Dawn was just breaking as we approached treeline, revealing the towering peaks that surround South Colony Lakes. The uphill march at 12,000 feet is never easy for me, and even for the guys who are more used to this sort of thing, it’s work.
The payoff, of course, is the scenery. It gets more dramatic and memorable the higher you go. The effort it takes to climb a mountain, the skills that some of these peaks demand, and the conclusion of a successful ascent demands repeat performances. It’s easy to get hooked on this stuff.
But it comes with a cost.
I’ve hiked with Mike a couple of times. We were part of a big backpacking group that marched into Colorado’s Weminuche Wilderness a few years back. We bagged Mount Eolus and North Eolus on a brilliant August day, but more memorable than the mountain was the man. Bright, funny, irreverent and fun. We swore we’d get together again.
Years later, it was Mike, me and Bill, our eyes on summits surrounding South Colony Lakes in the northern Sangre de Cristo Mountains. In between the jokes and general banter about the peaks that were on our minds was a bit of honesty. Mike was feeling a little guilt.
It takes time to do these things. If you’re an occasional peak-bagger like myself, it’s not as severe. But for those trying to climb all of Colorado’s 14ers, or something more ambitious (the Centennials, the Bi-Centennials, and for the super-obsessed, maybe all of the Colorado 13ers), the pursuit of mountains consumes precious time. The drive time to get to trailheads is measured in hours. Approach hikes can be lengthy. If multiple peaks are sought in one outing, you could be out there for a few days. Each trip consumes weekends, vacations and other free time that might be filled with other things that involve other people.
The fact is a lot of us dive into these endeavors without our loved ones. Even if there is a shared passion here, there are times when schedules or goals are mismatched from time to time. Risk tolerances may differ. So do skill levels, fitness and a ton of other variables that will have one person heading into the hills while another stays home, left to watch the kids, feed the dogs or figure out what to do on consecutive nights when we’re out there getting our altitude fix.
These were the things Mike had on his mind. His wife Maggie enjoys the high country, too, but isn’t always up for yet another weekend of thin air, dirt, sweat and soreness. Not as often as he is, anyway.
And there is also the presence of objective risk in the mountains. I’ve been lucky that my family doesn’t give me too much grief about this stuff, but there was one instance when I’d planned to climb a more difficult mountain at the same time my eldest brother was in need of a bone marrow transplant. I heard loud and clear that I should hold off on any climbs until we knew if I was donor match. Translation: If you die on that mountain and could have saved your brother’s life, it would be a double tragedy.
I stayed home from that one. But I’m sure the worries from loved ones are still there with every trip. They’re just not voiced, or at least not as urgently.
In the back of my mind, I know that I’ll probably be safe on the mountains I like to hike and climb. But I also know that nothing is guaranteed. A couple of weeks back, a man died on one of the easier 14er hikes out there, the east ridge of Quandary Peak. He died of a heart attack. Other fatalities have nothing to do with the climber. Rockfall happens at random, and can kill. Entire sections of a mountain have been known to slide off, carrying unlucky climbers with them. When these thing happen, people get hurt. Or die. Most injuries and deaths are caused by bad judgment (not reading the weather, stumbling into avalanche zones, or inexperience/overconfidence on difficult terrain), but sometimes bad things happen randomly when people are in the way. It’s way safer to not go, and spare our loved ones the worry or, when the worst happens, picking up the pieces when we suffer serious injury or death.
These are costs. Costs of time, angst, money and grief. All for an activity that has only selfish value. So why do we bother, given the steepness of the price?
A few years back, I wrote a piece titled “Five reasons why you should climb a mountain.” Looking back on it, I still agree with every word I wrote. But I would simplify it.
We do it because it makes us feel more alive. The mountain experience is visceral. The commitment to go there, the physical hardship, those objective risks — all of those combine to make your blood pump a little harder, altitude notwithstanding. Pushing yourself to do something you doubt you could do is a rush. The joke is that you hate yourself for getting into these adventures and the difficulties and pain they bring, but by the time you’re back at the trailhead, the gears in your mind are already turning, wondering what new mountain outing you can dream up. Get bit by this bug and you might just develop a feverish obsession.
By the end of the day, Mike, Bill and I got what we came for. We got to tick off a few more summits from whatever list we were pursuing, snagged some incredible summit photos and spent ourselves physically in ways that don’t happen anywhere else. We eventually made our way home, back to the people we care about and the everyday obligations of life. We’ll end up taking care of the routine business, spend time with others doing non-mountain stuff and do so in ways that don’t worry our families. But we ask for some patience. Sooner or later, we’ll be back in the mountains. It’s not something we have to do, but damn close to it.