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Solo Mountaineering in Southern Colorado: The Mental & Physical Journey

Words & photographs by FC Team mountaineer & climber, George Bieker | @george_bieker | georgebieker.com

“I hear and behold God in every object, yet understand God not in the least.”

- Walt Whitman

The Universe is a Green Dragon by Brian Swimme sat on my dash as I rushed, alone, towards the mountains. I use the term rush not due to the excess of speed but to the limitations of my four wheel drive automobile. I’m headed to the southernmost tip of the front range of the rocky mountains. There lies the Blanca group; a collection of 14ers in the San Juan Mountains that rise abruptly out of the desert.


I sped in thought, unsure what this adventure might bring. This intrinsic aspect of an uncertainty makes life special. It drives us to wonder, to learn, and to go on journeys and return changed. There is a tribe that knows this, modern day vagabonds hear the call of the wild and answer in kind.


Each climber goes to the mountains for a different reason. Reasons they themselves, selfish or otherwise, consider important. Some go to summit, some go to climb, some go to revel in the majesty that is our natural world. All of us though, no matter our intention, leave with an unadulterated and visceral firsthand experience-- one that you only comes from doing, not from hearing, nor googling on the internet. I've found that this is why I go. A fast track to personal insight, the closest thing I could claim as a spiritual experience.

“In a word man must create his own essence: it is throwing himself into the world, suffering there, struggling there, the he gradually defines himself.”

-Jean-Paul Sartre

Finally I arrived to The San Juan mountains, the tallest mountains north of the high volcanoes of Mexico. They dominate the landscape, rising straight out of the desert near Great Sand Dunes National Park. I started up the four wheel drive road towards my start at Lake Como and very shortly realized I was going to have to hike in. Not a problem-- I drank a beer and packed my climbing gear. Solo climbing, I decided to leave almost everything behind.

 

The trail rose steeply from the desert and climbed into the aspen and pine forests to the Blanca cirque. This cirque lies at almost 12,000 feet and comprises Little Bear, Blanca, and Ellingwood peaks. My objective was the Little Bear to Blanca ridge traverse. It was not only the longest, at one mile of exposed climbing, but one of the most difficult of the 14er ridgelines. The rigorous five mile approach with an elevation gain of four thousand feet gave my mind four hours to process the feat ahead. Will I be strong enough? Do I have the right gear? What risk is acceptable? Will the weather hold? A plethora of thoughts to silence, consider, or accept have taught me more about myself than I ever thought possible.

Going alone didn’t just mean getting lost in thought-- it meant commitment. With no real technical climbing gear - minus crampons and a mountain axe - I relied on the weather to hold. Regardless I would have to continuously reassess the apparent risks of the climb, my abilities, and my own personal safety margins.


That night I slept in a small miner's cabin near the lake-- an eerie experience when you're alone with no door in bear country. Nonetheless it was safer than the tent that I hauled all the way up the mountain to not even use….hindsight is twenty-twenty.

The next day I woke to the light of the morning sun which, though beautiful, was neither expected or welcomed. In the mountains, especially in the snow and ice, you want to start early when it is firm, frozen, and safe. My phone had died in the night, and thus I had no alarm. I cursed under my breath, hurriedly packed my gear, and decided to try the climb from Blanca to Little Bear instead. From the lake it seemed climbing in that direction would be more straightforward; there would be less a chance of going off route, getting lost, or dying. I thought it a novel idea.


I had no idea the time it took, maybe an hour or more before I strapped on my crampons and grabbed the mountain axe to continue up the snow. The sun wasn’t yet on the western aspects so time was looking on my side. Although I have been to altitude many times, and many times higher than 14,000 feet, though it still takes its toll. On the flanks of Blanca the grade increased and thus my speed gradually slowed. The snow and ice was firm so the crampons did their work as I made my way higher and higher.  I could feel the day before in my legs but the view of the traverse pushed me forward and quickened my steps. I felt oneness inside-- no people, no technology, nothing but the the snow, the sky, my body, and my mind once again free in the hills.

The approach toward top of Blanca seemed longer than expected, as summit pyramids are always misleading. During this time the sky turned. Not quite ominisce, but I could sense danger in her hue. Perhaps it was self doubt, maybe it was it was the wind, but something more made me want to turn around. Had I been there with a partner or a rope I may have continued. That I will never know.


That day I answered only to myself and decided to come down. I’ve spent enough time in the mountains that things just have to feel right. I passed the frozen lake to the cabin where I packed the rest of my gear and food and headed down. Down the switchbacks, down the mountain, down in elevation all the while knowing that I would return. Though it started to rain, the storm over the open plains was gorgeous and I couldn't help but smile knowing full well I had made the right choice. I reached my car, scavenged for some food, and headed home.


During my drive back I reflected on many things. I thought about the past and future, about my life and my experiences as a climber. Most of all, though, I thought about our place as humans, about what that means to each of us. I thought to myself how special it was that I could think, that you and I are made of stars, stars that are conscious, stars that can love, fuck, make music, dance, and sing. I thought as I looked up into the night sky and gazed into the beauty of those shining stars that I was not only looking towards the heavens but into the soul of all mankind.


I thought of that tribe of vagabonds-- those who count value through personal experience rather than material things, those who value time more than money, those who understand there is a difference between realization and revelation. I thought of those people I know and all of those I don't. I smiled and thought to myself that I go to the mountains for experience, for perspective, for change. I, like many others return sometimes stronger, sometimes wiser, but always a bit more humble.


“If something burns your soul with purpose and desire, it’s your duty to be reduced to ashes by it. Any other form of existence will be yet another dull book in the library of life.” -Charles Bukowski