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The Uphill Battle
Propping my body up against a large slab of white granite, I lay down my hiking poles and take the pack off my back. I hurriedly sift through my things and find what I’m looking for: my white iPhone in a small zip-lock baggy. I press the home screen and my heart nearly stops: it is after two in the afternoon. I look down the mountainside and look at the rest of my trail. It, like the last two thousand feet I scrambled down, is a mass of white, misshapen rocks ranging in size from pebbles to boulders.
It will take me another two hours to climb down there, I think to myself.
I realize that I have tarried on the mountain too long. I am alone at 12,000 feet, tired from my ascent and battered from the intense wind. I think about the most important mountaineering rule for summer climbs: “Be below the treeline by early afternoon. Thunderstorms can pop up out of nowhere, and lightning can kill even the most experienced climber.”
As I resume my descent, I begin to calm myself down, but a small amount of fear builds in the back of my mind. Only 30 minutes later, my worst fear is validated. As I look behind me, I see ominous, dark clouds building behind the summit. I have to get off the mountain. Now.
My day began nine hours earlier, when a screeching alarm clock announced the end of my restful slumber. I grabbed my phone and rolled my eyes when I saw the time: it was four A.M., just like I expected. I thought about what was in store for the day. It was the day I, along with my parents, was to summit one of Colorado’s highest, Mount Princeton. Standing tall at 14,197 feet, the massive hulk of rock was only a few miles from our rented log cabin in Nathrop, Colorado.
As I stepped out of my bedroom, I saw a dot of red fur flash across the living room. A second or two later, my Australian Shepherd, Callie, was standing in front of me, her amber eyes full of joy and other emotions I felt none of that early in the morning.
If dogs could feel fatigue, they certainly do not show it, I thought to myself. I then found my parents, who were filling our packs with water, granola, two-way radios, and other necessities. For the next hour, we ensured that all preparations had taken place and that we were ready for the climb. By five, my parents, Callie, and I were headed into the darkness in our rented Jeep.
The road for the next two hours to get to the trailhead was narrow, bumpy, and an altogether scary mountain road. For the first few miles, we slowly rattled along through the fields of green aspen trees and evergreen bushes. The repetitive motion of the Jeep going over bumps in the road made us feel as if we were in a washing machine and I was sure that if I looked at myself in the mirror, I would be a dull shade of green. The anticipation built as we drove higher and higher up the side of Princeton. On one hand, I was ready to get off this road, but on the other, I was nervous about the climb. I knew it would be hard. I knew it would be scary. I knew that I was in for an adventure.
Roughly two hours later, we reached a point where we would start the climb. Our chosen parking place was actually on a switchback that looked out over the valley. I looked at the altimeter on my GPS – we were at 11,100 feet. Climbing out of the backseat of the Jeep, I felt as if I was still moving. I grabbed my pack, my hiking poles, and other miscellaneous climbing gear, and then started trudging down the road.
The first half-mile of the trail was actually the mountain road we had been travelling on. As we walked, we gradually gained elevation. The trees got shorter and sparser and, before we knew it, we reached the treeline. Looking to our left, we were able to see for miles through the valley, over towns and villages, and up toward the Mosquito Range, where behind them the first rays of sunlight were beginning to appear. I turned to my right and saw the point I was looking for: the small turn where the trail to the mountain officially began. We turned and began hiking up the narrow dirt trail, which led us onto a grassy alpine ridge about 500 feet above our Jeep. As we approached the ridge crest, the view ahead made me stop. I could see the mountain, illuminated by the glow of the first rays of sunlight, a few miles in front of me. To my right was a deep valley that was still in shadow. To my left was “Tigger,” another large mountain that appeared only slightly less imposing than Princeton. Resuming without taking a picture, I move on with newfound determination.
The grassy ridge trail ended only fifteen minutes later. Then, the scree fields began. Scree, or rocks that fall off a mountain over time, take more time to walk through than normal dirt trails. I was slowed down considerably. I sighed as I realized that my hiking poles were about as useless as sunscreen during a snowstorm. I continued to maneuver over rocks as carefully as if I were walking through a minefield. One wrong move could send me tumbling like a rag doll down the side of the ridge. At times, I thought to myself, why am I doing this? This is crazy.
Nevertheless, I push onward. About an hour and a half later, I halfheartedly grin as I look back and see the elevation I had gained. I then hear a familiar voice call out on the two-way radio, “The trail turns left and goes steeply up the ridge up here. Don’t miss it. We almost kept going straight.”
“Thanks, Dad,” I call back through my radio. I know of the “left turn,” and am glad that it was close. I am anxious for some new scenery.
