Third Quarter 2013 – Above The Clouds

I have spent most of my life being a couch potato. Frank is the athletic one in the family. I do things like clean house, help in the yard, and play with the kids and grandkids. I have never been structured in trying to get into better physical shape. I knew  it was important and that I wanted to change. Frank and I started looking into different hiking venues. In a moment of a total  mental break with reality, I even thought we could train and climb Mount Kilimanjaro in Africa at 19,330 feet and with five climate changes. Okay, back to reality. We decided to train and climb Pike’s Peak, 14,115 feet, for Frank’s 69th birthday on September 28, 2013.

As the New Year rolled around, we began planning our training. We learned much about Barr Trail, the 13 mile route we  would take to the summit. Because we would be 60 and 69 years old making this trip, we also wisely decided to take along  some younger legs. Our nephew, Jay Nelson and his wife Kate, live in Fort Collins, CO and they happily agreed to trek with us on this journey.

Barr Trail is an active trail for people trekking to the summit of Pike’s Peak. The trailhead begins in the quaint town of  Manitou Springs, CO, and travels through numerous switch-backs as you work your way up the mountain. We decided to  make this journey in two days, and we had arrangements to spend the night at the bunk house at Barr Camp, 7 miles into the  journey. This would leave six miles to trek the next day, Frank’s birthday.

John Lennon said, “Life happens when you are busy making other plans.” While we had all the plans in place, tragedy struck our family. As many of you know, our 15 year old granddaughter, Hannah Crist, died September 13th. The pain and sorrow had all of us reeling. It was hard to get out of bed and put one foot in front of the other, let alone think of climbing a mountain. The tears would not stop. Not only were we grieving our own loss, but our hearts were laid bare by the suffering of our son and his wife. But bit by bit, comfort does come. We were comforted by so many with kind words, prayers, hugs, thoughts, flowers and cards. These were deeply appreciated by our family. Our faith, along with the outpouring of love and compassion, has sustained us.

As we were getting closer to when we should leave for Colorado, Frank believed we should still go to Pike’s Peak. I was having a  harder time thinking we could/should do this, and then I felt a little nudge by God saying, “It’s okay, you can go.” Armed with  our faith and a lock of Hannah’s hair to be released from the top of this mountain, we set off for Colorado and a birthday that Frank will never forget.

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Frank, Jay, Kate, and I rose early to start the day. We drove to the trailhead, stopped for appropriate picture taking, and off we went, back  and forth, back and forth, up the trail. We had read that the first three miles or so would take a lot out of us, and those reports were accurate. The incline in the first section is relatively steep. Being “flatlanders” (Terre Haute is at 501 feet in altitude) the thin air of Colorado made breathing a little difficult. On we pressed, slow and steady. We would stop for food and drinks and to enjoy the beautiful surroundings. The Aspens were just starting to turn golden yellow and the contrast with the green pines and crisp blue sky truly was something to behold. The higher we reached, however, the more and more labored my breathing became, my head started pounding, and I was nauseated. I was a walking example of altitude sickness.

We arrived at Barr Camp, and I was elated to have a spot where I could lie down. I was convinced that with a little nap, I would be just fine. But  I wasn’t just fine. Aspirin was not helping my head, and while I knew I needed to eat the great spaghetti and garlic bread made by Barr Camp caretakers, Anthony and Renee, I wasn’t sure it would stay down. The decision had to be made. I wasn’t going to the summit of Pike’s Peak. I needed to go down the mountain, not up.

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Caretaker is a big word, and Anthony and Renee gave Frank assurance that they would take care of me, and their assurance was what was needed. It was decided. Frank, Jay, Kate, and Hannah’s lock of hair would continue to the summit of Pike’s Peak.

Day 2 of the hike started with more difficulty than expected. After about 1.5 miles, Frank told Jay and Kate he would just have to come  back to Barr Camp and ride the cog railway down with me. Jay and Kate, always inspiring, kind, helpful and loving, encouraged Frank that he could go on. Frank grabbed on to those words, and started back up the mountain, taking 100 steps and resting, then 100 more, and so it went, up, up, the mountain. At tree line, Frank realized he was at the point of no return. If he moved up the mountain any higher, his only choice was to be successful or to be rescued off the mountain.

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Back at Barr Camp, I waited with Anthony and Renee until it was time for us to walk 1.5 miles to catch the train down the mountain. Many hikers stop at Barr Camp to talk with friends, use the facilities, or just hang out and eat their lunch. Two such guys were Larry and Shawn, brothers who have climbed to the top of Pike’s Peak and down once a month for the last 5 years!  They visited with me at Barr Camp and I told them the story of a year of planning, nine months of training, of sorrow and heartbreak, of a lock of hair and a birthday to celebrate.  These two men became like angels. Soon the encouragement they would give to Frank would be pressed into his heart forever.

Frank was at tree-line, deciding to go up or go down. Behind him he heard a loud voice, “Frank? Is that you? Happy Birthday, Frank!” Frank said  his immediate thought was “Who?”, and then it was, “Ah, Barr Camp. Someone has talked with Janet.” Frank can tell this part better than I can, but I will say that Larry and Shawn provided much needed encouragement, and they visited together about 20 minutes before they continued their monthly trek up to the summit. Frank, Jay, and Kate also started moving, and the direction was UP!

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After hours of grueling climbing, they reached the “16 golden stairs”. This is a series of sharp switch-backs along the rocky part of the trail.  e hiking was hard and exhausting. Again, it was counting steps and inching toward the top. And who would come bounding down the mountain? Larry and Shawn on their way down. “Frank, you are almost there! You are doing awesome! Just a little further! You can do it!” Encouragement, compassion, love of their fellow man – all words I would use to describe Larry and Shawn – maybe angels.

Frank, Jay, and Kate did reach the summit of Pike’s Peak. The climbing was over, and exhaustion was soon to set in. Tickets had been purchased for them to take the cog railway down, and I was going to pick them up at the train station. Again, life happens when you are busy making plans.  e climb took longer than expected, and there was no time at the top to enjoy the beauty, and the train left the summit while they stayed at the top. Jay called me to discuss what they should do, and I knew the answer. I would drive to the summit of Pike’s Peak.

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I do not consider myself a coward, and on many occasions, I fancy myself to be a little brave. The word I would use to describe how I felt driving to the top of this 14,115 foot mountain is TERRIFIED! By the time I exited the car, my entire body was trembling in fear, but I knew the circle was complete. All four of us, Frank, Jay, Kate, and I were at the top of Pike’s Peak together. Frank and I stood at the rim and sent a lock of our beloved granddaughter’s hair high into the Heavens. She is in God’s hands, and we are left to miss her and to make a way for others in the world. Our mission on earth isn’t complete, and we pray for God to continue to guide our steps and our hearts. Maybe one day He’ll take us to another summit.

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