So there I sat. On the 50th anniversary of being born into this world, in the center seat on a full flight to Denver from Pensacola. Cramped is an understatement. In my attempt to do this expedition on a very tight budget, I packed everything I needed into a small, yet perfectly sized, piece of luggage known to airlines as a personal item. Since the bag was so small I sat there wearing a long sleeve undershirt, a heavy zip-up alpine wool sweater, a large down jacket, and an insulated outer shell. A mountaineering hobo is the best description that comes to mind. My toes were numb from my large hiking boots and three pairs of socks. Playing on my phone was a podcast which featured John Krakauer talking about a failed attempt to climb the north face of the Eiger in Switzerland. It put me in the mindset of the quest I was about to undertake.
However before I climbed my objective, The Fly and The Spider Peaks, I was going to spend the day skiing the freshly snowy slopes of Vail. I had been obsessing over Vail since I booked the trip. Looking over maps, weather reports and webcams every day for the last month. Eager with anticipation of every additional lift and run that became open.
Originally this whole trip was going to be a totally solo event. But my longtime friend, Mark joined me out there to ski. And since he had many hotel points earned from his travel for work, he afforded us a first rate place to stay in Vail Instead of the sleep pod at a hostel where I initially planned to stay. I had also planned on taking public transportation from the airport to the greyhound station to grab a bus to Vail. He was now going to pick me up right outside my terminal in a luxury AWD Audi SUV. Which was good because snow was piling up in the Rockies.
I made it to Denver without incident where Mark was waiting for me. The next stop before heading to Vail was my friend Catfish’s place to get all the gear I had shipped to him; snowshoes, trekking poles, boot spikes, snow gaiters, mittens, camp fuel and a wool alpine hat. Unfortunately the hat did not arrive in time. It was just a quick stop and off we headed up I-70 into the Rocky Mountains with old school music playing to bring back old times. Mark and I had made several drives through the Rockies back in college with this same music. The snow was really coming down as we got deep into the mountains, and it was accumulating up on the roads quickly despite the numerous snow plows working to clear the highway. It was setting up to be an epic powder day of skiing in the morning.
I was filled with so much excitement that I could barely sleep. I got up very early and started getting my all my gear together. After a quick breakfast at the hotel, we grabbed our skis and headed to the slopes. The snow never stopped throughout the day. The surface conditions were excellent, although visibility became pretty bad at times. Having not skied in almost 20 years I took a few tumbles but nothing bad.
We skied until the lifts stopped running. And according to Mark’s phone tracker we covered about 26+ miles of runs over the 8 hours we were on the mountain. My right leg was so tired I could barely stay upright on the last run. We finally came to a stop at the base, narrowly avoiding complete leg failure from overuse. I don’t know if the Jim Beam we were taking nips of on the lifts contributed to the near-leg-failure, or helped me push through the pain.
We sat in the hotel room like zombies trying to muster the energy to go out and have dinner. Vail village is designed to mimic the look and feel of a small village in the Alps. The atmosphere transported me back to the German Alps, which I fell in love with when I visited it them just a year ago this same time. We chose the Almresi restaurant. The menu was German and Austrian inspired, lots of pork and potatoes. Delicious!! The next day I still intended on making a trek to summit the peaks so we made it an early night. Plus our bodies were exhausted!
It was 5:00 am when I woke up to once again pack gear for a big day ahead. My half-a-century-old legs were feeling every bit of their age. Skiing the day before really took a toll on me and I was very worried about not being about to do the strenuous hike up the steep valley trail to the the summit. It was a beautiful day, no snow, and few clouds. Mark dropped me off at my trailhead around 7:00 am before his drive back to Denver. This was to be a solo expedition.
For the past 5 years or so I have been obsessed with watching documentaries and movies of mountaineering exploits. Everest, Denali, the Eiger, K2, Manasulu, Anna Purna, you name it. If there is a something involving mountaineering that is worth watching I have probably seen it. A personal goal I have been keeping secret was to climb a snowy mountain peak on my 50th birthday. I never really pushed for it because financially and logistically it seemed like a pipe dream. However, given this chance to go to Colorado, I decided to try to find an attainable peak to attempt to fulfill that dream. I scoured and researched the internet relentlessly. I found the double peak mountain, The Fly and The Spider. Both summits just over 12,000ft high, located in the rugged Gore Mountain Range. The route to the peaks was up the Booth Creek Trail, which I could barely find any info on for winter hiking except one article did say, do not attempt after October. Which made it sound more challenging, therefore, more appealing to me.
