The need to climb Fourteeners is a mental illness unique to Coloradans. There are fifty-three mountains in the state that are over 14,000 feet in elevation, and some believe you’re not really a native until you’ve conquered all of them. Or at least one. More extreme, self-imposed, manifestations of the “Fourteener Syndrome” requires that one climb them all in some artificially-short period of time, like 53 days. Or climb them in descending (or ascending) order based on relative height. Or alphabetically by name. Etc. Neurosis runs deep in this community but each of us respects the strains found in others. We’re very supportive.
A conversation might go this way:
“I moved here from Georgia a few years ago, and my goal is to climb at least one Fourteener per summer.”
“Which ones have you climbed?” This is a mandatory question, for everyone is anxious to share their list.
“Holy Cross, Quandary, and Long’s Peak.”
“Not bad! Pretty impressive.” This is always the correct response. In truth the Fourteeners are quite diverse and vary in many dimensions, not just elevation. But let’s start with elevation.
The three highest are:
Mt. Elbert – 14,440’ (This is not only the highest point in Colorado, but in the Rocky Mountains overall.)
Mt. Massive – 14,428’
Mt. Harvard – 14, 420’
And the three lowest:
Mount of the Holy Cross – 14,011’
Huron Peak – 14,010’
Sunshine Peak – 14,007’
Some of these mountains are iconic, and reflect part of American culture:
Pike’s Peak — #30 on the list by elevation, is perhaps the most famous mountain in America, being the one Western settlers first saw as they came across the prairie with “Pikes Peak or Bust” signs painted on their horse-drawn Conestoga wagons.
Wilson Peak — #48, is the mountain which appears on the Coors beer label.
Mt. Princeton — #18, is the mountain from which some say the Paramount Pictures logo derives.
Maroon Peak — #25, together with its sister peak North Maroon, form the Maroon Bells, and is believed to be the most photographed mountain in America.
Kit Carson Peak — #23, named after Colorado’s most famous mountain man.
Less fortunate Fourteeners have boring names like Lindsey, Eolus, and Bross. These peaks possess no colorful history, and are destined for obscurity except among those who care.
Fourteeners also vary by degree of difficulty. There are dozens of classification systems in the world, but here’s my understanding of the four-class metric used in Colorado.
Class 1: You can walk to the top on a well-marked trail. No danger here, other than getting really tired, and the trail might be rough at some points. Try not to stumble.
Class 2: “Scrambling” is needed, meaning you’re using your hands as well as your feet on some portion, to climb over rocks and such. But if you slip and fall, you won’t fall very far. Ropes would be silly.
Class 3: Same as #2, but if you slip, it’s a significant fall, and you could get hurt, or worse. Technical rock climbing skill is useful. Ropes aren’t a bad idea on Class 3.
Class 4: If you fall, you die. Ropes and technical rock climbing skills are mandatory.
Another metric that’s important is elevation gain from trailhead (where you park your car) to the summit, and the length of trip in miles. 3,000 feet is typical for elevation gain. Some peaks require more than 4,000 which is tough. The Eiffel Tower is 900 feet, so imagine climbing it four times and with only half the oxygen available at the elevation of Paris.
In terms of distance, a round trip of eight miles is typical, but a speed of even one mile per hour is aggressive. Some of the longest hikes can exceed fourteen miles, which give you two options: start extremely early, well before dawn using headlamps for light; or bring camping gear and make it a two-day trip.
Then there’s weather. Lightning is nature’s #2 cause of death in Colorado, behind avalanches. Most mountain hiking is done in the summer, obviously, and the weather follows a script. Clouds build in late morning, often becoming thunderheads. Rain is typical in the afternoon, and is frequently accompanied by lightning. Hence the rule: “Peak or retreat by noon.” If you haven’t made it to the top of whatever you’re climbing by 12pm, turn around and get the hell out of there.
September is the best month for hiking because it’s the driest, and most likely to have those rare, perfect, cloud-free days. If you time it just right, and watch the weather reports, it’s not impossible to climb a mountain in September and never see a cloud. But you can’t count on that, and if you do plan to camp, you must do so below tree-line, where you’re relatively safe.
Finally, there is that most subjective of all classification: which peaks you want to climb. And here there are no rules; it’s purely whim. I live in Summit County, which is home to three of the fourteeners. So obviously I had to climb those. I frequently make the one-hour drive from Keystone south to Leadville where the majestic Mt. Massive dominates the Western sky—a mountain so large it has a Wilderness Area named after it: “Mt. Massive Wilderness Area.” It tormented me every time I drove by, until finally I climbed the damned thing and eliminated the itch.
Mount of the Holy Cross was on my list because it has such a unique and identifiable physical characteristic: a vertical and a horizontal crevice in its Eastern face which—during snow season, appear from a distance as a gigantic Christian-like white cross. How cool is that?
And so forth.
My daughter Kristen had once been a horsemanship counselor at an Outward-Bound style ranch near Buena Vista called “Adventure Unlimited.” One of AU’s activities was climbing nearby fourteeners, and she got addicted to it, at an early age. Finally graduating to “Mountain Guide,” she spent most of her high school and college summers working at the ranch, guiding campers on horseback up North Cottonwood valley, and into the Collegiate Peaks Wilderness Area, home to those mountains named after universities: Princeton, Yale, Harvard, Oxford, Columbia, etc. Fourteeners all.
