Free Falling

ORIGINALLY WRITTEN BOB WOELK
We crested the boulder field and looked around. We had figured the summit house of Pike’s Peak would be easy to spot once we had negotiated the final 1,000 feet to the top.


It wasn’t.


A heavy fog kept the souvenir shop hidden. We stepped out onto a service road that went in two directions. After a brief discussion, we chose to go to the right, toward the south, even though the path seemed to dip a bit downward. After more than four hours of climbing and hiking, we certainly did not want to descend. At least not just yet.


As it turned out, going right was the right choice.


I had ascended Pike’s Peak once before, probably at least 15 years ago when my brother Rick and his wife were working at Rocky Mountain Mennonite Camp at the base of the 14,110-foot mountain.


At that time, we had walked the seven miles up and seven miles down at breakneck speed, attempting to return to the cover of trees before thunderstorms trapped us out in the open of the tundra above 11,000 feet. We had just reached our cars when the heavens opened on us. We would have been soaked out on the trail.


In the back of my mind, as I prepared to challenge the peak again this summer, I recalled how absolutely exhausted I was after completing the first climb. I remembered how gravity had demanded that my body go down by the shortest route instead of carefully negotiating the switchbacks and rocks. It had taken all my strength just to keep from running down the trail. My back and legs had burned for days.


Determined not to suffer in the same way, I had begun my 2001 preparation for my second assault on the peak by running at least three times a week. I knew that lung power alone would not ensure a more comfortable climb, but I had figured my legs and back would be strengthened as well by my jogging regime.


I really did not have any idea if I could make it to the top, but I was determined to give it a try.


Though the sky the day before had dawned crystal clear, the morning of the Pike hike was already hinting at a rainy day by 6 a.m. when my alarm broke the early morning calm. In fact, by the time we reached the Craigs campground, the starting point of the “Mennonite Trail” on the west side, a light shower was already under way.


We grabbed our backpacks filled with snacks, water, rain gear and cameras, and headed up the trail.


Our leader was Allan Bartel, arguably the most experienced Pike’s Peak guide ever. Allan, who has directed RMMC for the past 19 years, has led more than 70 expeditions during his tenure. He has resigned his post, but he has an ambitious goal of ascending the peak 50 times this year as a fund-raiser for the camp and to commemorate his 50th birthday.


Our trip was his 37th of the year. His hope was to complete the climbs by the end of August.


The first part of the climb was actually just a long walk through the trees. We gained a couple hundred feet of altitude before entering the switchback portion of the hike. By the end of that stretch, we were topping a ridge on the tundra at more than 11,000 feet.


It was at this point that the weather took a turn from summer to winter. The temperature hovered around 40 degrees and the wind was blowing at somewhere between 25 and 500 mph.


We sought shelter behind the largest rock we could find and waited for all 20 members of the expedition to catch up. Conversation was difficult as the wind howled around us and our lungs cried out for scarce oxygen.


We began to grow cold quickly, so we decided to press on to the next point, a collection of rocks near Devil’s Playground, so named because lightning tends to jump from rock to rock during thunderstorms.


There, Allan said, some vehicles from camp would pick up anyone who was struggling too much to go on. But, he warned, Devil’s Playground was out in the open and offered little or no protection from the cold wind.


About the time we decided to go on, the sun broke through the clouds and afforded us a fantastic view of the valleys below us. Encouraging and warming as the sunshine was, however, those were the last rays we would see on our climb. The weather closed in soon after, and we remained socked in for the rest of the ascent.


At about 13,000 feet, we took a lengthy break. Some of us broke out the sandwiches we had packed at 6:30 a.m. My PB&J special was outstanding. Large rocks offered some protection from the wind, and we began to realize that the 19 of us who had decided to continue were actually going to complete the climb.


Then, as though attempting to keep us humble, the fog lifted for a moment, and we saw the massive boulder field that lay before us. As the clouds once again shrouded our goal, we started out for the summit.


Allan’s plan usually called for the group to spread out and each person pick his or her own path up the boulder field. That way, if a rock came tumbling down, it was less likely to hit anyone below. Since the fog was so thick, however, he told us to stay fairly close to each other.


I looked up at the massive and ancient rock slide area and, after a brief study of possible paths, began the slow crawl over and around the boulders.


At this point on the climb, there was no trail. The stones varied from lunchbox size all the way up to monsters the size of cars. The trick was to keep moving upward rather than side to side. For me, this was not a problem. The rocks seemed to fall away to nothingness on both my right and left. The fog kept me on the straight and narrow.


Several minutes into the climb, sleet stung our faces, and the wind was constantly buffeting us as we clung to the side of the mountain.


The boulder field did eventually spread us out. At least once I had to retrace my steps when a rock too large to go over loomed in my way. But soon I saw Allan’s silhouette against the gray sky. He was waving his arms to show us that the worst was over.


As I reached him, he shook my hand and congratulated me on defeating the boulders. I felt good, but as I left him behind, I came across a father and his son standing in the roadway wondering which direction led to the summit house and the waiting cup of hot chocolate we had promised ourselves.


We heard the rumble of cars off to the right, so we chose to head that direction.


I was surprised at how strong I felt as I entered the souvenir shop. My lungs were fine. I had left my headache behind at about 12,000 feet, and my muscles seemed to be in good shape. Yet, I had already decided to ride down in one of the vehicles from camp rather than attempt to negotiate the boulder field again. Besides, my family and I had plans for other hikes in the next couple of days, and I didn’t want to completely wear myself out.


Four members of our expedition did accompany Allan back down the mountain. They all returned to camp safely within a half hour of when the van I was riding in arrived. Walking was apparently a short cut.


I hope to have another chance to hike the Pike again some day. Allan said he once took a 70-year-old man to the top with him. I suppose I might have a few good years left.


My biggest fear, a lightning storm, never developed, so I didn’t really mind the cold and light rain so much.


Mental toughness seemed to be the key prerequisite to making the climb, though it didn’t hurt to be in good condition.


And, it certainly didn’t hurt to have a ride waiting for me at the top.

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