First light cracked the eastern horizon as Al and Joe wheeled the airplane out of the hanger. Horse tail wisps of golden clouds skidded across the sky with the coming of the light. In the west, the Rocky Mountains thrust their dark profiles into the heavens above Denver, Colorado.
“Dudes,” I said, awakening with a mosquito drilling into my ear. “It’s
still dark. I need more beauty sleep.”
“Bring the packs to the plane,” Al ordered. “We need to get out of
here in order to catch the train on time in Durango.”
“Get a move on it,” said Joe. “Adventure beckons!”
Within minutes, we closed the hanger doors, tossed the packs into the luggage area of the plane, warmed up the engine and taxied onto the runway. American Airlines veteran pilot Al Wilson gunned the engine with a flick of his hand. His mighty bird surged down the runway and within a few seconds, we lifted into the quiet morning air as the sun broke over the horizon.
“Watch the altimeter,” Al said. “We’ll climb to 15,000 in order to fly safely over the Continental Divide.”
“That beats flying into the Continental Divide,” said Joe.
The plane, named “Backpacker Special,” headed straight toward Mount Evans at 14,000 feet. Frosty and Joe watched as Al fiddled with the fuel mixture and made sure that all systems operated correctly. The plane climbed steadily until we saw the lights of Denver fading in the rear window. Below, rugged mountain cliffs, lodge pole pines, rivers, highways, car lights and homes dotted the landscape.
At 180 miles per hour, the Backpacker Special flew quickly across several mountain ranges, deserts, beetle kill of billions of trees, small mountain hamlets and a host of lakes below us. Within 1 hour 25 minutes, we landed in Durango, Colorado to pick up the Durango-Silverton train that would take us to Needleton, Colorado in the heart of the San Juan Mountains.
We grabbed our tickets, slapped the packs into the baggage car and boarded the ancient coal fired train. We changed from 21st century flight to 1800s steam locomotion. Within minutes, the powerful locomotive puffed black smoke out of the stack and headed down the track. The engineer blasted the steam whistle, “All aboard,” the conductor yelled.
We settled into the seats of a 100 year old passenger train car. The train puffed its way higher into the mountains along the Animas River. It raged below us to reveal treacherous canyons and raging white water. Above us, 14,000 foot rock mountains towered into the sky.
At every bridge crossing, the engineer blasted a 30 foot length of steam off to the side of the engine. Two hours later, with six inches of black soot settled onto our hats and shoulders, we dusted ourselves off and walked to the luggage car. The conductor tossed us our 50 pound backpacks.
Hoisting a heavy pack onto our shoulders proved a test of will. Each pack held a tent, sleeping bag, air mattress, jacket, food, first aid kit, mess kit, one burner stove, water filter, canteens and extra gear for four days in the wilderness.
“Could I pay someone to carry my pack?” said Al. “I feel too much pressure in my feet, back and shoulders.”
“Yup,” said Joe. “I can do it for $100 an hour plus tip.”
“Pretty cheap,” said Frosty.
“Guess that means I carry my own,” said Al.
“Sorry Al,” said Frosty. “This isn’t a government welfare program.
You are responsible for your own life. Let’s git ‘er done.”
We hoisted the packs onto our shoulders, cinched them into place and headed over a bridge and into the wilderness. Quickly, a white water stream raged along the trail leading six miles from 8,000 feet to 11,000 feet base camp.
Above us, astounding high mountains jutted into an azure sky. Those peaks furnished the snow pack that created the white water rushing stream that became our companion for the hike up the canyon and into Chicago Basin. It makes a backpacker wonder why they named it after the Windy City unless the basin resembled the skyscrapers in Chicago.
We hiked steadily upward under lodge pole pines and lanky aspen trees flourishing with spring green leaves. On the forest floor, purple, yellow, white, red and orange flowers graced our every mile. The rocky path led us into higher altitudes where we noticed the first purple-white Columbine flowers.
Al stopped to pick miniature strawberries. Joe joined him with his walking sticks keeping him balanced as he savored the tasty treats.
Within an hour, our feet felt the burn of the 50 pound packs. We stopped by the river to dip our bare feet into freezing water as it cascaded past us at a high rate of white-water speed.
“Oh, this feels so good,” Frosty said. “It’s cooling off my blisters.”
“It’s making me sing a new song,” said Joe.
After our 15 minute rest, we laced up our shoes and slung the packs back onto our shoulders. Up the canyon we traveled. Soon, we passed over a bridge with a Bridal Veil waterfall off to our left and it rushed under us.
Three hours later, we felt a change in the flora and fauna as we gained altitude to 10,000 feet. We hiked through dense forest with colorful brown-purple-topaz bushes greeting us while spider webs, chirping birds and rushing water became our constant companions.
