“A 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,” I said.
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 Colorado.
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 one?”
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 smile.
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 my body.
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 continued journey.
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. Colors!
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 grand scale.
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 green tundra.
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 terminal landing!
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 cushion.
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 of it!
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 monster mountains!”
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 THIS CHAPTER
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