Mt. Meeker - 13,916 feet
Mt. Meeker - 13,916 feet
|At the Mountains of Madness and Meekness
I could have quit chasing elevation-based checklists anytime, of course, but there were two occasions after which I really should have done so.
The first incident was my first summit of Longs Peak. I have not written a full trip report about this incident - there were so many details that strike me as being of preeminent importance that I'm sure a proper write-up would break this site, plus I gotta save something for the eventual book/podcast/motivational speech/shameless money grab to justify the physical and emotional trauma I have put myself through in the pursuit of earning the little finisher icon next to my fourteener checklist on here.
I have given the outline of what happened that day in various comments and a few other trip reports, so feel free to skip to the next paragraph if you'd rather wait for the fuller version with even less pants: On July 27, 2014, I set out for Longs with the sort of naive optimism about dodging predictable and predicted afternoon monsoons that blissfully ignores two prior encounters with an overabundance of electricity on fellow Front Range fourteeners Pikes and Bierstadt. It also ignored how excruciating the care and energy expenditure well over what those and all the other Front Range peaks had required would be, not to mention what a dangerous toll that could take on a Type I diabetic body that decided to naively, optimistically - nay, stupidly - push on to the extra-strenuous sections even after the insulin pump attached to said body developed altitude sickness and quit in the Boulderfield.
It truly failed to consider the effects of the dehydration, hypothermia, and hallucinations that would set in after those storms rolled in as predicted - albeit generously late enough to have allowed for safe passage back to treeline had the rhabdoymyolysis not already started tearing at my muscles around the Keyhole on the descent - and, well, perhaps it's no surprise that I decided to leave fourteeners well enough alone for a while after I got out of the hospital two days later.
But of course anybody with a sliver of common sense would've quit after hearing the hum of building electricity in the air on a dark-cloud-encased Devils Playground on their first attempt of Pikes, or at least after being chased down from Bierstadt's summit by active lightning, or at the bare minimum after a sunny revenge summit of Pikes during which they nevertheless tweaked their knee badly enough that they'd receive a diffident diagnosis of IT Band Syndrome and a shrugged-off suggestion of, "Have you tried icing it?" when fishing for a way to continue their hiking career without unnecessary suffering.
Anyone without such allegedly "common" sense comes to accept the unnecessary suffering, thrive on it even, despite going so literally far as to move to Southern California post-Longs in hopes of furthering a screenwriting career but returning home a year later for a revenge summit of Longs without the insulin pump croak starting a cascade failure eventually leading to the tossing of hail- and urine-soaked pants to a Rocky Mountain National Park Ranger whose name they could only recall as Adonis McStudmuffin after he suggested they "take those wet clothes off so we can get you warmed back up again."
Maybe they would move back permanently yet another year after that on realizing that they were having better luck submitting screenplays to competitions online instead of rubbing elbows with other aspiring writers, who were also convinced they had the next Oscar-winning script, on the sets of student productions that couldn't offer any pay for their extras, but at least there was free food; they would not, I am fairly certain, decide that since the second time on Longs had been merely miserable rather than flirting with fatal, they should totally pursue the remainder of the fourteeners on The List.
The second incident after which I totally could've gotten away with quitting checklists was, of course, the Pyramid Incident. By that point, however, I felt I had too much invested to give it all up - I'd already checked off Little Bear and Crapitol, peaks supposedly harder than the one which had once again rendered me pantsless in a hospital an annoying distance from home (though due to the pants being cut off when I was too doped up on Fentanyl to protest on this occasion).
I'd also been pulled up the likes of Teakettle and Dallas by TallGrass, whose climbing skills almost justify putting up with the constant chatter if one has strayed so far away from any semblance of common sense that they think they might as well go forth and multiply their peaks checked by taking on all of the Centennials. Still, it seemed fortunate in its own way that I wasn't very far into the list of merely 13k' Cents in terms of quantity when a predictably bad move on Pyramid wrecked my heel and the rest of Summer '21...and more questionably fortunate still that Teakettle and Dallas would get demoted by LiDAR to mere Bicentennial status while I was still relatively early in my recovery from the injury. The fact that I was suddenly that much farther from finishing - and with the remote and treacherous Arrow and Trinity overtaking the ones I felt I'd wasted such bluebird weather windows on, no less - solidified my decision to abandon the full list of Colorado's 100 Highest.
