfall that cascaded down
the rocks before us. The dense
undergrowth and wildflowers sparkled in the morning dew. Waterfalls converged upon us from every
visual angle. The shelves of snow
provided their sources and the valley filled with white music. I call it ‘white music’ because it maintains
a constant melody of splashing that produces a duel reality that equals
human-made music on a different level.
White music can be heard and seen at the same time. This renders the listener with not only
pleasant sounds but even more spectacular sights—to immerse the spirit in the
harmonics of Mother Nature. It’s a
satori experience at the 7th level.
We broke through the 12,000 foot
tree-line and climbed ever higher into the flower speckled alpine tundra.
Above us, rocky mountain sheep
traversed along a trail near the rock line where grasses stopped growing. We listened for the “peek-peek” of pika rodents
and watched a couple of marmots chasing each other through the boulders. In the needle peaks above us, clouds
enshrouded the gray giants, and quickly released them for our visual pleasure. Nature played a game of hide and seek on a
We marched up a steep incline beside
a thrashing white water stream when a bolt of lightning ripped across the
valley. We dove for cover! Paul found a small overhang above us and we
pushed toward it as the storm swept through the valley.
We propped ourselves against the
rock with our jackets protecting us from the wind. The rain fell in plunging
sheets across the valley which changed from several miles of visibility to less
than 100 yards. Soon, hail pelted us.
Now that’s a lot of fun when you’re heading for a 14er and you get the heck
frightened out of you by thunder and then nature sends you a few lightning
bolts to keep you on the straight and narrow, and then, to really keep you straight,
a few million marble-sized hail stones to keep you humble. I love it!
I remember John Muir, my idol, climbed a tree once and rode out a summer
storm in the top most branches in Yosemite—just to see how the tree felt in a
storm! Love that guy!
After the storm passed, the valley
grew in clarity which only happens when the rain scrubs the air clean. Our climb brought us to a second plateau in
the valley. To our left, a grassy
incline reached up to vertical rock walls that poked into the sky. On our right, three sharply pointed mountain
massifs struck like daggers into the mist.
In front, two turquoise lakes, one with an iceberg floating in it,
reflected the snow and mountains in a perfect mirror image.
Again, we ascended a steep wall of
broken rock which carried us to a large saddle that overlooked the valley we
had packed up the previous day. We
enjoyed an eagle’s eye view at 13,000 feet. We stood on a rock mountain: like
tall skyscrapers of broken glass boulders.
Below, the eternal white water from waterfalls lined the valley like
throbbing silver ear rings on a movie star’s ears. But in this case, more sensual in a natural
way! The river formed under the falls
converged in the middle of the valley and cut a sparkly path through the dense
Wildflower patches in burgundy and
white, and dashed with yellow/purple, spread out across the rocky terrain, and
grew in places that seemed impossible. Scanning upward, we watched the trees
change to golf-course smooth green tundra that faded into gray rock which in
turn, swept dramatically upward to sheer rock cliffs that vanished in the mist.
We climbed in a natural coliseum. They call these the Needle Mountains because
their sharp projections stand like porcupine quills against the sky.
Minutes later, we resumed our climb
through treacherous broken rock. We
moved into the gray mist at 13,500 feet where I watched every footfall. The clean air and mist reminded me of standing
on the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco.
Our visibility remained less than 50 feet and the rock we climbed gave
us the only assurance of being attached to the planet. Everywhere: nothingness!
It’s a mental experience when I move
into this part of a the climb. Each
footfall must be measured, every rock calculated for safety, every breath felt
in my heaving lungs—life rushing through my blood and spreading throughout my
body. This is a time where there are no
ordinary moments, when ‘satori’ takes over, when I create my life, each moment
of it—where I am responsible for what I am, what I am doing and what I
want. I can create a living sculptor in
my spirit and that spirit moves through me and upward on this mountain. It might be called a ‘negative ion nirvana high’! This is where life begins to mingle with
death. To top it off in the shadowy
recesses of this dark mist, I must make distinct judgments of where I will
place my foot, how and what I grasp to keep me in touch with the rock—for any
mistake would send me flying down the mountain without the use of wings. Surely I would be a one way flight with a
I will remember this day with my
friend Paul—for we lived it deeply. Not
routine! Not dull! Not ordinary!
We lived a ‘peak’ experience on a mountain in Colorado.
Nearing the top, the rocks steepened
into columns, like needles piercing the sky.
