Wednesday, September 16, 2009

When The Aspens Begin To Turn

The storm was moving in fast. The crazy Colorado weather of the summer of 2009 was continuing, and snapped me out of the blissful summit trance I was in. Perched on top of Mt. Harvard – all 14,420’ of it – I had been gazing down on the magnificent Missouri Gulch. The Gulch was in its full Fall glory, the Aspens ranging in color from summer green, to fall gold and yellow, flanked by an army of evergreens and their stronger tones. Rising up through the valley, giving way to the high grasses and then the gray granite mantle of the Sawatch range, a mountain lake or three thrown in for good mix. As I broke my mind out of this moment of paradise, I couldn’t help but wonder why I would want to do anything else, climb anywhere else, climb any THING else. Where but in Colorado can one reach such a lofty altitude, and yet gaze down upon such a heaven on earth? I scrambled down the summit pinnacle, and tightened up my pack straps. The plan had been to climb Mt. Columbia today as well, in an epic traverse, but the weather was telling us no, Columbia will have to wait for another day. At only 10:45 am, the thunderstorms that usual years only roll in about 2 pm, were already upon us. Rush Limbaugh may tell you that Global Warming isn’t real, but I guarantee you the weather is messed up. We were going to have to make a run for it if we didn’t want to get wet, or worse struck by lightning. Tree-line was 3500’ and 2.5 miles away.

Just seven weeks before I had been entrapped in a miserable, disastrous, debacle in Bolivia. Drawn by the 6000 meter (20,000’ roughly) mountains, we had decided to support the people of the country by hiring a Bolivian company for logistics and support. But instead of being driven about the substandard highways in a 4X4, as promised by their website, we were being carted around the unsafe place in our guide’s own meager personal vehicle, an early 90’s Toyota Corrolla. The clunker had bald tires, no brakes and the shocks were worn out, besides being fantastically too small to hold 3 climbers and all our gear. There was no personal driver, or personal cook as assured, instead only the guide himself to do all 3 occupations. Our guide, an ex-Bolivian military officer who could barely contain his contempt for Americans and all things white people, was a surly, abrupt man in his 30’s. The owner of the company had told us he would be English-speaking, as my Spanish skills are somewhat deficient, particularly when it comes to all-important technical terms while climbing mountains. Instead, either he didn’t know English, understood English but pretended not to understand me, or simply had so much built inside hate for people from the United States that he just ignored me. It was pretty common around all Bolivia, this not-invisible malignancy the people show towards foreigners, particularly those fair in skin and light on the espaƱol-tongue. Whichever the case, it made for very frustrating and confusing communication encounters with him.

Our 4Runner rumbled over the four-wheel drive road. When I had turned on to it, it didn’t even strike me as being a “road” more like a trail, really. We slowly inched our way up the mountainside, hitting tree root after dipsy-doodle after washout, moving ever closer to the trailhead of Mt. Antero. It made me think about my Grandpa and Grandma, and their glory days in the Mile-High Four Wheel Club. Grandma and Grandpa have probably been on top and around every 14er in the state, back in the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s before the environmentalists worked to close off so many of the bumpy backroads in order to preserve the wilderness from the ever exploding Colorado population. We stopped and spent time with my Grandpa at his house in Grand Junction on the way out. Two months from his 100th birthday, Grandpa is still living independent, still reading his science magazines and watching his Broncos, his mind still sharp as a tack. Always with a touch of melancholy, he misses my Grandma, the greatest and only love of his life, now 8 years passed. I look to my love, my beautiful wife, and see them in us. Grandpa was almost exactly the same age I am now, when he picked up his young family and moved them to Denver, thus beginning his 60 year love affair with this great state. I can’t imagine visiting Colorado and not seeing Grandpa, he is as much a part of the state to me as the rolling monster mountains and snake-like canyons that I-70 winds its way through. I hope to have many more years of visiting him.

The car bumps its way along the makeshift street. I’m not sure if its going to get stuck, and I really hope it doesn’t. I’m not sure I want to get outside here, in the middle of El Alto, the poorest section of La Paz. Above me, the people have hung politicians in effigy, as dummies dangle from the streetlights, holding signs with the names of the enemies and traitors who they are supposed to represent. This is a scary place. I had seen poverty before in Africa, when we got firsthand looks at the unfortunate populace and their desperate circumstances. This poverty, however, this bleakness was different. It’s a mean poor. In Africa, no matter how bad off the people were, I could always see the hope in their spirits, the goodness in their souls. I left there wishing I could do something more for them, and chastise myself to this day for falling short on that promise. In Bolivia, all I see on their faces is jealousy, greed and hate. If I were to exit this car, I would immediately be worried that some onlooker might approach me and cut my throat, just to get the handful of US dollars I had in my wallet. I’m not a Christian, so I don’t have to sugarcoat my feelings for them – I hope they choke on the stench of the shithole they live in. Fuck them.

