“Happy Trails!” That’s my standard salutation to fellow hikers on the Colorado trails that I call my back yard. Like “Aloha,” it can mean hello, or goodbye, or even be an easy answer to questions like, “How ya doin’?” or “How’s it goin’?” Though hokey, it seems to be universally understood by the brotherhood of strangers you meet on a high mountain trail. And, since the lack of oxygen above, say 12,000 feet, strips away the need, if not the ability, for verbosity, “Happy Trails,” is the perfect greeting.
There is no place on earth that can stir my soul like the tundra high above tree line in the Rockies. The vistas inspire and humble me. The wildflowers, so delicate, yet so strong to withstand the harsh environment, are beautiful. The crisp, thin air can bite and invigorate. The sun at this altitude can burn before it warms. You can feel both mighty and insignificant, and if you pay attention, you can feel god’s presence.
There are fifty-four 14,000 feet-or-higher peaks in Colorado. I’ve made it – sometimes barely and always breathlessly – to the top of 17 of these goddesses. I’ve only aborted two climbs out of the 19 I’ve attempted. But that’s not because I’m good; it’s because I’ve been lucky. Lately, I’ve been thinking about those treks and what I’ve seen on those happy trails.
I met a woman recently who had just climbed her first 14’er. As we talked about her conquest, she asked me which 14’er is my favorite and that got me to thinking. It’s easy to say that the Colorado Rockies is my favorite place on earth, but I’m hard pressed to name a favorite peak. My first 14’er was Longs Peak. By far the hardest peak I’ve partnered with. (I’m not sure you can really say you’ve conquered a high mountain.) If you respect her and treat her right, she might allow you to spread your arms when you’ve reached the top and shout, “I’m king of the world!” She just as likely might NOT let you feel like the king of the world. She might turn your ankle, or shut you down with a bout of altitude sickness, or call her friend, Thor, to chase you off her slopes or even kill you because you were too foolish to obey The Rule: summit by noon or risk the ubiquitous afternoon storm clouds and the lightning that is way too close for comfort.
Longs Peak (no, there is no apostrophe – that is the crux of this biscuit*) is the most noticeable and most dramatic of the 14’ers on the Front Range. 25 miles straight west of my hometown, It is also the hardest and most dangerous to climb – a infamous boulder field that breaks legs; a scree slide where your only warning of potential melon-mashers are the cries of “Rock” from the climbers above you; and finally, the Home Stretch – a hundred foot slab of rock on a 60 degree pitch that is fitted with fixed cables for safety because a slip on this slab would send you sliding a thousand feet to the rocks below. Seven grueling miles and over a mile in elevation gain, it is the jewel of Rocky Mountain National Park and the most popular 14’er. But my favorite part of this trek isn’t the football-field sized summit; it’s the Goblin Forest. If you start hiking at 4:00 AM, (typical start time to be able to watch Thor’s show from a safe distance as you descend,) you’ll reach the Goblin Forest at about sunrise. The forest is a stand of Bristlecone Pines just below tree line. These amazing trees are some of the oldest living things on earth. As bent and gnarled as Yoda, they have survived the thin air and deep snows of thousands of winters. I could easily spend the day hanging out with the Goblins and Krummholtz, but the summit beckons.
Two of my most memorable climbs were actually aborted attempts at reaching 2 summits in one day. Grays and Torreys are twin peaks that are often bagged in one day by the ambitious trekker. In the early years of my love affair with the high peaks, Stan, Roger, Lisa and I thought we would bag all 54 peaks, so bagging two in one day was our preferred method to reaching the final goal. Our Grays & Torreys attempt started out as a family affair, with something like 15 people – kids and cousins and brothers and sisters and grandpa and grandma – the youngest was 7; the oldest was 70. Needless to say, not everyone made it to the top. Dropping off in twos and threes, the crowd thinned out like the pines at tree line. Roger and Stan, (aka the mountain goat,) and a few others forged on ahead to bag Grays quickly so that the bridge to Torreys could be attacked before it got too late. My Dad – 68 at the time – and I kept plodding on, determined to get at least one peak that day.
