“We were having a bit of a meltdown back there. And that damn dancing marmot saved the day.”
IDAHO SPRINGS, Colorado — When you’re beginning a hike up to 14,000 feet, in Colorado of all places, where it gets cold as frozen tin even in August, it’s unnerving to find everyone else on their way down — to realize that you’re literally the only people squinting like mice and heading toward the peak.
The warnings were out there, on the internet. Sane people typically begin the hike to the top of Mt. Bierstadt (elevation: 14,065 feet) around six or seven in the morning. That way they’re back at home base by the time the early afternoon thunderstorms roll in. These warnings were heard and registered, but not obeyed, by us at least. We didn’t make it to the starting point until after 11:30 a.m. By then, parked cars were lined up down the slender mountain road leading to the trailhead, their owners perhaps nearing the peak of one of the 54 mountains in Colorado with an elevation greater than 14,000 feet.
Early in our ascent, we passed the owners of those cars, and their wives, and kids, and so on, and nearly everyone seemed to have encouraging words for us. Their judging eyes, however, conveyed much darker sentiments, namely: “What are these idiots doing heading up now?” or “I’m so glad I’m not in their shoes…”
“Early in our ascent, we passed the owners of those cars, and their wives, and kids, and so on, and nearly everyone seemed to have encouraging words for us. Their judging eyes, however, conveyed much darker sentiments, namely: ‘What are these idiots doing heading up now?’ or ‘I’m so glad I’m not in their shoes…'”
But we weren’t deterred. We had our hiking poles and our overstuffed backpacks brimming with warm clothes, salted almonds, real meat and fake meat sandwiches, a harmonica and a camera. There was no need to bring all this, especially on a seven-mile round trip hike. The packs would get heavy. But they were already filled, and there was no way we were turning back now.
The first mile-and-a-half of the trail was pleasant enough. Relatively flat, it wound its way through a pleasant green pasture that slept like an old dog at the foot of Mt. Bierstadt. Birds chirped and glided against the backdrop of a pure blue sky. It was warm and sunny — no sign of those afternoon thunderstorms online commenters warned about. Still, we passed group after group, all heading back home. “Good luck,” they said. “Good luck. Good luck.” We looked back and saw no one following us up. “Good luck, good luck.”
As the terrain turned from dirt-and-grass to rock-and-more-rock, the air thinned and a chill bit like a spider. We stopped for a sandwich on a rock we deemed most chair-like of its brethren. We peered over the beautiful green pasture, gazed at the aspens grouped on the mountains looming in the distance. I played a few notes on the harmonica, trying to ape one of Bob Dylan’s riffs on “Blonde on Blonde.” I’m no harmonica player. I think I heard a bird yelling at me to shut up, but I wailed on, impervious to all objections from nature and better sense. With half-full stomachs we continued upward, the rising chill pricking our skin and planting seeds of fear in the back of our minds.
By the time we had reached the especially rocky part, the incline was quite steep, and the chill had grown from minor fear to inevitable threat. The hoards of people we passed earlier, among pleasant skies and lush vegetation, were now few and far between. Perhaps a group – or a pair – skirted passed us now every 10 minutes or so. The rocky banality of this section was interrupted only by a shirtless man with long black hair who hopped past us down the mountain.
“He’s run past us twice now,” said an older couple we happened upon. “And that was just on our way down.”
Cocaine, it seems, is a phenomenal drug.
Not long after our run-in with the happy cocaine man, the scene took a dark turn. Nearly isolated on the mountain, with seemingly no one ahead of us and surely no one below, the chill turned from inevitable threat to full-on crisis. The whipping wind froze our ears. Sun and other pleasantries were now a distant memory. Hail smacked against the rocks, along with the occasionally splash of rain or flake of snow. My hands grew red and rigid. I could hardly grip my hiking poles. When I did, the numbness left me unsure of whether I was gripping anything at all.
It was chaos: gray, bone-cold chaos. We passed a family of five. The dad was carrying a young kid in a carriage on his back. The entire squad was unraveling. The mom tripped and collapsed on one of the kids. There were screams, shouts, nightmares of Armageddon. The wind blew hard. My wife, Caitlin, sheltered herself behind a pile of rocks and told me to go on without her. I turned from her and continued up the mountain, afternoon-snowstorm-be-damned.
Up there, mostly alone, my psyche began to unravel. What if we get caught in this frigid storm for hours? I was wearing shorts and a thin long-john shirt. What if we get trapped in a downpour? There were no trees, no shelter, just fucking rocks, as far as the eye could see. If the rain drenched me I would surely die of hypothermia. My hands were already approaching serious frostbite, I knew it. I counted my blessings.
I was going to die. If only I had listened to those enlightened internet commenters.
Still, there was nothing to do but push on. The peak was near. Why turn back now? It was a three hour hike to our tiny little car parked on that curvy mountain road. So we were screwed either way. If I was going to perish, which I was surely going to, I wanted to meet my maker as a man: stubborn and courageous, ignorant of better sense ’til the very end. I made it over the final rocky ridge and there it was: Mt. Bierstadt, in all its holy glory. I lifted my arms. Then I did some jumping jacks to increase circulation and turned around to check on Caitlin. What I saw made my heart leap.
The clouds had cleared entirely, revealing a brilliant panoramic view of the far-off mountain range. I saw the forest of aspens in their erect, regimented beauty, marching up the hill across the valley. Dark and light greens danced with one another in the pasture. Rocky, snow-capped peaks stood blue and stoic in the distance. Caitlin’s stocking-capped head peaked over the horizon. The whole thing felt like a Godsend — divine intervention of one sort or another. I forgot all about my icicle hands, which Caitlin dressed with a pair of smelly cold-weather socks when she reached me.
Back at a lower, more tolerable elevation, hand-in-hand with blues and greens again, we happened across that family of five. They were sitting on rocks alongside the trail, looking over the grassy field. Beaver-like creatures waddled over the landscape, looking like beer-bellied fat men. Mouse-like critters skittered from rock-to-rock. They beeped like pagers.
“The big ones are marmots. The small ones are pikas,” said the dad, an enormous child-toting carriage strapped to his back. “We were playing some music on a phone a few minutes ago and a marmot jumped on one of those rocks and swung his tail in a circle in time with the song.”
“We were having a bit of a meltdown back there,” he said. “And that damn dancing marmot saved the day.”