Editor’s Note: This piece is a finalist in our call-out for EO readers to send us their best stories of life-changing Colorado adventure. Read all of our winner’s stories at blog.colorado.com.
We broke camp after three days and headed up the long climb into McCurdy Park along the north-facing slope. This Outward Bound trip was meant to be a training session for four teachers from North Junior High School. It was the sixteen ninth graders who would really benefit from the nine-day trip to the Lost Creek Wilderness Area and McCurdy Mountain. Before the trip in the spring of 1972, I had done a lot of backpacking with the North Junior High School Mountain Club and Roger Schoenstein, the teacher who sponsored it. The weekends we spent hiking, backpacking, bouldering and cross-country skiing in the Pikes Peak region prepared us for the trip over spring break. Out of all those trips though, and many since then, one this one 24-hour period stands out as having a major impact of my life.
No doubt, we had been the first hikers in the early spring to make the climb up out of the valley to McCurdy Mountain. As we broke trail, each step pushed us knee deep into the snow. We traded off leading to give each other a break. My dark green Outward-Bound-issued pack bore the additional weight of one of our climbing ropes, which we used the previous few days for lessons in belaying and rappelling.
As we crested the ridge and the wide expanse of McCurdy Park stretched out before us, we heaved a collective sigh of relief accompanied by a surge of adrenaline for accomplishing the challenging trek. We made our way across spongy tundra, now thawing in the spring mid-day sun, to an A-Frame that seemed dwarfed by the granite crags and boulders behind and around it. The A-frame was only roomy enough for two or three adults, so we teens set up our tents around it and a small fire pit.
That night, Mike Lowe, our Outward Bound leader and trainer for the teachers, told about one time he was backpacking and climbing in the area. He may have even been staying in that very A-frame. At about 8:00 p.m., just as dusk was turning to night, his dog, Pete, stood up and growled at the door. Mike figured it was a late-arriving backpacker and hollered out “Hello?! Plenty of room.” No answer. Pete got agitated and stood up. H leered at the door. “Got plenty of room in here. C’mon in.” Mike said he got so spooked, he actually packed his stuff and headed down the trail. We all listened, leaning forward, trying to catch a glimpse of his face in the firelight to see if he was pulling our leg or not. He finished up his story with “It was a night a lot like this—not too cold, bright stars in the sky.” He stopped. “OK, time to hit the hay.”
Before we went to our tents for the night, Roger and Mike explained to us what the next two days would be like. “You’re going to do your solo. A 24-hour solo.“ On most Outward Bound trips the solos can run to three days, but since we were on an abbreviated adventure, ours would be 24 hours.
The next day about mid-morning, Roger and Mike took us to our individual locations for the solo. The 16 of us were scattered out around McCurdy Park. For the next 24 hours, we would have minimal provisions. I had my poncho, sleeping bag, foam pad. I had a candle, some matches, hard candies (cinnamon and butterscotch) and water bottles. I also had my Outward Bound journal. I had been writing in it sporadically over the last few days, mainly a recounting of what happened on that day, but it would gain a bigger focus in the next 24 hours.
My location for the solo was an awesome spot on the east-facing slope of McCurdy Park. I was down the hill maybe ten yards from the top of the east ridge. Before Roger left, I found an overhanging rock formation with a flat floor about three feet beneath the overhang. I was just barely able to sit up with my legs crossed under me. I spread out my foam pad and laid out my sleeping bag. I set up my hard candies in a little nylon bag at the head of my sleeping bag. And although I did not use them, my candle and matches sat nearby in case of an emergency.
Since I was on the eastern slope, the sun crept down behind me. Long shadows from the trees and rock formations at the top of the ridge stretched out over the pines in the valley below. As the afternoon transitioned into dusk, I took out the journal and began to write. I also made a crude, ninth-grader sketch of my home for the next 24 hours with the rock ledge and a stick figure sitting under it.
I wrote in the journal about our morning “run and dip” on day three of the trip. Mike Lowe had us jog about a half mile through the trees and down to a large, slow pool in Goose Creek. When we got to the creek, we all stripped down to our underwear and plunged into the cold April water. Then we ran back to our clothes, dried off, and got dressed.
I had failed at some of the rock climbing activities. Maybe “failed” is too strong of a word. I now know that not all experiences, particularly those in the outdoors, are failures just because you may not have achieved a specific goal. I wasn’t able to make a particular move during our rock climbing challenge. I wrote about that and reflected on it. Mike Lowe called it “sewing machine leg”—when my leg would not stop shaking. I finally had to traverse to the side of the rock and on to the gravelly slope, untie, and walk down the 100 feet or so next to the rock face. I wasn’t afraid of making the move on the rock, I just didn’t know how to just push through and stand up on the little nubbin that was the next foothold. My body kept talking me out of making the move.
I carried the climbing rope for the next few days to “prove” myself again to the group. In that journal, I wrote about the hike the day before. The long stretch of breaking trail with the extra few pounds and bulk of climbing rope on my pack convinced me, anyway, that I had the strength and perseverance to meet challenges. But that rock face and my quivering leg haunts me still, even these 45 years later.
I wrote about my dad who had abandoned the family a few years before due to his out-of-control drinking (my own bout with alcoholism and addiction were still on the distant horizon). Dusk enveloped the evening sky. I wrote for a few pages about how, on this ridge in the Lost Creek Wilderness Area, I had found a more robust high. I stretched out in my sleeping bag, sucked on some cinnamon candies, and drifted off to sleep.
I awoke the next morning to the view of the snow-frosted pines lit up from the rising sun. The benefit of an eastern facing slope was the early arrival of the new day.
Over the course of the nine days, we confronted challenges on rock faces, endured long treks and the unpredictable weather of early spring. We met the challenge of working together to solve problems and supported each other through difficult activities.
As sometimes only nature can do, I quieted to my own pace during that solo. I could see myself for who I am and discover strengths I may not have seen before. The trip may not have had the adrenaline rush of other adventures, but that outcropping on the eastern ridge, those ponderosa pines lit up by the morning sun against a Colorado sky, and that blue and white notebook changed the life of a 14-year old boy.