Yet somehow she’d never climbed the highest and most dominant in the Collegiate Range: Mt. Harvard, #3 in the overall rankings behind Elbert and Massive. Worse, her horseback trips typically involved the destination Bear Lake, right at the base of Mt. Harvard. It stood there, tormenting her, and had done so for years. Now, having spent five years as an associate in a prestigious New York law firm, she had one goal for her summer between jobs, back in Colorado: climb Mt. Harvard. Young lawyers never have much leisure time and she was afraid if she didn’t accomplish it now, it would never happen. In short, it was a quest.
Coming from sea level and trying to get her hiking legs (and lungs) back, she’d been doing the prep work frantically. In the last few weeks, she’d managed to climb three of the lesser fourteeners (Gray’s, Torrey’s and La Plata—“Not bad! Pretty impressive”) but knew the real challenge was ahead.
“It’s my ‘white whale,” she explained. “I cannot rest until Harvard is conquered.”
We were deep into September, and the season was ebbing fast. Every new storm brought a fresh dusting of snow to the high peaks and a serious dump—the kind that wouldn’t melt until summer—could happen any moment. She was running out of time.
She eagerly scanned the weather forecast for the next few days, and there it was. Friday: Partly cloudy, 30% chance of rain. Saturday: Ten percent chance of rain (rarely is it ever that low). And Sunday: zero percent chance of rain. Zero! That’s the dream-forecast you want for something like Mt. Harvard which is brutal: a fourteen-mile roundtrip hike from trailhead, and a 4,600’ elevation gain. Five Eiffel Towers. One climbing guide rates Harvard a “Class 2+, maybe a Class 3.” Yikes.
Kristen had climbed the other mountains with her girl and guy friends, but none were available for the September 17th weekend—and it had to be then. Snows were expected afterwards.
“I’ll go alone if I have to,” announced Kristen. “I’m climbing that mountain.”
“She’s not going alone,” pronounced Derry.
“I haven’t climbed a fourteener in over ten years,” I protested. “And this one doesn’t sound easy.”
“Go slow,” she admonished. “No need to push yourself.”
Kristen decided the trip was too long to fit into one day. Translation: we’d need full backpacking gear, and spend the first night camping. I wasn’t sure if that would make it harder or easier.
I’d probably sleep well, as I wouldn’t get much sleep the night before. The alarm went off at 3:00 a.m. and, after a two hour drive, we arrived at the Mt. Harvard trailhead at 6:30. Our hike began as the full moon vanished and light began seeping across the Eastern sky.
“Dad, just one rule.”
“This is my favorite valley in the whole world. I grew up in this valley. It’s very special to me. I know it really well. Even if you don’t like it, you’re not allowed to say anything bad about this valley.”
We passed through lush aspen forests and stately spruce trees. The air was filled with the scent of pine, and old-growth moss. The water gurgled happily over stones and fallen logs. We saw at least one deer who eyed us curiously before running off, but there were probably others who stayed hidden. As the sun finally cleared the mountains to the east of Buena Vista, the tops of the aspen trees turned a bright, shimmering gold, fluttering playfully in the subtle breeze. While their summits were not visible from this angle, we knew we were passing between Mt. Yale and Mt. Columbia. Looking up through the glowing leaves, mountain heights could be glimpsed briefly, also turning radiant from the sun.
It was the most beautiful valley I could imagine, and could find nothing bad to say about it, even had I been allowed to.
“It’s an enchanted forest,” I said. “It’s magical.”
“Yes, Dad, it is.”
We reached tree-line after three hours and it seemed ridiculous to stop for the night. It was only 10 a.m. Not a cloud in the sky. 10% chance of rain today. Zero tomorrow. Hmmm. It was time to throw away the rule book and gain more elevation before setting up camp. We were now in the Horn Fork valley, a tributary of the Cottonwood, and as we climbed higher the views opened up. Columbia was to our right, and Mt. Yale was behind us to the South. These were massive, towering, impressive peaks, and looked unclimbable, at least from this direction. Their intimidating height and craggily aspect was worrisome, given that Mt. Harvard was both higher than either, and a more technically-difficult climb.
In fact, there were now mountains and peaks and scary jagged ridges in all directions. Yale had multiple “false summits” parading up to the top from its eastern and western approaches. These were gnarly, rocky, dangerous-looking points of high elevation, many of which deserved to be mountains in their own right. Kristen tried to explain them to me.
“What’s that monster peak over there?” I asked.
“It’s not a peak. It’s just a thing. It doesn’t even have a name.”
“Seriously? If it were located in Iowa they’d build a national park around it.”
“Here it’s nothing. No one would even bother to climb it.”
“OK, what’s that pointy thing across the valley?”
“Ah, that has a name. Birthday Peak. It’s a Thirteener.”
“Fine, and where’s Harvard?”
“Harvard’s straight ahead. It’s the top of that huge, scraggly ridge that forms a saddle with Columbia.”
She was pointing straight north, and the valley we were ascending was manifesting as a vast bowl, surrounded on the right by Columbia, at its head by the vast bulk of Harvard, and to the left a dozen or so peaks, several of which looked almost Matterhorn caliber so impressive were their shapes. “What are all those called?” I asked.