We saw only oblong-shaped dark rock or darkness. We couldn’t see 10 feet
because of the mist. Finally, we
reached the top at 1:10 p.m. We saw the
little silver medallion mark embedded in a rock—denoting the peak with a tube
filled with paper to sign that we had succeeded. Cold!
We breathed inside a cloud!
I am amazed when I look up at clouds.
They look so beautiful with puffs and billows surrounding peaks, but when I
climb to the top, and become part of the beauty which I witnessed—it turns out
to be gray, damp and cold mist. That
adage about grass being greener on the other side may prove questionable. The greenest grass is where I choose to
be! So, in fact, I stood in the grayest,
cleanest cloud formation on that mountain on that day of my life! We conquered
Windom Mountain at 14,082 feet.
Paul couldn’t wait to get off the
mountain, but I insisted on pictures.
That picture of us shrouded in mist on the highest rock sets on my desk
for me to remember daily. As I stood
there for the picture, I looked down.
Holy catfish! It dropped vertically
more than a thousand feet, I presumed, into nothingness. Hopefully, no wind gust would sweep me off my
feet and over the edge!
Moments later, we methodically
descended the mountain. Very carefully!
About 800 feet down, we saw glimpses of Sunlight Mountain, our next
quest. They named it because of the rock
needle projections at its peak cause shadows and streams of light to pour down
into the valley almost like sunlight through the skyscrapers of a large city
like New York. We crossed over a
snowfield dotted with boulders. We heard the muffled roar of waterfalls under
the rocks below us. We climbed in a
world of rock, ice, water and sky. Made
me wonder what the pikas and marmots lived on!
We headed up a red couloirs toward
the summit. A number of watermelon-sized boulders dislodged in the scree so we
decided to climb on opposite sides. It’s really tricky trying to dodge a 300
pound boulder plummeting downward at you.
We nearly reached Sunlight’s summit
when lightning cracked the sky and hailed pelted us. We jumped for cover. That’s when Paul told me
that lightning can travel 13 miles horizontally. We needed to keep our ice axes close to the
ground—so as not to attract nine million volts of electricity which would have
turned us into a couple of vegetarian shiskabobs.
While we neared the top, too much
danger caused us to turn back.
That’s a mind-bender in itself—to be
so close to the top of a 14er only to turn back down the mountain.
Down the mountain we slipped, on
scree and rock. We pushed into the
snowfields and over the rivers. At one
point, we walked across a 50 yard wide section of a lake and it felt like
walking on water as we leaped from rock to rock. Again, the peaks grew higher and higher as we
hiked down. We walked to the bottom of an immense mixing bowl—strewn with
boulders the size of Volkswagens and patches of snow ten foot deep and crystal
clear tundra ponds.
Near the end of the valley, we
looked down a crevasse with white water exploding from every crack. A multi-layered waterfall kept us in rapt
attention with its wonderment. Below,
the twin lakes with the iceberg came into view.
Near my foot, a tiny patch of purple flowers resembled a pin
We made camp at sunset. The valley
filled with white music as we cooked rice and lentils along with fresh
tomatoes. Ah, night and sleep, 12 hours
Next day, overcast, dreary and
rainy! No climbing four us! Paul took off early, but I decided to stay
and write. I savored the last few hours
of that day to enjoy writing and quiet in the middle of the wilderness. I laid back in my tent and sponged as much
relaxation as humanly possible.
By noon, I needed to get
moving. I packed the gear as a new storm
rolled up the valley. Wildflowers rustled in the breeze. Soon, rains swept toward me. I picked up the
campsite and set out along the trail. I
looked back. It was as if I had never
been there and that spot was only a dream. I marched back down the valley into
the teeth of swirling clouds and pelting rains.
Lightning struck intermittently. I hiked close to tall pines on my way
across the meadow of wildflowers. At one
point, just before the rain hit me, I grabbed my tripod and camera and took a
picture of me looking back up the valley.
I liked it that way, being out in a storm, like John Muir in a
tree. Satori to the max! After I snapped the picture, I stuffed the
camera into my pack. I looked back at
the valley, and I cried out in the storm, “I’ll be back and I’ll climb you
This was no ordinary moment in my
life. I turned around, surrounded by a rainbow of colorful wildflowers, and
headed into the mist.
TAKE AWAYS FROM
1. Adventure is not always safe.
2. You need to push past limits in order to experience more.
3. Yes, you can die on an adventure, but you most likely will live.
4. Explore the unknown so it becomes known to you.
5. Enjoy the amazing characters you meet along the way.
Excerpts from forthcoming book: How to Live a Life of Adventure: Art of Exploring the World by Frosty Wooldridge, publishes in March 2011