I never understood why my dad made us climb mountains with him while I was growing up, or even, for that matter, why he wanted to do it himself. Nothing is truly as irksome when you are an adolescent as donating your precious weekends to go traipsing around some mountains with your parents. Unless your name is Heidi, and then you’ve got other problems like: “Why is everything black and white?” and “where my goats at?”. Curse you, Fraulein Rottenmeier!
In Colorado, there are fifty-three mountains that rise in elevation beyond 14,000 feet, called “Fourteeners”. My dad first began climbing them sometime in the 1970s, and continued climbing them as my sister and I grew. He has climbed 51 of the 53, and my sister and I have reluctantly climbed about 12 of them with him. You know something is bad when you spend half the day looking forward to a can of cold tamales that you are going to eat if you ever make it to the top.
During high school I was usually sent to spend the summers living with my grandmother in Ohio. It was during one of these summers that my dad almost died while climbing a Fourteener alone. To avoid being caught in a lightning storm while descending the Maroon Bells, he had taken a shortcut across a glacier. He knew he had to get down as fast as possible, even if it meant crossing the steep glacier without any real climbing equipment. He had no ice axe or ropes, or spiky things on his boots. It was just my dad and some pointy rock he found to stab the ice as he shimmied across. He ended up falling about halfway to the other side, then sliding about 2000 feet, nearly to his death. Right before a complete drop-off, he hit the only boulder outcropping for 300 yards, flipped over into a sun-pit on the other side, and snapped his left humerus in half. Search and Rescue had to airlift him out in a basket because his arm was broken so badly he couldn’t balance himself to climb out on his own, and it was still too steep for a helicopter to land.
After that, I decided that I never wanted to let my dad climb by himself again. I reasoned that if something awful were to happen to him, even if I couldn’t prevent it, at least I would be there with him when it happened. Even though I still hated Fourteeners, and climbing in general, I begrudgingly forced myself to do it. Since then, we have climbed maybe four or five more Fourteeners together, the most difficult of them all being Capitol Peak.
Capitol Peak is deceitfully only the 29th highest of Colorado’s 14,000-foot peaks at 14,130 feet. It was July of 1994 the first time we tried to climb it. We hiked an older route starting up from the west side, because my dad’s handbook on Fourteeners was printed when he had started climbing them. This means we were following a trail courtesy of the year 1975. Twenty-one years before, the west side was the only way in, unless you were a serious climbing-type-guy, with ropes or a jetpack. The jetpack, in this example, would most likely disqualify you from claiming to have “climbed” the mountain, and definitely have provoked the ire of the climbing-type-guys.
Capitol Peak, First Attempt: We hiked in about 16 miles to what was supposed to be the base of K2, a thirteen-thousand-something-foot peak next to Capitol, and set up our tent and sleeping bags as a base camp. The next morning, we began hiking again to get to the base of the peak.
At first, the snow was minimal, but at our elevation of around 10,200 feet, we had a hunch that it could only get worse. It did. By the time we had ascended another 1000 feet, the snow was waist high. We were ill-prepared for such weather. To be honest, we were usually ill-prepared. It was unusual for July 3rd to have waist-deep snow, but hey, Colorado can be like that, especially in the mountains. So, we kept going until we realized the absolute impossibility of even making it to the mountain we were supposed to be climbing, and we turned back.
Before we reached our tent, a fresh snow had begun to fall, and as we descended, the storm intensified. By the time we crawled in our sleeping bags, they were sopping wet. It was nearly dark, and the tent was almost completely covered with a fresh six inches of the wet, heavy, summer snow we had been fighting all day. The tent stood in about two or three inches of water, but it was too dark, and we were too tired, to pack anything up. That Fourth of July will always be remembered as the day my father and I spent two days in our freezing-cold sleeping bags, waiting for the sun to come out so that we could try for Capitol Peak again. We finally just broke down, packed up, and hiked the 16 miles back out through the snow. Any hotel or motel would have looked good at that point. There could have been dead bodies and cockroaches with AIDS falling out of the doors, and we would have considered it only to be dry again. We stumbled into the nearest one we could find, somewhere in Leadville. Round-trip we had hiked about 40 miles.
