MEDICINE BOW PEAK, WYOMING (July 2000)
Larry Hamilton, June 2001
This is not a story about a technical climb, or even a successful one. It is just a story....
Warren Hamilton below Medicine Bow Peak, July 2000.
In the summer of 1965, when I was sixteen years old, my father took me backpacking in the Park Range north of Steamboat Springs. I accompanied him and George Snyder, both geologists, on a four-day trip through what is now the Mt. Zirkel Wilderness. The geologists were mapping as part of a summer-long project. At that time I was rather a sullen youth, not much good at anything worth doing, and distressingly unsure of my place on the cosmic mandala. My mother hoped that this backpacking trip would ease some of the conflicts between my father and me. My father hoped that I would shape up. They both thought that such improvements might be facilitated through father-son talks; so this was a hike with a higher purpose.
Knowing its purpose made me no more agreeable. Though I had been camping since before I could walk, it was my first backpacking experience and unexpectedly tough. Hiking uphill under hot sun and a 40-pound Kelty felt miserable. Mosquitos plagued our camps, so pervasive that I dreamed about them afterwards for months. I declined invitations to join my father and George on mapping excursions, which sounded like extra work. The fresh trout that we ate had bones in it. If we had meaningful talks, their details have long since escaped me. And yet something else happened, on the last day of the trip, that changed my life.
What happened was that we hiked above treeline and I saw a new world. I must have passed through such places before, without noticing; this time was an epiphany. Rocks, snow and tundra opened around us in a landscape of infinite, luminous clarity. I felt exhilarated by the beauty, and chagrined to realize that my own truculence had kept me from joining the side trips that my father and George had been making above treeline each day.
Our hike soon ended, and I left the geologists to their mountains, but my outlook was never the same. Having discovered that a high country existed, I could not wait to get back. I started browsing through topographic maps, and scheming to turn high school cronies into mountaineers. On my next backpacking trip, with fellow delinquent Bob Lakin, I made a second great discovery: at the top of the high country there are peaks. Then I knew that I needed to climb them.
This was the start of a climbing career. Feelings of wonder amidst mountain landscapes, and of purpose in working towards summits, have provided many of my best moments since. In middle age, I experienced echoes of these feelings on a research trip to northwest Alaska, which jolted me once again out of complacency to re-invent my occupation. I morphed from a deskbound statistician into an arctic sociologist (all without changing jobs). Waiting with camera bag and computer by the landing strip at New Stuyahok, or watching a lunar eclipse as northern lights played over the icebergs on Narssaq Sund, I've felt a cool wind blowing direct from the tundra near Mt. Zirkel. A third influence I trace to that backpacking trip has been my lifelong habit of relating to other people through shared outdoor adventures.
Somewhere over the years, I learned more about my place on the mandala. And it was with a sense of the wheel turning that, in summer of 2000, I proposed the idea of a hiking trip to my father. He agreed at once, and suggested the Medicine Bow range in Wyoming. This sounded fine to me. There must be a summit nearby, I was already thinking. Soon I had determined that Medicine Bow Peak itself was the ideal objective. It is a dominant mountain with a trail the whole way, all above treeline and not very long. Technical simplicity was critical because in recent years my father had entirely lost his sense of balance. He could navigate uneven terrain only with difficulty, and the aid of trekking poles. Reaching the summit of Medicine Bow Peak would thus be a formidable challenge. Climbing it together should become a lifetime memory for us both.
In the days before our trip, my father and I tuned up with two Colorado hikes. I remarked inspirationally (I thought) about how their elevation and distance compared with Medicine Bow Peak. As we drove up to Wyoming, I felt the summit within reach. But later that afternoon, after we had pitched our tent and gone for a short hike, new doubts crept in. I knew that climbing the peak was my agenda, imposed on my father. Now it dawned on me that he had an agenda of his own, more subtle than my peakbagging but by no means less forceful. The climber wanted a summit, while the geologist wanted to examine the rocks. He had suggested Medicine Bow as our destination in part because its quartzite held mysteries two billion years old, relevant to the "Archaean earth" puzzles that inspired his post-retirement research. In response to my questions, he explained about the complexity of discerning original structures from Proterozoic metasediments that have flowed and distorted in several dimensions. Drawing on my sketchy geological knowledge, and climber's sense of the cliffs, I expressed my own opinions about bedding planes and the relationships among adjacent rocks. Of course I was more at sea than he would be climbing the mountain.
We cooked dinner from cans that evening, just like in the old days. It stormed half the night above our tent, with thunder alarmingly close at hand. We arose to unsettled weather the next morning for our summit attempt. Accustomed to Alpine starts and goal-focused partners, I found our takeoff too casual. We reached the trailhead a bit after sunrise. Spectacular views from the initial steep hillside provided good reasons for photo stops. Watching distant clouds grow, I felt apprehensive. The whole route is exposed to lightning, and a bad place to move slowly with weather coming in. Our agendas were silently clashing.
As the morning wore on we gained height, the clouds gathered, and the dirt trail gave way to stone. Traveling over talus is particularly difficult for someone who has no balance. Trekking poles provide only limited security, and each weight transfer must be made with care. One steep section of trail formed the definite crux, as tense for my father as a runout free pitch might have been for me. He worked up it slowly, with frequent rests, until we arrived on the upper mountain.
We could see several things now. The way ahead was easier. The summit remained distant. And the sky was darkening. With a less driven companion, my father surely would have turned back at that point, if he had attempted this thing at all. But not wishing to disappoint me, he kept going. We persevered past the dramatic east-side overlooks, and reached a final notch below the summit slopes as clouds began obscuring the top. "It's still miles away," he said wistfully. "A mile," I corrected, too quickly. The summit seemed tantalizingly close at hand. But it was obvious that the weather was worsening, we stood on lightning's ground, and -- what must have weighed heavily on my father's mind -- that steep talus section would be hard for him to descend, and even more so if wet. I had led us in deeply, and now had to get the party safely back out. My father offered to start down on his own, leaving me free to sprint for the summit. His selfless suggestion crystallized my decision. Time to bail.
So we turned around and began our descent, both feeling relieved. At rest stops along the way Dad photographed rocks, placing his trademark Swiss Army knife in each picture for scale. I took pictures of him taking pictures, and tried vainly to persuade him that my Clif Bars and Gu were more nourishing than his old-fashioned gorp. When the rain started we pulled on shells, and continued downwards with rising spirits.
Late that afternoon, back at camp, the sun broke through again. Dad took out his macro lens and small tripod, and spent the remaining daylight photographing wildflowers in meadows. He was plainly much happier doing this than he'd been on the strenuous heights. After I watched him for a while, it began to look fun. I grabbed my camera and headed off to find a meadow of my own. For the first time in my life I shot four rolls with nothing but flowers. Seeing yet another new world, that had been in front of me all along.
My father and I never climbed Medicine Bow Peak, though we came close. Days later, back at his home in Golden with family gathered 'round, we raved about the area's charms. This inspired my daughter, who was listening, to plan a trip to the Medicine Bow range with her boyfriend later that summer. The mandala turns.... When they got there, the first thing they did was traverse the peak.
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