Teow Lim Goh's writing has appeared or is forthcoming in The Rumpus, Open Letters Monthly, The Common, and The Philadelphia Review of Books, among other publications. She lives in Boulder, Colorado and can be found at teowlimgoh.com.
All that morning the fog rolled from the mountains to the plains. Dew droplets hung before my eyes. As I walked towards Longs Peak, the firs and spruces shrunk from forests to twisted stumps. Near timberline, close to a rushing creek, a sign warned of the dangers of lightning in the alpine tundra. For a moment I worried that the grey mists were instead storm clouds, that I would have to turn back without reaching my destination, but as I rose above the trees, the fog lay at my feet and spit into the sky. Before me, the three summits of Mount Meeker, Longs Peak, and Mount Lady Washington sat like monarchs, the sky a blistering blue, the fog around them a moat.
At 14,259 feet, Longs Peak is not the highest point in Colorado. That would be Mount Elbert at 14,440 feet. Longs Peak is a fourteener, a summit above 14,000 feet; around here, bagging fourteeners is a sport. There are a number of ways to reach Longs Peak. The Keyhole, the standard hiking route, is a sixteen-mile round trip with nearly a mile of elevation gain; in the summer months, the last mile or two is mostly a scramble. In the spring, climbers ascend the couloirs on the East Face with ice axes and crampons. The most challenging is the Diamond on the East Face, a thousand feet of vertical granite above the sparkling waters of Chasm Lake.
In many cultures, the sky symbolizes heaven. Mountains occupy the liminal space between earth and sky and are seen as paths to the divine. In the ninth century, the Chinese poet Han Shan sought enlightenment on Cold Mountain. In nineteenth century America, John Muir wandered in the Sierra, saw the peaks of Yosemite as cathedrals, and fell onto his knees in prayer. A century later, John Denver sang, “But the Colorado Rocky Mountain high / I’ve seen it rainin’ fire in the sky / Talk to God and listen to the casual reply.” In some parts of the Himalayas, it is considered a sacrilege to climb sacred peaks. Pilgrims circumambulate them instead, a practice of walking prayer that the poet Gary Snyder brought to Mount Tamalpais just north of San Francisco.
In Western culture, mountaineering is both a spiritual discipline as well as a mark of ambition and achievement. We associate heights with power, and to reach a summit is to reach a pinnacle of power. First ascents, especially of the highest peaks, make history: think of Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay on Everest, Edward Whymper on the Matterhorn. Before a first ascent, a peak is unknown to us. To climb it successfully is also to bring back knowledge, to make the unknown known. We repeat climbers’ tales of impassable walls, intractable footholds, adverse weather, harrowing descents, near slips, and fatal mistakes until they become the stories by which we define the peak.
“Were not the divinely illuminated passes of [Albert] Bierstadt’s Sierra meant to confirm the successful completion of our manifest destiny?” Joan Didion writes of the nineteenth century painter’s romanticized depictions of the Rockies and the Sierra. We use the word ‘virgin’ to describe territory that has yet to be discovered by man. I say ‘man’, for the term is gendered. Places, like women, are prized for their purity; their value is diminished once they are known by man. To be the first, then, is also to claim this power for yourself. To call yourself the first is to write a version of history that erases those who came before you. Needless to say, the majority of explorers and climbers – at least those whose adventures we record and remember – have been white men.
Denver lies where the Great Plains meet the Rockies, at the confluence of Cherry Creek and the South Platte. From the city, Longs Peak is the highest visible point. On a clear day, one can also see Pikes Peak, the fourteener near Colorado Springs that inspired Katharine Lee Bates to write “America the Beautiful”, that hymn to amber waves of grain, purple mountain majesties, and America’s destiny to reach from sea to shining sea. John Wesley Powell, the one-armed Civil War veteran best known for his harrowing descent of the Grand Canyon, is often said to have made the first ascent on Longs Peak, but it is more accurate to say that he made the firstrecorded ascent.