After seven hours, we broke into a clearing in the canyon that revealed dramatic vertical green tundra that swept into the snow fields that rushed upward into gray rock and onward toward distant peaks.
“Hey, a mountain goat,” said Al, pointing off to the left. “Two of them!”
“We should see a lot of goats,” said Frosty. “We’re in their home town.”
Around us, wildflowers bloomed around every rock, along the river and across the meadow. Seven hours later, we reached 11,000 feet where we pitched the tents, ate dinner and quickly fell asleep. Above us in that throne room of the Rockies awaited gargantuan peaks. We would climb two 14ers with the coming of the sun.
“But risks must be taken because the greatest hazard in life is to risk nothing. The person who risks nothing, does nothing, has nothing, is nothing. He may avoid suffering and sorrow, but he cannot learn, feel, change, grow or live. Chained by his servitude he is a slave who has forfeited all freedom. Only a person who risks is free. The pessimist complains about the wind; the optimist expects it to change; and the realist adjusts the sails.” (William Arthur Ward)
We awoke to the sun creeping across the highest most part of the peaks. As it rose, the light descended down the face of blazing rock.
“Man, I slept like a rock,” said Joe. “Let’s get moving. We’ve got a few mountains to summit.”
We filtered water out of the river, boiled some oatmeal and packed up camp. We found a better campsite, hung our packs in a few trees and lifted our food bags into the air on tree branches so as to protect them from animals.
A lone trail took us up a steep incline along a flat faced rock with water cascading over it like you might see if Hoover Dam had let water over its ramparts. All over the gray rock, flowers and birds carried on their daily business. We hiked up rocky inclines until we saw four raging white-water streams flowing into one another. The trail followed one of the rivers steeply upward.
After an hour and 1,500 feet, we reached the twin lakes replete with icebergs, thick snowfields and scattered rocks. When we reached the shore of the first lake, crystal clear water allowed us to see the rocks on the bottom while a blue sky reflected off the surface. We stood in a natural basin surrounded by four 14,000 foot peaks. To the south, Mt. Windom beckoned.
We marched across a 20 foot deep snow field. Upon reaching the rocky tundra on the other side, we rounded a bend to see a valley filled with gray rock, small lakes and more snow. From there, we began climbing for the next two hours though broken rock, scree and patches of snow.
“It shows 13,000 feet on my altimeter,” said Joe. “We can make it by noon.”
We scrambled upward as we watched every footfall, every rock for signs of instability and every “easy” path toward the top. While it may look easy, it takes a lot of determination climbing a mountain. It takes guts, gumption and resolve. We remained slow, methodical and determined.
“If the conquest of a great peak brings moments of exultation and bliss, which in the monotonous, materialistic existence of modern times nothing else can approach, it also presents great dangers. It is not the goal of “grand alpinism” to face peril, but it is one of the tests one must undergo to deserve the joy of rising for an instant above the state of crawling grubs.” (Lionel Terray 1965, in his account of the first ascent of Alaska’s Mt. Huntington)
At noon, we neared the top. From looking up at grand peaks, we gazed across the sky to see them at equal altitude. A rush of triumph coursed through our bodies. At last, we stood upon the highest point of Mt. Windom. We took a few pictures while turning 360 degrees to see a vast network of mountains. Across the deep canyon below us, we saw Mt. Sunlight rise against the eastern sky.
“Looks like that’s our next peak,” Joe said. “We need to get on our way. Looks like we’ve got to drop down a steep face to get to that couloir to climb to the summit.”
“It’s going to be a tricky route,” said Frosty. “We’ve got to travel straight down to that snow field, cross it and climb back up that couloir. There’s no definite route to the top and we must pass through one key hole to find our way.”
“Let’s do it,” said Joe. “Al’s decided to head down and meet us at the lake.”
We descended through a treacherous rock field where we changed course several times because it became to steep and unsafe to continue. Soon, we reached a 50 degree incline snow field, but instead of crossing it and risking an avalanche, we climbed alongside it until we reached the bottom. From there, we climbed across the canyon toward the red-orange scree couloir that led upward to Sunlight. All around us, brown-tan rock.
We looked back across the canyon to see Al’s silhouette making his way down the spine of Windom. Looking back at what we had climbed down looked like a vertical wall of gray rock.
“We climbed down that?” Joe said. “Man, it’s a sheer rock wall.”
“Yeah, but we’re climbing back up this gnarly rock face, too,” Frosty said.
We picked our way through 20 and 30 ton boulders. We might as well have been traveling through the skyscrapers in New York City. Except we didn’t have to put up with honking horns and hordes of people.
