Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Notes from the Twilight Zone: Mountain Climbing

When I first began working on the book that was to become Window of Opportunity, I wrote a chapter about an experience we had in the mountains of central Colorado:

Linda and I decided to take a camping trip the weekend of August 17, 2007 to celebrate our 38th wedding anniversary that was coming up on August 23.  We had become fairly avid tent campers and hikers in our 13 years in Colorado and had visited quite a few different places.  For this occasion we chose a campground at the base of Mt. Elbert, the highest “fourteener” (14,000 feet or more in elevation) in Colorado.  After a first night in a somewhat less desirable campsite, we moved to an idyllic one that must have been about an acre in size surrounded by lodgepole pines by a stream that rushed down from the mountain.  We took some short hikes on Saturday with our sheltie, Little Fox, and enjoyed relaxing with the symphony of the cascading water as a backdrop.  We decided we would get up early the next day and hike up at least part of the mountain.

The sunrise was spectacular on Sunday morning as the north Mt. Elbert trailhead beckoned only a few hundred yards away.  We grabbed our hiking poles, water, and backpacks and got started.  Since our campground was at 10,000 feet and the summit was 14,443 feet, we had no real intention of “summitting”.  We left Little Fox at our campsite because we were concerned about how he might handle the altitude.  It took us a couple hours to make our way up the steep trail through the forest to the timberline at about 11,000 feet.  The trail looked foreboding ahead as it wound through steep, rocky terrain.  We were already breathing hard after short distances and considered turning back.  However, we met some people already on their way down who encouraged us, telling us the climb was well worth the effort.  We decided to go on a bit further.

Breathing was becoming increasingly difficult as we continued our climb.  We developed a strategy of picking a destination at progressively shorter distances ahead as our goal where we stopped to recover.  We probably would have turned around and headed back down if not for the intermittent passers-by who told us how glad we would be when we got to the top.  At some point, we threw caution to the wind and decided to go for it.

The trail got increasingly steep and treacherous (we later learned that there was a southern route that was far less challenging) and we were disappointed by a couple “false summits” where we reached a crest only to find we still had quite a distance left to climb.  But, at this point we had accepted the challenge and persevered until we reached the top at about noon.  We put on the jackets we had packed in our backpacks, drank our water, and ate our lunch as snow flew lightly around us and we enjoyed the view with a handful of hearty souls.  We had someone take a picture of us to commemorate the moment.  We both felt exhausted, but also exhilarated from the sense of unexpected accomplishment.

While at the summit, we learned of the southern route and decided to take it in spite of the fact that we would have to hike miles across the base of the mountain when we got down.  The weather looked good and we still seemed to have sufficient water.  We were feeling good about ourselves as we started back down on a much more relaxing trail.

The problem with going downhill is that it uses different muscles and also puts pressure on the knees and hips.  Our toes started to become sore from rubbing against our boots.  We were becoming a little more concerned when dark clouds appeared suddenly on the horizon.  The wind quickly increased to gale force as we heard the first echoes of thunder.  Realizing that we were above tree line and totally exposed, we began to run.  I was really starting to hurt and lagged behind Linda.  We stopped to put on our rain parkas as it began to sleet heavily.  We continued our soggy jog for what seemed like forever until the rain finally stopped.  We were above tree line and knew that we were still in danger, but stopped to rest for a few minutes.  I attempted to sit on a rock, failing to realize that the terrain was still very steep, and almost fell over backwards.

An additional problem developed as we realized we were almost out of water.  It was going to take another couple hours just to get to the base, then another three hours to traverse back to our campground.  Two younger men who we had seen farther up the mountain came by and asked if we were all right.  We explained our water situation and asked if they knew if there was a place for us to get a refill.  They were parked at a lot close to the base and offered to share their supply!  Though we were now sore and thoroughly exhausted, we made it to the bottom and hiked the six miles back to our tent, where we found Little Fox anxiously waiting.  It was now 7 pm and we had been gone thirteen hours.

After resting and drinking what seemed like a gallon of water each, we started to pack up so that we could begin the drive home.  As we were loading the car, the men who had helped us pulled up in their car.  We had told them where we were camped and they drove well out of their way to make sure we got back safely.  We were so touched and grateful for such amazing kindness!

