“We pushed forward about 30 yards at a clip. Then caught our breath! Hammered another 30 yards! Stopped to breathe! Always, we looked up to the prize at 13,000 feet. Don’t let me kid you; it takes guts, gumption and hard core determination to slog up a mountain peak—especially in winter. Could we die? Sure, we could meet our maker. But heck, living full-out until we die is more fun. Is it cold? Sure, but we layer up.” Journal entry, 3/22/12 FW
Under a rising sun and blue sky, we turned into the Crane parking lot at the head of the 10th Mountain Hut trailhead just down from 10,400 foot Tennessee Pass in the Colorado Rockies. Around us, lodge pole pines grew thick to the west of us. Eastward, aspirin white snows covered the valley, which featured a frozen river meandering southward. Beyond it, enormous mountains pierced the sky. A brisk wind greeted us upon opening the car doors.
“Yow! It’s a tad chilly,” said Al.
“No kidding,” I said. “It may be worth it to add some layers.”
“Looks like Steve and Eric started out on another trailhead,” Al said, talking about our friends that would meet us for this hut trip. “We’ll bump into them at the cabin.”
“Sounds good to me,” I said as I hauled my 45 pound pack out of the car. “Let me get these skins slapped onto my skis and I’m ready to go.”
“I’ve got my snow shoes laced up,” Al said. “This pack seems to get heavier every year we take this hut trip.”
“You gotta stop bringing two pounds of cookies and five pounds of chips and salsa,” I said.
“Yeah, right!” Al said, smiling. “Let’s get moving.”
We hiked up the road about a half mile to where an arrow pointed toward a mountain meadow filled with seven feet of snow. Pines surrounded us and grew thicker as the mountain sloped upward.
“Let’s do it,” Al said. “Hey, look up above you.”
“I’ll be darned,” I said. “A stellar jay looking for a handout.”
We stepped into our gear and headed up the mountain. Not far into the woods, a squirrel jumped from branch to branch while he chattered at us like a repeating record. He didn’t like us invading his territory.
My friend John Muir said, “How many hearts with warm red blood in them are beating under cover of the woods, and how many teeth and eyes are shining? A multitude of animal people, intimately related to us, but of whose lives we know almost nothing, are as busy about their own affairs as we are about ours.”
We pushed past the chattering squirrel with our eyes searching for the blue markers that denoted the trail. While we carry compasses and topographical maps, it’s nice to see the blue diamonds showing us that we are on the right path. Within a half mile, we reached a frozen lake. We crossed it as the sun blazed overhead.
As Al pushed ahead, I noted the deep forest around us. I reveled in the silence, the quiet of the snow and the slight breeze rustling through the evergreens. Something about that “sound” that calms my soul and uplifts my spirit. I love leaving the car behind, the pavement and the cacophony of civilization. It’s been said that the Great Spirit, as the Indians referred to Him, created snow to fall softly on the ground to give a blanket for all creatures to find solace from winter winds.
Above it, nature’s motions illustrate the circulation of life, of spirit and of energy pulsing throughout the wilderness.
As the slope pitched steeper, I noticed my breath quicken and my heart beat faster. I felt the clean mountain air coursing through my lungs. A mountaineering trip lets a man’s body know it’s alive. I think Thoreau said, “I know of no more encouraging fact than the unquestionable ability of humanity to elevate itself by conscious endeavor.”
As we drew deeper into the wilderness, we undoubtedly elevated ourselves as we climbed from 8,500 to 9,000 feet and upward still. The trail led us through hard packed snow. Soon, we reached a bridge over a frozen stream. On the bridge, the snow measured four feet deep. Other backcountry skiers had packed it down.
“Let’s take a picture,” Al said.
After the shot from the “Shutter bug of the Rockies”, we began climbing hard up a steep grade. My breath drew deep drafts of life-giving oxygen into my heaving lungs. It’s moments like this that I am grateful for my existence, for my body and for my ability to ambulate through this world. I am thankful for the slowness and exertion.
