| A cold, sick, wonderful day
Author's note: this is the first of four trip reports from August 2008, posted belatedly under the premise of "better late than never."
Four of us flew into Denver and headed west with lofty goals for our week in the San Juan Mountains. We had experienced the summit of exactly one mountain in our lives, but we planned to see many more soon.
Our group consisted of my brother Mark, who got us into mountain hiking last year; my daughter Maryjane, her boyfriend Garrett, and me. Mark, Maryjane and I had summitted Longs Peak last August, along with two of Mark's co-workers. That day, on the seemingly endless "death march" home, we had said "never again." But by the next afternoon, we were plotting a return to the rugged beauty of Colorado's Fourteeners.
As we considered targets from afar, the exceptional beauty and challenging routes of the San Juans enticed us. We set an ambitious agenda: From Lake City we would tackle Uncompahgre and Wetterhorn on Sunday and Monday. Later in the week we would take on Sneffels, El Diente and the traverse to Mt. Wilson.
Our drive from Denver to Lake City exhibited both the beauty and the difficulties of this great state. A mid-August snow covered the high summits of the Front Range were covered in snow, quite a sight to four Midwesterners.
Garrett summed up what we all felt: "I feel like I could just go wander around up there for weeks." I knew then and there he was a kindred spirit who would fit right in with our family group. I had said almost the exact same thing when I had first laid eyes on the Smoky Mountains, a feeling that was multiplied upon seeing the majestic Rockies.
And yet, the hard part of hitting the high country was also upon us. From the comfort of our rental car, far below the summits that we aspired to, two of us were already feeling headaches and nausea from the altitude. Specifically, the old guys – Mark and me. We knew to expect some acclimation difficulties, but weren't expecting it on Route 285.
Nevertheless, dawn of the next morning found us at the Nellie Creek trailhead to Uncompahgre. Less than 24 hours after flying into DIA from Chicago, we were determined to breath 14,000-foot air.
Although it was the tallest of our targets, at 14,309 feet, Uncompahgre was also rated the easiest. With limited time to exploit the opportunities here, we determined to go for a Fourteener peak on day one, weather permitting. If we experience altitude sickness, we thought, better to deal with it on the "easy" class 2 trail of Uncompahgre, rather than on the dizzying scramble of Wetterhorn's upper reaches.
Our concerns proved well-founded. I was feeling better by now, but Mark's misery persisted. Things just got worse for him as we worked our way up the grassy trail, approaching and then surpassing 12,000 feet. Somewhere along there, Maryjane joined him in that pitiful state. We were forced to acknowledge that, for flatlanders 24 hours out of Chicago, there is no such thing as an "easy" Fourteener.
This was an ironic reversal of fortune from our experiences on Longs Peak the preceding year. There, Mark and Maryjane had felt great, while the rest of our group grappled with varying degrees of nausea, headache, and disorientation. They had sailed along ahead of us, waiting patiently for us to catch up, all the while laughing hysterically about everything, including our sorry conditions. This day, they found no such humor.
Besides the more overt symptoms, the most dramatic being upchucking, altitude sickness saps the mind and body of strength. If you remain determined to summit through it, your entire world devolves into mustering the strength to put one step in front of another. Looking up at the summit is a foolish exercise in discouragement. You just pick a goal a short distance ahead and plod toward it - anything to keep moving. The simplest tasks, like changing layers of clothing, looking at route finding directions, or choking down food, become overwhelming.
For those who have never experienced it, here is altitude sickness in a nutshell: Maryjane noticed somewhere along this stretch that black mold had accumulated over the winter in the clear plastic mouthpiece to her bladder pack. Previously unnoticed, it now confronted her in her stupor.
Maryjane is not one to shrug off such a situation. She has proven herself to be a tough and determined hiker, but in matters of cleanliness, the fashion queen side of her takes over. She finds her moldy mouthpiece to be, in a word, disgusting.
She stares dumbly at her science-experiment mouthpiece. She knows she has to drink water, and she has fresh bottled water in her backpack. But that requires getting the bottle out of the pack, opening it, and raising it to her lips with her hand. If she wants more than one drink, she even has to put the cap back on the bottle and do something with it until it's time to drink again. It all adds up to an overwhelming task.
The moldy mouthpiece is a few inches from her lips. It requires no further diversion of energy from her task of putting one step in front of the other. It's a no-brainer, which is appropriate, because she is in a no-brain state. She plods forward, sipping her mold-filtered water. Only after summiting will she muster the strength to retrieve clean bottled water from her backpack.
(The face of altitude sickness. How's that moldy water taste, kiddo?)
Garrett and I, meanwhile, experience no sickness. Garrett skips ahead, cheerfully walking long distances above us, and then waiting patiently for us to catch up. He is indeed loving it, having long since exhausted variations of ways to say, "this is great", "this is wonderful", "I can't believe how great (wonderful, beautiful, etc.) this is."
