TWO WEEKENDS AGO I travelled up the same mountain twice, doing it two days apart. Both visits began before dawn, both visits provided incredible scenic drama, and both took me to the summit. But only one of the two ‘meant’ anything. Only one will last in my memory.
The mountain that I visited is a mountain that I’ve been spending all year visiting. It’s the closest 14,000-foot peak to Denver; a mountain undergoing a change of name (because we now know better than to celebrate genocide and its instigators).
Since New Year’s Day I’ve been heading to its valleys, cirques, ridges, forests and summits at least once every week. For the past thirty weeks I’ve been wandering across it slowly and deliberately, stopping often to camp and remain still, attempting to see it from all angles and to experience it in all its moods. I’ve poked into many of its nooks and crannies, and I’ve visited its popular places and hidden corners – all in an attempt to really get to know it, to essentially have a relationship with it and see what changes through doing this – even if it’s a relationship that can only ever be one-sided.
Or… can mountains give back in a relationship? Well, perhaps that’s a subject for another blog and another time!
Because the mountain rises so close to a metro area of three-million people, and because Colorado draws visitors from far and wide, the mountain is visited each year by countless thousands. Some climb the mountain under their own steam, but the majority come by car during the short summer, following a road to the summit – a route ‘celebrated’ by some as America’s highest paved highway, although not celebrated by me. (Accepted perhaps, tolerated maybe, ignored when possible, but not celebrated. Honestly, and arguably selfishly, if it were removed I’d celebrate that!)
Undoubtedly, visiting a 14,000-foot summit is a special experience no matter if is reached by car or by foot. Such an above-it-all pinnacle is a rare thing in most people’s lives, and it can prompt a range of reactions, stir many different emotions, expand horizons, introduce possibilities, and even change a life’s trajectory, regardless of how it’s reached. I have no doubt whatsoever that a great many car borne visitors benefit immensely from their experience, and even leave the summit changed. I’ve seen evidence of these benefits in their summit smiles and in the stories and photos that are often shared. For many, the road might be the only way they can reach the top – and I certainly I don’t begrudge anyone their summit experience. Arguably, there is no right or wrong way to reach a summit, or no ‘best’ way to experience it. And yet, for me personally, how I get to the top can make all the difference in the world – as my two visits last weekend showed.
For my first visit I drove. I accepted that as the road existed I might as well try it out, eased myself into the family car at 4 a.m., steered it up twisting mountain roads until I was 8,000 feet higher, and at 5.20 a.m. stepped back out, transported from a mild semi-desert foothills environment into a biting-cold alpine world with ridiculous ease.
The summit view was stupendous as one might expect (well, stupendous once a thick shroud of fog had cleared, which, as the time for sunrise approached and then passed, appeared to be in real doubt!) But, eventually, from my perch at 14,264-feet, I was able to gaze around at a 360-degree panorama that stretched across mountains and ridges to yet more mountains and ridges and on to far-distant horizons, and across a drifting sea of morning cloud – tattered remnants from the previous night’s thunderstorms. It was a scene of colour, light, and motion, and of depth, immensity and drama, and as a spectacle it was quite something – the kind of extraordinary something that ought to have prompted awe if not rapture – but, to my surprise, I found myself barely moved.
Which was concerning. Was it, I wondered, because I’d been up too many mountains over the past thirty-five years? Had I become jaded from over-exposure to ‘the extraordinary’? Had mountains lost their power to awe me? Goodness I hoped not. I live for mountains and wild nature. For how they elevate life. For how they balance it and complete it. But what if these places now left me feeling flat?
Of course, I still ‘appreciated’ the view. I’m a photographer, and so I still took photos. And as a tiny human animal I still marveled at how unfathomably high and away-from-it-all 14,000-feet can feel. And as someone who knows the value of gratitude, I still focused on how fortunate I was to have such a place so accessibly close to home. But the emptiness rattling around inside was disconcerting. It was almost as though I wasn’t really present on the summit, or as though the summit wasn’t real, as though it were merely an image on a screen. When I returned to the car and began the drive back downhill I couldn’t shake the idea that I’d somehow failed, or that I’d lost something precious.
