On Climbing Mountains, Part I, Summit Day, Part I


“Breakfast, breakfast, come and get your breakfast. Breakfast, breakfast, come and get it right now.”

The two guides move through the camp in the dark, singing the breakfast song. Their flashlight beams—as viewed through the double layer of tent and rainfly fabric—dart across the ground and play across our tent walls. It’s very early, or very late, depending on how you look at it. It’s cold, and only the guides really know what time it is. We were required to leave our watches and electronic devices (other than cameras) back at base camp, along with our wallets, pocket knives, and matches and lighters. In theory, we’re supposed to be engaging nature, getting away from clockwatching, schedules, emails, telephones, television, and the internet. The other three guys in my tent and I turn on our flashlights, slide out of our mummy sleeping bags, sit up and begin dressing hurriedly. There’s not enough room to stand up or even move much, so we slide into our pants lying down. Then we shove our sleeping bags into their stuff sacks and pile them in the middle of the tent (in case a storm comes up while we’re away), slip into hiking boots, and stumble out into the camp to relieve ourselves, scarf down a Pop Tart, and then “circle up” and wait for marching orders.

We’re at “high camp,” a semi clearing a few hundred feet below tree line, on what I’d call the wide hips of Mt. Silverheels, a 13,822 foot peak in the Mosquito Range along the Continental Divide in Colorado. We’ve spent two nights at high camp, acclimating to the altitude, somewhere around 10,500 feet above sea level. Before that, we’d spent a night at “low camp,” which wasn’t really low in our case, but it was several miles from where we’d unloaded the bus and started backpacking toward the mountain. Of course, we wouldn’t know this until after our return to base camp the following day. Our guides had a rule concerning “logistics”: for most of the five nights and six days we were on Trek, they wouldn’t tell us what time it was, how far we’d hiked, how much farther we had to hike, or what our elevation was. When the guides did want to tell us something practical, they’d use the word “logistics,” at which we were to respond by wiggling our fingers and making Twilight Zone sounds. The reasoning was vague, something about knowing too much made it easier to quit, and the less we knew the more we could enjoy living in the moment.

The reasoning was a little tough for me to accept, though I’m sure it worked well enough for most of the people on the trip (eleven teenagers from a church youth group—my fifteen year old daughter among them—a youth minister, and three parents acting as chaperones). However, having backpacked a lot and climbed a few of Colorado’s 14ers, mountains higher than 14,000 ft above sea level —never with a guide or in anything like a well-organizes group—giving up so much control was hard on a 54 year old man with bad knees who had only been able to tolerate the Cub Scouts for a single year before quitting. But my daughter was having a blast and I love being in the mountains, so I kept my mouth shut and acted the part of good scout.

“We’ve got a tough climb this morning,” Phil told the circle. We had assembled with our day packs on and headlamps lighting the dark. “We’re going to go through the woods and get up on the ridgeline,” he said, pointing vaguely behind the crew fly where we’d huddled from the rain the day before and cooked supper.

Dupree and Phil, Cooking breakfast

Dupree and Phil, Cooking breakfast

Phil had turned twenty-two a couple of days earlier, and he was eight hours away from completing his degree in social work at the university where I teach in Arkansas. Ironically, when he first introduced himself as our guide, I recognized him as a former composition student but didn’t fully remember him. I’d racked my brain trying to remember his grade and if he’d expressed attitude during the class. Believe it or not, some college students don’t enjoy the composition experience, and sometimes professors don’t react well to students who don’t like their classes, but Phil didn’t stand out like the rest of my students with attitude, for which I have a long and unforgiving memory.

“I had you for Comp II a couple years ago,” he said.

“I remember,” I said. “How was that experience for you?” I’ve learned, in situations like this, that it’s best to address the white elephant, especially since we’d be spending six days on the trail and I was no longer the boss.

“It was okay,” he said, “I made an A.”

“Good.” I was relieved, but based on Phil’s appearance, I would have been surprised if we hadn’t gotten along. He wore sandals, shorts, and a flannel shirt over a t-shirt, and his hair was long and he wore it in a man bun on top of his head most of the time. His beard was struggling to come in full, and he had an earthy look like the rest of the kids on campus who worked out at the local rock climbing gym or liked to string hammocks between trees on the quadrangle. Those were the kids I tended to get along with, especially once I was able to get them talking about kayaking or camping or anything outdoors.

We broke up the circle and headed off in single file, headlamps bobbing through the trees, following Phil who was picking a route up a steep hill by compass, since there wasn’t a trail. It was a relief to be walking with only a daypack after the two day backpack to high camp. On those two days I’d felt my age and the altitude. The pain had expressed itself in my knees, which have suffered the trauma of sports injuries, surgery, and heavy work, including years of day-long walking and standing on factory floors and construction sites and climbing high-voltage power line towers when I worked for a few years as a lineman; in my hips, where the weight of my seventy pound backpack dug into my waist despite the padded belt; and in my lungs, struggling to acclimate to high altitude, which no amount of training at Arkansas’s three hundred feet above sea level can prepare you for. At the top of the hill we stopped to watch the sunrise lighten the sky to the east and illuminate the peak ahead and above us. We switched off headlamps, peeled off a layer of clothes, swallowed water from our Nalgene bottles, and kept going.

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