The inside of our AirBNB in Silver Plume the night before attempting to climb two 14,000-foot Colorado mountains provided a mix of excitement and concern, optimism and worry.
Silver Plume is an eccentric little town, a mix of Colorado’s old and new. Our AirBNB, an adorable Victorian home, stood across the street from a marijuana store and had the address of, as God is my witness, 420 Woodward Street.
Our group of seven had enjoyed a fun day by the time we settled into the little house in the mountains. We woke up in Colorado Springs and drove up a 14er, Mt. Evans, on the United States of America’s highest paved road. The upper reaches of the Mt. Evans Byway are strikingly beautiful and strikingly frightening. You’re so high and the cliff is right next to you at times.
I put on a brave face, as one would expect from a stoic rural Midwesterner, but my attempts to break the tension with chatter were betrayed by my sweaty palms on the steering wheel. I was that emoji that’s smiling big with a drop of sweat on its face. But I’d rode as my dad drove on more harrowing mountain roads than this, so I kept it together.
Thankfully, by the time shotgun rider Brendan Sapp realized the light rain had become light slushy snow on the windshield, we were close enough to the top to just ease on up the rest of the way. We enjoyed the spectacular views, which included a couple getting engaged. We took scores of photographs and congratulated ourselves on our bravery.
So we had lots of good momentum when we arrived in Silver Plume, a lovely mountain town with lots of mining history, over 9,000 feet above sea level.
It was Brendan’s sister Alyssa’s birthday, so while she was outside, we quickly lit a scented candle that became a birthday candle and assembled a “birthday cake” out of pop tarts and peanut butter Oreos.
We walked through the town’s quaint main street, past the old bakery where my family stopped on many a trip to Colorado. We were excited and ready to roll.
But we also had concerns. We’d planned a long round trip hike, over 8 miles, up Grays Peak, over to Torreys Peak, two 14ers on the Continental Divide, and back down to the trailhead. One snag: The uphill three-mile road to the trailhead was a little dodgy for two-wheel drive vehicles, especially if you’re fond of said vehicles. We briefly considered renting a four-wheel-drive vehicle, but then decided we’d just walk up the road to the trailhead. Our already challenging hike had grown to a daunting 14-mile-plus round trip, with a lot of elevation change.
Making matters worse, my friend Seth Maberry had developed a headache on the way down from Mt. Evans. It was probably an altitude thing, but he definitely seemed like less than his best self as bedtime drew nearer.
While he lay down for a while, generally not resembling a man about to climb two 14ers in a matter of hours, in the kitchen his girlfriend, Abbie, dutifully made signs for Grays and Torreys peaks, listing their elevations. She had faith.
We wanted to be at the trailhead around 6 a.m., and since we had a bonus three uphill miles thrown in for free, Maberry wanted to leave the AirBNB at 4 a.m., or as close to it as possible. Setting my alarm, I basically had to fight back tears.
You getting in your car and driving to Neptune for some groceries would be about as natural as me leaving the house at 4 a.m.
I tried to go to bed at 9 p.m., like I was Amish, although my body initially resisted. As I lay in bed, I tried not to worry about the challenging hike ahead of us, so I prayed. I prayed for God to help us to be able to manage the extra road part of our hike, that we could enjoy the day and the beauty of God’s creation. I prayed for everyone in our group, Maberry, his brother Oren, Abbie, Brendan, Alyssa, Abbie’s friend Emma, and myself.
Eventually I drifted off to sleep. I woke up “in the night” but it was still the same day, like maybe 10 p.m. Absurd.
I’d wager that there was never more than an hour of all of us sleeping, with our anticipation not meshing well with the idea of solid sleep. Soon enough, our little house came to life. Dressing, packing, pump-up music, Instagram stories. Mabes seemed better. I loaded Smart Water after Smart Water in my backpack like I was loading shells before the bombardment of Fort Sumter.
We stepped out into the darkness, stars above framed by looming black mountains. I drove my car the couple of miles to our starting point. Alyssa played “Rocky” music for motivation at Oren’s request.
We parked at the lot at the base of the road leading to the trailhead. We started walking up the road, in darkness, about 4:25 a.m. A few of our crew had headlamps or flashlights. I prayed for safety and that we would make it along okay. Just focus on getting up this three-mile road first, I thought.
Within minutes, a Subaru with two girls in the front seats eased up the road. We stood off to the side. They stopped and asked if a few of us wanted a ride up to the trailhead. We had the three girls in our party get in. Off they rode up to the trailhead. The four of us guys kept walking, higher and into the darkness.
Within two minutes, a Ford SUV pulled up next to us. An older man asked if we wanted to ride. He said the back seats were folded down but we were welcome to ride. The four of us clambered in. It wasn’t super comfortable, but it was what we needed. I chatted with the man, who was riding shotgun. A woman was driving; I think she was his daughter based on the stories he told. He said he had had a health scare, but had received great care at St. Luke’s Hospital in Kansas City (where my nephew was born and spent the first month of his life), and now every year to celebrate they climb a mountain in Colorado, where he lives now. He and the woman who was driving both went to Kansas State, and we talked about agriculture and careers and Bill Snyder, one of my favorite college football coaches.
Here was the answer to prayer, seemingly tailored to me and my group.
They dropped us off at the trailhead. I offered the man money but he wouldn’t take it. As I was lowering myself out of the back, my foot was so asleep I couldn’t tell if it was touching the ground. But we were at the trailhead, around 11,000 feet, and it was barely 5 a.m. Incredible. It was just getting light, and it was so beautiful in the high mountain valley. The air was crisp and still, and the sky was cloudless.
