Feature: October 8, 1997
The Once and Future Mountain
When 240 Tigers attempt to climb Mount Princeton, the effort is its own reward
by J. I. Merritt '66
It is 5:15 a.m., and more than 200 of us are gathered on a grassy rise in central Colorado. To the east, across the valley of the upper Arkansas River, the brightening horizon reveals a cloudless morning. Voices and laughter mingle in the predawn chill as we collect our lunches, adjust our daypacks, and await the word to go. Most of us are impatient to start. We've been in this part of the Rockies for three days now, long enough to adjust to the altitude and break in new hiking boots, and some have been training for this day for months. Our group, comprising alumni of three generations, spouses, kids, significant others, and a smattering of university staff members, includes children as young as four, a man in his 80s, and at least one pregnant woman. We have come from as near as Denver and as far as Singapore and are united in a single purpose: to climb Mount Princeton.
The date--Friday, July 18, 1997--is 120 years and one day from the first recorded ascent of the mountain, by William Libbey, an intrepid graduate of the Class of 1877. Libbey, a member of a Princeton scientific expedition to the West, started early in the morning from his base camp and made the summit by 12:30 on the afternoon of July 17, 1877. With the help of surveying instruments he recorded its height as 14,208 feet. A later survey scaled that back a bit, to 14,197 feet, making Mount Princeton the second highest peak in the Collegiate Range. (For more on Libbey and the 1877 Princeton expedition, see page 17.)
Libbey, a Tiger to the bone who went on to a long and colorful career as a Princeton professor, is with us in spirit this morning. Our own assault on the mountain culminates the 18-month-long celebration of Princeton's 250th anniversary. Dorothy Bed-ford '78, the director of the 250th, thought of the idea concurrently with her associate J. T. Miller '70 and Rick Curtis '79, the director of the university's Outdoor Action (OA) program. Bedford and Curtis expected that perhaps 100 people would sign up for the climb, but twice as many did so. Allowing so many hikers on the mountain--about 240, counting staffers of Outdoor Action and a local guide service, and what Bedford refers to as "walk-ons" (alumni not part of the official group)--required special dispensation from the U.S. Forest Service.
We're surely the biggest group ever to attempt Mount Princeton on a single day--it's less a climb than a migration, and I feel sorry for any non-Princetonian who shows up today expecting to hike in solitude. For the planners it has presented formidable concerns about safety and logistics. Over the previous few months the information sent to us advising about training, clothing, equipment, and ills afflicting climbers above 10,000 feet--acute mountain sickness, high-altitude pulmonary edema, and high-altitude cerebral edema--would do justice to an Everest expedition. We've been required to turn in health forms, and those in doubt about their conditioning have been encouraged to undergo physical exams.
Most of us are staying at Ponderosa Lodge, a low-frills resort about 15 miles south of Mount Princeton, and on the eve of our climb we gathered in its assembly hall for a briefing. OA leader Josh Roman '97 outlined the route: Starting at a hiker's parking lot near Mount Princeton Hot Springs, he said, we'll proceed up a jeep road for three and a half miles to treeline, follow a foot trail that hugs the east bowl of the mountain for two miles, then scramble up a scree field to a ridge, which we will follow to the summit. The total one-way distance is roughly six miles, the vertical ascent 5,300 feet. To keep track of everyone, hikers will sign in and out at the bottom of the jeep road, and OA staffers at checkpoints along the route will be ready to assist those with problems. "We'll have Power Bars, emergency water, and Gatorade, and boxes and boxes of moleskin for blisters," said Bedford.
Roman warned about heat stroke--a potential ill not mentioned in our packet of health materials--and advised that a van and a truck would be available for emergency evacuations. "But if you're just tired, forget it--these aren't sag wagons for bringing you down."
Questions from the floor:
"If you've got a four-wheel-drive vehicle, can you take it to the top of the jeep road and start from there?"
Roman: "We're asking you not to. It's really disheartening for those walking up the road to be passed by someone in a car."
"How long will it take to get up and down?"
