“Chasing angels or fleeing demons, go to the mountains” – J. Rasley
I grew up on a cattle ranch in the Uncompahgre Valley. Our gently sloping, south-facing pastures gave a spectacular vantage point to – even after decades of global travel and adventure – what I feel is one of the most picturesque mountain ranges on earth, the San Juans. The center point of the range, set like a crown jewel in its cirque-like diadem, is Mt. Sneffels, standing proudly at 14,150′.
As a young boy, I often gazed in wonder at the towering, snow-capped peak which dominated the skyline off to the south. My father taught me to point our tractor at it when marking out our fields in the springtime so that the furrows would run straight and true. Even then, and despite coming from a family of cowboys who had been among the first settlers to wrest a hardscrabble existence from the adobe soil of the western slope (people who had little to no time for such things as hiking and mountain climbing), I was inexorably drawn to the peak. Instead of standing down in the valley looking up Sneffel’s majestic pinnacle, I wanted to know what it felt like to stand on the top of the peak, looking down on the valley below, surveying my domain much like I imagined an eagle would do.
When told of my ambitions, my Marlboro Man – like father fixed me with a stern gaze and calmly informed me that life, and reality, was down here on the ranch – not up there on top of that peak – and that I needed to get my head out of the clouds, to stop dreaming and get focused back on the task at hand – ranching. So, I quietly put my dream, goal, and ambition to stand atop that peak aside, though I still gazed at it often with a mixture of wonderment and longing.
Life eventually took me to southern California, where I was attending college and playing football. Sadly, three years into college, I lost someone close to me, very near and dear, in a tragic accident. Unable to cope with the loss, I quit school and hit the road. For a time, I lived the life of an itinerant rodeo cowboy, traveling the U.S. from coast to coast.
After a year and a half of doing this and becoming lost in a deep dark well of alcoholism, I tried desperately to shrug off the demons that were chasing me due to the horrific loss of my loved one, but I was on a path to destruction. I knew I needed a way out, but I didn’t know where or how to find it.
After being gone from Colorado and missing my beloved Rocky Mountains for almost two years, I started the path home. This took me over the continental divide during mid-summer. Again, I was struck by the mountains’ beauty and realized how much I had missed them.
Deciding to spend time in them, I traded in my bronc saddle and rodeo gear for a backpack and pair of hiking boots. After also obtaining a map and compass and some basic provisions, I hit the Colorado trail, starting in Denver
By early August, I was nearing the town of Ouray, entering the San Juans. My thoughts increasingly turned to Mt. Sneffels. Somewhere on the trail, I had shrugged aside the words of my father, casting off the onus he had placed upon me about reality and where life indeed existed. I decided that a life spent with my head in the clouds just might be the life for me, and I wanted Mt. Sneffels to be my first 14er – and ergo, my first waypoint – on that journey.
After obtaining a detailed map and the appropriate beta, I set out quite early one morning, well before sunrise, searching for the much-coveted sunrise summit. After tediously picking my way up the talus field to the lavender col and scrambling up the attendant couloir, I made it to the top just as the sky was beginning to gray up in the east.
As the sun came up, at first painting the summit block where I sat with light, and then eventually the panoramic valley floor below, I picked out the family ranch’s location. I was overcome with the emotion that came with attaining my long-held and long pursued goal. Adding to this, I suddenly felt my lost loved one very close to me.
I had a moment up there on top of Sneffels; I was alone, or should I say that I was alone for a brief moment. Soon a climber whose headlamp I had seen coming up the couloir behind me made it to the summit. She was older than me, fit and athletic, with kind eyes and a radiant, flashing smile. In an instant, she saw where I was, saw the place I was in, and she sat down next to me and asked me to tell her about my problems. I made one of the best friends of my life, right there on the summit of Sneffels – a friend who would become more like a big sister to me.
Like me, my new big sis loved mountain climbing, and our adventures took us to the top of 14ers all over the state. Eventually, our 14er exploits would serve as a springboard for adventures on peaks far from home in the Alps, the Andes, the Caucasus, the Himalayas – and beyond.
Each year, we would always return to Sneffels though, a sort of pilgrimage to our hallowed training grounds, summiting it by various routes – the southwest ridge, the snake couloir, including a long, arduous winter ascent on her late winter birthday, making our ski descent by the eponymous birthday chutes.
Years later, when my son reached his teens and expressed an interest in mountain climbing, I took him up on Sneffels as his first 14er. Each year, I make the journey back, trekking to the top, reliving some cherished old memories – and creating some new ones.
Written by Matt Church