As I reflect on this experience now, especially in light of my desire to write this book, I think that it was significant well beyond what I realized at the time.  I had been excited about the achievement of climbing the mountain and surviving the tribulations of the trip down.  I was mystified, and continue to be, by the unexpected concern shown by those two strangers who we will never see again. 

I can now see God’s hand clearly in these events.  We had a chance to prove to ourselves that we can accomplish more than we may have thought possible if we persevere.  We saw that, when the going gets tough and our plans prove inadequate, there is still hope.  And, even when hope begins to dwindle, God will provide.  As events continue to unfold, this knowledge is a source of great comfort and encouragement to Linda and me.  Within months after climbing that peak, Linda and I would enter a valley unlike any we had encountered before.  In that valley we would find an unexpected crossroads.  We would have no map to help us decide which way to go or see what we would find at the end of our journey.  This would not be the first time we would forge ahead armed only with our trust in God. 


We returned to Mt. Elbert last weekend with our close friends, Bill and JoAnn Schmitz, and were able to get the same campsite we had in 2007 at Elbert Creek Campground (one of the top rated campgrounds in the U.S.).  We have camped over the years at many beautiful places with Bill and JoAnn, but they had never been to this campground.  After  setting up their newly acquired pop up camper around 8 pm on Friday night (they are both still working), we enjoyed the campfire while enjoying the sound of the rushing water as a backdrop.  The next morning, after seeing the campsite in the light of day, including our private "alcove" on the shore of the stream, they told us that this was the best camping spot they had ever seen in Colorado.

Linda and I had talked about trying to hike all the way up to the top again, but this time we would park in the south parking lot and take the easier trail both ways.  We had scoped out the parking area the day before our friends arrived and were ready to go.  This time we would be properly prepared and have plenty of water.

In hindsight, I don't know what I was thinking.  We had heard about a new movement disorder team in the Denver area, Dr. Monica Giroux and Sierra Ferris, and their exploits leading groups of patients on climbs at places like Mt. Kilimanjaro in Kenya, so I suppose I thought doing Mt. Elbert (which I had already done before) should be realistic.  Also, Linda and I had walked with our son and three of our grandchildren in the "Bolder Boulder" 10K fundraiser on Memorial Day.  We had been getting plenty of exercise during the summer.  What I failed to take into account was the fact that, although I completed it, I was a wreck after walking that 10k on level ground at around 6000 feet elevation.  

Luckily, Bill (who has climbed quite a few "fourteeners") told me he wasn't planning to go to the top and would prefer to do some less aggressive hiking.  I acquiesced, saying that we would do whatever they would like to do.  So we headed up the Colorado Trail from our campsite at 10,000 feet elevation toward the north Mt. Elbert trailhead, which starts below the treeline at about 11,500 feet.  The idea was to continue on the Colorado Trail rather than going up Mt. Elbert.

We set off at a fairly brisk (for me) pace.  I was using my ski poles to help with balance and to propel myself up hills (I use rubber-tipped walking poles at home, which I highly recommend for PWPs).  The trail became narrow and winding as we ascended.  It didn't take long for me to "feel the altitude" which increased my "unsteadiness".  The trail, which was carved into the side of the mountain, was steeply uphill on one side and downhill on the other, and I started to become apprehensive, especially when I had to stop to let someone go by.  That said, I continued up the trail through many switchbacks until I realized I should turn around and go back down while Linda, JoAnn, and Bill went on.  As it turned out, this was a good decision.  For those who haven't done this kind of thing, going downhill is often more difficult than going up.  My legs became increasingly "rubbery" and by the time I got to the bottom, I was doing the "PD shuffle".  There was no amount of adrenaline or commitment that would have allowed me to make it up that mountain.

I am just now realizing that I started this article with no clear idea about what point, if any, I would try to make.  Not that there has to be a point, but I usually like to at least pretend that there is one.  On one hand, I am disappointed that I was unable to complete a repeat performance of our accomplishment in 2007.  On the other hand, I had to tell myself that it was OK that I could no longer do that and find the joy in the experience.  We had a great time with wonderful friends in a breathtaking (literally and figuratively) setting.

A quote that my friend Bill likes to use from the movie "Babe" comes to mind:  

"That'll do, pig, that'll do".

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