We slogged upward until we hit a ridge that snaked through the trees. Unexpectedly, it dropped down into a depression, but quickly regained itself. We worked our way through an aspen grove with more squirrels chattering at us. Above, a hawk soared across the treetops on his morning breakfast patrol.
We stopped for a rest in a quiet glen. Unshouldering the packs gave a sudden relief from the weight on our bodies. A long swig of water quenched our thirst and slicing up an apple gave us renewed energy.
Thoreau said, “Live in each season as it passes; breathe the air; drink the drink, taste the fruit, and resign yourself to the influence of each. Let them be your only diet, drink and botanical medicines. Be blown on by all the winds. Open all your pores and bathe in all the tides of nature, in all her streams and oceans, at all seasons.”
“Let’s get this show on the road,” said Al.
“Let me hoist this torture chamber back onto my shoulders,” I said, “and let’s get going. I figure we can reach the cabin before nightfall.”
Once again, the trail climbed steadily upward. We followed it through a tunnel of pine trees. My skis swished over the ice crystals and Al’s snowshoes crunched down on the white carpet with every step.
As we climbed, high mountain peaks jumped up in front of us. The pines thinned with the altitude as we crossed over 10,000 feet and on to 11, 000 feet. Big open glades featured burned-out trunks from long ago. Ahead, 13,209 foot Homestake Peak made its presence known. It cut like a giant shark’s tooth into a cobalt sky.
Two more hours later brought us into wide open fields of glistening snow.
“Another mile should get us to the cabin,” Al said.
“We’re standing inside a huge mountain basin,” I said. “That big old 13er can’t wait to see us standing at the top tomorrow.”
“I’m ready for some hot chocolate and a nice fire,” said Al.
“Let’s do it, dude,” I said.
Late in the afternoon, the heavy packs took their toll on our bodies. We felt the fatigue of pushing into the high country. After rounding a stand of lodge pole pines, we saw the cabin set up against the mountains at 11,200 feet. We punched over the snowy land until we reached the cabin. Amazingly, it stood empty. We pulled our gear off and unloaded the packs from our shoulders. We unlocked the door and entered.
The cabin featured a full kitchen with dishes, glassware and silverware on plentiful shelves. A 100 year old cook stove stood in the middle of the kitchen. Two picnic tables made up the dining area. At the far end, a black stove with plenty of wood awaited. Upstairs, sleeping area for 18 people in wooden bunks. One could watch the stars while falling asleep as windows surrounded the entire upstairs. On the walls downstairs, pictures of 10th Mountain soldiers in full ski gear. Around the entire cabin downstairs, huge 4’X 4’ windows. A huge deck out front featured log benches for watching sunsets and stars. Out back, two outhouses.
“Home for the next two days,” Al said.
“I’m cooking up some water for hot chocolate,” I said. “It looks like Steve and Eric are still on their way.”
We lounged around the cabin. Several gray jays perched on the railings around the deck expecting possible handouts. West of us, out the big bay window, we saw Homestake Peak rising into the blue sky.
“It’s going to be a great climb tomorrow,” Al said. “I hope the weather and temps are as good as today’s.”
Within an hour, we watched Steve and Eric emerge from the woods on the high side of the mountain.
“Dudes,” I said. “Glad to see you.”
“Great trip up,” Eric said. “Nice to finally get to this cabin. I’m tired of pulling this sled all day.”
“I like your idea of pulling a plastic sled rather than humping a heavy backpack,” Al said.
They unpacked and made themselves comfortable. We fired up the main stove and warmed the place. Eric, ever the baker, brought his own cheesecake protected in a plastic container. Steve, a college instructor, fire fighter and engineer who had traveled to Antarctica, also enjoyed culinary talents of a top flight chef.
“I have never turned down a good dinner,” he said. “Food is the foundation of happiness.”
