So deep into August I can almost feel September’s cool breath upon my neck. Children are headed back to school where they belong, ruing the loss of summer and freedom as they gaze out classroom windows. Moms and Dads fair worse in work ruts, pondering with puppy-love fondness a recent vacation to Lovely Ouray, grieving the funeral procession of the 50 abysmal weeks that stands between them and a return to paradise. Ouranians know the days of summer are numbered when they can find a parking spot on Main Street.
At this writing, the earth's axis yaws toward winter. Aspen break gold in reflections at Clear Lake. Chlorophyl grows sluggish as it prepares flora for seven long months of purgatory. Sunrise drags its feet, no longer in a rush to clear the amphitheater’s ring of mountains. Bears are on a feeding frenzy, marauding dumpsters with impunity under the cloak of more and more darkness. Somewhere deep within my DNA, I sense a subtle compulsion to go to bed earlier, sleep later and consume more bacon. Who needs a calendar with such internal clocks?
As summer greenery fades to tawny autumnal hues, Bobbie and I endeavor to squeeze in a few more alpine zone hikes. Unlike other seasonal transitions that drag out over months (spring; ugh), our favorite transition is short and sweet.
Up there, wildflowers are now withered and gone to seed. Patches of stalky corn lily wilt yellow and fall limp to the ground, as if cut with a scythe. With snow all but vanquished, once uproarious streams retreat to melodic tinkles. And the normally threatening and grandiose San Juans grow reticent and demure without caps of snow. I sympathize with their buck-nakedness; gunmetal gray is so unflattering on mountains. I make a wish for an early layer of snow that restores some dignity.
Under the influence of her morning dose of caffeine, Bobbie decides on a whim that she wants to summit Mount Sneffels…you know, just to see if she still can. What’s it been, now, 20 years? I’m surprised, but, having put at least a dozen 13’ers under our belts over the summer, what’s another few hundred feet? I soloed Sneffels several times since Bobbie’s last summit, including last summer when a slab of steep snow and ice in the main approach couloir forced me onto the south ridge. Generally rated as an “easy class 3,” Sneffels is still capable of ruining your day, if not more. All it takes is one misstep. Being humans, we rationalize that the same can be said for stepping off sidewalk curbs or driving Highway 550 north, and decide to go for it. How does that saying go? “Those who take no risks must settle for the ordinary.”
So a Monday rolls around, bright and shiny as a new copper penny. Not a single excuse beyond our usual tired legs…the forecast is good, snow should be gone in the couloir, and we ain’t gett’in any younger. Butterflies suddenly take a little swim in my stomach. I down a couple Rolaids to settle the ruckus and set about pulling on boots and loading up my daypack.
An hour later we’re gazing up a waterfall of boulders, each seemingly at their tipping point. A la Paul Simon, there must be 50 ways to break your leg. Thanks to gravity, the eroding effects of winter snow, and wear and tear from a gazillion summer climbers, most of the boulders in the upper approach couloir seem to have slid downward, which leaves loose, traction-less footing in the steepest section. Erosion is worse than either of us remember. Then again, it's been 20 years since I’ve taken this route.
It took a couple hours and change, but we finally bagged the summit…which we shared with five other climbers, all 50 years our junior. We know better than to think we have it licked and don’t really celebrate. As suspected, going down through loose scree and “tipping point” boulders proves slower and more problematic than climbing up. There are several other hikers in the couloir by now and considerable danger of being hit by rock-fall triggered by a careless foot placement. Fortunately, most everyone is considerate, moves cautiously and tries to avoid direct fall-lines of hikers below.
Safely down, I ask Bobbie if she would do it again. Her first response, an emphatic “No!” A couple of days later “No” softens to “Maybe.” When someone asks, "why?" most real mountaineers will say, Because it's there. We’re not real mountaineers. Our reason’s are not so pure and esoteric, and would run something like: Because we still can, and we’ve reached that age where one realizes that those days have numbers on them.
Remember, one doesn’t stop moving when they grow old, one grows old when they stop moving.
Mark Johnson is a restless soul who lives in Ouray, Colorado with his wife, Bobbie. He is happiest when explor- ing the West's nooks and crannies, hiking, climbing and mountain biking. He authors a "wanderlust" based bloog: www.Boxcanyonblog.com.