And after all, during previous visits I’d seen plenty of other people up on the summit smiling broadly, even those who’d come by car – people who were visibly moved. Evidently then, the failure had to be mine.
For the second visit, two days later, I walked.
I went, this time, with a good friend, and our plan was essentially ‘take two’ on a plan we’d originally attempted four months earlier. Back in mid March we’d wallowed up Mount Bierstadt through deep snow, aiming to follow the infamous Sawtooth ridge from its summit and possibly continue to its higher neighbor. But we hadn’t succeeded. Brutal hurricane-force winds had turned the ascent into a barely-winnable struggle and the Sawtooth ridge into an exceedingly unwise proposition. This ridge is exposed and difficult even when dry in summer – in a winter windstorm it could prove deadly. (See my blog HERE for that winter visit) We retreated, leaving the ridge for another day.
That day had now come.
This time, the walk up Bierstadt was as close to ‘a piece of cake’ as a walk up a 14,000-foot peak can ever be. Winds were light, temperatures were cool but comfortable, and the route was almost entirely free of snow. The climb that had taken us five-plus hours in winter took just one hour and forty-five minutes – and that was without rushing.
And yet, it still took effort. We still had to deliberately place one foot before the other, and fight gravity with each stride, and suck hard on the oxygen-depleted air, and keep on going when an inner voice of reason continuously urged us to sit down and take a long break. ‘Peace of cake’ is just a relative term. Bierstadt’s summit was still a place that had to be worked for – that had to be earned.
Conditions when we’d set out at 6 a.m. had been gloomily overcast, with fog smothering the mountains above 13,000 feet, but by the time we reached the summit change was literally in the air. The forecast had called for clearing clouds – and clear they did, with a sudden brightening, with a burst of sunlight, followed by a hint of a rainbow-hued Brocken spectre that glowed luminously on the clouds beneath, followed by the summit fog breaking apart and dropping away to leave us standing in clear air above the kind of scenic drama that two days earlier had left me cold, but this time left me grinning and grinning and grinning…
It was an extraordinary moment. A gift from the summit gods.
And that was merely start. The jagged-edged multi-toothed Sawtooth ridge that followed was the ‘right kind’ of adventure: difficult enough to be challenging and engaging, but not to the point of fear.
My friend began it with a descent of a steeply-pitched snowfield that reminded me too much of my 1993 accident on Switzerland’s Hohtürli Pass and the snow slope that had almost ended my life, but I found an easy workaround on (mostly) solid rock, and after that we scrambled onward in delight along the narrow ridge, with plummeting drops either side but with no chance of falling into them. For the next forty-five minutes or so life was just about perfect.
After successfully navigating the Sawtooth ridge we continued onward to the summit that I’d driven up only two days earlier. We trekked across a high plateau, then left the standard route and picked our own line along another high, narrow, and rocky ridge. Traversing this involved several ‘almost’ climbing moves up bulging slabs, and then a glorious stroll along a promenade of textured granite that was perched high above the entire world, or so it seemed. Clouds still drifted about the crags on either side, warm sunlight brightened the scene, and companionship added an extra element that many of my walks lack. The half-mile scramble along the ridge could not have been better. In truth, I don’t believe any of this year’s many half-mile stretches have been more rewarding than this one.
