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November 3, 2004: Perspective

Mount Princeton

(Illustration: Stuart Briers)

Lost time, now found
Climbing Mount Princeton, to know a young man

By Bill Potter ’68

Bill Potter ’68 is an attorney in Princeton and a frequent preceptor of Princeton politics courses.

Exactly as the guidebook said, Mount Princeton, all 14,197 feet of her, filled the horizon, bathed in the pink glow of sunrise. “Princeton is a singular mountain, a true monarch because its neighbors are far lower and far away,” Gerry Roach wrote in Colorado’s Fourteeners, the standard text for climbers of Colorado’s 54 peaks above 14,000 feet – including Princeton, the 18th-highest and arguably the most beautiful.

On that day I was on a pilgrimage of sorts to Mount Princeton with my nephew, an officer in the Marine Corps who had opted to spend his last leave with his “Princeton uncle” before heading to Iraq. He and his platoon had spent months training for anti-insurgency warfare in Baghdad or Falluja, or Najaf, or wherever else violence would erupt again.

I was crazed with worry. As I drove our rented Saturn, I imagined pushing Rex off a low ledge, just to break a leg so he couldn’t go. Laughing nervously, I shared that with him. He didn’t laugh. “I have to go, Uncle,” he replied solemnly, “to protect my men.”

Rex and I were on a mission to climb as many “fourteeners” as possible during his leave. Before it was over we would do three in five days, starting with Princeton. But climbing fourteeners was not my real mission. I wanted to reconnect with Rex while I could, to transcend my years in Princeton, while he was growing up with a single mom, my sister, who moved from California to Wyoming in 1963, a year before I drove across the country to Princeton, to a life apart. My sister built a life in Wyoming, but it wasn’t easy — working nights at a maximum-security prison, battling sexism from other officers every day on the job, and raising two kids pretty much alone. Rex was smart but had a rough time in school; when he graduated from high school 12 years ago, he headed straight into the Marines. Recently, he was stationed at Quantico, Va., where I witnessed the ceremonies that marked his graduation from the “basic school” to become a second lieutenant. And then he said he would be leaving for Iraq.

As Rex and I approached Mount Princeton, paved highway soon gave way to a logging road and then a mule trail. The little Saturn seemed possessed to carry us far up the mountain, saving us precious time for climbing and hanging out at the summit. As the guidebook warned, we had to start our descent by noon to avoid the lightning storms that are a constant afternoon threat at that height — you don’t want to be caught above the treeline when lightning is striking around you.

At last, we reached a weather station and parked the Saturn. Rex’s combination watch and altimeter registered 10,800 feet. Great, only 3,397 feet to climb, I thought. But I was already panting. My acclimatization to the thinner air at such heights had been limited to one jog with Rex through mile-high Boulder, the day before.

We hit the trail described as easy in the guidebook. Easy for Rex, I thought. Despite running four miles daily, I found myself struggling to keep pace with Rex long before he announced, “We’re at 13,000 feet, Uncle! Way to go!” What passed for a trail had become a series of narrow switchbacks over boulders of every size and shape.

My world had narrowed to the next rock: Will it hold? Where to plant my foot? Where to grab with my hand? And how far ahead of me is Rex? Say, where is he?

At 14,000 feet, Rex stopped and waited for me. As I panted forward, he shouted, “Almost there, Uncle! See, you can do it!” The last 197 feet were the steepest but, to my surprise, almost easy. The pounding in my head had stopped. I was giddy, I would make it. After we crested the summit I allowed myself to gaze around. Far below I saw the alpine meadows, and far below the snow-topped peaks, including Mount Columbia seeming to lean into Mount Harvard, the highest of the “collegiate peaks.”

Rex and I ate our power bars and trail mix, and, after signing a register in a sealed canister, we decided it was time to go. It was hard to leave this magical place but it was 1 p.m., and clouds were rolling toward us.

The climb down was hard. With each step I fought the gravity in suddenly cold and windy weather. Worse, I got lost after Rex went far ahead. I felt alone and near panic.

As it turned out, my trail soon ended in a pile of rubble. While I was looking for a way to go, a shirtless climber marched toward me, grabbing rocks above him in a near sprint. I was so startled by his rapid ascent that I nearly slipped from my perch. He grinned and said, “It’s easier if you forget about a path — go make your own!” Off he went, like a spirit vanishing.

So I stopped worrying about a trail, and tried to pounce from rock to rock, gaining confidence, but cautious to control my newfound momentum. Still no sign of Rex. He hadn’t doubled back to find me, I mused; maybe he wants me to make it on my own. And then I saw him, sunbathing on the rocks.

“Hello there, Uncle! Why did you go that way?” he asked. I thought of a bravado reply but told him the truth: I got lost! Then we pushed on in silence, reaching the treeline and then the dusty Saturn, where we tanked up on lukewarm Gatorade before the long drive back to Boulder.

After eight hours of climbing and four hours of driving on three hours of sleep, I was wired. I wanted to tell Rex what I had never said, above all to apologize for my years away. I wanted him to open up about his life in Wyoming, perhaps to create a bond between us that would carry us through his tour of duty in Iraq.

But it didn’t happen. Rex fell asleep and we drove in silence all the way to Boulder, when he sprang awake and said with a grin: “Good job, Uncle! See, I knew you could do it!” And maybe that was all that needed to be said. Maybe we had bonded after all, somewhere between treeline and summit and back.

Princeton, the university, had taken us apart; now Princeton, the mountain, had brought us back together.

On Sept. 19, soon after arriving in Iraq, Rex was wounded by shrapnel from a mortar round. He is recuperating in San Diego. end of article



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