The Leisure Sports Roadshow

My life goal was to become proficient at as many leisure sports as possible and I pursued that goal with passion. After a rendezvous in a dusty truck stop, I tossed my pack into a trailer that was loaded with a week’s worth of climbing and living gear. It was pulled by a van loaded with weeks of sand-coated climbers and seasonal misfits. We began roaming the foothills and peaks of the Dragoon Mountains of southern Arizona, including the intriguing and endless granite spires of Cochise Stronghold. The cluster of rocks, some hundreds of feet tall, literally jut out of the desert floor like a giant fort and was where Apache Chief Cochise launched his last stand against American forces in 1861.

Photo: John Cameron

We spent our time playful but also observant of the significance of the area that we were part of. Each nook and cranny revealed a crack, a line to climb, tunnels to explore, new routes, spires to mount and pictographs etched and painted by any of many unknown predecessors. In the evenings after climbing, we would fall asleep where we were among the rocks or return to our camp in the grassy fields that out-lie the Stronghold. There we continued to play. We swung on ropes and webbing and in hammocks and port-a-ledges suspended in the trees yet not far from the ground. Being suspended just felt right. The sunsets were as warm as a Jacuzzi, but cooler than the hot desert days. The brilliance of the evening light was the sun’s way of apologizing for the midday rays being so torturous.

In the fields, we dressed up and danced, played music and games. We found new skills and leisure activities to master. We spent every day exploring and experimenting and returned to camp to do the same. “Yeah but can you juggle these?” was the challenge. Or: “Try this, that was cool.” And so on. Days went uncounted and the weeks nearly did too. At one point, our obscurity began to improve and our amusement became a spectacle. One of us had just mastered juggling rocks while hoola-hooping on a slackline, but it nearly went unnoticed because Eric was busy juggling flaming sticks dipped in white gas.

At other times, stillness was what amazed us. In the mornings, we would drink tea in the immense fields and there was an evening that we watched the sun slide into the ground from atop Sheepshead Mountain after climbing the route “Peacemaker.” It was as if we were the only ones who could see the sunset that day. I wrote my favorite Haiku in the summit registry and we hiked off in the dark.

Aspen leaf
Falling down
Showing side to side

Somewhere on Interstate 10 while heading West toward Tucson in the expanse of desert, we crested the only rise hiding our view for the last 30 miles. What we saw on the endless road through the endless desert was that it was now choked with an almost endless line of cars that were not moving. People were milling around in the heat outside of their vehicles, straining to see what was causing the road to be completely closed in our west-bound direction. We got out of our van to catch up with the gossip that was moving up and down the line or cars. Word quickly came back that a construction spill littered the road and it might be 45 minutes to an hour before it could be moved.

Photo: John Cameron

With that, the trailer door was yanked open and the cooler and camp stove were brought out (for grilled cheeses) along with the hoola-hoops, guitars, poi, juggling sticks, wiffle balls, frisbees and hacky sacks. We were masters of recreation and an unforeseen opportunity to practice our leisure sports was as good as any.

A truck was turned around so the slackline could be set up between the bumpers. In our crusty trail-weathered duds, we carried on among the cars, the families and other motorists along the interstate. They got out, looked on with smiles and were soon catching frisbees and footballs as well. We inadvertently held the first and probably only Leisure Sports Roadshow.

Timeliness breeds nostalgia and as quickly as it began, the gear was put away and cars in the distance began to move again. We climbed into our respective vehicles and rolled on with everybody else without knowing what there was to find next.

John Cameron writes from wild spaces and high places around the Four Corners. He hangs his hammock in aspen groves and calls it home but his bag is never unpacked. This is his first piece for the Mountain Gazette.

Cussin’ Crack

Most people who drive out to the west end of Boulder Canyon to Castle Rock aren’t going there to climb Cussin’ Crack. Most people would rather have fun. If they do climb it, most aren’t going to tell you they enjoyed it. They will use words like “awkward,” “slippery” and “old school,” maybe even “sandbagged” at 5.7. I am certain that I am the only person to ever fall in love on the route. And fall out of love.

Cussin’ Crack was put up in the early 1950s, and to get up the second pitch, the actual crack where the cussing will take place, you need to know how to set a solid knee bar across the dihedral, and arguably a No. 4 Camalot. In the ’50s, they didn’t have cams, but knew how to set knee bars. Now, we have cams, but no knowledge of knee bars.

That summer, I was a new trad leader, but went after climbs that were 40 years old or older, for a reason that I can’t remember now. Stephanie was a friend of a friend, five years younger than me and six years younger than my wife. She had brown eyes, long dark hair that she wore in a long braid that hung out of her climbing helmet and in front of one shoulder. She smiled all the time and was obsessed with experiencing it all. She got excited about road trips and talked about all the time she’d spent in Ecuador and South Africa. She was years from settling down.

Steph climbed, and my wife did not. Emily had paralyzing acrophobia, and we were not doing well. All I wanted to do was climb, and she wanted a house, a garden and a dog soon, and kids soon after. By early summer, our marriage was a dead oak tree that we were working up the courage to cut down.

Emily withdrew, staying in to study every weekend, and I fled to the rock, dragging anyone up multi-pitch routes. I didn’t really care if you even knew how to belay; I’d teach you at the base of the climb. Steph and I climbed together a few times, and although I thought she was the most beautiful woman who had ever tied a figure eight, I didn’t think my wife would notice, what with my desperation to climb with anyone willing.

Steph and I kept it appropriate. Maybe I wondered what it would be like to put my arms around her precipitously curving hips, but the closest I ever got was unclipping cams from her harness while she flaked the rope at the belay. I was married. Maybe not for much longer, but married nonetheless.

At the end of the first pitch, you clip a worthless buttonhead and pull over a mantle that is within reach if you’re 5’9” or taller. I pulled through it, sure that Steph, at 5’5”, wouldn’t make it. I built a belay, considered our bail options and started taking in rope as Steph followed. At the mantle, she paused, unable to reach the ledge. When she bit her lip and clawed over on nothing but friction, I was in awe of this woman who climbed. For a half-second, I imagined what it would be like to have a girlfriend who enjoyed climbing, especially one with long dark hair and brown eyes … she said something to me as she made the last moves to the belay, and I hoped my face didn’t reveal anything.

At the base of the Cussin’ Crack itself, first ascensionist Harold Walton would probably tell you to set that knee bar, do a thumb-down palm smear with your right hand, walk your knee bar up a few inches, and repeat. Had my climb with Steph been some sort of date, and were I the type of man who could impress my attractive female climbing partner with my skill, poise and dry armpits, that’s exactly what I would have done. Instead, I flailed, trying to face climb the right side of the much-maligned V-slot. I was sure Steph stood below me, slowly paying out rope and cringing, waiting for me to peel. I wondered what would happen to my ankles when I decked. My palms
became slick, and that house, garden, dog and kids, and settling for something imperfect for the rest of my life didn’t seem that bad.

But I didn’t peel. Fear kept me stuck to that polished granite inside the V-slot, and I slapped my way up and out, coloring the air around me with the proper epithets.

At the last belay, I sat exhausted on a rock bench, took in rope and watched the pines on the canyon’s south wall calmly rock in the breeze. Steph pulled over the last move to the ledge and gave me a look of relief, and I looked directly into her eyes and knew I was in trouble. Here was a woman who loved what I loved, and I was not in love with my wife any more.

Steph clipped into the anchor and sat next to me. I tried to not wish she was sitting closer and tried to not wish she was holding my hand. I busied myself piling the rope at my feet instead of putting my arm around her.

