Archive for November 2, 2009

Rocky Mountain High

For almost six years, my family and I lived in the near shadow of the Rocky Mountains.  I was stationed at the Air Force Academy, just north of Colorado Springs, which is right up next to the eastern face where the mountains lean down and meet the plains that stretch east into Nebraska and beyond.  When we stepped out of the back door of our house and looked to the north, our horizon was a jumble of mountain slopes and peaks and rocks and pine forest and wonder.  Mule deer walked through and grazed in the communal areas between the houses and wandered to and from the forested areas of the base and back into their natural homes of those woods and hills that surrounded us.  Brown or black bears also lived nearby and would occasionally be seen moseying along the ridges and hillsides along the Academy’s northern boundary.  Pike’s Peak was further south along the mountain chain, and then north and beyond what we could see from our back door hidden among the other peaks and valleys was Rampart Reservoir; somewhere back there and away…I’d never been there but had heard about it from my hunting and fishing co-workers and friends.


The elevation of the Air Force Academy was between 7,000 and 7,500 feet depending on where the measure was taken and the housing area in which we lived was closer to the 7,000 mark.  The particular mountain that was directly outside our back door (by a few miles, but very prominent in the view) was called ‘Blodgett Peak’ and was listed at an elevation of around 9,200 feet on the topographical maps that I had access to with my job.  Blodgett Peak was mesmerizing in the summer with its beautiful rocks and pine forest blanket and near dazzling in the winter when it was covered with snow…even on the darker days of winter when the sky was heavy with clouds and impending storms.  The white of the snow and the contrasting darkness of the rocks and trees combined to be both inviting and foreboding when one considered venturing outdoors for a simple walk or a hike.


Living as near to the mountains as we did, it was hard not to develop a longing to be even closer.  The raw nature was compelling.  In fair weather I would take my dog, Zack, and my kids for hikes, sometimes ranging through the foothills and other times wandering more in the forested areas along the snow-melt creeks or in the seams of the valleys between the minor hills of the lower mountain areas.  The kids were young at the time and their smaller legs would have a difficult time going very far, so on most occasions it was just me and the dog.  We would follow the game trails along the sides of the hills or wander along the streams, watching the brook or rainbow trout glide along the sparkling waterways among the pebbles and rocks, fallen trees, branches, and other scrubby vegetation.  We would encounter mule deer and squirrels and hawks and an occasional horned owl as we walked through the forest and out onto the slopes.  It was unusual to encounter another person out in the woods, so the quiet of nature was more profound and alive than it would have been with others out on the trails causing a human disturbance with their speech or simple presence.


I can’t say for sure when the idea came to me or when I might have first taken it seriously, but the mountain mass of Blodgett’s Peak and its ascending slopes and neighboring minor peaks became an attractive and alluring force, one that I couldn’t ignore, especially given its proximity to my daily life there at its base.  I believe it was January, but it might have been sometime in March of maybe our fourth of fifth year at the Academy that the attraction became almost an obsession and I knew that I ‘had’ to climb it.  After discussing the adventure with a neighbor of mine, Dennis, we decided to drive as close to the mountain as we could and then hike around the base with the topographical map, trying to figure out which slope would be the best place to start.  It appeared that regardless of our starting point, most of the ascent would be at angles of 45 to 65 degrees, sometimes in the shaded and still snow-covered areas of the northern spines, and other times in the more clear and rocky areas where the sun had reached and touched enough to melt the snow and provide an easier passage.


The day finally arrived and Dennis and I prepared our snacks and lunches and canteens of water and stowed them in our backpacks, tightened our hiking boots, grabbed our jackets and gloves and Dennis’s rifle (for bears?), loaded our gear and dogs into my car, and headed toward our launching point.  Fifteen or so minutes later we were at the end of the forest or service road and found ourselves at the base of the mountain.  We unloaded the dogs and everything else, locked the car, secured the keys in a side pocket on my cargo-style jeans so they wouldn’t get lost on the mountain, hefted our backpacks, and found the side of the one ridge where we would begin our ascent.


The snow had melted on the front of the ridge where we started, but we were soon up past our ankles and then close to our knees in the white stuff as we climbed higher.  The dogs bound ahead and often came back to check on us as we moved a little slower than they did, even with the constant sniffing, sampling, and surveying that they conducted on their way.  Neither Dennis nor I were really prepared for the steep climb that we had undertaken, but we were essentially in-shape and had the stamina of our relative youth to propel us up the mountainside.  I don’t remember the first two-thirds of our climb as being particularly difficult, but as we embarked upon the last third, it seems that we had to stop every few steps to catch our breath and rest our burning legs and pounding hearts.  We were sweating profusely as our bodies were working so hard to move us upward, tapping our energy reserves after having used-up the calories of the snacks we consumed while hiking or on our breaks.  During the march up the mountain, we were constantly looking upward, hoping that as we topped each rise we would be at the summit.  But as one would guess or imagine, no sooner did we make substantial progress and reach that next rise, we would see more rock and mountain ahead of us, defying our tired and miserable wishes that we would be done with the upward climb.


