Sunday, September 12, 2010

Hello darkness and my old friend

When I was 13, the mountain you heard about more than any other was Longs Peak.
We were on our fifth or sixth trip to Estes Park by then, where we'd stay at the YMCA of the Rockies, and my interest in the mountains was just starting to percolate. My parents had already been bitten by the bug, though at that point it was more like a nibble.
Since we were on our fifth or sixth time on our summer vacation there from Kansas, I think, more than anything, my parents were looking for something to DO. We'd already been tourists, driving Trail Ridge Road, eating fudge in downtown Estes Park (and buying a Tee Shirt) and walking around Bear Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park, where the parking lot is so full these days that a park 'n' ride just to GET to the lake regularly fills up on the weekends, forcing cars to prowl about like sharks for an open spot.
Hey, I'm guessing we thought. What about all these mountains surrounding the Y-Camp and the little cabins where we stayed?
The YMCA offered a hiking program. You'd get a schedule at the beginning of the week, and every hike was graded just like it was a school. The pansy ones, usually attended by overweight, huffing, red-faced tourists and were usually something like looking for wildflowers, were rated F. Only a few got an A, and As were a big deal. Before the hikemasters would even let you go on an A hike, you had to pass a C hike, and even the C hikes would probably kill the red-faced tourists, or at least make them sweat out a good portion of the grease that consistently ran through their bloodstream.
Longs Peak was the ultimate A.
It's the tallest mountain in Rocky Mountain National Park. It's also an awesome site, home to an east face that will take your breath away if its 14,259 feet doesn't first. That east face is adored by rock climbers and gazed at by mountaineers like me with awe every time we see it. If there's a picture of a mountain that looks like a mountain SHOULD look like, well, this is one of them.
The thing is, the keyhole route, Longs' most popular route, doesn't even sniff the east face, and it's STILL a classic route, easily one of the best climbs in Colorado and one of its most challenging. It's 15 miles, almost 5,000 feet of elevation gain, and the last mile-and-a-half is over exposed, sometimes tricky scrambling. Most of it is above treeline, too, meaning a 2 a.m. start is not only recommended, it's mandatory.
People have figured this out, of course, and for decades, the keyhole route is probably the most popular route in Colorado. The 14ers, peaks above 14,000 feet, have become somewhat of a cult sensation in the last 15-20 years or so, and yet, Longs is still one of the most climbed peaks in Colorado and quite possibly the most climbed, despite the fact that I consider it one of the harder ones.
When my father tried it the first time, we came back from a horseback riding trip to find him wrapped in a triple-thick layer of blankets and his feet in hot water. The winds apparently were strong enough to blow him off the trail and pin him behind the rocks. When my mother tried it the first time, she made it, but fell from sheer exhaustion with a few miles to go and looked as if she'd been dragged by a mule when I found her back in the cabin.
Naturally, this made me want to try it.
Longs was so popular, the sign-up list usually filled up as soon as it was released by the YMCA staff. The hikemasters hated Longs because so many unprepared people wanted to do it to taste its glory. This mountain, after all, was the weekend warrior's Everest, a chance for desk workers and parents to get a somewhat dangerous adventure in and be back in time for Kentucky Fried Chicken and a shower. People erased names to get on the list. Others lied about their fitness and experience. Fights broke out.
All this hid the fact that Longs is, of course, a dangerous day. Usually at least one dies a year, and two have died this year, with a third death feared the very day I'm writing this. Others are hurt. It's not an amusement park ride, even if it tends to draw the same crowds.
So when my Dad and me, at 14, went down to the meeting place at midnight, we hadn't signed up for the list, but we hoped they would take pity on a father and his son on his last day in Estes Park hoping for a day together.
The hikemasters, who usually God-like graduate students or wise, older Colorado residents who tended to look at you like the way a rock star would look at a Hannah Montana fan, grumbled but allowed me to go along.
That day contributed to my love for the mountains as much as any other. I have since climbed it 16 times, and Sunday I led a group of rookies up Longs for the eighth time. We started in the dark, like always, and ended as dusk threatened to spill across the now-renovated parking lot.
It started out nasty, with a chilling wind that may have resembled what my Dad faced his first time up Longs. But the wind died down, the sun came out, and Longs, once again, welcomed me to its summit after I sacrificed a bit of blood and a lot more energy.
I'm sore today and was a little crankier this morning than usual. But that's OK. I'm showing others the way to a new passion. If they don't follow through on it, at least for one day they get to experience mine.

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