Capitol Peak, Second Attempt: Back for more abuse, the very next year we chose a similar route, hiked in, set up our camp at nearly the same place, and began the next morning with a trek up a different valley, about a mile north of the previous year’s trail. We had briefly perused some topographical maps before we left, and saw that here was another, shorter trail. That day the hiking was great, with amazing weather, and the sun shining all day. We hiked up past a few lakes, and then above timberline, across a large boulder field, around a glacier (my dad is still terrified of any type of standing snow from his fall, so we took the long way), and up to the top of K2. It was getting late, especially by mountaineering standards, which decree that one must always be at the summit of a mountain by noon. To be exact, it was around 4:30 PM. This was noted with a passing bit of dismay, but our bad memories of the snow-tent from the year before fueled our desire to finish, even if it meant climbing in the dark a little.
What it actually meant was climbing a lot in the dark. We picked our way around the summit of K2, which as explained in the 1975 Fourteener book, should have been very simple. It wasn’t. Had we been equipped with ropes and real climbing-guy gear, the operation would have taken only a few minutes. But, alas, we weren’t. My dad loves to under-prepare-something about the adventure in it--and somehow always gets by just by the very skin of his teeth. It’s kind of his schtick. It usually makes things fun, but sometimes, as you will read later, it completely sucks. So, we slowly climbed on without ropes, hand-over-hand, to get down to the actual hard part: the Knife Edge.
Capitol Peak’s infamous Knife Edge was also described as being “easy” and “fun” by the 1975 Fourteeners Guide of Metaphorical Understatements. Crossing it was, in actuality, dragging your groin across a sharp and jutting two-inch piece of rock that spanned the distance between K2 and Capitol Peak- about 300 yards. The term “Knife Edge” is descriptive enough on its own, and needed no further explanation from those bastard authors of the climbing manual.
I need to go on record here by saying, screw the climbing people. All of them need to be given the one-fingered-peace sign right in their pretentious faces. One would have to peruse several of the world’s most overblown and conceited country clubs to find such an arrogant collection of rich, self-inflated, douchebags. EVERY time I have climbed a Fourteener, at least one of them has to brag about his or her own climbing prowess, or how you are, in fact, stupid, and doing it wrong. Who spends thousands of dollars on backpacks, rope, ice-axes, boots, and food to do something that people have been doing for thousands of years with some crap they just made? Native Americans climbed all of those Fourteeners for so many years before these guys got there with their REI credit cards and latent frat-guy jargon. And all of them want to make sure that you know you are beneath them for whatever lackluster attempt at climbing you are barely making. If only Colorado had an ocean, so these guys could go back to yachting, or whatever the heck else they do. (Rant mostly over.)
So the Knife Edge had a very splendid view, and a lovely 2000-foot drop on either side, where one could bounce a few times while plummeting to an untimely death. All this could transpire just on the off chance that one’s legs were to cramp up and give out after climbing all day, or one shifted one’s weight slightly in an attempt to not have one’s groin pierced by sharp rocks. We literally crawled across on our stomachs, legs splayed over the point, for all three or four hundred yards of it. Imagine being exhausted from hiking for two days, and then enduring two straight hours of almost dying. It was without question the most terrifying thing I had experienced in my life up to that point- at least until later that night.
After crossing the Knife Edge (which every single, stupid, climbing book describes as “infamous”. Seriously, screw the climbing guys. (Rant complete.), I looked at my watch, and realized that it was 6:30 PM, two-and-a-half hours before sundown, and we still had at least two hours left to get to the top. “Dad,” I said, “I don’t really want to climb that Knife Edge in the dark. I think we should turn back.” He reluctantly agreed, and with no more than two or three hundred feet of elevation left to climb, we turned back. It got dark as we descended the boulder field below the glacier. For some reason I had thought to bring a flashlight, but it was little help with all the shadows that it created amongst the boulders. My father reasoned that there was a flat spot below, and that we could just huddle together for the night on it, if we could just slowly pick our way through the boulders. There was nowhere to stop that you wouldn’t somehow be getting poked by something pointy. Every place you could sit was sharp and cold, so we kept going.
Two hours later, we made it to that flat spot. It was a nice, mossy, dry area, that we reasoned would be better than spending the night climbing, or somewhere in the boulders. So we laid back to back, and put every piece of clothing we had on to try and stave off the cold at what was about 13,000 feet. It worked for less than an hour, as we both soon awoke to the chattering teeth of the other.
