Tony Vagneur: Saddle Sore

Tony Vagneur
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado

If you talk to my friend Margaret, she will tell you the thoughtful words from her father as she headed out on a hike through the high country alone. “The mountains have no favorites,” he’d say.

The tragic death of lone cyclist Linda Sellers a couple of weeks ago in Cattle Creek has turned up the volume on whether one should ride, hike, soar, or whatever alone. It’s doubtful her death will change anyone’s behavior, but there has always been a cautioning chorus of those against doing outside activities alone.

My neighbor Jane confides that after the Sellers accident, a group of friends, knowing her penchant for biking alone, coerced her into a group ride, but she wasn’t convinced. “It’s nice to see my friends, but that’s a social event, not a bicycle ride.”

From the time I was about 12, the old man would throw me, a couple of horses, a tent and enough groceries for a week into the Diamond T stock truck and deliver us somewhere into the mountains above Lenado. I’d pack salt for the cattle, fix fence, sleep a lot, learn to cook, and dream about girls, without ever seeing another person.

One time, I got disgusted with the whole thing and was trailing out when I met my dad coming up to check on me.

I expected an ass-chewing, but he seemed glad to see me.

During the summer, I keep my eye on about 200 head of cattle in the mountains above the Roaring Fork Valley. “You don’t go up there alone, do you?” people will ask. “Well, hell yes, alone. If I waited for everyone that said they’d like to help, I’d still be back in 2008.”

Truthfully, I’ve grown up operating alone, and haven’t given much thought to whether it’s healthy. The Forest Service started requesting I carry an official radio for personal safety and potential emergencies. It gives me honest weather reports; I hear a lot of chatter from the sheriff’s office and know when the summer and fall work crews head home each day.

About the only thing I can’t do with it is call out with any reliability. I’ve given in to a cell phone in deference to those who profess to worry about me.

Winter before last, I took a hard fall on Aspen Mountain, landed with my face buried in the packed snow, and found myself to be totally, but (thank God!) only temporarily, paralyzed. The one thing I could move was my chin, and I furiously cranked it around in a circle, trying to get airspace.

Had I been alone, I might have suffocated, but my ski buddy, Bob Snyder, came to the rescue, creating a hole in the snow around my face. Do I still ski by myself most days? Of course.

The other day, my horses (Billy and Chief) and I were zigzagging down a steep, jack-oak covered hillside without the benefit of trail, keeping a sharp eye out for hidden drop-offs that could spell trouble.

We’d had a long day, packing salt to distant ridges, and the horses were eager to get home; I was totally relaxed and encouraging them along.

“This is how it happens,” I briefly thought. In a heartbeat, disaster lays its nasty breath upon you and your world is forever changed. No one would have purposefully looked for me in that location, at least not for a while. Pursuing activities alone in the mountains isn’t necessarily macho or brave, dangerous or dumb.

One weighs the risks, makes a decision and it becomes a personal preference. For that no one should be made to feel reckless, uncaring, or unreasoning.

In the end, and in the words of Dylan Thomas, those of us who travel alone will “not go gentle into that good night.”


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