Biting the Rock

Mt. Yale

It seems I begin many of my journal entries with: “I spent my summers during college working in the US Forest Service in Leadville, Colorado.” Well, here’s another—about a fall I took during a mountain climb.

One summer, we moved our Leadville guard station about 30 miles south to the tiny hamlet of Buena Vista, where we were assigned to work in the upper reaches of Cottonwood Canyon. 

For a couple of years, I had been trying to climb as many of Colorado’s 14,000’ peaks as I could, and there were four around Buena Vista. They were Mt. Harvard, Mt. Columbia, Mt. Princeton, and Mt. Yale, all jumbled together in a massif called the Collegiate Peaks Wilderness Area. They were all difficult climbs, and I wanted to do them. I would go alone, as I always go.

The one I picked first was Mt. Yale. It didn’t seem to require any technical climbing, so I wouldn’t need a partner on the mountain. Solo hiking and climbing in the Rockies violates every rule of mountain safety and common sense, particularly on an unmarked route I had picked out on my own. But that’s the way I liked to do it, and had done it all my life.

As our crew worked our way up Cottonwood Canyon, I caught periodic glimpses of possible routes up Mt. Yale and began planning the climb. The route would begin from a Forest Service road at about 8,000’ and ascend over 6,000’ to the summit. According to my topo map, it was going to be very steep.

One weekend, then, when the rest of the crew had gone to Colorado Springs, I set out.

From the Forest Service road, the route proceeded sharply upward through a thick evergreen forest, until at tree line it opened onto a steeply ascending ramp of tundra. The tundra was a broad expanse of moss and grasses, dotted with snowfields, and in mid-July simply covered with wildflowers. I could not take a step without crushing them. It was a beautiful place, everything wide open, with spectacular prospects in all directions.  

Summit Ridge

Then I began the long and arduous ascent to the crest of the ramp. After an hour I reached the end of the tundra, and the terrain became a vast field of boulders and scree extending all the way to the summit. The climb from this point was difficult and rough, requiring careful footing and a good bit of hand-scrambling. Finally, about noon, I labored up the final pitch and reached the top. The climb had taken about five hours.

The view from the summit was as beautiful as any I’ve seen in the Colorado Rockies. No signs of civilization were visible, even from this height, only waves of jumbled, snow-flanked peaks in every direction. Mt. Harvard and Mt. Columbia stood to the north, with Mt. Princeton’s huge bulk filling  the southern skyline.

For a long time, I just stood, filling my eyes and my memory—I never carried a camera—and then wandered the broad perimeter of the summit. Yale is climbed fairly often, but I saw no one else that day.

As I sat and ate my lunch, shadows of clouds lay across the mountains like wrinkled blankets, and thunder storms drifted through the distant sky trailing their tendrils of rain like silver jelly fish. It was unimaginably beautiful. But in due course a big storm, firing lightning, began approaching Yale from the west. People are killed by lightning every summer in the Colorado high country, so it was time for me to go.

Back with the crew on Monday, I told my partner Howard Lyles about the trip, and he was excited about it. He said he’d like to make the climb himself if I was willing to go back again. I knew Howard’s strength and endurance, and his ability to handle himself in the rocks, so I agreed. 

As the work day wore on, Howard became even more excited about the trip and suggested that we knock off work early one day and climb Yale late in the afternoon. The sun stayed up long into the evening that time of year, and he wanted to go up and watch the sunset. He said we could descend in the dark using our FS helmets and headlamps. I thought about the route for a while and concluded that it could be done. So one mid-afternoon the next week, we set off at warp speed up the mountain.

We reached the summit just as night was falling, and the sunset was as beautiful as we had hoped it would be. Howard began taking pictures before the light was gone while I wandered idly around the north side of the summit. What I saw there concerned me.  A big storm in the bowl of the valley below was beginning to boil up over Yale’s summit ridge. It had not been visible to us from where we had come up on the other side of the peak. I yelled to Howard as lightning began sparking among the rocks, and we began scrambling back down.

