Photo Credits to Richard H. Hahn

Photo Credits to Richard H. Hahn

In the darkness, the small circle of light from my headlamp reveals only my hiking boots and a circle of rocky trail, which makes it easier to keep climbing. Up and up and up. Sometimes, we stop for water and a bite of an energy bar, and we turn off our headlamps to look up at the stars. A thin man in his sixties has joined our hiking trio, and he knows his astronomy. Cassopeia. The Big Dipper. The Pleiades. And there, rising above Twin Sisters Peak, is Venus.

We hike on. Beyond the dark ridges, the golden and pink lights of Boulder and Denver glitter on the plains. It’s 3:30 a.m., but the cities don’t sleep.

*

In 1871, a woman named Addie Alexander became the first woman to stand on the flat summit of Longs Peak. Historians know little about her, since she is mentioned only briefly in an August 26, 1871, issue of the Boulder County News as part of a successful ascent led by “Al Dunbar from Estes Park”. Alexander’s name was written on a paper left in a rock cairn on the summit. Another woman, Henrietta Goss, was part of that climb, but she “gave up in despair within a few hundred feet of the summit.”

The Boulder County News reported Alexander and Goss were “of St. Louis,” though it seems more likely they were from the newly formed St. Louis-Western Colony near Greeley, Colorado, than from St. Louis, Missouri.

In 1871, Addie Alexander may have worn a dress to climb the mountain. She probably rode a horse as far as the Boulderfield.

It’s likely she wasn’t even the first woman on the summit. The Arapaho trapped eagles there long before any white person saw the mountain or thought to name it after a U.S. Army explorer. Surely a woman ventured up to the eagle trap at least once.

*

The sky begins to lighten for an hour before we see the sun. Now I can see the path switch-backing up through the tundra, the hump of Storm Peak to the right, the craggy triangle of Mount Lady Washington to the left. Behind us, layers of purple peaks give way to the endless plains, a hazy horizon and clouds just beginning to pink. The trail rises past the tranquil Peacock Pool and then: Longs Peak. I’ve been worrying about whether or not to write the name with its apostrophe, but now I see the mountain and know names matter not at all. This mountain — the cut granite of the diamond face, the rock formation we call the Beaver, the deceptively tranquil snowfield we call the Dove – has been uplifted, eroded, scoured by wind and weather for millions of years. Any name a human gives it is a passing whisper. I stand still in the trail and gaze up at the mountain. Words are dust here.

The sun rises. At this elevation, it is a sudden event, the world progressively lighter until: There! the sun appears fuscia between two eastern peaks, and then rises with surprising speed, turning golden, warming the world. Normally, I’d watch, but I only have eyes for Longs Peak. The diamond face catches fire, turns golden. Hardy columbine and yellow arnica nod in the wind, and wisps of gilded cloud move across the rounded top of the peak. We hike onward, our eyes on the great rounded summit. It is not holy, because holy is what people make things. It just is, and we are here, and I am grateful. Grateful even though I cannot feel my fingers in my thick gloves, even though my four layers of fleece and my windbreaker do not keep out the chill wind, even though we have hiked only half of our journey to the summit.

*

Many sources, including the popular book Longs Peak: a Rocky Mountain Chronicle, by Stephen Trimble, claim that a woman named Anna Dickinson was the first to summit Longs when she stepped onto the summit in mid-September of 1873. However, although Dickinson was only the third woman to successfully climb the peak (the Boulder County News reported a Miss Bartlett summited a few weeks after Addie Alexander), she was the most famous. In 1873, the 31-year-old Dickinson was a well-known orator who had been an instrumental abolitionist and now was actively involved in the women’s movement. She was also what we would call today a lesbian. Through her study of their correspondence, historian Lillian Faderman documents Dickinson’s close, intimate relationship with Susan B. Anthony, as well as with other women. This isn’t relevant to Dickinson’s ascent up Longs except that it is nearly always omitted from biographical accounts of her. One thinks about many things in the long ascent of Longs. It’s possible Dickinson was thinking about Anthony’s latest letter, her expressed wish to “snuggle. . .closer than ever,” her cheeky assertion that her bed was “big enough and good enough to take” Anna in (Faderman 26).

