Two Mountain Stories

Adventure perspectives.

Ascending a steep mountain ridge.
Practicing ice climbing near the top of Black Powder Pass

            Night Climb

            Mount Borah, Idaho- 1990

Tuna Surprise was a pleasant-sounding way to describe our supper entrée. We camped that evening on the lower slopes of Idaho’s highest peak, 12,662-foot Mt. Borah, ready to do a night ascent. Going up it in the dark was a good way to make an otherwise arduous and steep summit climb less mentally tricky and more interesting, I reasoned. We were able to drive right up to our embarking point. And thus, we had the luxury of being able to use whatever sort of bulky, non-trail food that we wanted, along with a large propane burner. The plan was to have a good, filling, and early evening meal, followed by a few hours of sleep and then a projected five or six-hour ascent that would begin at midnight.

Chris Green self-selected to prepare the supper while everyone else readied their climbing packs and got their sleeping area in order. The pre ascent meal he chose appeared to meet the criteria for what we needed it to be— ample, nutritious, and filling. Of course, the assumption was that it would also be relatively tasty.

And so, he got his ingredients together and went to work. First, he opened and then placed a large can of tuna into a mixing bowl, crumbled up some Cheese Nip type crackers into it, and added some water. Then, he seasoned it with a lot of salt and pepper, mixed it all up into a sort of mush, and finally placed it in a pot on the burner. Since by that point, everyone was getting especially hungry, he cranked up the heat. And miraculously, after only a few minutes, it was ready to serve.

I assembled the group, and within moments everyone was digging in. I waited around for my serving until the end. After loading my plate, I began eating. I immediately noticed hints of burn in my portion. But, I rationalized that since I was scraping the bottom of the pot, I’d most likely gotten something the others hadn’t.

After filling our stomachs, we crawled into our sleeping bags and mostly went to sleep. At just after midnight, we awoke and were soon on the trail. Somehow, our group of teenage mountain climbers got themselves pulled together within only minutes of being rousted. A few minutes later, we were walking up a path lit by headlamps and bundled up in fleece and wool against the nighttime chill. There were initial moans and groans, but I figured that they mostly had to do with the late night/early morning hour. As it turned out, my assumption wasn’t all that correct.

It wasn’t long after we started that I began to feel a little queasy in the gut. But within only a short distance, I began to feel downright unsettled in the stomach. Most of the group did not throw up within those first few minutes. But it quickly became apparent that the personal discomfort I was experiencing was prevalent, in one form or another, throughout the group. And based on the burned fish taste I had, I also promptly concluded that the stomach situation likely had something to do with our supper.

At least the special meal did one positive thing for us as we walked. It served as a distraction from the steepness and the actual climbing related pain and tedium that we were experiencing. As we broke out of the trees a thousand or so feet below the summit, an almost moonless and brilliant Milky Way-filled sky along with the outlines of several surrounding mountains enveloped us. After our few hours of walking, our stomach pains were either gone away or in full retreat. The discomfort had likely been absorbed by the body or whatever it is that happens with things like that. By the time we neared the moonlit summit, our thoughts had shifted. We were no longer pre-occupied with the pains of our meal but were instead relishing the wonders of a whole wild world that surrounded us.

At that point, I knew that some significant rock scrambling across a section known as “Chickenout Ridge” still separated us from the top, and was glad the mountain had our full attention. I’d read how Borah is considered one of the more technically difficult “state high points,” and so those two facts weighed heavily on my mind. But for the moment, we all walked and climbed in an immediate world illuminated by headlamps and an even broader one brightened by the Northern Lights.

There was no chickening out as we reached the steeper exposed areas. We made it up to the summit, just as the first light of the alpine morning was beginning to show. After handshakes, photos, and a moment to soak it all in, we gathered our gear and were back down to our starting point before the sun had even begun to heat-up the day. By that point, our stomach distress was long gone, but what we’d seen and felt on the mountain-top had become permanent.