The hike started easily enough. After hiding a bag with all the things I brought to Colorado but didn’t need for the hike under a fallen tree I began the ascent. The trail had just a slight layer of packed snow. I opted for microspikes to increase my traction. They worked like a charm. I quickly got very warm from the exertion so I shed off my down layer and hid it too under a fallen tree to get when I came back down the trail. The snow continued to get progressively deeper. The spruce trees with thick buildups of snow on their branches made me feel as if I had been miniaturized and now walking through the landscape of my christmas train village.
I made a few errors in my preparations and the first one I would notice is that I failed to account for the freezing temps that would transform the water in my hydration hose leading from my backpack into a solid ice so I could not drink from it. Fortunately I had an unlimited supply of freshly fallen snow all around me to “eat”. As I walked I either scooped up snow in my hands or ate it off the branches.
The snow was up to my waist now as I trudged along, lifting my feet higher and higher to take steps over the fluffy white powder. It was time to strap on the snowshoes. I had never snowshoed before, and I was just hoping I could figure out how to put them on. Luckily it was quite easy. Let the tromping begin.
It was slow going, but I was making steady advancements. I got to Booth Falls which were frozen and snow covered so unfortunately not much to look at. I continued on. The blue sky was so saturated with color in contrast to the white of the snow, that it didnt look real. The air was so clear everything looked high definition. It was a simply gorgeous, postcard-esque, winter wonderland.
With the revelation I could not cover the distance to The Fly and The Spider, I could see a nice peak just about a mile or so up on my right that I made my new goal. I figured it would afford a fabulous view of the bigger peaks in the Gore Range and the valley I hiked below and be a suitable destination although I had no marked route to get there. And speaking of marked routes. I was now the only hiker to have come this route since the big snowfalls had descended on the valley. In front of me there was no discernable trail, only thick fresh fallen snow between large stands of spruce trees, magical, but did not make for finding my way very easy. I was continually stopping to pull out my phone, take off my gloves and check my position. It made for very slow progress.
Unfortunately the snow eventually got so deep and so soft it became hard to make headway, even with snowshoes. They sunk about 2 feet on every step making them hard to take strides in. The worst part was that my poles would just sink into the snow and were not long enough to find solid ground to help balance myself. I estimated they would have needed to be about 10 feet long to serve any purpose when standing on 6 feet of snow like I was. If I fell over at this point I would be swallowed by the snow drifts around me. And that would be bad.
When I set out on this trek I told myself I would not push too far as I needed to be off the mountain by sundown which was around 4:00 pm. It was now 12:00 pm, and I was only about 2 miles into the 10-12 mile hike I had planned. I felt a bit dejected. I knew I would never make it to Booth Lake let alone the summits of The Spider and The Fly. And reaching the un-named peak I had been eyeing was not going to happen either. I gave it my best try yet I still felt disappointed. I could go no further. A sense of failure was present no matter how hard I tried to force it away.
To salvage the day and raise my spirits, I cleared off a boulder and broke out my camp stove to cook myself a hot meal amongst the snow covered forest. But, here is where I met another preparation error. I failed to check my matches. They were so old they would not strike. They would not even yield a spark! I was feeling angry and more dejected about my failure to properly prepare for this outing. “Rookie mistakes!” I thought to myself.
At first, I could not think of anything I could do to get the flame going. Even the flint stick had fallen off the bottom of my match case that is my backup. Then it hit me, perhaps I can get one of my AA batteries to create a spark. I could not carry my Leatherman’s tool on the plane so in order to use my charger cord stuffed in my bag as a wire donor, I would have to chew it apart. I managed to get two lengths of wire out of it. I taped each to an end on the battery with duct tape (at least I remembered my duct tape). I cranked on the stoves’s gas and tried to ignite it however the spark was too weak. I then taped all four batteries I had together. I cranked up the gas and tapped the two wires together. I got a great spark and then got a satisfying, WHOOSH, as a flame roared to life. I felt so vindicated as I like to pride myself on my resourcefulness.
It was the best bowl of beef stew I ever had (except of course my wife’s homemade beef stew.) I felt a renewed energy. Once again I noticed how gorgeous the day was, and the incredible views I had in every direction. A sense of achievement overcame me now. I may not have made it to the top of a mountain, but at least I was no longer in my office chair just dreaming about trying. I was living it! I began to remember my mantra, it’s not always about the destination, but the journey.