Dickinson had already summited Pikes Peak, Mount Lincoln, Grays Peak, and Mount Elbert. She’d ridden up these other 14ers on horseback or burro, and she’d rolled boulders from the top of Elbert just to delight in watching them fall. She was a passionate mountain climber who had climbed New Hampshire’s Mount Washington over twenty-eight times. Longs Peak would be another peak to add to her list, and, since she was with the famous Hayden survey party, she hoped the climb would help her career, which was floundering.

In The Magnificent Mountain Women: Adventures in the Colorado Rockies, Janet Robertson describes the morning of Dickinson’s ascent: the party had a large breakfast at 4 a.m. on September 13 at their campsite in what is now known as Jim’s Grove, then rode up toward the Boulderfield. To cries of scandal later when it was reported in the Boulder County News, Dickinson wore trousers. Even more scandalous, she split the trousers on her descent.

*

I’ve climbed this mountain before. When I was fourteen, my dad took me to the summit on a cloudless July day. I remember my lungs ached, and that I didn’t want him to know I was tired. I wore cut-off jean shorts, a red cotton sweatshirt, pink and turquoise hiking boots. It was 1991. We tried again four years later, when I was eighteen, but sleet that coated the rocks in the Boulderfield with ice turned us back. Today, I’m thirty-seven, hiking the mountain with two of my cousins, both of whom first summited as teenagers, too. It was the required rite of passage in our family.

Just below the Keyhole, the eponymous gap in the rock ridge at the top of the Boulderfield, the wind increases, the temperature drops. Ominous grey clouds speed through the Keyhole and swirl across the Diamond face, then obscure it, then obscure everything. My fingers ache because I’ve ripped open a package of handwarmers and inserted them into my gloves, and my face is numb. My cousin Anthony is wearing shorts, and my cousin Johanna has wrapped herself in all the clothes she’s brought. The three of us look at each other. We’ve all summited before, but we’ve also all turned back before. This mountain creates its own weather, and it’s serious. Dangerous. When Anthony, who is 6 foot 5 inches, climbs to the Keyhole to peer over the other side, the wind unbalances him.

We huddle in the stone hut just below the Keyhole. The hut is a memorial to the climber Agnes Vaille, who died after a successful winter ascent of the East Face went awry in January 1925. Ten hikers are already crammed into the tiny hut. One of them is a shivering little boy of nine. I close my eyes and think of the black and white photo I’ve seen of Agnes Vaille. She wears a long, dark, loose dress, and she’s tied up her hair. She’s leaning back with one hand on a boulder, the other on her lap. She wears wire spectacles, but she looks young, and her neck is slender and lovely. I love the way she looks not at the camera but into the distance, a half-smile on her lips. She was in the Red Cross in France in WWI.

When the rescue party found Vaille after her climbing partner, Walter Kiener, stumbled down the mountain for help, the extreme conditions – temperatures they recorded at 50 degrees below zero, 100 mile-per-hour winds – she had already died of fatigue and hypothermia. One of the rescue party members also died. Kiener lost fingers and toes to frostbite.

Today, it is August 6. The temperature outside is probably 40 degrees, but inside the hut, we are all waiting for the mountain, knowing enough to respect its warnings. It could clear, a man in bright orange yells from his perch at the Keyhole. He waves a cellphone. I got a signal for a moment, and the radar showed the front is moving through! But cloud has obscured the Boulderfield below us, and we’re cold. The nine-year-old’s teeth are chattering. With every gust of wind, the windows in the tiny hut built for Agnes Vaille rattle.