Bedford: "It depends on your fitness level--for the round trip, maybe six hours if you're in really good shape." Someone in the audience volunteers that "eight to 10 hours is probably more realistic."
"What about bathrooms?"
Roman: "We'll have Porta Potties at the base. After that, it's au naturel. If you're worried about a bowel movement, bring toilet paper in a Ziploc bag, and be prepared to pack it out after using it."
The biggest concern is weather. Thunderstorms are a daily occurrence during summer in the central Rockies, and just two years ago, a young woman was killed by lightning on the summit of Mount Princeton, where a plaque has been placed in her memory. Bedford and company want everyone off the peak and below treeline by one o'clock. To accomplish this with so large a group, buses and cars will leave from Ponderosa Lodge by 4:30 a.m., in time for everyone to start up the mountain by 5:30. A guide will ascend to the summit as quickly as possible with a cell phone and alert the checkpoints about any storms approaching from the west. If necessary, hikers will be told to turn back. "If bad weather rolls in, the worst case is lightning on the summit, the best case slick rocks on the descent," said Bedford. Our pre-trip materials state that anyone ordered off the mountain before reaching the top "is expected to cheerfully comply."
Final instructions: Carry plenty of water--three quarts per person--and on the climb up "keep at a nice, even pace," said Roman. "We hope that everyone will make the summit, but we assume that a few of you won't."
Added Bedford, "This is not a race, and there's no prize for the first one up and back."
ONWARD AND UPWARD
By 5:40 we're checked in and headed en masse up the jeep road, 10 minutes behind schedule. At 53, I'm more than a dozen years older than the group's estimated median age, and the amount of stuff I'm carrying--a rain jacket, a chamois shirt, lunch, and three bottles of water--is heavier than I'd like. But the group's esprit is palpable and infectious, and there's a spring in my step as we head up the incline through a canopy of pine and spruce ringing with chatter.
I'm hiking with my wife, Nancy, and by 7:04 we've covered two and a half miles and reached the second checkpoint, a bend in the road overlooked by a radio tower. At nearly 11,000 feet, the trees are thinner here, and while a ridge obscures the top of the mountain proper, we can see before us the shorter south summit--called Tigger Peak, presumably because of the Princeton connection. Rick Curtis, who has driven the van to this point and spoken via cell phone to a guide higher up the trail, motions to a puff of white cumulus peeking above Tigger. "Conditions still look good," he says, "but as you can see, a few clouds are already forming."
Except for a niggling pain in my side I feel okay, and take heart in an announcement by Brian Rosborough '62: "Ladies and gentlemen, we've been on the trail for an hour and 25 minutes. We were told last night that we'd be this far in two hours huffing and puffing."
Another three-quarters of a mile takes us to the third checkpoint and treeline, at 11,500 feet. We leave the jeep road to ascend a foot trail that leads to a knoll of alpine grass and wildflowers. The vantage offers a sweeping view of the Arkansas Valley and ahead--aglow in the morning sun--the naked, boulder-strewn summit of Mount Princeton.
By 8:40 Nancy and I are above 12,000 feet. The trail, which angles across the mountain's flank and dead-ends at an abandoned mine shaft, is easy for a while, but too soon it begins climbing over talus slope, an avalanche of rocks that must be negotiated a step at a time. The thin air and rugged terrain slow our pace, and we stop frequently to catch our breath. Hikers who pass us are mostly silent--our collective élan has surrendered to grim determination--and I am surprised to hear ahead of me a chipper, elderly voice. It belongs to Frank Watson, one of two members of the Class of 1939 on the climb. He is hiking with his wife, Jean, on whom he appears to have at least a decade in age, if not spirit.
When we catch up to them, I ask Watson, who is wearing a straw hat, long pants, and street shoes, what prompted him to be here.
"We've lived in Denver for 27 years, and I've always wanted to climb Mount Princeton but was too lazy. This was my chance."
"So you waited until you were 82," his wife chimes in.
"I'm 81, Baby!"
