|New York Mountain summit ridge.|
I am sliding. No doubt about it. It is slow motion at first. I reach for a spike of wind sculpted snow and it crumbles in my hands. I watch each crystal shine and reflect the magnificent sun as they burst into powder. I reach for a horn of golden granite covered in pink and lime lichens. No luck. Faster and faster I accelerate until the rocks and ice around me pass as only a blur. I trigger a spindrift avalanche as I go. It follows me down, sharing my last moments of consciousness. A crampon catches and I begin the cartwheeling end-over-end dance that leaves alpinists in pieces and all but assures closed caskets...if they ever find you. Then, just as suddenly as my descent began, I nestle into a soft spot in a mushy pile of fluff and all is calm. It is quiet in this crack deep inside the glacier. I have found a tiny perch on a bench of snow with room for one butt. Make that 2 butts. Beside me is the Old Man. He looks cold, like he has been there a while. He is missing a glove. He is missing some skin here and there. We share a smile. The avalanche catches up and pours over us. I swim upward into the deluge but it is over in a blink. I am suffocating as everything flashes white...
Sleep apnea! I gasp for at least a minute in the blackness of my tent as I wake and embrace reality. I have not slept above 10,000 feet since Alaska in 2005. High altitude messes with the mind and makes sleep a bizarre experience. The apnea strikes all night long inducing panic and a feeling of suffocation as I periodically forget how to breathe. I am on New York Mountain, a nondescript 12,600' peak near Eagle, Colorado in the Sawatch Mountains. It is snowing and I plan to summit tomorrow. Bigger, harder and more beautiful mountains surround the peak, yet no mountain on earth has more significance in guiding the trajectory of my family. Let's start at the beginning.
In 1972, the Old Man was fresh out of the Navy. With $5, a canvas sack and his dog Oreo, he hitchhiked from Ohio to Boulder, Colorado in search of new horizons. People felt sorry for Oreo and picked them up. Upon arrival in the Republic, he found shelter in a long-abandoned school house at 9th and Arapahoe with the other vagrants. He slept in a room with a missing window, soaked from the leaking roof and used newspapers as a blanket. The building has since been renovated and protected as a local landmark called the Historic Highland Building. These days, it is a bustling multi-million dollar center of offices, spas, and luxury living. In the early 70's it was a meager place to scratch out an existence.
Luckily, he met a man named Gil with a construction outfit. He put in some work around Boulder for a week and rented a one room shack from Gil. He cashed a check and proudly went to the grocery store and bought some beans to quell his aching stomach. As he walked home with Oreo in the sleety Boulder murk, filthy with plaster dust and nearly starved, his grocery sack ripped open and his beans rolled into the sewer. Gone. He walked back to the store and bought some more. Upon his return home, he realized that he lacked a can opener to open them and a pot with which to cook them. He laid down next to the old boiler- no bed, blanket or calories. He propped himself up with his hand under his head and and his elbow on the cold ground- he could sleep like that indefinitely- and faced another night of misery. This part of the story has always choked me up. I love my father and it pains me to think of his hunger, loneliness and lack of even the basic elements of human comfort. This is the best part though. It turns out the Old Man was hard as fucking nails. He suffered and LIKED it. He had worked to feed and clothe himself since he was 8 years old. He was a survivor and this was what he did. He was a frontiersman in the New West and he was about to find his way.
One weekend, Gil and the boys were heading west for a quick job and some partying in the hills. They wound up in Fulford, high above Eagle and directly under the hulking flank of New York Mountain. At 10,000' and 25 miles from anywhere, Fulford was a lawless haven of hippy debauchery. They danced and partied like hippies were apt to do. They drank tequila and blazed doobies until the sun came up. After some breakfast Banquet beers, they began their climb. It starts from around 11,000 feet, already far beyond Dad's sea level, tar choked lung capacity. Up a steep trail through the forest to his first encounter with tree line- where the real world ends and the alpine dream begins. Still drunk and high and reeling from hypoxia, the motley crew made their way across the sublime ridgeline, staggering toward the summit. They embraced at the highest rock and it was done. More tequila flowed and the hippies whooped with joy as a fat joint rolled out of the summit register tube securing their buzz all the way back to the continuing party of intoxicants and drum circles of Fulford. Good times.