*

Janet Robertson writes of Anna Dickinson in her later life: “Although she had many suitors, she spurned them all and chose to remain single.” Lillian Faderman documents the kind of single life Dickinson lived, in letters like this one she wrote to Susan B. Anthony: “[I long] to hold your hand in mine, to hear your voice, in a word, I want you – I can’t have you? Well, I will at least put down a little fragment of my foolish self and send it to look up at you” (26).

Whether her successful ascent of Longs on September 13, 1873, mattered to Dickinson is difficult to know. In the autobiography she wrote several years later, she barely mentioned the ascent, since she had more to say about the part she’d played in American politics and in the social movements of her time. Longs Peak was one more mountain she had climbed. Her companions on Longs probably named Mount Lady Washington in her honor, giving her that nickname because of her love for the New Hampshire peak, but it’s difficult to discern whether Longs meant something special to Dickinson in the way it did to others.

Nine years later, in 1882, Dickinson performed as Hamlet on Broadway. This is unrelated to her ascent of Longs Peak, except for the courage it took to do both. And except that she was ridiculed for wearing trousers in both. In 1891, her sister Susan had her incarcerated at the Danville State Hospital for the Insane. Some sources say she was paranoid, some say she was alcoholic, some say she was wrongly accused. When she emerged, she sued for her reputation and won, but then lived the last forty years of her life in quiet obscurity, unknown.

*

I re-name the triangular Mt. Lady Washington Anna Peak. In the Agnes Vaille Hut, Johanna shivers and says we need to make a decision, now. Up or down. I run up to the Keyhole edge and find clearing clouds. The wind has lessened. I suggest we go on, and so we do.

The route from the Keyhole to the summit of Longs is marked by bright yellow painted circles enclosed with red, the bullseyes hikers call the Fried Egg Trail. It’s more perilous than I remember from twenty-three years ago, but the wind has calmed to a breeze and the sun emerges sometimes from the clouds to warm us. The steep, slick granite western side of the great mountain drops two thousand feet to turquoise alpine lakes. On the other side of the deep canyon, jagged peaks snag the clouds as far west as I can see. Two years ago, I hiked to the top of the gentle green Mount Audubon, just across the canyon, and I shuddered to see the vertiginous sides of Longs Peak. I swore I never needed to climb it again, but here I am.

The fried eggs lead us along narrow ledges. If we slipped, we’d die. In June this summer, a Fort Collins man fell to his death from the Trough. Last August, a Missouri man died falling from the Narrows. The risk is real. The climbers with their ropes and helmets might be safer.

At the Trough, that hellish staircase of loose rock, boulders that shift, an endless incline, Johanna’s breathing becomes labored. She has to stop every few steps to catch her breath. I’ve hiked fourteeners with her for years, and I know she’s in good condition, so I’m worried. She’s a doctor, but she can’t diagnose herself.

After the harrowing Dog’s Lift, our boots slipping on the ten-foot high boulder we have to scale, we have to struggle through the Narrows. Fear is a bile in my throat. Sometimes, we are only wedging our fingers into cracks, edging ourselves along. Finally, at the bottom of the Homestretch, I look up the slick wall to its lip. The summit. I’ve reached it before, but I want to be there again. Anthony has gone ahead, trying to move to stay warm, and I stay with Johanna, encouraging her as she takes two or three steps and then leans against the rock to breathe. This is hard, I keep telling her. You’re doing great.

Finally, we haul ourselves onto the top. The summit of Longs is awesome with its 360 degree view of the Front Range, its surprisingly level football field of boulders, but dark grey clouds are building in the north and west, so we snap photographs, add our names to the nine thousand who sign the summit register each year, and head down. Longs isn’t like other mountains, where the summit is the only grand view, the only goal. I love the Homestretch a little more, I’m prouder of inching through the Narrows. I’m happy to go on.

*

When Isabella Bird, the English explorer, first saw Longs Peak from the foothills around Greeley on September 10, 1873, she loved the mountain’s “glorious solitude”. However, weeks passed before she could find transportation up the canyon to Estes Park, and then it was difficult to convince anyone to guide her up Longs Peak, since it was already early October. But the intrepid forty-two-year-old Englishwoman had intrigued a notorious mountain guide in the area: Jim Nugent, or “Mountain Jim,” who was probably present on the Dickinson ascent, as well. Mountain Jim agreed to guide Bird to the summit.