But as anybody who's become particularly skilled at justifying their lack of common sense to others as well as, most importantly, themselves can tell you, making a decision that you are no longer going to risk life, limb, and whatever shreds of sanity left to you on all of the checklistables meaningless to everyone but you and maybe a handful of similarly diagnosable weirdos does not preclude gambling on some of the crown jewels not yet in your collection. I super-duper seriously could've rested on my laurels after I elected to push forward with the fourteeners, earning myself a tediously long if paradoxically anticlimactic fourteener finishing day on Crestone Peak, and given how quickly after that grand finale saw snow starting to stick to the already-slickest parts of the high country, I once again really should've turned my entire attention to the nice, boring hikes up nice, boring trails that I'd long been dreaming of returning to full-time.
Alas, a common justification among the senseless Cents-less is that the sense of completion, whether of a summit or a given list, is just right over there and totally doable posthaste, obstacles such as inclement weather or a rapidly setting sun or a growing collection of injuries or the overwhelming sense that one is not being paid enough (read: anything) to be having so little fun be damned!
So it was for me with the Front Range Centennials. Paralleling my experience with the highest bracket of Front Range peaks, I'd propelled myself up much of the same range's summits above 13,800' thanks largely to their accessibility in distance, required climbing competence (or lack thereof), and quantity (or similar lack thereof). Aiding in my pursuit of the most irritatingly lofty thirteeners closest to home was that TallGrass had left many of the easiest peaks of the 100 Most Dizzying for his last, so his focus on the likes of Silverheels, Edwards, and unranked-but-still-listed Spalding helped peer-pressure me up any of the seeming cakewalks that I hadn't already stood atop myself.
When he insisted on going up the unranked Meeker Ridge in October 2022 on the way to Meeker Proper - the former being yet another unranked-but-still-annoyingly-noticeable entry on checklists both on this site and ListsofJohn - only for us to be stopped short just past the subsummit by a concerning coating of ice lining the north side of the Knife Edge joining the two, prompting him to say, "I'm not digging this ridge," and as much as I wanted to make fun of him for using the word "digging" like anyone else had done so unironically since my mom's old Archie comics had been published back in the 60s, I instead had to reluctantly concede that if he wasn't digging it, neither Archie nor I would, either.
I'd like to give the barest hint of concession to common sense when TallGrass began making contemplative noises at a sunny and not-too-horribly-windy-for-the-Longs-region forecast the middle of the first week of October. I had taken a wonderfully nice, boring hike up wonderfully nice, boring Audubon a couple weeks prior, and the plentitude of pictures I'd taken like I was a tourist who'd never seen the wonders of the IPW or Rocky Mountain National Park before revealed a decided absence of snow sullying Meeker's southern slopes.
I wasn't completely gung-ho on the southern approach. Starting from Sandbeach Lake would add something near 1000' of vert over choosing the standard Longs trail up to the Loft or Iron Gates. It had not, however, snowed significantly in the Park between Audubon and when TallGrass started "hmmm!"ing over Wednesday's promise of blue skies, and since I was still riding high on my fourteener finish a month before and couldn't help but salivate over the prospect of making this The Year of Finishing Unfinished Business and had Meeker as the single smirker unaccompanied by a checkmark beside my list of Front Range Centennials and knew the route's southern exposure meant what snow had been lingering was liable to be a relative non-issue, I did nothing to discourage the gleam in his eye...even when he hemmed and hawed on Tuesday night, murmuring that part of him wanted to leave for RMNP right then and there for a just-before-midnight start, but he guessed a few hours of sleep wouldn't be a half-bad idea.
As he built on his sleep tally in the passenger seat while I drove, I couldn't help but let that small sliver of common sense subsume into superstition. This drive wasn't going anywhere nearly as badly as the one that had preceded my first summit of Meeker's neighbor Longs; my partner that time had been delayed a good two hours for reasons I have since come to suspect were even shadier than they'd sounded at the time, it had been a muggy night with "muggy" being atypical even for anything-goes-in-the-mountains Colorado, and I'd started the car that morning to hear Don McLean belting out "This'll be the day that I diiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiie!" This time, my partner and I had managed to leave Denver relatively close to when we'd intended, the air was crisp and dry, and the DJs working the overnight shift had the good sense to keep "American Pie" off the airwaves.