After making a few wrong choices, we reached the key hole and made our final assault on the peak. Around four o’clock, we summitted Mt. Sunlight. Heck of a change from the gray rock of Windom to the red rock of Sunlight.
“Let’s get down from this monster,” said Joe. “I’m hungry for dinner.”
“I’m with you,” said Frosty.
“You cannot stay on the mountain forever. You have to come down again. So why bother in the first place? Just this: What is above knows what is below, but what is below does not know what is above. One climbs, one sees. One descends, one sees no longer, but one has seen. There is an art of conducting oneself in the lower regions by the memory of what one saw higher up. When one can no longer see, one can at least still know.” (Rene Daumel, Mont Analogue)
As we climbed down some really scary vertical rock walls, we discovered that we had lost our way and mistakenly took the backside of the mountain. It took us out of the canyon we climbed and into another one on the other side.
“Holy crap,” Frosty said. “We’re on the wrong side of the canyon. The only way we can get back to our canyon is to climb down to that cut in the cliffs 500 meters from here.”
“Let’s get it done,” said Joe. “It looks just a bit challenging, or for a lack of more words, you’re scaring the hell out of me.”
“Don’t feel like the Lone Ranger,” Frosty said.
We gathered our resolve to carefully pick our way toward our escape route. About an hour later, we finally reached it. As we stepped onto the scree on the “correct” side of the canyon, we gazed across the entire Chicago Basin. Magnificent! Great splendor! Incredible view! Mountain majesty!
“I’ll bet that lazy mountain goat Al is stretched out on a rock in a good snooze,” said Joe.
“Don’t blame him,” Frosty said. “Let’s get down off this monster mountain and head for camp.”
By that time, both of us felt sheer exhaustion take over our bodies. We still had to descend over 2,500 feet to make base camp. We caught up to Al and, indeed, he snoozed on a comfortable rock near the lake.
“I was worried about you guys,” said Al.
“We made a few mistakes,” said Joe. “Like descending on the wrong side of the basin!”
We filtered more water from the stream as we descended into the basin toward camp. Everyone felt bone tired. Around us, the setting sun played magical visual music on the high peaks as we continued our descent to 11,000 feet. Along the path, marmots, pikas and goats kept us company. The baby goats looked like small white fuzz balls with two black eyes and four black hooves.
Upon reaching camp, we pitched our tents and ate dinner. Al found a rock to relax upon as he burrowed inside his sleeping bag. Joe seemed to be the only one alive. Frosty was so tired; he pitched his tent, unrolled his sleeping bag and fell immediately asleep. As he snored into sandman land, he said, “A day well lived, mates.”
“Climb if you will, but remember that courage and strength are naught without prudence, and that a momentary negligence may destroy the happiness of a lifetime. Do nothing in haste, look well to each step, and from the beginning think what may be the end.” (Edward Whymper)
Next morning, Frosty felt like a truck had backed over his body several times. Nonetheless, Mt. Eolus awaited and Joe felt giddy at the idea of crossing the fabled “sidewalk in the sky.” We cooked oatmeal, filled our water bottles and headed up the mountain. Al decided to explore mine shafts for the day. Since this was Frosty’s 5th time in the basin, he knew the route and what they faced to summit the toughest of the 14ers.
Up we climbed to the twin lakes, but instead of a right turn, we took a left turn to follow a lone trail through green tundra, Columbine flowers and gray rock. Ahead, the ominous vertical face of Mt. Eolus awaited. We could see it in front of us and it looked threatening. We climbed through a snow field, up a ridge and crossed over another snow field. We reached a large rock escarpment. We followed it until we connected to the “sidewalk in the sky.”
“This will give your heart a thrill,” said Frosty. “In some places, it narrows to three feet. If the wind blows, stay down and get on all fours. People have been blown off and fell 1,000 feet to their deaths.”
“You’re a bundle of laughs,” said Joe. “It looks like a giant rock hammock strung across two mountains. Is that North Eolous to our right?”
“Sure is,” Frosty said. “Let’s go.”
We climbed over several big boulders until we reached the beginning of the “sidewalk in the sky.” With great care and watching every step, we slowly and methodically made our way across the sidewalk.
Looking down, it felt like standing on the top floor of the Empire State Building and looking down to the streets below. But in this case, no fence barrier or safety nets. If we fell, it would be our last fall unless we could sprout wings on the way down.
“This is dangerous shit,” said Joe. “And it looks worse when we get to the other side. That looks like a vertical cliff we have to climb.”
“You got that right,” said Frosty.
