The lure of the mountains has been alive since the time of Moses, who went up Mount Sinai empty-handed and came down hefting the famed stone tablets.
Men and women have climbed mountains ever since. Some seek spiritual communion. Others strive to conquer something bigger than themselves. George Mallory, who met his fate atop the world’s tallest mountain, famously quipped when asked why he climbed Everest, “Because it’s there.”
Mountain climbing is bred of part folly and part nerve. This is right about where my family fits into the picture.
My dad, who grew up in the foothills of Idaho’s mountains, announced that over the next few years he planned to climb the tallest mountains in the Western United States. He would start with Mount Elbert, which is the second-tallest mountain in the contiguous United States and Colorado’s tallest 14er. Five of his six children clambered to join him.
We were already a motley crew. My dad, 59, was the most in-shape of the bunch. I was recovering from a marathon and was barely ambulatory. One brother used a stair stepper twice in preparation for the trip. Another dug some old work shoes from the back of his closet and hoped they would double as decent hiking boots.
Still, we are a family of optimists, so it was with great hope, a dash of naivete and some really great snacks that we began our ascent just as the sun was coming up over the horizon.
The first third of the trek was a mere walk in the woods. The greatest threat below the tree line was the sparrow-sized mosquitoes that swarmed us every time we paused for a drink.
We met one hiker, already on his way down, who told us, “It gets interesting above the tree line.”
We looked at each other with a sense of foreboding.
At 12,140 feet, the trees dropped away suddenly as if sheared by a giant hedge trimmer. The forest was replaced with small, clinging wildflowers and a steep slope covered in loose shale. "Steep slope,” however, doesn’t really describe the trail. It went up, and up and up — straight up, with nary a switchback on which to catch our breath.
We had been warned of the three false summits. By the time we crested the first, gasping in the thin air, we had been passed by every other climber on the mountain, including the 9-year-old kid and the woman having an asthma attack.
By the time we reached the second false summit, the blue sky around us was patched with shreds of white cloud. By the time we reached the third false summit, a football field away from the top, my brothers were hoisting my youngest sister, who had made it that far on sheer grit. Twenty steps from the top, she asked, quite innocently, “Is there a lodge at the top?”
There was no lodge at the top, only a bank of steel-gray clouds gathering above our heads. Experts in the area told us to be off the top by noon, and it was exactly noon, but the clouds had moved in faster than any of the hikers on top expected.
We marveled at the view and took a few victory pictures before the first rumble of thunder knocked everyone back to reality.
With climbing polls in hand, the summit emptied as dozens of hikers headed down the mountain. Small hailstones pelted us from above.
As we picked our way down the steep trail, I heard a buzzing in my ear, followed by a sharp prick on the crown of my hat.
“What’s that sound?” my dad shouted from in front of me.
The buzz came again, followed by another sharp prick. I yanked my hat from my head.
“Electricity,” I said. “We’re electrically charged from the storm.”
Whether the charge came from the sky or the rocks below, we lit off down the hill like dancing sparks, jumpy with fear.
If you’ve ever run down a bald-faced mountain with thunder and lighting crackling all around you, or felt your poles spark in your hands, or heard your brother say, “I’ve never been so scared in my life,” or prayed aloud to not die because you really, really want to see your husband and kids again, then you know how long those minutes felt. They were minutes I hope to never repeat.
Once the storm and the fear of death had passed over our heads, we took a moment to breathe, hug and replay our harrowing experience.
Then the thunder clapped behind us and we once again picked our way down the mountain toward the shelter of the tree line where we were greeted with more hail and our good buddies the mosquitoes.
We arrived at our car 10 hours after we began, wobbly legged and covered in mountain dust.
I won’t attempt to make this thing bigger than it was. It wasn’t Mount Everest. It didn’t require ropes and pickaxes or more than a single day of hiking.
But we stood there, the six of us, all family, marveling at what we had done. We had conquered our first 14er. We were extremely fortunate to not get injured.
Why did we climb it? Because it was there. Because we could. Because it feels good to scrape the heavens and even have a brush with death before coming to earth.
Because you go up a mountain empty-handed but come down hefting a great commandment.
You can’t live on a mountaintop unless you want to become a human lightning rod. There is no lodge at the top. But human beings, we were meant to look up. We were meant to climb up, if just for a brief moment.
We come down stronger than we went up. We carry a piece of the sky, and hopefully, a little bit of blessed light.