By Jack Olson
My friend, Joanne, can be so sweetly devious. When she softly utters the gentle words, “You know, Jack…”, I’m on high alert for what’s coming next. Those will be my marching orders. It may have to do with an idea for how I can make a change in my lifestyle or do something better. The thing is, she’s always right.
So, about twenty years ago, I’m just happily enjoying my life one day, talking with Joanne on the phone when she abruptly changes the subject and interjects, “You know, Jack…”
Here it comes.
“I think Allison might like to climb a fourteener with you,” she said. Hmm, I hadn’t thought of that. When Joanne’s daughter was a little girl she and I would scramble in the cliffs at sunrise out at the Pawnee Buttes while the others were still in their tents. But I really hadn’t initiated much with her in recent years.
Allison was now in her late teens, starting college. She was really grown up. We used to be so close but the high school years had separated us somewhat. I wondered if she’d really want to do this. I wondered if she could climb to 14,000 feet. But Joanne had always been right. I wondered what was holding me up. So I called Allison.
I guess I should have realized that Allison wouldn’t sound too surprised. She was very excited and asked where we would go, and when. I suggested Grays Peak, close to Denver. At 14,270 feet it is the ninth highest in Colorado and highest on the Continental Divide in North America. It would be eight miles round trip and an elevation gain of a little over 3,000 feet. I wasn’t going to start her on a piddly peak.
We left early and were at the trailhead in not much over an hour. We began our trek alone. The first three miles of the trail climbed gradually but steadily through a landscape of rocks and tundra, carpeted with thousands of wildflowers in July. We were overjoyed by alpine sunflowers, Indian paintbrush, chiming bells, sky pilots, marsh marigolds, rose crowns and a hundred other species. It was a glorious alpine garden.
Then the garden met a jumble of rock and a steeper climb ensued. Rocks took over much of the tundra and the climb turned from gradual to relentless. Switchbacks kept the pace tolerable and we could continue our chatter. It looked like it would be rock to the top, with us alone to marvel at the sweeping views as we climbed higher and higher. Us alone.
Not quite. We trudged over a slight rise and stopped in our tracks. Right before us slowly ambled four large mountain goats. We weren’t expecting that and were stunned and amazed. I had always loved the mountain goats I occasionally met in the high country but Allison had never encountered any in the wild. We stood as still as we could and just watched them graze in the tundra.
We finally left the goats and strode on upward. When you are climbing the highest mountain eventually you can see everything in all directions. With every step the top of the peak got closer and closer. Soon, there was no other step to take. We had summited. I gave Allison a big hug for her first fourteener. Another climber reached us and took our picture for posterity.
Allison would go on to climb many more peaks. She would become my climbing partner for several years. We have maintained this close friendship which was strengthened up high. It’s one beautiful memory I hold in my life, and it all began with, “You know, Jack…”