The Old Man built lots of things around Colorado with Gil's crew, especially around Aspen, Frisco and Dillon. I'm not too sure how those years of the mid-70's played out for him, but I know they were wild. Eventually, the Old Man found his way back to Ohio and found a job in the steel mill. In those days, this type of job made you essentially a rich man. He still lived in a shack down at Grimm's Bridge and paid $10 a month to old Micky for rent and had lots of extra folding money. He met my mother, Crazy Nan, and at the age of 30, he became my father. 1979 was a big one. He fed me pizza and beer as we watched the Steelers and Pirates win world titles. As Willie Stargell hit his series clinching game 7 homer, the Old Man jumped high and smashed his hands into the dappled plaster ceiling he had just sculpted, splitting them wide open. I cried for him, but I learned that is just how Humphrey's do it. Always some bitter with the sweet.
By 1980, Crucible Steel had closed its doors, the bank had taken his home and my parents had split. The Old Man was living like an animal again. Not sure how, but Nan got custody and I was lucky to see Dad every couple weekends. I lived with mom in a rough housing project and Dad never stopped worrying about my safety. I was surrounded by bad elements. Bad conditions and bad people with bad intentions. I ran to school everyday carrying my books- 2 miles each way- all conditions. I wore dirty clothes and smelled of cigarettes and was often hungry. Each morning, when the school bell rang, and the sweat cooled on my skin, I stood and walked to the front of the class to accept my blue free lunch token with the other "Scums" while the girls and boys in the fancy clothes tucked their packed lunches with homemade goodies into the mini-fridge. Like Dad, I was a survivor. I was too smart, and too strong to let that cesspool drag me down. Things got hard. I got harder. For Christmas I found a fresh pair of Coolmax socks and my first running log under our Charlie Brown tree. Ramen and bread, Ramen and bread.
In 1985, Dad quit smoking, drinking and became a real runner. He even did some marathons. The jogging fad had swept the nation and had crept into the podunk dregs of Columbiana County, Ohio. I began going to weekend races with Dad. I got some attention and climbed the social ladder for my exploits on the roads and tracks. The mill opened up again and he was one of the first hires. Dad got custody and we were a team again. He told me that when I got older and stronger, he would take me to Colorado to climb New York Mountain. I dreamed of rocks and ice and ran uphills carrying snowballs in my bare hands to practice.
When I was 15, we made the trip west with my cousin Brett. Dad studied up and made sure we had the best gear to ensure success. Flannel shirts. Check. Timberland boots. Yep. That same old green canvas Navy duffel. Absolutely. We lugged the gear from the trailhead up to tree line to camp and shorten our "summit assault" the next morning. I labored with the old duffel slung over my shoulder, full of heavy and useless crap- mostly Dinty Moore Beef Stew and flannel- none of it mountain worthy. When we arrived at the site, things changed for me. I'm not sure if it was hypoxia or the epiphany of genuine inspiration...maybe it was destiny. When The Old Man and Crazy Nan got together in some shack way back when, their hillbilly genes were twisted and smashed together with all sorts of drugs and stuff. Dad's hardscrabble roughness and mom's craziness were mixed into a double helix shaped thing loaded up with a combination of A, C, T and G codons that became an endurance zygote. I came out bloated with red blood cells and jammed with EPO. My young heart and lungs were huge and my VO2MAX was a loaded gun. I stood there feeling weightless, looking up at miles of talus. I dropped the heavy sack and began running...no, sprinting up the mountain. I ran all the way to the ridge in what felt like seconds. I staggered back down, drunk from the dizzying heights and we camped among the boulders, brothers. I choked on apnea all night and had lucid dreams of the next day's adventure. We summitted together the next morning- a life changing experience for us all. Dad felt as if he had closed the loop by showing me this alternate reality. I didn't realize it at the time, but I was becoming something very different. Ohio would not suffice much longer. We climbed New York Mountain a few years later with my buddy Nick. By then, I had lost the nostalgia and just wanted to push for higher, harder, more and faster. "Do we have to go there again Dad, it's just a slag heap. It's not even a 14'er." The endurance rat had already began chewing on my brain. I wouldn't put these running tools to use again for another 15 years, but the trail was already forged. Dad would continue his climbing attaining incredible heights in athletics, career, education and humanity. A noble hillbilly for sure.