 

            Farnum Peak & the Adventure Race

            Puma Hills, Colorado- 1999

The Outpost Wilderness Adventure “Adventure Race” was what the name implies. More specifically, it was a competition between teams of 4 or 5 teenagers, leading and managing themselves without intervention from any adult guide or leader as they undertook a variety of adventure activities. Those activities often included such things as rock climbing, fly fishing, and mountain biking, and always a healthy dose of general outdoor skills along with the all-important navigation and route finding. By design, it was a multiday event, meaning that typically there was at least one night of adventuring out in the wild involved. As is the case with most races, the primary goal was to be the first to finish. And since a team would not be permitted to move from one event or activity to the next unless the entire team was together, the concept of group, leadership, and teamwork was fundamental. Actual adventure guide/leaders followed each group but were there only to intervene in the event of an emergency or if the team got entirely off track. So, in effect, the team members themselves were the decision-makers and the ones calling the shots. It was with that as a prerequisite, that I set off with another staff person, both of us as adventure guide followers.

The race began at midnight. The way it worked was that none of the team members knew what each stage involved or where it went until the start of that particular stage. All they knew was that they would be traveling out in the backcountry and should prepare for the possibility of using a wide variety of listed activities.

I learned from previous OWA adventure races to tone things down somewhat and thus make it more doable for the participants. To that end, I set up a route for this particular one that began in an uncomplicated fashion but would become less so as things progressed. It called for the groups to start by climbing to the summits of several non-technical nearby peaks. The plan was for each team to ascend them in a sequence that would put them into more of an adventure race mindset after beginning on comfortable home terrain. Whether or not it worked out that way remains to be seen.

After the official start, the team that I was following got its instructions and was quickly out the door of the main camp lodge. The teenage group moved with such confidence that I decided they must’ve discussed and come up with a solid plan right off the bat.

The first summit/point they were supposed to reach was the top of nearby Farnum Peak. Farnum is a thickly forested mountain that rises to just below treeline, and at 11,377 feet is over 2000′ feet above the camp. While it’s not a technically challenging peak to climb, visibility while on its slopes is limited. Getting to the top of it even in broad daylight is something of a route-finding nightmare. I’d been up to its summit several times before and knew the difficulties involved in doing so. But, on the other hand, it was a familiar sight, and getting to its summit was theoretically simple enough since all that needed to be done was hike to its base and then just go up.

The team I was following, confidently headed out the door and immediately walked straight toward Farnum. My first thought was one of satisfaction with the fact that they were going in the right direction.

The night was calm, uncommonly warm, and there was a full moon—excellent race conditions. As we walked, fog began to develop. I’d never really seen significant fog in the area, so was not initially concerned that it would get very thick. But within only a few minutes, it had and was limiting our visibility to about 10 feet. And by that time, we’d only just gotten to the base of the mountain.

That’ll confuse things, I concluded. It was a new and unexpected wrench thrown into the mix. At that point, I was still more or less certain of our location, although not so sure if any of the team members had any clue. But even with the fog, they somehow continued going the right way. Even though I wasn’t so sure that they knew where they were, I was amazed by the fact that they kept doing the right things. And since it was without any input from either me or the other guide, I was perplexed.

The light from our headlamps seemed to bounce off of the ground level clouds, but there was still just enough surrounding detail visible for the team to continue to pick their way up through the trees. Early on in the ascent, I felt like we were at least “close enough” to the right track. But after we’d been going up for about 15 minutes, the team began veering off in a direction that I was sure was incorrect. I said nothing and was even somewhat pleased to see that they appeared to be unable to get up to the first point without my help. Getting off course was something that I was confident would happen, especially given the fog. I’d come to grips with the fact that we were all in for a long night of just wandering around out in the forest, going nowhere. So, I just kept following along, amused by what I assumed was their obvious route-finding mistakes.

