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The writer atop Notch Mountain - with spectacular views of Mount of the Holy Cross - in happier times.
The writer atop Notch Mountain - with spectacular views of Mount of the Holy Cross - in happier times.
Photo by Dan Davis trekkerphoto.com
Risk a relative thing in Colorado's high country
By David O. Williams

October 24, 2007 — I refuse to castigate Jacob and Joshua Gately, two brothers from Missouri who made some very nearly fatal mistakes climbing Mount of the Holy Cross last weekend (see story in our Real News section).


First of all, I canít stand the holier-than-thou superiority that spews from some backcountry enthusiasts, the ones that revel in every opportunity to point out other peopleís stupidity while obsessing over gear and preparation to the point that they remove all joy and spontaneity from outdoor sports.


You know the type. They think itís their god-given right to bark orders at strangers on the trail and save them from their own ignorance of all things woodsy. Personally, I love rolling the dice a bit, bushwhacking instead of sticking to the trail, doing some creative route finding and traveling faster, longer, harder and lighter than is perhaps prudent.
Such risk leads to great reward, and reminds you that youíre alive and that not every moment in life needs to be so damned scripted and not every risk needs to be so damned managed. Also, when I was 23, I was Jacob Gately.


No, I wasnít bald and I didnít have a heavy Midwestern drawl. But I was young, foolish and felt myself to be virtually bulletproof. Time, responsibility and a small herd of children have all conspired to change my ways to some degree, but I can relate to Jacobís attitude on Holy Cross.


In fact, on Labor Day, 1993, I soloed Holy Cross. I was supposed to meet a friend that night in the Minturn ranger station parking lot but he wound up drinking the night away at State Bridge, so I threw on my pack and hiked up to Halfmoon Pass under a full moon.


I camped there that night then threw my full pack into the shrubs and headed up Holy Cross at 5 a.m. with only a daypack. I had been living in Vail a couple of years at that point and was outfitted a little better than Jacob (my tennis shoe days on fourteeners ended in my teens), but I would not have been prepared for an overnighter.


Granted, it was early September and not mid October, but all it would have taken for me to be forced to bivouac at 13,000 feet was a badly sprained ankle. Instead, I safely soloed up the summit and was the only person on the peak at 9 a.m. when a Forest Service employee summited using the Halo Route (he, too, was solo) and was quite surprised to see me.


But he made no judgment about my risky solo bid and seemed to understand the young male need to be tested by the elements. I was undoubtedly lucky, and Iím not advocating foolhardiness, but I am saying a certain amount of risk is a good thing in life.


However, itís fairly easy to mitigate some of those risks when hiking or climbing by always carrying a pack full of waterproof and warm clothing, extra food, water, a first-aid kit, dry matches, a map and compass. Similarly, donít head into the backcountry on skis without all the same stuff plus a shovel, beacon and probe (something I was also stupid enough to do when I was Jacobís age).


And itís also important to note that, unless youíre Chris Davenport or Lou Dawson (renowned winter mountaineers whoíve skied all of the stateís highest peaks), fourteener season is over, especially since a storm rolled into the Vail Valley Wednesday and promises to hang around through Thursday, with another one on the way Sunday.

 

 

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