| Three whistles, three shouts, three shots from a gun. Navajo Peak.
The roar of the wind is all I can hear. My vision blurs - I slowly close and open my eyes. I close them again. And I keep them closed. In the light between darkness, I see Derek move beyond the precipice and disappear. This is all too surreal. An avalanche of wind presses my body into cold hard rock. I hold onto tiny fingerholds with a death grip. We are terribly exposed to the whims of fate - passengers on a jetliner torn open at thirty thousand feet. I open my eyes.
Sen and I are alone now, together, on this rock. I don't expect to see Derek return. I scream at Sen, who crouches just a few feet from me, "I'm not going!" Sen looks at me, smiles, and without hesitation lets go of our anchor. He moves swiftly towards the precipice. Right then, Derek suddenly appears above the massive rock. I swallow my disbelief like a shot of vodka - I don't like how it tastes but I love how it feels.
Derek yells, "I touched the summit! Come on guys!"
I laugh. Come on he says. I shake my head and yell back, "I'm not going!" I can't yell loud enough. The wind roars over me. Sen then scrambles up and over the precipice. He disappears with Derek. I am now alone on this rock, resolved to failure. I relax my tense nerves. The fear pours from me like sand through an hourglass. The time feels like ten minutes but only seconds pass. I am suddenly weightless. I can do this.
I slowly move to the precipice. I look beyond the edge - the summit cairn is one hundred feet away. Ahead, Derek and Sen move across difficult terrain with sure-footed grace. I follow their lead. I am now committed. The mountain and the wind cooperate with our crazy desire. We are not blown off the mountain - we are blown into it. I grab bomber handholds as the tempest rages all around. The exposed traverse goes quickly. We are on the hard-earned summit.
This day belongs to the god Boreas, bringer of cold winter air. We pay our respects and then retreat from his mountain top. We cross over the precipice on to safer ground. We find refuge on a ledge fifty feet below the summit. We stop to eat, relax, talk. Breathe. The fear leaves me. And an ocean of euphoria rushes in to fill the empty void. I swim in the sense of accomplishment.
Hike Date: September 6, 2010
Summit name, elevation: Navajo Peak, 13409 ft.
Trailhead name, elevation: Long Lake, 10515 ft.
Route: Airplane Gully
Distance: Approximately 9.8 miles roundtrip
Weather: NWS forecast is sunny but cold, with wind of 20-30 mph, and gusts to 55 mph.
Photos by the group. Captions on top.
We leave the Long Lake Trailhead at 7AM and reach Lake Isabelle an hour later. Shoshoni Peak is the hulking rampart on the right of the photo. In the center of the photo are the twin summits and broad shoulder of Apache Peak. Left of center is the distinct cone-shaped summit of Navajo Peak. Rugged Niwot Ridge continues to the left, off the photo.
The trail continues past a unnamed lake. We leave the trail and take a direct route to Navajo Peak, hiking towards the cliff band seen above the lake. We scramble across some minor cracks and slabs to reach the upper basin.
We reach the upper basin at 10 AM. Navajo Peak is on the right. Airplane Gully rises to the left and disappears from view.
The entrance to Airplane Gully. We consider our fate as the wind pushes us around.
We ascend the gully with speed, keeping close to the sides.
The gully splits near the top. We cross the gully and ascend the right finger.
Sen and Derek continue their ascent.
We locate the aircraft wreckage. Three men died here. We give a quiet moment of respect. The cold wind pushes up the gully, urging us further.
An engine from the crashed aircraft. More detail on the tragic accident:
We ascend the gully in thirty minutes. Sen greets the east slope of Navajo Peak.
The east slope of Navajo is covered with stable talus and rock.
It's 11 AM. We watch a plume of smoke rise in the east, unaware of the dire conflagration that is developing.
We continue upwards. The summit is near.
I gaze over the precipice and smile at fate. The wind thrashes about like a drunken banshee.
The summit is right up there. We pass on a ledge to the left of the tower (off photo).
We make it to the top but don't linger long. I take a photo of Derek on the summit and then start down.
We cross back over the precipice.
The view to the south looks tranquil even though the wind is trying to take my camera from my hands. Arikaree Peak is on the left, Old Baldy is the broad summit at center, and the Arapaho Peaks are on the right.
The view to the east is bittersweet. The fire gets bigger.
We turn back to Navajo Peak and give thanks for safe passage.
Derek passes the aircraft wreckage as we enter the gully. Our descent is quick and loose. I roll a football-sized rock down the gully, forcing Sen to duck for cover behind a large boulder. Sorry Sen.
Two hours later we arrive back at our cars. Smoke fills the sky in the east.
The firefighters in Ward allow us to drive down Lefthand Canyon Road towards Boulder. From Ward it looks like we'll be driving into the inferno. We continue down the road quickly but cautiously. Smoke pours from the ridgeline to the south. The sky above us turns from blue to grey to dirty orange. Dank smoke begins to fill the canyon. The fire is near. We hurry - exiting the canyon on Lee Hill Drive. The city of Boulder is cast in a shade of grey. We stop at Chipotle in Boulder for burritos and beer. Outside, the sky turns dark. I say goodbye to Derek and Sen, and return home.
I enjoy a breathtaking view of the foothills and high Indian Peaks from my apartment. On this evening I choke on sadness as I watch homes burn from the comfort and safety of my own.