When we reached the other side, we crossed yet another snow field to climb into black rocks. The sun continued its descent into the western sky as we made our final assault around 5 o’clock in the evening. We had been moving upward for seven hours.
We made two mistakes trying to find the route to the summit. We back tracked until we arrived at a rock slide that called for us to wedge ourselves upward to a ridge.
“Damn, this is scary,” said Joe.
“Concentrate,” said Frosty.
Once we reached the ridge, several cairns gave us a route to follow toward the summit. Within another half hour, we climbed through a key hole, broken 50 ton boulders and an array of obstacles that made it feel like we would never reach the summit.
But with great patience and determination, we finally made it to the top of Mt. Eolus. Unlike Sunlight’s red rock, we sat on black rock. We signed the ledger. We gazed around us at stunning light shows crossing over the canyons below us. We gazed for 100 miles in all directions. We saw jagged peaks of many other 14,000 foot mountains.
“You can’t beat this with a stick,” said Joe. “Man, it’s stunning in every direction.”
“I think this basin houses the most awesome mountain climbing in North America,” said Frosty.
“The first question which you will ask and which I must try to answer is this, “What is the use of climbing Mount Everest?” and my answer must at once be, “It is no use.” There is not the slightest prospect of any gain whatsoever. Oh, we may learn a little about the behavior of the human body at high altitudes, and possibly medical men may turn our observation to some account for the purposes of aviation. But otherwise nothing will come of it. We shall not bring back a single bit of gold or silver, not a gem, nor any coal or iron. We shall not find a single foot of earth that can be planted with crops to raise food. It’s no use. So, if you cannot understand that there is something in man which responds to the challenge of this mountain and goes out to meet it, that the struggle is the struggle of life itself upward and forever upward, then you won’t see why we go. What we get from this adventure is just sheer joy. And joy is, after all, the end of life. We do not live to eat and make money. We eat and make money to be able to enjoy life. That is what life means and what life is for.”(George Leigh Mallory, believed to be the first to climb Everest, but died on the descent. 1922)
We crossed back over the sidewalk, clamored down the ice field, made our way along another ridge, caught the trail and descended into the green tundra filled with red-white-purple-orange-blue and yellow wildflowers. Below, the twin lakes sparkled like a million diamonds off their surfaces. Mountain goats greeted us along the way and a dozen brown furry marmots scurried away as we approached.
At the lake, we stopped for pictures. Further down, we filtered more water for our canteens. We descended along the four rivers until we reached an abandoned mine.
“Let’s check it out,” Joe said.
“I’m with you,” Frosty said.
We left the trail to climb the tailings of a 100 year old mine. We walked up to the front to see old ore cart tracks.
“Let’s see what’s inside,” Joe said. “I’ve got a light.”
We followed the mine shaft back about 50 yards. It featured solid rock walls about 6 feet across and 7 feet tall. Water drops fell from the ceiling and water dripped from the walls. We tramped through a lot of water. It kept going back and back until we didn’t feel any need to find out what was at the end. We tramped back to the mouth of the mine.
“Hard life for those miners,” said Frosty. “I can’t imagine the back breaking work day in and day out.”
“Yeah, I’ll take living in the 21st century,” said Joe. “It’s a little easier being a chef.”
“You got that right,” said Frosty.
We continued our way along the trail until we reached base camp. Al showed us his souvenirs from exploring a half dozen mines throughout the day.
“I found steam engines and air pipes in the mines,” said Al. “They had some pretty sophisticated ventilation systems. I found a lot of pretty rocks. It’s so amazing here.”
We pulled our packs out of the trees, pitched our tents and cooked dinner. The setting sun again created light shows on the upper mountain peaks. We drank hot chocolate while we watched our dinners simmer on the one burner stoves. After sitting back on a log, we rehashed the day’s adventures. As night fell, we slept soundly under a billion stars twinkling in the sky.
Next morning, we broke camp and made our way down the canyon. At four o’clock, we caught the southbound train from Silverton. Back in Durango, we caught a cab back to the airport. The driver dropped us off at Al’s “ Backpacker Special.”
“Toss everything in and let’s get airborne,” said Al as he finished his final pilot check of all systems.
His many years with American Airlines showed in his thorough checking of the aircraft. We climbed into the plane after throwing our packs into the storage area. Al taxied onto the runway. Moments later, after filing a flight plan, Al gunned the engine and the plane lifted into the air as we headed eastward toward Denver. Below, the Animas River raged through the canyon and the busy city of Durango quickly faded from sight. Off to our right, a rain squall created a rainbow across the sky below the plane.
Up we lifted over the Rocky Mountains. We turned toward the middle of the aircraft and gave each other a “high five” as we flew homeward. We lived an excellent adventure.