“Wasn’t it Ben Franklin who said that God made beer so men could be happy?” I said. “Maybe you are the 21st century answer to Ben’s wisdom.”
“Why not?” said Steve.
That night, the fire burned brightly as we sat on a horseshoe couch around the fire place. Outside, without any moon, the stars twinkled against an ink black sky. A quick stepping out onto the deck allowed us to see major constellations such as Orion, the Big Dipper, Andromeda and Aries. Saturn twinkled and we think we saw Jupiter taking its spot in the night sky. Without any light pollution from cities, the night sky became very personal.
At the same time, it becomes so vast, it defies a person’s imagination. As I stood on the deck looking, I felt a profound energy at being able to see the universe before my eyes. Further, for this brief spark of time, I am a living entity in this vastness. I am a part of the march of humanity. I will continue to squeeze every drop of living from my time on this planet.
My friend Jack London said, “I would rather be ashes than dust. I would rather my spark burn out in a brilliant blaze than be stifled by dry rot. I would rather be a superb meteor; every atom in magnificent glow—than a sleepy and permanent planet. The proper function of man is to live, not merely exist. I shall use my time.”
Looking up at the dark outline of the great mountain before us, I knew that tomorrow would bring challenge and triumph of summiting a peak in the dead of winter. We turned in early knowing that we needed our energies to climb the 13er before our eyes.
Morning breaks quietly in the high country. First, the night sky surrenders to a glowing horizon punctuated by mountain peaks. The first light of the sun brightens the snow peaks from the tips until it moves down the flanks. Soon, the sun touches the tips of the trees and finally, the grand finale of light spreads its rays across the entire landscape.
“Good morning,” said Eric.
“Mornin’” Al and I said.
We ate breakfast. Because of cutting a large blister in his heel on the way up, Steve decided the pain would be unbearable trying to climb Homestake Peak.
“I’ve got to opt out today,” he said. “I don’t need to make this blister worse.”
A half hour later, Eric, Al and I slapped on our skis and snow shoes along with our light day packs. We cut northward toward the mountain range and veered west toward Slide Lake in a large basin that carried us toward the south end of the mountain. The journey carried us for nearly two miles along the flanks of the mountain chain. At tree line, we pushed across 10 foot deep snow pack.
“There’s the starting point beyond that canyon,” I said. “Let’s keep high on the ridge so we don’t lose altitude.”
“Here, let me get a couple of shots of you guys,” Al said.
From that point, we made our way to the south side of the mountain where it began a slow and steep climb to the summit. We cut switchbacks up the steep grade. From there, the wind freshened to 20 miles per hour. Ahead, we saw nothing but white windblown snow and ice.
If I could describe what I saw before us, we stood at the bottom of a giant slide leading upward with a blue outline of the sky on the top and both sides. But in this case, we couldn’t walk around and step up the ladder of the slide. We must climb up the slide to the very top which was probably two miles to the summit. Along the way, all manner of winter obstacles faced us. The wind strengthened. As we climbed, we also faced less and less oxygen in the air at high altitude.
We pushed forward about 30 yards at a clip. Then caught our breath! Hammered another 30 yards! Stopped to breathe! Always, we looked up to the prize at 13,000 feet. Don’t let me kid you, it takes guts, gumption and hard core determination to slog up a mountain peak—especially in winter. Could we die? Sure, we could meet our maker. But heck, living full-out until we die is more fun. Is it cold? Sure, but we layer up.
To my right, Eric pushed upward. To my left, Al continued his quest. I followed them. Suddenly, I found Eric and Al to my left as we slogged ever higher onto the mountain. But as they pushed forward, the canyon below dropped four to five thousand feet. As that happened, another jagged monster snow-covered mountain rose up behind them on the other side of the canyon.
“Hey you guys,” I yelled. “Let me get a shot of you. That mountain back drop is incredible!”