The “left turn” only brings more of the same, only worse. The path is steeper than the one I had been on. At times, I lean in and grab hold of a cold chunk of rock for support, holding both hiking sticks in my free hand. One time, I slip going up a particularly steep part of the trail. My knees ram into the rocks and a brief shot of pain shoots through my lower body. When I stand up again, I still have function of both legs, so I resume my climb. A few minutes later, I feel a strong gust of cold wind push against me, lifting the hood on my jacket and stinging my face. I realize then that I have reached the saddle. I look around on the saddle. On one side, about a mile to my left, is “Tigger.” About a mile to my right (and a quarter mile up) is the summit of Mount Princeton. Gathering what was left of my ever-draining energy, I turn right and start walking.
I feel my morale drain from my body as I discover two things. Firstly, the path up is, if possible, steeper than the path I had just come from. Secondly, there are no distinct trails; the paths seem to intertwine, go around in circles, dead end, and disappear completely. Several times I find myself lost, unable to find the trail amidst fields of white-grey granite. About a third of the way up the summit, I see something peculiar out of the corner of my eye. Instinctively, I look over my shoulder, and nearly trip over a flat boulder. A large fluffy cloud, rolling in like silent storm, is headed straight for me. I stare in amazement as it slowly overtakes the clear, sunny sky. I brace myself on a rock as it hit. I can only see a few rocks ahead of me, but I know what I am supposed to do: go up. Moisture beads up on my windbreaker as I keep climbing; I hope the cloud will end, but it keeps coming. I move my hand to press the small black call button on my two-way radio. I am going to call my climb off. Instead, the words come out as, “I’m still coming. I’ll make it as soon as I can.”
A resounding “Okay” confirms the continuance of my ascent. Almost uncannily, the clouds begin to disperse. I feel as though my world is being opened up for me and, as the last of the cloud had passed over the saddle, I see my motivation in the form of the summit. It couldn’t be more than an hour away. Once again, I pick up pace.
The final push to the summit is the steepest part of all. I spend a large part of it on all fours doing a partial bearcrawl scramble up and over the rocks. I crane my neck to look for the summit, but I can’t find it. All I see is a wall of rock as far as I could see. Nevertheless, I push forward. Once I think I would never reach it, I see a man we had seen earlier. He smiles and says, “You’re almost there! Maybe only five minutes away. I’ll climb with you back to the top.”
I take his offer and we climb for a few moments longer. Eventually, the slope becomes less steep, and I look up and see about 25 people doing everything from talking on their cell phones to jumping in the air. I know at once I have reached the summit.
We don’t tarry long on the summit. We know that we need to get down before storms move in. The descent doesn’t take nearly as long as the ascent, though I get lost in rocks several times. Once I can’t even turn around, so I move forward. I eventually find a trail which leads me safely back to the lowest point on the saddle. I then begin to descend the ridge. I curiously check my phone, as I had lost all knowledge of time climbing. I have to do a double take when I see it: it is 2:20. I quicken my pace.
All during my descent, grey clouds were backbuilding over the Sawatch Range behind me. I had thought that I would make it down in time to escape the brunt of the afternoon storms. I am wrong. I had just descended the ridge and am skirting the mountainside when I first see the clouds. I turn around and look at the summit. Behind it, dark, menacing storm clouds are forming. Now, it is a race to get below the treeline.
I move quickly. I can feel my pulse racing from the combined physical effort and from my fear of the storm gaining on me. A thunderclap sparks my adrenaline; I think back to the plaque on the ridge above me that serves as a reminder of the tragedies caused by lightning. A woman in her twenties was on Princeton in the 1990s when she was caught in a freak storm. She was struck by lightning and died at that spot. Remembering her story, I keep moving. Shortly thereafter, I approach the grassy ridge near the start of the trail. The hail then begins falling. It falls down in sheets, accumulating on some of the flat rocks and making them slippery. A few minutes later, I see lightning. I begin jogging. A large, bright light flashes across the ridge, and a loud boom follows after, leaving my ears ringing. I begin sprinting. I have my mind set on getting off the mountain as quickly as possible. By the time I am off the ridge, rain and hail is falling heavily, rendering my jacket useless. Thankfully, at that time I am only a few minutes from the Jeep and, although it is an open Jeep, it provides much more protection than my soaked North Face windbreaker. When I get to it, I am thankful to have gotten off of the mountain unscathed.
Approximately forty-five minutes later, we are off the Jeep trail. We had done it. Overall, we spent about nine and a half hours on the mountain that day. To me, this is one of my greatest accomplishes to date. I do not know if I will ever climb Mt. Princeton again, but I do know that it will not be my last fourteener.