We didn’t clean our plate, but left fulfilled
We all do these kinds of things sometimes – pile our plates with obscene mounds of food at a buffet, overbook our weekends with outrageous social engagements … make plans to climb three 14,000-foot-plus mountains in a single weekend.”You girls sure are ambitious,” my friend Kate O’Brien’s boyfriend told her when he heard about our scheme to scale Mount Belford, Mount Oxford and Missouri Peak in one weekend.”Now I know why,” Kate said as she puffed up the mountain ahead of me and Illa Caywood, from Colorado Springs. The weather was starting to turn. Just after we got above timberline, a fluffy little white cloud, the only one in the sky, metastasized into a threatening gray mass. It was just to the left of what we figured was the summit of Belford, our first mountain.The three Fourteeners on our docket, located in the Collegiate Peaks Wilderness Area between Tin Lakes and Buena Vista, are supposed to be a few of the easier ones among Colorado’s 54 peaks over 14,000 feet, according to Illa’s guidebook.
Our original plan was to hike about two miles to where the trail splits and hikers decide to head up Belford and over a saddle to the summit of Oxford or straight up Missouri. We were going to set up camp there.But we looked at Illa’s book in front of our campfire at the base of the mountains Friday night and changed our minds. “The first two miles aren’t bad,” Illa said as she pointed to the little green line that led into a blue one. Just like ski routes, trails in the book are graded in color by their difficulty. No sweat. It’s just two miles, not far. We can do it twice, once on Saturday for Belford and Oxford and once on Sunday for Missouri, and not have to carry our gear.The trip over Belford and to the top of Oxford is about four-and-a-half miles. It sounded like it would be a piece of cake. I’d been up Pikes Peak a couple of times. That’s a 12-mile journey one-way. Illa had conquered 17 Fourteeners. This adventure was going to bring her to an even 20. Kate had a misadventure attempting to summit La Plata a few weeks earlier.None of us are extreme mountain women, but we weren’t totally naive either.
All three of us set our cell phones to go off at 5 a.m. We turned them off and nestled back into our sleeping bags. When we finally emerged from the tent around 8 a.m., I was a little worried. My treks up Pikes Peak always started before dawn and finished just in time to hitch a ride down the mountain before the highway closed in the afternoon.”Relax,” Illa said. “We could walk one mile per hour and still get to the top by noon.”Be off the summit by noon – that’s the advice everyone gave me before I left on this trip.As it turned out, I was doing well to manage one mile per hour. That little green line that covered the first two miles didn’t feel very green. Kate steamed ahead full speed at first, and I think I was spent by the time we’d gone 20 paces. We slowed down and crept up the trail through the woods.Illa’s blue heeler, Jamie, would scurry up the trail ahead of us and come back to make sure we were on our way. She probably climbed the mountain three times to our one.Once we came out of the trees at timberline, the air was crisp, the wildflowers were blooming, and it was all worth it.
But by the time we thought we were steps away from the top, a few guys with poles completely burst our bubble. They said we had a long way to go and the weather didn’t look like it would hold.Not to be foiled again, Kate went ahead almost at a runner’s pace, while Illa and I plugged along, stopping to admire the view (and catch our breath) just about every other switchback. We were right there, just a few switchbacks away, when Kate rounded the corner on her way back down and urged us to hurry if we were going to go for it. The weather was getting worse. We continued at our steady turtle’s pace. Once we got to the top, we knew it. The snow started to come down on us, but we could see forever – mountains stacked on mountains.One down, and there was another one, just separated by a little dip in the land, right next to us. That was Oxford, our second mountain. We never made it. The snow came in and we retreated back down the trail. The next day we were too tired to attempt another climb. One out of three isn’t bad.
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