Omu’s Journal: First Mountain climbed, 1974
Uintah Trails Working Group
I am not now, and never have been, a “peak-bagger.” Anyone who says different is a liar.
A peak bagger approaches mountains in an egotistical “conquering Mother Nature” frame of mind. I just like to get to a good view, and I DO enjoy the feeling of accomplishment. I never have gone out of my way to be terrified by awful heights and difficult climbs.
Colorado makes a big deal of its 14,000-foot mountains, or “Fourteeners.” There are around 55 of them. The first Colorado 14’er I “climbed” was Mount Bierstadt, west of Denver behind the much-better known Mount Evans.
Evans, like Pikes Peak, has a vehicle road to the top. Lesser-known Bierstadt is untouched by any roads, and named for Albert Bierstadt, a 19th-century Romantic painter of western landscapes. Bierstadt’s namesake is a rather ordinary Colorado mountain, by which I mean it was beautiful.
At the age of 19, summer of 1974, sister Becky and I set off to “climb” Bierstadt (it is a walk-up. Anyone willing to keep putting one foot in front of the other can do it).
We had never ascended a mountain before. The rounded, not-very-impressive peak was 14,065 feet in elevation. There was no formal trail.
Becky and I thrashed our way across a confusing morass of beaver ponds. These infamous “Bierstadt willows” have been the bane of generations of hikers.
On the other side, we started ascending rolling tundra. It was a beautiful, sunny day; however, my sister brought totally inadequate footwear (sandals!). I then loaned her a pair of my (outsized) sneakers; she stuffed rolled-up socks into the toe area.
We stopped about a fourth of the way up and sat down to enjoy the view. Far below was our tiny, distant car. And wait…aren’t those the headlights on?
Becky was aggravated that I’d left them on, but I think she was relieved that it gave her an excuse to return in her inadequate footwear.
I ascended higher, as alone as I could remember ever being. The thin air and bright light gave me a goofy, detached feeling. I finally surmounted the last, lightning-blasted, lichen-covered pile of granite, and like the bear that went over the mountain, “saw what I could see.”
There were two pea-green glacial lakes on the other side, large Abyss Lake, and smaller and nearer Frozen Lake.
Frozen Lake has the distinction of being the highest lake in the lower 48, at 13,000 feet. It was surrounded by house-sized granite boulders that had crashed down the over-steepened cliffs. It was literally dizzying.
I ate a sandwich, then strolled down by a different route. I followed a meadow along a nameless alpine stream, which bounced down a series of midget waterfalls.
It was like being inside a John Denver song. Becky was impatiently waiting for me when I reached the car. It had only been about six hours by myself, with no one encountered, but what a wonderful adventure.
Now, I hear that there is a boardwalk across the Bierstadt beaver ponds, and a group named the Colorado Fourteeners Initiative is working to protect the highest summits. That means building well-designed trails that will prevent erosion and trampling but will also remove the pleasure of choosing your own route up. Five-hundred thousand people a year climb the fourteeners, and it’s rare to have a 14’er mountaintop to yourself.
It makes me appreciate the lonely summit of 12,000-foot Leidy Peak all the more.