Bird was a writer who was a tenacious world traveler in a time when traveling was difficult and traveling as a solitary woman was almost unheard of. She suffered from spinal problems from a young age, but found that traveling improved her health. Although she was not fit like Dickinson, she was determined. And on Longs, mental strength matters as much as physical.

However, Bird was able to ascend the icy west side of Longs only because Jim pushed and carried her “like a bale of goods” (Robertson). They reached the summit. It took hours for the two to struggle back down in the snow. Later that night, camped again beneath the stars in Jim’s Grove, Bird and Jim talked into the night and he told her about “a dark sorrow which had led him on a lawless and desperate life,” but Bird doesn’t divulge in her writing what that sorrow was.

Bird’s letters to her sister hint that she and Jim developed a relationship after that climb. Some say they pledged that the first to die would appear to the other, and that Jim’s ghost appeared to her in far-off Switzerland the moment he was fatally shot in a gunfight.

Maybe Isabella Bird loved Jim because he took her to the mountain. She wrote openly of her love for it: “Longs Peak rises in purple gloom, and I long for the cool air and unfettered life of the solitary blue hollow at its base.”

People talk about loving women that way, too.

*

Descending the Homestretch, Johanna’s breathing is still labored, and she’s getting confused. She diagnoses herself with pulmonary edema. We’re a little below the summit of 14,259 feet, and the only cure for HAPE is to get to a lower altitude. I’m scared.

Our backpacks contain all these things people didn’t have a hundred years ago: headlamps with batteries, Ibuproferin, protein bars, high-tech rain jackets, collapsible trekking poles. On our bodies, we wear polypropylene shirts to wick away moisture, quick-drying pants, wool socks and silk liner socks, high-performance hiking boots with reinforced toes. Johanna has a device clipped to her backpack that tracks our location via satellite.

All this, and we’re still vulnerable to what has killed people on Longs Peak since people first began climbing it. Lightning. Exposure. High altitude sickness. Falling. Hypothermia.

Nothing we can buy at REI can change the mountain. It is.

*

The first documented death on Longs Peak was a woman. In September of 1884, Charles Farabee reports in his book Death, Daring and Disaster: Search and Rescue in the National Parks, Carrie Welton, a wealthy and adventurous woman from Connecticut, hired a guide to get her to the top of Longs. The guide, Carlyle Lamb, had been charging $1 per ascent for a decade, and had made more than fifty-five ascents.

Welton reached the summit with Lamb’s help, but they didn’t reach it until 3 pm, and the wind was howling and cold. Their descent was slow because of the worsening weather and Welton’s exhaustion, and they didn’t reach the Keyhole until midnight. Welton collapsed, saying she couldn’t go further. Lamb went for help, but when he returned hours later, he found the forty-two-year-old woman had died from exhaustion and exposure.

Only four of the sixty people who have died on Longs Peak in recorded history have been women.

*

The weather holds. I don’t pray any more, but I think hard at the dark clouds in the west, Don’t come closer. Don’t bring lightning.

The weather holds. Anthony’s knee is hurting and Johanna’s breathing hasn’t improved, but the sun is shining. We’re moving step by step down the mountain. None of us fall in the Narrows. In the Trough, we’re alone making our slow way down the sliding rocks, because most people on this Wednesday have listened to the park rangers and headed off the mountain before the afternoon thunderstorms. We left at 2 a.m. because we heed that advice, too, but we don’t have a choice about our pace right now. Step by step. In Johanna’s mental fog, she needs advice about which route to take down the crumbling rock. Far below in the canyon, I identify Mill’s Lake, Black Lake, Loch Vale. When I was a little girl, I hiked to those gentle places and gazed up at Longs, wanting to be here. Wanting to know what it was like to stand on the edge of the world.