Steph went to Mexico for the summer. I came back from a trip to the Tetons and Emily was sleeping on the couch. We filed no-contest divorce papers, and I did my first free solo the morning after. Steph and I wrote letters and e-mails, never quite saying what we were thinking about each other. I stayed away from my tiny post-split studio apartment by attacking as many new routes as possible, with a sad and angry ferocity that I haven’t since matched. Steph returned just as winter hit Denver, and I eventually got to put my arms around those hips of hers. I feel a lot less tension when I unclip cams from her harness now.

Denver resident Brendan Leonard is the Gazette’s Media Editor.

Dam Boulders

With a smooth stroke, David Benson cast a fly onto the Teton River. Water gently rippled past his old float boat with playful swirls, shimmering almost gleefully in the much-welcomed morning sun. Benson, a 21-year-old local from Teton City, ID, was out beating the crowds on a beautiful Saturday morning on June 5, 1976. The sun was warm, the fish were biting and there was no place in the world Benson would rather be.

Little more than a mile upstream, the newly opened Teton River dam was pushing 90 percent capacity as a result of warm spring weather and increased mountain runoff. At 11:55 a.m., the right embankment of the dam leaned inward and disintegrated. Within a matter of seconds, 80 billion gallons of water tore through the dam, unleashing a furious, roiling fresh water tsunami upon the Teton River. Witnesses claim that the water seemed to ominously hang in mid-air for a second before it came crashing down. Of 14 people who would lose their lives, David Benson would be the first.

Thirty-four years later, I’m driving with a friend out to the old dam site, working off beta from a local gear shop that decent undeveloped bouldering may be found. After a bit of un-marked dirt-road route finding, we park our truck and descend into the canyon. It looks like Soviet strip-mine gone bad: random jagged pipes protrude out of the ground, huge pieces of scrap metal balance unnaturally on top of old trees and worn-out concrete structures. The river slowly snakes through a canyon lined with grotesque erosion-scarred walls hundreds of feet high. And sure enough, there are boulders.

Small leaks at the base of the dam were noticed three days before the breech, but weren’t considered serious until just a few hours before the dam collapsed. As dam operators began to realize the potential threat, bulldozers and crews were called in to plug the leaks. However, crews were only able to work for one hour before the “leaks” literally swallowed two dozers (the operators had to be yanked out of the abyss by ropes tied around their waists). Finally, at 11 a.m., local law enforcement was notified about the dam’s imminent failure … a window of just 55 minutes before the tsunami would hit.

As 80 billion gallons of water thundered out of the reservoir, the downstream Idaho communities of Wilford and Sugar City were literally wiped from the map. Thousands of homes and businesses were destroyed and over 13,000 cattle were killed. As the water approached the larger community of Rexburg, it swung by a large lumberyard, snapping lumber from its moorings and rupturing a gas line — producing a burning logjam of timber barreling toward the city. The carnage was finally stopped over 100 miles downstream, when the American Falls Dam held the surge.

Today, the boulders of Teton Dam are improbably distributed around the valley floor, sometimes with entire trees perched on top. While by no means world-class, the Teton Dam Boulders offer a plethora of uncrowded bouldering options with good landings and easy access (that is, if you live in rural eastern Idaho). Bouldering venues, by their very nature, offer fascinating geology lessons. In this case and many others, we are reminded that our fun and games are simply byproduct from the powerful, destructive and irrepressible forces of nature.

A poem that appeared in the Rexburg Standard Journal the summer of 1976

Author: anonymous.

Bill to Uncle Sam

It was the fifth of June,
an early summer Upper Valley day.
I was workin’ in the garden
and the kids were in the yard to play.
At 12 o’clock we all went in
and cleaned our shoes off by the door,
So as not to track the mud in
on the shiny kitchen floor.
Then the guy on the radio said,
“Believe me if you can,
Because there’s 80 billion gallons
headed for us from the Teton Dam!”

My hubby said, “We’ll probably
get a little water in the basement, dear.
But just in case it’s worse than that
let’s take the kids and get on out of here.”
I told him, “Bring some diapers
and a baby bottle if you will.”
And we loaded up the family car
and headed for the college hill.
We found out downtown Rexburg
was a crazy, panicked traffic jam.
’Cause there was 80 billion gallons
headed for us from the Teton Dam.
When we heard the water covered up
the steeple of the Wilford church,
We knew the folks in Sugar
would need to find a higher perch.
Then by three o’clock, the valley
was covered by a raging lake,
And all the cows in Hibbard
went surfin’ on a twelve-foot wake.
And huge logs from the sawmill
tore through buildings like a battering ram.
The day that 80 billion gallons
were flushed out of the Teton Dam.

Well, our photos and pianos
are soaking in the smelly mud.
Our basement’s full of water
and our garden’s covered up with crud.
If we can find our houses
we clean them out for what they’re worth.
They’ll be scraping up the muddy mess
for years from here to Firth.
If I sound a little bitter,
it’s for certain you can say I am.
Because right now the Upper Valley
isn’t worth a Teton Dam.

Chris Dickey lives in Jackson, WY, where mountains are plentiful and assessable bouldering is not. When he’s not hanging out in old wrecked dam drainages, he can be found working as an outdoor PR consultant at Purple Orange LLC.

Way of the Mountain #179

After being named poet laureate of Colorado’s Western Slope, it’s been wonderful to hook up with poet laureate of the Colorado Springs region, Jim Ciletti. David Mason of that same area is Colorado’s state poet laureate. My good friend Joan Logghe is poet laureate of Santa Fe (her new book, “The Singing Bowl,” from the University of New Mexico Press in Albuquerque, is a dazzler). California’s poet laureate was a classmate of mine in the writing department of San Francisco State, Carol Muske-Dukes. And finally, Elle Metrick of Norwood (who’s editor of the local paper, the Post) has taken the baton from Rosemerry Wahtola-Trommer and is the new San Miguel County poet laureate. It’s a nice way to honor poets who are often invisible to the community at large. This puts them out in the public eye. If your town or county wants to create such an honorary position, get a hold of me at and I can send you some draft resolutions.

This month’s featured book and poet is Norman Shaefer’s “The Sunny Top of California: Sierra Nevada Poems & A Story (La Alameda Press, Albuquerque, 2010). It’s beautifully designed by master bookmaker JB Bryant, has an Obata woodblock on the cover and lively poems (and a story) that will charm lovers of mountains and verse in the same way that Chinese poets memorialized the mountains of their land.
— Art Goodtimes


My stubble grows white
among a hundred granite peaks.
Passions are never easily put aside.
Edging across a narrow arête,
manteling an airy summit block;
the same thing that makes you live
can kill you in the end.
Norman Schaefer
from “The Sunny Top of California” (La Alameda Press, Albuquerque, 2010)


Easy to say,
hard to clean
— Jack Mueller
Hermit of Log Hill


I see you. Yes. You are
the impossible route
up granite, seen only
one move at a time,
found more by fingertip
than eye.

I see you. Yes. You are
the line through trees
in deep powder, seen
then lost, visible
to the knees, a sense
of give, then ground.

I see you. Yes. You are
the smooth tongue,
the reflection of sky
leading the way through
white churn water
where the line is fine,
a single oar-dip
between slide
and flip.
— Elle Metrick
San Miguel County Poet Laureate
Norwood, CO

At the Karen Chamberlain Poetry Festival

like wild hummingbirds
we gather at the feeder
gulping poetry
— Carol Bell
Haiku a Day Practice
Fort Colliins

The Road

May the road
rise up to greet you
as you face down
fall upon it.
— Danny Rosen
Stargazing Mage of Lithic Press


In American culture, up is regarded as better than down. You’ve got things like the stock market and martinis to bear that out. However, if you find yourself in a long, downward plunge — say a freefall from an airplane or very tall ledge, here is the latest Safety Suggestion from the MG staff: Try to influence your velocity by spreading yourself out — arms and legs out to the sides, hands up by your head. Observe the terrain below you as you fall (really?). And then, do what you can to land on your feet, knees bent. And most important, relax as you find the best landing spot.