As we descended, we heard the characteristic whining in the air, and sparks would begin to fire everywhere. Then a few seconds later, a roaring explosion of lightning would shatter the air, and the split atmosphere would smell of ozone. It was exciting, but extremely dangerous. During one prior climb on Mt. Elbert I had been bowled over by the concussion of a strike, and I didn’t want to catch the lightning itself. We had to descend quickly.

Further down, part way through the boulder field, Howard became so exhilarated by the storm that he wanted to stop and take pictures of the lightning strikes and St. Elmo’s Fire. “You don’t get many chances like this,” he yelled. I protested, but I waited while he gathered some shots. Then he reached down from above me, with lightning exploding all around us, and asked me to hold his camera while he tightened his helmet. I reached up to take the camera in the quivering air, and my feet slipped out from under me on the wet rocks.

I fell a short distance and landed on my head in the rocks. My helmet kept me from receiving a serious  injury, but my mouth struck the rock as I pitched into the ground. I was stunned and soon slipped into shock. Howard finally brought me back to my senses, but I felt a sharp pain in my mouth. I gestured toward it, and Howard brushed away the blood and yelled, “You’ve knocked your front teeth out!” I didn’t know what to think, but Howard helped me up and we continued down.

The rest of the night was a haze of pain, semi-consciousness, and shivering, hanging onto Howard’s elbow as we followed the beams of our headlamps down the boulder field and into the tundra. There, I remember lying in the flowers for a time, while the cold rain pelted my face and I shivered. I don’t know how I made it the rest of the way down, but Howard told me later that he talked to me all the way to try to keep me awake and walking. He knew he couldn’t carry me.

Finally, we made it to the truck and Howard drove to Buena Vista. There was no dentist there, but Howard found a telephone and called the only dentist listed in Leadville, who said to meet him at his office. By this time, it was 11:00 o’clock at night and it was still raining.

I vaguely remember seeing the dentist that night, and then curling up on a bed in the Forest Service shop and falling to sleep. The next day Howard drove me back to the dentist, where I learned that I had not knocked my teeth out, but instead had sheared them off at the gum line. “That’s where your pain is coming from,” the dentist said. “You have exposed nerves in all three teeth. It’s going to require immediate root canals in all three of them and crowns made later.”

And so began two months of dental care in Leadville. I still had to go to work, of course, but Ranger Ficke arranged for me to be shifted from Buena Vista to the Leadville crew at Turquoise Lake. I was able to function, but the cold air on my broken teeth brought serious pain. I tried to rig a mask from a bandana to protect my mouth, but nothing really worked. So I tried to keep my coat sleeve over my face as much as possible to block the wind.

Meanwhile, the dentist went about his work. He was a young guy named Hazelwood, just out of the University of Missouri, who had moved to Leadville because he liked to hunt. His lovely dental assistant turned out to be a girlfriend he had brought with him. He relished a complex case like mine—he’d seen very few of them—so he took great care to do the job right.

Things weren’t all bad, of course. People got a kick out of seeing me with no front teeth, and

Not Rolanda!

after a while I got into the spirit of it too. After work, when we’d drop by the Dollar for a couple of beers, Rolanda the barmaid would whoop as I came in the door. Then she would offer me a free beer if I would go around and show everyone my gapped mouth. People would shriek in horror or delight, some would even offer me tips, and we’d all have a good time. Sometimes Rolanda would give me two beers.

And another dear, Loretta, who served dinner at the Golden Burro (a/k/a the Brass Ass) watched one night as I cut up my hamburger into bite-sized pieces and ate them with a fork. She said, “You have such polite table manners!” I looked up at her and grinned, and she had to stifle a laugh as she tried to look concerned. Finally we both broke down laughing, with me spewing hamburger out of my mouth. Loretta and I were fast friends for a long time after that, though she never offered me a free beer.

I guess there should be a moral in this story, a lesson or a cautionary tale—“Don’t go into the mountains alone!” But the experience did nothing to change my solo ways. Some things are too good to give up.

But I wish I knew where Howard Lyles is today.