Again we decided to climb, this time, just to see if our bodies would warm up from the exercise. We were both exhausted, but felt better from the warmth that came soon after we started out again. When we reached the lakes we had passed, an almost-full moon was shining bright enough to cast shadows, so we retired my dying flashlight. It was for this very reason that we made the insane decision to climb around the other side of both lakes, to try and stay in the moonlight, as opposed to taking the trail which was in the shadow of another mountain peak. What we ended up taking was the opposite of a trail. The thing that we had decided to climb on, soon became a narrow ledge of a cliff face that hung at least twenty feet above two freezing-cold glacial lakes. Had either one of us fallen off, and were it deep enough to not break our necks, we would have experienced almost instant hypothermia in the near-freezing water. Okay, so maybe one climbing-type guy would have been helpful at this point. You know, to pull out his 3 oz four person, cliff-hanging tent, and brew some espresso on his thumbnail-sized camp stove. He could then lecture us on why we should always climb with night-vision goggles. Oh, the fun and merriment!
Luckily we did not fall, as we climbed handhold by handhold to the other side, for two more hours until we were low enough to finally be in the trees, and out of the chill of the wind. We both agreed that it was warm enough in the trees to sleep, and that it was too dangerous to keep going, so we put down our packs using them for pillows. We were dreaming within moments.
After about two fantastic hours of forest sleep, we awoke to the bright morning sun, streaming in from the east, and picked the twigs and leaves out of our backs. We lumbered sleepily down to the tent, packed everything up, and continued to hike out the 16 miles back to our car, swearing under our breath the whole time at that incredibly wicked and evil mountain. Round-trip: 44 miles.
Capitol Peak, Third Attempt: After the shock of the previous year, we became suddenly wise and I went on the interwebs and bought a modern version of the Fourteener guide. It still had all the jejune claptrap about the Knife Edge being “fun”, and all the total bullcrap about “alternate, more challenging” routes, but it also had a new shorter route, over what had previously been private land in the 70s and therefore not mentioned in my dad’s now retired climbing guide.
We climbed the 12 miles in to what would be our new base camp, noticing all the while that this route was much more frequented (did no one else use the 1975 special?), and much easier. My dad has lived in Phoenix for the past fifteen years so he goes slower due to the altitude, (and I’m not saying this this to be mean, Dad), but he is getting old and that, too, slows him down.
We reached the designated area for a base camp, got a good night’s sleep, and started out very early the next morning. Everything was going great. We made the peak of K2 before noon (Take that, climbing-guys!), and inched our way across the stupid Knife Edge with great enthusiasm at our fortune that morning. But again, it was not to be. Just after we had crossed it, a storm front moved in. You can certainly climb in just about every type of weather: snow, rain, hail, or sleet, but if there is lightning, there is no going forward. There is no better conductor of electricity above timberline than a human being. You know you’re in trouble when you can feel the hair on the back of your neck actually start to stand up. We both felt it, and began clambering right back over the Knife Edge with about six other climbers, making it back to timberline just in time for the rain to hit. After the previous year, we had decided to bring our sleeping bags, but alas, the tent was still about four miles downhill from us. I had some fishing line in my backpack, and with pine branches and a few trees I strung together the world’s worst lean-to. It might have caused my old Boy Scout leader to die of shock, and then subsequently roll over in his grave, but we made it through the night in it, and even got about four hours of sleep, only to hike back out in the morning. Round-trip: 42 miles.
Capitol Peak, Fourth Attempt: The fourth time I climbed Capitol Peak was the most uneventful, except for the part where we signed the roll of paper in the copper cylinder that resides at the top of all of Colorado’s Fourteeners, and except for the small rock I took from the very highest point of the peak making it about an inch shorter. It was a fair trade, I felt, for aging me by about 20 years. The climb was hard and the Knife Edge was still terrifying on my third time through. The rest of the ascent was really no better than the Knife Edge had been. Less pointy, but steeper, with more loose rocks and a longer drop. But we made it, and the next day as we climbed out and up the short ascent from the valley to our car, I looked back at what had been the hardest thing I had ever experienced in my life up to that point. And yes, I swore. It was a beautiful sight, even for Colorado: a snow-capped peak above the stunningly verdant magnificent world below.
What happened at that moment, as I paused, was that I finally realized why my father climbed. Sure, the mountains were beautiful, some of the most glorious scenery in the world, but that wasn’t it. Neither was the extremely strenuous exercise a completely good enough reason. It was because it was difficult. At times almost too difficult. My dad climbs mountains to know what he is made of. To know what he is better than. And by God, one of those things is finally Capitol Peak.