1) Piles of awesomeness
Overheard on Boulder restaurant  patio: “Dude, how about, like, getting a sponsorship for climbing the top-10 biggest garbage heaps in the U.S.?” If these three brotastics succeed in getting someone to pay them (never mind that they’ll get arrested), they’ll begin their ascent at the esteemed Apex landfill, an hour north of Las Vegas. Billed as America’s biggest dump, it contains more than 50 million tons of rotting garbage, plenty to keep the boys amused. Elsewhere in the West, Denver’s Arapahoe Disposal Site comes in at a hefty sixth place, with 12,000 tons of new waste every day. El Sobrante in Corona, Calif. is seventh, the Frank Bowerman site in Irvine is ninth and Columbia Ridge in Arlington, Ore., is a respectable 10th place, taking in garbage from all over the Northwest.

2) Climb every … really?
While much of “The Sound of Music ”was filmed in and around Germany and Salzberg, Austria, a good share of the movie was made in — yawn — L.A., nonetheless causing a small spike in people who wanted to walk up the sides of mountains. Ever notice how everything looks so damned breezy in the big mountain scenes? The billowing frocks are from the film copter’s downdraft, which knocked Julie Andrews off her feet several times before she started to get pissed off. One more buzzkill: While the von Trapps climbed over the Alps to Switzerland in the movie, in reality, they took a train to Italy, then went to London and the U.S. Had they hiked over the mountains, they would have ended up in Germany, perilously close to Hitler’s vacation digs.

3) Having fun yet?
While Rainier is on most American mountaineers’ bucket lists, it is itself cause for much premature bucketing, as it were. More than 90 climbers have slipped or frozen trying to reach the 14,410-foot summit, and 294 deaths have happened elsewhere on the mountain. Seasoned climbers occasionally meet their maker after sliding into crevasses or getting disoriented in short-notice blizzards, but there’s also a lot of Amateur Hour, typified by flip-flops and a complete lack of basics like food, water, extra clothes, map, compass and brains. FYI — if you want to increase the odds of your demise, you can head up Nepal’s Annapurna. Since 1950, there have been 58 fatalities in 153 ascents, putting the death rate at 42.85 percent.

4) A tall order
Last January Johnny Collinson of Snowbird, UT, became the youngest person, at age 17, to scale the Seven Summits — the biggest peak on each continent. That includes Aconcagua in Argentina (22,841 feet), Everest (29,030 feet), Denali (20,320 feet), Russia’s Elbrus (18,510 feet), Kilimanjaro (19,340 feet), Carstenz Pyramid in New Guinea (16,023 feet) and the 16,067-foot Vinson Massif in Antarctica. But in a contest that is seeing increasingly young people on increasingly big mountains amid increasing how-young-is-too-young criticism, it looks like Jordan Romero of Big Bear, Calif., who set a record by climbing Everest last May at age 13, is seriously in line to grab the Seven Summits age record. Snowbird Ski Resort founder Dick Bass was the first of roughly 200 to make the required ascents.

5) Ascension, man
So it comes out that former Van Halen lead singer Sammy Hagar may have ascended higher than most of us. And he’s pretty damned serious. In his memoir, “Red: My Uncensored Life in Rock,” Hagar admits that he has been abducted by aliens, who either stole from or placed a bunch of stuff into his head. “It was real,” Hagar told a reporter. “[Aliens] were plugged into me. It was a download situation. This was long before computers or any kind of wireless. There weren’t even wireless telephones. Looking back now, it was like, ‘Fuck, they downloaded something into me!’ Or they uploaded something from my brain, like an experiment.”

6) Morons
If you’ve never paged through “Accidents in North American Mountaineering,” we highly suggest you get yourself a copy, which is updated each year to include gems such as the following: A group of morons hiking in Grand Canyon activated a help button on a SPOT unit because they’d run out of water. So … expensive rescue chopper arrives the next morning and previously thirsty morons decline a rescue because they had found a water source. So … later that evening, same morons hits “911” button again, and chopper arrives a second time (we’re not making this up), only for rescuers to learn that the group of morons was worried about “salty” water — but no emergency existed. Rescue crew declines the group’s request for a night evacuation. So … the next morning, another SPOT “help” call goes out. This time, group members are flown out but refuse medical assessment or treatment (something involving probes would have been appropriate). Leader of morons is asked what his group would have done without the SPOT device. His answer: “We would have never attempted this hike.” The group of morons’ leader was cited under federal regulations for creating a hazardous condition.

Off Belay

1: Roped
Will makes the first move the day he stops by my desk during his lunch break. “Cute dress,” he says, the opposite of what my boss had to say about my sleeveless lime-green and hot-pink Hawaiian muumuu. With his thick, curly beard and big, hairy hands, Will epitomizes my conception of a mountain man. The stark blueness of his eyes penetrates his wire-rim eyeglasses. He fails to mention his girlfriend in California.

Our first date, Will picks me up in his Ford Bronco for the drive to the Mt. Sherman trailhead. There are 54 mountains in the Colorado Rockies over 14,000 feet high. Will wants to climb them all, pick them off one, two, three at a time, the conquest, by his reckoning, to be completed within a couple of summers. According to the Colorado Mountain Club guidebook, Mt. Sherman (Sherman who helped win the war with his scorched-earth strategy) is the easiest 14er — a romp through the tundra, the ideal introduction to mountaineering.

I do not question Will’s choice of hiking mates, the timing of our departure. He is 10 years older, with two master’s degrees from Stanford. When he was two months old, he rode to the top of a peak overlooking Los Angeles in his father’s backpack. At age 11, he made it to the top of Mt. Whitney, the tallest mountain in the Lower 48, on his own feet — his nausea from the altitude tempered by the view his father indicated with a sweep of his arm. In college, a summer of scrambling up the tourist-free routes of Mt. Moran and the Grand in Teton National Park secured Will’s rite of passage to manhood.

I come from more sedentary stock. My parents admired the view of Longs Peak from the front porch of our summer rental cabin in Rocky Mountain National Park. At home in Kansas City, my mother kept in shape, and her hair dry, by swimming at the country club pool in her shower cap, while my father traversed the golf course in a motorized cart, knocking off 18 holes without breaking a sweat. During tornado drills at school, I could duck and roll with the best of them, but the vertical drop from wooden seat to linoleum floor barely exceeded two feet, not enough conditioning for the psychological challenges of mountaineering.

On Mt. Sherman, Will and I are the only ones going up. Everyone else is coming down. They started hiking at daybreak; we arrived at the trailhead at noon. I manage to stay within earshot until we reach timberline and Will catches his second wind. The rougher and steeper the terrain, the more impressive his performance. Boulders that remain upright as he hops from one to the next lurch and buck me off. He gains altitude; a landslide carries me backwards in slow motion, toward the car. At this rate, Will will bag the summit before I can scramble to my feet. The wind doesn’t help; its velocity pummels me.

The wind drags a sheet of moisture in its wake and our destination is draped in grey. The ferocity of the impending storm is telegraphed with a buzz of electricity. The subsequent boom sounds like it has blown up the ridge, and the echo roars across the basin. Spared by a lightning bolt from the humiliation of failure. I did not see the elongated flicker of light that preceded the strike, but Will must have. He is running down the boulder field, the boulders rocking and rolling beneath his dancing feet. Force of will harnessing the force of gravity. The only pin left standing in the alley, wobbling and spinning without toppling over.

After that outing, we cast ourselves as Lady Emily and Lord Willard in a Gothic adventure story inspired by my English ancestry and favorite novelist in adolescence.

