By Tom Reed
Reprinted from The Leader, Spring 2001, Vol. 16, No. 2
When I was 20, I split my head open on a sharp rock on the shoulder of Maroon Peak in Colorado's Elk Mountains. It was one of the stupidest things I'd ever done and I did it to myself. It wasn't the mountain's fault, it wasn't my friends' fault, it wasn't a bizarre accident. It was all me. Even today, years later, it still counts as one of the dumbest all time moments in my life. It was worthy, perhaps, of the dubious Darwin Awards given each year posthumously to those who improve the gene pool by doing something colossally stupid (usually mixing things like firearms and alcohol or swimming holes and alcohol or automobiles and alcohol) and thus removing oneself from breeding stock.
It was a time in my life when I had set out to climb all of Colorado's mountains above 14,000 feet, a total of 53 or 54 summits, depending upon whose opinion you believe of what constitutes a peak as opposed to a sub-peak. Regardless, I was out to climb them all. The summits are of varying difficulty. Some are simple walk-ups. Others call for more technical skills. Others cry out for endurance.
All of them require mountain sense.
The Maroon Bells-also known as the Deadly Bells-and neighboring Pyramid Peak, need a heavy dose of it. These peaks are rock piles, loose scree and crud that provide poor footing, crappy handholds and plenty of falling rock hazard. You end up screaming "Rock!" about every 20 feet or so. It isn't that any of these three beautiful summits are all that technically difficult, it's more the hazard. On the standard route of the Maroon climb, there is plenty of exposure, but almost all of it can be done unprotected. It's a long, tough day though with plenty of vertical and some dicey work traversing from North Maroon to Maroon Peak. Two friends (Joe and Carl) and I tackled the peak one beautiful summer day, hiking to the base of the climb in the dark the night before, stashing our backpacks at 4 a.m. and taking off. Ironically we were displaying a little bit of mountain sense by getting this alpine start. A month earlier, Joe and I had backed off when we got a late start (6 a.m.) and clouds started to roll in. Displaying judgment that would have been quite handy a month later, we decided to descend and attack the mountain another time.
So there we were, in the dark, working up the broad base of North Maroon, hiking and scrambling. By dawn we were at the base of the more difficult climbing. Above us, a couple of bighorn sheep moved in the rock, making us look like the clumsy humans we were. I can clearly remember these things even though nearly 20 years has passed. We were at the summit, alone, well before noon and had scrambled over the ridge, done a short rappel and were on the second summit by lunchtime. Here, we ate summer sausage, congratulated ourselves and joked around. We were abuzz with the accomplishment and with that most dangerous of drugs in a young male body-testosterone.
In those days (I can't believe I'm old enough to write that phrase), climbing the "Fourteeners" was not nearly as fashionable as it is today, but it was nevertheless quite popular, even then. We worked down off the summit and came to the head of a couloir that dropped 1,500 feet right down to the base of the peaks. We paused there and looked down the slope when another group passed us and quipped, "Damn, wish we had ice axes like you guys. That would be a great glissade."
Those words nearly sent me to my death. Carl and Joe and I exchanged looks. Hell, we could get on that couloir and zip down there in no time. It would be great. We tested the snow a bit and it was soft up top. At that time, even though I had climbed something like 30 14,000-foot peaks, I still didn't have mountain sense enough to know that of course, the snow at the top of a couloir is going to be softer than snow farther down the slope. We talked it over though. We were mountain boys, growing up in Colorado, playing on snow as long as we could remember. We'd practiced plenty of self arrests, we'd been there and done that. Hell, let's go.
Because I had the most "ex-perience," we kicked it around and decided it would be me taking the lead. I pulled out my ice axe, held it in the glissade position and shoved off. For the first 10 feet or so, the sliding was fun and fast. Then the point of my ice axe hit hard packed snow, harder than I could penetrate. Not sheer blue waterfall ice, but a near-ice that made the point of the ice axe bounce along as ineffectively as a squirrel scrabbling for purchase on a tin roof. Then it got uglier and steeper. I found myself trying to self arrest on steep hard-packed snow/ice. I couldn't get a purchase. In those few moments, I went from self-arrest position, back to glissade position, then back to self arrest. Below me was 1,500 feet of more of the same. But immediately below-perhaps 100 feet down the slope and a little to the left-was a rock pile. In that little blink of time, I made a decision that undoubtedly saved my life. I aimed for the rock pile.
I slid into it in the self arrest position going like a bat out of hell. My left hip hit first, then my head. The rock caught me just below the rim of my helmet, above my right eyebrow. I don't know if I lost consciousness, but I don't think I did. I stood up and saw the blood on the snow. Above me, Carl and Joe anxiously looked down. "Are you all right?"
"Yeah, don't come down here, I'm going to climb back up to you."
So with blood streaming down into my eyes, I kick-stepped up the slope back to them. At the top, we wrapped a bandanna around my head (we of course did not have a first aid kit) and descended the way we should have. When we made it to the hospital in Aspen after a long and painful hike out, it was dark. I had a skull fracture and took stitches in a laceration that left a scar that looks a little bit like a Mercedes Benz logo above my right eyebrow. My entire left leg turned black and I still carry a scar on my left hip even though that one didn't need stitches. But I was back in college downing beer by the quart only a few weeks later. I know now that I didn't know then how damned lucky I was. The irony of the situation, of the fact that we had successfully climbed two of Colorado's most infamous peaks and I had nearly died because of a voluntary glissade on the descent, was lost on me for a long time.
Nevertheless, it came to me after more expeditions, after months in the mountains had stretched into years. After mountain time and wilderness education-formal and informal-I got it. It is knowing what to do and what not to do. It is the doing and not doing of things that gets you through life in one piece . . . things like not flipping off that guy in the big 4x4 who just passed you on the blind curve on the way to the ski hill, like carrying bear spray in grizz country and getting your elk meat off the hill quickly, like knowing when the water is too challenging for your boating skills, or knowing which way to climb a mountain.
Mountain sense came to me hard that day in 1982. But I'm glad it did. Some of us learn these lessons hard. Some easy. But if we are going to spend time in places that call for good judgment, in places that are beyond our normal scope of being, then we need this quality. In day to day activities, call it common sense. But out there . . . in those places where we are bitsy little pieces of a larger picture, call it mountain sense. Thank gawd I lived to acquire it.
Tom Reed spends his time writing about wild places, wild people and wild hairs.