Still, I was happy to remind myself that I'd thought my first time on Pyramid hadn't felt particularly ominous, either, and while I did manage to add a little bit of misfortune to the day when I failed to realize just how close the Sandbeach Lake Trailhead was to the entrance station (Sandbeach Lake being the only part of the Park I'd determined too unremarkable to be worth a visit unless necessitated by a relatively snow-free approach to Meeker) and thus had to turn around about a mile up the Wild Basin road, somehow striking the right balance between good and bad fortune failed to make Goldilocks feel much better. It would, after all, be the height of irony if I'd survived all 58 (plus two of the unranked and unnamed!) of the most prominent points in Colorado, including Meeker's meaner big sibling, only to get taken out by what was supposed to be a kinder, gentler sort of route up a mere thirteener.
The actual hike got off to a decent start, though. While the trail was every bit as uninteresting as I'd long suspected (though it naturally didn't help that it was still dark), a fairly consistent several months of hiking at altitude on my part led to my longer-legged partner asking me if I wouldn't mind slowing down. A sub-geologic pace was fine by me, especially as we eventually came to the end of our time on the easy-to-follow, well-maintained, officially sanctioned National Park trail and turned off onto the less-official "trail" paralleling Hunters Creek. Here, despite spending the vast majority of his own summer and early autumn in the lofty heights of the Kansas part of Kansas City, TG's long legs took the advantage as we navigated the deadfall that is a seeming inevitability in areas that aren't labeled with a dotted black line on one of the maps rangers hand out when the entrance stations are staffed.
The rising sun helped as much as it could in the forest, and while there were a few puzzling junctions where the "trail" seemed to fork around a still-standing tree, the overall name of the game was sticking as close to the creek as possible. As the forest started opening up and the ground grew marshy, cairns helped guide us through the mud, grass, and boulders. When the trees petered out a bit above a final stream crossing, we started going up with a vengeance.
Alas, the vengeance seemed to be the mountain's alone. I would later futz around with the drawing tool on Caltopo, which determined that the long, steep, rocky, Class 2-max-but-did-I-mention-STEEP route from where we parted ways with the stream where the trees petered out to the top of a gully that reminded me an awful lot of Crestone Peak's Red Gully in its sheer interminability took us up 2000' in 3/4 of a mile. While I don't necessarily back its assessment 100% - the same map displays the landmark Dragon's Egg we'd been using a gauge of how much progress we were(n't) making as being a good several hundred feet lower than it actually is - my straining lung and leg muscles were fully convinced that we had indeed covered a good chunk of this route's overall elevation gain in a piddlingly small fraction of its overall mileage.
We took a good-sized break on the ridge, admiring the views surrounding us. I was already pretty certain this specific route was going in my One and Done File due to the steepness and rockiness that, particularly in the latter characteristic, perhaps unsurprisingly reminded me of the not-so-distant Boulderfield along the now-visible National Park high point's still-mostly-hidden-from-view standard route, but I can always appreciate the beauty of the Park and its surroundings. All morning, we'd seen clouds creeping up to the nearby Continental Divide but, happily for us, never quite managing to push east; now was, of course, when a few found purchase on the stiff breezes that I knew were nothing compared to some of the record-breaking gusts this section of RMNP in particular was infamous for that nonetheless motivated us not too linger too long even behind the shelter of the rocks jutting between us and the western winds - er, breezes.
I was at first relieved that the ridge signified a reduction of sorts in the pitch, but it wasn't long before I remembered that the description classified Meeker's SW Ridge as Difficult Class 2, a rating that qualified as a decided mixed bag for me: I'd actually enjoyed Blanca and Ellingwood - the parts above the heinous Como Road, anyway - but Challenger still ranks outstandingly high on my anti-bucket list of repeatable peaks. The ridge that gave this route its name, however, was at least not loose. It did require more use of hands than I tend to prefer, and minuscule but nevertheless occasionally ill-placed patches of ice and snow sometimes necessitated going for the second- or even third-least-resistant passage.
