Savoring a mountain high
The couple at Prince Creek Divide had a purpose, but they were in no hurry. Well-equipped, smiling and chatty, they were set to get to the top of Mount Sopris — on snowshoes.
Clark, Graeme and I applied skins to skis, clipped into our bindings, swung on our packs and went crunching off over the ice-glazed road toward the Thomas Lakes trailhead.
A mile up the road, I turned back to Clark.
“There’s no way those two are going to make the summit — not at their pace.” I was feeling a bit superior being on skis and knowing well the arduous approach to the peak.
Suddenly, the couple was alongside us, doing a fast walk in their alpine mountaineering boots, snowshoes strapped to their packs. The woman was in front, the man only a pace behind. They smiled happily as they passed.
I turned to Clark, this time with an expression of surprise. Now it seemed likely they would summit the peak, which stood beautifully before us glowing white beneath a deep-blue spring sky.
We caught them at the trailhead while they stripped off layers. We skinned past where the trail breaking began and didn’t see them again until early afternoon, just below treeline on the southern ridge.
We were surprised to see them saunter up on their snowshoes with happy salutations.
“You’re not still planning on the top, are you?” Graeme asked.
“Sure,” they chorused. “We’ve got until midnight if we want.”
In typical fashion, I asked a few leading questions that led to certain disclosures. The woman was about 40, the man 53. They had met recently on Capitol Peak, both climbing solo. Since then, they had done a number of mountaineering adventures together.
The woman said her first summit was Mount Sneffels, done on a whim with her husband, who “hated it.” She, however, was snared by the mountain high.
“I decided then that I would do what I wanted with my life,” she said with a satisfied smile. “And that meant climbing mountains. I’ve done most of the 14ers solo, and now we do climbs together.”
“Don’t these trips cause some issues with your husband?” asked Clark, now that familiarity on the mountain gave license to blunt curiosity.
“Yes,” she confessed. “There are some issues, but we deal with them.”
Soon, but unhurriedly, they said goodbye and plodded past us toward the high, broad ridge that loomed overhead, dwarfing us antlike humans. We watched them go and realized how at home they were here and with each other and how easy it all seemed.
They were experienced and had the right gear, but they had something else that Graeme described in an email the next day: “They take a very different approach to the mountains than most folks these days who are focused on getting up and back as fast as possible. Backcountry success is often measured in hours and minutes as opposed to quality of experience, connecting with the natural world and spending time with self.
“They go into the backcountry with an objective but with no self-imposed time frame. They are prepared for however long it takes to achieve that goal. Their experience and preparation allow them to be comfortable out there on terms other than a schedule.”
Graeme said he detected in this woman a confident manner that revealed “a level of intensity and self-centeredness” that often marks adventurers — not just in the mountains but in any venture that requires risk, daring and independence.
My friends and I seek that same feeling on bike tours, hikes and the long ski tours that take us far from what most people would equate with security. Having innate security and a strong sense of mission is what this couple was all about and a reminder of what the mountains and deserts can cultivate in anyone willing to be open to it.
As we skied down through variations of corn snow and spring crud, I glanced back at the summit ridge, hoping to see them. By then they would have been mere specks, but I wanted to see them, just to celebrate their happy, natural style.
Paul Andersen’s column appears on Monday. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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The past sneaks up on us in the strangest of ways, and I don’t mean bounty hunters flashing those “Wanted: Dead or Alive” posters in our faces.