Stones of Remembrance

It is an unnamed ridge between Cleveland and Tijeras Peaks in the Sangre De Cristo range in Colorado.  There is a stacked stone structure there that my father had told me for years is what forest service “sheep herders” would use as an observation shelter as they reintroduced mountain sheep into the area after a disease had all but wiped out the herd.  The loosely stacked stone wall was only a couple of feet tall at its highest point.  I suppose they used it as a blind or a wind break which would be necessary at thirteen thousand feet above sea level.  It could have been left by wandering aboriginal first-people for all we knew.

We had spent many hours on an exposed slope; an arduous task for grown men much less twelve and fifteen year old boys on their first significant wilderness trip.  The packs were heavy, our feet were sore and our hands were raw from clinging to the course granite while we traversed the fifteen hundred foot slope.

When we approached the nexus of the two mountains, dark clouds had banked up over the Spanish Peaks to the southeast.  Most all threatening weather came from the west as the warm and moist air rested in the San Luis Valley and then gathered strength to power up and ascend the steep and rugged slopes of the Sangres.  I had been looking over my shoulder at the valley all afternoon as we picked our way across the tundra and scree. No sign of bad weather at all so I was surprised to see angry anvil-shaped cumulonimbus clouds in the east when we topped out the ridge.

I could tell Walsenburg was getting pounded pretty hard.  Flashes of lightning danced horizontally along the cloud wall.   Thunder rumbled and felt almost subterranean.  As I caught my breath at the crest of the ridge and watched the storm in the distance, I expected it to move east out over the plains of Colorado.  It was slow moving.  It was building strength.

Let’s get our camp set up over there by that stone wall, I said to the boys.  They were only too eager to stop for the evening.  We had an incredible view, a good source of water and a flat piece of alpine tundra to pitch their dome tent.  I would stretch a rainfly over the stone wall enclave in case it rained during the night.

The slanting rays of the evening sun behind San Juan Mountains and across the San Luis Valley caused the undulating glacier moraines to rise from the valley floor like God’s relief map.  I made our last supper of the trip and we sat on our sleeping mattresses, sipped hot drinks and watched the flashing electrical storm to the east.  We talked about the fish we had caught at Deadman Lakes, our favorite meals of the week, the hardest part of the hike, and what we were going to eat once we got back to Westcliffe and civilization.  A big juicy cheeseburger was the consensus along with a chocolate milk shake.

Then we noticed the thunder was getting louder, and a few pea-sized rain drops began to thud to the ground.  Looks like that storm is coming up the Wet Mountain Valley towards us, I said.  We put our food sacks and stove away while the thunder was booming more frequently and louder.  It was getting closer.

After we had stowed everything that we didn’t want to get wet, we sat on a rock and watched the storm flow up the valley like an ancient and violent tide.   There was nothing to do but to watch it drift towards us.  There was nowhere to go to escape it.  It was too late in the evening and too much rugged and expose mountain to traverse.  We would have to weather it right there at thirteen thousand feet.

Hey guys, do you know how you can tell how far away lightning is, I asked.

Watch for the flash of lightning and then count the number of seconds between when you see the lightning and hear the thunder. Take the number of seconds and divide by 5 and that will tell you how far away the storm is in miles.  If you counted 10 seconds between the lightning and the thunder, the lightning is 2 miles away.

We tried it.  The lighting was about forty-five seconds or nine miles away.  Then the rain started falling harder so they got in their dome tent and I crawled under my rainfly.  The darker the night the brighter the flashes and in the granite-walled mountains amplified and echoed the thunder like we were in alpine hyperbaric chamber.

It began to rain harder.  I could hear the boys talking in their tent and their chatter was high-pitched and excited.  The wind lifted my rainfly like a parachute and then slammed it down on to my face.  I adjusted the trekking poles to provide more clearance.

After several mortar like explosions of thunder that echoed around the peaks it dawned on me that the aluminum tent poles in the boy’s tent were like lightning rods.  How would I explain to their mother if they got hit by lighting and I didn’t?  I would be in trouble.  In fact, it would probably be safer if I flew an tin kite in this storm than face her without her boys.  I had to get them out of that tent and under my rainfly where we could all die together if it came to that.  And thus keep me safe from my wife.  It sounded like “Operation Overlord” was coming up the valley with thunder clapping every 15 seconds.

Hey, boys, I yelled.  Want to…

YES, they screamed and out the tent they flew with their sleeping bags and pads in tow.  I think they were sitting by the tent door, sleeping bags bundled under their arms, praying for an invitation.

We snuggled together under with the tarp just inches from our face, for I had tossed the trekking pole up by their tent, as the flash of blue light and thunder got closer and closer.  With every flash we would all count together, one, two, three, four, BOOM!  And then we would laugh and giggle.  Then the flash would come and we would count, one, two, BOOM!   More laughter.  Laughter was our only defense against the high-voltage barrage raging all around us.

FLASH “One,” BOOM!

FLASH/BOOM!

It was hitting our mountain.

Our sides ached from bracing for the direct hit and the laughter defense.  Then the thunder grew faint and further between flashes.  The heavenly war was moving away.  I told the boys about when Moses was on Sinai and wanted to see God and God hid him in the cleft of the rock and then passed by and Moses was able to see the backside of God and when Moses descended the mountain his face shone with the glory of God.

Cole, said, “If we had been hit by lighting we would have glowed in the dark too.”

I thanked God for sparing us on the mountain.  Both boys said amen and we drifted off to sleep, as the storm moved towards the north.

The next morning we ate breakfast as the sun rose over the Wet Mountains and warmed Tijeras Peak with a pink glow.  We broke camp and headed across another traverse and then down into Lower Sand and up Music Pass to the trailhead and on to Westcliffe for our hamburger.

As we dropped down under the ridgeline and into the shadow of Tijeras Peak I said to them both, “Well, guys after this trip everything else in life, no matter how difficult, is going to feel like downhill.”

Clinton said, “Dad, isn’t twelve years old a little young for rest of my life to be downhill?”

Maybe.

I am not sure we saw the glory of the Lord in the thunderstorm at thirteen thousand feet, but I expect the three of us will cherish the memory of fighting off thunder and lightning with laughter for the rest of our lives.

And that was glorious to me.

“So it shall be, while My glory passes by, that I will put you in the cleft of the rock, and will cover you with My hand while I pass by.”  Exodus 33:22

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One thought on “Stones of Remembrance

  1. Joe,

    Another great visual adventure story. Thank you. I was taken back fifty-three years to the summer of 1958. I was backpacking (before in was popular) with some college buddies on the John Muir trail in the Kings Canyon area of the Sierras. Were were way above timberline on a talus slope bouldering hoping on rocks the size of Volkswagon Bettles. A storm like you describe rolled in and we sought shelter under one of these big boulders (they piled up so that there was space in between) to get out of the rain and watched ground-strikes of lightning in close proximity to were we were crouched. We had nothing metal because this was before modern pack frames (our’s were the old Trapper Nelson with wood frames and canvas sacks), but the air was so filled with static electricity that our hair was literally standing out and up. It was scary and exhilarating at the same time. Everytime I am in the mountains and clouds come up, I remember this trip. Thanks for a vivid picture and returning me to another wonderful memory of “above the treeline.”

    Kenny

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