“None of them have names,” she explained. But as we climbed, and as we tried to determine precisely where Mt. Harvard’s peak was, we started giving names to the other points, just for reference.
Thus the Cottonwood valley soon had a number of newly-named mountains: Peaks 1 & 2. The Blob. Ridge from Hell. The Statue. Spire Ridge. And so forth.
Another rule we’d ignored was to avoid weekends when climbing a famous peak. Trailhead parking fills up fast. The trail will have many others on it. Etc. But a perfect weather forecast trumped everything, and we’d arrived at the trailhead so early precisely to make sure it wouldn’t be full.
In any case we weren’t going to be alone in this valley. A group of a dozen young women had asked us to take their picture right at the parking lot. Groups of three or four twenty-something guys were common. And man/woman couples were frequent as well. Solitary guys were also not unusual. This latter species was often equipped very lightly, sometimes with their feet clad only in trail sneakers. And they were fast: clearly serious, experienced hikers, who had it down to a system, and knew just what they were doing: peaking early, returning early. Perhaps planning to run a marathon that afternoon. We hated them enviously. Even so, everyone on the trail was friendly.
“You find this on the more remote, more difficult fourteeners like in the Collegiate Range,” explained Kristen. “When we climbed Gray’s and Torrey’s for example, because they’re so close to Denver and relatively easy, you get a different kind of hiker. More urban, less experienced, sometimes from out-of-state, and often with attitude. People just aren’t as friendly on the Front Range mountains.”
Also interesting: not everyone was heading for the summit of Mt. Harvard. Not at all. The Cottonwood forks part way up, into its Horn Fork subsidiary. Half the people on the lower trail were continuing up the Cottonwood itself, towards Birthday Peak and other attractions to the south.
After branching north into the Horn Fork valley, we found many hikers heading to Bear Lake and no farther—where Kristen used to lead her horseback trips. Several of these groups had fishing gear: long, thin aluminum cylinders, obviously holding fishing poles. “High lake fishing” is a thing, apparently, like climbing Fourteeners. One husband/wife team boasted that this would be their 20th high-lake fishing conquest. “We hope we catch at least one fish!” they said, obviously worried that the whole thing could be wasted otherwise. Apparently in that community, it only counts if you catch a fish.
I found myself wondering how these high, above-tree-line, mountain lakes actually got stocked. It seemed unlikely fish had somehow evolved in them millions of years ago. I’d read somewhere that lakes can be stocked by airplanes, which fly over and drop a trillion fish embryos into the water from a great height. Nature does its thing, and in a few years the lake is teaming with fish. I tried to imagine what that would look like: a four-engine cargo plane, like a Hercules C-130—the kind that dumps water on forest fires—zooming in as close to a mountain lake as possible but needing to stay high because of the surrounding peaks, and dropping its load of fish-filled concentrate from altitude. Probably 4/5ths would miss the lake altogether, which would suck if you were one of those fish-egg things. The others would have quite the ride, plummeting in terror out of an airplane cargo hold, through the poisonous air, finally crashing into a freezing-cold mountain lake only a few feet deep—your new home.
These are the kinds of silly thoughts which occupy your brain while putting one foot in front of the other, trying to ignore the weight of the backpack, and the hopelessness of that distant mountain peak thousands of feet above you, and which you must somehow find a way to ascend.
As we worked our way up the valley, it became apparent we were almost the only ones with camping gear. One party of three college-age guys with full backpacks and a German Shepherd passed us heading down. Everyone else was day-hiking, and heading up. They were walking faster but there was no shame in this. Our full backpacks looked impressive and spoke to our status as hard-core mountaineers. As Sylvester Stallone’s character said in Rambo 3 when asked why he was in Afghanistan: “I’m no tourist.” Day-hikers were tourists. Backpackers were an elite species, or at least I fancied them such. Even so, those single guys in running shoes who zoomed past us were at the top of the Fourteener food chain. And everyone knew it.
Among those climbing Harvard, none really knew which part of the massive height above us was actually the peak. Or whether the peak itself might not be technically visible from the Horn Fork valley. “False summits,” those things you think are the peak only to find on arrival are not, crush one’s soul. And it seemed all too likely Mt. Harvard was in the soul-crushing business.
One late-middle-age, zero-body-fat guy overtook us, and paused to chat. He was from Illinois but somehow was an expert on Colorado Fourteeners. His personal list of conquests was impressive, and he was quite self-assured. He pointed up towards the twin peaks we’d been calling “Peak 1 and 2,” and declared Peak 1 the summit of Harvard.
“How sure are you?” I asked him, dubiously.
“100%,” he stated confidently. “I’m climbing it today, and that’s definitely the peak. Pretty impressive looking don’t you think?”
Well, it was impressive—a sharp, jagged, perfect pyramid of a mountain. If it was Harvard, or even if it weren’t, it deserved to be featured on a motivational poster under the caption: “Limits Are Not An Option.” But of course they are an option. Climbing that bad boy looked clearly beyond mine.
After he left, Kristen shook her head subtly.
“He’s 100% wrong,” she said quietly. “That’s not Harvard.”
Well, who are you going to believe? A guy from Illinois, or a mountain-guide who’d spent much of her life in this valley?
