His name is Alex, a recent immigrant to Boulder, Colorado. But to someone from another coast, another world, his move from Seattle to another high mountain range seems altogether mundane. And in truth it was. He was working now at a small start up technology firm vying it out with giants like Sonos and those robot vacuum cleaners. A fascinating enterprise which he had studied for his masters in Seattle. He is one of those economical academics who worked in the PhD program, secured funding and a generous stipend, then abandoned with his masters, a genius loophole to obtain a masters with no debt, and one which the universities have yet to close or don’t have enough concern to care.
We sat and talked over his undercooked rice noodles and my undercooked fettuccini. We were, of course trying to cook with water that boils at absurdly lukewarm temperatures granted the 13000 feet we had distanced ourselves from sea level. As we each of us bit into bite after crunchy bite, we compared stories of mountain and ocean adventures, enjoying the company of equally spontaneous adventures. He wasn’t climbing Longs Peak, just came up for the night to admire some of its neighbors, but I was going to attempt a summit tomorrow.
He was handling the altitude well, I thought, just as he reached for a gulp of water and commented on a mild headache arising. I imagine this elevation takes it’s toll on everyone, some evidently worse than others. I knew this from an incident two days ago, one which threw me off the mountain in a fit of confusion, dehydration, dry heaving, sweating and shivering. I had to come back because I had left everything behind. My lonely tent lay just shy of Rocky Mountain National Park’s highest peak for two nights, sheltered by a circle of summits and a collapsing ring of rocks. I hoped I had staked it down well enough, I worried the second the night. The first night I was simply happy to be able to breathe, to feel my blood pH levels return to normal, and have the crippling, throbbing headache turn to a dull ache. I would of course, learn this lesson again. But this is not that story, this is story of success, of summiting on the fourth try, of opening the door for a future in mountaineering.
Alex had arrived shortly after I did and fumbled with his tent in the alpine winds for nearly an hour. I looked on for a time, exploring the maze of boulders and underground streams. It was a playground for adults, albeit a dangerous one, but hardly worse than the spiny metal contraptions erected for kids to parade on today, just bigger, and for people with a little more foresight. He had brought a three seasons tent to the mountaintop, a mistake I knew all too well, and I watched his fully constructed abode stamp the ground with each strong gust. My tent had been patiently waiting for me to return and despite some loose guy lines and a couple free stakes, was still securely grounded. It was a worthy investment, a home that would not fill with snow or collapse in gales. Alex had come up to the park just for the night and had suspected a campsite would be free at slightly lower elevation. Only the island of misfit toys was free for the night, the alpine campsite known as the Boulder Field, exposed to all kinds of crap no one sane enough to not summit would come up here. Alex was I guess insane enough but had left the crampons and ice axe down in the foothills.
I didn’t exactly know what my plans were. I knew I had clear weather and I knew I wasn’t even noticing the altitude. The summit was right there, just a couple hours of scrambling and kicking steps to stand on top of my first fourteener, a challenging one at that. Mt Meeker to the east would provide a sufficient challenge without quite the altitude and none of the snow. But it just didn’t have the same attraction to it, and besides I would have been entirely alone on that route. On Longs Peak I would be guaranteed company, and if I found myself alone, it was probably a good sign to turn back.
But when I made it up to the “Keyhole” the next morning, I found several people pondering continuing. The gusts were spitting through this aptly named hole in the ridge at over sixty miles per hour. We all hunkered down on all fours to pass through this gateway to reach the mountains other face. Once through, the winds dropped significantly and another world was exposed. Where before the view was of the desolation of eastern Colorado and flat Kansas, now ahead were the giants of the Rocky Mountains. Waterfalls spit out from snow covered bowls grinded into mountain sides by ancient glaciers. Giant boulders, calves off from cliff faces resided in the valleys below, their paths evident by the trails of destruction in their wake.
The hike turns to a scramble at this point with the wager now increased. One slip and it’s near certain death. Somebody discovered this just last month; her lifeless body was flown out by helicopter. Amplify that with a layer of snow and ice and you’ve got yourself an exciting climb ahead. The route creeps along this sloping cliff face for a bit then sharply climbs up a gash in the mountain known as “the trough”, covered in snow with sure consequences in case of a slip. The ice axe is the security, the self arrest the policy. But it is no guarantee. The best bet, don’t slip. I kicked steps in on the way up and navigated around frozen creeks, everything still solid on the west face. At the top, the route once again crosses over a gusty ridge to reach “the narrows” a section which ordinarily is the fright of the late summer climber, but clear of snow and ice, was my delight. I hopped along the cliff face quickly to reach another chute up the mountain known as “the homestretch”. This sketchy pitch possessed snow and ice with about thirty feet of run out onto a wall of rock. I ascended carefully and found myself at the top, an anti-climactic broad and flat summit when I expected some pinnacle of extraordinary insight. But nevertheless the view was spectacular and it was evident that I was the tallest thing around, a claim that with my short stature I can hardly ever make.
I climbed with a couple of guys I had met a couple hours earlier on the ascent and we relaxed and enjoyed the view for a little over an hour before deciding it wise to descend to a lower altitude. I was running low on water but thought little of it.
I was on the descent and would be back to my tent in the next couple hours. I hadn’t felt even the slightest twinge of altitude sickness since I came up here and thought I must be becoming fairly well adapted.
Back through the keyhole I felt a mild headache and knew I needed to hydrate more. So down at camp I guzzled water liter after liter, spread out over an hour while I disassembled camp. This was the story I wanted to tell, of success and triumph, of my overwhelming joy of doing something for the first time, of climbing a difficult mountain, of perseverance to not give up even after three failed attempts.
I wanted so badly to tell my parents of my cautious attempt, my patience and strict attention to detail. But this was not what would highlight my story. Instead, when I would tell me dad that I was headed to the hospital, he would turn from his more jovial tone to concern and rightly so say, “Grayson if you keep this up you’re going to get yourself killed.”
It would forever threaten to taint my experience of my first real summit, after nearly two decades ago being enthralled with the idea of standing on top of mountains. But it couldn’t, not the agonizing pain afterwards, not the miserable steps to recover in the days following, or the embarrassment of getting altitude sickness twice in three days. No, these challenges are what I love, and these costs can be eliminated, or at least minimized. The beauty and tranquility I experience from being on the slopes and the summit of mountains is worth learning how to deal with the challenges. I once was tried with hypothermia and had to return home to reassess. I returned to colder temperatures and travelled comfortably through the wilderness in the thick of winter. The fact is, each of these challenges that I live through teaches me not to avoid the challenge in the first place, but rather how to prepare for next time. I guess it could get me killed, but it is only in those moments of naïveté or physical lack of conditioning that I am unprepared. Once I make it past those ominous and towering hurdles, the challenges that were once enough to keep me home, hidden inside my four walls with my thermostat and 911, they now seem mere dimples in the path.
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