From Here to Eternity

By David Von Drehle
Wednesday, April 25, 2007

This story begins on an August afternoon in 2002 when the baby needed a nap. Or possibly in a different year with a different baby taking a different nap: We had several children in quick succession, and some of the details have blurred. On the vast scale of time that this tale will ultimately encompass -- a scale so stupendous the human mind cannot fathom it -- a year or two, give or take, is nothing.

What I can say with certainty is that this story begins in Colorado, near the town of Estes Park. The wife, kids and I were visiting my in-laws at the YMCA of the Rockies, a big, wholesome spread in an alpine valley northwest of Denver. A baby needed a nap. I decided to take her for a peaceful drive. A quiet car is like Xanax for a baby, and I would be free to admire some mountain vistas. On impulse, I asked my mother-in-law, Marilyn Sue Mohler Ball, if she would like to ride along. We had never done anything of the kind, just the two of us, before. To my surprise, she said yes.

We headed down toward town, but before we got there, Marilyn pointed to a right-hand turn that bypassed the tourist traffic and carried us south. The road skirted the grounds of a camp where I had spent happy days as a boy, and then it climbed a hill through dry pines before leveling out in a wide meadow perhaps a mile square. In the center of this meadow was a space to pull off the road. Marilyn asked me to stop there.

"This is my favorite view in the whole world," she said. Or words to that effect. Having typed them, I'm not so sure. It sounds pretty effusive for Marilyn, the levelheaded daughter of Missouri farmers. The words are more credible, though, if you happened to be sitting in that meadow, looking west. Perfectly centered through the windshield, sharp as carved stone, was Longs Peak, 14,255 feet above sea level -- the tallest mountain in Rocky Mountain National Park. Longs Peak wears the distinction well. It stands apart from and a little above its attendant peaks, mounts Meeker and Lady Washington, as a king stands among courtiers. There's nothing to match it along the hundreds of miles of front range north of Denver into Wyoming, not when you ponder the rounded head and broad shoulders and stunning East Face, which features a 1,000-plus-foot diamond-shaped cliff, sliced sheer and dire straight down from the summit. James Michener, in his novel Centennial, called Longs Peak simply "the best mountain of them all."

We sat there looking and talking as the engine idled and the baby snored softly. We said the sort of things folks say in the presence of the sublime. "Wow!" And, "That sure is something!" And, "Makes you feel small, doesn't it?" Somehow we wound up talking about climbing the mountain, which was just talk because Marilyn could not walk more than a couple of steps at that point, and those only with the help of a cane.

"Oh, well."

That I remember clear as a bell. Marilyn's sensible singsong. "Oh, well," she said. "Maybe when I die, my ashes can get there."

I answered without thinking. "If that ever happens, and I'm still around, I'll take you."

It did happen, three years later. Marilyn died. And when she did, it dawned on me that I had a promise to keep.

There are more than 100 proven routes to the top of Longs Peak, none of them easy. The most difficult go nearly 2,000 feet straight up the East Face, including the Diamond, which has been called the most spectacular high-altitude technical climbing in North America. At the other end of the scale of difficulty -- the end I might conceivably be able to manage -- is the Keyhole Route, a 15-mile round-trip undertaken by an estimated 15,000 people each year and completed by perhaps a third of them. Hiking this trail is like flying an airplane or playing the "Moonlight" sonata: challenging for amateurs, routine for experts. On clear days in August, 100 or more people make it to the top. According to the Yosemite Decimal System, a 1-to-5 scale of climbing difficulty, the Keyhole is a 3-plus, which means essentially that you don't need ropes or technical skills, but a wrong step in certain places can kill you. Outside magazine called the route "a thrilling nontechnical walk-up," for which "you'll need to cultivate a climber's steely nerve."

"Thousands of people do it every year," I told my wife. How hard could it be? Then we returned to Estes Park for Marilyn's memorial service, and I got a fresh glimpse of the peak, snowcapped in autumn. The weather was sunshiny and blue-sky peaceful in the valley, but a gale was blowing up there, shrouding the summit in streamers of white. Being the tallest thing for miles around (hundreds and even thousands of miles in some directions), Longs Peak makes its own, often violent, weather. Even in the mildest months, it can be dangerous to be on top past noon, when the daily fronts roll over, and lightning hammers the schist and wind scours the granite.

Standing in October sunlight while watching a wild storm on the peak more than a mile overhead was sobering, and it forced me to admit that Longs Peak would be a very hard climb for me. Growing up in Colorado did not make me a mountaineer; my few youthful expeditions routinely failed because I slept too late or turned back too easily. In my 20s, I resolved to try again, and planned a week-long trek of about 50 miles through the Swiss Alps, more than 40 miles of which I wound up circumventing by bus. (The beer in the villages, I can report, was excellent.) Something had changed about me, though, since those days. I had become a man in his mid-40s, a middle-age man, as we say optimistically, as if deaths before 60 weren't more common than deaths after 90. I had been cured of the illusion of boundless time, awakened to the fact -- concrete, no longer theoretical -- that opportunities slip away, doors close. There is not always another chance at another mountain on another day.

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