“Willard!” I shout whenever I lose sight of him, which is frequently.

“Emily, over here,” identifying his location with a wave of his white hat.

He tries to let down his California girlfriend gently. She wants to know why. He says I don’t mind sleeping in the back of the Bronco with the tailgate open so we can watch for shooting stars, and I keep my hysteria to myself when his unconventional route up Mt. Blanca peters out, and we have to turn around and descend the same steep, icy couloir we crawled up. Will left the rope behind.

His bouquet of roses for my birthday is a photo of Lady Emily stretched out on a hummock of Rocky Mountain sedge and arctic gentian. His Christmas card is a photo of a blue spruce decorated in a twinkling coat of fresh snow. We didn’t make that summit. We lost our traction in the steep snowdrifts.

Will makes the next move atop Mt. Elbert, the highest mountain in Colorado. Above timberline, I am still a virgin. Ours is an awkward coupling, but a coupling nonetheless. Our contractions give birth to momentary equilibrium. His physical prowess and grace; my timidity, astonishment and longing moderate during the exchange. His movements, my response, this rock under my spine, that marmot whistling for handouts, and all the other distractions dissolve with the racing clouds that carry off time, perspective and distance.

Motion consolidates and preserves the union, refines our teamwork. Over the course of the next three summers, Will teaches me how to defend myself in an environment so harsh, only one animal will risk the winter above timberline: the pika, a cousin of the rabbit that adapted to the climate by sacrificing its ears and tail for heat conservation. In its mad-hatter dash to collect enough haystacks to sustain it through the winter, the pika seems impervious to the hazards, such as that haphazard row of boulders resting on the ridge that reminds us of a display of decapitated heads after a public execution. We get the message and rise from our snack break.

My turn to tie into the umbilical cord, the dangling rope. I start around the corner, and the route to the top of Dallas Peak disappears into thin air, like Will did 45 minutes ago when he took the lead. Once my eyes adjust to the glare, I realize I am standing on a snowed-in ledge that leans away from the mountain, toward Blue Lake 2,000 feet below. My postholes in the snow cannot take the heat at this altitude, and the only secure route back to terra firma collapses.

The ledge looks like it will run out soon, and then what? Dump me? I break the golden rule and look into the bottomless void and pray for a search-and-rescue chopper. Maybe I can fake a sprained ankle. Except for an occasional tug on the rope and his disembodied “Off Rope!” Will hasn’t kept in touch. I shout at him to tighten the rope. The wind is blowing with deafening certainty. He can’t possibly hear me. The rope jerks to maximum tension. He must be up there somewhere, guiding the rope, protecting us both with properly positioned chocks and slings. If I slip and his backup fails, the rope in his lap might unwind in a heartbeat, wrapping him in its tentacles, and we’ll both fall off.

A bonk rattles my helmet, then another. The rocks have found the perfect target: the black X I taped to the top of my helmet for good luck. I shake off the debris. Three chocks nest on the buckle to my climbing harness. The protection Will placed on the traverse must have popped loose and slid down the rope. “Tighten!” I yell. The wind howls back. The rope doesn’t move. This time, Will can’t hear me. Maybe the weight of my body will slow the swing of the rope as it pendulums across the cliff.

At the end of the ledge looms one of those thank-God-there-is-a-chimney that consoles mountaineers with vertigo. The chimney is filled with rotten snow and loose shrapnel. Either I commit to the climb or I shriek at Will to feed me more rope for the retreat.

I flail at the first lift up until the front points of my crampons catch. Left point, right point, ice axe swinging at any mark in the rock that resembles a crack. An unorthodox technique to be sure, but I don’t give a damn because there is my reflection in the eye of Will’s 55-mm lens. I crawl past and find a seat as far from the edge as possible.

I manage a victory smile as Will wraps his arms around my shoulders for the summit portrait. Of the 100 highest peaks in Colorado, we have just climbed the toughest one. Eighty-six down. Fourteen to go. Will researches the access and the routes; I keep score with checkmarks in the margins of our list.

Our wedding takes place in an outdoor chapel overlooking Cripple Creek and its cemetery, where death is the great equalizer, and gunslingers and prostitutes are buried alongside respectable mining families. It is July and the alpine meadows are awash in red paintbrush and purple lupine. When the minister finishes his recitation and turns to me, my mind goes blank. I can’t remember my part of the agreement, even though I wrote the vows. The ring Will slips on my finger is set in agate. He purchased the polished stone at a rock shop after noting the resemblance to the color of my eyes. The necklace I string around his neck is made of leather and decorated with wooden beads. After the ceremony, a friend of my father’s says, “You looked like the hangman at an execution, Jane.”

In the required Colorado Mountaineering Club course for aspiring trip leaders, the instructor drills us in the art of tying knots, handling the rope and rappelling. The double figure eight is the most difficult knot for me to learn and remember. I have to withdraw enough rope from the coil to loop it twice into a figure eight; in such a tight embrace, the parallel knots are indistinguishable except for the seam at their junction. It takes me a half-dozen tries to trace the second loop around the first one without kinking the rope. I have to trace the pattern of the first one exactly.

My double figure eight secured, I check both locks on my carabiner gate twice, as instructed, then walk backward toward the edge, clutching the rope in my right hand.

“Let the rope flow gently through your hand as you back off the edge and lean away from the rock,” the instructor says. “Your feet will balance you.”

I stand on the edge of the cliff, my eyes on the hand that is supposed to control the rate of my descent, and not the bottom of the cliff, another instruction.

“Don’t rush or hold on too tight. The rope will burn. Take your time and lean back.”

I look at him for reassurance. He grins and gives me a thumbs up. “If you hug the rock, you might get tangled up in the rope, and we’ll have a hell of a time extricating you.”

On the rappel off the summit of Dallas Peak, I got carried away with excitement and went too fast and leaned too far back. I turned upside down and hung by my harness, twisting in the breeze.

“Grab the rope,” Will hollers down when he finally hears my shrieks. “Pull. Pull yourself up.”

At first I do not believe him. The rope will snap in two, or I will yank him off with me.

“Use the rope to pull yourself up. I’ve got you.” The rope jerks. He is reeling in all the slack so I won’t bounce and strain the rope with more weight than it can support.

I reach up and grab hold. The rope twitches and turns. My head and torso swing upward — a stunned hummingbird restored to flight, fluttering toward the sugar water.

Will’s chocks and slings, and my double figure-eight, hold.

The last mountain on our 100-highest-peaks list, which has no name, beckons. Snug in our tent in the trees, we prefer to wait for the sun, but we’re in a bigger hurry than it is, even though the rock won’t dry for hours.

Over his customary mountaineering attire, Will sports the tuxedo he wore to our wedding. The down tie I gave him for Christmas adds a touch of optimism. It is as blue as a Rocky Mountain sky in autumn. But once we emerge from our stand of Engelmann and blue spruce, we realize the sun may never appear today. Gray dawn yawns into infinity. We pass Conundrum Hot Springs, moisturizing ourselves in the drifting steam. Braced for the ascent, we advance on the tipping saucer of the rock-strewn tundra. Patches of skunk cabbage sag in rusted heaps, smelling of old library books. The higher we hike, the dicier the weather. Clouds swirl like wildfire smoke. Wind-whipped graupel stings our cheeks with second-degree burns. We keep climbing — our mutual peak-bagging endeavor undefeated by deteriorating weather. Will consults his compass so he can navigate in the fog, and we shout at each other so we can hear above the cacophony. The wind pastes icicles onto Will’s beard, sucks us dry and bends us into old women with arthritic spines.

We totter on, our footing insecure, propelled by our determination to complete a decade-long project. The celebration on the summit is brief. The tips of Will’s tie and the flying ruffles of the turquoise nightgown I wear over my climbing attire intertwine like the necks of courting swans. We name our nameless peak Mt. Gray because of the similarity between the rock and the weather, and the contrast with our mood.

