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Up to the challenge in the Rocky Mountains; Colorado: Climbing Pikes Peak and Mount Bierstadt, and learning some life lessons.; Destination: The West

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The trip was jinxed from the start.

For two years, in point of fact. Ever since our small band of would-be mountain climbers planned to scale Pikes Peak on the Fourth of July 1997.

What could be more patriotic? Climbing the well-worn trail up the mountain that inspired "America the Beautiful," we'd be doing that particularly American thing -- hard stuff (climbing 12 miles and 7,000 feet up) the relatively easy way.

That was before Candy's dad died and Ernie's back went out and other events cropped up to delay the trip -- in July 1997 and again in July 1998.

So at the end of June 1999, our airline reservations changed yet again for the Fourth of Julyy, we all began to tread cautiously. We checked ourselves daily for injuries -- especially my fiance John, the only member of the original crew who had not yet been responsible for a postponement.

When the day of departure arrived with us intact, we thought perhaps the gods were smiling. This would be fun -- we'd conquer one of Colorado's "fourteeners," the closest 14,000-foot mountains to Baltimore. Colorado has 54 of them, and of course some souls won't have lived until they've climbed all 54.

And then we met Mount Bierstadt. That's where we really learned about fourteeners -- about the altitude that renders you breathlessly invincible and stupid; about climbing right on past your fears and doubts and protective inhibitions, to a top where there is no snack bar; about travel that's more than physical.

In the end, Bierstadt taught us something unexpected about Pikes Peak -- that maybe the best way to climb a fourteener is to start from the top.

Mount Bierstadt

Bierstadt was Ernie's idea.

Anything regarding mountains is bound to be. At 62 he is a true believer, a soft-spoken anti-leader whose gentle ways have surprising force in woods and on trails.

Soon after we arrived in Denver to stay a few days and acclimate to being a mile high, Ernie pulled out a mountaineering book. Its binder torn and pages falling out, its copyright reading 1978, the volume by Robert M. Ormes described Bierstadt almost in passing, as if a walk up it was nothing.

Named for the artist Albert Bierstadt, romantic painter of mountains, our mountain looked merely like a pretty way station on the way to Mount Evans, its more challenging neighbor. It would be an ideal place for us to prepare for the odyssey of climbing Pikes Peak.

But from the foot of Guanella Pass, the 11,000-foot point to which one can drive before beginning the six-mile round-trip climb to the summit, Bierstadt looked far different. Insurmountable, in a word.

It's hard to know how being two miles high will affect you. Some get sick. Some get stupid. After two days of adjusting in Denver, the Mile High City, I felt weirdly strong, as if fighting to fill my lungs with thin air was somehow cleansing. As we fought our way through "the Willows," a swampy section of so-called trail that snakes through an endless thicket of bushes, we began to stop every 30 steps. Then every 20.

For Candy, who has asthma, the combination of swampy plants and mountain air constricted her lungs so badly that she was forced to stop at 12,000 feet.

Meanwhile, other climbers -- we guessed they were Coloradans accustomed to the altitude -- scampered by us as if bopping up a mall escalator. As we neared the top, going slower and slower, a fit blonde complained to her flagging companion: "I want you to suck it up. Everyone on this mountain is tired."

But that didn't begin to describe how we felt. In my short denim shorts, I was chilled to the bone, and increasingly unable to focus. John was so dizzy he had to hug a jutting rock. Ernie, we later learned, was developing double vision and keeping it secret.

And now, at the top of a ridge that had looked from below like a hop and a skip from the summit, we faced a narrow cliff that jutted steeply upward, blanketed by a snowfield that appeared none too stable. To our oxygen-deprived brains, it looked to be its own separate mountain, on which one false step could spell disaster.

I said I'd like to turn back.

"Fine with me," said John.

"Me, too," said Bob.

Ernie paused, looked down, and said: "I'd like to try."

It was a sentence remarkable for its psychological architecture. 'I" -- but we couldn't let him go alone, could we? "Would" -- of course, only if we agreed. "Like" -- c'mon, don't disappoint me. "To try" -- the essence of a reasonable request.