We held hands while Oren said a prayer for our hike ahead, and then we headed out. To pass time and because I was so thrilled with how our day had started, I walked at the back of our group and prayed for each person as we hiked along. It was pretty emotional thinking about my worries and God meeting our need, as He often does, in such a cool way, combined with the raw beauty of the scenery.
We hiked and hiked, through scraggly bushes ranging from knee to chest high beside us, up the pristine valley, as the light grew. Eventually we rounded a slight curve and came up to a sign. Behind the sign were Grays and Torreys Peaks, joined by the ridge of the Continental Divide, glowing with the morning sun that was hitting them. We took pictures and then pressed on. Eventually the bushes stopped and we were fully above timberline. The trail wound up and around and over shattered rocks, some bigger and some smaller, a lunar landscape at times.
We got higher and the air got thinner. There were a few steep stretches where I was breathing deep, leaning forward like a ski jumper in mid air. I was impressed at the gradual determination of our group.
Finally, toward the top, the trail switchbacked up and up the gradual slope of Grays Peak.
We rounded the last switchback and as we rose up the last incline, suddenly the view on the other side of the peak came into view, like someone raising an immense curtain. One by one, we set foot on the top and gazed in awe at the views, peaks and ridges and valleys, as innumerable as stars, all stretching out in every direction.
There was some wind on the summit at times, reminding us we were at 14,270 feet above sea level, which is not a delicate climate. Still, we took pictures and hugged and talked.
I checked the time. It was, ridiculously, only 8 a.m., and here we were atop a 14er. Most days I don’t even have proper pants on by 8 a.m.
From the summit of Grays, we saw just how steep and jagged the route up Torreys Peak was. We decided to hike down the Class 2 rock scrabble down to the saddle between the two mountains, eat there, and decided whether to take a stab at Torreys Peak.
We walked slash slid down to the saddle, holding an impromptu picnic between the Atlantic and Pacific watersheds. I had Uncrustables, cashews, Smart Water and fruit snacks, like any adult would do.
As expected, Mabes suggested we give Torreys a shot, since we were so close and we’d made such good time.
All seven of us headed up the mountain, with the trail starting out steep but manageable. It was sharper and a more narrow ridge than the rounded Grays Peak. To our left was a rocky slope. To the right was a snow shelf and then a drop down the face of Torreys. We got above that section and the path got steeper. It was pretty challenging, and we could see we were still hundreds of feet below the summit. The tiny colorful figures nearing the summit seemed so far above us, but we pressed on and on. Still, it was quickly apparent this would be a challenge, with the rocks and looseness and upward angle.
Brendan, Alyssa and I paused a moment, unsure whether to go or if we could make it.
Oren had the right message for the right moment.
“American history wasn’t made by quitters.”
Couldn’t quit then. I had a taste for battle now.
We hiked on, and from then on we pretty much stopped taking breaks because that meant lost momentum and difficulty getting started again.
That climb was deeply moving and powerful and spiritual.
It was also quite possibly the toughest thing I’ve done physically. Breathing deep, we willed ourselves onward. Upward. Excelsior.
Without breaks, we strung out some, but we had little pockets of hikers together. I think we drew strength and energy from each other. I wasn’t stopping, for them and for me, even if each step was a fight.
We surged on, step by step, ankles tweaked by steps on the rocks, hands grabbing onto rocks to help out. As we neared the summit, spent but fighting, other hikers began encouraging us. “Don’t give up, keep going, it’s worth it.” Even in the heat of the struggle, it was very inspiring and reminded me of my faith. It felt like God’s encouragement. “Don’t give up, keep going, it’s worth it.”
We just kept digging. Just 20-25 minutes of total effort. Kept thinking I’d never get there. But I kept thinking about the times in my life where I had to keep going, keep trusting that I’d get there and it would be worth it.
We got to the top and it was incredible.
Oren, then Alyssa, then I summited. I wasn’t sure if the rest of our party would make it, but sure enough eventually all seven of us had made it to the top. More pictures, more incredible views, awe-inspiring beauty of nature, of creation. I-70 was a narrow set of lines far below through one gap in mountains. It was an incredible sense of achievement and perseverance. It was 9:37 a.m., and after some lingering celebration and wonder, it was time for the long trek down. Torreys Peak is 14,267 feet or 14,275 feet high, take your pick, so it was a long way down.
We trekked down to the saddle, then headed on the cut-through trail back to join the Grays Peak trail. We had to walk across a long snow drift, walking like someone balancing a book on their head, not wanting to slip and fall onto rocks just beyond the snow.
We chatted on the long, triumphant walk down the valley, returning to the trailhead shortly after 1 p.m. We rested and ate for a bit there, and then prepared for the three-mile walk down the road to our cars.
We were worn out, but headed down the road. After 15 minutes or so of walking and chatting, a truck passed by and offered us a ride. I rode in the cab and chatted with the driver. He was from Missouri, having attended MU after playing football a little at Northwest, where my brother went. He taught and coached in Carrolton, home of my dad’s favorite radio station, not far from my hometown. He talked about the football team he helps coach, a team in the district of the team my brother covers for the newspaper. Another answer to prayer, again complete with a little wink suggesting it was a solution crafted just for me and my friends.
That evening, we celebrated in nearby Georgetown as well as one can celebrate in that town. It had been an incredible day, with two 14ers climbed and answered prayers and that special moment high on the slopes of Torreys Peak, a moment I won’t soon forget.