My first Mountain Top experience came at age 14. On a summer Boy Scout trip to the Philmont Ranch in New Mexico we trekked to the top of Mount Baldy, or ‘Old Baldy’ as the old gold miners called it. I recall it as a tougher-than-average hike but that was just compared to my usual Scout hikes on the Pacific Crest Trail. As a kid I didn’t appreciate the accomplishment like I do today. I didn’t even take a picture. I certainly didn’t think it was any kind of defining moment in my life. The hike that day wasn’t very long and aside from some loose rock (scree, serious climbers call it) on the final scramble, it wasn’t technical.
Another term serious mountaineers use, topographic prominence, refers to a mountain’s relative height to its surrounding landscape. Baldy’s is just 2,701’ and I believe our hike was only 3.5 miles each way. It may be the easiest summit I’ve completed despite being the second highest peak I’ve experienced. It only struck me much later, looking back, that Baldy’s 12,445’ elevation sounds fairly impressive. At least in these parts.
By comparison one of the most difficult summit journeys I’ve done is Mount St. Helens whose blown-out crater rim “summit”, paltry by comparison, only measures 8K’ and change. But the elevation we gained that day was 4,500’.
A little on that trek: My hiking partners, cousins Sam and Dave, and I started out about 11pm, hiking through the night in hopes of a sunrise summit. In the dark of night and cover of snow, we ended up losing the trail. We were still heading basically for the intended crater rim spot but ended up ascending a more steep and icy route just at that time of night our bodies were tiring. And then the wind began rapidly picking up to significant speeds and the ice-frosted snow underneath thickened and stopped securely crunching under our footfalls. Thank God for good crampons. We conquered the steep slope but ended up taking an hour break pressed against an outcropping of rocks trying desperately to stay warm and keep that blasted wind off us. It was a sobering experience for a father of two, to be sure, and a good reminder of why we take the safety precautions we do. And to think I’ve started hikes at trailheads higher than this summit!
These experiences are all relative.
Now, I am definitely not a Mountain Climber. I don’t own rope you measure in meters. I don’t own carabiners rated for anything more than securing a towel to your golf bag. What I’m doing is more like ‘extreme hiking’. With an ice axe, boot crampons and a helmet we can look the part of climbers but most of the time we’re really just walking. Up steep mountains. Over snow, ice and sometimes boulders.
We start at the prescribed trailhead (usually the highest point up you can drive a car). Then we backpack a common route to the summit, sometimes with a short tent sleep somewhere in the middle. I may have some “rope up” treks in my near future but I’m not there yet.
Other mountain enthusiasts pick more difficult or longer routes up grander glaciers or rock formations. Noble and impressive. Then again, other climbers take any advantage they can get to hit the top, such as on Mount Hood, renting a ride in a SnowCat to chew up the first 2,500 feet from Timberline Lodge to the Palmer Chairlift. To each their own.
Some spend days at altitude to acclimatize and another full day to summit. Some elite athletes race up and bomb down on skis in a single morning. And I’ll never forget on a dry and warm day on South Sister watching a grade school girl in sandals begin the final ascent past grown men in technical boots who’d said they weren’t going to continue. The men changed their minds.
Pride is powerful; the body’s built-in miracle drug.
Despite differences in method and style there is a certain bond mountain summiters hold. The community you will find on dedicated Mountaineering websites and blogs out there shows as much. And on a trek when summit ascenders pass descenders, a quick friendly conversation is nearly always had.
There are a lot of downsides to this activity. The risk of injury or worse, for sure. But the guaranteed downside is pain. All kinds of pain. There’s the cold. The muscle ache and body fatigue. Sleep deprivation. Sore knees, feet, backs. Blisters, rashes, scrapes. Altitude headaches and nausea.
But the upsides. Oh, the upsides. For a person who loves the outdoors, loves sport and competing but also gets high on color and texture, witnessing unique shapes and ‘scapes… it is wholly ideal.
- To see the icy textures up close.
- To experience the landscape changes from valley floor to forest to timberline to peak.
- To gain unique vantage points, looking down onto the land you normally inhabit.
- To see more stars at night than you ever thought possible.
- To be within view of civilization but feel so, so far away.
- To witness “mountain shadow” (a mountain peak’s sunrise shadow on its Western face or, even cooler, right in front of you on top of clouds or haze)
- To realize in such a unique way the size and ferocity of these landscape dominators.
- To constantly experience completely new views of mountains you thought you were pretty familiar with.
- To take the final step and realize, after hours of toil, that you’re there. That you can now spin 360 degrees and see absolutely nothing above you and miraculous topography below.
- To push myself mentally and push my body physically to accomplishments just not replicated in a gym.
- To glissade down (basically the longest sled run you’ve ever taken)
- And then there’s the simple accomplishment of it. It’s like the biggest, fastest roller coaster at the theme park. Sure the smaller rides are fun and you’d rather just do the bumper cars with the kids… But it’s there. It’s the big one. How can you say you “did” the park without hitting its main attraction?
When you live near a mountain range, these are our main attractions. I live in the shadow of the Cascade Range so my bucket list looks like this (four down, six to go). There are bigger ranges in the world but these peaks are my peaks.
On the long slog back down the mountain (when the snow has softened too much to glissade) with our knees throbbing, quads screaming, heads aching and stomachs growling, we play a game called “How much money would it take for you to turn around at the trailhead and go right back up again”? I believe the first time we played it my figure was around $10K. Subsequent trips may have ended up five or ten times that. I honestly think on most occasions, even with iron will power, my body simply would not have been able to make that happen.
Many times the phrase “That’s the last mountain I will ever climb” is uttered by someone. But “The Pain is Temporary, the Pride is Forever”, right? Or “Time heals all wounds”, they say. Well, time also heals memories of wounds it seems…
The over/under on time passed until we start planning the next one is about three months.