Labor Day Weekends at the State Park: Much Better Than the Day We Almost Became a Tragic Headline in the Denver Post
For many years on Labor Day Weekend, Jason and I took the kids for us to “day camp” at Mueller State Park. We took hotdogs (vegetarian after we switched over) and s’mores, and camp chairs and cooler, and hats and jackets, and hit the trail. It’s about a forty-five minutes drive to get to the state park, and cost only about six bucks to get in. After we had a fire-cooked lunch, we signed in at the base of the trail and headed out for a hike that even I could do, and it took us to the most breathtaking view of the Rocky Mountains without having to put our lives in peril. Which I can’t say was the case when I was a kid and we went climbing.
My dad has climbed all 54 peaks in Colorado over 14,000 feet. As his kids we went on a few of those treks with him. He might have been going for the fourth or fifth time on some of the “easy” ones for other people’s sake, because what’s another 14,000 or so feet when you have friends to take and you need an “easy” nice day hike? “Easy” for me on a 14er is Pikes Peak. You get in your car and you drive up. Or take the cog railroad. That’s a very nice, beautiful alternative.
But one summer, we did a day hike that was neither easy nor nice. My dad’s best buddy from school days, Chuck, and his son Zach came along, and my brother Keith and his friend Kip. Zach was about six or seven, and I was early high school. Keith and Gip were in about eighth grade. We were headed out to Grays and Torreys, two 14ers connected by a saddle, so you could summit both in one day.
The first summit was magnificent, and at the top we could see forever across the tops of the Rockies. Breathtaking and awe-inspiring. When you get to the top of a 14er, it’s like having a baby. Getting there was excruciating and you swear horrible curses against whoever was behind getting you there, but once you have the baby in your arms—or in the case of 14er, stand on the summit—you forget all the pain and revel in the achievement. But we couldn’t stay long. We had another peak to notch on our belts.
We descended to the saddle, and by then, I was used up. I needed to leave enough energy to get down, and I had just that. I needed a break. So the rest of my party went on to the next pinnacle while I sat on a rock and looked out over the valley beyond and enjoyed the peace and spectacular beauty. I waved to a few people as they descended, heading down as my people were heading up.
But then suddenly, with absolutely no warning, a storm rolled in.
All at once, I could barely see my hand in front of my face. A thick gray cloud had dropped out of nowhere and enshrouded the mountains. Then the lightning came. All around me, light was flashing and booming, like I was standing in the middle of a thunderhead. Which essentially, I was. My hair lifted away from my scalp as the electricity grew, then BOOM, the lightning discharged and my hair fell back down. Anxiously, I watched for my people to come back. Hunkered low and worried, I fretted, wondering how they would find their way down. Finally, finally I heard their voices and they stepped close enough for us to see each other, grab a few hands to confirm everyone was really there, and huddle for a very fast meeting.
My dad explained that Chuck was having Diabetic issues. His blood sugar had dropped and he was dizzy and confused. I watched my dad as he stood over Chuck crouched on the ground, telling him that he could do it, he could get off that mounting. That his son was counting on him, that we had to go. “Get up,” he said sternly. “We have to do this.” My dad delegated Zach to me to get him off the mountain because his dad couldn’t help him, and he assigned my brother and his friend the task of finding a way down, because we couldn’t use the normal trail that went higher into the storm. The new trail was shorter—and we had to get off of there fast—but it was more direct, straight across the side of the peak with a very narrow footpath and part of a glacier. We took off, Keith leading, me holding Zach’s little hand telling him we’d be okay, and yes it’s okay to pray, and yes we can pray out loud as we go, and my dad bringing up the rear telling Chuck yes he could do it, he could do it, he could do it.
Several times I slipped while I was spider crawling sideways across a particularly narrow and icy portion. I lay on my stomach, gripping rocks with my hands, while I scrambled with my feet for a foothold. As best as I could, I just kept my eyes glued to the back of my brother, following his lead, trusting a fourteen year old boy could get us off that mountain. Once in a while, I glanced back to make sure my dad was still behind me. It wasn’t easy to see with such heavy dark clouds, but the farther we got, the thinner the thick soup became. And all the while I made sure Zach just kept putting one little foot in front of the other, and I assured him that yes, we’d be okay.
Then after an eternity of scrabbling and struggling, driving ahead on roaring adrenaline, and praying for deliverance like we’d never prayed before, we came out of the darkness. We stepped down into a sunny day on a green mountain with a valley below us full of wild flowers. We all looked at each other, unable to speak, incapable of expressing what we’d just survived, but realizing, each of us, that we’d just escaped death.
Looking across the valley, we saw a rainbow stretched across the sky. I took it as a smile from God, that he saw us six and he got us down off that mountain. From then on, for the rest of the 14ers, my dad knew just how fast the weather can change and he made sure he got off the rest of the 54 alive and well. And for me? I opt for the travel via car or train, and if there isn’t that choice, I look at my dad’s slides. And I especially enjoy any shots of shiny, vivid rainbows.
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