Aspen Times Weekly cover story: Finding peace on Pyramid
September 26, 2012
Forgive me for crowing about finally climbing Pyramid Peak. Right up until the day, Aug. 11, 2012, I still wasn’t sure I ever would. Everybody I had talked to during some 10 to 15 years, probably more, said it’s not an easy mountain to climb. Gerry Roach of “Colorado Fourteeners: From Hikes to Climbs” fame says about it, “… steep, exposed, loose rock makes this a dangerous climb.”
My former dentist and a long-time mountain rescue principal said, “It is my least favorite climb.” Everybody said, “Don’t go alone.” And members of my family put the fear of God in me, intimating that the risk of my life somehow would impact their lives’ adversely. So, understandably, I had myself all but talked into trying to focus on other pursuits, other mountains to climb.
But the idea seemed to never quit. I would forget about it for weeks and months and years, but it didn’t help that my niece had done the climb just before heading off for medical school, longer ago than I can remember. People at work had said they made it up without too much trouble. And a coworker once said as she looked at Pyramid, she wished she could do it eventually. I had “done” 37 other fourteeners up to this point, though the easy ones. What should stop me from going further? Most people who get the bug set their sights on all 55. And many I know of have done this.
I have experienced a single bypass in the spring of 2008 and a mild stroke in the fall of 2010. My cardiologist once said that though my tests are just where he wants them, “running up mountains is for younger men.” And I just turned 65.
But that’s on the other side of the coin, too. If I waited any longer, I would be too old to try Pyramid. I just retired this past spring. Freedom gets short shrift. Almost for the first time in my life, I can do exactly what I have always wanted to do. Having been studying and practicing meditation, as taught by Paramahansa Yogananda, of “Autobiography of a Yogi” fame and founder of the hugely successful Self-Realization Fellowship headquartered in Los Angeles, Calif., I now have time to be able to do a one-hour meditation twice daily and a three-hour meditation on Fridays without fail. And that’s the significant thing.
If we would only learn to relax, to become still in body and mind, the rest is play. We learn to avoid distractions like fighting with people, like spending much time at all with people who like to fight, like hanging on the news. None of this matters. When we learn to practice stillness, things begin to come easily. Like this dilemma: Whether to climb a some-say dangerous 14,00-foot mountain or not. It will be or it won’t be. How to tell? It’s the stillness. It’s always the stillness.
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We need to recognize it in ourselves, and when it’s absent. It’s peace; as is said in, “The peace of God, which passeth all understanding …” (Philippians 4:7). It’s being still; as is said in, “Be still and know that I am God.” (Psalms 46:10) We should never go anywhere without it. Because this stillness is a guide. It’s our God, how it is said, “have you made your peace with God?”
What this means is to become still of body and mind so that your spirit can awaken. And when it does, you find yourself climbing mountains, whether figuratively, or literally as in my case. Not Everest, not Denali, not even the biggest, meanest fourteeners in Colorado. Just this one. One of the trip reports I read in preparation for this climb – always at least interested whether I would eventually do it or not – said, “It’s definitely doable.”
I tested this over several days and a number of only-apparent problems, one even involving a neighbor who told me to go to hell by email. Was I up to this? Would I be up to anything unless I made the choice? Did I have a choice?
I had it in mind a week or two to just consider doing this climb. I had included it on a list. All depended on whether this stillness I am talking about would appear, or actually awaken. I had been praying it would, and repeating words to this effect every day and night. You know when we wake up at night to go to the bathroom and you can’t fall
With a stillness in place, I planned to wake up at 4 a.m., take a shower, do my meditation, send an email to a family member that I would check in with him at 4 p.m., and set off in my car to Maroon Lake. And that’s just what I did. I arrived at the Maroon Lake parking area at 6 a.m., and started hiking up the Crater Lake Trail. Something caught my eye just past the signs that warn people about climbing the Bells. It was a small black feather a bird had just dropped to the ground in front of me. I picked it up without hesitation. It was at least a good sign that everything would turn out fine, just as envisioned. My legs felt good. I made quick progress up to the cairn (a man-made pile or stack of stones) indicating the trail to the Pyramid Peak approach. And equally good time arriving up to the lip of the amphitheater, when you get your first look at the peak pretty much up close. Calmly chewing their cud, two Rocky Mountain Goats stared at me. I paused to take their pictures. Then continued on and up. I hadn’t realized it (but I should have) that the amphitheater was full of rocks. Millions or maybe trillions of them all told. And there is no trail.