As it happened, the ridge was so rewarding that once we reached its highest point we both agreed not to continue on to the mountain’s highest point, the actual summit. Partly, it was because clouds were forming to the west and darkening ominously, and with storms forecast for noon onward we didn’t want to linger on exposed ground any longer than we needed to. Partly, it was because we’d both visited the mountain’s actual summit several times before. But most of all, it was because our high point was so much wilder than the mountain’s highest point. The actual summit was diminished by what could be seen directly below it – the road, the parking lot, the clutter of buildings – but these ugly intrusions were out of sight from our airy perch. Our summit was only eight feet lower, a tiny difference in altitude compared with the mountain’s entire mass, and because it was unmarred it felt like the mountain’s real summit. Finishing our climb there seemed like the right thing to do.
We sat for a short while before descending, taking it all in. For my part, I couldn’t help but compare the churning emotions of accomplishment and awe that I was now feeling with the blank nothingness I’d suffered two days previously. I was standing atop the very same mountain, and yet I might have been atop an entirely different peak. This time, it felt emphatically real.
As I stood there, I wondered why it felt so real this time and not before, and I’ve considered it more since, and I’ve concluded that it wasn’t different because I was standing in a slightly different spot, or because the road was hidden, or because I was sharing the summit with a friend. At least, I don’t believe so. No, I believe it was different and more real and more meaningful because this summit had been earned and the other summit had come far too easily. It was as simple – and as complex – as that.
Reaching this summit had been a journey, a journey that had begun with failure back in March’s savage winter winds and had continued today, months later, on this dramatic climb across rock and through shifting clouds. It was a journey that had involved hours of physical effort across rough ground, and significant mental effort, too, with taking on the Sawtooth ridge – a ridge I’d been nervously anticipating for months, not knowing how I’d handle the exposure or the difficulties. There’d been unknowns, several of them: the weather, the terrain, and most of all myself. There’d be no guarantee of success. Failure – retreat again – had been a real possibility. But we’d succeeded, and the previous failure only made this success all the sweeter. Failure is an undervalued gift of inestimable value. So is difficulty. The harder you have to work for something the more valuable it becomes. That is a guarantee!
And this summit felt real because we’d inched our way up it, one breathe, step and handhold at a time. Its immense size and glacier-sculpted shape, and its textures and details, were known to us now from intimate contact, from being directly experienced and measured with our senses, and from being assessed by innate instincts that, for several intense hours, had been working as they should be working. How different this was as an experience from sitting comfortably in a car, with windows and a heater keeping the cold at bay, divorced from the earth, letting a machine do all the work! On foot, we were fully alive, fully engaged with the natural world, using the bodies, minds, instincts and abilities that evolution has gifted us. No wonder the mountain felt real now, fake before.
It was a reminder of a similar experience a quarter of a century earlier on one of the most extraordinary days of my life: Nordkapp Day, October 18, 1998. That was when I’d reached the North Cape at the top of Norway after 7,000 miles of walking and almost eighteen months of adventure. The North Cape is a much-visited headland, and no doubt means different things to different people – having great value to some, lesser value perhaps to others. But for me, on Nordkapp Day, the headland meant everything! It had become more than just another place, more than a mere tourist destination easily reached – it had become all the summits of the world rolled into one, a summit of value beyond measure. The year and a half of effort I’d put into reaching it had changed it from what it might have been had I arrived by car. How I’d got there had made all the difference in the world.
And now: how I’d reached this summit made all the difference, too. It was something that the builders of roads, the pavers of tundra, the layers of rail track, the constructors of visitor centres, the commercializors of the wild, and the seekers of tourist dollars, would likely never understand.
I stared around in delight, feeling moved, awed, liberated, elevated. Mountains hadn’t lost their power. Far from it! I needn’t have worried. But I was glad, now, that I had felt a smidgen of doubt and worry after that first visit by car. These so-called negative emotions have value too, just like difficulty, just like failure, . They reminded me that my approach mattered. They reminded me that choice is everything – both among mountains and in life beyond them.
Choose how we get somewhere and we choose what kind of place that somewhere is. Choose our approach, and a cheaply-earned summit can become extraordinarily valuable. Choose our approach, and life itself can shine – as two startlingly different yet identical summits reminded me.