“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.
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.
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.