Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Climbing Mountains

About 9 years ago, I started a new tradition. Sometime in late summer, as often as possible over my birthday, I'd go climb a mountain. Once in a while it would be a day trip, and other times I'd make it an overnight camping excursion.

About 1/2 the time I'll do these trips with other people. Last year, for instance, I went with a few people who are members of my congregation to climb Bross, Cameron, and Lincoln. The other 1/2 the time, though, I climb by myself. Truth be told, though, there's only been one trip so far on which I've been completely by myself. It was my first 14er. I hiked in, set up camp, got up early the next day and climbed Harvard Peak. While I was on the top of the mountain, there were (in addition to the marmot who didn't seem to care whether I was there or not) two other people who had climbed the north ridge, on the opposite side from the south drainage I had climbed. Other than those two, I didn't see another person for that entire trip.

A couple years ago, in the South Colony Lakes area, I happened to camp next to Don and Brian, who had come from the south to climb some mountains. I was up there by myself, but happened to have a great couple days hanging out with some interesting folks who also enjoy the high country.

Another memorable solo trip was climbing Pike's Peak. The standard route is 12 miles one way. Some people make the whole trip at once, but most of the folks who do have someone meet them at the top (there's a paved road to the summit) so they don't have to hike 12 miles down. Others, though, hike up about 1/2 way, to Barr Camp, where strangers hang out in a cabin together eating dinner and talking about whatever strangers talk about in a cabin at 10,000 feet. It was an interesting an eclectic mix of people who created lively conversation with each other over spaghetti and water-bottle gatorade. In fact, Barr Camp was a much better experience than reaching the top of the mountain where, when I arrived, in addition to the people who had driven to the top of the mountain, a train was disgorging its passengers so they could buy souvenir sweatshirts and souvenir doughnuts and souvenir coffee. I didn't stay on that summit very long ...

Yesterday I came back from my annual birthday climb. People weren't quite so outgoing at the campsite, but I did meet a couple folks on the trails who were friendly enough. Most of the time, though, even though other people were around, I spent most of my time alone. It was ok, though, since I was afforded the opportunity (during the hours-long rain) to take a perfect nap and to read an engaging novel. While I was hiking (and neither napping nor reading), I discovered what it is that I like about climbing. It's that feeling of satisfaction and accomplishment that I get when I take those final couple steps that define the threshold between going up and there being no more up to go. It's almost an ecstatic feeling, the reward for the uphill effort being relative ease of movement, of unshouldering the pack and pulling out that special top-of-the-mountain treat.

I re-discovered, though, that it's not just at the top of the peak where it's possible to experience this. Yesterday, climbing Missouri Mountain, I realized that that feeling can last longer than just the time on the summit. I remember feeling the same way when I climbed Torrey's Peak. On that climb, instead of following the main hiker's trail, I instinctively turned right and climbed toward the alternate route along a ridge. On Missouri Mountain, the main trail is along a ridge. See, what happens is that you climb up and up and up, but when you get to the top, you're not on top of the mountain. To get to the top, you have to walk along the top of a geological formation which slopes (or drops) off to your right, and slopes (or drops) off to your left. The ridge, for me, simply extends the amount of time to be on that threshold between going up and there being no more up to go. Running a ridge, the reward is that you get to spend more time enjoying having already climbed most of the 'up'. Yesterday, once I gained the ridge, the 'up' was almost all done, but there was a bunch of 'across'. Sure, there was a little 'up' at the very end; but it was easy after having had a 20 minute break from going up while I was doing a bunch of 'across'.

Of course, I was packing for this trip at the last minute and forgot the camera. Does that mean I'll have to go back someday? Maybe someday my kids will be interested in spending a few days in the high altitude Colorado backcountry climbing 14ers. In fact, maybe I'll try to introduce them to the joys of reaching mountaintops.

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