The celebration resumes in the hot springs among friends who have backpacked in a bottle of champagne and a floating tray of gourmet delicacies for the occasion. Curried deviled eggs, cranberry goat cheese, homemade angel food cake dipped in melted Ghirardelli chocolate. Having skipped the summit bid in favor of a prolonged soak, they withhold their congratulatory greetings until we strip and plunge in. Then the cork pops and the foam spurts. We lose track of time. Night sneaks up on us in a swirling confusion of migrating steam and breath. The dreaded storm never materializes fully, more bluster than substance, as was the case during the ascent. In the shrouded moonlight, our glistening albino faces and iced eyelashes substitute for the absent stars. I wish I had Will all to myself — until midnight, when our friends have to fish us out, as helpless as newborn twins. They escort us to our campsite, propping us up the whole way so we don’t tip over or squash the tent on our arrival. They tuck me in first before shoving Will in beside me. Will falls asleep the moment his head rolls into his sleeping bag hood, his cheeks still toasty from our hot bath.

My sleep is cut short by the fullness of my bladder. I crawl out of my bag, unzip the fly, stick my head out. The sharp point of a tree stump is softened by a plump cushion of snow. Bare branches are whiskered in white. Evergreen boughs droop from the weight of a generous Epiphany offering.

On my way back from our designated latrine, I flop on my back, carving angels out of a freezing mattress. The moon has slipped out, inescapable and inexhaustible. Wide-awake now, I enter its time machine. It transports me back to the dawn of an Ice Age and the formation of a mountain range. Dizzy with vertigo, I am whisked into the future, time whirring by like hummingbird wings. In the shaded soil where my ashes were scattered, I glimpse lady’s slippers, their translated generic name, Aphrodite’s sandal, paying homage to the Greek goddess of love. The time machine rolls to a stop with a blast of cold air. A warm sleeping bag awaits me in a dry tent. I crawl back in and wait for Will to awaken from his dream.

2: Solo
I name my house Bijou, for the street outside my bay window in Colorado Springs. Bijou is French for finely crafted ornamentation of a delicate nature. Will bought this house and renovated it for a rental unit. Once my name replaces his on the title and I start paying the bills and redecorating, I will call the house Jane’s house. This is the first house I have ever owned. It was ordered from a Sears catalogue, and the pre-cut lumber was shipped by rail. The front porch tilts, fingerprints disfigure the wallpaper along the door jams, and the siding is pockmarked from exposure and age. For a house that was built before statehood, it has weathered the storms rather well.

After the divorce, Will kept Ruxton House, our Victorian home in Manitou Springs. He paid for it and he renovated it.

We split the topo maps 50-50. I spread them out on the carpet in my upstairs study, tantalizing and torturing myself with possibilities. Six-hundred-and-thirty-eight mountains in Colorado over 13,000 feet high, each one a monument to someone’s version of history. It would take several lifetimes to do them all. I would climb them all in this lifetime, if my body could tolerate the punishment. I want to leave my mark, scrawl my signature on a scrap of paper and add it to the collection in the summit registers. I want to possess these mountains as they possess me. I want to know everything about them — the density and condition of their forests; the scent and variety of their flowers; the angle, age and condition of their rock; the size of their summits. I rank them by altitude — the highest ones first. One hundred-and-fifty highest. Two hundred highest. The tricentennials. I will conquer them all in that order. I was the first woman to climb the 100 highest peaks of Colorado; mathematical precision reduces the enormity of the rest of the task. I group the mountains on my list in logical, achievable categories, recording each triumph, like a bird watcher, in my notebook with the date and initials of my companions. The solos with my dog are signified with his nickname spelled backwards: God.

I climb for the exercise, burning off bad memories as if they were Christmas calories, transforming grief into muscle. “What’s the rush? Are you training for an ultra-marathon or something?” my friend asks when I return to camp an hour after he does. He turned back at timberline, exhausted by the pace I set.

I climb for the thrill of it, scaring myself shitless on more than one occasion. But my body is up to it — legs of granite, heart and lungs a 200-horsepower engine that propels me upward at 1,800 vertical feet per hour. Sixty-five heart beats per second, 3,600 per hour. On the trail, my body has a weight to it. My footsteps land lightly, but my feet feel rooted. Every step a declaration of intimacy with the grass, the rock, the soil. The tapping of my hiking poles synchronizing with each inhalation and exhalation. My breath distilled into the clarity of light.

Mummy Mountain, Rocky Mountain National Park: I glance back at the dilated, bruised clouds and pick up the pace as I scramble up the last 200 feet of the summit block, beating the lightning-charged hailstorm to the top by 10 minutes. The ridge I pick out as a logical shortcut to camp proves correct, and I outrun the storm’s southward progression in my direction. Back at camp, I am welcomed by a Boy Scout troop leader who covets my spot for his party of 10. I’m happy to comply, confident I can beat nightfall and make it out in time for a sanitary dining experience. No pine needles in the teacup. A steam-cleaned fork. A USDA-certified source of protein on the porcelain plate. I don’t want to break my dinner date with my parents, who have rented a condo in Estes Park for the week. They think I am hiking with a friend.

How do I explain that, even though I am alone for the first time in my life, I am not as alone as they would assume? That I feel safer in the mountains on my own than I do among strangers in the city? That this is my rite of passage. I earned it; I paid for it, the scar tissue on my legs and in my heart, a map of the interior topography of my life. Maps can be revised.

Ophir Pass, San Juans, early August: A coyote shows me the truest of seven false summits. Head cocked back, nose sniffing for a meal, he eyes me warily and lopes off the other side of the ridge, exposing the summit cairn next to where he sat.

Pole Creek Mountain, San Juans, late August: Eight miles up Lost Creek, I find a safe place to cross, where the elk have flattened and narrowed the bank with their habitual crossings. Their hoof prints in the mud provide stirrups for the leap to the other side. I land without falling backward into the water. Several hundred feet below the summit, another set of elk prints guides me through a cliff band without incident. I will reach the top before the lightning storm and return to camp by lunchtime.

Uncompaghre Wilderness, mid-September: The whoosh of a low-flying hawk awakens me from a late-afternoon nap in a basin beneath Mount Silver. It is three hours back to camp and the sun will set in two. The persistent bark of a coyote encourages me to keep moving. She is safeguarding her pups, leading me away from the den, toward my car.

Culebra Range, early October: A trail of fresh bear scat through the forest issues a challenge. I hustle along at warp speed, even though I know it is not a grizzly. The last one in Colorado was shot in 1976.

“You love the mountains more than you will love any man,” my mother says, and, although her comment rankles, I am beginning to suspect she is right.

The conversation with the architect I met at Wild Oats comes to a halt when he looks down at my bandaged feet in the post-op sandals. He says he’s running late for his doctor’s appointment and he’ll have to skip the coffee refill. We hadn’t gotten to my mountaineering resume yet, or the bunion surgery.

The tenured professor agrees to meet at my favorite Mexican restaurant in Denver. At this stage of the game, I insist on rendezvous sites that cannot be traced to my house. He orders chips with hot salsa, and after the waitress delivers the order, he says, “I reserved a room for you at the motel across the street.”

“Even the coyotes don’t do it that quick.”

“Oh, no, that’s not what I meant. I thought you’d be too tired to drive home tonight. It’s a long drive in the dark, isn’t it?” he asks, ignoring the Dos Equis with squeezed lime that the waitress left on his placemat.

“I’m not driving home tonight. I’m camping out in the mountains.” The chef put too many jalapeños in the salsa, and I’m on my third glass of ice water.

“It’s May. There will be snow up there. You’re alone.”