The Arapaho lived in Colorado before the whites came, spending their summers in the mountains and winters on the plains. They navigated by the prominence of Longs Peak and Mount Meeker and called them neniisotoyou’u, or the Two Guides. In the early twentieth century, a Colorado Mountain Club volunteer followed two elderly Arapaho to Longs Peak, trying to record their stories even as he did not quite understand their language. One of the men told a story of his father trapping eagle feathers on the peak. He might have been misleading the whites or the CMC volunteer may have misunderstood, but it is likely that the Arapaho reached the summit before the first whites arrived.
In fact, Longs Peak is named for a man who did not climb it. In the first decade of the nineteenth century, the army officer Zebulon Pike led an expedition to find the headwaters of the Arkansas and the Red Rivers. His party arrived in the Rockies in the late fall and saw a peak that towered over every other. They made an attempt, but they could not get past the ice and snow. With winter approaching, they pushed on into the Rockies. They were unprepared for winter in the mountains, lost their bearings, and unwittingly crossed into Spanish Mexico. They set up fort near present-day Alamosa, where Spanish soldiers from Santa Fe arrested them on charges of espionage. As Spain wanted to maintain friendly relations with the United States, they released Pike, a commissioned officer, but many of his men remained in prison.
Two decades later, Major Stephen Long led a survey of the Missouri and the Platte Rivers, during which he described the Plains as a great desert unsuitable for civilization. After weeks on the prairie that resembled a sea, with few topographical features to keep them oriented, they must have been relieved and awed when they saw the Rockies. When they arrived near present-day Denver, they saw a summit that towered over every other and thought it was the peak Pike had described in his report. Long did not climb it, though it has since been named for him, nor did he realize their mistake until they traveled to what is now Colorado Springs and ascended Pikes Peak.
Denver began as a mining camp in 1859, at the height of the Pikes Peak gold rush, and as the city grew, many men sought to climb Longs Peak. Among these amateur mountaineers was William Byers, the founding editor of the Rocky Mountain News. As the owner of Denver’s first newspaper, he made it his duty to promote the virtues of the territory, often to the point of exaggeration. In 1864, he joined a climbing party and made it as far as the Boulder Field on the east side of the peak. From there, they could not find a route and turned back. They likely saw the vertical walls of the Diamond and the crags and couloirs around it; the Keyhole, which to this day is the only known non-technical route to the summit, loops around the west side, not the most intuitive for those seeking the shortest way to the top.
In 1868, John Wesley Powell came to Denver on a reconnaissance trip for the Green and Colorado Rivers expedition that would make his name. In Denver he met Byers. Byers recognized him as a man of ambition and it was likely he who convinced Powell to make a bid on Longs Peak. The mountain was not part of Powell’s plans, but he was intrigued. Byers joined the climb, and he was also likely he who told Powell that the east was impassable and that they should try from the west. The party crossed Berthoud Pass, which a year before the Union Pacific had rejected as a route for the transcontinental railroad because of the steep grades and lingering snow, and set up a base camp near Grand Lake.
The route that Powell took to the summit of Longs Peak is so arduous and improbable that is it unlikely that anyone has repeated it. The men whacked through brush to timberline. At the Continental Divide, the ridge that separates the Atlantic and Pacific watersheds, the scree was too rough for their horses. They tied up the animals and labored across the peaks and saddles on foot. They climbed and descended at least five or six peaks between 12,000 and 13,000 feet, many of them also first ascents, and arrived at Pagoda Mountain, a dome-shaped peak just one chasm away from their goal. There, however, they found the trough impossible to cross and descended into the valley now called Wild Basin.
It was too late in the day to try the peak and the men spent the cold summer night with few supplies. The next day, they climbed a couloir on Mount Meeker, which, as Byers later wrote in his account for the Rocky, “In many places it required the assistance of hands as well as feet to get along, and the ascent at best was very laborious.” From Mount Meeker they crossed a ridge to Longs Peak. As Byers wrote, “The view was very extensive in all directions: including Pike’s Peak, south, the Sawatch Ranges southwest, Gore’s Range and the Elkhorn Mountains west, the Medicine Bow and Sweetwater north, and a vast extent of the plains east. Denver is plainly distinguishable to the naked eye.”