We were now far beyond where Kristen had expected to camp, which was encouraging. Every step meant that much less distance and elevation we’d have to face in the morning. As we plodded higher, Bear Lake itself became visible behind us, a beautiful little gem, hiding atop a rocky plateau, and nestled under one of the steepest and craggiest ridges. Anyone into high-altitude fishing would consider the place a must.
Finally the trail, already tilting upwards, continued towards a steep ridge, and zig-zagged up through a nasty rock field, all of which we’d face tomorrow. Dropping our packs, we hiked up a small, grassy knoll, beyond which was a stagnant pond, and a hollowed out area relatively protected from the wind, more or less flat, and invisible from the trail.
This was another of Kristen’s requirements. Pitching a tent right by the trail was tacky, and uncomfortable for everyone.
“It’s like every hiker feels guilty because they’re intruding on your personal bedroom space,” she explained. “And it’s not that fun for those camping either. When I see a tent pitched right by the trail, I’m like: “Yeah, way to keep it wild.”
I found the syntax interesting: “…keeping it wild.” She was determined to do so. As we hiked off the trail to our chosen campsite, she asked that I not walk behind her, but to the side.
“This tundra is actually pretty fragile. It can recover from a single set of footprints. But if people step in the same spot multiple times, it can sometimes take years to repair itself.”
My only condition for a camping site was that it was near water. On day hikes, you can carry all the water you need, because you don’t need to carry much else. Three or four liter-size Nalgene bottles will get one person through even the longest day. But you can’t carry enough water for a two day trip, especially because you’re already carrying so much other stuff.
You can drink from Colorado’s mountain streams, but only if you purify the water with iodine tablets, which we had.
We actually hadn’t seen any open rivulets of water since the Bear Lake fork. September was indeed dry season, and not just because of the weather. At very high elevation the snowfields don’t entirely melt until late August. But by September they are gone. And that stagnant pond didn’t look too inviting as a source of drinking water. Worst case, we’d have to hike back down to the fork to refill the water bottles if we couldn’t find any other streams. But it wasn’t that far.
The tent was up, our gear was organized, and our lunch of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches was consumed by 2pm. It was still early and the sun was high. The “ten percent chance of rain” was manifesting as some very small, non-threatening clouds beginning to build over the Arkansas River valley to our East.
Kristen, who’d stayed up late the night before, announced it was nap time and fell asleep on the warm tundra. I hiked around a bit just to explore, took several hundred pictures of the valley and surrounding peaks with my iPhone 6 knowing I’d need only a few, and read the tiny paperback I’d brought just for this purpose. It was “The Trouble With Lichen,” a sci-fi thriller involving a discovery made by a biochemist, and written by John Wyndham, of “Day of the Triffids” fame. I’d brought it because it was the tiniest, lightest paperback I owned. But when I mentioned the title to biochemist Kristen she’d laughed and said: “Well, I hope the trouble with lichen isn’t too serious, because you’re surrounded by lichen. Look at the rocks!”
It was true. The rocks all around us were covered in various hues of green and brown and gray. “That’s lichen,” she explained.
Well, that was very cool, I decided. Reading about Lichen while being surrounded by it. Or maybe it was just the lack of oxygen affecting my brain.
Oxygen was in fact an issue. Best we could determine from our profile map, we were at 12,500 feet elevation—a full thousand above tree-line. And tree-line means there’s not enough air even for trees. Lichen, apparently, doesn’t need so much. We’d covered five of the seven mile total distance, and climbed two and a half Eiffel Towers, with full packs. So tomorrow we had two and a half more Eiffel Towers to go. While we’d leave our backpacking gear at “base camp” with the tent, each step would mean that much less oxygen.
Well, no need to stress about that now, or anything else for that matter. Things were just too peaceful and comfortable. Kristen was still asleep on the grass, soaking up the warm sun. I couldn’t see Harvard at all, from our campsite at the base of the rocky ridge, but I knew it was looming to the North, just out of sight. To the East was Mt. Colombia taking up a third of the sky. And to the South was Mt. Yale, taking up another third. Between the two, much farther away, was lovely Mt. Princeton, from which derived the Paramount Pictures logo. I was in a valley filled with Fourteeners.
At 5 pm, with the sun seriously heading for the horizon, we hiked back down to Bear Lake just to explore. Everyone had left except for a solitary fisherman still trying his luck. He’d set up a small tent right at waterline and had the place to himself. Way to keep it wild, dude. But he seemed pretty benign, and was no doubt taking care not to harm the tundra.
After the requisite pictures, we headed back to find water. Smarter campers would have refilled our four water bottles from the lake itself. But we didn’t quite realize how dry everything had become. What we’d thought was a stream downhill from our campsite turned out to be a subterranean one. We could hear it, but we couldn’t find it. Well, darn it, how far beneath the Earth’s crust could it be? We split up and began exploring, trying to find some place where it actually surfaced. Finally I found a small opening in the grass, and through this could be seen a thin sliver of water. A few minutes of reaching down and re-arranging some rocks, and I had an opening just big enough to set a water bottle on its side. Kristen handed them down but I could fill no more than a fifth of one with each “scoop.” The angle wouldn’t allow for more. So we used one bottle as a bucket, to fill the others. But that final bottle could only be filled one fifth full. And this was a problem.
