This climb would not be as technical as Crestone Needle, but it would require more from us physically and we would be unprotected for the greatest amount of time and distance. There was the danger of a flash thunder storm with no possible protection for up to ten hours. Such is the risk of climbing 14,160’ Kit Carson from South Colony.
We rose early and began our marathon climb from the lower lake. Jim Shepherd, Justin Harris and Cole, these men are valuable to me. They contour my life like no terrain or map could. Cole for he is my blood-kin and first born son. Jim and Justin because they are soul-kin and men I have grown to love like sons. We shared a primordial passion for wilderness adventure and decided to take it out on three Colorado Fourteeners.
Jim, with his shrew-like metabolism and speed-climbing style, took the lead as we set out from camp. Justin and Cole followed respectively. I brought up the rear, or as my grandfather might have said had this been a cattle drive, “Joe is pulling drag.”
As we pushed our way up the scree and talus slope, the distance between climbers grew. Jim is the best athlete and in the best shape, followed by his best friend, Justin, and then Cole. I am several hundred yards behind, walking fifteen feet and stopping to breathe. My heart thumps in my carotid artery like the bass drum of a stadium rock-n-roll band. Breathing is as difficult for me as if a piano was sitting on my chest. “I can’t keep up with these flat-bellies,” I say between gasps to no one and everyone.
Then it occurs to me that they don’t know where they are going. I am the only one who has climbed any of these peaks before. While there is no way to get lost above tree line, there are some wrong turns that would cause them to backtrack if they miss a cairn. I smile to myself at the orneriness of letting that occur so I could catch up or pass them on the climb. But for now they climb fast and wait for the old man to catch up.
The route ascends from South Colony Lake northward to a large relatively flat area called the Playground of the Bears. We sat and marveled at the large gray monolithic granite peaks that shrank us to grasshopper-sized men. Nothing is as awe-inspiring and intimidating as sipping water and munching energy bars while peaks loomed in front of us.
Keeping up with them was not possible; I had to let them climb at their pace and try to keep them in sight. I gave Jim the route I would take and told him to watch for cairns that will mark the way. I asked him to pace himself in such a way he kept the second climber in sight and for each to do that down the line. I wanted to see the climber in front of me even if he was a quarter a mile away.
That is how it played out. From cairn to cairn up the shoulder of Kit Carson we went. Over large slag-like boulders that tilted and shifted and then on to soft green carpeted tundra, back to the boulder fields and then across a slide of scree and talus. The going was uncomplicated but very draining as we ascended higher and higher into the thin Colorado air.
Kit Carson has a false summit. I prepared for it in my mind, but when I actually arrived and could see the 800’ descent we would have to negotiate and then gain that ground back to finally summit, I collapsed, curled up in a kind of fetal position and rested. Battling fatigue, embarrassment for being so slow, and discouragement for what lay ahead, I pulled the blue hood of my wind and rain parka over my head for privacy and had a moment with God.
A voice inside my head said, “You know you want to lie down here and rest. You could wait for them to summit. You could say you just don’t have it in you and promise to do better tomorrow when you climb the Needle.” A competing voice said, “You will never have this opportunity again to summit this tough mountain with your son and these men you love. You want to share this experience with them. You want to be there with them on that summit. You will not quit. This isn’t all of who you are, but climbing and pushing yourself in the wilderness is a big part of who you are. Now get up and show these guys the way down and up.”
I pulled my hood off my face and shook the Gollum voices out of my head, ate an energy bar, sipped some water and said, “We can’t get there from here doing this.” Descending the false summit we started climbing on solid granite rock faces. I have always been good at climbing this type of surface. Finding footholds and handholds and seeing a good route were natural and easy for me. I found that I could keep up with these guys on this rock and my spirit began to soar.
In fact, I began to sing.
And the livin’ is easy
Fish are jumpin’
And the cotton is high
The guys thought I was delusional; I was just enjoying a rocky mountain high. The steep rock face equalized the playing field for me. Some of the guys were not as comfortable on that kind of surface as I was. I was giddy with their discomfort.
We summited Kit Carson and began the long journey back to camp. As we picked our way down the boulder field and onto the Bears’ Playground, a thunderstorm moved in from the west and pushed us across the large open ground. We did not want to be caught out in the open. Back at camp we decided to take the next day off for some fishing and recovery. We had spent about fifteen hours climbing Kit Carson and all needed some rest—not just the old man.
