“Peak Bagging”: Colorado 14ers

Someone at a dinner party on Wednesday mentioned the challenge of climbing all 50-some-odd 14ers in Colorado. On my drive home I wondered about Peak Baggers (those who set out specifically to ‘bag’ the peaks) and folks’ infatuation with summiting them.

The next morning I woke up to the thought, “where you wonder, there you must go.” Phonetically I could not tell whether the word was ‘wonder’ or ‘wander’ and I delighted in the open endedness. I packed my backpack, brushed my teeth and researched various peaks online. As it turns out, there is a large number of people who focus a great deal of energy into climbing to the tops of these mountains; and many of them are fastidious researchers and internet savvy. This results in an abundance of Climb Reviews and message boards. I found 14ers to be a most illuminating resource.  Some mountains were said to be busy as highways, others were remote and required a great deal of know-how and a GPS. Then I came across a cluster of peaks in the Mosquito Range: Democrat, Cameron, Lincoln, and Bross; all sharing ridges, each ringing in at over 14,000 ft. I immediately called the Forest Service for information and headed out the door.

Colorado has a stupendous quantity of road signs, I suspect there is some state law which mandates a sign every 250 feet along mountain highways. Against a yellow diamond are frantic squiggly black lines which make you wonder how NOT to die on the road ahead. Then there are orange signs warning of ‘Road Damage’; some of them appear to be permanent. I encountered a scrolling road sign which warned, “Caution, watch for Water & Rocks on road next 8 miles.” Just as my brain began to wonder at this. BLAM, I was driving through a car wash. It seems the local stream found her water supply too abundant for the usual rivets and so had commandeered those across the road.

After a bit I began to notice the towns were becoming more practical. Manicured outdoor shopping centers were replaced by brightly colored wood store fronts offering touristy bits, such as float trips and jewelry, next to the Real Estate Office, Harware Shop, Library, and Saloon. Three story mansions, wrapped in decks and ornamented with hot tubs gave way to no-nonsense gable tin roof homes. Then I dropped out of the mountains and arrived at Fairplay Forest Service station. Walking in the front doors was to step into a Fidgit Wonderland. Books and maps and maps and more maps. I was immediately light-headed and giddy.

The friendly fellow behind the desk was Nick. He helped me find the maps I needed for my climb the next day. He also told me stories of a beautiful little hike tucked into the woods, yet cultivating expansive views and waterfalls. I may have had to do a twirly dance to let off a bit of the abundance of excitement. Nick and a wonderfully knowledgable woman whose name I cannot remember, gave me details as to how to get up to Kite Lake campground; tonight’s base camp.

Climbing up into the canyon was an astounding trip in itself. Walls of red scree rose thousands of feet above the valley. An ancient, abandoned red barn stood in the foreground. As I passed it, I glanced over and by a trick of the afternoon light I saw that the giant wood door opened into the mountain side.

Tree cover became sparse then turned the terrain over to shrubs and spongy moss grass, dotted by all variety of brilliant, resilient wild flowers. Then even alpine vegetation gave way to slopes and fields of boulders and rocks (‘scree’ are the fields of smaller rocks whilst ‘talus slopes’ are the boulder fields). We climbed up to just below where the peaks cupped Lake Emma and Kite Lake in their highest, most intimate, rocky hollows. I camped where their overflows converged.

Nestled in the high bosom of Pike National Forest, I began to make camp. As the fire ban was recently lifted I immediately began looking for wood on which to cook a supper of Annie’s Mac n’ Cheese and bacon bits. Only then did I admit to the fact that at 12,040 feet, there is no sizeable wood to be found. So I began to scrounge about for twigs. The neighbors up the hill drove past and the driver (Green Thumb) leaned out his window, “do you need some wood?”

“My Mother taught me never to accept wood from strange men,” I replied.

He laughed and pointed to their sizeable selection, “help yourself,” he offered, and down the road they went. After a bit more hunting I realized I could not cook my dinner without their kindness, so I stole a few logs and enjoyed a warm, hearty fire and watched the valley slip into her silky, cool evening wear.

Later that night I wandered up to say thanks and ended up sitting and chatting with Green Thumb, Cousin, and Jackson the dog. Our topics wandered far and wide and were often punctuated by long silences as we gazed into the heavens. The stars were thick and the Milky Way was thicker. A comet streaked along the jagged horizon of peaks. The moon took her own sweet time in showing up and by the time she did, I was already in bed, resting up for tomorrow’s climb into the high, rocky wastelands.

But now I’ve droned on and on with the set up, so you’ll just have to wait for the crux. Besides, I rolled around in my sleeping bag all night anticipating the climb to come, so you get to wonder and wait too.

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