Texas’ Guadeloupe Peak (8749) was much kinder to me. This time I brought food and water and allowed myself enough time to make it up and down before the afternoon was over. New Mexico’s Wheeler Peak (13,161) had more than a dozen people at the summit, including a golden retriever. The best part about this high point was the hospitality of a complimentary room at the Swiss Chalet styled, Austing Haus. Built, owned and operated by Paul Austing. Since this tour, Paul and I have become great buds. He once cycled across the united States, so he understands a nut like me. We gel.
Oklahoma’s Black Mesa (4973), Kansas’ Mount Sunflower (4039), and Nebraska’s Panorama Point (5424), flew by in quick succession, and a welcomed break for me, because the next mountain to be added to the list was Colorado’s Mount Elbert (14,433), my first high point over 14,000 feet.
Utah’s Kings Peak (13,528) was a 3 day event. During this period of quiet reflection within nature’s arms, and the sounds of Bach’s Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring, or Greg’s Peer Gynt on my portable cassette player, I began to plan out my strategy for the next three monsters. I would not take the summits of Idaho, Wyoming and Montana lightly. I knew I needed help, but from whom?
The answer came from fellow climbers I had met along the way. One name stood out: Jackson Hole Mountain Guides. I contacted them on my way to Idaho, and spoke with one of the owners, Paul Horton. I needed guides to help me get to the summits of Wyoming and Montana, because I knew I wasn’t equipped or experienced enough to do those peaks on my own. And uh, oh, one more little detail… I had a mountain bike that was also going to those summits with me.
Paul was impressed with my adventurer’s streak and gave me a pair of guides to help with Gannett Peak (13,804). The summit was a 20 mile walk in an area called the Wind River Range that takes your breath away by its sheer beauty. I actually had to pound my chest to restart my heart, and control my breathing. And I thought to myself, “How can people say there’s no God? Beauty like this could never happen by accident.” And in all this splendor, someone recognized me to ask for an autograph and photo. I knew then as I do now that I will never escape the notoriety of the Great Wall Tour. I accept it as part of my life, just as I accept who I am and what I’ve become.
Next on the list was Montana’s Granite Peak (12,799). My guide warned me that most people don’t make this particular summit on their first attempt, so I shouldn’t get my hopes up. I acknowledged what he was saying, but knew I wasn’t going to leave the mountain until the summit was complete. We entered an area called, appropriately enough, Froze-to-Death Plateau, where the winds howled all day and night, but where I had not seen as many stars in the sky since being in China.
We began early the next day for our summit attempt. I was considering a mild workday, until we came to the last 500 feet, which turned out to be a sheer cliff. There was no getting around this monster. Storm clouds began to build above us. I swore I saw Mephisto from ‘Fantasia’s’ Night On Bald Mountain laughing down at us. My guide was somewhat nervous as he prepared the ropes we would tie into, and began the ascent through the cracks and crevices of the cliff. I followed several feet below.
There was silence on Paul’s end before he erupted into laughter. “You’re going to do Borah on your own? With no rope, ice ax, or crampons? Chicken Ridge will see if you turn around or not. But if you make it up and down alive, then come on by and see me, and we’ll help you out.”
Idaho’s Borah Peak (12,662) was a 6000 foot gain in elevation from the parking lot in a distance of 3 miles. You had to be part Billy goat, and somewhat inhuman. Because I was doing this during the workweek, there wasn’t another soul around to help me if I needed it. I would be totally on my own.
Again, I began in early light, with the bicycle on my back, taking a casual pace approach. At 10,000 feet, I came face to face with the infamous Chicken Ridge. A sheer wall of rock between me and the summit, with only a thin, ice covered ledge that led to a drop of several thousand feet. This was the test of either retreating or moving ahead. There was no choice for me. I advanced cautiously forward, inching my way along.
Eventually, I made the summit, only staying long enough to sign the book and take a few timed photos. Daylight was beginning to end, and to be stuck anywhere between the summit and Chicken Ridge would be suicidal. Being the summer, there were extra hours of daylight to play with. Once at the 10,000 foot level, I assembled the bike and rode down, my chest touching the top tube of my bike so I wouldn’t go over the handlebars. I called Paul Horton on my way to Jackson Hole, Wyoming.
It took us the rest of the day to reach the goal. 100 feet from the top, the storm was growing in strength. My guide wanted to retreat. I refused. He wanted an additional day’s pay. I granted it. 50 feet from the summit, he didn’t care about the money. I refused to retreat anyway. He cursed and said I was too stupid to know when to quit. I agreed.
It had taken us two days to reached the 11th summit of the Tour, and we stayed all of 6 minutes. Enough time to sign the book, and take some photos as thunderbolts began to strike around us. Nothing like having a lightening rod strapped to your back.
My guide clipped me to the rope and told me to retreat. Retreat with a bike on my back in a thunderstorm? You must be joking? He pushed me over the side. I went screaming all the way down, praying to God, “Just get us out of here, and I promise, I’ll never do this again.” And all the time, He knew I was lying.
Back at the nearest town, we stopped at the local bar and had a drink. In fact, I think I had lots of drinks that day to calm the shakes. But the worse was over. The killer monster peaks of the West were now behind me at least for this year. Now I was going to head toward the mid-West and East Coast. Homework was done. I could go out and play.
Since I was in shape and acclimatized, my guide suggested I should go after Rainier. No way! Thus far, the bike was riding me more than I was riding it. We had ourselves more drinks. Somewhere, things got blurry, and I found myself heading West.