The view as we ascended the mountain was mostly blocked by the tall pine trees and other ridges that were around us.  While that might not have been much to look at, we were still surrounded by a splendor that is now foreign to my desert-dwelling self.  The pine trees and scrub oak and other vegetation were snow-covered or not, and nestled in and among or towering above the black and gray rocks that were beside, beneath, and still above us.  Pine needles and the fallen leaves from the scrub oak and whatever other bushes were around us were a cushion over the rocky ground when we sat to rest, while the white of the patchy snow accented the granite colors of the rocks and the green of the pines.  We would come to clearings every now and then, or find ourselves on the spine of a ridge that was no longer behind another ridge where we could see back out onto the Academy/base or, looking northward, we could see other mountain ridges and peaks that we had never known existed other than on the maps that we had studied while planning the hike.  The air was still chilly and burned our lungs as we strained up the mountain, but it was pure and the sky was clear.  The sun was out and added to the heat that our bodies were producing, encouraging us to remove our jackets and unbutton our flannel shirts to let some of the heat out.  There wasn’t a risk of getting too cold, even in the shade of the trees, as our bodies were still working too hard for that to happen.  When we paused to rest, the only sounds we heard were our breathing and the dogs panting and running around.  There were no noises of the civilization we had left at the foot of the mountain.  We could hear the breeze or light wind in the pine needles and leaves and branches above us sometimes, but other than that and our own breathing and our hearts pounding in our ears, it was unusually quiet…beautifully, but so unnatural in our everyday lives.


Finally, after what must have been three or more hours of hard climbing (I honestly don’t remember how long it took), we topped the final rise of our trek and found ourselves at the literal top of Blodgett Peak.  The summit was probably no more than 200 square feet (20×10) and was covered in some type of wild grass or weeds, scrub bushes, and the gray and black rocks that were characteristic of the mountain itself.  The sky, again, was bright blue and had puffy clouds out in the distance.  We could see the entirety of the Academy, out into Colorado Springs proper, and turning around to look at the mountain ridges and pine forests to the north of us, we could see Rampart Reservoir and some other smaller lake in the distance.  The breeze or wind was stronger up there than it was down in between and on the spines of the ridges and we quickly cooled-off as we sat and looked out at the magnificence around us.  When we had turned to look north at the Reservoir, we suddenly heard a loud ‘whoosh,’ and turning quickly back toward the front of the peak, we saw one of the Academy’s yellow gliders sweeping past us.  It was probably less than 30 feet away from us, as we could see the cadet pilot actually smiling at us and waving as we made eye-contact.  What a trip!  We had seen the gliders on and from the ground innumerable times in our years at Academy, but what a rush to be eye to eye with the pilot as he was sixteen or seventeen-hundred feet up in the air!  Aside from the ‘victory’ of having ‘conquered’ the mountain in making it to the top, seeing the glider so close from the top of the mountain was the highlight of the adventure.


As one could imagine, the trip down the mountain went much more quickly than the ascent.  Dennis and I had miscalculated the downward slope of the ridge opposite of the ridge that we had taken to arrive at the summit and ended-up going down the near front slope of the mountain instead of one of the ridges.  After we rounded the summit and began the descent, we quickly learned that we were going down a slope that was much more severe than the one we climbed up.  We were easily going down a 65 to 70-degree grade and it was difficult to keep our feet under us as we slid and plunged down the face of the slope.  The dogs had an easier time of it with their four legs and no backpacks or rifle to occupy their paws/hands like we did.  We were jumping and hopping and grabbing at branches and trees as we flew down the mountain.  It felt like our arms were going to be torn from their sockets a few times as we were hurtling downward so fast and had to reach out and grab at anything to keep ourselves upright and not tumbling like wayward boulders down the rocky mountain.  It seems like there was very little stopping to rest during the whole descent and I cannot accurately remember anything resembling the minutes or hour that it might have taken to reach the level ground again.  Given our speed of descent, there was also no sight-seeing or admiring of the brush and rocks and snow and wildlife as we catapulted in a blur from tree trunk to bush to branch and rock in our downward flight, but we did make it down the mountain without major bodily injuries and thanked the powers in the universe that we made it without broken ankles, legs, and/or dislocated shoulders.  When we reached the bottom of the final slope, we found a soft spot near a fallen tree and sat to rest.  Our trembling legs and scraped hands and forearms told us that we had been through quite an ordeal and we turned to look back up at the peak more than once to marvel at what we had just accomplished – both the climb up and the slide down from Blodgett Peak.


Dennis and I and the dogs had a final drink from our canteens before we found the road and made the slow walk back to my car.  The drive to the housing area was only about 15 minutes, so we were soon returned to the comfort of our homes where we recounted to our wives and my kids the details of the hike up the mountain, the harrowing descent, how well the dogs did, the glider swooping down near us, the view, and all of the other marvelous experiences of our little adventure.


From that afternoon onward, it was impossible to gaze or look upon Blodgett Peak again with the same measure of simple appreciation as we did before we had climbed it.  We now had a near intimate admiration and respect and awe for what we saw in that massive chunk of gray and black rock and pine forest.  Dennis and I could now recollect and envision ourselves up at the summit looking down on the part of our known world that was in our purview that day; we could look at the one northern slope and recall the trudging ascent in ankle and knee-deep snow and then look a little south of that ridge and wonder again at our fortune or good luck in making it down the severe slope in one piece.  We now looked at Blodgett Peak and claimed it as ours…at least I did, anyway.