Still, it didn't seem particularly long before we wandered over to our left and swapped the bouldery scramblishness for a sloggy trudge up the looser gravel trending toward the Meeker-SE Longs saddle. When we turned away from the saddle to rejoin the more manageable-sized but snowier-for-being-north-facing boulders, I allowed myself a brief moment of pre-congratulatory optimism. This slope was relatively short, and that sure did look like the summit that my partner's better sense of balance propelled him toward!
But if there's one thing I absolutely should have learned in all my years of fourteenering, it's that optimism is little more than the setup for a major disappointment.
"Oh, this is bullshit," TallGrass whined as he draped his upper body over the rock that still appeared, from my perspective, to be the highest possible prominence this side of the SE Longs saddle.
The perilously overinflated bubble of hope hadn't quite burst to douse me in the sticky residue of despair just yet - maybe he simply meant that a male bovine had decided to get into mountain climbing and had deposited the only sort of present it was capable of leaving?? But the bubble was bulging precariously enough that I had no choice but to phrase my own squawked response as, "That's not the summit?"
"No," he huffed as he crawled over the apparently false summit and onward.
"This IS bullshit," I sighed as I rested my own elbows where my partner's had recently been and stared despairingly at the summit block that still lay ahead. It wasn't far, but both sides of the ridge between this "summit" and the next were steep enough that a fall seemed ill-advised, especially since one side was slab and the other had unstable early-season sugar snow filling the most walkable parts.
Fortunately, while I did need to abandon whatever dignity the fourteeners had left me for a dog-dislodging-a-dingleberry-esque maneuver or two on the edgiest parts of this knife, the rest of the navigation necessitated care but had solid footing accompanied by good handholds where needed, and it really wasn't that long before I stood near the base of what sure looked THE summit at last, holding my camera out as TallGrass, ordinarily a fan of having all parties tap the highest point at the same time, apologetically explain that this looked like a one-person sort of arrangement as he raised himself onto the block.
After he spent a sufficient amount of time posing stoically in the least-sheltered point on this mountain from the blustering "breezes", it was my turn. Having already watched with dismay as his longer limbs and significantly higher amounts of rock-climbing experience nevertheless left him moving cautiously up and down to standable ground, I'd already resigned myself to settling for a hand-tap rather than a settling of full body weight on the very top. I even had my argument for doing so prepared to deliver out loud, if my partner asked: sure wasn't the first time I'd touched rather than stood on a summit! Capitol, Snowmass, even Bierstadt and the newly redesignated Blue Sky had their highest spires thrusting too far and/or too narrowly off the platform for me to trust my precarious proprioception perching my entire body weight on them.
Fortunately for me, my partner knew exactly what he was dealing with. "Might wanna drop your pack," he recommended, which I did. "Now. Put your right foot on the rock by your right knee. Don't put all your weight on it; it's not stable. Now find the crack on top with your hands" - I did think to ask exactly how idiotic he thought I was, but given my track record and the hovering sense of superstition still borne from my first encounter with the summit of the neighboring peak that had spawned my first fourteener-induced emergency medical visit, I neither wanted nor needed a truthful answer - "and swing your legs up."
I did so. TallGrass had his own phone out to record my triumphant flop atop the final ranked prominence among the Front Range's subset of the Centennial State's 100 Highest that had yet to be below my posterior for posterity.
I savored the moment the best I could. The views were as breathtaking as the 5500' climb leading to this point, but the winds, though trifling compared to what I continually reminded myself this area was capable of, discouraged the sort of satisfied survey of my conquests that I'd been able to enjoy on Crestone Peak a month before. Still, there was enough time to wrest my bum ankle around for its victory shot in front of Longs, never mind that that particular pig of a peak hadn't been the one to cause the damage to that particular limb. It was, however, rather hard to photograph lingering mental trauma, so the foot would have to act as a (har har) stand in.