May 10, 2005 I awoke exhausted and dehydrated at 14,000' from my solo climb up the Messner Couloir the day before. 10 hours camp to camp and the Denali Rangers had begun to call me "the Lung." My mountain ambitions were just starting to be realized. I lay barely awake in the tent and plot more climbs before my flight home. Something is wrong though. I'm not sure what. I stagger out of the tent and try the Old Man on the 2-way. Static. I check with the Rangers. They had been alerted by some guides to a party moving slowly that did not come back to the 17,200' high camp last night. The guides were already en route up the mountain and had spotted something. Minutes later, it was confirmed. On the flight home, broken apart, I remembered something. "Drawer by the sink. Under the silverware. If anything ever happens, look there." Sure enough, New York Mountain would be his final spot. He put it all in writing. Nick and I set him adrift from the peak the following summer, when Colorado had become my home. He took on a bird-like, or maybe even an angelic shape as he lifted over the Sawatch as dust in the wind. The sturdier bits of titanium, silver and steel- the screws, pins and fillings- acquired from living so hard for so long- we sorted out along with the bigger shards of bone, tooth and claw. Even the fires of hell could not break the Old Man down all the way. We stashed these under a rock up there. Forever his home.
Nine years have passed and I'm back for a visit. I shake off my suffocating dreams and begin my run up the mountain- the final prep for an upcoming 100k, which is the beginning prep for a 100+ miler this summer. As I pondered the upcoming race, I remembered his stern warning. "Someday, you will run a marathon. Don't EVER run farther than that." He looked me dead in the eye and poked me hard in the chest when I was 6 years old as he told me that. Sorry man. You have no idea what you started. I plowed along post-holing and chuckling. A big winter meant I had to run 3 extra miles of snowmobile trail just to get to the trailhead. I broke trail through waist deep snow in a sloppy wet whiteout, wearing a cotton shirt. I am my father's son, after all. Above tree line, the storm shifted gears and freight train winds tossed me about on the slippery verglas-ed rocks. I summited and ducked behind a rock pile for a second of tranquility and to give thanks, remembering what this mountain means to me. As I stepped off the top, I waded through a huge drift and my shoe was pried off by a rock deep below the snow's surface. I dug for several minutes then stopped to warm my hands in my crotch and pound on my bare foot to keep it from falling off. I stood there in the maelstrom, numb, with miles to go to reach my rig. "A little help here please? Dad?" The wind subsided a bit and I found my shoe and finagled it back onto my frozen foot. I smile despite my horrible predicament.
Always some sweet with plenty of bitter. The Humphrey way.
|New York Mountain Summit. Hypothermia coming soon.|
|Gold Dust Peak the day after the storm. In good conditions, this and several other area peaks could be enchained with New York. Someday.|
|Modern day Fulford. Pretty conservative little enclave. Mostly 4WD enthusiasts and hunters, from what I can see.|
|The old schoolhouse, 9th and Arapahoe. A snip from Google Street View.|
|Back home in Idaho with Brandi. First Brundage Mountain summit on a bike for me. The 5k Cat Track climb took me 45 minutes. I run it in 28. Biking sucks.|
|Our home is on the right side of the lake below. It is pretty cool to climb a peak from home, look at your home from the summit, then finish by descending back to home.|
|Elk tenderloin + morels is the best pre-race meal. Not a bad harvest this year, just had to go a bit higher than usual. These guys came from 6200-6400'. The highest I have ever picked.|