In the fall of 1873, two women summited Longs Peak. Both were later chided for their inappropriate attire. Then, and more covertly now, men are seen as agents of change, with the liberty to venture into the unknown, while women are seen as keepers of culture, of the hearth and home. It was not uncommon for wives and daughters to accompany expeditions, and when they did, they often took care of the chores at camp while the men scouted the route ahead. Women also joined social hiking clubs and walked the trails in long skirts and petticoats. The solo woman traveler, on the other hand, did not carry the accouterments of home and family. She transgressed her role and had to be disciplined.
Anna Dickinson was an abolitionist and suffragist, a celebrated public speaker and a veteran of a number of Colorado’s fourteeners. In September 1873, she joined Ferdinand Hayden’s survey of Longs Peak. The peak had already been climbed, and Hayden’s task was instead to draw up maps and name the remaining unnamed features. On the climb, Dickinson reportedly discarded her skirts and wore men’s trousers, a detail that the newspapers turned into a minor scandal. She was the only woman in the party to reach the summit. On the way down, the men asked her to name the peak next to Longs. She suggested Mount Washington for the New Hampshire peak she often climbed, and in her honor they named it Mount Lady Washington.
That October, the English traveler Isabella Bird arrived in Estes Park. The daughter of a clergyman, Bird was a sickly child. A doctor prescribed travel and she found that her ailments vanished on the road. She was on the way back to England from the Sandwich Islands, as Hawaii was then known, when she planned to detour into the Rockies. Alighting from the transcontinental railroad in Cheyenne, she rented a horse and rode from the plains into the mountains. There she met Jim Nugent, a notorious desperado and fellow countryman. Despite his reputation, she found him congenial and even cultured. They formed a close friendship and possibly a romance. He offered to show her up Longs Peak.
The two young men who came along saw Bird as a liability and wanted to leave her behind, but Nugent insisted that if not for the lady, he would not guide them. They slipped and slid in the ice and snow of late fall. In letters to her sister, Bird wrote, “You know I have no head and no ankles, and never ought to dream of mountaineering; and had I known that the ascent was a real mountaineering feat I should not have felt the slightest ambition to perform it.” Nugent roped her to himself and hauled her to the summit. They ran out of water and one of the young men suffered a nosebleed, but of the experience she wrote, “A more successful ascent of the Peak was never made, and I would not now exchange my memories of its perfect beauty and extraordinary sublimity for any other experience of mountaineering in any part of the world.”
Back in England, Bird published her letters as A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains. A male London critic remarked that she must have worn men’s clothes on the climb. Insulted, she insisted that subsequent editions of the book contain a sketch of her wearing an ‘American lady’s mountain dress’: a jacket, an ankle-length skirt, and long trousers, comfortable for rough travel and yet still suitably feminine. It was a victory for adventurous women.
I was not heading to the peak. That day, my goal was Chasm Lake, a destination in its own right. At the base of the Diamond, its glacial waters glisten obsidian in the shadow of Longs Peak. The trail wraps around a flank of Lady on which alpine columbines flutter and streams tumble into emerald pools. But as I walked, I realized that the stories I knew of the landscape were of the peak. There are other stories, of itinerant mountain guides, fatal winter climbs, and attempts on the Diamond, but the stories that came to mind were of the early ascents, the first claims to power and knowledge in this place I had come to live.
I reached a fork in the trail and hesitated. The path to the left would take me to Chasm Lake, the right to Longs Peak, and at the back of my mind I began to calculate whether I could make the summit. It often attracts lightning storms, and hikers are recommended to start at three in the morning and begin their descent before noon, but there was not a cloud in the sky for miles. There were nine more hours to sunset and I carried a headlamp in my pack. I made the calculations, and it occurred to me then that I wanted to climb the peak. I vowed to return someday and set off on the trail to the lake, a circumambulation of sorts.