There’s been many a day that I’ve been asked, “And how many times have you climbed Longs Peak?”
The expression upon the face of the one asking, usually accompanied by either a gasp or some disdain, has become rather thrilling for me. It used to annoy me, since the act of scaling one of the most dangerous mountains in Rocky Mountain National Park seems to be a prerequisite of being a member of this particular Mills family.
My great-grandfather, Enos A. Mills, held the record for the number of successful summits until recently, when it was broken by Jim Detterline. My grandmother summitted when she was eight years old. As did her daughter (my mother), Elizabeth. I was supposed to.
As a child I heard stories of how dangerous the mountain is, how steep the “Narrows” is, how slippery the Trough and Homestretch are. How long the whole hike is. How there could still be stretches of ice that could send one to an ultimate demise in late July. Enos was able to take horses up to Boulderfield, cutting out half the hike. At the time, only a dozen people or so were attempting the peak. He could take his dog, Scotch. If you don’t believe me, you haven’t read many of Enos’ stories.
The original plan was that I would go up Longs with my father, a man who walked swiftly and would occasionally outpace my mother and I on shorter simpler hikes. Or in the grocery store. We would be accompanied by my uncle, an accomplished climber who claimed to know the peak very well. My uncle also had really long legs.
I was short for an eight-year-old.
This recipe, for my little mind at the time, could only result in an emotional disaster. I would get exhausted, want to go home, inevitably cry mid-tantrum and get yelled at during an inopportune moment. Say, on the edge of the Narrows. It seemed to amount to a generally miserable time to be had by all.
The day of my ascent grew nigh. Plans were being discussed, phone conversations among family members went long as they prepared for my initiation into…whatever this was going to be. I swiftly became a morose brat.
One day, my mother turned to me, gave me a long, stern, motherly look. I braced myself. I knew the question and I knew my answer. This event seemed so important to so many people, particularly my grandmother, that I was terrified of the emotional aftermath and the initial argument between my mother and I.
“Eryn, do you want to climb Longs Peak?” asked she.
Firmly, but at the same time a bit shaky, I said, “No.” I steeled myself to the coming fallout. A corner of my room where I would cry in frustration beckoned.
“Okay.” She simply shrugged. “You don’t have to.”
I had to pause, remember to breathe in. Collect my thoughts. “Oh. Really?”
“I climbed it twice. There’s nothing up there. If someone has to drag you up that mountain to prove some point, you’re doing it for the wrong reason.”
I think my father, once he heard, was rather resigned about it. I’m not certain he had been looking forward to the trip, either.
The weight of just the idea of the trip had been lifted off my tiny shoulders. If there were arguments between my mom and grandmother, I usually went to another room or went outside. Grandma was pissed. I didn’t care, really. As far as the rest of the family, at least on this matter, my mom had my back she remained steadfast about it. After a while only visitors and friends pressed the issue.
Then I turned nine. The deed had not been done and the tradition was too late to uphold. I had nothing to prove then. I didn’t care much of what the rest of the mountain-loving community thought of me. I still don’t. No, I have yet to climb it.
I do still enjoy hiking. However, when it comes to climbing, I do not share Enos’ enthusiasm for it. If it’s an outcropping with lots of places for my fingers and toes, I’m all for a bit of scrambling fun, especially if it’s at a somewhat reasonable incline. Wandering the pathless woods, treading isolated glens carpeted with alpine flowers, most certainly my cup of tea. Skirting the shoulders of the jagged remainders of a distant glacial age and straining the muscles of my neck to behold the indifferent gazes of these great peaks, only then to come home and spend twenty minutes with a thesaurus to write this paragraph, certainly! Maybe that’s what Enos and I have in common.
Enos and Longs Peak had a rare relationship. He fell in love at a young age with it, and could not stray from it for too long. He loved the peak in an Edwardian-era romantic way and wanted others to feel the enlightenment he gained from knowing it. Always did he want to know it better.
He explored and dallied elsewhere, as someone with any sort of curiosity would do. One cannot appreciate home without relinquishing it for a time. Longs Peak was the great love of his life, right up until he met my great-grandmother.
Longs and I have an entirely different relationship. Any curiosity I may have had about scaling it has long since vanished. It slips away even further when someone insists that I must climb it. All through my childhood I have lived with that mountain’s moods and shadows and winds.
For me, Longs Peak is more of the silent best friend, the friend I can ay the trials and troubles of life at its feet and it neither complains nor offers any sage advice I wouldn’t come up with on my own. It’s my compass point. As long as I know, even generally, where it is, I know my place in the world.
Another current deterrent it the number of people on the Longs Peak trail these days, even in bad weather. When I venture into the quiet wild, I go for some peace, to scrape out the inner lining of my brain pan so when I return home, I am calm and centered. The idea of following a hundred people up a steep and treacherous mountain, with another hundred huffing and puffing behind me, negates any hope of peace.
I therefore choose another path, and sometimes I choose something that has no path at all.