On Climbing Mountains, Part V

Summit Day, Part II

circle up breakfast for summit day

daybreak on summit day

As the sun came up we were treated to a view of the Continental Divide to the east, tinged with golden sunrise, and the wide South Park valley to the south. Above us, to the north, the summit of Silverheels rose to view, but then we lost it as we descended into another valley. At the bottom of the slope we hiked up a grassy meadow, and then Phil, consulting his compass, disappeared into a thick stand of forest that rose above us. We entered, and began a steep climb to the top of the ridge, following no trail other than the imaginary one in Phil’s mind. We clambered across fallen logs, slipped in tree decay and wet mosses, grabbed saplings and pulled ourselves manually up the hill. Visibility was limited to a couple of hundred feet, since the woods were so thick. The only relief was that the bushwhacking was so difficult that our pace was slowed to the point that our breathing was able to keep up. The ridge was unending, it seemed, and our group was so spread out that periodically Phil had to hold long enough for the stragglers to make visual contact with the person ahead of them, otherwise we would have wound up all over the mountain and our summit attempt would have devolved into a search and rescue mission. Luckily, I was able to stay close to the front of the group, so I benefited from the rest breaks while we waited for those below us to find the trail and catch up.

heading for treeline just after sunrise

heading for treeline just after sunrise



Julia Rose, to my great delight, was “killing” Wilderness Trek, to use her expression. I had no doubt that she would be good at it. She’d run a season of cross country and two seasons of track, and she danced ballet three days a week during the school year. She’d spent the summer stretching with bands to “get” her splits and lifting small dumbbells to tone her arms. Since we’d started the hiking, she’d never been further than a ski pole behind the guide leading the hike, and she’d even taken to carrying extra gear for some of the other girls in the group. Whenever I struggled up to the level where the lead guide waited with the half dozen teens who were able to keep up, Julia Rose would cheer me on, saying “You’ve got this dad!” and “You can do it!” She’d come down a few feet to meet me, fill me in on the latest observations from our guide, and make sure I was doing okay. For my part, I didn’t waste my breath talking. I’d just smile at her and take a sip of water, take a look around me, and try not to think about the pain in my knees and lungs.

After what seemed like a couple of hours of very strenuous climbing, we made tree line—the elevation where trees can no longer grow—and walked across a gently rising shoulder to the “ridgeline.” The ridgeline is a relatively narrow fin rising to the summit of the mountain in a series of “false peaks.” Because of the steep slope above us, we would hike toward a point of mountain framed almost entirely by blue sky—surely the summit—only to gain the top and see the mountain rising still higher. The wind sharpened now that we were out of the forest and on the bare shoulder of the mountain. People began putting on jackets against the cold, but I knew as soon as we started hiking I’d warm up enough to not need it. The ridge line was a patchwork of rocky talus, snow pack, and vegetation–expanses of tiny sub-arctic flowers, lichens, mosses, and hardy grass.

Ridgeline to the summit

Ridgeline to the summit

With the pathway to the summit clear—nowhere to go but up, since the drop off on either side of the ridge fin was fairly sharp and high—we gathered for a final pep talk from the guides. First, we dropped our day packs and did the “ridge line dance,” a bit of silliness, improvised disco, that took our minds off the pain and sharp cold wind.

“We need to keep moving,” Phil said. “Don’t stop. That way your endorphins will kick in. If you stop it only makes it harder to get going again.”

My endorphins, if I had any, had bugged out long ago. Not that there was any way that chemicals in my body could trick it, or me, into thinking any part of this was pleasurable. Some of the boys on the trip played high school football, and I’d had about all the cheerleading and shouts of encouragement I could stand. I could have easily murdered one of the fifteen-or-sixteen-year-olds, shouting “keep going Mr. Terry. You can do this,” if only it wouldn’t have taken so much energy to catch one of them. Besides, I knew enough about myself to know that cheerleading wouldn’t get me up the hill. From here on out it was a matter of white-knuckling it, putting one foot in front of the other and breathing through my nose and reminding myself that every two to three steps I walked I was gaining a foot of elevation. I knew that tree line was around 11,000 feet at this latitude, and our mountain summit was a finite number of steps away. It was John Wayne time, as my old mountain climbing friend Steve Smith would have said.

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