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Colorado's Longs Peak: A cathedral of possibility

A climb up the challenging mountain changes one cancer patient's outlook on life and death. From the summit, he cast off fear, re-embraced life and contemplated the journey ahead.

September 18, 2011|By David Kelly, Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • Hikers head carefully through the Boulder Field as they make their way to the summit of Longs Peak, Colo.
Hikers head carefully through the Boulder Field as they make their way to… (David Kelly )

Reporting from Rocky Mountain National Park, Colo. — Dawn broke high in the Colorado Rockies, the enormous blot on the horizon revealing itself slowly, regally against an indigo sky.

I dropped my pack on the frozen tundra, overcome by awe and a taut, primal fear.

Before me stood cathedral upon cathedral of stone, a mysterious citadel crisscrossed by narrow ledges and vertical walls lashed by fierce winds.

This was the sheer eastern face of Longs Peak, a 14,259-foot fortress of rock that had recently killed three climbers and has sent hundreds more scurrying in retreat.

The entrance — the Keyhole — was there, atop a tower of boulders. The massive natural stone gate was a portal to another world, a world of wind and light or, for the unlucky, a doorway to oblivion.

Make no mistake, this was no Mt. Everest and I no SirEdmund Hillary. But given the events of the previous months, it might as well have been.

In October 2009, I was diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer of the tonsil. I figured I'd have a tonsillectomy, eat some ice cream and get on with my life. But it wasn't that easy; in fact, it was deadly serious. For the next six months, I endured intensive chemotherapy and radiation treatment that left me unable to speak, swallow or eat. I fed myself through a stomach tube, dropping more than 20 pounds. I lost my sense of taste, and my arms and legs turned to matchsticks.

Toward the end of my treatment, I was unexpectedly offered a job in Denver. Cancer had altered my perspective on the world and my own vulnerabilities. Newspapers, where I had toiled for 24 years, were in a tailspin. I figured the likelihood of getting insurance if I were laid off was pretty much impossible because of my preexisting condition. So I took the job and moved my family to Colorado.

I was hardly new to hiking and climbing, having spent the better part of the previous 14 years roaming the mountains and deserts of California. But I wasn't that person anymore. I was weak. My forays around Boulder, Colo., left me embarrassingly winded.

Worst of all was the prison of fear I had built for myself — the fear of cancer returning. It crept up beside me when I was enjoying a moment with my son or daughter to whisper dark threats in my ear — "Don't get too comfortable. I'll be back."

As I battled feebleness and fear, I became fixated on Longs Peak. Everywhere I looked, there it was, sitting hugely, imperiously, on the horizon, practically screaming, "I am!"

Distinguished by its enormous girth, wave-like profile and oddly flat top, Longs is the 15th-highest mountain in Colorado, the highest in Rocky Mountain National Park and one of the most popular hikes in the state. Each year, thousands try to scale this monster, forgetting that just because it's popular doesn't mean it's safe.

The fastest winds ever clocked in Colorado — 201 mph — were measured in 1981 atop Longs. Climbers have been flung from the summit and swatted from ledges. Others have suffered heart attacks on the ascent. Only three of every 10 hikers ever reach the top.

Common sense said it was too soon to take on this giant. My hands and feet were still numb from the chemo. I had a catheter in my chest. High doses of radiation had left me unable to taste food, so I remained gaunt.

Yet an idea took hold that I couldn't shake: If I could climb Longs Peak just a few months out of treatment, surely I had beaten this awful curse. The mountain would heal me, restore my strength, give me a second chance.

It was a dumb idea, but I excelled at dumb ideas. So a week after Labor Day 2010, I made my move.

I set off at 2:30 a.m. so I could get off the summit before the afternoon thunderstorms and killer lightning rolled in.

The 16-mile round trip would be done in stages: the Boulder Field, the Keyhole, the Ledges, the Trough, the Narrows and the Home Stretch.

I strapped on a small headlamp and headed into a dark forest. I hoped to experience some Zen-like oneness with the woods. Instead, I kept hearing what sounded like mountain lions, foraging bears and ill-tempered moose stalking me in the night.

As I emerged above the tree line, a tilted wooden sign pointed the way to the Boulder Field.

With the quiet forest now behind, the wind picked up and grew to a roar in my ears. The scenery was alien, full of frozen bogs and tall, oblong stones lurking in the blackness. More than any other landscape, mountains seem most alive. There is a presence, a watcher remaining just out of sight. Anyone who roams the world's high places has felt it.

As dawn broke, Longs began to glow.

The Keyhole, bathed in rich orange, beckoned. A group of hikers trudged past me in defeat, beaten back by high winds.

They were younger and clad in the best gear, unlike me and my four layers of sweaters and my daughter's pink book bag crammed with dates and pretzels. As I began rethinking this adventure, a flicker of light caught my eye — a tiny headlamp on the summit. Someone was up there! My heart soared.

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