“My tent and sleeping bag are in my trunk.” I look at his watch (mine disappeared in a ravine) and excuse myself before the waitress brings the dessert. “Got to pitch that tent before dark.” I do not tell him about my trophy collection, which is probably bigger than his.

San Luis, Tijeras, Blanca and Pico Asilado, hidden away in a back valley, like the name suggests, with enough exposure to skip my customary meditation on the summit. Cyclone, Cirrus and Oso, where a member of the Hayden survey of 1874 encountered a grizzly and lived to write about it. Heisspitz, Heisshorn and Little Matterhorn, as if the Colorado Rockies were an extension of the Swiss Alps. Engineer, Galena, Eureka, Gold Dust, Crystal, Treasurevault, Lucky Strike, which isn’t how I felt about it a century after the bust as I detoured around one collapsed mine shaft after another, hauling my mutt by the collar to keep him out of the arsenic-tainted water. Conundrum, Comanche and that pragmatic compromiser, Ouray, who died before the forced march to the reservation. Nathaniel Meeker, self-righteous Indian agent whose murder precipitated the banishment, Kit Carson and Ulysses S. Grant scattered across three ranges on opposite ends of the state, while Arapaho and Navajo share a ragged ridge in the humiliating wake of the conquest. The Ts, the Vs, the Ss, the numbered and nameless peaks, my preference. A name transfers ownership. I wouldn’t mind a Susan B. Anthony Peak. She toured Colorado in 1877 on behalf of the suffragette movement. Of all the mountains in my trophy collection, only a handful bear a woman’s name. My favorite: Silverheels, the nickname of an anonymous prostitute, who, after nursing the miners of Fairplay through a smallpox epidemic, contracted the disease herself, covered her ruined face with a veil and vanished.

I climb Silverheels twice: once before the divorce, a second time with women friends who are also adjusting to changed circumstances. On the way down, when the terrain switches from talus to turf, we strip off our jackets and wrap them around our hips. Then we leap into the air and land on our sides and roll down the mountainside like a spilled sack of potatoes. We come to a stop in a bed of alpine forget-me-nots and moss campion cushions, unharmed. Kathleen unbuttons her shirt. Judy clasps her hand to her mouth in a futile attempt to suppress a giggle. I rip off my clothes and they follow suit, a pack of alpha females intoxicated by their collective strength.

Weekdays I work to pay the bills, to convince myself I am capable of taking care of myself. During back-to-back integrated marketing meetings, while team lead Tim recites the messages, I confine my perambulations to pictographs in my notebook: half-circles for solo walk-ups, Aztec pyramids with red dots to indicate the route of the sacrificial victim, an anthropomorphic figure with an eagle head, human torso and coneflowers for hands. I stifle the howl in my throat, which could be misinterpreted as the wailing of self-imposed singlehood or the mating call of coyote woman.

I climb until the vision in my left eye clouds over, and I stumble into my ophthalmologist’s office, complaining of the sunlight in my eyes when I drive, and he schedules cataract surgery. I climb until the joints in my big toes dislocate and the podiatrist orders me to take three months off to recover from the bunion surgery. I’ll climb until my heart skips one too many beats, and they find me beside the trail, belly up, my richtus grin a cautionary tale for parties who ignore the electrical power of a high-altitude storm.

I wear out two sets of tires on my Honda Civic, not counting blown and shredded ones, and a U-joint, leave the bumper behind at a creek crossing in the San Juan Mountains; and the 100,000 marker on the odometer resets to zero, restarting the journey.

Fifteen to 20 peaks a summer, and I lose my way only once without sacrificing the summit, my sense of direction restored with a careful examination of the topo map. I can feel the tingle of electricity on my scalp in time to dodge an incoming lightning strike and find a summit in the fog, but lose my car in the grocery store parking lot. The orienteering course offered by the Colorado Mountain Club does nothing to minimize my disorientation in town. I am dyslexic with street signs, especially in my former neighborhood in Manitou Springs. Mountain Meadow? Deer Path? Elk Park? The names do not compute with the Kentucky bluegrass lawns and domestic cats sunning themselves in the living room windows.

After a lengthy absence, I test my orienteering skills in Manitou Springs. I park my car with the Texans in the public lot near the Penny Arcade and walk the crooked, hilly streets for hours on end, until my stamina gives out. I start out at dusk, when most of the tourists have already packed it in for the night. The camera around my neck identifies me as a stranger.

I walk up Ruxton Avenue until I reach the staircase to the house where I lived with my husband for 15 years. The rusted gate has separated from its upper hinge, and it won’t open without a hoist and shove. The steps are covered in piles of dead leaves. I take a deep breath. There are 76 steps, and they are steep. The leaves crackle as I begin the ascent.

The slap, slap, slap of running sneakers on asphalt stops me in my tracks and I spin around. There she is — my successor, the Nordic goddess, perpetual youth. Copper-toned skin glistening with sweat, bared leg muscles taut and rippling, twin greyhounds trotting along on her right and left, eyeing the street riffraff ahead. I know it is she because Will has boasted of the dogs’ racing pedigree. She races by in skin-tight, sky-blue Nike polyester, the greyhounds in lock-step. She must have been doing laps, training for the Pikes Peak marathon. Will runs it every August.

I retrace my route on Ruxton Avenue, pausing to admire the Mexican and Indian imports in the window of Casual Comforts before turning onto Manitou Boulevard. Patsy’s popcorn stand is open for business but no customers are lined up at the order window. I cross the footbridge and stroll down the alley, into the Penny Arcade. It takes me nearly 20 minutes to find Zambini, the Fortune Teller. Between the throngs of tattooed, spike-haired teens and the rat-a-tat of their “Star Wars” dogfights, I am completely disoriented. But, after asking the night manager for directions three times, I finally find Zambini in a dusty, dimly lit corner of the antique room. I drop a quarter into the slot, and wait for the turbaned head to fix me in its red-eyed stare.

I must have been his first customer in years. His voice warbles as if swimming from the bottom of a fish tank. “Look into my crystal ball,” he commands.

He holds the ball in his hands. Then his gut clanks, and a card pops out of the metallic slit in his shirt pocket. He orders me to take it.

“Your lucky color is green.” He got that one half-right. I have hazel eyes. In the sunlight, flecks of green speckle the brown irises. Several blind dates have been complimentary. They say my eyes are my best feature.

I fritter away a wallet full of quarters until the fortune I am seeking finally slides out of his pocket. “Unlucky in love? Your luck will change but only if you stop looking in the usual places.”

Jane Koerner is creative nonfiction and journalism instructor and former magazine editor with several hundred published articles to her credit. She lives in Logan, Utah.

The Top: The Ultimate Open Space

No matter how you get there, standing on top of a mountain inspires a universal thrill. It’s a big WOW! Beyond that, it’s difficult to articulate. If you almost died getting there, it’s easy enough to explain elation and relief. Those always make the best climbing stories. But if all it takes is a long walk, or a bike ride, or a ATV trek, or a chairlift to get to the summit, what is it about being up there, way up there, that infuses that first moment at the top with rapture and repose?

Obviously, the rarity of the experience is a factor. It’s not something most people do every day, and unless you’ve bagged one of those 14ers that attracts more visitors than an RV show, you’re probably (with a pal or two) the only one there. It’s you and a view of dozens, if not hundreds of other empty peaks. The visual evidence suggests you are, literally, top of the heap, above all. Your are freshly special.

That view is the ultimate open space. As human animals, we love open space, especially if we can be up over it and looking down. Our oldest biological ancestors, those Hominid predators with acute vision out running around and hunting — and running to avoid becoming prey — at the dawn of time, knew what a good view meant, and their comfort, confidence and pleasure with elevated perspectives of open spaces hasn’t left us.