Crestone Needle is risky for different reasons. The route we chose was a popular one with lots of class three scrambles and several class four patches where we needed all four points on the mountain. The “class” system is a way to classify the degree of difficulty and technical requirement of a given route. It helps a climber prepare for and anticipate the complexities of a climb. A simple hike on a trail would be rated 1st class, a harder hike with steep ground would be rated 2nd class. Starting with 3rd class, mountaineers should be aware of fall potential; 4th class involves difficult scrambling with real fall potential—you may need a rope.
We settled into the same climbing order we had on Kit Carson. This time, however, it would be important to know which crease in the granite to use in the climb. Some lead to a dead-end requiring backtracking.
I explained the route to Jim and the guys and gave them a general understanding about how to climb the mountain. They would have enough information to see the best route if I painted a good enough word-picture. They would be out of sight much of the climb and needed to pay attention to the cairns and landmarks I described. Their success would be predicated on my instructions and their observations and intuitive judgments.
From the saddle between Broken Hand and The Needle lies the expanse of the San Luis Valley to the west and the undulating glacier moraines of the Wet Mountain Valley to the east. The wind was fierce and the trail well-worn in the grassy southern slope of the pass. Cottonwood Lake sits below like a shard of glass lying on a soft green carpet of summer grass at the base of Crestone Peak.
Off went the flat-bellies on the trail following the cairns up the crag of granite. I was still pushing the piano off of my chest at the saddle and sipping water. The clouds moved in to obscure the peak, but visibility was still manageable. We crossed a ravine refilling our water bottles and up the gulley we climbed. I could keep them in sight more this day than on Kit Carson. The class 4 was helping me keep up.
About two thirds of the way up someone took a wrong turn in their route-finding and overshot the best route boxing the three of them in on a hundred foot cliff face that they would have to take care to descend. Coming up from below I could see the correct route off to the left for a few reasons. One was because I had summited the mountain twice before. Another was because years of experience on exposed rock provided me with a decent eye for good routes. But the best reason I could tell where not to go was by seeing their failed attempt.
With the trio of speed-climbers stuck on the cliff face and one of them struggling to find his way down, the others helping and encouraging him, I blew by them and took the lead. I smiled.
Your daddy’s rich
And your mamma’s good lookin’
So hush little baby
Don’t you cry
By the time we summited, the entire peak was engulfed with a thick shroud of clouds. The fear of bad weather was not present and I am not sure why. People die on this mountain every year. In fact almost exactly one week after our summit a couple was swept off the mountain in a storm and died. But this gray day was a day of celebration. We took fuzzy pictures and made our way down the mountain. It was a triumphal climb; my most enjoyable climb in years. Perhaps it was because it showed I still had some mountain mojo. Yeah…that was it.
Then next day we clod-hoppered our way up Humboldt in an anticlimactic climb. The best part of that climb was the vantage point where we had a panoramic view of Kit Carson and Crestone Needle.
Author John Eldridge asks, “What makes you come alive? What stirs your heart? In the heart of every man is a desperate desire for a battle to fight, an adventure to live, and a beauty to rescue. If a man does not find those things for which his heart is made, if he is never even invited to live for them from his deep heart, he will look for them in some other way.”
As an adult in the mountains I had enjoyed the point position in all the climbs. I was the route finder, the pace-setter, in charge and in control. I enjoyed the power that comes from such an authoritative position. People depended on me. They needed me. I was admired. Being out front and trail blazing or trail finding is adventurous. It drills into what it means to be a man, for I feel we are put on this earth to do heroic things. I don’t know many men who do not want to be someone’s hero. It may be their wife or their child. It may be someone at work or the kid down the street. We long to be a part of something epic. The wilderness has always provided a compressed version of that epic adventure that I long to live out in my day-to-day life as a man in lower lands.
Good leaders change and adapt. If they don’t there is no adventure, for inertia becomes the enemy of leadership. I am slowly learning that leading from the point is not my place anymore. There is a role for me as the one who has climbed the mountain before and I have come to value the utility of securing the climbing team to the mountain with a spiritual anchor. I am not the first one up the mountain anymore, never will be again; but I enjoy knowing what I know.
There are other ways to lead.
“So he shepherded them according to the integrity of his heart…”