How could we turn him down?

I led the way, promptly plunging my bare leg deep into a snowbank.

The cursing began.

About an hour later, we had touched the geodetic survey marker at the 14,060-foot top of Bierstadt. Five minutes later, we were headed down, mindful of the icy winds and unpredictable clouds that have caught many a euphoric summiteer off guard at the tops of mountains.

And several hours later, we all made it to the bottom, where a hiker from Alaska had written on the register: "Sick TD," meaning "to death." "Lost my mojo," another entry read.

Pikes Peak

Two days later, just before we prepared to tackle the 13-mile Pikes Peak trail, the jinx reared its ugly head. On an unassuming city street, John's ankle buckled under him without apparent provocation. A bad sprain. A sure sign the gods had not yet been appeased.

That's when it became clear: On Pikes Peak, we would take it from the top.

John's sprain provided us with one silver lining -- a ride to the Pikes Peak summit, since his ankle was too sore to tackle the trail.

And what a summit. "America the Beautiful" country it is -- snack bar and gift shop notwithstanding.

For a quick escape from all that, we set off for the Barr Trail, the most popular foot route up and down Pikes Peak. It's popular for a reason; though the trail ascends (or in our case, descends) a steep 7,000 feet from start to finish, its switchbacks, excellent maintenance and terrific scenery make the trip seem a breeze. Nothing like Bierstadt.

Which is to say, it lacked the thrill of a challenge.

The first sign of that came about a mile down the mountain, in an encounter we came to call Humbling Experience No. 1. (There would be many more).

An older woman stopped to lean against the rocks, breathing a bit heavily but not really winded. "How far to the top?" she asked pleasantly. We told her. She was happy. She'd started at 5:45 a.m. -- it was now about 10 a.m.

Humbling Experience No. 2 arrived when a jogger cheerfully ran past us up the mountain -- and later passed us on his way back down, completing the round trip while we still labored on our easy one-way.

Putting those aside, going down provided us all of Pikes Peak's beauty with little of the potential pain. Starting above the tree line, we saw stark, spectacular scenery first. The strange beauty of bristlecone pine arrived at about 10,000 feet, along with timely shelter -- Ernie got his wish soon after musing that with a little rain, the day would be perfect.

That came just as we were stopping for lunch at Barr Camp, a quirky little shelter halfway down the trail that offers a port in a storm, complete with a sweet old dog named Jack and a shelf of well-thumbed novels.

A family in Mennonite dress -- and no special hiking gear to speak of -- sped past our plodding, Gore-Texed figures.

At that point, we may have lost count of the precise number of humbling experiences.

Instead, we kept our eyes on the spectacular alpine flowers -- flaming Indian paintbrush, dainty bluebells and, at long last, a field of columbines, the star-shaped state flower.

A final set of switchbacks on the steep descent showed off panoramic views of Colorado Springs, Manitou Springs and the Garden of the Gods, the stunning collection of red rock that has been preserved for the public as a city park. At the bottom -- a respectable, if not speedy, six hours after we began -- we hoisted our feet above our hearts to ease our tired muscles for the next day. Definitely the better of the two mountain trips.

Or was it?

The photos came back several weeks after we'd been home. I flipped through them, eager for evidence of the hardships we'd endured on Bierstadt.

Let the record reflect that instead I found pictures of people smiling their faces off at the top of that unheralded fourteener. It was happiness of an insane, giddy quality, maybe, but happiness nonetheless.

Photographs cannot lie. Perhaps, then, it's memory that sometimes does.

WHEN YOU GO...

Getting there:

Mount Bierstadt: Take Interstate 70 west from Denver to Georgetown. Follow the signs up the mountain to Guanella Pass.

Pikes Peak: Take Interstate 25 south about 70 miles toward Colorado Springs. Take Exit 141 west on Highway 24 toward Manitou Springs; continue along 24 to the Pikes Peak tollbooth at the mountain's base. It will take you about an hour, and $35 a car, to get to the top.

Information: Manitou Springs Chamber of Commerce: 354 Manitou Ave., Manitou Springs, Colo. 80829; www.manitousprings.org

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