Why that WOW! at the top? Because in the context of our human-ness, a mountain is a very, very high tree with all of the physical and psychic advantages.

As one broad-thinking biologist, Elaine Brooks, imagining herself climbing a tree and looking out over the old, old savannas of our beginnings, put it, “Once our ancestors climbed high in that tree, there was something about looking over the land — something that healed us quickly….Biologically we have not changed. We are still programmed to flee large animals. Genetically we are essentially the same creatures as we were at the beginning.

We are still hunters and gatherers. Our ancestor’s couldn’t out run a lion, but they did have wits. We knew how to kill, yes, but we also knew how to run and climb — and how to use the environment to recover our wits.”

The smart ones, the ones who survived, weren’t just running randomly from the large animals chasing them, they were running for safety, for the trees, for home. There is a certain residual implication that we know the higher we can get, the safer we are.

Maybe this is why a high spot with a good view is an undeniably desirable place to stop and rest. Quickly, the effort and adrenaline rush of the climb fade. Our breathing slows. Our heart rate drops. The sky is beautiful and endless. The land below, treacherous and interminable though mountains may be, is beautiful. Atop peaks, we are for a moment completely unthreatened. We can put down our psychic defenses because we are ultimately safe. Hardly a climber will deny the sensation of ultimate escape, and the secret urge to make it last. That’s the stunned silence of the top — a victory and its secret in the same emotional package.

In 1833, Captain Benjamin Bonneville was the first white man to stand atop many of the peaks of Wyoming’s Wind River Range. He was so weirdly taken by the immensity of the scenes he saw that he wrote of himself in the third person, as if the point-of-view inherently granted him omniscience enabling him to rise outside himself and look down on his own expansive reaction. He wrote: “Here a scene burst upon the view of Captain Bonneville, that for a time astonished and overwhelmed him with its immensity. He stood in fact on the dividing ridge the Indians regard as the crest of the world….Whichever way he turned his eye, it was confounded by the vastness and variety of objects. Beneath him the Rocky Mountains seemed to open all their secret recess: deep, solemn valleys; treasured lakes; dreary passes; rugged defiles, and foaming torrents; while beyond their savage precincts, the eye was lost in an almost immeasurable landscape, stretching on every side into a dim and hazy distance…. Whichever way he looked, he beheld vast plains glimmering with reflected sunshine, mighty streams wandering on their shining course toward either ocean, and snowy mountains, chain beyond chain, and peak beyond peak, till they melted like clouds into the horizon…. [H]e had attained the height that from which the Blackfoot warrior, after death, first catches a view of the land of souls, and beholds the happy hunting grounds….The captain stood for a long while gazing upon the scene, lost in a crowd of vague and indefinite ideas and sensations.”

In the way-up-there and way-out-there of a high range,  it’s hard to resist thinking about the edge of eternity, and inviting prospects of concocting treehouse-like plans to make the mountaintop a permanent home. Completely unrealistic, unless the home you have in mind is heaven itself, of course, but we can’t help the idea crossing our minds.

So, like our Hominid brothers after a sprint for safety and a regroup in the trees, once on top, we are elated and blissfully spent, and can’t help trying to figure how to apply the secrets of this undeniable victory to what’s next. Open space and a good view mean you can see all the corridors of coming and going — the safe and the vulnerable, the possible and the impediment. It has all the advantages of the ultimate home: a safe place to think about what’s next and how to get there — whether you are planning to go back down or devising a strategy assuring your place in the Land of Souls.

David Mazel, editor of “Pioneering Ascents,” a study of the diaries and writings of America’s first climbers (and source of the Bonneville passage above), points out that the long-view, long-range-planning instinct affords visions and imaginings of the future that extend beyond the metaphorical implications Elaine Brooks discusses. Expansive forecasting instincts, evoked in America’s first climbers by the ultimate open spaces they saw, found broad cultural expression.

Many of America’s early climbers were not climbing for individual amusement or psychological regeneration necessarily. Their intent was exploration, leading to invasion, and leading to exploitation. “For such climbers the act of conquering a mountain…had value as a sort of mental rehearsal for conquering the territory below,” Mazel says. For them, the mountaintop provided a view that fed their perceived racial privileges, even their perceived Manifest Destiny. The mountaintop was a point of domination, a vantage where the future looked irresistibly good for the inevitable victories below.

Agree or disagree with Manifest Destiny, but the good feeling the conquerors of the continent felt wasn’t unique to their particular sense of domination. With a big view, we all feel a degree of control, and from up there, our abstractions swim with sustenance and growth. The early Hominids in trees felt secure, but they also saw a world out there that would provide and nurture. The higher you get, the better your chance of seeing something good. Though distorted by ambition and racial hubris, the pioneers who stood on mountaintops and felt that same sense of confident well-being weren’t just elated with the idea of maraudings to come. Built into them was a sense of hope a gaze into open space almost genetically guaranteed a human being. The hope extended to all he associated himself with.

Some biologists, including Harvard scientist Edward O. Wilson, point to these rewarding sensations as signs of the “biophilia theory,” in which “a decade of research reveals how strongly and positively people respond to open, grassy landscapes, scattered stands of trees, meadows, water, winding trails, and elevated views.” Expressed ecopsychologically, a good view is good for you.

There’s evidence. According to Richard Louv, author of “Last Child in the Woods,” hundreds of studies conclude that time in nature reduces stress. Outdoorsy kids have twice as many friends. Backpacking improves proofreading performance. Experiences in nature boost a child’s attention span. Children in homes with good views concentrate better, especially girls. Louv writes:  “Environment-based education produces student gains” in every subject and “improves standardized test scores and grade-point averages,” and “develops skills in problem-solving, critical thinking and decision-making.” Louv cites a “link” that states children with access to the outdoors are less likely to suffer from ADHD, especially boys. People who spend time in nature are less angry. “Most transcendent childhood experiences happen in nature.”

Why climb to a mountaintop? Because, if you’re human, it’s the safest you’ll ever get, it’s the most visionary you’ll ever get and it’s the healthiest you’ll ever get. It might be the best you ever feel about the chances of your kind. That WOW! you feel when you get to the top means all the advantages of open space have just become all the advantages of the ultimate open space.

Long-time Mountain Gazette senior correspondent Wayne Sheldrake is author of “Instant Karma: The Heart and Soul of a Ski Bum,” winner of ForeWord Magazine’s 2007 Adventure “Book of the Year” and contributor to America West,, Writer’s Digest, The Bloomsbury Review, Your Health, Triathlete, Velo News, Snow Country and Rocky Mountain Sport.

Summit of Silver

“The world seems made of mountains; a chaotic mass of rocky ridges, peaks and spurs.”
— William N. Byers, on first recorded ascent of La Plata Peak, Colorado, July 26, 1873

People have all kinds of reasons for climbing high mountains. Most of them are good ones, others not so much. Some folks do it for the exercise, the cardiovascular workout, the healthy way that the human body feels after steady and prolonged exertion at high elevation. Some do it for the adventure, or the challenge, perhaps even the risk factor, whereby a little bit of potential danger is allowed into one’s safe and sheltered and boring existence. Other people climb mountains to prove something to themselves, or to impress their friends, or for “bragging rights.” Check-lists, and ego trips, and stories at the office on Monday morning. Peak baggers and wannabes. Still others have much purer motives. “To reach the top.” To enjoy the view. To experience the beauty. To commune with Nature. To visit with the mountain gods. They climb because they are young, and wild, and able to. Because climbing is in their blood. “Because it’s there.”

Touché. Bravo. Und wunderbar.

However, while I can certainly relate to some of these motivations, my main justification for climbing high peaks is somewhat different than all of the above. For, you see, my number-one reason for “going up” is perhaps the simplest one of them all.