The going gets slow when you get past 12,000 feet. For many people, there is about as much time spent resting your thighs and filling your depleted lungs as there is climbing. Dad and I were “enjoying” such a rest when our lack of large party size was rewarded with the appearance of the local (though non-native) wildlife – Rocky Mountain Goats begging for handouts and coming so close we could pet their shaggy hair. I'll never forget the sound of the snuffling beasts as they crowded around us, nibbling at tundra and licking the lichen off the surrounding boulders – tolerating our invasion of their space. We let them think we might feed them something so we could enjoy their company for a while. Once they figured out we weren’t carrying treats, they leapt off, rock to rock, on hooves so soft they were not only sure-footed, but almost silent. After the circus left town, Dad & I trudged on to the top where we watched the others summit Torrey’s through binoculars. We signed the ledger at the top, slapped each other on the back and headed down to join the rest of the family who were waiting for us by the cars four miles away.
My other most memorable climb was with John Roehl. John is my brother-in-law who lives in a cabin his grandfather built in 1913 on Twin Sister’s Mountain across the valley from Longs Peak. He’s older than me, but we’re like twin sons of different mothers. He was with me on my first climb (Longs) and was with me on my last climb (to date). John & I have a habit of biting off more than we can chew. Twice we’ve been thwarted in overnight attempts to hike across the continental divide over the Indian Peaks – but those are stories for another time.
We decided to climb the twin peaks of Belford and Oxford a few years back. Our plan was to carry full packs up the first 2 miles of the trail to tree-line. There, we would camp out and then bag the two peaks the next day, come back to our tents, break camp and head down. That way we’d be free of our 48 lb. packs (yes, we weighed them and believe me, every ounce counts) for the toughest part of the climb. The weather was perfect, the trail was one of the most beautiful I’ve ever trekked, but we were doomed from the start. I had not properly broken in my new boots and John was fighting pinched nerves in both feet. We stumbled into a perfect meadow at 11,500 and happily pitched our tents.
Nothing satisfies like campfire coffee – even if a real fire isn’t allowed and the only heat you have is a white-gas stove that will heat up about 2 cups of water at a time. We drank a lukewarm cup of coffee, (water boils at like 180 degrees at this altitude, so it doesn't stay hot long) munched on dried fruit and jerky and squirmed into our sleeping bags pretty much as soon as the sun went down, planning to hit the trail before sunrise for the meat of the climb. Tired as we were and with no alarm clocks (too much weight) we didn’t wake until daylight. In that high mountain valley, even in summer, sunrise doesn’t come until well past 7:00 and we knew we were behind schedule. So, after a hurried breakfast, we hit the trail up Mt. Belford.
Some 4 hours later, right about noon, we made the summit, tired and footsore and looked out over the saddle to Oxford. Only we couldn’t see Oxford. It was hidden by the massive thundercloud hanging halfway down its flanks. John looked at me. I looked at John. “Do we go for it?” I asked. “That was the plan,” said John. We watched the clouds roil another minute – or five. (Remember that I once dreamed of hiking all 54 14’ers and you’ll understand why John’s next question changed my hiking life forever.) That dream was several years and thousands of vertical feet ago and the blisters on my feet and the ache in my knees brought a clarity to my mind that is rare in the rarified air of the mountaintop. “Let me ask you this,” said John, “do you plan on climbing all 54 peaks in your lifetime?”
I had to really think hard about that. One part of me wanted to – still wants to. Another, more rational, more mature, more realistic part of me understands that while the mind is often willing, the body is too often weak. I looked at John. I looked at the clouds hanging around Oxford’s summit. I looked at my new boots. I looked back at the clouds. I looked at John again. “No,” I said, “I guess I probably won’t bag them all.”
“Then, do we need to risk the lightning for this one?” John asked.
I looked over at Oxford one more time. “Let’s go break camp and go home,” I said.
It was late afternoon when our battered feet brought us back to the truck. Tired, sore, and disappointed, but somehow closer through our shared failure and pain. Still, it was a good trip. We love the mountain and the trail and the camaraderie that comes from trekking the Happy Trails. Barefoot, I started the truck for the long drive home. We drove in exhausted silence for a few miles before John said what we both were thinking that day (and every day since,) “’tis a privilege to live in Colorado.”
“Happy Trails,” I replied.
*apologies to Frank Zappa