Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Not Conquerors, Merely Survivors

by Brian Wright

(Note: The following is a piece of creative non-fiction originally published in Our Backyard (July 2017 issue), a regional, outdoors publication)

The Elk Range holds some of the deadliest mountains in Colorado
The Maroon Bells, Snowmass Mountain, and Capitol
as seen from the summit of Pyramid Peak

The broken faces of the Maroon Bells and their sister mountain, Pyramid Peak, towered over us as we wended up the serpentine trail. It was a brisk early morning, the first glance of the sun was just edging the tips of the three 14,000-foot peaks. The skies were clear, however, and the wind was still. It seemed like a perfect day to climb one of Colorado’s most difficult and dangerous mountains. 

“Where climbers fear to tread,” a sign had warned us at the trailhead. “The Deadly Bells, and their neighbor Pyramid Peak, have claimed many lives in the past few years.” Chilling words to read while gearing up to defy the very advice given. “Expert climbers who did not know the proper routes have died on these peaks. Don’t repeat their mistakes, for only rarely have these mountains given a second chance,” the sign concludes.

After staggering up the winding approach through the early hours of morning, dodging audacious mountain goats and the occasional stray mosquito, we ascended at last into a dramatic basin at the skirt of Pyramid Peak’s nearly vertical North Face. My wife, Ella, and I gaped at the full majesty of the mountain: its shattered fissures and serrated crenellations, it's foreboding ramparts and pointed summit. An ominous silence loomed over everything. All of the words and warnings about this infamous mountain echoed in my mind.

“What do you think?” Ella asked, feeling the need to whisper in the inhuman silence. Her forehead was furrowed with wariness.

“I think it’s going to be...exciting.” 

We selected a flat rock for a few moments’ rest and choked down a mouthful of trail mix. I picked the first section of our intended line from the slopes and gullies above us. It was brutally steep and broken. My mouth became nearly too dry to swallow. 

“We should get started,” said Ella after too many minutes of nervous snacking. She is always my crutch of courage and I lean on her extensively.

“Yes,” I said tentatively. “We should.”

*          *          *

Pyramid Peak a 14er in Colorado's Elk Range
A mountain goat perched precariously near the summit of
Pyramid Peak
On a windy, numbingly cold morning in early March 2017, a pair of bicyclists cruising up Maroon Creek Road to enjoy the late-winter beauty of these same peaks happened upon a most alarming sight: a man—frostbitten, pelvis broken, dislocated elbow—staggering down the road away from the snowclad summit of Pyramid Peak. Ryan Montoya, a 23-year-old mountaineer from Arvada, Colorado who’d been missing for two days, had been found. 

The highly syndicated effort to locate Montoya had involved a large number of rescuers and a great deal of publicity. Frigid temperatures coupled with nearly 100-mph winds had quickly drained the hopes of a happy ending to this missing climber story. Against all odds, however, here he was, battered and frozen but alive.

Pyramid Peak and the Maroon Bells have developed a fearsome reputation over the years and for good reason. For decades, they have terrorized the mountaineering community, claiming an inordinate number of lives and filling the media with stories of woe and tragedy. They are not the steepest nor the most technically difficult of Colorado’s many mountains, but over the years the “Deadly Bells” have lived up to their infamous moniker. Hardly a year passes without at least one tragedy unfolding on their slopes. The stark beauty of these mountains conceals an ugly truth, these three peaks own some of the most treacherous, loose rock in the state of Colorado. Too broken and unstable to use ropes safely, these mountains force climbers to rely on deft movement, their skills with route-finding, and a good stroke of luck to ascend them successfully.

The story of Ryan Montoya is one of the most engaging and inspirational survival narratives in modern 14er history. After a 2,000-foot tumble down the precipitous slopes of Pyramid Peak and two nights spent exposed to the elements making snail-like progress out of the frozen wilderness, Montoya was miraculously rescued, and expected to make a full recovery. 

Not all Maroon Bells-Pyramid Peak incidents turn out so well, however. Since 2010, at least seven people have lost their lives trying to climb these peaks, that’s an average of one per year. Only the far more popular Longs Peak in Rocky Mountain National Park has seen more fatal accidents in that same period. As some of the most photographed peaks in the state, these mountains’ picturesque beauty beckons like the call of a siren to many, luring them into what can prove for some to be a nightmare. 

On September 20, 2016, Dave Cook, a mountaineer from Corrales, New Mexico, went missing while on a solo trip with the intent of climbing the Maroon Bells and Pyramid Peak. His story, which starts similarly to Ryan Montoya’s, ends with a vastly different and far-more-tragic conclusion. After an exhaustive eight-day search by ground and by helicopter, the rescue effort was called off. Dave Cook was never found, and what happened to him in those deadly mountains remains a mystery.

*          *          *

The author on top of Pyramid Peak in Colorado's Elk Range
We hauled ourselves up the final, broken ledges and collapsed ecstatically on the summit of Pyramid Peak. For a few breathless minutes, we indulged our pride in the accomplishment. A sea of beauty surrounded us. The twin fangs of North and South Maroon Peaks rose up to the north. The distant spires of Capitol Peak and Snowmass Mountain loomed behind them in the distance. Without question, we had reached one of the roofs in the heart of Colorado’s central mountains. 

“We made it!” Ella proclaimed and we shared an embrace. 

Moments like these are the fruits of life. No greater metaphor for life’s challenges exists than scaling mountains: hard work endured, exhaustion overcome, obstacles bested, and at the conclusion, the stunning view from the top. 

Ella and I never fall into the trap of saying we “conquered” the mountain. These peaks were here long before us, and they will remain for millions of years after we are gone. We are but miniscule grains that manage to survive the harsh lessons of these great peaks for a geologic blink. Our time on top makes us not conquerors but lucky survivors. Luck that not everyone who sets out with our goals shares. It is hard not to think of those who ventured into these mountains in the hope of finding something but instead lost everything. 

As we backtrack carefully down the ridge and the summit recedes behind us, we put our backs to one of Colorado’s most breathtaking places. Finally, at the parking lot some hours later, we gaze back in exhausted wonder as the afternoon light bathes the Elk Mountains in a dazzling glow. I salute these mighty peaks in reverence, and thank them for letting us pass once again. 

NOTE: This article originally appeared in Our Backyard, July 2017 issue. The link to the digital version can be found here

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All writing is the original work of Brian Wright and may not be copied, distributed, re-printed or used any form without express written consent of the author. Find out here how to CONTACT me with publishing and/or use questions

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