Returning to camp we weighed our options. We’d need a full liter (one bottle) to prepare dinner with our freeze-dried backpacking meals. It would be nice to have hot drinks afterwards, and I always need water at night, even at home.
So by morning we’d be down to two liters, and that wasn’t enough. No matter how unpleasant, we’d have to hike back down to the underground stream while still dark, in the morning, and refill the bottles yet again. But this time we’d bring a small cup, so the final bottle could be filled as well. If the final ascent of Mt. Harvard didn’t merit four liters of water, nothing did.
With that decision made, we used water wantonly. I added more than needed to my chicken-and-dumplings. Kristen’s curry-and-rice package was spicy, and she drank liberally. Freeze-dried backpacking food is one of the luxuries of modern camping. You simply open the package, pour in the right amount of boiling water, and let sit for ten minutes. Then you eat right out of the package. No need for messy cooking pots or bowls, or anything except a lightweight spoon. Kristen’s tiny liter-size aluminum pot, paired with my MSR Whisperlite white-gas stove, weighed almost nothing but delivered the needed amount of boiling water quickly. We ate in silence, observing the last light of the day. More hot water yielded spiced cider for desert and then it was time to sleep. When one’s day begins at three in the morning, falling asleep at seven is no hardship.
Kristen’s alarm went off at 5:00 but to hell with that. She hit snooze and we slept-in another half hour. Down sleeping bags are simply too warm and comfortable to leave without a fight. By six we’d dressed, transitioned to small daypacks brought for this purpose, tossed everything else into the tent, and headed back to the main trail, our miner-like headlamps showing the way. It was difficult but not impossible to re-discover the opening in the Earth that yielded the critical water. Yet it seemed surrealistic to kneel down in the grass, shine my little headlamp down into the crack, and scoop up water in the cup, as we refilled the bottles in utter darkness. But the thing was managed, and soon we were back on the main trail, climbing steeply up the rock field from Hell.
Rock fields from Hell come in two flavors: those with a path, and those without. This was one of the former, and while exhausting, we finally made it to the top of the ridge, just as the sun crested over Mt. Columbia. It was a good place to pause for a bagel and cream cheese, two of which we’d brought for this purpose. We split one, and saved the other.
It’s a strange phenomenon, my lack of appetite on mountain hikes. For some reason, the body doesn’t yearn for food during heavy exercise which seems counter-intuitive. But it does yearn for water, especially when eating a somewhat dried-out bagel that was fresh two days ago. Scenery made up for the questionable cuisine, as we now had a new view over Mt. Harvard itself. It was still not clear precisely where the summit was. We were facing a vast, near-vertical wall of rock and identifying the highest point, from our position at its base, was simply not possible. And, again, the chance of there being a false summit was high. So to speak. Quite likely the true peak wasn’t yet even visible. Fortunately the path was very much so. With the benefit of the newly-risen sun, throwing everything into sharp relief, we could easily see the trail meander its way upwards, heading first towards a saddle to the West that divided the Harvard massive from what we’d earlier named Peaks 1 and 2, and from there the long and intimidating “Spire Ridge.”
Kristen eyed it all judiciously while finishing breakfast. I knew what was going on in her mind. This was her quest. And its achievement was coming closer. The towering wall of rock was intimidating. But it could be conquered. At least if we had the will.
Suddenly she broke the silence and declared softly yet emphatically, with words quite out of character: “You know what? This bitch is going down, and it’s going down today.”
It was her own, personal, motivational-poster.
Half way to the saddle my panic attack began. I’ve come to recognize these, and can now almost set my watch by them. It’s when things start to get really steep and a mild fear-of-heights kicks in. I didn’t have any fear of heights when I was younger. But I also didn’t have much wisdom. It seems to me that fear of heights is not a mental aberration. Lack of such fear is what’s dysfunctional. If you fall, you can get hurt, and as you climb higher up a steep mountain, the brain senses possible danger. That’s the sign of a healthy brain.
But these days my fear of heights was morphing into panic attacks, which can be debilitating. The symptoms are clear: a growing sense of desperate unease, mild nausea and a faint sense of dizziness. Fortunately I’ve learned to control it, or at least hoped so. I ate a full granola bar covered in chocolate, knowing chocolate solves most problems in life. Then I drank more water than I really needed, and took the lead heading up the trail. We were back in rock-field-from-hell world, and navigating the path was becoming increasingly difficult, which is why I wanted to go first. I needed something to occupy my mind, and searching for the frequent—but not as frequent as they could be—“cairns” (small piles of rocks which mark the way) was gratifyingly distracting. Now, you might ask, why is it so difficult to spot piles of rock in the midst of a vast rock field? Well, the question answers itself, does it not? And to offset the growing fear of heights, I adopted the well-known strategy of simply not looking down. There was still plenty to see looking up.
And that’s when I noticed the Golden Marmot.
“Look!” said Kristen, excitedly. “A marmot. A huge, huge marmot!”
He was perched on a rock, about fifty feet above us near the trail. The morning sun illuminated his rich, golden fur, and he stared at us with interest.
“That’s not just any marmot,” I declared. “That—that’s the Golden Marmot!”
“Oh my God, you’re right!” exclaimed Kristen, appreciating the joke. “It is! It’s the famous Golden Marmot. The fabled guardian of the approach to Mt. Harvard!”