As I walked up the talus (broken rock fragments), I heard, or thought I heard voices. Maybe I was wishful thinking. I hoped I would run across some others to tag along with and make the day a success. Other than the goats, the place seemed a little desolate. I had a “Plan B” in mind. I would turn back if nobody else was around. I had done this once before on a mountain for this same reason: safety in numbers.
But, eventually, I woke up to the insight that I was hearing water gurgling down through the rocks.Of course, that’s what water does as it finds the course of least resistance and keeps hikers company if they’re listening. Over the middle of the high point of the talus, I then saw some hikers. The place seemed a lot friendly right away. Maybe, this trip would have a happy ending.
There were three of them. And as I watched, one-by-one they started up the 1,000 foot trail of loose rock debris to the northeast ridge. And I went right on up behind them. I could see the last one was struggling, but was not dismayed for some reason. If he could do it, I could do it. Soon enough, I caught up to him just near the ridge and came across his friends. And then, I saw a fourth guy hiking up behind us. And in this miraculous manner, I had my climbing partners for the remainder of the day.
My niece has since said, and I quote, “I am glad God provided you company and that your journey was safe!” Several hours later, as we were heading down the trail of scree from this saddle, I had heard a shout, “Rock!” And a rock a little smaller than the size of my head sailed past my right knee, just as I ducked, or just before; it happened so fast. And my partner coming down above me called out, “I guess somebody’s looking out for us today!” But, you know, in the way I see it, “His stillness was with me, and everyone else on the mountain.” I said this, and I asked my climbing partners about this, because I felt none of the willies you sometimes experience when encountering the sheer drop-offs on this climb.
The weather was threatening as the pictures show. But it never materialized into anything but a sprinkle here and there. There were occasional bursts of wind. But they never amounted to anything either. We found the few landmarks the guide books tell of: The saddle at 12,980 feet, the smaller saddle a little higher up, the “leap of faith” (which turned out to be nothing serious; a gap between rocks you had to climb around or jump over), the notorious shelf with its narrow place, the green wall (which looked to be too smooth to climb, but actually had ample handholds and foot rests), and the twisty-turny route finding of the man-made cairns interspersed by admittedly steep rock walls.
There were only two or three “Fourth Class” moves the all way up and down. But, even with my limited experience, I felt confident. “Exposure” could be defined that if either of your hand or foot carrying your weight slips or the rock crumbles under you, you could fall. And that feeling of falling is the sense of exposure.
I didn’t have that feeling the entire climb on Pyramid Peak, as crumbly as the going is, and as steep the walls tend to be. You learn that when you are focusing on your present footstep, or your current handhold, you don’t tend to do a lot of looking around, or below you where the danger tends to lurk, if it does. ‘Asking for trouble in the way of looking down near-vertical walls is a waste of energy and a risk that might make you get scared, and get the “willies”. So, the experienced climber doesn’t play around with that. He consciously keeps his focus on the job at hand and foot. And this is what people call “being in the zone.” Being right where you need to be, to do the right thing at the right time, every time.
So, we made it to the top at about 11 a.m. Significantly, having congratulated each other with arms raised and voices shouting, we exchanged names and handshakes. Dave is from Steamboat Springs, , and Matt is from Missouri. And I am from Aspen. In a sense, with our names, we became real. We made it. Worthy of knowing one another’s names. I can’t really speak for them, but I really noticed that I hadn’t been a bit scared the whole time going up, nor was I afraid about the descent, or even standing up on the relatively small platform of the summit of Pyramid, maybe about two- to three-yards wide and six- to seven-yards long.
Maybe I had gone into this having made that choice to begin with. Maybe, I’d never have set out without this being established in my mind, practiced in body and awakened of spirit. Maybe that’s the real mountain. And the three of us, maybe, we saw it from the top, this time, that day and in that spirit. That’s my feeling about it anyway.
Aum. Peace. Amen.
George Ryerson lives and writes in Aspen, Colorado. And he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.