Article & photos by Jack Olson
“If you don’t like the weather, wait fifteen minutes.”
I’ve traversed the country, coast to coast, watched local news, and EVERYONE says that. Anxious viewers sweat out a quarter hour in South Carolina, Oregon, Illinois, or Kansas. That phrase has now eclipsed the thousand mark over the years on my Denver TV station.
But, you know, there is an ice pellet of truth in this worn-out babble. If you live in or near the mountains, as many of us do, you sometimes place your life on the line in correctly reading the sky. Do you go ahead…do you turn back…do you seek shelter?
In my early years in Colorado I committed many errors of ignorance. If you survive these you build up a repository of wisdom. There is always another banana peel to slip on, something else dumb to do, but you’re less likely to repeat the same mistake.
My first near disaster could just as easily have awarded me a third page paragraph in the Denver Post. I tackled 14,255-foot Longs Peak in September and amassed a record six miscalculations on a successful, but nearly fatal, ascent of this classic fourteener in Rocky Mountain National Park. At over five thousand vertical feet and sixteen miles roundtrip, Longs would test the stamina of a neophyte Coloradan.
I didn’t tell anyone I was going (miscalculation #1) and began my trek at 7:30 in the morning, way too late (#2). At about 9:30 a pounding hailstorm suddenly struck, but I was able to take shelter in the Agnes Vaile Memorial hut at a feature called the Keyhole. The storm drove off any of the few climbers on the peak. I was alone (#3). A hailstorm at 9:30 in the morning is certainly a sign of unsettled weather and a warning to beat a retreat. I forged ahead when the hail ceased (#4).
I trudged on, having to lose five hundred miserable feet on ledges, and then the most tiresome, crummy, despicable feature on Longs Peak: The Trough. You’re looking up a thousand feet of steep, loose rock. Slog, slip, slog. After that you tiptoe ledges two thousand feet above Chasm Lake. Don’t look down! Finally, just a friction slope to the top, the Homestretch, making you want to hug the rock, but better to stand erect. Then, there’s nothing more above you but air! Great happiness! It’s a rough kind of flat, almost as expansive as a couple of football fields. It’s also 1 p.m. (#5). I’ve learned that you’d better be on top of any big mountain by noon, just in case.
After enjoying the view and congratulating myself for this solo accomplishment I dropped down on the east side of the summit and scrunched on a ledge to have some lunch (#6). For crying out loud, get the devil off of there! Out of nowhere, over the top from the west, a violent thunderstorm, a snow thunderstorm, enveloped me. Suddenly, there were balls of lightning at eye level, so close that lightning and thunder were exploding together. I could hardly hear. The ledges began to ice up. I wanted my mother.
The lightning was more terrifying than the ice and I slowly edged my way down. It was becoming harder to breathe, but more important to get out of this mess that was all my fault. I found myself at the top of The Trough. Oh no! But the storm had passed. Oh joy! But I had to descend seven and a half miles and could barely breathe. Oh no! Will I ever be able to make it? The Trough was just me, the rocks, and the gravel all obeying gravity.
But it soon dawned on me that I could breathe, I was strengthening. My pace quickened. Eventually, I was pouring it on. It must have been my lungs tightening in fright. No longer scared out of my wits I knew I could make it. And I did. This was the first, and the worst, but not the last misjudgment I was to make in the Rockies.
As I write this, I find myself sweating, trembling just a bit, and feeling scared all over again. Just wait fifteen minutes.