I once said that I used to try, at least once a year, to go skiing or mountain climbing. I’m finding my unwritten memory as unreliable as ever, but to my best recollection, I’ve climbed four mountains. Walker and Wheeler in New Mexico (both peaks a one-day climb out of Red River), and two more while on Wilderness Trek in Colorado.
Wilderness Trek was an interesting experience. The first time I went, it was with a group from our church that included me, Brian from that skiing story (this was about a year before that story took place), and one or our deacons or elders who irritated and intimidated me.
For that matter, Brian and I didn’t get along too well, either. We ended up climbing with a large group from Duncan, OK. We went up the mountain, came back down, and by the end of that we were all friends.
It’s odd, but that’s really all I remember of my first time on Trek. Brian and I both came back with such good things to say about it, though, that the next year our youth group put together a full 20-member group, including me and my sisters and all my friends but Trish.
And that one I remember. We drove out to Colorado, to some campground up in the mountains, and got to spend an evening in cabins before going to a big dinner together in the central meeting room.
That was Saturday night, and Sunday morning we got up early, had a little devotional, then brought out packs with us and rode in vans away from the camp and up into the mountains. We spent a long afternoon rappelling — killing time while us flatlanders acclimated to the higher altitude — and then struck out for Base Camp, which was no more than an hour’s hike into the woods.
There we set up camp, lit fires, and prepared dinner under the close supervision of our guides. Afterward, sun setting, we had another impromptu devotional, and then we were dismissed. We explored a little bit, played cards, I wrote in my scribblebook, but mostly we talked. The whole event was set up to create connections.
Monday morning we broke camp and hiked all day. That was the hardest day by far, pushing through lots of different terrain. None of it required ropes or climbing gear, but there were steep climbs, there were tricky boulders and dense woods.
After stopping for a break, one of our guides accidentally left six or seven of our group off on an alternate route up the mountain, and it took a while before that was discovered. Then we had to double back, and suddenly the mountain felt very big, and our guide seemed very small. The other group ended up doubling back, too, and they met us nearly back to the point we’d separated. Then we all had to push double-time — many of us back over ground we’d already covered twice — to make it to High Camp before nightfall.
We threw our tents up quickly that night, threw together a cold dinner long after the sun had set, and huddled together in little groups instead of playing Frisbee and Hacky Sack. Still, there were stories to tell. It was a scary day.
Tuesday, we pushed the summit. We’d had to push hard Monday night, to get into position, because afternoon thunderstorms can be a real threat on Rocky Mountain peaks, so we absolutely had to get to the top of the mountain and start heading back down by noon.
Because things had gone wrong on Monday, though, our big group of inexperienced climbers was more exhausted than usual, and we had a couple injuries. It was nothing serious — a sprained ankle, a sore knee — but it was enough to slow us down. We decided as a group not to leave anyone behind, and the stronger among us helped the injured along.
We broke out of the tree line early in the morning, and from there on it was dry brown rocks, all the way to the peak. I remember starting the morning thinking I was one of the injured (with an old sore in my right ankle slowing me down), but an hour into the hike I was one of the helpers. I even ended up carrying my older sister’s pack for an hour, and I think that was one of the first steps in us rebuilding a relationship that had been seriously strained by…well, being adolescent siblings.
We made the summit, too, with five minutes to spare. Everyone looked around, we snapped a bunch of pictures, and then our guides clapped their hands loudly to get our attention and herded us right back down the mountain.
Getting down is harder than going up. It may seem strange, but it’s true. On top of that, we were worn out from the climb, so the path that had taken us four hours ascending took us about seven in the descent.
We made it, though, and then our guides told us all to take a break while they prepared dinner for us. It was a glorious feast, and by the time we set into our dessert we were all in high spirits, because we’d done something amazing.
Looking back on it now — comparing it to those two one-day climbs in New Mexico — I really don’t think there was much of a difference in the mountains. The group was larger, maybe less experienced, but a lot of it came from the guides, too.
They chose a path that pushed us, harder than it needed to be, to force us to take the time and grow through the experience. We did, too. Every one of us came back from that experience changed.