On Climbing Mountains, Part XI

Summit Day, Part III


With the summit in sight, though unbearably far away, it came down to a matter of selfish devotion to an individual rhythm. Julia Rose was ahead of me and holding her own. Killing it. I knew that the group would fan out along the trail. The guides were worried about the time of day, as we were fast losing the morning. Wilderness Expeditions has a hard policy: if the group doesn’t summit by 12:30, then it can’t summit. Thunderstorms set in on the mountain peaks after noon. The storms move fast, and the patterns are unpredictable. The storms move faster than the fastest hiker can retreat. In fact, a couple of hikers had been struck by lightning on our adjacent peak the week before. Thus the policy. It had been a rainy week, and the day before, at high camp, we’d been driven into out tents by a thunderstorm that dropped lightning within a few hundred yards of camp and covered the ground with an inch of pea-sized hail.


I started up the mountain, taking small steps, breathing through my nose instead of my mouth, ignoring the pain in my legs, knees, and lungs. My endorphins had kicked in, at least to the extent that they were able. I was in the middle of the pack. The leaders put distance on the rest of us, stopped to wait, and as soon as we caught up, started up again. To the west and north black clouds were gathering. When I was close enough to one or the other, I could hear Phil and Dupree, who had contact through a two way radio, discussing the weather. I didn’t know what time it was, exactly, but I could guess that we were nearing our fail-safe point, the point where we would be required to turn back if the summit wasn’t close. The route ahead looked tough. The ridgeline narrowed to a knife blade, skirted a couple of snowfields, and the summit still perched an hour, perhaps two, away.

Climbing the ridgeline--steeper than it looks, and every step is difficult

Dupree and Phil making a decision on the summit with clouds building toward a thunderstorm

We summited a false peak, and with the skies ahead of us growing darker and closing in, Phil and Dupree went into council. I knew they were able to talk to other Wilderness Trek guides in the area by radio, and there was a constant chatter going on. They called the summit attempt a short distance below a false peak. To be honest, I was equally relieved and saddened. I wanted Julia Rose to get a peak, and I knew that she would have made it if the group had been smaller and roughly equal in condition. I know that if I had been with Steve, we would have pushed on, but I respected Phil and Dupree, who had an obligation to the safety of the group. We chose a false summit to take our pictures. The adults went ahead of the teens and formed an arch tunnel with our arms for the kids to walk through. We got our pictures, and we headed down. With each step, the natural motion of arrested falling that is walking downstairs or down a mountain, jarred my knees and sent shots of pain running all the way to my teeth. My knee joints felt less like smooth bone riding on a cushion of cartilage and more like four blocks of wet wood rubbing end to end. It was probably permanent damage, because a month and a half later, my knees still feel about like that. The only relief was to side step down the mountain, and I would alternate walking downhill with my body turned at a forty-five degree angle. Knees aren’t designed to take that lateral stress, so the solution was only slightly less painful. I slowed to the end of the line and even Dupree passed me, though he wouldn’t let himself get too far ahead of me before stopping to wait. I was nearly in tears by the time we got back to high camp, twelve hours after we began.

Phil and Dupree at the false summit, about 600 ft below the true summit. The flag is a pair of Phil's underwear, smuggled up the mountain by the teens.

Phil and Dupree at the false summit, about 600 ft below the true summit. The flag is a pair of Phil’s underwear, smuggled up the mountain by the teens.

Most of the group went to their tents to rest. I didn’t make it that far. I sprayed my body with mosquito repellent and lowered my body to the ground, using the fifty-five gallon trash bag that had covered my backpack during the storm, my head covered by a jacket. I lay like that for two or three hours, suffering. There was no way to position my body that didn’t hurt. Julia Rose rested with the other girls in their tent, but after an hour or two she was back to taking care of me, filling my water bottles down at the creek, thinking aloud about what it would take to become a guide. Digging the mountains. I told Julia Rose that she could have summited if the guides hadn’t been required to keep the group together. Climbing 13,300 feet on a 13,900 foot mountain is an accomplishment. I told her to mark Silverheels off the list as an official summit.

Despite the pain, as I lay there, I thought about what it felt like to stand on a mountain that you’ve climbed. The powerful emotion of that feeling hasn’t diminished since that day thirty-two years earlier when I summited an unnamed peak in Alaska. The world is laid out before you in a 360 degree panorama of green, beige, gray, white, and blue. You are standing with people who have suffered, and with whom you have bonded in a way that hardly any other exercise can compare. Some people pile a cairn of rocks at the summit. My friend Steve unfurled the state flag of Colorado for a group picture. Dupree did a handstand, and one girl took a picture of herself holding a picture of two other people, why I didn’t ask. You feel the need to do something symbolic, standing up there, and I did. I had a picture taken with my daughter, a vetted mountaineer.



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