“See how he is staring at us? We are being judged. Judged by the Golden Marmot!”
The Golden Marmot suddenly turned away from us, and waved his tail deliberately back and forth, three times.
“He’s accepted us!” I cried. “That’s what the swishing tail means! We’ve been judged by the Golden Marmot, and have been found worthy! We’re being allowed safe passage!”
“Not just allowed,” concurred Kristen. “Encouraged. He is guiding us onwards, inviting us formally into his mountain kingdom. This might be the high point of my life! An invitation from the Golden Marmot himself. Wow.”
Whatever else he’d done, the Golden Marmot, together with the chocolate bar, had wiped out the panic attack. That was gone, but I wasn’t any happier about the heights. Golden Marmot or not, gravity was still in force.
I reached the top of the saddle first, and what was on the other side scared me to death. It was a 90 degree drop off. A sheer precipice, and it continued all along the ridge over to Peak 1 and beyond. And no doubt continued up towards the top of Mount Harvard as well, although we still couldn’t really see the top.
Kristen has a bad habit, when mountain hiking with me, of going near such ledges and looking down. I couldn’t bear the thought. I wasn’t worried about her. A mountain guide knows what she’s doing. But the very thought of it would exacerbate my own fear. And it didn’t need exacerbating.
“Kristen,” I called down. “It’s a precipice up here. A sheer drop off. Do not even think about going near it. I’m not kidding. This is your father talking.”
“No problem, Dad. Lead on!”
Finally the trail through the rock field ended, right when the rock field got worse. And the options got fewer. I knew what was on one side. Death. And the other was a now a vast, plummeting field of loose rock. To climb further we needed to get over a huge obstacle. It was kind of a cliff with possible ways through it: ledges, cracks, openings.
Where was a cairn showing the way when you needed it? Where was our friend the Golden Marmot? This was getting really scary and I needed a hug, preferably from something furry.
It was one of those times I knew if I paused even for a moment, I’d never find the courage to keep going. Fear would consume me. But strangely, I didn’t want to pause. I wanted it all to be over with, and the only way to make that happen was to climb over this nasty, horrible cliff face. It was maybe fifty feet high, at least from what could be seen at this angle. What might lie beyond could be worse, but there was no profit in thinking about that.
Years ago, as a young child, I used to love climbing over large rocks. It was like a puzzle. A game. An intriguing challenge. Somehow those instincts came back, and my arms and legs went to work doing what was needed. This was more than scrambling. I was having to wedge myself into crevices, reach out and find handholds, press edges of my boots into tiny irregularities of the rock. The more I climbed, the worse it got but the more determined I became. I was almost enjoying it but that was only by an effort of will not to look down, and also not to think about how I would eventually get back down. As every cat knows, who’s ever become stuck in a tree, getting up’s the easy part.
Farther. Farther. I was inching up the worst of it, not allowing myself to worry about how Kristen was doing. Suddenly I came over a rise, prepared mentally to see something worse ahead. But I didn’t. I didn’t see anything. From the saddle, we’d been climbing north, and now, looking north, there was nothing. Just sky. I looked East. More sky. To the southeast was the vast bulk of Columbia. I realized I was looking down at the summit of mighty Columbia. Straight south was massive Yale. I was looking down at Yale as well. Finally I turned West. There was more than sky in this direction, but not much. Another twenty feet, along a slightly sloping ridge was a large group of rocks, formed in a circle, making a kind of windbreak. And beyond that: sky.
It was the summit of Mt. Harvard, third highest point in the Rocky Mountains.
I looked back down the cliff-face I’d somehow managed to climb, and could see nothing of Kristen.
“Kristen!” I yelled. “It’s the top! I’m at the top!”
“I can’t see you,” I heard a faraway muffled voice cry. “Is this the right way?”
“Yes, keep coming along that crevice in the rock, you’ll see me.” I was leaning over hoping to catch sight of her. And there she was, inching along the same path I’d found, gripping the cliff face.
“You’re almost there. I’m at the top. This is it!”
She was too preoccupied with the technical difficulty of the last dozen yards to comment, but it didn’t take her long. Soon she was up on the flat ridge with me. And looking out. And just seeing sky.
“There’s the summit,” I noted. “I saved it for you. I haven’t been there yet.”
“Wow, Dad, thanks!” She took a moment to catch her breath, and then scrambled over to the little rock amphitheater. Inside was a cardboard sign saying “Mt. Harvard, 14,420 feet.” Hiking clubs leave such signs at the top of the fourteeners, so you can take your picture while holding them up.
Kristen held up the sign and I took her picture.
I didn’t really want to go to the actual summit because I knew behind Kristen was a sheer drop off of a couple thousand feet, straight down. But of course I had to. I kept my knees bent, and my center of gravity low, and kind of waddled up to it.
Kristen was sitting on the edge of the stone wall.
“Where’s the highest point of the wall?” I asked
“Why do you care–? Oh, right. Of course.”
She had to move a little as she’d actually been sitting on the highest point.
“Right there,” she said, and I touched it swiftly.
“I’m so out of here,” I exclaimed, and quickly retreated back to the relative safety of the several-yard-wide ridge. I could breathe again.