THE GATHERING STORM
A t 9:20 we're midpoint on the trail, which proceeds interminably over the talus. In their variously colored shirts and shorts, the hundred or so hikers ahead of us stand out against the mountain. Most are strung out in single file, making their way across its tawny midriff. Already, some have left the trail at the designated point and are crawling up the scree field like ants up a sand pile. Outlined against billowy clouds now streaked with gray, a few have scaled the ridge and are inching toward the summit.
It takes me another hour and 10 minutes to reach the scree field, at 13,000 feet.
By now, Nancy has decided to stay put while I push on. It's only 10:30, and allowing for the slower pace at this altitude, I estimate it will take a another hour to reach the top. The clouds have grown in volume and taken on a darker hue. But Bedford has said that people won't be ordered off the summit before noon, so I've got some margin. Piece of cake.
I am unprepared, then, for the announcement by the guide at the base of the scree field, who as I approach is talking on a cell phone to his counterpart on the summit. He puts down the phone and informs all in earshot, "Our man on top says the clouds are building fast, and in a few minutes he's going to start sending people down. I seriously doubt that any of you will summit, but you can at least get to the ridge--the view's just as good there."
I can't believe what he's said. Surely we can still make it to the top! With a curse I launch up the slope. The scree is a diabolical mix of loose rock and dirt. On all fours I struggle for purchase, but it's one step back for every two forward. A refrain from a Paul Simon song--"The nearer your destination the more you keep slip-slidin' away"--lodges in my skull and plays in a feedback loop for the next 10 minutes. The exertion floors me. Scrambling six vertical feet at this altitude feels like sprinting 100 yards at sea level, and my aching lungs grab for oxygen.
By 10:40 I'm on the ridge. Beyond it, wave upon wave of peaks roll toward the horizon. The panorama is literally breath-taking, but I admire it for only a moment before heading up the ragged spine of the mountain, which now lies mostly in shadow. The summit is dead ahead and probably a half-mile away, but in the pellucid air it looks close enough to touch. Struggling over boulders, I fight the sinking realization that I won't make it. Already hikers are on their way down, telling die-hards still on the ascent to turn back. Finally I encounter an authority figure in the person of Dan White '65, the director of the Alumni Council, and bow to the inevitable.
My watch reads 11 o'clock. I'm well above Tigger Peak and estimate that I've reached 13,700 feet--500 shy of the summit. A kingdom for another half hour! As Vince Lombardi once said of football, "I never lost a game, I just ran out of time." I take cold comfort from the ubiquitous Brian Rosborough, who in his capacity as a university trustee extends his arms and pronounces, "By the authority vested in me I declare that all of you here on the ridge have made the summit."
White tells me not to feel bad, that he and others in his immediate group, including my classmates Terry Seymour and Lanny Jones, got to within 50 vertical feet of the summit. "It was so close I could have hit it with a baseball," laments Seymour. Says Jones, "We were probably just 10 minutes from the top. When I was told to turn around, I sat down for about five minutes. I was really depressed. Then I remembered arriving here on Tuesday afternoon and watching five lightning bolts hit the summit in three minutes. You can't really argue with the decision."
In fact, the storm passed over the mountain without incident, so in hindsight it would have been safe to let more people summit than the 68 who actually did. They included five roguish members of the Class of 1973 who collectively mooned Mount Yale, eight miles to the north. The rest of the summiteers behaved with more decorum. Most simply took in the views, noted the orange and black lichen covering the rocks, snapped a few photos, and headed down to the barbecue that awaited us at Mount Princeton Hot Springs.
Dave Irving '58, a retired salesman from Media, Pennsylvania, who shed 25 pounds training for the climb, was closing in on the top when he encountered others coming off it. Ignoring the word to start down, he continued on and made it at 10:50. He stayed long enough to pose for a photo in a Prince-ton cap and shirt, holding a Princeton pennant and a hand-lettered "1958" sign. He hiked with former roommates Hank Doll '58, Chuck Krick '59, and Jim Procter '59 but was the only one to summit. As he recalled, "On the ridge I was scuttling like a beetle, swearing 'This mountain's not going to beat me!' "
At age 72, Charles Wagandt '47 was the oldest climber to reach the top, despite a respiratory infection. Sharing in the achievement were his sons, Charles, age 16, and James, 13. Making the climb, he said, seemed "particularly appropriate in my class's 50th-reunion year." (The Wagandts and Irving were among 20 or so climbers who were allowed to drive up the jeep road, thus cutting considerably the length of their trek.)