They stood still for the shot. Mind-bogglingly beautiful! What I am seeing at this moment can only be seen on the nature channel. I am seeing mountain majesty just like the folks who climb Mount Everest. It doesn’t even seem like a smaller scale when a person climbs to these heights. I am a mountaineer with no comparisons.
Onward we pushed up that colossal mountain. The sun burned over head. The sky dazzled with its brilliant blue. The higher we skied, the more intense the mountains grew—like a line of sharks teeth ripping at the sky all around us. I don’t know what Al and Eric were feeling, but I felt a sense of inner awe at what the universe provided me that moment.
At the same time, I sucked huge lung-fulls of air into my body. I needed to keep every muscle oxygenated in order to keep pushing. I skied up close to Eric.
“Man,” he said. “This is an enormous pile of amazing sights.”
“You got that right, dude,” I said.
As we drew nearer to the summit, more and more large rocks cut dark spots into the vast snowfields before us. We continued our 30 yards of slogging, then resting for several minutes, then forward again with dogged determination. After another hour, we reached a false summit. Beyond it, the true summit awaited another 300 meters ahead. Icy winds pulled at our bodies.
At 200 meters from the top, I encountered so much rock that I pulled my skis and stuck them into the snow. Al pushed on with his snowshoes. Eric cut further north along a ridge and found a path where he continued skiing. I carried my poles and pushed further up the mountain as I hopped from rock to rock. Within 100 meters of the summit, Eric pulled his skis and locked them to his backpack. He intended to ski off the peak.
At mid day, Al reached the summit. I followed. Eric arrived several minutes later. We high fived and whooped it up for a few minutes. Eric jumped into a handstand. Not bad at 13,209 feet on a freezing winter day at the top of an icy peak in the middle of the Colorado Rockies. We took pictures of ourselves. We spun around to see outrageous mountain ranges all around us. The Gore Range, Mount Holy Cross, Never Summer Range, the Collegiate Range and Mount Elbert at 14,455 feet.
As we stood at the top, the wind blew, the sun smiled at us, but the cold started to creep into our bodies because we were no longer climbing.
“Time to get off this peak,” Al said.
“I hate coming down off a peak when it took so much to get up here,” I said. “But, I don’t want to turn into an icicle, either.”
To reach the top of a mountain, my mind soars with bliss. I can’t help my ear to ear grin. The moment elevates me into such a joyous mental state. Sharing it with my friends makes it a celebration of life, of spirit and fellowship.
Moments later, Eric locked on his skis and jumped over the edge. He made four quick cuts on the crusty, icy, hard packed snow. To his left, a cliff dropped at least a thousand feet. One missed turn and he would become a tumbling tumble weed down an icy couloir.
“You got a bigger pair than I’ve got,” I yelled after him.
Al stepped over the edge and made his way down. I plugged in my ski poles to brace myself for the descent from rock to rock, rock to snow, snow to rock and downward until I reached my skis.
Finally, I picked up my skis and slapped my boots into the bindings. I carefully worked my way over the hard pack. Once again, I looked west to see the scenery change as I descended. With each minute, I made my way from 13,000 to 12,500 to 12,000 and kept descending. As I worked my way through the snow and rock, I saw where some of the tundra melted through to the surface of the snow.
As the snow melted from the extreme sunshine, it formed an ice glaze that clung to the rocks and blanketed over the tundra like an icy spider web. Exceedingly interesting and a visual delight as the sun played off the sheet ice.
Nearly to the bottom, we stopped to eat lunch. Al caught up with me and we sat down on some big rocks to enjoy oranges, peanuts, energy bars and swig on some water. After 20 minutes, we finished our lunch on that high altitude table with a view unlike any most folks could ever dream of from their own kitchen.
I jumped back onto my skis and made my way down a couloir. At the bottom, I saw Eric making a run toward me. He made some great cuts and got caught up in his own powder blasts from the skis. Finally, at the bottom, he crashed in front of me. He fried his thighs!