Being a weekend, others who’d been following us on the trail began arriving at the summit. One, a slight, well-toned middle aged man from Essen, Germany had actually passed us earlier and had arrived first. He was still there, waiting for his companion who was far behind. We chatted a bit, mostly—of course—about the scenery.
What can you see from the top of Mt. Harvard? Pretty much everything.
“What’s that tall mountain over there, to the East?” he asked.
“Pikes Peak,” I replied.
“No, I don’t think so, no way.” He had some authority, for despite being from Germany, he’d lived in Pueblo (south of Colorado Springs) for over twenty years, and was a veteran of climbing fourteeners.
“I’m ninety-nine percent sure,” I told him. Actually I was 100 percent sure, but one doesn’t like to be rude.
Others arrived, and Kristen joined us back on the wide area, having relished her special moment of triumph at the peak. There was a young twenty-something couple who looked extremely fit, and said they were going to continue along the Eastern ridge, over to Columbia, which is technically possible, at least for masochists. Guide books say it’s an option, albeit not an easy one. Yet Kristen had climbed Columbia years earlier from another direction, and it held no attraction for her now. Also, the several mile ridge between the peaks was something that was going to give me nightmares even if I never tried to cross it. “Death Ridge” might be an appropriate name. “Satan’s Crotch” might be another. It looked solid Class 4, although from where I was sitting, everything looked Class 4.
Several college-age guys arrived next. It was going to get crowded pretty soon. Not surprising, people began pointing out other peaks. Kristen identified Gray’s and Torreys far to the Northeast, on the horizon. One of the college guys pointed out the San Juan range near Telluride far to the Southwest, and could identify the fourteeners Uncompaghre Peak and Mt. Sneffels, which he’d climbed a few weeks ago.
A young woman was now ascending the last dozen yards, clearly a bit scared and not sure how to make it up. Looking down from above, I was able to give her encouraging words, and let her know she was doing it just exactly right. Jacques the mountain guide.
Finally came the most unexpected sight of all: another guy with his daypack open, out of the top of which poked the head of a tiny dog, a Papillion, looking for all the world as if riding up to the summit of fourteeners, on the back of his owner, was marvelous fun.
We took a picture for Derry, who has her own Papillion.
After less than twenty minutes at the top it was time to head back down, if for no other reason than to make room for others. It was becoming Grand Central Station around here.
OK, this was going to be the hardest part of the whole trip for me. Sure, I could climb up this damned thing with the rock scrambling skills left over from age seven. But how the heck was I going to get down? Cat-in-tree syndrome.
I’d been explaining to some of the others that I wasn’t real happy up here in any case, having a fear of heights.
The young guy and his girlfriend, heading across the ridge to Columbia, were very supportive.
“Seriously? You’ve got fear of heights, and you climbed Harvard?!!” said the guy. “Wow, I’m impressed. Way to get over your fear. I mean, this isn’t like climbing Bierstadt or something,” he added, naming one of the wimpiest, easiest 14’ers just an hour west of Denver, and a magnet for rookies.
I basked in the praise, my self-confidence soaring. Still, getting up was one thing…
“OK, seriously, how am I going to get down this?” I asked Kristen and the others.
“First, shorten your hiking sticks,” said the girl. “Let me help you.”
Modern hiking sticks, which resemble ski poles, and are collapsible, are a wonderful invention. Most everyone these days relies on them for support when going back down a mountain. But I’m one of the few who enjoy them equally going up. However, trying to get back down this Class 3 cliff, they’d be dangerously in the way, which was clear to everyone.
“You’re going to need to use your hands and feet carefully,” said the guy. “You don’t want those poles in the way.”
Kristen graciously put my collapsed poles in the back of her daypack since mine was too small to carry them, and we started off. I insisted she go first, so I could do exactly what she did, and she gave me tips as we began the descent.
“Foot here. OK, reach over here and grab this ledge. OK, keep your body weight against the rock to create friction. OK, now, left foot over there Wedge it in. No, farther.” Etc. She’d had just enough rock climbing experience at the Ranch to know something about how to do this, and I followed her orders precisely.
The worst of it was over quickly, and with the worst of it over, my fear evaporated. It was a mental thing. I’d made it to the top, and I’d gotten back down the hardest part. That meant I could get down the rest of it. Every step would be easier than the one before. There was nothing left to worry about. Except, well, eight more hours of hiking.
We met others climbing up as we continued down, and the cultural exchange always went like this:
“Are we getting close?”
“Oh, sure, you’re almost there.”
This is the polite thing to say, even when we knew they probably had another half hour or more to go. One young woman in shorts looked at me listlessly, all energy gone, and plaintively asked “Does this ever end? I feel like I’ve been climbing forever. We must be close, right?”
“Absolutely,” I said, reassuringly. “At the top of this rock field, there are some tricky cliff-like things, and then you’re at the summit.”
“I’m not sure I can go another foot.”
“Sure you can. And the view from the top is amazing. To the north there’s this beautiful valley of yellow aspen, at their peak, and…”
She looked at me as if I were nuts, and her expression said it all: “I’m trying to not die here, and you’re talking to me about scenery?”
OK, good point. During this part of the ascent, my mind hadn’t been exactly on scenery either. Well, she would have to face the judgement of the Golden Marmot, that’s all there was to it. And I hoped he’d be merciful, but Jacques-the-mountain-guide could only do so much.
