| Wrestling With God in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains
"When you get thrown off a horse, the only thing to do is get right back on it, right away!"
That was one of my father's favorite servings of advice to my brother and me, repeated often during our youth. A son's perception of his father being what it is, it never occurred to me until many years later that (a) that saying didn't necessarily originate with my father; and (b) Dad may have never rode a horse in his life. Nevertheless, it's good advice, and we were applying it the Thursday before Labor Day in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.
Getting back to 14,000 feet was getting back on the horse to us. The last time we visited that elevation, a big ol' hoss named El Diente threw us off, figuratively speaking, and added a couple swift kicks while we were down. As we trudged back from a failed attempt at the traverse to Mt. Wilson, we were so shocked, discouraged, and humiliated, we talked of hanging up our hiking boots after a brief two-year, five-peak 14ers "career".
I've learned one thing about the mountains: no matter how cruelly they may treat you one time, they have a way of luring you back for more punishment. And so there we were, driving up South Colony Lakes road to the soon-to-be-closed upper four-wheel drive trailhead, with Humboldt Peak in our sights.
Our plan was a curious compromise of humility and stubbornness. We had gotten scared enough during our misadventure on El Diente that we wanted our first return to altitude to be on an "easy" 14er. Humboldt filled that bill. "One of the easiest," I had read somewhere. "Highly recommended as a beginner climb," said Dawson's Guide.
The stubborn – some might say still arrogant – part of our plan was the timing. About 14 hours after flying in from Illinois, we signed in at the trailhead register and headed up. If that sounds to you like a good recipe to bring on altitude sickness, you're right. Our premise was that, with less than a week to spend in the state, issues with the altitude would be unavoidable. We felt force-feeding the matter would acclimate our bodies quicker, leaving us more time to gain one or more of the harder summits.
Looking ahead near the first landmark on the trail, a big bend where the old mining road ends, 0.7 miles in. Humboldt is visible on the right.)
I guess you could say the first part of the plan worked to perfection. I awoke in our motel room in Westcliffe, after about four hours of sleep, with textbook hangover symptoms. Continued obsessive hydration and some deep breathing brought temporary partial relief, but it didn't take long into our hike for the misery to return. Like, about five minutes. Clearly, this was going to be a long day.
(Mark looks ahead toward our future goal, Broken Hand Pass, the gateway to Crestone Peak and Needle. The Needle towers over him.)
Brother Mark was feeling somewhat better than I, a turnabout from our experience last year, when we had summited Uncompahgre on our first full day in Colorado. As I struggled to keep up, I was glad I had resisted the temptation last year to razz him about his condition. There's nothing funny about altitude sickness when you're in the midst of it. We pressed upward, hoping the weather would forgive our late start and painfully slow pace.
(I always find it amusing how obvious the altitude sickness is on people's faces when we look at photos afterward - even when the victim is me! This shot was on a knoll just over the upper South Colony Lake. I was about ready to call that knoll our "summit" for the day.)
The "why" question lingers around every trip to the mountains, and seemed louder than ever this time. My family had been through a solid year of upheaval and stress – moving to Illinois after a lifetime in Michigan, job changes, financial trials, depression, turmoil, you name it. It would seem logical to conclude that the energy and resources demanded by the mountains would be better applied to more practical concerns. Added to that was the absence on this trip of Dear Daughter, the third of our "Three Musketeers" group, unable to join us due to scheduling conflicts.
And yet … the prospect of standing at a summit seemed to offer an exclamation point of victory over the recent trials of this life. Or so it seemed when we decided on this trip from the comfort of a back yard in Illinois. We were second-guessing our decisions now. When you're feeling okay, the trail brings an elation that banishes all doubts. In the midst of my misery, that simple joy was nowhere to be found. I struggled to recall why I wanted so desparately to do this again.
July 4, 2009. For the first time in more than a year, my wife and I walk our beloved sand beaches of Michigan's Upper Peninsula. More than anywhere else, it was here that we fell in love 33 years ago. This place still evokes strong emotions every time we touch it.