Al left his perch and made his way slowly down the side of the mountain. Later, we connected for the trek back to the cabin. While I chose to circle back the way we came, Eric and Al dropped into the valley. Later, they climbed back up.
About an hour later, we reached base camp at 11,200 where Steve greeted us. We pulled off our gear and stepped in front of the fire place. Al curled up in the corner and Eric dozed near a window. I wrote about our high altitude adventure. As you read these paragraphs, I hope I got it right. I hope you felt the climb and the triumph at the top. I hope you enjoyed the journey with us.
In the evening, Steve cooked up some fabulous chicken steaks with rice and vegetables. We sat at the table with wide grins and all sorts of stories. After stuffing ourselves, Eric brought out the “piece de resistance” with his homemade cheese cake. Steve offered a bowl of hot blue berries for a topping. Each of us enjoyed two pieces of cheese cake.
Let me tell you, I savored every single delicious, scrumptious, mouth-watering bite. I let each fork full melt on my tongue and allowed the blue berries to soothe my taste buds and run down the back of my throat like a summer stream full of enchanting sensations.
“Bless you for this incredible cheese cake Baker Eric,” I said.
“Same for me,” said Al.
That night, we washed a lot of dishes. Ironically, no other back country skiers arrived, which left the entire cabin to just four men. We read books about 10th Mountain soldiers, shared stories and stoked the fire. Outside, the sun set and the night sky once again featured majestic constellations.
We hit the bunks early with tired bodies ready for some recuperation at high altitude. Before I fell asleep near the window, a shooting star ripped across the night sky. It seemed to place a dramatic exclamation point to a most amazing day.
Next morning, we awoke with the sunrise. It lit up the high peaks and spread its glowing charms across the high country. After breakfast, we washed more dishes, cleaned up the bunk room and brought in more wood. We filled the water pot with more snow and loaded our backpacks. Steve and Eric decided to stay for a few more hours.
“Dudes!” I said. “Thanks for a great time. Heal that heel, Steve. Thanks for the cheese cake Eric. Let’s do this again.”
“You can count on it,” said Steve. “We loved every minute of it.”
We stepped outside into a brisk morning. With the sun shining, it felt like a day at the beach. “Snow beach!”
We shouldered our packs, just like the 10th Mountain soldiers. We buckled into our skis and snow shoes, just like the 10th Mountain soldiers. We headed into a world of white at high altitude, just like the 10 Mountain soldiers. We thanked them for their service to America.
As we headed down from the high altitude on our way back to civilization, we smiled at each other. My friend Al and I enjoyed an exceptional adventure.
I am reminded of sage words by Henry David Thoreau, “We need the tonic of the wilderness, to wade sometimes in marshes where the bittern and meadow-hen lurk, and hear the booming of the snipe; to smell the whispering sedge where only some wilder and more solitary fowl builds her nest, and the mink crawls with its belly close to the ground.”
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“Frosty Wooldridge is one remarkably passionate individual. I’m glad he’s a friend that allows me to participate in some of his tamer adventures. In How to Live a Life of Adventure, he raises the lid on a treasure trove of fascinating challenging experiences. You will be inspired by the retelling of his adventures and guided by his bountiful advice. He shares what he’s learned after undertaking a cornucopia of challenges around the world. If you choose to follow the advice contained in his book, you’ll never look back and be disappointed by the things you never tried. You will have transformed the course of your own life.” Bob Johannes, Chrysler Corporation executive
“After reading the first 20 chapters, I was ready to go out and tackle a grizzly bear, wrestle a sea lion and climb Mount Everest. Wooldridge takes you where you want to go! Not only does he inspire you to take adventures, he shows you how to do it. He wraps you around his little finger with some of the most amazing tales on the planet. While I loved the educational aspects of the book, I couldn’t stop reading the adventures between every chapter. If I could live a tenth of his life, I’m signing up today. I loved how thorough he was with references, key points and guides.” Roger Hamilton, teacher
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