Thoreau once wrote, "Wilderness is a civilization other than our own." I would add that fourteeners -- mountains taller than 14,000 feet -- must be the fathers of that civilization. Fourteeners command respect, humility and inspiration. Colorado happens to vaunt 55 of the mighty peaks. It is understandable why they're every hard-core hiker's muse.
I, too, am intoxicated. Hand-me-down stories from those grizzled, sunburned, watermelon-calved trekkers who devour microbrews every afternoon on Tejon Street patios have often perked my ears. The tale that interests me most: Hit four in one day and be home for dinner. When my high school sweetheart from the past phones and is in Colorado for a weekend, I know exactly how to welcome her. Nothing says love like a day of fourteeners to unacclimated lungs.
Christine, after two hours of sleep, looks much better than I do. We are dawn raiding, as it is best to be off peaks around noon when storms tend to blow in.
We reach Alma, foothold to Kite Lake, and I stubbornly amble my Nissan Sentra six miles up the dirt road, of which the last mile is listed as "difficult for passenger cars." I wince and suck air through my teeth as I clonk over sizeable rocks and washboard. Christine looks over at me for reassurance as if to ask, "Will we make it?" I smile like a politician as if to answer, "I sure as hell hope so."
Gerry Roach, in his guidebook Colorado's Fourteeners, refers to this four-in-one combo as the "peak bagger's delight ... gentle, forgiving, and high." Our total sacrifice of energy to the mountain should consist of seven miles with a 3,600-foot overall elevation gain. The fact that we are parked at 12,000 feet means an ascent of only 2,000 feet to the ridges, which is equivalent to the Pikes Peak Incline. Nothing too intimidating.
As we begin our climb, I nurture a slight superiority complex consisting of extra red blood cells that Christine lacks from living at sea level. She is in tremendous shape and soon crushes my illusions, zipping ahead and setting a brisk pace. We follow a prescribed path up Democrat's south slope to the first peak before walking the saddle east to Cameron's summit. This takes roughly a couple of hours marked by heavy respiration, occasional handfuls of high-carb snacks, and generous sips off the camelback.
My visitor seems to be enjoying herself, marveling over the spectacular views and smiling under active red cheeks. It is "cliffy" in between Democrat and Cameron, fine for the stouthearted, but torture to the vertigo inclined. I start to budget water and also take notice of darkening skies to the northeast. By the time we start Cameron's north descent an ominous thunderhead has crept up behind Lincoln Peak.
We consult and clearheadedly decide to backtrack south and walk the crest up Bross' summit, hoping to outrun the storm if it hits. I am a bit disappointed to miss the fourth peak, but happy to have a reason to return and make it up. A couple of hours more pass before we attain Bross' height and subsequently the steep west slope descent back to Kite Lake. Our trail vanishes into scattered rocks and drop offs. The way down looks treacherous: horrible footing, loose scree and an angle that would make a protractor throw in the white towel.
Dj vu. Christine's eyes ask, "Will we make it?" Politician returns to microphone: "Sure baby, piece of cake." I feel awake in a hypersensitive way, all synapses firing, realizing I am at the heart of Thoreau's other civilization.
We set off and the storm decides to chase hikers one mountain range over as we are treated to clear skies for the last push. We scoot on our behinds down a few hundred yards of scree, the sun-heated stones sharp and hot in our palms. In half an hour we're over the dangerous slides and into green grass again, hopping over a tiny alpine stream that splits into numerous meandering runs. I splash cold water on my face, feeling relief for being off the mountain and increasing delirium from lack of sleep.
Back at the car we kick into flip-flops then jump into freezing puddles to cool our boot-rubbed feet. In full, we've made a rough counterclockwise circle, missing only Lincoln peak and finishing in about five hours.
After the long drive home, I find a seat on the Tejon strip. Now it is my turn to tell a story.
Democrat, Cameron, Lincoln, and Bross peaks
Take Highway 24 west to Colorado 9 north. Continue six miles from the 285 junction in Fairplay. Turn west onto Kite Lake Road in the center of Alma.
Park at Kite Lake or one mile below in switchbacks on the road if too treacherous for your vehicle. Estimated driving time, 90.7 miles one way: 2 hours 16 minutes.
Climb early in the day. Be prepared with ample food and water. Wear sunscreen. Consider purchase of topography map or guidebook.