It wasn't too long before I had to use that foot as well as the other, stronger one under my partner's shouted guidance to gingerly stretch back down off the summit block and then pick my way back across to the second, seemingly lesser summit that I would later be grateful required me to slither across in both directions, seeing as how there seems to be some dispute as to which of the horns crowning Meeker's devilish head is higher. For what it's worth, there was no doubt in my mind (nor, as I recall, in TallGrass') that the eastern block was the true top of the mountain, but I suppose one of the advantages of the SW Ridge route is that it strongly encourages tagging the one in order to reach the other.
But even if I was finally satisfied with my tally of Front Range Centennial summits, my partner's ratio of common sense to compulsion was arguably even more imbalanced than mine, thus leading to the second reason for creeping and crawling cautiously back to the solidly Class 2 boulders below the summit with some degree of efficiency: he had every intention of continuing to the saddle to pick up the Loft Route and from there traverse all the way to the top of the Trough to tag "Tower One," a point of little significance, I suspect, to anyone who hasn't obsessively scoured ListsofJohn to ensure that every single rock popping above 13,800 has been bagged and tagged where appropriate, and then take a quick side trip up SE Longs on the way back to the saddle while my tormented muscles and I enjoyed some rest and relaxation.
Despite the protection of some boulders as well as the bothy my partner had left along with the second walkie-talkie just in case he ran into any difficulty, the seemingly increasing afternoon gusts and lack of movement had me decently chilled by the time TG informed me via radio that he felt Tower One would be biting off more than he was willing to chew that day but that he did intend to hit SE Longs.
By the time he'd tagged his second (third?) summit of the day and trudged past the saddle to where I was holed up in the bothy, wiggling my toes to make sure I could maintain adequate bloodflow to my lower extremities, I was sympathetic to his need to burrow out of the winds for a few minutes but was eager to get moving again. "They could rename this from Rocky Mountain to Windy National Park and lose exactly none of the accuracy," I grumbled for what may not have been the first nor last time to a classically argumentative partner who nevertheless couldn't find any counterargument for that assertion.
By the time we put the bothy away and started our race to beat the rapidly setting sun to the top of the Dragon's Egg gully, the gusts had whipped up to a proper frenzy. I had no compunctions about following TallGrass, bypassing the rocky ridge for the scree slope to skier's right of it, taking full advantage of the perfect scree-skiing conditions and almost enjoying this descent to the point that I found myself somewhat reluctant to cross back over the boulders in anticipation of taking a quick huddle behind the rock formations marking the top of the slope that stretched agonizingly down to the darkening forest far below.
When we reached the Dragon's Egg-parallel gully entrance, I tried not to think about how my first excruciatingly long trudge off the still-visible-for-the-moment summit of Longs had led to the worst pain I'd experienced in my life up to that point and how nighttime's inexorable arrival had only deteriorated my mental as well as physical states that time around. I prepared myself as best I could for the sizable portion of this descent that would also take place in the dark.
Certainly not helping my growing mental weariness was recalling all too soon that the slope between Dragon's Egg and Hunters Creek might have been merely Class 2, but it was every bit as long, steep, and pockmarked by rocks of all shapes, sizes, and degrees of stability as it had been on the way up, if not even more of all the above once we lost the last of the light. My use of descriptors for this slope that were four letters, primarily starting with F, increased from every fifth word to every fourth to every third to every other, then most likely devolved to just that word repeated over and over again as many times as I could spare between hissing for breath. Even TallGrass sounded unusually sympathetic when he remarked of one lowercase boulderfield that seemed one or two or three more than I remembered, "These boulders are pretty tedious."
Happily, there finally came a time when he exclaimed from somewhere below me but obviously within earshot that he'd reached trees, which I remembered from our ascent meant that it would only be a few more yards of stumbling before we were on the much more forgiving grades paralleling the creek once again. And while our travails following said creek were more challenging than I think either of us had been prepared for - we both could've sworn we'd remembered there being more cairns lining the route that morning, ones we believed we should have been able to pick up with our headlamps - we did make slow, steady progress back in the direction we'd started from all those hours ago.
TallGrass had me lead for a while when we'd passed the marsh and were solidly back in the woods. While the dark certainly didn't help with the occasional bafflement of the trail seeming to break off around a tree or rock or peter out entirely in a small clearing, I could generally collect my wits just enough to remember from the morning that when in doubt, the wisest course of action was to aim toward the creek. As much "fun" as I was having setting the path, I certainly didn't protest when TG took over where the deadfall thickened. While I'm sure I unleashed another f-bomb when he excitedly called back to tell me he'd reached the main trail, that one, at least, was surely preceded by a "thank."
