by T. Duren Jones
Head in the Clouds
Jim grabbed his small backpack and crooked wood hiking stick. “Ready to do it,” he said, without a hint of hesitation in his voice.
“Your hopes, dreams and aspirations are legitimate. They are trying to take you airborne, above the clouds, above the storms, if you only let them.” —William James
Wow, if I could get paid for dreaming, and dreaming big, I’d be a rich man! I’ve got no shortage of aspirations, goals and challenges that I’d still like to take on. Sometimes it’s hard to fly with my feet nailed to the ground by life’s circumstances, or my own limitations, real or perceived.
What if hopes and dreams are never fulfilled? What if we don’t even try to accomplish some of them? What disappointments and regrets will we have later? How will that shape who we are and who we will become?
A tourist greeted us at the edge of the parking lot with “Hey, did you guys climb up the side of the mountain?”
American author and humorist Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens) said something on this subject that resonated with me: “Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the things you did. So throw off the bowlines. Explore. Dream. Discover.”
One of my father’s good friends, Jim Vaughn, a fit man in his early 60s, could not be accused of failing to accomplish many fine things in his life. Jim is an involved and loving husband, father and grandfather. In his career, he had helped several businesses achieve success, and he has been active many years as a lay leader in his church. One unfulfilled dream Jim had was to climb a Colorado 14,000-foot peak.
Jim had met many challenges head-on in his life, some through his years of service to his country in the U.S. Navy. But did he have the stuff to summit one of the geographically highest land points in the contiguous lower 48 states? He had the drive, passion and heart, but did he have the stamina, legs and lungs to make it to the top? Age plus elevation can create quite an obstacle to high-country climbing success.
Someone once said, “A goal is a dream with a deadline.” Jim—if he could—was going to make this happen. And the sooner, the better. He wasn’t getting any younger!
Jim accepted my offer to guide and help him up his first fourteener (one of 54 Colorado peaks over 14,000 feet). Obviously, he had not heard other stories about folks I took up fourteeners, and I didn’t mention them. Seriously, I was delighted to be a part of this adventure in his life. This was the fulfillment of a life goal for Jim.
I recommended we try Mount Evans (14,264 feet), a good starter peak. Mount Evans and Mount Bierstadt have the distinction of being the closest fourteeners to Denver. Evans is just 36 miles west of Colorado’s downtown capitol building and has a paved road to the summit—one of only two fourteeners with improved roads to the top.
In the late 1800s, Denver and Colorado Springs were in a race for the hearts, minds and dollars of eastern tourism. In 1888, the Cascade and Pikes Peak Toll Road Company completed a 16-mile graded road up the north side of Pikes Peak. In 1917, Denver’s mayor procured state funds to build a road to the top of Mt. Evans. It took 10 years to complete.
The Mount Evans Scenic Byway is the highest paved road in the United States. We were not going to drive all the way to the top and count it as a climb. Tempting. But, no, we’d use our legs to summit.
We intended to start a customized climb from a parking area at Summit Lake beneath Mount Evan’s north face. Jim, dressed in a striped sweatshirt, jeans, tennis shoes and a green, lumber company sports cap, stretched outside my SUV. He looked up the mountain with anticipation.
“How you feeling? Ready to try?” I asked. Jim grabbed his small backpack and crooked wood hiking stick. “Ready to do it,” he said, without a hint of hesitation in his voice.
We traveled close to the road before we began our improvised ascent up the broad Northeast Ridge. Passing the lake outlet and looking out on the alpine setting of the high cirque, we encountered a small herd of shaggy mountain goats. They were unimpressed by our presence, obviously used to gawking, camera-clicking visitors.
There is no trail up on this route. We could see the top, knew where we needed to go and simply began to make our way upward. The going was a little slow as we traversed over patches of tundra, shifting rock under foot and even snow. The remaining snowdrifts in early summer impeded our progress as each carefully placed step had to be dug into the banks. I’m sure the cold, wet snow filled Jim’s tennis shoes, but he never complained. Perhaps I should have mentioned to him that hiking boots would be a good idea.
Although this is an “easier” route up a fourteener, it is one that catches many unprepared climbers off guard. It is very exposed to lightning. Fortunately, we had started early and continued to have good weather, but we wanted to keep a certain pace in case that changed suddenly, as happens often in the summertime.
As we crested the ridge—huffing and puffing—it was jarring to see the signs of civilization (cars on the road and the first peek at the observatory on the top) with a half mile to go to the summit. A tourist greeted us at the edge of the parking lot with “Hey, did you guys climb up the side of the mountain?” We smiled and nodded, breathlessly, and I bit my lip, repressing a snarky comeback.
We passed the observatory dome, the road, parking area and the remaining rock foundation and walls of the Crest House. Also known as Summit House, the restaurant/gift shop was built during the summers of 1941 and 1942 but burned in 1979 and was not rebuilt. What’s left is kind of eerie, but cool at the same time.
Another 130 vertical feet through a series of short switchbacks to the top and we made it. After a congratulatory high-five and a hug, with pride and gratitude, Jim surveyed his accomplishment. He took his time to enjoy the fulfillment of a dream. I know it was hard, a little painful and a bit beyond what he thought he could do, but he had done it.
Dr. Laura Schlessinger once said, “Self-esteem must be earned. When you dare to dream, dare to follow that dream, dare to suffer through the pain, sacrifice, self-doubts and friction from the world. You will genuinely impress yourself.”
Like Jim, I hope I always keep dreaming. I hope I keep aspiring to new accomplishments past my 50s and well into my 60s and 70s. Why not dream, explore, discover and take flight above the clouds? I look forward to the next great adventure in my life, whatever that might be. And, whether I succeed or fail, at least I will have tried.