Because I turned around earlier than I had planned, it afforded me plenty of time to slowly descend and absorb the wonderful world that surrounded me. I took plenty of pics and played in the snow. At one point I became mesmerized while walking along a ridge watching the snow balls being created in my wake roll down the side of the hill. Growing from the size of a pea to a baseball-sized snowball as they tumbled ever further down before abruptly stopping from being too heavy and sinking into the powdery snow. They left small trails as they went. Sort of like terminal velocity I thought. They start small and go faster, eventually becoming bigger with each rotation but then slowing because they get bigger. Eventually they become too big to continue and stop in their tracks to eventually melt. Even their trails showing their paths disappear. All becomes one again.
I got lower on the slope and took off my snowshoes. By retracing my steps I found both my jacket and my bag. I came out of the trailhead and back into the real world where there was a bus stop to get a ride back into Vail Village. I was early to catch my shuttle back to Denver airport so I explored a bit. It was around 3:00 pm. There was a coffee shop at the base of the mountain by the Gondola where I grabbed my daily “two o’clock” machiatto and watched the skiers and boarders come down their last runs of the day. The sky still a vibrant blue, and with the sun shining, it felt perfect to sit outside and enjoy the rest of my vacation. I sat there until the sun started to go down and so began the golden hour. The snow covered rugged mountains took on their full majesty at that point, bathed in the warm sunlight from the extinguishing daylight.
During this reflective moment at the base of a mountain, alone and drinking my coffee, I have to fight the urge think back on my life. It would cause me to get depressed about the fact that my time on earth is, most likely, over halfway complete. This is a thought I fight to thoroughly suppress. I just will not allow myself to go there. Because that thinking can lead to being mentally paralyzed, causing me to live my life in the past and the future, and not in the moment.
The sun went behind the mountains and darkness fell quickly so I made my way to the transportation center. My shuttle showed up on time and took me back down to Denver where I planned to sleep the night in the terminal until my 6 am flight was ready to board. Before I went through security and called it a night, I took a train into town to have dinner with my friend Jeff and get my alpine hat from him. I had forgot to bring a hat other than my ski cap and my hair was a mess under it! Not that wearing a Bavarian alpine hat complete with a feather outside of an alpine setting looks much better.
When I got to airport security, I had forgot to get rid of my camp fuel. So I was stopped, given a stern scolding, and then set free on my way. They also confiscated my hiking sticks :( Once inside the terminal I began searching for my “accommodations”. I got lucky and found a row of chairs with no arm rests which afforded me the luxury of lying straight out. Not that I could really sleep through the constant announcements, the crying children and all sorts of other airports noises, but I believe I slept about 4 hours total. The flight home was uneventful thankfully. You always want your flights to be uneventful right? Sharon met me at the airport to pick me up. I was excited to see her and tell her all about my journey. It was noon so we were able to pick back up on our daily lunch outings.
I went with her to pick up Nora from school, and it warmed my heart the way she ran into my arms with a big smile. She was so happy to see me. Before I left she had almost cried because she was so worried I would get hurt skiing or snowshoeing.
One of my greatest satisfactions and a proud papa moment was when I was telling Nora about my adventures and I got to the part about my matches not working she stopped me and asked, “was it a sunny day?”
I stopped and looked at her quizzically and replied, “yes, it was beautiful blue skies that day.”
“Did you take your rescue whistle?” she inquired.
“Yes” I answered. I now knew where this was going as we had played with all the gadgets on the whistle a few months earlier.
She excitedly said, “Well you could have used the magnifying glass on a dry leaf or piece of paper to start a fire to light the stove.”
I didn’t want to deflate her by telling her I tried that but it did not work because the sun was not strong enough, so I just told her, “you’re so right Nora, that is a great idea!”
We both beamed proudly.
But the icing on the cake was when I told her I was unable to make it to the top of the mountain. She placed her hand on my shoulder and looked me right in the eye and said, “thats okay Dad, someday we will do it together, I want to climb it with you.”
Now Nora is not a perfect child, but in that moment, she was the most perfect daughter I could ever hope for :)
I can see how turning 50 can be a tough thing mentally, but I am not letting it get to me. I KNOW I am that snowball that has hit it’s terminal velocity so to speak. I just hope the slowdown can be extended for as long as it can be before I stop rolling. The hardest thing to do, but the best thing I can do in life, is make sure I live life in the moment.