It was TallGrass' turn not to protest when I handed him my car keys and told him that, continuing my theme for 2023, I would be fine if he took advantage of his cross-country running background to get the car warmed and himself rested up while I took some necessary extra time picking my way down. The Ankle(TM) was cranky, but this trail, while long, was wonderfully nice and boring, and besides, if I had to crawl down it on four bloody stumps in order to prevent any sort of asterisk next to my summit that would necessitate a return trip up Sandbeach Lake or, worse yet, beyond, I was resolutely prepared to do so.
I did find myself resorting to a proliferation of four-letter words starting with F yet again as I remembered both intellectually and viscerally that, while the approach trail covered only something like 20% of the route's total elevation change, it did, according to route description, account for half of the mileage. But it was easy to follow, and I'd had the foresight to pack my earphones so I could listen to music while my partner bounded on ahead, so my curses were more tempered than they had been when I was still higher on this mountain and, for that matter, when I'd been alone with only my ill-tempered thoughts on the last stretch of Crestone Peak's version of a torture chamber a month prior.
"It is SO good to see you again, my most beautiful, loyal, and supportive friend," I'm sure I whispered amid the prickling of joyous tears to Burrito, the latest of my long-suffering Subaru Outbacks, when I saw the car's outline at the trailhead kiosk at last. Maybe I grunted something in response to TallGrass when he informed me that he'd only beaten me down by about fifteen minutes for a total round-trip time of just under 21 hours when I went to extract my thoroughly tenderized ankle from its second-most supportive friend of my boot.
And so the scrambling and obsessive checklist chasing journey that had started with a bang had thankfully ended with a whimper. There had been no hyperglycemia, hypothermia, or hallucinations; no Ranger Adonis McStudmuffin carrying off a pair of pants containing an unfortunate range of fluids (hell, Meeker proper had been kinder to the leg protection I'd worn than its subsummit, the near-identically-named Ridge, had been to the outer garments I'd worn that day...suffice to say I still need to pick up the wallet that some kind soul found on the talus above Chasm Lake and turned into the Estes Park PD) or Blackhawk helicopters plucking me off a mountainside; no loose ends to tie at some unspecified date in the future when I was at least physically, if not mentally, up for it - after all, uneventful as my Front Range Cent finisher had been, the tedium of all those lowercase boulderfields and the relentlessness of that gully's pitch had left me just as uninspired to resume my pursuit of the full list of Centennials as the excruciating length of my fourteener finisher had, or perhaps it was even more uninspiring still.
But old habits are hard to break. I understood before the words had a chance to leave my mouth the futility of explaining to TallGrass - who, while logging his latest ascents on LoJ, had thought to go over the 135 or so 100 Highest Peaks Ranked and Otherwise in Colorado to make sure he hadn't overlooked any and discovered two besides Tower One that were nowhere near Longs and would be ill-advised in wintry conditions - that there was always going to be some other bump out there that met his compulsion...er, criteria...for needing to be summited and that at this rate, he was never going to finish a list that no one but him cared about anyway.
It was obvious as I spoke how hopeless my argument was. TallGrass isn't known for conceding much of anything even when he has to recognize way deep down that you are right, and anyway, for all my talk about how Meeker was it, I could put my list-chasing ways behind me and go back to full-time Type I fun, I myself am still not quite free of compulsion's bruising grip. A glance at my own checklist revealed that I only need the snubbed SE Longs and the presumably-soon-to-be-renamed West Blue Sky to fully round out my Front Range Ranked, Named, Loved, Cared About, and Otherwise Centennials Checklist, and it also wouldn't be too much trouble to add on the rest of the FR Bicentennials. I've also got some tallies racked up on the state high points list, some of which might actually fall under my definition of Type I fun since several of the western ones could be skied.
So there can be no reasoning with that deranged gleam in my partner's eye. I know all too well that, even though I really, truly, absolutely have reached a point when I don't have to say I quit because I can say I finished, the madness may subside, but it never fully vanishes.
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