We end the day back at our timeshare condo exchange place, sitting at the Lodgepole Bar eating chicken wings and drinking Avalanche. Sitting next to one of the 6 swimming pools the resort offers, we discuss the day’s climb, a new adventure every day we spend here. Staring at the hundreds of daisies lined up around the pretty rustic architecture of the Grand Timber Lodge, we relish in the success of the day as the waitress brings us another pitcher of hoppy goodness. It will be so hard to leave this place, nestled at the bottom of Peak 9 in Breckenridge, and return home to normal life next week. Waking up early, driving to the trailheads, climbing all day, fine-living at night - I seriously wish this week would never have to end.
The tent is going to break, its creaking and moaning almost as noisy as the high winds that have kept us awake all night. Instead of a new Mountain Hardware or North Face tent, we’re stuck in an old MSR job with bad zippers, perched at 18,500’ on Mt. Sajama. The tormenta rages outside, winds that have to be topping 120 mph at least, and we have no space in the little tent to even sit up. The guide pokes his head in through the door, and lets us know there is no way to climb today. I looked at his face and see clearly that not only are we not able to climb, but that he doesn’t even want to climb this mountain. Not with us. We ask about a weather day – we built in an extra day to our itinerary for just such an occasion. Negative, he indicates to us. He has a “program” to keep with. We press him some more. He says the porters are coming up today to carry our stuff down, and he will have to pay them whether we stay or go. We offer to pay them ourselves. Hard working indigenous folks, we had tipped the porters 40 Bolivianos each the day before for hauling 60+ pounds a piece up to this elevation. They had at first balked at carrying so much weight, but acquiesced when our guide – with all his people skills – had told them they HAD to carry our stuff and then threw his own 40 lb backpack down at their feet and said they had to carry his things too. We tried to empty our bags a little at that scene, each of us carrying as much as we thought we could without jeopardizing our climb. The guide carried a knapsack. We now learned he had paid them 20 Bolivianos, about $3, for all this work carrying our extra equipment up. I felt sick to my stomach, not from the Ramen noodles and spam he was feeding us, nor from the altitude. It was the attitude of this place. When we told him we would pay for the porters, the guide then said we had to go down because there was not enough gas for another day. He had not planned for a weather day, even though when heading up we could see the lenticular cloud forming on the upper slopes. Without gas, one cannot melt snow for water, so we must descend. Our climb was over before it ever started. We had paid the logistic company $1100 to go camping in a windstorm, just for this mountain alone.

What is this obsession with altitude over all else? Rock climbers don’t care how high the face is, they care about the difficultly involved and find happiness in solving the puzzle of the rock. Why does a mountaineer have to feel that if crampons, ice axe, and a generous dose of suffering are not in the equation, then it was not really a climb at all? In the quest for altitude, life had brought me to Bolivia. People say to me, “Sure the country is fucked up. Portraits, bumper-stickers, and t-shirts of their “hero” Che Guevera for sale, Visa, MasterCard, American Express all accepted. Yes, they have no sense of how to fix their joke of an economy and resent with the most vigor the one country that could probably help them. Ah, but the mountains – the mountains are beautiful aren’t they?” You know what I say? Fuck that. You know what those mountains look like to me? Giant piles of shit rising out of lesser piles of shit. It’s not just the culture-less, negative demeanor of the people there. The countryside itself is bleak, drab, depressing and devoid of color. The Altiplano makes eastern Wyoming look like a garden paradise. Get a little closer to the Bolivian mountains and you will smell the stink of a failed country and society so pungent that it overcomes and diminishes any natural beauty that might be found there. Come and climb our mountains and bring us your dollars, all the South American Andes countries declare. You can get so much higher than in your own country.

The hike almost over, we walk slowly down through the forest. Colorado forests are rich with life all around, not tinderbox dry like the California mountains. The rain pelts lightly on the top of my Raiders cap, the smell of fresh air wafting all around me. We cross a bridge over a small stream and see a beaver slap his tail before he dives away to his den. A little later a fox scampers in front of us and slips off into the bushes. Finally, a few hundred feet from our truck and the end, we come across an Aspen grove in full Fall glory. My wife makes me take a picture of her against them, her eyes filled with the innocent wonder of nature, the same look that I fell in love with when I first met her. She wants to bring an Aspen home with us, something to remember this place, this feeling. I promised her I will get some to plant when we get back home – scratch that – when we get back to California. There is no way I can get any higher than this. This is happiness.