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Beginning in New Bedford

June 28, 2014  •  Leave a Comment

Beginning in New Bedford

The story begins in New Bedford, Massachusetts. In 1831, a young German boy named Albert became a resident of this New England town. This is where he first began painting in oils.  When he was 29 years old he traveled west with a land surveyor as part of the western expansion. His task was to record in sketches this wondrous new territory. This began a series of western travels. On one of his many trips he produced drawings of the Yellowstone region which contributed to the US Congress passing the Yellowstone Park Bill in 1872 establishing the first national park in the world.  In subsequent years he gained much notoriety for his works, although some criticized his use of light as “puffery” and romanticism of the new frontier.  During his most famed years he visited Mount Evans and a neighboring peak that would later take on his name, Mount Bierstadt.  

One hundred and fifty years later after a stormy night in my new tent I woke in our campsite near South Crear Creek at the northern base of Guanella Pass. What is a storm at 11,000 feet above sea level in June in the Rocky Mountains?  Thunder, lightning, wind, rain, and snow: it was all the above.  This was in spite of the predicted only slight chance of rain and very low winds.  Pay little attention to the mountain weather forecasts.  I have found them to be accurate maybe half of the time. To be fair to the meteorologists, it is nearly impossible to predict with any measure of reliability what the mountains will offer.  It’s a reminder that one should respect the Ruler of the skies and mountains.

Joining me that Saturday were a few co-workers: Curt, Wayde, and Lisa.  We agreed to a 5am show time at the trailhead.  It was Lisa’s first attempt at climbing a 14er.  Wayde and Lisa drove from Colorado Springs early that morning.  Curt and I setup camp on Friday night.  

The thing about stormy nights prior to a climb is that if the sun is able to penetrate some of the clouds at sunrise, it’s a beautiful sight. And it was that morning.  The sky was on fire with, red, pink, and purple clouds swiftly passing over the surrounding foothills, thinning and thickening, catching an occasional glimpse of Geneva and Santa Fe Peaks to the West or Grey Wolf Mountain to the North before they would disappear back into clouds.  The peak we sought to climb for the day was mysterious in its own way that morning, protected by a darker guard, almost daring us to attempt intimacy. Drama aside, it was just the way it was positioned with respect to the sunrise, nonetheless it was a nod from nature that the task should not be taken lightly.  

Mount Bierstadt is said to be a 14er climb for beginners.  Technically, this was my first 14er ascent. My first 14er was a descent of Pikes Peak. Bierstadt by comparison is non-technical.  The western slope trail starts above timberline at 11,270 feet.  It is well-traveled with several hundred people on the trail during the summer weekends.  Although it is less than 3000 feet of elevation gain it is still a 14,060 foot mountain and is due its earned honor.

Shortly before crossing Scott Gomer Creek near the beginning of the trail we stopped to take in the sight of the rising sun against the clouds and hills.  The start of this trail is downhill into a marshy space with stunted thick willows, the trail meandering past Deadmans Lake and eventually climbing upward into an alpine slope.

Another thing about stormy nights prior to a climb is that an early morning start will sometimes include suffering through the remnants of the evening’s bad weather – wind, precipitation, slippery surfaces, and a wet and muddy trail. That was our case.

It wasn’t long after the creek crossing that Curt moved out in front and I attempted to catch up.  Wayde and Lisa were content dropping behind and making their own pace.  It wasn’t long before I couldn’t see Curt on the trail. I had assumed that since he was a far more experienced climber that he would move at his own pace and meet me at the summit. And so I continued.

One middle aged man passed me on the trail. He was wearing khaki pants, a short sleeve untucked dress shirt, and sneakers.  He didn’t have any water with him.  No hat.  No gloves.  Meanwhile I’m dressed in more appropriate attire: hiking pants, mountaineering boots, several layers under my waterproof outer shell, hat, gloves, a backpack with a water bladder.  And I was fighting the cold wind and beginning to feel doubtful about my ability to summit on what was turning out to be a bad day to climb.  The dude’s only question for me was, “what’s the altitude at this point of the trail?”  His face was cringing from the cold wind, his hair disheveled; his ears, nose, and hands beet red. My only response was, “you should forget about the altitude, go back, and try this when you are more prepared for what you are about to get yourself into.”  He snarled at me and continued on. I was expecting to witness a rescue episode later.   Here’s my message:  Irresponsible people, stay home! You endanger yourself and the rest of us. You don’t deserve this.  Try again when you have more respect for the land and other people.  End of rant.

Closer to the summit, near the final grade the trail turned into a rocky scramble, there was ice on every surface, the wind was frigid enough to freeze the tube from my water bladder, but I needed to finish and had hoped to meet Curt on the summit.

By the time I summited, the clouds were starting to break and the views of the sun shining through onto portions of the green mountain meadows below and patches of snow in the surrounding mountains.  The view was, as expected, spectacular!  

Another unprepared hiker on the summit was trying to shelter himself from the wind, obviously underdressed for the conditions, and shivering in the stages of hypothermia.  Other people were giving him their cloths trying to save him from his miscalculations. Some young ladies wearing shorts apparently had visions of this being a dating scene – legs turning blue, smelly perfume filling the air around them, now ruined makeup running down their face… what is it with these people?  Where do they come from?  Why do they have such disregard for themselves and others around them? (I thought I was done with my rant)
No Curt.  He wasn’t on the summit.  Where did he go?  Now I began to worry.  I wanted to wait for Wayde and Lisa to celebrate our summit, but I had a missing comrade to consider.   My decision was to abandon the summit and search for Curt.  

If the weather had been better the plan was for Curt and me to go across the Sawtooth and on to summit Mount Evans.  The Sawtooth is a rugged class III climb between Mount Bierstadt and Mount Evans.  As it turned out I had neither the cooperation of the weather, nor could I find my climbing partner.  

The way back to the trailhead was rife with a steady stream of people, Wayde and Lisa among them, both cold but determined.  Wayde gave me his Jeep keys so I could warm up in the event I couldn’t find Curt.  We would meet up when they returned to the trailhead.

I didn’t see any sign of Curt on the way down the mountain. I found him in the cab of his FJ with the heater on full blast.  It turns out that he had gone ahead of me to find a private place in the willows.  He had quickly turned ill and hoped it would pass, but later returned to the trailhead.  I must have passed him on the trail while he was on his detour.
I met Wayde and Lisa at the trail head.  By then the clouds had moved out and it became a beautiful sunny day.  We took a few pictures and then headed back to break camp.  Curt was already at camp and had the FJ nearly packed.  On the way back we stopped at a pizza joint for a well-deserved midafternoon meal and some laughs.  It’s always laughs when it turns out well.

Albert Bierstadt’s paintings may be a little exaggerated, but after placing my feet where he once stood to introduce young American to the western frontier, I fully understand his attraction and obsession with this land. Paintings and pictures may be nice, but the beauty of this place requires complete engagement of all senses to absorb and appreciate the depth of how grand it truly is and who made it so.


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