Better looking up than down

by Larry Patrick

    Fifty-five years ago last week Mt. Everest, the tallest mountain in the world, was successfully scaled.  It has been accomplished numerous times since.  It is a feat worth noting however, as one gets older, can we appreciate more how beautiful the mountains look gazing up at them instead of the often blurry scenery below perched atop a mountain?

    I have scaled a couple of mountains in my life.  I’m not including my skiing experiences.  The last one was about 8 years ago in Colorado when I joined a group of misfits who always talked about climbing a 14er (a mountain over 14,000 feet in height.  There are over 50 of them in Colorado).  Our guide, a good friend of mine, decided that one of the easiest ones for us to climb would be Mt. Democrat (no political jokes, please).

    I began working out at the health club in Walsenburg that was started by Stacy Manzanares in the Alamo building, which now houses April’s Attic.  Getting into shape for a mountain climb takes some dedication.  I was proud of the shape I got in for the climb.  Even being in pretty good shape, I don’t recall the difficulty of climbing mountains when I was just 21 and going up Mt. Fuji in Japan.  Those of you who climb mountains for enjoyment and exercise, know that the air gets thinner and thinner the higher you go and one often has to stop to gasp for air to get the body used to less available oxygen.  As our climbing crew began the ascent up Mt. Democrat, I had only gone a few hundred feet up and was already laboring. My friend noticed that I was wearing too much clothing and overheating.  So I took off layers of clothing and the climb started to become easier.  I’m proud to say that I made the trek to the top.  Once there, there was beautiful scenery below but the question was, is it that much more spectacular, considering all of the effort, than standing below mountains and taking their picture?   My conclusion was that it was easier to have climbed a 14er once, say that I did it, and then just appreciate the beauty of mountains, like the Spanish Peaks, from below.  Of course, I’m no longer in my mountain climbing shape. (What do you mean you can tell?)

    All of this is different when you are younger. While stationed in Japan  during the Vietnam War, army buddies of mine decided to scale the 12,365 foot Mt. Fuji.  (It begins at sea level unlike our mountains in Colorado).  I still have my “Fuji pole” today. As you made your way up to various stages of climbing Mt. Fuji, there would be small rest stations where you could take a breather, get a coke and continue upward.  Once you reached one of these stations, you could get your “Fuji pole” wood burned showing you made it to that level.  Mt. Fuji, as many of you may know, looks like an inverted ice cream cone.  It is a steady climb upward with lots of lava rock covering the extinct volcano.  We all made it to the top around sunrise, which the Japanese seem to say is a beautiful time to do it.  Once on top, everything seemed pretty small below.  Not great picture taking.  You could look down the volcano and actually could have climbed down into it, but once you spent all that time climbing, you weren’t in the mood for climbing into and then out of a volcano.

    My Mt. Fuji climb did have some more significance to it.  I was wearing a blue short sleeve turtleneck shirt that day.  As fate would have it, there were six college-age women from Kyoto University that were wearing the same color and style of shirt that I was wearing.  They wanted to take a picture with me (ok, maybe I wanted to take the picture with them) so we all gathered together and snapped pictures of me with these 6 women.  My wife was in Japan with me and had stayed home because she was 7 months pregnant with our first child.  As luck (bad) would have it, as my friends (witnesses on my behalf) and I began going back down from the top, I lost my footing on the loose lava rock and began sliding quickly down the slope.  I turned on to my stomach and put my hands out above my head hoping to slow my descent.  I slid about 100 feet all scraped, bruised and dirty from the ordeal.  What I noticed pretty quickly was that my wedding band had slipped off my finger as I tried to slow my speed down the mountain.  The lava rock had of course shifted around me and though we all searched, my wedding band was not to be found.  So here I am going home to my pregnant wife, soon to have pictures of me and six gorgeous girls posing on top of Mt. Fuji and I don’t have a wedding ring.  Fortunately, for me, my friends, the witnesses, vouched for my good behavior to my wife or otherwise the scrapes and bruises from the fall might have been less than what my wife may have given me.

    My mountain climbing experience has been limited to these two occasions.  I love mountains, especially those that reach above the tree line, as many do in Colorado.  I no longer refer to mountains back east as mountains.  They are mostly large hills by comparison.  Some people love living around the oceans, rivers, lakes and valleys but I love viewing mountains.  I don’t really want to climb them, I just want to enjoy their breath-taking majesty from below.  It’s safer, warmer and doesn’t take nearly as much effort.  As a wise old Japanese man once said, “You are a fool if you don’t climb Mt. Fuji once but you are a bigger fool if you climb it twice.”  That my friends, is now my philosophy about climbing any mountains, at my age. larry@huerfanojournal.com