The inland sea known as Lake Huron stretches as far as the eye can see. The cloudless sky is an unfathomably perfect blue, contrasting with the brilliant greens of the forest that creeps almost to the water's edge. The sound of the waves lapping peacefully at our feet is unbroken by voice or machine; and the smell of one-tenth of the fresh water in the world, sitting in these Great Lakes that we consider home, does something indescribably wonderful in the soul.
Judy searches through millions of small wave-washed beach stones for a few dozen with the perfect shape, size, and colors to bring home with her. I have long since given up on understanding the criteria by which she selects, but I still love watching her do it.
She doesn't necessarily love being watched right now. "I'm having a Zen moment," she says to me. Translation: let me immerse myself in this without looking over my shoulder.
That's fine with me. I have my eye on some boulders down the shore, forming a line out into Lake Huron. They remind me of the mountains. In a place overflowing with its own beauty and wonder, my mind travels a thousand miles west, and 2 ˝ miles up.
What is it about those mountains that they invite themselves into my conscience even here, I wonder. And yet, thinking of them doesn't compete with, or detract in any way from, this idyllic setting. Somehow, knowing that they are there, that I will once again stand on a summit, makes me more able to rest completely in the perfection of this moment.
And so, while my beloved gathers stones down the beach, I indulge in a childlike fantasy. Standing on one boulder, eyeing a short hop to another, I imagine, instead of six inches of sparkling pure Great Lakes water lapping below me, a thousand feet of air. "Summit block of Sunlight," I say aloud, and hop fearlessly onto the nearby rock. "Piece of cake," I chuckle to myself.
Judy pauses from her gathering to look at me, smiles, returns to her quest. I've always believed the union of our radically different personalities was, literally, a match made in Heaven. I'm more sure of it than ever right now, in this almost-heavenly place, where she has her rocks and I have mine.
As pleasant as that memory is, it brought little relief from the reality on Humboldt. We painstakingly gained South Colony Lakes, then the saddle at 12,850 feet. As we worked our way up the ridge, the prospect of not summiting this "easy" 14er began to grow. I was too woozy to move any faster, but the morning was dragging on, and with it the chance of encountering bad weather was growing. I kept nervously looking back over my shoulder at the clouds building to the west. They looked relatively mild and far-off, but for how long, we wondered.
(Above, looking up the west ridge from near the saddle. Below, a nice view of Broken Hand Peak from Humboldt.)
Besides the acclimation, we realized we had another problem: we had overloaded ourselves. We just had way too much stuff – food, water, clothes, emergency supplies, everything. We had stashed some Gatorade and water at South Colony Lakes, and thought about sorting through our stuff to stash more here, but the energy and time that would have demanded seemed more costly than continuing to lug it.
"Remind me again why we thought this was fun," one of us said to the other at a break. There it was: the "why" question again. "Because it's there" worked great for Mallory, but my own conscience wouldn't let it rest at that. Truthfully, a more honest answer for me might be, "because I can," or more realistically, "because I think I can," or "because I don't know if I can and I want to find out." There is a perverse appeal to the striving, the stretching of one's limitation. But that answer leads right back to the original question: should I even be trying?
Something about it reminds me of Jacob physically wrestling with God in Genesis. (Or an angel, depending on your interpretation, but the point stands regardless.) Why would God do such a thing? And what was going through his mind? Was he amused? Or a little proud, like a big brother might be when his little brother fights back for the first time, knowing he's going to take a licking but not caring.
I ask His blessing on this endeavor, not even sure that I should be doing it. And yet, He put the desire in me to grasp for this daunting goal, just like He put in Jacob the stubbornness of character to wrestle with his Maker all night long.
So maybe this is my version of wrestling with God. If so, I suppose there's no better place to do it than the Sangre de Cristo (Blood of Christ) Mountains.
As we approached Humboldt's false summit, We began encountering others on their way down from the summit. I asked a couple of them what they thought of the weather outlook, and if they thought we should keep going or turn around. I was ready to call it off if someone had expressed that opinion, but the random people I asked encouraged us to keep going. A while later, the last down-climber made a veiled reference to the clouds building, but we were getting so close at that point we pressed on.
