After gaining the shoulder of Mount Spalding’s lower flanks, I got treated to something I’ve never seen before.
“Gonna make this mountain my bitch!”
And with that, my hiking partner for the day started running up the slope.
Did I mention we were near 13,000 feet at that point?
If there is any single moment that would describe both the day and the man, that would be the one. This was the first time I’d seen Animal — that’s the name he goes by these days — in several years. Back when I first knew him, he was a skinny little college kid. Today he’s a rocked-out Brazilian jiu-jitsu brown belt, personal trainer, Internet entrepreneur and night club bouncer. Animal is many things, but the one constant is intensity.
Nothing he does his half-assed, and such was the case when we started doing our Mount Spalding-to-Mount Evans traverse last week. Animal is a guy with a lot of plans and dreams, and one of those dates back many years. We talked about it a lot on the drive up into the mountains west of Denver, stories read in books about men testing themselves in the mountains. He’s been dying to get into the game.
The trick was finding the right peak. I was in need of getting some work in at elevation; Animal was just wanting to stand on a tall summit. Mount Evans, the grand 14,264-foot peak overlooking Denver, fit the bill.
Evans is easily accessible, and is actually one of those rare mountains where a road can take you to a spot just short of the top. A lot of tourists do just that.
At the same time, it’s a complicated mountain. When the snow is in, there are numerous snow climbs that can get you to the summit. All of them are steep.
You can also hike straight up its eastern side from the north or the south, or go up to the top after summiting nearby Mount Bierstadt and scrambling across the dramatic Sawtooth Ridge that connects the two.
We chose to go up Evans’ west ridge via Mount Spalding, an unranked 13er that’s part of the Evans massif. Parking at Summit Lake, the whole loop picks up about 2,000 feet of elevation in 4.25 miles.
We got a late start and clouds had rolled in. This worried me for awhile but this amounted to little more than dramatic cloudcover and cool, breezy conditions.
By the time we gained Spalding’s summit, the rest of the route came into view. Evans is not a mountain that sparked my imagination much – the idea of a road leading to the top takes the romance out of it. But like any of Colorado’s high peaks, I always end up being surprised by what I see.
The cliffs below the top are sheer and dramatic. Views from the summit ridge reveal some old friends of mine: Bierstadt is right next door (and it looks so different when viewed from the east) while Grays and Torreys loom in the distance. Further away, the distinctive east slopes of Quandary Peak come into view.
The visuals of Evans energized me, but it was a different story for Animal. Physical and mental challenge – and coming out on the winning side – power this guy.
I told him, given the weather conditions, that we would successfully tag Evans’ summit only if the mountain let us. He disagreed, hence the insistence on making Evans “our bitch.”
When I think about it, it makes a lot of sense from his perspective. Combat sports are a part of his life. We discussed that quite a bit during our drive up and back – the feeling of fear, excitement and anticipation when you step into the cage and the gate swings closed behind you. There’s no way out at that point. You simply have to go through your opponent or he will go through you.
Most of us don’t live in that world. Our lives growing up are easier, perhaps. Our jobs are tame, sitting behind a desk pounding a keyboard. Life at home is stable, typical.
But when you make your living cracking the skulls of drunk idiots at a club, or train for months on end to test yourself in a fighting arena the size of a small living room, the way you look at life is a little different from everyone else. In this scenario, the methods of tackling physical and mental challenges are less Zen and more Fight Club.
It’s funny that I ended up being the guide in this trip, because I’d never been up this mountain before, and sure enough, I led us to the wrong summit. A short descent and scramble up and we found Evans’ true summit. We were joined by non-hikers there, people who had driven the Mount Evans Road to the parking lot less than 100 feet below.
Going there, we mingled for a bit with the tourists. I ran up on an Asian family taking in the views when a little girl in the group stared at me, then pointed off to her right. I looked, and there they were – the true denizens of the mountains, a family of mountain goats less than 20 feet away. I got to within 5 feet of them and snapped of few photos; they seemed unconcerned.
Descending toward the lake, we eventually made out way back to the car and down to Idaho Springs for a well-earned dinner at Tommyknockers, a restaurant and microbrewery that’s a favorite destination for people who like hiking these hills. High-calorie eats and tasty brews led to conversations about big dreams, mainly those in the mountains. With Evans under his belt, Animal is thinking about other, more famous peaks.
That’s a theme in this dude’s life; conquer one challenge, look for the next, tougher feat. It’s a long road from a Colorado walk-up 14er to mountains like Rainier or Denali, but at the same time making that journey has to start somewhere. It also takes time, money and experience in the high country to get to the point where you’re standing atop the real big boys of mountaineering, but here’s the deal: the most important thing you need is mental toughness.
It’s no accident that Animal had his headphones going, listening to the same hard-charging music that blared out of the loudspeakers when he made his way toward the cage in his last fight. Life has been a battle for this guy, and the way he has tackled it has been simple: Step into the ring, hear the gate close behind you and stare your opponent in the eye just before you do everything in your power to put him to sleep.
If that is what it takes to get you to the top, then so be it. I’m sure that time will eventually hone his mentality into a more nuanced approach when it comes to gaining summits. It has to. But until then, use what you’ve got. Animal’s brief career in the 14ers is 1-0.
ABOUT THE ROUTE: From Summit Lake, follow the trail north, then west up the slopes of Mount Spalding. The hiking starts steep, then gradually eases to Spalding’s summit at 13,842 feet. Follow the cairned trail down to the saddle between Spalding and Evans. The trail will take you to the southwest slopes before turning slightly northeast. The terrain here is more rugged but is well cairned. The Mount Evans Road parking lot will come into view, and the route eases into a switchback trail that leads to the summit. To descend, go to the parking lot’s north side and drop down into a trail that leads down toward the road, which eventually leads you back to the Summit Lake parking lot. Route difficulty is Class 2, with second-class exposure.
GETTING THERE: From Interstate 70, take Exit 240 at Idaho Springs. Follow State Highway 103 to the entrance of Mount Evans Road. It costs $10 to gain entrance. Follow Mount Evans Road 9 miles to Summit Lake.
EXTRA CREDIT: There are numerous routes to Evans’ summit, either by snow gullies on its north face, or from the west at Guanella Pass, either up Evans directly or through the Bierstadt-Evans combo over the Sawtooth Ridge.
On Twitter @RMHigh7088