The power of Storm King |

The power of Storm King

John Gardner
Glenwood Springs, CO Colorado
Chad Spangler Post Independent

SOUTH CANYON, Colorado ” Sometimes I find it strange how a good hike, no matter how near or far from civilization, reconnects me to past times and people I’ve known in my life.

Growing up in Colorado my memories are speckled with outdoor adventures and ghostly images of friendships that no longer exist. However, some remain.

One thing I was especially looking forward to this summer was a weekend of fishing with my childhood pal Bill Kuhn from Laramie, Wyoming. We grew up with the Big Thompson Canyon, just down the road from Estes Park, as our playground. I’ve not seen ol’ Bill for two years. Our last fishing trip took us to a familiar spot in northern Colorado near Red Feather Lakes.

I was again looking forward to that trip this June with much childhood exuberance.

Bill e-mailed me early on the day before we were scheduled to meet up to confirm our trip. He was bringing his wife and two kids along for the fun. But less than four hours later, my cell phone was blowing up and he was on the other end.

“I’m not going to be able to make it,” Bill said. “I’ve been called to help out in California.”

That’s the life of a firefighter. That’s Bill’s life.

Two weeks later, Bill was still in California, fighting the blazes that are burning in much of the state. And I hiked Storm King Mountain for the first time. I never fully understood the power of the mountain until the soles of my boots were covered in Storm King soil.

Standing in front of polished-marble crosses marking the spots where the Storm King 14 made the ultimate sacrifice, the reality of the fire ” 14-years-ago ” took hold.

Mother Nature’s wrath is very real and unforgiving.

The silence that day on Storm King gripped me with sadness, like the cold overtaking the embers of a used campfire. Imagining what it must have been like for the 14 who gave their lives trying to save this piece of land from burning. A sobering and humbling thought.

The morning began at the Storm King Memorial at Two Rivers Park. The air was thick and damp with frequent summer showers as the gray clouds held strong. I couldn’t help but think about how comfortable the weather was for a rigorous day hike ” cool and damp ” and the irony of the situation hit me as well. Being at that place on a cool summer morning for a day of work, not nearly as harrowing as a firefighters duty.

All the while, my friend was braving conditions in California that rivaled the fire on Storm King.

I felt guilty for enjoying the mountains. I felt guilty for enjoying the difficult hike because of the sacrifices being made at the same time more than two states away by people like Bill.

The Storm King Memorial Trail is one of the most challenging short hikes I’ve ever done. The extreme elevation gains in a mere two-mile stretch is intense, to say the least. You make your way up to and over the first ridge to the observation point, before having to go down into the narrow drainage, just to find that you have to nearly climb your way out just to clear the other side.

Firefighter or not, the trail is physically and emotionally challenging. Because, having grown up in Colorado, there is no hiking that trail without thinking about July 6, 1994.

As I hiked the mountain and rested on the ridge of Storm King, I looked west and thought of my friend, Bill. I didn’t want to think of having to hike to a memorial to visit him one day. But the reality is that it could happen. That’s the life of a firefighter.

I wondered what my friend was facing at that moment while I rested. If he was smiling or crying. Or, if he was in the thick of it, swinging his ax and making the fire work as hard as he was to survive.

The courage and commitment that firefighters have is unfamiliar to me. So many grow up wanting to be a firefighter, but not everyone makes it. Not everyone knows what it’s like to be a firefighter so not everyone knows what Storm King means to them. But everyone knows what it’s like to look up to one.

I look forward to Bill’s return from California. I hope to be able to take him to Storm King and look west into the sunset of the dying day, and spend five minutes as we did when we were kids.

I hope that day is soon.

Contact John Gardner: 384-9114

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