After several hours we arrived back at the tent, made the mistake of sitting down in the grass, and, like Dorothy caught in the Poppy Fields of Oz, came close to slipping into endless sleep. Kristen was finally able to half roll and half drag herself over to the tent itself, and began packing up, using a clever strategy.
“You see, everything I need to do, can be done with my upper body; my arms and such. They aren’t tired at all. If I don’t have to use my legs, all this is easy.”
Certainly she made it seem so, first tossing everything haphazardly out of the tent and onto the grass, then meticulously collapsing the tent and setting its constituent pieces into the appropriate bags, all while sitting cross legged. Inspired, I began to do my part: grabbing things, rolling things, stuffing things, finding things, organizing things, until finally my pack was sorted as well, and ready to go. But go was a strong word. We allowed ourselves time for lunch, which for me was a final PBJ sandwich, now squished into sort of a shapeless, oozing blob. I didn’t really mind. On the other hand I didn’t need a second one. Kristen ate a granola bar and declared herself full. We didn’t need food. We needed to be back home, on the couch, watching football.
The final hike out took only three more hours, precisely half what had been required going the other way. Of course this time gravity was our friend, and we were happy to have a friend. Surprisingly, our legs seemed willing to walk fast, as apparently the muscles needed for going downhill over relatively smooth trails were not the ones we’d exhausted.
We encountered others on the way, some of whom we’d met on the peak.
Here came one of those super-fit, fast-walking, hiking-sneakers-only guys. We pulled over to let him pass, but he stopped to chat.
“So, did you make it across that ridge to Columbia?” asked Kristen.
“Yep, no problems.”
“It looked really rough.”
“It wasn’t. No big deal.”
“OK, how’d you get down the scree fields from the summit of Columbia?”
“There was supposed to be a trail but I couldn’t find it so I just said to hell with it and came down the scree. About half way down I found the trail. It’s really nice. Like a super highway. Once I got on that, the rest was easy. I’m actually ahead of schedule.”
And off he went, nearly running down the soft forest path of pine needles.
“Bastard.” Said Kristen.
“Bastard.” I agreed.
We wanted to be him.
“Hey, he’s not even carrying a pack. Anyone could go that speed without a pack.”
“Yeah, good point, she said,” neither of us believing it for a minute.
Our next encounter made us feel better. It was the girl/guy combo from the top, who’d said they, also, were crossing over to Colombia, and back down. They stopped and chatted and told us what we wanted to hear.
“It was awful,” said the guy.
“Totally miserable,” said the girl. “It was a big mistake. We agreed we would never do that again.”
“You two were smart,” said the guy. “Going up Harvard and back down is the way to do it. Everything else was torture.”
“Did you find the path from the top of Colombia, down through the scree?” asked Kristen.
“Sure if you want to call it a path. It was really bad. The scree might have been easier.”
“The whole thing was just utterly horrid,” said the girl, again, for emphasis. This was the friendly woman who’d confidently helped me shorten my poles, back on the summit. She was a broken shell of her former self.
They went off, shaking their heads, barely going faster than we were with the full packs.
“I like that couple,” said Kristen, approvingly.
“Yeah, good folks. Very good folks.”
The final pair we came upon were barely half a mile from the trailhead. It was a middle aged guy and his young daughter, perhaps 9 or 10. They were resting, in what looked almost a state of collapse. The girl seemed forlorn and wouldn’t make eye contact. They were having a bad day.
As we stopped and chatted, the father explained the story.
“We made an attempt on Colombia, but we somehow chose the wrong path or direction, and could never find the right way to the top. We bushwhacked all over the place and wore ourselves out before finally giving up.”
The girl looked like she was going to need therapy. Kristen was immediately supportive, and went into camp counselor mode.
“Well, you tried, you got out there and tried, that’s the important thing,” she said, speaking to the dad but her words meant for the young girl. And you’re almost back to the parking lot. It’s easy from here. Just two bridges, a narrow place along the river, and a couple switchbacks. You’ve got this.”
Her pep talk might have helped, for when I offered to take their picture, the dad accepted, and even the girl perked up slightly. When I said ‘cheese’ I even detected a smile.
In short, it was the same mountain valley, yet everyone had had a different experience today. At another time I might have considered that, philosophically, an interesting metaphor for life, yet if I didn’t get to the car soon, I was going to need therapy myself. Not to mention a stretcher.
But Kristen did know the trail well, and—after two bridges, a narrow place, and a couple of switchbacks—the trailhead appeared and beyond it, a parking lot full of cars.
The quest had been fulfilled. Kristen’s white whale had been conquered. And most important of all, I knew that—on some level, back around 13,000 feet—the Golden Marmot was impressed.
I hadn’t realized earlier that I cared about Harvard. It wasn’t a peak on my list I needed to climb. But after learning it was the third highest in Colorado, I finally realized I did care. My first fourteener was Elbert itself, highest of them all, ranking #1. That had been back in my twenties. I’d climbed #2, Mt. Massive, ten years ago. Suddenly it all made sense. Mt. Harvard gave me the triple crown: the three highest peaks in the Fourteener club. Ha! I could afford to laugh at all the rest. Mere foothills, hardly worthy of mention.
But when I finally got home the stairs up to my bedroom were almost more than I could handle. Especially without a Golden Marmot guiding the way.