I just want to go to Heaven.

Which, as far as I can tell, is real high up. Indeed, way, WAY up there.

And so I climb, and go to the top of the mountain, the very topmost point, therefore to get as close to Heaven while still on earth as is humanly possible. As often as I can. Well, okay, maybe not so much anymore. But there was a time in my life, a good, long time, when I got high – real high — on a pretty regular basis. And so it was in the breakaway summer of 1994 …

The previous few months had not been good ones for me. All at once, it seemed, I had gotten injured at work, and lost a good job, and broke up with my girlfriend (whose house I was living at), and suddenly found myself homeless. I was bouncing around from place to place, and trying to recuperate, and furthermore attempting to figure out “what to do” with the rest of my life, or at least the next chapter. And so then, as spring turned into summer, and I felt my health gradually returning, I decided to “take a break” from society and its ills, and spend the season up in the mountains, alone, camping out, and climbing everything that I possibly could.

While I healed.

I started slow, getting my mountain legs back by doing thousand-foot ascents and moderate hikes in the foothills. Little by little, I once again graduated to the twelves, and thirteens, and even a few fourteeners. I would camp in some nice out-of-the-way place at about 9 or 10,000 feet, and get up early in the morning, and “go and see the Wizard” (as I called it).

Weather permitting, I would often summit several high peaks per week, and sometimes even a couple in one day. The Elks, the Raggeds, the Collegiate Range, the Sawatch, the San Juans.

“The air is clear and thin. As you climb, breathe easily and make the natural adjustments in your body. Feel the slow change in yourself. Think of climbing up as a downward flow, without strain…”
— Tai Chi master

My lungs expanded, thigh muscles hardened, skin turned brown, and the new $200 mountaineering boots broke in quickly. I fine-tuned my camping routine, and firewood skills, and eye for beauty. I often stayed away from people for as long as a week at a time. I learned, or rather re-learned, how to move like an animal, and walk quietly, and time my breathing with my steps, and touch things with respect, and take only what I needed.

Kneeling at the shrine. Sucking on the nipple. Breathing in the mountain air. Learning to live again.

Which brought me, finally, one fine and stormy morning, to La Plata Peak, the fifth-highest summit in Colorado.

Actually, the weather wasn’t too bad early on. Leaving the trailhead at 10,000 feet, I could see several patches of blue sky overhead. “Sucker holes,” they’re called. Heading south up La Plata Gulch, I passed numerous little waterfalls and delightful pools of crystal-clear water on the side of the mountain. Filling my canteens from the creek at 11,200 feet, I then ascended straight east up a steep, rocky couloir following numerous trail switchbacks that were only 20 feet apart in places. Reached the northwest ridge of La Plata Peak at 12,700 feet, and was promptly greeted by a stiff southeast wind and a great view of Mt. Elbert (highest point in Colorado) and Ellingwood Ridge (a famous, jagged, impossibly rugged wall of rock stretching far to the north) and, well, that was about it. For the impending storm had begun to lower and thicken and “fill in the holes,” and soon, very soon, even Elbert and Ellingwood were lost in the swirling grayness.

Having experienced way too many lightning storms at high altitude, I always try to be keenly aware of any thunder or electrical energy when I am above timberline, both present and potential. On this day, luckily, there was none, and I felt relatively safe as I climbed due south on steep, green-lichened stone past old gray snowfields from last winter. The clouds enveloped the entire mountain like an old wet blanket and began to drizzle. Soon the drizzle turned into rain, and then sleet, and then snow, but I just kept going up, and up, and up. First tracks, indeed. Having earlier passed four other climbers who were headed down, down to avoid the coming storm, I knew that I was probably the only person left alive on the upper part of the peak.

(Note: The summit register inside the old mailbox on top had been signed by 38 people the previous day, when the weather was sunny and bluebird.)

Then, just as I was ascending the final section, and nearing the lofty silver summit in a driving wet summer blizzard, something funny happened to me. Or in me. Or all around me.

It had been a long, hard climb, and the weather was getting worse every minute, but I was bound and determined to reach the top. This was the highest mountain that I had ever climbed in this lifetime, and normally I would have been tired, and hungry, and looking forward to relaxing on the summit. However, on this particular day, in a raging August snowstorm, at 14,000 feet, something else occurred within me. Something else entirely.

For, as I scaled the final arete, and could see the stone cairn, indicating the apex of the huge massif that I had just spent five hours climbing, a profound sense of sadness suddenly came over me! Instead of the normal deep satisfaction I usually experienced upon reaching the top of a high mountain, I actually felt, somehow, bummed out. Indeed, I was downright disappointed at having reached the summit, which had now become the finish line, the end of the trail, the uppermost limit of this climb. As in, “Here’s the summit already, damn it, I wish this ridge just kept right on going up and up and up, I want to go higher and higher and higher, and just keep on climbing into the clouds, ALL THE WAY, my goal is not this here mere pile of rocks, no, no, my goal is up there, somewhere up there, still up there, way up there, why oh why do I have to stop here at 14,361 feet?”

It was like I had been climbing the final, last, most-important stairway of them all, the one that goes to Heaven itself, but suddenly, suddenly, much too soon, the magic steps seemed to somehow stop here.

Right here.

Just when I was getting close!

The wind was out of the south now, so I dropped back down over the north face a ways to escape the driving wet snow. I put on my last layer of clothes, and found a good place to ride out the storm, and ate my lunch like a larva in a cocoon.

Then, later, as I was sipping on my customary summit can of cold Budweiser, the snow began to let up, and the wind died down, and eventually, slowly but surely, the wonderful, wonderful sun came out.

Oh happy day …

The stormclouds lowered and started to dissipate into thin air, while enormous mountains, and then entire groups of mountains, began to appear as if by magic, sheer magic, in all directions and distances and elevations, almost like a sea of endless and thus eternal waves rising up and out of the misty nothingness. My wide-opened eyes reveled in every new look around that I took. Sun and clouds danced with each other, both down below and up above me. The constant interplay of shadow and light changed the mystical tapestry with each and every passing moment. I literally could not stop seeing new summits, and ridges, and canyons, and sky blue lakes, and even whole mountain ranges wherever my eyes would gaze. The Gore Range to the north, the Mosquitoes, the Collegiates and Pikes Peak. The Sangre de Cristos, the Uncompahgres, the Chinese Mountains and Sopris. The West Elks and Flat Tops and Mt. Massive and, once again, Mt. Elbert, shining in the sun.


It seemed like I could see half of Colorado all spread out below me, and in front of me, and behind me, and indeed all around me, when just an hour earlier I could barely see two steps ahead. The high-elevation post-storm sunlight was so warm and so intense that the fresh white snow was literally evaporating right before my very eyes, and rising in veils of silver steam back up into the blue, blue sky from whence it had come.

As I was laying out my wet clothes to dry in the brilliant solar heat, I felt a sense of peace come over me. A peace and serenity from some source much, much greater than myself welled up within me, and I felt like I had finally, finally made it home. Home, sweet home, at last.

My earlier sadness, and worry, and even injury were now gone, gone for good. And I was healed.

And now knew “what to do” …

After spending three hours of sheer unadulterated rapture on the very top of La Plata Peak, I had to practically force myself to leave. Because, you see, I wanted to just remain there, and never, ever leave. But I simply could not stay up there forever.

Could I?

Just before heading down, I took one last good look around. All of a sudden, I could scarcely believe my eyes! Because it was then, then that I realized why the sacred staircase through the stormclouds up to Heaven had stopped right here, right here at this high and holy place.

For I had reached my destination, after all.

Curt Melliger is a Four Corners Free Press columnist and a long-time contributor to Mountain Gazette. He is currently exploring the wilds of eastern Nebraska.