Up to the challenge in the Rocky Mountains

Colorado: Climbing Pikes Peak and Mount Bierstadt, and learning some life lessons.

Destination: The West

October 10, 1999|By Kate Shatzkin | Kate Shatzkin,Sun Staff

The trip was jinxed from the start.

For two years, in point of fact. Ever since our small band of would-be mountain climbers planned to scale Pikes Peak on the Fourth of July 1997.

What could be more patriotic? Climbing the well-worn trail up the mountain that inspired "America the Beautiful," we'd be doing that particularly American thing -- hard stuff (climbing 12 miles and 7,000 feet up) the relatively easy way.

That was before Candy's dad died and Ernie's back went out and other events cropped up to delay the trip -- in July 1997 and again in July 1998.

So at the end of June 1999, our airline reservations changed yet again for the Fourth of Julyy, we all began to tread cautiously. We checked ourselves daily for injuries -- especially my fiance John, the only member of the original crew who had not yet been responsible for a postponement.

When the day of departure arrived with us intact, we thought perhaps the gods were smiling. This would be fun -- we'd conquer one of Colorado's "fourteeners," the closest 14,000-foot mountains to Baltimore. Colorado has 54 of them, and of course some souls won't have lived until they've climbed all 54.

And then we met Mount Bierstadt. That's where we really learned about fourteeners -- about the altitude that renders you breathlessly invincible and stupid; about climbing right on past your fears and doubts and protective inhibitions, to a top where there is no snack bar; about travel that's more than physical.

In the end, Bierstadt taught us something unexpected about Pikes Peak -- that maybe the best way to climb a fourteener is to start from the top.

Mount Bierstadt

Bierstadt was Ernie's idea.

Anything regarding mountains is bound to be. At 62 he is a true believer, a soft-spoken anti-leader whose gentle ways have surprising force in woods and on trails.

Soon after we arrived in Denver to stay a few days and acclimate to being a mile high, Ernie pulled out a mountaineering book. Its binder torn and pages falling out, its copyright reading 1978, the volume by Robert M. Ormes described Bierstadt almost in passing, as if a walk up it was nothing.

Named for the artist Albert Bierstadt, romantic painter of mountains, our mountain looked merely like a pretty way station on the way to Mount Evans, its more challenging neighbor. It would be an ideal place for us to prepare for the odyssey of climbing Pikes Peak.

But from the foot of Guanella Pass, the 11,000-foot point to which one can drive before beginning the six-mile round-trip climb to the summit, Bierstadt looked far different. Insurmountable, in a word.

It's hard to know how being two miles high will affect you. Some get sick. Some get stupid. After two days of adjusting in Denver, the Mile High City, I felt weirdly strong, as if fighting to fill my lungs with thin air was somehow cleansing. As we fought our way through "the Willows," a swampy section of so-called trail that snakes through an endless thicket of bushes, we began to stop every 30 steps. Then every 20.

For Candy, who has asthma, the combination of swampy plants and mountain air constricted her lungs so badly that she was forced to stop at 12,000 feet.

Meanwhile, other climbers -- we guessed they were Coloradans accustomed to the altitude -- scampered by us as if bopping up a mall escalator. As we neared the top, going slower and slower, a fit blonde complained to her flagging companion: "I want you to suck it up. Everyone on this mountain is tired."

But that didn't begin to describe how we felt. In my short denim shorts, I was chilled to the bone, and increasingly unable to focus. John was so dizzy he had to hug a jutting rock. Ernie, we later learned, was developing double vision and keeping it secret.

And now, at the top of a ridge that had looked from below like a hop and a skip from the summit, we faced a narrow cliff that jutted steeply upward, blanketed by a snowfield that appeared none too stable. To our oxygen-deprived brains, it looked to be its own separate mountain, on which one false step could spell disaster.

I said I'd like to turn back.

"Fine with me," said John.

"Me, too," said Bob.

Ernie paused, looked down, and said: "I'd like to try."

It was a sentence remarkable for its psychological architecture. 'I" -- but we couldn't let him go alone, could we? "Would" -- of course, only if we agreed. "Like" -- c'mon, don't disappoint me. "To try" -- the essence of a reasonable request.

How could we turn him down?

I led the way, promptly plunging my bare leg deep into a snowbank.

The cursing began.

About an hour later, we had touched the geodetic survey marker at the 14,060-foot top of Bierstadt. Five minutes later, we were headed down, mindful of the icy winds and unpredictable clouds that have caught many a euphoric summiteer off guard at the tops of mountains.

And several hours later, we all made it to the bottom, where a hiker from Alaska had written on the register: "Sick TD," meaning "to death." "Lost my mojo," another entry read.

Pikes Peak

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