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It's more than the climb
Mt. Princeton on a beautiful day in June
By Erika Schielke '01
1. Robin Clarke '01 (foreground) and Lisa Tan '01 approach the summit.
(photo by Erika Schielke '01)
2. The group takes a rest break on the way up. (photo by Erika Schielke
3. At the summit: (Left to right) Mike Errecart '01, Lisa Tan '01,
Alana Benjamin '02, Robin Clarke '01, Jon Benner '03, Anders Chen
'01, Erika Schielke '01. (photo by Robert Benjamin)
4. The group begins the descent (photo by Erika Schielke '01)
The Outdoor Action Club's
semi-annual climb of Mt. Princeton, a 14,197-foot peak in southern
Colorado, was cancelled this year for lack of interest. But on July
21, just a week after OA's climb was to take place, I stood on the
summit with four other members of the Class of '01, two members
of the Class of '03, and one parent, carrying on the tradition in
the absence of the official trip.
first OA-sponsored climb of Mt. Princeton took place in 1997, as
part of Princeton's 250th anniversary celebration. More than 200
participants attempted the hike, and 68 summitted. The 1999 climb
had 110 participants, but in 2001, too few people signed up for
the trip to take place.
Unlike several other
members of our party, I hadn't signed up for the OA trip. However,
when summer plans placed all eight of us near Mt. Princeton early
in the summer, the climb was irresistible. Alana Benjamin '02, Anders
Chen '01, Robin Clarke '01, and Mike Errecart '01 had all planned
on participating in OA's climb. When it was cancelled, Benjamin
and her father, Robert, residents of Los Alamos, New Mexico, decided
to make their own attempt on July 21st. Jon Benner '03 and I were
both working at the national lab in Los Alamos, and were eager to
join them, as was Lisa Tan '01, another Los Alamos resident. Chen,
who was spending the summer in Cheyenne, Wyoming, and Clarke and
Errecart, who were in Boulder, Colorado, decided that they would
meet us on the night of the 20th, and go up Mt. Princeton on the
21st, as well.
Because of the large
number of participants, the OA trip involves extensive planning,
which begins long before everyone arrives in Colorado. Logistics
for our group of eight were much simpler. Mr. Benjamin had planned
meticulously, using A Climbing Guide to Colorado's Fourteeners to
study the route, and reading J.I. Merritt's '66 detailed account
of the 1997 climb. Errecart, Clarke, and Chen had planned independently
for the climb, so all we had to do was coordinate our two groups.
Meeting up with the
Colorado and Wyoming contingent proved to be the most difficult
part of our plan. It didn't seem that it could be very challenging
to find the Mt. Princeton campground, which was clearly marked on
the map ñ but in the dark, on unlabeled two-lane roads in
rural Colorado, it took some guesswork. And then it was closed.
After a fruitless search for our friends at the next campground,
Benner, Tan, and I decided that we would just have to sleep at the
trailhead. I was beginning to envy the Benjamins, who had opted
to spend the night at a motel in Salida, about an hour from Mt.
also had trouble finding the trailhead, but finally, around 11:30
p.m., we pulled up alongside several other cars. Actually, we had
parked next to Errecart's car. He, Chen, and Clarke had also decided
to spend the night at the trailhead, and after a brief reunion,
we pitched our tent nearby and crawled inside for a few hours' sleep.
The stars that still
dotted the sky when we arose at 4:30 a.m. quickly faded as the eastern
horizon lightened to gray. At 5:05 the Benjamins arrived, and by
5:15 we were starting up the trail. From an initial elevation of
8,900 feet, a jeep road winds gently up the lower slopes of Mt.
Princeton, and, although lined with an aspen-sprinkled pine forest,
affords frequent views out over the Arkansas River Valley to another
range of mountains in the east. After we had been hiking for about
10 minutes, we stopped to admire the eastern horizon, where thin
wisps of cloud were stained pink by the rising sun.
The trail follows the
jeep road for three miles, climbing slowly but steadily. Our party
strung out in groups of two or three, chatting or walking in silence
and breathing in the cool morning air and the fresh smell of the
surrounding forest. Occasionally, jeeps or trucks carrying hikers
rumbled up the road. With a four-wheel drive vehicle, it's possible
to drive up most of the jeep road, cutting nearly six miles off
the roundtrip distance. Most of the passengers waved and gave us
slightly sympathetic looks.
Mr. Benjamin had an
altimeter with him. He had enlisted Benner and his daughter to calibrate
it during the drive to Colorado, so we could measure our vertical
climb. By the time we broke out the gorp at our first break, the
sun had climbed high enough to bathe the Arkansas River Valley in
golden early morning light, and when we turned around, the peak
rising above us glowed a pale pink. We looked up at the rocky shoulder,
trying to figure out whether it was the summit or some lower ridge
ñ or another peak altogether. We didn't reach a consensus
before we continued up the road.
Our first solid landmark
was a radio tower, a little over two miles from the trailhead. Most
of the vehicles had parked here, and beyond the radio tower were
several makeshift campsites, including one whose occupants were
just preparing breakfast.
another 1/2 of a mile, we finally left the jeep road and the trees
behind. Although the road continued along a shoulder of the mountain,
the trail branched to the right, climbing up and over a low ridge
before easing to a gentle grade through short grass and a few late
alpine flowers. Mt. Princeton's upper flanks and summit loomed before
us, and I could follow the thin line of the trail as it ran below
the ridge and then zigzagged up a talus slope to the top.