I remain more in the middle, trying to encourage my pathetic family members to continue. Mark keeps mumbling, "I don't know," and shaking his head. I know what he's saying -- "I might not make it" -- but I'm not overly concerned about that happening. He's a very determined fellow when he puts his mind to something, and his mind is fully applied to this, albeit in a diminished capacity.
Besides, I feel fine, so it's hard for me to relate to his miserable state. I resist the urge to crack jokes or razz him with lines like, "suck it up, you wuss!" I know the shoe might be on the other foot tomorrow.
The trail mounts the shoulder of Uncompahgre's south ridge at 13,000 feet. The breathtaking views of the southern and western reaches of the San Juans come into sight, providing fresh energy to our motley crew. With the views come gale-force winds.
The trail follows a series of switchbacks up a rocky slope. "I hate switchbacks," mutters Mark, and Maryjane seconds the thought. But we keep moving up.
At the top of the switchbacks, the trail turns a corner around a rocky outcropping and changes dramatically in nature. Up until this point, we have been following essentially a class 1 walking trail, easy going other than the steady uphill slog and the altitude sickness. We are now entering the crux of the route, about 150 vertical feet of class 3 hand-over-foot climbing on steep, loose rubble, with a little more exposure than I had expected.
Garrett is once again waiting for us, a few feet up this climb. But his demeanor is completely different now. His eyes look as big as quarters. "I don't like this," he exclaims to me with a peculiar animation.
Garrett has made an important discovery about himself. He is not wired for mountain climbing.
The change in Garrett's body language is too fascinating to ignore. A few moments ago, you could see the joy he was experiencing without hearing him speak a word, or even looking at his face. The spring in his step, the lively shrug in his shoulders as he hiked, the turning of his head as he swept his eyes across breathtaking views. Now, suddenly, every move is bound up in tension.
I look up and down the rubble-strewn slope. It is indeed pretty steep, and a long way down. If the rocks were glazed with snow or ice, the danger would be palpable. But the route is dry, and the well-worn trail through the loose rock above us reassures me that this is a perfectly safe place. That logic doesn't seem to register with Garrett. He looks like he's ready to head for home.
But he doesn't go home. To his credit, he goes up. Some reassuring words from the rest of our group help him choke down his fear and slowly climb up the slope. From above him, I try to take a photo of him overcoming this barrier, a significant personal accomplishment. Unfortunately, he hugs his body so closely to the rocks that no compelling photo is forthcoming. No matter. The important thing is, he goes up.
Mark and Maryjane are going up, too – both with new life in their movements. The adrenaline of the scramble has the opposite effect on them as on Garrett. It chases away the altitude sickness and sets free the agility that they were born with. Mark no longer lags behind, but moves quickly up the steep slope; I scramble to try to keep up. My daughter's sickly scowl has been replaced by a beautiful, radiant smile. Maryjane would later sum up the feeling that engulfs her at such a moment: "I was born for this."
The only thing wrong with this scramble slope on Uncompahgre is that it doesn't last long enough. At least not as far as the three Jarvises are concerned. (It's plenty long enough for Garrett.) But we proceed up it basically together, regrouping at the top of the scramble, and from there we walk up the gentle slope of the summit pitch.
The summit of Uncompahgre has been compared to a moonscape: a barren, dusty surface littered with loose rubble and rocky outcroppings. To the north, it terminates in a sheer cliff of a staggering height which seems appropriate for a moonscape as well. The day of our visit, the howling wind and frigid temperatures add to the surreal feeling. It is a stunningly beautiful, powerful, inhospitable place. Wispy clouds race overhead and beside us. Thankfully, they contain no precipitation, and no threat of thunderstorms.
We wander about a little, trying to figure out which of several rocky outcroppings are the true summit. We take photos at the western reaches of the summit area, thinking that is the high point; but we eventually find the summit marker and register at the eastern edge. Our entry on the register is barely legible. Our fingers and faces are frozen, making writing, eating and speaking difficult. It is time to head down.
As we depart, our thoughts and eyes naturally turn toward the next day's goal: Wetterhorn, rising sharply above the surrounding terrain to the west.
The freezing conditions, and a warning of sorts from another climber who shared the summit with us, hang ominously over our view of Wetterhorn. This climber described Wetterhorn's upper reaches as significantly steeper, more exposed, and more intimidating than we had perceived. We agree together that if the weather is as blustery as it is today on Uncompahgre, and/or if we encounter as much altitude sickness as we have this day, we probably won't be able to summit Wetterhorn.
We push aside those thoughts, determined to live in the moment. We have reached the lofty summit of the sixth-highest mountain in Colorado. Garrett has achieved a Fourteener summit. We are no longer one-peak tourist hikers. We are on our way.
Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):