(Humboldt as seen from the Needle. The saddle, west ridge, false summit and true summit are clearly visible in this view.)
When we reached the false summit, as the clouds looked more menacing, we played the only card we had left. "Let's drop our packs here and go light to the summit," I said to Mark. He was all for it. Our only gear for the final quarter-mile would be a water bottle. We were taking a chance on our packs getting wrecked, because there was food in them, but we hadn't seen a marmot the entire day, and digging out the food would expend too much of what little energy we had left.
(Looking back - east - from just shy of the summit, with Crestone Peak in the background.)
The final stretch went much easier. We summitted with more sense of relief than triumph. I will say that Humboldt's north face is spectacular, a fact you can't really appreciate on the standard route until you approach the summit – a stark contrast to the "shapeless hump" of the south side.
(Above, it's a long way down from the summit looking north. Below, Mark at the summit with the Peak behind him.)
My clearest memory of the summit, besides the concern about the weather, was thinking how overwhelming the other nearby 14ers seemed at that point. The views of Crestone Needle, Broken Hand Peak, and the pass between them were as daunting as they were beautiful. I kept thinking how Broken Hand Pass, the "introduction" to Crestone Peak and Needle, was higher and much tougher than the Class 1 saddle of Humboldt that we had struggled to reach. The Needle, with Ellingwood Arete proudly facing us, seemed like an absurd fantasy.
(Above, the looking east from the summit, down Humboldt's east ridge, with the Wet Valley in the background. Below, opening the summit register finally brings out a smile.)
The reality of the present left little time for fretting about future fantasies, however, The clouds to the west were definitely storms now, still far off, but moving our way. We had to get down. Unfortunately, I was still so unsteady on my feet that going down wasn't that much faster than coming up. Every time I tried to pick up the pace, I decided that doing a face plant and breaking an arm or a leg on the rocks wouldn't help matters any, and slowed back down.
We were thankful to find our packs undiscovered by critters. Shortly afterward, we broke out the trekking poles. I found the two additional points of contact incredibly helpful in relieving my face-plant concerns and moving me along much faster. Unfortunately, one of Mark's poles failed, and he started struggling, his knees in revolt from the accelerated pace of the descent.
(Hustling down toward the saddle. We were too concerned about getting down to shot any pics of the weather moving in on us.)
The incoming storm clouds, now in front of us as we descended the west ridge, provided ample motivation to move expeditously. As we neared the saddle, we looked down lower to see, to our amazement, a pair of hikers headed up the trail. I know some consider it bad form to give unsolicited advice, but I planned on it here. While we were still far apart, I thought about what I would say to them. It started out with "you guys are nuts …"
Turns out they didn't need my advice. The point west of the saddle had apparently blocked their view of the weather, because when they reached the saddle, they turned around and high-tailed it down, well ahead of us.
We got a break when the bad weather stayed south of Crestone Peak and Needle. A long rest break at the stream between the upper and lower South Colony Lakes brought Mark back from his zombie-like state.
The hike out actually wasn't as bad as we expected, having been revived slightly by the long break at the lakes and the return to lower elevation. We chatted with a few groups of campers/climbers, several of whom were climbing, or had climbed, the Needle via Ellingwood Arete. We found that amusing in a perverse way. Humboldt's Class 2 trail had wiped us out, and it seemed like half the people we talked to were doing the 5.7 Arete.
(Looking down the valley with less than a mile to go back to the trailhead at this point.)
Standing at the trailhead register at the very moment we came back to it was Yeonderin from this website, first name Scott. We had exchanged several messages in the preceding days about hopefully climbing Crestone Peak together the next day, Friday, as he was wanting to climb both the Peak and Needle but lacked a partner. I felt bad in telling him right away that we weren't climbing anything on Friday. My guilt was relieved when another fellow showed up a few minutes later and said he hoped to climb both Crestones the next day or two. Scott had his partner, and we headed back to our motel in Westcliffe to lick our wounds and figure out what we were going to do next. We needed to either change our approach or climb smaller mountains.
(A final look, Mark at the summit, with the Wet Valley and some of the milder weather visible to the east.)
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