For those who fell short of scaling the Best Old Peak of All, the effort was its own reward. Phil Carlin '62, an executive in a Columbus, Ohio, consulting firm, was one of many who made the outing a family affair. Carlin hiked most of the way with his son, Will, 23, and daughter, Kate Giller '91. The latter was three months pregnant with her first child. "My doctor said it was okay for me to go but that I shouldn't let my heart rate get over 140," she said. "I took my pulse regularly and rested every 30 minutes. I got to the ridge at 10:30 and asked somebody to take my picture. Someday I'll be able to show it to my child as proof that he or she got there, too."
Bob Heymann '83, a Singapore-based manager in a telecommunications-equipment company, got nearly to the top while lugging his four-year-old son, Andrew, in a kid-pack. Andrew weighs 50 pounds, he said, "so I guess I was carrying about 75 pounds with gear and water. Andrew hiked a few stretches, which made it a lot easier. He's a natural climber--I think most kids are--and did real well on the boulders."
Another 1983 graduate, Cynthia Penney, a writer from New York City, hiked with classmates Bill Plonk, Peter Ellis, and Kersten Larsen. Joining them were Plonk's wife, Beth, and Ellis's brother, Bruce, a Dartmouth alumnus. "None of us had known each other as undergraduates, but we bonded big-time over the course of the climb," she said. "The group ranged from fit to superfit, but the point was to make sure that everyone traveled at a comfortable pace. That meant sitting with one member afflicted with altitude sickness while he made the very tough decision not to go on. It meant slowing down as vertigo or fatigue affected others. We didn't make the summit, but we made some marvelous new friends."
Plonk had the last word on the mountain. The next morning he borrowed Penney's rented four-by-four and with two OA leaders drove up the jeep road to trail head. They started climbing at 6 a.m. and reached the summit by 8. Piece of cake.
Although everyone made it back in one piece, the climb was not without incident. During the descent, Peter Dewey '49 took a bad tumble on the talus slope and fell 50 feet. When OA leader Jeremy Archer '98 and hiker Warren Elmer '69 scrambled to the rescue, they found him conscious but in no condition to move on his own. Eventually a Forest Ranger arrived with a backboard. Matthew Cottle, a fund-raiser in the School of Engineering and Applied Science, was one of 17 people who assisted Dewey off the mountain. With the injured climber strapped to the backboard, he recalled, "we negotiated three- and four-foot drops on the talus. One team would get in position ahead and another would pass the backboard to them. At other times, we had to lift the backboard over boulders or divert around them, while the ranger went ahead to find the path."
The hospital in Salida, Colorado, treated and released Dewey later that day--he suffered cuts and bruises, but no broken bones--and by that evening he was enjoying dinner at Mount Princeton Hot Springs, thankful for the help and joking about his fall.
After dinner Saturday night at Ponderosa Lodge, Rick Curtis asked the Outdoor Action staffers--Archer, Roman, Melissa Lockman '97, Andrew Burke '98, Jessica Kipp '99, and Katy Siquig '99--to come forward. Following a round of applause for their efforts, Al West '52, a retired chemistry professor from Cambridge, Massachusetts, shared a thought with the six young people before him.
"I hope this is a tradition and that you'll be a link between us and generations of Princetonians to come," he said. "You're all wonderfully fit. Stay that way, so that 50 years from now, when Princeton celebrates its 300th anniversary and does this climb again, you can come back here and represent us."
J. I. Merritt '66 is PAW's editor.
William Libbey and the 1877 Expedition
The multifaceted William Libbey, Jr. (1855-1927) of the Class of 1877 made his mark as a scientist, a citizen and--not least--a Princetonian.
