We rolled out the map and pinned the corners with our beers. With a finger I traced the Jeep path to the first lake and the steep three miles to camp above tree line, ending at the mountain Crestone Needle (14,197 feet). Garland, Jennifer and Scott listened as I described the route.
Up the wide crack by headlamp, low fifth class. We’ll leave the right trough for the bighorns that like to sleep up there. There’s a few hundred feet of low-angled cobblestones to a steep move around the arete where your ass hangs over a 1,000-foot drop.
I noticed Jennifer’s jaw clench in a look of consternation.
We’ll have lunch on the ledge before we tackle Head Crack, an old-school 5.8, I continued. That’s the crux. We don’t want to get caught here in a storm, because the last two pitches are glass-slick from run-off, the holds are water-polished, and I don’t think we could use them in the rain.
How’s the camping? Jennifer asked. She was an elementary-school teacher in the little town of Wharton, Texas. Her husband,
Garland, was a construction contractor. Scott was the town attorney. None of them had been climbing for more than a year, but they were eager to try their hands at Colorado mountaineering.
Dreamy, I said, laying my finger on the blue dime of water that indicated South Colony Lake. We’ll stake our tents at 12,000 feet in the cirque. Lots of wildflowers. You might even get cold. Sounds like paradise, she said.
It was snowing hard. Jennifer stood at the base of Head Crack, trying to catch her breath. She’d chug the thin air for a minute, then pull on and grapple with the overhanging slot. She was bonking. As Jennifer struggled, the snow built into cloud-like mounds on top of the burnished stone buckles that provided the only route to the top. With her last grit of will, Jennifer clawed up the studded crack to the belay.
The last two pitches took two hours to climb. The temperature was falling and the rain froze across the rock in a sheet. I used my nut tool to chip away the ice and palmer-housed up the face without pro, careful as a grandmother.
We reached the summit at dusk in a whiteout and short-roped down the East Face until the trail disappeared under heavy snow.
We should bivy, I said.
It was dark. The snow was a swirl of shipping peanuts crenellating my headlamp’s beam. We were tired and very cold. My friends looked into my face and reflected my horror.
We found a narrow hall between two boulders and huddled in a scrum until the snow heaped to our waists. Garland spotted an exposed overhang that offered shelter and we moved under it, covered ourselves with the one sleeping bag, and rested our helmets against the dripping rock wall. Hoary gusts swirled through the cusped peaks of the Sangre de Cristos and smacked us with the impunity of ice water poured on sleeping kittens.
Freezing is purported to be one of the gentlest deaths, but we were just freezing without dying, and take my word, freezing is no bed of roses. My teeth tocked like castanets and my body was wracked with rhythmic shivers. My gloveless fingers felt like blisters. My toes were dead in my sneakers, but my feet throbbed with broken-bone pain. I was wearing shorts over poly-pro long johns and a thin rain parka. The night wore on, as did the suffering®seemingly interminable and under the pitiless gaze of a mountain Jehovah.
Six hours later the wind stopped and the sun emerged. It nudged the Munster-colored clouds aside and the snow started to melt. I was amazed to find that I was OK, just fine, in fact, as were my friends. We hurried down the mountain, plunge-stepping through the thick snow back to our tents. The sun lit the yellow fabric and the shelters glowed like lantern mantels. I listened as Scott, Garland and Jennifer burrowed into their down sleeping bags. Jennifer sighed with the unmistakable, un-fake-able contentment of the survivor, and said, Now this is paradise.
Paradise, from the Persian word pairida’za, walled garden, is a slippery concept®dependant on individual tastes and circumstances.
The famous 15th Century Egyptian writer and Islamic teacher Imam Al-Suyuti was reported to have said of paradise: Each chosen one will marry 70 virgins with lustrous eyes.
Sometimes paradise is 70 virgins. Sometimes it’s a glass of water, a healthy elbow, or a good night’s sleep. Paradise, like wells, rooms and people, is always defined by empty space, by something lacking.
Like a warm tent after a mountain epic, a marquee-destination climbing trip can be the perfect tonic to the 8-to-5 hustle that defines most of our lives. In this issue, we’ve put together the ultimate road trips. From the tepuis of Venezuela, to the tufas of Turkey, from the temple of the monkey god in India, to the stone tidal wave of the Taipan Wall in Australia; these are dream destinations, rock-climbing paradise, every one. As you’ll see, however, in some of the stories, and as the wise already know, it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than a climber to enter®and remain in®paradise.