Love, Death, and Sheer Joy, High in the Rocky Mountains

Gee, the mountains are pretty when they’re mad.

It’s hotter than hell in Colorado today — i.e. The New Normal.

And yet, the Continental Divide, thirty-five miles west of my barn/studio in Fort Collins, has already been dusted with snow, and we’re nearing the one-year anniversary of the snowstorm that killed off our tomato plants last September.

The hummingbirds weren’t too happy about it, either.

When the sun slinks to a more remote apogee, my mind wanders into the mountains, where, with any luck, the water that nurtures everything and everyone out west will gather gently, steadily, over the coming seven months.

I hope you took a moment to read the caption for that one, so you don’t get the mistaken impression that I’m capable of such a fine rendering. It was painted by my hiking buddy — and artistic inspiration — Mike Wilson.

Last year at this time — just before the epic snowstorm that slammed the door on such shenanigans — Mike accompanied me to the Boulder Field on Longs Peak, the only Colorado 14er (i.e., 14,000’+ of threatening elevation) in Rocky Mountain National Park. It’s a notorious hike. Every year a couple or three hikers resolve to make it to the flat-topped peak, and fall off a cliff on the way up or down, or wander off trail in a surprise snowstorm.

Here’s how Mike captured Longs Peak:

If it looks like there are lots of quick routes down, you’re right. Terminal velocity is 122 miles per hour, and you get plenty of time to think about that particular shortcut as you pick your way up the Keyhole Route, which is how non-rock-climbers like me climb Longs Peak.

I wrote in my journal: “We lingered a while in the Keyhole, peering through the looking glass at a forbidding, vertiginous, gaping landscape. Then we began picking our way along the ledges. It became clear, instantly, that this hike up (and, worryingly, back down) would be a series of critical decisions about each hand hold and foot placement, and a matter of focusing ahead, not down for god’s sake, but on the security of each movement.”

Now that I’ve survived all that, I can safely say: That’s why I love climbing 14ers. It’s enough of a challenge, with small but real life-risk, that they wonderfully concentrate the mind. You notice everything. Treasure every successful step. Bless the rocky handholds that affix you to the cliff faces.

The threat of death will do that for a guy.

I love this quote from the legendary mountaineer George Mallory. No, not “because it’s there.” Mallory’s other famous quote: “People ask me, ‘What is the use of climbing Mount Everest?’ and my answer must at once be, ‘It is of no use.’There is not the slightest prospect of any gain whatsoever. Oh, we may learn a little about the behaviour of the human body at high altitudes, and possibly medical men may turn our observation to some account for the purposes of aviation. But otherwise nothing will come of it. We shall not bring back a single bit of gold or silver, not a gem, nor any coal or iron… If you cannot understand that there is something in man which responds to the challenge of this mountain and goes out to meet it, that the struggle is the struggle of life itself upward and forever upward, then you won’t see why we go. What we get from this adventure is just sheer joy. And joy is, after all, the end of life. We do not live to eat and make money. We eat and make money to be able to live. That is what life means and what life is for.”

Mallory lost that battle, and his life, when he and his climbing partner disappeared on the north ridge in 1924. Mallory was found frozen, reclining, and perfectly preserved, seventy-five years later, by the mountaineer Conrad Anker, on a Nova/BBC expedition. Outside Online covered it here.

“Climb if you will,” wrote Edward Whymper, in Scrambles Among the Alps, “but remember that courage and strength are nought without prudence, and that a momentary negligence may destroy the happiness of a lifetime. Do nothing in haste; look well to each step; and from the beginning think what may be the end.”

Every year, I read accounts of climbers who pinwheel off 14er cliff faces, or become disoriented in snowstorms, or misunderstand the lethal weather patterns in the summertime, when thunderstorms lash those high ridges.

A mountain doesn’t give a shit about your summit attempt, of course; it’ll shrug you off with all the indifference of a vast cold universe, then wake up the next morning smiling innocently at the sun.

All the better to follow the counsel of Ed Viesturs, one of the mountaineers on the IMAX expedition to Mt. Everest, in the cursed year of 1996. Viesturs and his fellow climbers recovered a wedding ring from the frozen hand of the guide Rob Hall, one of the eight casualties of the Into Thin Air climb, and returned it to his widow.

“Getting to the top is optional,” Viesturs wrote, “Getting down is mandatory.”

All of which may give you some solace as you view Mike Wilson’s paintings. They carry the threat, and unearthly beauty, of these mountains, and you and I don’t even have to go up there — or get down from there — to enjoy them!

The entire collection was recently featured at the Collective Community Art Center, in Lafayette, Colorado. You can tour it on this video.

Mike is currently seeking a Medici of the Mountains who will buy his entire set of 14er watercolors, so he can donate the proceeds to The Cottonwood Institute — a youth leadership organization that connects middle- and high-schoolers with the great outdoors.

Good job, Cottonwood! You too, Mike! See you on the trail to elsewhere.

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Road 2 Elsewhere by Peter Moore

Road 2 Elsewhere by Peter Moore

Road 2 Where, Exactly? Hope you’ll join me for this picnic.