In 1873, as a sophomore, he convinced his weal-thy father, a New York City merchant and a trustee of the College of New Jersey, to purchase 1,000 yards of orange-and-black ribbon for Princeton rooters to wear at an intercollegiate rowing regatta at Saratoga, New York; orange and black soon became the colors of choice for the college's athletic teams, and in 1896 they were adopted as the official colors of the newly named Princeton University. Libbey also compiled (with classmate Moses Taylor Pyne) Princeton's first alumni directory, published in 1888, and as a young faculty member he was instrumental in establishing the first water, sewer, and telephone systems to serve the college. A crack marksman, he was twice a member of the U.S. Olympic Rifle Team, and as a citizen-soldier he rose to the rank of colonel in the New Jersey National Guard.
On July 17, 1877, when Libbey made the first recorded ascent of Mount Princeton, he had graduated less than a month before. He was one of two topographers on a Princeton expedition to Colorado and Wyoming whose purpose was to dig fossils and measure mountains while giving future geologists field experience in what was still the Wild West. As recorded in a report of the expedition, Libbey on his climb "found no particular difficulty until within 1,500 feet of the top, when his only way lay over a bed of débris . . .; the size of the boulders being such that nothing but the hardest sort of crawling would answer." For most of the ascent Libbey must have followed the trail that led to a silver mine below the mountain's south peak. Blazed five years before, it was later widened into the road taken by participants in the Mount Princeton climb of July 18, 1997.
Libbey was the first on record to scale Mount Princeton, but it's probable that miners had accomplished the feat before him. At least one secondary source states that Libbey named the mountain, but he never claimed credit for this, and it is doubtful he did so. In A Climbing Guide to Colorado's Fourteeners (Pruett, 1994; the title refers to the state's peaks over 14,000 feet), authors Walter R. Borneman and Lyndon J. Lampert note that the name Mount Princeton was in use as early as 1873 and may have been bestowed about that time by Henry Gannett, a Harvard graduate and chief topographer in a government survey led by George M. Wheeler.
As a student at the Harvard Mining School, Gannett had made his first trip to Colorado in 1869, accompanying an expedition led by Josiah D. Whitney, a Harvard professor and a Yale alumnus who named two adjoining peaks after the expedition's sponsoring institution and his alma mater. At 14,420 feet, Mount Harvard is the tallest of the Collegiate Peaks, followed by Mount Princeton (14,197 feet) and Mount Yale (14,496) feet.
The expedition on which Libbey cut his teeth as a topographer was led by Cyrus Brackett, a professor of physics, and bankrolled by Libbey's father. It left the campus by train for Denver on June 21, 1877, following prayers at the home of President McCosh and a rousing sendoff at the Dinky station. All but two of the 18 young men heading west were members of the graduating class; three of them--Libbey, William Berry-man Scott, and Henry Fairfield Os-born--would go on to notable careers on the faculty. Indians were still a threat (Sitting Bull had wiped out George A. Custer and his command just a year before), so the party was issued uniforms and expected to maintain military discipline once in the field. Commanding the troops was Joseph Kargé, a professor of French and German who had served as a general in the Polish army. The students chafed under Kargé's martinent style--"He has a faculty of making himself exceedingly disagreeable," one of them groused in his diary--and their uniforms drew guffaws from the rowdy denizens of Colorado's mining towns. For their part, the Princetonians--mostly devout Presbyterians--were shocked by the debauchery that started on Saturday night and went all through the Sunday, "a day for general dissipation," observed one, ". . . spent by the miners in the wildest sorts of vice."
Following his summer in the West, Libbey studied in Berlin and Paris, then returned to Princeton, which in 1879 conferred on him its first Ph.D. and appointed him to the faculty. In later years his adventures took him on expeditions to Russia, Hawaii, Greenland, and Lebanon. A trip he made to Alaska in 1888 is commemorated in a glacier on Mount Saint Elias named in his honor, and the Libbey Deep, off New England, pays tribute to his pioneering work in oceanography.