Thursday, October 10, 2013

Rocky Mountain High: A Family Story

I hadn't done anything significant with my brothers for 40 years, since we all went antelope hunting in Wyoming with our father in 1973.  Our brother Bill was with us then, when we were four, but Bill passed away twenty years ago. We miss him terribly.

I grew up in a wonderful family:  mom & dad, my sister Judy, three years younger, then Bill, Jim, Tony, Mardie.  I was the oldest.  My career in the National Park Service took me to Wyoming, then Alaska for 32 years.  Jim lived in Los Alamos, Tony in Salt Lake, so logistically it was difficult for us to get together except for our annual family reunion.

This summer brother Jim and his wife Teri and brother Tony and wife Shelly planed to climb Mount Elbert, at 14,440' the highest peak in Colorado, and they invited Nori and me along.  We agreed to meet at Jim and Teri's new retirement palace in Salida, Colorado, a few miles from Mount Elbert.  Nori had met Tony and Shelly, and now she would meet Jim and Teri.

We drove the three hours from Ridgway on US-50, the loneliest road in America, up out of Montrose, past the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, along the Blue Mesa Reservoir, through the small college town of Gunnison, over Monarch summit, and down to Salida.  It's another world from Ridgway and the San Juan mountains.

When we arrived, Tony and Shelly fresh from Salt Lake City were walking around the yard.  We hugged, and immediately Jim and Teri drove in.  Their house sits west of the town in an open vista surrounded by 14,000' peaks whose rounded summits crenellate the skyline.  It is a Southwest adobe style home held together with huge pine logs exposed on the interior.  Teri had decorated each bedroom with a quilt motif; we had the bear room giving onto a southern exposure.  As I walked through the house I saw through the open window a bird feeder in the front yard.  Pine grossbeaks, a Western tanager, yellow-headed blackbirds, red-winged blackbirds, and Brewer's blackbirds fought with ground squirrels for the sunflower seeds.

Dinner was a renewal brotherly friendship and an eye-opening introduction for Nori as we sat around a long table passing bowls of a variety of salads that Teri had made for the occasion.

We were up early in the morning, grabbed a quick cold breakfast, and were off, driving north to the start of the hike.  Jim drove the highway, then turned onto a small dirt road which wound up the mountain side to a small parking area in the trees.  Our team, wearing shorts, running shirts, cool ball caps and bright colors readied the light packs and headed uphill.  We had 4,000' and about 4 miles to go to the summit, so I started off slowly letting the younger rabbits take off
 Shelly, Nori (hiding), Tony, Teri, Jim at the trailhead
 We take off up the trail
Nori and I set our own pace

The first part of the hike winds up switchbacks through an evergreen and aspen forest for a couple of miles.  All summer I had been working at re-learning the Rocky Mountain wildflowers, so I stopped from time to time to take a photograph hoping to key it later.  The morning was cool, and we were excited to break out and see the big mountains.  
Columbines, the Colorado state flower

Once out in the open the trail eased up and we could see our goal ahead.  It looked close and distant at the same time.  In miles we were about half way, but we still had a couple of thousand feet of elevation, and we were already at about 12,500'.  
The crew with the peak in the distance

Breathing and exertion came harder the higher we climbed.  Nori and I told the runners to hike on ahead and we would catch them at the summit, taking the pressure off us to keep up their pace.  Teri is a marathon runner, Jim is a masters swimmer and runner, and Tony and Shelly have been bagging summits, putting them all in the 'Expert' category.  We pushed on up the long gentle slope, watching it steepen until it again turned to switchbacks.  In an unkind turn, the trail rounded the peak on the left and showed us that we still had another thousand feet to climb to the summit.
 Nori headed up the final switchbacks

Near the top we get "Summit Fever" and continue pushing our bodies to the top where all the pain is forgotten as we see the family, several others, and a vast panorama of the Rocky Mountain high points.
 Our crew on the summit: l to r, Jim, Teri, Shelly, Nori,Tony, Ralph
 The view from the top

We dive into our packs, hide behind some rock walls that cut the wind, and dig out our lunch.  I'm having a blast and scurry around taking photos of everyone and everything.  The view goes forever; after the morning rains all the dust and pollution has been washed from the air and the sky is flawless.  I mentally plan a hundred more trips into the mountains.  

We hug, talk about the lowpoints and highpoints of the climb.  It feels good to be here with Nori, my brothers and sisters-in-law.  
 Teri & Jim

Nori and Yours Truly