After what seemed like a lot of aimless bumbling around, the team stopped to take a break. As all of us stood there in the middle of the night fog, initially, there was a good bit of huffing and puffing, snack eating, and water gulping. But once that all calmed down, discussion about various race and route strategies erupted throughout the group. I just listened. Personal doubts about their assumptions and methodology once again crept into my thoughts. It was all I could do to keep my mouth shut as they concocted a plan that would supposedly get them to the top ahead of the other teams.

Within minutes, they were packed up and back on the move. As we continued, I did not doubt that we were going uphill, but I felt like we were continuing to veer from the actual summit route. The other guide (Dave) and I stayed at the back, following and chattering between us about how off track and fouled up it was all getting.  After more than an hour of going uphill, I noted that the forest continued to be the combination of massive Firs and Spruces that predominated all over the lower Farnum slopes. That, combined with the size of the trees, indicated that we were still far below the summit ridge, which affirmed my suspicions about us being off track. But abruptly, Bristlecone Pines started entering into the mix. On previous ascents, I’d noted how those gnarly and scraggly trees dominated the forest up near the top, where extreme winter winds pounded the ridges of the Puma Hills.

Interestingly, on those trips, I hadn’t seen any lower down on the mountain, which was where I thought we were at that moment. Just as I began trying to figure out the Bristlecone mystery, the trees and vegetation began to get noticeably smaller, and the grade started leveling out. At that point, I realized that we were walking up onto the summit. In my mind, we weren’t even supposed to be close to the top. The terrain features had me confused. But I looked around at the team members and noted that they had no doubts about any of it and were where they planned to be.

As we got to the top, I recognized the rock cap of the Farnum summit, and whatever doubts I still had went away. We scrambled up onto the actual summit. On top, we stepped out of the fog and into a clear middle of the night. It was a world that we’d already forgotten. A spectacular full moon blocked out all but the brightest of stars. Closer to us, it not only lit up the granite summit slabs, but also the faces of the five teenagers looking out at peak after peak sticking up out of the blanket of fog. The moonlight illuminated the tops of the clouds creating a seemingly impregnable barrier between where we stood and where we’d just come from. The massive ridges, slopes, and the main summit of Pike’s Peak were visible, some 75 miles away. We picked out the mountains we knew—Bison, McCurdy, North Tarryall, and Badger and guessed about many others. There was a moment of silent wonder as we all tried to comprehend what we were seeing. I wanted to say something but realized that any words I spoke would only be less profound than the view surrounding us.

After a few moments, someone in the group found the written instructions for the next stage of the race in Farnum’s summit register jar. He pulled out the wadded-up piece of paper that they were written on and read what it said. Then, he took out a map, opened it up, and spread it on the ground. The team huddled up around it, made a plan, and in another instant, we were all stepping back down into the fog. No one in the group, including me, had any idea about what mysteries or amazing sights awaited us inside the cloud. But we moved quickly and with confidence, eager to see what it might be. It was at that moment that I learned to relish the mysteries that are often hidden by the fog.

     

Mountain layer after mountain layer leading up to Pike's Peak.
The Tarryall Mountains and Valley with Pike’s Peak in the distance.

 

Author: David Appleton

I was born and raised in Texas and currently live in the Texas Hill Country, spent some 30 years living in the smack dab middle of Colorado, and have spent a lifetime adventuring and leading others on adventures in many parts of the wild world.

2 thoughts on “Two Mountain Stories”

  1. This is inspiring, David. It makes me want to get back out into wilderness, again. I think I’ll go for a run on the Greenbelt trails here in Austin so I’m ready for when the next adventure calls. I’ll finish my MBA in a few weeks. I’ll go to Liberia in January to be an accountant with Samaritan’s Purse. Thank you for writing, David!

  2. David, I’ll always appreciate your describing a bad to worst situation with so much humor that it’s actually a fun memory. Thanks for writing. I’m reading in bed and trying not to wake Bob with my laughter!