Here’s something you may not know about Philip—he likes to climb. Not trees, mountains. Living, as he does, in Colorado, Philip is a tired member of a group of people who have climbed all 54 Colorado mountains that are over 14,000 feet high. He jokes, “Climbing mountains makes me feel close to God—at least 14,000 feet closer than most people.”
Philip’s wife Janet is right behind, having climbed 50. According to Philip, “We have different goals in climbing. My goal is to get to the top, and then descend safely. Janet’s goal is to identify at least 25 species of wildflowers on the way up, and if she summits, all the better. Most of the time, our goals coincide. I’m now going back and accompanying her on the handful of difficult peaks she has remaining. She didn’t start out with the goal of climbing all 54, but then she learned that just 200 women had accomplished that feat, and her competitive instincts kicked in.”
A description of a climb from Chapter 2 of Prayer: Does It Make Any Difference?
To climb a 14,000-foot mountain in Colorado you need an early start—as in four o’clock in the morning early—but you need to limit coffee intake in order to avoid dehydration. You drive on chassis-slapping, rutted roads in the dark, always alert for deer and elk, gaining elevation to somewhere between 9,000 and 10,000 feet, where the hiking trail begins. Then you begin the hike by wending your way through a forest of blue spruce, lodgepole pine, and Douglas fir on a trail that feels spongy underfoot from fallen needles. The ground gives off a pungent smell of decay and earth. You walk beside a tumbling creek, silvery white in the pre-dawn moonlight, its burbling the only sound until the birds awake.
Around 11,000 feet the trees thin, giving way to lush meadows carpeted in wildflowers. The sun is rising now, first casting a reddish alpenglow on the mountain tops, then dropping its rays into the basins. Bright clumps of lupine, fireweed, columbine, and Indian paintbrush dapple the open spaces, while plants with more exotic names—monk’s hood, elephant head, bishop’s cap, chiming bells, marsh marigold—cluster near the water’s edge.
You follow the creek up the basin, skirting cliff bands, until a climber’s trail veers off to zigzag up the grassy shoulder of the peak you have chosen to climb. By now your heart is racing like a sprinter’s, and despite the morning chill you feel sweat under your backpack. You take a water break, then head up the steep trail, forcing yourself to gut it out. The dawn chorus of birds has begun, and you are startled by a flash of indigo, bright as fireworks, as a flock of Western bluebirds suddenly catches the sun’s rays.
The high-altitude wildflowers have shrunken into miniature versions of themselves; to really see them, you have to stoop to their level, practicing what the locals call “belly botany.” Marmots, the alpine cousins of woodchucks, waddle to their lookout posts and whistle reports of your progress to their colleagues higher up.
Soon you leave dirt and grass and are stepping across a boulder field. Chunks of granite the size of wheelbarrows are decorated by lichen in shades of orange, lime-green, and yellow. You keep your head down, testing each rock for stability before shifting weight to it. Finally, after an hour of rock-hopping you reach the ridge, a narrow line of ascent you hope will lead you all the way to the summit. You sling the backpack off and stop to catch your breath. You drink more water, eat a snack. The rush of blood pounding in your ears overwhelms all other sounds. Looking back over your route, you feel accomplished. You’ll make the summit, you feel certain.
Down below you see something, a tiny dot just at the edge of timberline. No, two dots. Animals or merely rocks? One spot moves—can’t be a rock. A marmot? Size is so hard to judge up here. The second dot looks red. Could they be hikers? You glance skyward, searching for signs of the thunderstorms that roll in before noon. If they are hikers, they’re flirting with danger, starting their climb at least three hours late. You watch the ant-crawl progress as the tiny dots edge up the trail.
Then it hits you: from this vantage point, three hours ago you too were a dot like that, a speck of human life on a huge, hulking, weather-creating mountain that has little regard for it. (As a famous climber said, “Mountains don’t kill people. They just sit there.”) You feel appropriately small, almost insignificant. You get a tiny, fractional glimpse of what God must see all the time.
And here is Philip’s report from 2007 about his 54th summit.
This has been quite a year. Since my accident on Feb. 25 you’ve received several reports about my broken neck and recovery. Well, I’m back, and you should share in the peaks as well as the valleys.
We moved from Chicago to Colorado in late 1992, and in an effort to get acquainted with what our new state had to offer, we started climbing the 14,000-foot mountains here. There are 54 of them. About half are walk-ups, the rest require some scrambling on all fours and about 15 involve climbing, exposure, and scary drop-offs. A few are downright dangerous. Janet and I have been climbing three or four every summer, learning as we go. Like most people, we put off the hardest ones till the end. When I was lying on the hospital gurney wondering if I would live, the day of the accident, I had the overwhelming thought, “I can’t die yet—I have three more mountains to climb!” Well, after I got my neck brace off, on August 15 (drum roll) I completed them all!
The last summit to conquer was Maroon Peak, near Aspen, one of the most photographed sites in Colorado. Weather was very iffy that day, and several times we almost turned back. But we had a great friend who served as our guide: Eric Alexander, who guided the first blind person to summit Mt. Everest (you may have seen a National Geographic special on him). We figured if Eric could get a blind man up Everest he could take care of us. We got on the trail early: the alarm went off at 2:15am, we drove to the trailhead, and were hiking by 3:45. We were the only party to climb Maroon Peak that day, and as a result attracted the curiosity of a herd of nine mountain goats who followed us most of the day.
Several times I thought back to where I was six months ago. strapped to a body board, immobile, with the very real possibility of paralysis or some permanent disability. It was a wonderful feeling to stand at the top of the final 14er and realize that so far I’ve been able to resume normal life. The neck was sore from carrying a backpack and looking up for handholds, but a good kind of soreness. The vertebrae are still misaligned and I still may need surgery down the road, but that’s down the road. For now I’m happy to be exulting in life. All in all, the accident has been good for my spirits, our marriage, and definitely for my appreciation of what we often take for granted.
Thank you, friends, for your many signs of support and encouragement. I have often felt overwhelmed this year by the gift of friendship. And if you want to tackle a mountain someday, you know whom to call…