The arm of the mountain
blocked our view to the south, but to the north, the ground sloped
down into a valley along the mountain's flank. There were expansive
views over the Arkansas River Valley, where Mt. Princeton's slopes
met the plains. We moved along at a steady pace, pausing occasionally
for water. The path changed from dirt to talus, requiring more care
with footing, but it was still fairly level. There were approximately
20 people ahead of us, small colorful figures dwarfed by the hulk
of the mountain ñ apparently those who had driven past us
on the jeep road or camped near the radio tower, since we hadn't
been passed by any hikers. I was feeling surprisingly good, considering
the altitude ñ about 10,500 feet. I had expected to be much
shorter of breath, but I could hike along without gasping for air.
I should have taken into account the fact that the trail, at this
point, was still nearly level.
The path continues gradually
to an old mine, where it cuts sharply up the talus slope to the
ridge. A descending hiker told Errecart, who was in the lead, that
it was easier to cut up the slope before the mine, thus gaining
the ridge earlier.
I don't know about easier,
at least not in terms of climbing the shoulder. Since we were on
a talus slope, it was just a matter of choosing a point at which
to climb up to the ridge. Previous hikers had apparently done this,
as well, since we could see people at various points on the shoulder
above us. The slope was steep, and there were patches of dirt among
the boulders, allowing little purchase. By angling back and forth
across the slope, we worked our way toward the top of the ridge.
Suddenly, I was much shorter of breath, and I went slowly, trying
to pick my way around the slipperiest parts.
From the ridge top,
we looked into a narrow canyon between Mt. Princeton and Mt. Antero,
its neighbor to the south. We stopped and waited for all of our
party to reach the ridge, looking out at a jumble of ragged peaks
that had so far been shielded from view. The summit was now only
about half a mile away. We could follow the ridgeline right to the
Staying just below the
ridge, on the north, we set off on the final leg. Up to this point,
we had stayed more or less together, the leaders stopping every
so often while the rest of our group caught up. On the final approach
to the summit, we each moved at our own pace. I was having a harder
time than I had expected. I was convinced that each breath was not
giving me enough oxygen, and I felt as though I were moving at a
snail's pace. I kept looking up at the summit, and at the members
of our group ahead of me. The top didn't seem to get much closer,
but the rest of my party kept looking farther away. Every few steps,
I was tempted to stop to catch my breath. From the ridge, I had
thought that I would push nonstop to the summit. I ended up taking
a number of short breaks.
There is a small knob
just before the true summit, and as you go over that and up the
final slope leading to the summit, you are out of sight of most
people on the top. When I finally plodded up onto the summit, Errecart,
Benner, Chen, Clarke, and Tan were there to greet me. I was out
of breath, I could feel my face flushed with blood, and my legs
were complaining. It was higher than I had ever climbed before,
and it was wonderful.
To the south and west
of Mt. Princeton, a profusion of peaks reared up, a rock sea rolling
into the distance. There was a slight haze, but not enough to interfere
with the view ñ and under a warm sun, surrounded by friends
on the summit, it couldn't have mattered less. The Benjamins joined
us shortly, and we sat together, pulling out lunch food and extra
clothing to ward off the light breeze. The first members of our
group had reached the summit after around six hours of hiking, and
within six and a half hours, we were together on top. We spent about
half an hour there ñ more for those who were first on the
summit ñ eating, lazing in the sun, and looking out at the
surrounding peaks. Chen spent nearly 10 minutes carefully arranging
smooth rocks, and then stretched out on this improvised bed and
placed his hat over his face.
Mr. Benjamin had carried
a cell phone for emergencies, and Errecart asked to borrow it to
call Rick Curtis, the Outdoor Action director. Benjamin, Benner,
Chen, Clarke, Errecart, and I have all worked with Curtis as Outdoor
Action leaders. After several tries, Errecart reached Curtis's voicemail.
We left a group message, passing the phone around to let Curtis
know where we were and what a beautiful climb it had been.
Darker clouds had been
moving in as we rested on the summit, so we enlisted Mr. Benjamin
to take a picture of the rest of our group, and then headed down.
There were at least 25 people below us, bright spots against the
gray slope. Despite the gathering clouds, the majority were heading
up. We pushed down steadily, frequently checking the sky, stopping
only to allow the last hikers in our group to catch up. Pausing
next to Mr. Benjamin, I asked him how he was doing. He looked out
at the mountains surrounding us and shook his head. "I'm just
trying to take it all in," he responded.
Once we had descended
the slippery talus slope, the going was quicker. As we continued
down, Mr. Benjamin observed that his training hadn't quite prepared
him for the climb, and outlined his plans for an ideal training
tool. As he half-jokingly explained to Benner and Clarke, a stair
climber would simulate the hiking, but it would have steps that
unexpectedly rolled or sank, much like a tricky boulder in a talus
field. A pressurized chamber would mimic high altitude, the sound
of rolling rocks would warn of a rockslide, and a flashing warning
would indicate an impending storm. The "hiker" who failed
to increase his pace would be drenched with water.
Luckily, we were not
drenched. There were a few splatters of rain, but not enough to
wet the trail. Once we reached the road, the remaining hike down
was rather dusty, and seemed to drag on. Nevertheless, about three
and a half hours after leaving the summit, we were all back at the
parking lot, stripping off our boots and thankfully guzzling water
stored in Mr. Benjamin's car.
I don't think any of
us really wanted to leave. Benner, Chen, Clarke, Errecart, and I
planned on soaking in nearby hot springs and camping in the area,
but Tan was heading back to Los Alamos with the Benjamins. We lingered
in the parking lot, music drifting from the open doors of Errecart's
It hadn't been the most
pristine area I had ever hiked, or even the most difficult or the
most beautiful. But the climb had been about more than distance
and scenery, success or failure. It had been about sunshine and
laughter, about the blending of class years and even generations
in pursuit of a single goal. It had been, ultimately, about the
people ñ the old friends and the new, united in our common
desire to climb a mountain.
You can reach Erika firstname.lastname@example.org