| Identity Crisis
Three summers ago, I finished the 14ers. It took six years, and as many on this site can relate to, “the list” played a pretty big part of my life. I don’t know how many meetings at school I sat in ignoring the presentation while making lists and maps of the peaks I’d climbed, the peaks still to go, and making schedules and plans for finishing over the next few summers. Obsession is probably not too strong of a word. Driving six or seven hours down to the San Juan’s (or the Elks or Sangre de Christos) wasn’t particularly unpleasant because I had committed to them, and I couldn’t wait to arrive, see these peaks I’d been reading about in guidebooks and internet sites for years, and experiencing them. And as shallow as it sounded to me at times, it mattered to me a great deal to cross them off my list and get closer to a significant goal.
It’s fair to say that I sometimes sacrificed enjoyment and comfort for the stats. The list was always toward the front of my thoughts.
Eventually I finished on an autumn day on Mt. Wilson. My wife gave me a party that included 58 cupcakes that she had me decorate individually for each of the mountains. You can find a picture here:
Then she sat me down and asked what was next. The Centennials? All the 13ers? What? As supportive as she is, I could tell she didn’t relish the thought of another list that would become my next obsession. I agreed, and as I thought about her question, it became clear to me that I didn’t want another list. I love the 14ers enough to continue to climb them- some repeat routes that I loved, some alternate routes to experience, some days that didn’t turn out the way I wanted. I would just keep doing what I was already doing, but now without the list.
It was nice for a while, but it didn’t take long before I was sitting in a meeting at school, making a list of al the 14ers I’d done twice, and how many I still had to go for a “second loop.” I kind of missed the list, and thought about how cool it would be to get them twice. Going into this summer, I had 27 repeats, and I decided to get back down to the San Juan’s to do a few. I missed the San Juan mountains, and it had been a while since I visited. I also felt like I needed to get back down there to “knock a few of them off the list.” Even though my schedule didn’t make it convenient, I made my plans.
I went to the Warren Haynes/ Colorado Symphony Orchestra night of Jerry Garcia concert on July 30. I then got in my car, and drove all the way to the Stewart Creek Trailhead. It was a pleasant drive actually- cool, quiet, and no real traffic. On the other hand, why am I arriving at a trailhead at 2:45.
The next day on San Luis was the kind of day that makes the drive totally worth it. I was out of my car at about 7:00, and immediately met another climber who had coincidentally been at the same concert I was the night before. He was in row 46. I was in row 49. Now here we both were, 8 hours later, preparing to climb the same mountain 200 miles away. I left at 7AM and reached the summit just before 10AM. It was a beautiful summit- nice people, little wind, good pizza. I sat for about 45 minutes enjoying everything. The walk to the car was pleasant, and I got myself into the mindset that I wasn’t looking forward to seeing the car because I didn’t want the valley to end. Stewart Creek is one of the prettiest places in the state, although I was really bummed that the elm beetle kill has hit this area hard. I felt strong and happy the entire time.
Stewart Creek trailhead
first look at San Luis
My plan was to head into Lake City, relax, and get to another trailhead by nightfall- maybe Wetterhorn, maybe Red Cloud. Then, as I drove into town, I got an idea. What if I busted it up to American Basin and got Handies done by nightfall. Then tomorrow I can grab Red Cloud and Sunshine, and head back to Denver with five peaks done??? Great idea, right??? I hurried into town, ran in and out of a store buying supplies, decided against a relaxing lunch or sitting in a coffee shop reading my book for a couple hours. It was a mad dash.
American Basin is about three miles up the road from Silver Creek, but the road does get far more rough pretty quickly. I drive a CRV, and after a while, it became obvious I should probably not be driving this road, but by now the decision was made and no turning back. I hate driving 4 x 4 roads, and this was no exception- my heart was racing, I was nervous about wrecking my car so far away from a city, and didn’t want to be where I was, but there is where I had put myself. I never really badly bottomed out, but a couple hundred yards from the turnoff into American Basin, I finally had to stop and pull over. No time to lose- I threw on my pack, and got after it.
I got into American Basin at just about 5PM, so I had several hours of daylight. It was a clear day, so I wasn’t feeling threatened by clouds. The route is short- just under six miles and 2700 feet. I could knock this out in no time, get back to Silver Creek, and be ready for tomorrow morning and Redcloud/ Sunshine. And American Basin is supposed to be absolutely gorgeous – this was my chance to check it out.
On the other hand, I got to bed last night at 245AM and up at 7AM. This would be my second mountain of the day, and although I pride myself on pushing my limits, I am 44 years old. Nobody has any idea that I’m here, and I’m the last climber of the day going up the mountain. I got myself into a complete frenzy. Even though I was taking pictures, I was not enjoying myself or the mountain whatsoever. I was stressed, checking the clock every few minutes, checking the sun, checking the clouds, looking back to see my progress, and pushing my pace as much as I could. My mind was filled with this desperate urgency to summit as quickly as possible. This was no longer about having fun climbing a mountain, but suddenly the only thing that mattered was the stats. I was borderline miserable, and I don’t think I saw American Basin at all.
Suddenly I had a flashback moment. It is every athletic game my kids have ever played, and they’re walking up to me afterwards. I always ask this question: “Did you have fun.” They say ‘yes’ and I tell them, “That’s all that matters.” I stopped and realized what a five star horse’s ass I’d become. Rushing though Lake City, busting it up the 4x4 drive, racing up the basin- all for the sake of getting another tick off the list the second time through. Five Stars!
I sat on the ground like a little kid, trying to remember exactly what it was that led me to drive 6 hours in the middle of the night and get me into this moment. The list? I think it’s healthy to have a goal or theme that you’re working toward, especially at age 44. I don’t want to be listless (pun intended), to drift. So I don’t want to give up on trying to complete the 14ers a second time. However, if this is what it takes, it’s time for me to hang up my boots. I need to be uncompromising on one point- my number one priority from this point on has to be enjoyment. I sat for a long time, having this conversation with myself, and eventually turned around without making the summit, and very slowly walking down through American Basin. Here are some shots I took which show a stunning valley- I hope to return one day when my head is not shoved completely up my butt.
opening into American Basin
I got back to my car, made it back to Silver Creek, and relaxed with my book. Since I had failed to get Handies today, I decided to go up from this trailhead the next day, and only get one peak. Redcloud & Sunshine would have been two summits, but I forced myself to take the easy day. This time the day was much different. When I got up into the basin and the sun came up, it was suddenly very clear why I made the drive. I was filled with this feeling of peace, and I went slowly, stopping and turning, admiring Redcloud across the valley, and taking my time. I did rush a bit when I got to the summit- there was a fairly serious ceiling of clouds, and I didn’t want to get into a jackpot. Once I was back in the basin, though, I stopped several times to sit, snack, listen to music, and enjoy the beauty. This day was what climbing should be, and I felt this epiphany moment, like I was being reminded of a very important lesson.
I got back to the trailhead about 945 and realized that in all the climbing I have done (36 solo summits) this is the first time that I didn’t see a single person trailhead to trailhead. I had the basin and summit all to myself, which is maybe somehow fitting. Moving forward, I hope I don’t have to be reminded of this too many times, and if I do, I hope I’m not too thick to listen.
Red Cloud across the valley
Red Cloud again
the only company I had the entire climb
lake in American Basin, where I had turned around the day before
Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):