Mt. Antero, John Wayne Style
When my friend Steve asked me if I wanted to try a 14er, I said sure. By that time I’d lived in Denver close to four years and I’d done plenty of high elevation backpacking. The only 14er I’d tried was Mt. Bierstadt, a couple years earlier, which is easily accessible from Guanella Pass. One day my wife and I were driving in the mountains and crossed the pass on our way to a planned dinner in Georgetown, a historic mining and railroad town. We crossed Guanella, which is already at tree line, and noticed all the parked cars and the dots of people climbing to the summit of Bierstadt.
It was summer, and probably too late to start a climb because of the threat of lightning. I was wearing Teva sandals, shorts, and a t-shirt. I’d packed my fanny pack which held two half-liter water bottles. I led two dogs, a Border collie mix named Bonnie and a three-legged Golden Retriever named Dexter who worshipped me and would follow me to the ends of the earth, or up a fourteen thousand foot mountain. We had no business being there, but we headed for the summit. It was tough going, and after a long while Lisa dropped out on the ridgeline and held Dexter back on his leash. Bonnie and I kept going and we had the summit in sight, but I felt guilty because I kept looking back down the mountain and wondering why Lisa and Dexter kept following us. Turns out that Dexter, despite having only three legs, weighed about eighty pounds and was surprisingly strong, and he was so distraught that I had left him behind, that he was dragging Lisa up the mountain. Dexter only had one front leg, and I was worried about what going down the mountain would do to him, so I Bonnie and I turned back and headed down to Lisa and Dexter and the retreat to the car.
At some point, I learned later, my wife and Steve’s wife talked about our attempt on Antero. “Don’t you worry about Steve doing things like that?” Lisa asked.
Debbie said no. Turns out Steve had been a guide with Wilderness Expeditions in an earlier life. “He knows what he’s doing up there.”
Steve was younger than me, just a few years out of college, but I recognized in him the spirit of a rebel. I was in my late 30s, but still peaking. We got our tattoos on the same Friday evening, when he challenged me to go with him to the Dragonfly Parlor on Broadway Avenue in Denver. I’d been thinking about it for months, and his mouth dropped fully open when I called his bluff. He settled for a Jimmy Buffett style parrot head, while I went for my Gulf Coast inspired dolphin tattoo.
In June of 1999, Steve and I drove to the base of Mt. Antero and camped out. We woke before dawn and drove to the junction of Baldwin Gulch Road and Chalk Creek Canyon road, parked, and began a predawn ascent of Antero. We ascended four miles of jeep road, then hit the trailhead proper. Antero is famous for minerals, with climbers pocketing smoky quartz and turquoise. Technically speaking, there’s a Jeep road to the summit for those four-wheel drives that are tricked out with special suspension packages and drivers with a death wish. Since it was June, the four-wheelers weren’t out yet and the trail to the summit was snow-packed. Steve and I had come prepared, with snow gear, including gaiters, snowshoes, ski poles, and winter parkas. We stared at the map and marked off the trailhead with countless switchbacks, and then eyed a couloir, a narrow snow-packed valley, that led straight up to a ridgeline high on the mountain.
“Screw switchbacks,” Steve said. “Let’s John Wayne this puppy.”
An unfortunate characteristic of dogs, at least the good ones, the ones soullessly devoted to their owners, is that they will endure any hardship, no matter how foolish, to accompany the owner they’ve bonded with on a walk. It had broken Dexter’s heart to be left behind on this trip. Bonnie, however, and Steve’s German Shepherd Taylor, were ecstatic. We plowed straight up the mountain, digging into the ice field with the crampons on our snow shoes, until we topped out on a rocky slope with the summit lying beyond a field of boulders the size of small cars. We slogged over the boulders, rock hopping in a balanced dance that favors momentum and forward movement. Try to go slow, and each step becomes a logistical problem. Move rhythmically and try to flow, and the ascent becomes a fluid upward motion. We worked at this for a couple of hours, but the leap from rock to rock was more than the dogs could handle. I think it had to do with their inability to plot a course. Each jump from rock to rock was a new challenge to be conquered, but there was no end goal in sight. We were within thirty minutes of the summit when Taylor drew up lame. Her pads were bleeding, and after an assessment of her condition, we headed down, trying to pick the easiest path through the boulder field, and when we got to more manageable terrain, we rigged a stretcher and carried her all the way back to the car.