For years the family was invited to the in-laws home in Keystone, Colorado and the day finally arrived when we were able to take them up on their offer. There were five of us going, including my wife and two sons. Upon arriving at their home, my mouth was watering in anticipation of what the next few days would have in store. I wasn’t the least bit interested in skiing, but hiking was definitely on my mind. Keystone sits at 9280 feet above sea level and is surrounded by peaks that top out over 12,000 feet. We arrived in mid-March, celebrating my youngest son Christopher’s birthday.
Our first day there, Christopher was taken out and dropped in the middle of the wilderness to do some bowl skiing, which sounded like something I might like. I decided to go on a short hike and headed out to the trail on the base of the mountain; visible from the back deck of the house. The early thaw had started, so not all the ground was covered in snow, and my hiking boots were just fine for what I was doing. At one point, standing on top of a ridge, I had a 360 degree view of all the mountain peaks surrounding my position. I was exhilarated and had to call someone to share what I was experiencing. “Mom?” I queried as she answered the phone. “Who is this?” she replied. “It’s me. Your son. You’ll never guess where I am right now. I’m in the Rocky Mountains and the mountains are stunning and there’s snow on the ground and I’m standing at 9000 feet above sea level. Just like Jeremiah Johnson. This is really cool!” On the other end of the line I heard, “Now where are you again?” Maybe I had spoken too fast in my excitement.
The next day, I asked Christopher if he wanted to go hiking with me. “Where are we going?” I pointed out the back window at the mountain jutting up into the sky and said, “Up that mountain.” He seemed a little unsure of my plan, but not wanting to disappoint his dad, he agreed to go. We borrowed some snow shoes and started on our way. Upon reaching the foot of the mountain on the manmade trail, we looked at the tree covered slope and after putting on our shoes began climbing up. The angle of our ascent was between 45 and 60 degrees, but not long after we had started, it seemed like we were walking straight up. The curve of the earth did not allow us to see the top of the mountain, but we guessed it at over a thousand feet from where we had started.
At first, the walking was fairly easy; the snow hard under our feet and the only resistance being gravity. Even then, we had to stop every few minutes to catch our breath. About a quarter of the way up the side of the mountain, the snow began to give way under our shoes and sink down about two feet below the surface of the snow. The thaw was causing the snow to soften and as the temperature rose to the mid-40’s, the effect became exacerbated. With one foot below the surface it was extremely difficult to walk; a major effort was needed to pull your foot back to the surface and move forward another step. Christopher gave me a look of which I’m not sure of the meaning; it was either a look of “I can’t believe I’m allowing myself to be taken up this hill” or “I wonder if Dad is going to make it without having a heart attack”. I wasn’t about to quit, having something to prove to him and myself. I wasn’t worried; after all Christopher was a Marine. What could go wrong?
Continuing on our journey, straight up the side of the mountain, straining with every step, I finally commented, “I haven’t seen a single animal up here. Not a deer, turkey, squirrel, rabbit; not even a bird. I wonder if we should have brought some water or food with us.” Christopher, with the same look as before answered, “That would have been a good idea.” We continued, one foot in front of the other, stopping frequently to catch our breath. Finally Christopher asked me, “Dad, do you have any idea where we are? Or where we’re going?” I thought the answers were obvious and replied as I pointed back down the hill, “Down there is where your Nana and Papa live; see the row of houses off there in the distance?” I then pointed up in front of us and said, “We’re going to the top of the mountain and down the other side. Once we get there we’ll look for a road or something and that should take us back to where we started.” Christopher mumbled something under his breath and we continued.
At age fifty I was beginning to tire after a couple of hours of “walking” up the hill and even though we hadn’t reached the top (I’m not sure we would have known if we did reach the top) I decided that due to lengthening shadows indicating the lateness of the day, it was time to begin our trip back to the base. We took a turn forty-five degrees to the left and began our descent back down the mountain. The incline was steep and with the melting snow the footing was treacherous; falling down becoming a major hindrance to our progression. We were not only exhausted fighting the snow with every step, but we were becoming soaked with water which, due to the setting sun, was quite chilling (because the air temperature when we started was over forty degrees and sunny, we were only dressed in light fleece and tee shirts).
At one point Christopher, fifty feet to my left, yelled for me to come to him as he was stuck and couldn’t go any further. As I reached him I could see that he was spread eagle, with both snow shoes stuck and buried; unable to free either of his feet. Once I had helped him get the weight off his shoes, he alerted me that one of his snow shoes was broken. He now had to try to navigate down the hill, in three feet of snow, with only hiking boots. I offered him my snow shoes, but he declined. We continued down the hill in a race against time; wanting to reach the bottom before it became too dark to see. Climbing over dead trees, through brush, over large rocks and deep ravines, we finally saw a road and “hurried” as fast as we could to reach it; the remaining terrain as hazardous as any we had encountered up to this point.
We finally reached the road and as I removed my snow shoes to carry them the rest of the way back, I felt a huge weight lifted off my shoulders. What would I have told Julie if Christopher and I had become lost on the mountain? Walking the remaining way on a logging road, I was feeling pretty cocky. Not only did my legs feel lighter, but so did my spirits. “Man that was fun! I can’t wait to do it again!” Christopher wasn’t as excited as me and commented, “That was stupid. I can’t believe I let you talk me into doing that.” I tried to cheer him up, “You’re right, it wasn’t too smart. But we made it, and we had fun didn’t we? This will be one of those adventures we can tell our children and grandchildren about!” Christopher wasn’t convinced and replied, “It was stupid and I’m not telling anyone about it.” It’s funny how two people can look at the same event with such disparate perspectives. I couldn’t wait to get back to the house to tell the rest of the family how much fun we’d had.