Today we celebrate dads. We celebrate for a lot of reasons, but today I celebrate my dad for his tenacity (AKA hardheadedness). In 2011 my dad endured a double knee replacement… Followed by a near deadly staph infection. His recovery was arduous, but allowed him to be more active than he had been in decades. He decided he would strive to squeeze even more out of his life experience.
“Justin, I think you’d better come home,” my stepmom said over the phone from a few states away. Her tone was calm, but I could sense that there was something very wrong. It was fall of 2013, and my dad, Jude, had been admitted to the ICU with failing kidneys caused by an enlarged prostate. The doctor was making no guarantees about his potential recovery. It was bad. Really bad. Is this my fault? I thought.
About a year before that call, Jude and his cousin, Johnny, met in Denver. While celebrating and reveling in vodka-induced machismo, the men discussed how they wanted to strive to squeeze more out of life. Another patron of the bar informed them of the numerous Fourteeners, peaks that are above 14,000 feet elevation, in Colorado’s Rocky Mountains, and how there are folks who make it a goal to climb as many as possible. They thought the idea was a perfect challenge. The cousins decided that, for my dad’s sixty-eighth birthday, they would meet in Colorado to climb a Fourteener. I was not present during this markedly intellectual meeting, but I do have some experience in the wilderness and in wilderness medicine, so Johnny had one stipulation,
“I’ll only go if Justin goes.” The excited duo informed me of the idea and the stipulation, and asked me to seek out a good candidate for a Colorado Fourteener.
“Well, if we’re going to climb one,” I said, “We might as well climb the tallest one out there. Mt. Elbert is the Colorado highpoint.” Johnny and Jude’s reaction was tentative. They were somewhat nervous about my proposition. I assured them it was not undoable for first timers, and that I would help them prepare. We could stay in the town of Leadville, acclimatize to the altitude, and then make an alpine start before daybreak to ensure there would be plenty of daylight for the trek.
Now, some would look at this plan and call it an “adventure.” But, I think our sensationalized world tends to overuse the term, almost to the point of cliché. The plan, in its pre-execution form, is just a venture. Risky? Yes, but calculated. The reason we plan ahead is to avoid the ad- prefix. Said prefix comes into play later, when something is not going according to the plan. Certainly, our subconscious may crave the thrill of danger… and sometimes make subtle attempts to sabotage the plan, but no one in their right mind begins a journey thinks, man, I hope this goes all wrong!
That being said, a twist on a Latin proverb posits, “Adventure favors the bold.” Translation: If you do stupid stuff long enough, you’re bound to get into some trouble.
So, as planned, we ventured to Leadville, Colorado in June of 2013. I rode my dual-sport motorcycle from Kansas, and my dad drove down from Wyoming. My dad’s cousin Johnny (Big John) flew from Pennsylvania, and his son, Johnny (Little John), traveled from Los Angeles. At the very last minute, a good friend of mine named Linda decided she couldn’t miss out on the fun, and drove in from Utah late the night before the hike. We rose much earlier than the sun, finished packing our bags, and made our way to the trailhead. Even though it was June, the early morning air at the 10,000 foot high trailhead had the crisp bite of winter. Our breath came out like thick cigar smoke as we crunched onto the dark trail through the trees to begin our 12.5 mile journey (calculated with mountain math: 28,164 steps). Soon, spears of light began shooting through the lodgepole on the ridgeline. We continued up the switchbacks, taking plenty of breaks to warm our faces in the morning light and refill our deprived lungs with the limited oxygen available. As we broke the treeline, we took another small break to remark on how beautiful it was out there, and how awesome the trek had been so far.
“What’s the highest elevation you have ever been to?” I asked Little John. He stopped, took a breath, and looked at me with confused eyes.
“12,000 feet,” he said. I noted that that was our current elevation. “Correct,” he said, still puffing.
Though his attitude remained positive, my dad was moving somewhat slower than the rest of the group. This surprised me. He had spent the most time training, and was likely in better shape than all of us. I joked to my dad, and asked him which genius had this idea in the first place. He didn’t even stop, or look up from the trail. He was in the zone.
“It was my idea!” he boasted while continuing to stab his trekking poles forward, “And it was a great idea. We’re gonna do this every year. Isn’t this a great family time?” Our crew laughed along with him.
Big John added in jest, “I think this was Grey Goose’s idea.”
Soon, we were well above the treeline, and approached the barren horizon. We felt that we would summit the beast soon. It’s right there in front of us, I thought. But after cresting a small knoll, we realized the truth. We had been chasing a false summit. The true summit towered above the knoll and appeared a hundred miles away. Our guidebook had warned us of this, of course. It was part of the plan. Still, we were not mentally prepared for it. Seemed like a good place to stop for a snack, anyways.
“When’s the last time you’ve been in the mountains doing something like this?” I asked Big John.
He chortled, and looked to the sky. “Ah, let’s see. Uh, never?” he said.
My dad reached our temporary bivouac a few minutes after us. I could see the hope drain from his face, as it did ours when he realized the false summit. He sat next to me as I pawed through some trail mix, but he had no appetite. He didn’t say much, either. We took a few deep breaths, shook the cramps out of our quads, and “rucked up” for the summit push.
Soon enough we were navigating the last thin ridgeline to the roof of Colorado at 14,433 feet. There were a few other hikers at the top. We traded congratulatory photo ops, smiles, and a snowball or two. I broke out a secret victory flask of fine whisky to share, and we even mustered a few memorial pushups to honor those who couldn’t be there with us (a ritual I brought from the military). Unprotected from the piercing wind, and with thoughts of the long downhill slog, we soon decided to begin our descent. Large storm clouds were beginning to accumulate upwind of us, which helped motivate our numb feet.
I don’t remember many finite details of our descent. I mostly remember that it seemed to take forever… Our feet and joints were throbbing. It seemed that descending was even worse than the climb. We didn’t speak much other than the occasional lighthearted joke, and mostly found ourselves in a zombie-like haze. Trudging. Finally, we dropped below the tree-line and sensed the journey’s end. The sun was already behind the western ridge when we crossed the final stream and sauntered out into the parking lot at the trailhead. There was a tangible sense of accomplishment, and we all felt that we deserved a cool drink and a warm meal. That night, my dad took much longer to begin recovering from the trek, and he was still having trouble eating. He wouldn’t even share a whisky with me, which was certainly out of character. I could tell he was feeling miserable, but was unsure why.
Just a couple weeks later, my dad was feeling so sick that he finally went to the doctor for advice. The doc made a quick assessment, and an even quicker call to the hospital for emergency medical support. He was in Stage 4 kidney failure, and had likely been in Stage 3 when we climbed Mt. Elbert (for reference, Stage 5 is also known as “endstage”). The doctor said it was miraculous that he didn’t collapse high on that mountain. Even more miraculously, and after a mountain of hard work in rehabilitation, my dad has recovered well. Last year we climbed a string of three Fourteeners (Mts. Democrat, Bross, and Lincoln). For the record, he maintains that he made the decision to climb Mt. Elbert while sober, and he doesn’t blame me for almost killing him up there.
This year, for his 70th birthday, we sit at 10,250’ just south of Breckenridge with Quandary peak in our sights from the deck. Check out more shots from the Rocky Mountains here!