The sun hides awhile and a cloud throws groppel at us, that painful mix of snow and hail. Then the sun emerges again, warming us. A couple from Colorado Springs pass us, hiking up. We’re from Colorado, they say. We know how to watch the weather.

At 3 p.m., we finally reach the Keyhole. We’ve been walking for thirteen hours. Johanna’s breathing is a little better, but not much. Not enough to stop for a snack at the Agnes Vaille Hut. We keep descending. For fifteen minutes, I stride out ahead of my cousins, hopping from boulder to boulder just for the exhilaration of it. Then I wait, determined to become the patient good guide again.

Below the Boulderfield, Johanna’s lungs clear and she can breathe with ease again, hike with her usual energy, talk with us clearly. We all breathe better after that. We hike down at a good pace, but it’s evening now. The shadows of the mountains are long on the tundra and the pika and the rosy-crowned finch are busy in the last hours of sunlight. A fat marmot waddles ahead of us on the trail. The entire winding way through the tundra, for miles, Longs is there, the Diamond face at our right when we turn to look. Once, I would have said the mountain was watching us, but I’m wiser now. The mountain is too ancient to anthropomorphize.

Down and down. The trail via the Keyhole route is fifteen miles roundtrip, and once we reach tree line we’re still over two miles from our car. We don’t talk any longer. Forward, our trekking poles marking rhythm on the rocks.

My dad meets us at the trailhead when we reach it at 7:30 p.m., fifteen and a half hours after we began. He has brought us lemon-lime Gatorade, candy bars, and little silver pins with the USGS summit marker for Longs imprinted into them. He photographs us, grinning at our accomplishment, saying sheepishly to my gratitude that no one ever met him in the parking lot any of the fifteen times he climbed Longs. He hugs us, tells us he is proud of us. I want to cry, and I can think of a list of reasons.

Ten minutes later, we are in Johanna’s Jeep, curving along Highway 7 on our long drive back to Denver. I glance out the window and there, in the orange light of sunset, is Longs. We were up there today, I say unnecessarily. My cousins say nothing. I was up there today, I repeat to myself. It is enough.

Or it is not quite enough. Already in my blood is the longing to return. Already I want to scramble along those steep sides again, my palms against the sun-warmed granite. Already I want to return to that place I love, the hollow on the Home Stretch that overlooks the organ pipe rocks and the canyon far below.

Already I want to walk again at 2 a.m. beneath the stars, my feet trusting the trail that leads up and up to the great mountain.

Maybe next time, I’ll hike alone. I’d like that, to just be one woman and the mountain, my own guide, though my footsteps follow so many others’.

Sources:

Faderman, Lillian. To Believe in Women: What Lesbians Have Done for America – a
History. New York: Mariner Books, 2000. Print.
Farabee, Charles. Death, Daring, and Disaster – Search and Rescue in the National
Parks
. Washington, D.C.: Taylor Trade Publishing, 2005. Print.
Robertson, Janet. The Magnificent Mountain Women. Lincoln, Nebraska: University
of Nebraska Press, 1990. Print.
Trimble, Stephen. Longs Peak: A Rocky Mountain Chronicle. Estes Park, Colorado:
Rocky Mountain Nature Association, 1984. Print.

——————

2014-08-06 10.13.56Sarah Hahn Brooks is a writer, a middle school social studies teacher, a mother and an avid hiker who lives in Boulder. She’s almost finished with her MFA at Naropa University. Her essays have been published in Room, Sinister Wisdom, The Iris Brown Lit Mag, Adoptive Families, The Juneau Empire, notenoughnight, and The New Mexico Mercury. Her one-woman play, “Translation”, was produced at Juneau, Alaska’s Phoenix Theater in 2006. Her novella, The Beginning of Us, was published by Riptide in January 2014. When she’s put her daughter to bed and finished planning lessons each night, she writes. Currently, she’s working on a new novel and a set of essays about lesbian history. Find her at her blog, theboulderlesbian.blogspot.com.