My Journey to the Top of Twin-Sisters Mountain
By John Graham
August 4th, 2012
Buddhist Pema Chodron says in her book Comfortable with Uncertainity, “Spiritual awakening is frequently described as a journey to the top of a mountain We leave our attachments and our worldliness behind and slowing make our way to the top. At the peak we have transcended all pain” (Pema Chodron, Shambhala Press, 2008, p 1). Let me begin by saying at the peak of my Twin-Sisters Mountain trail hike ourside Estes Park, CO I cannot say I had transcended “all pain”. I suspect that could only be true for the well-seasoned, acclimatized and native mountain hiker. Or, it is something only those who have never made a 11,435 ft. climb could say.
I found the last quarter mile above the treeline was brutal. Because the path had degenerated to nothing but bolders, very step had to be carefully measured. I was near exhaustion and yet had to be exceedingly careful so as not to break an ankle, or worse. It is a butal climb, I tell you. Brutal. I think it would be a great way to punish convicted criminals by having them climb Twin-Sisters MT. They’d never want to break the law again.
In any case, I made it, as the photograph attests. Please do look at that picture. You are viewing my last climb of this type. It was on my Bucket List and now it is checked off. Understand, I am a few months away from being 75 years of age but I made it, rarefied air and all. I recently told President George H.W.Bush (41′) that he was an inspiration (jumping out of planes at 85 years of age) and he said, “John at 75, you are still a “spring chicken!” I promise you, I did not feel that way at the top though I was pleased and proud to have made it.
The reason I wanted to make the trek up Twin-Sisters MT. was because I was told it gave spectacular views of Long’s Peak which is the highest point in a National Park (14,259 ft). According to Wikipedia, the first recorded ascent was in 1868 by the surveying party of John Wesley Powell. The East Face of the mountain is quite steep, and is surmounted by a gigantic sheer cliff known as “The Diamond” (so-named because of its shape, approximately that of a cut diamond seen from the side and inverted.
I know something about Long’s Peak because decades ago I took a class in oil painting under Louis J Sicard, Jr, FRAS (Fellow Royal Artists’ Society) a regionallyfamous artist who lived in my hometown of Shreveport, LA. Sicard had a unique teaching style. He would paint a scene and his students would see the reversed image of what he was painting on a mirror above and behind him. So, we painted a mirror imagine of his work. He was an impressionistic artist and mine never looked anything near as great as his. I was too precise, my lines too sharp. Up close his paintings looked horrible, step back and they were a delight.
Sicard was a salesman. During breaks in his class he would take us into his home where dozens of his unsold works were hanging on his walls. They were all for sale. I was captivated by a 42X30 inch oil painting of Long’s Peak. It stood magestically and proudly, pointing you heavenward. Every class I would look at the painting but the price stopped me. It was the most expensive of any he showed for sale. One day Sicard said to me, “John, I won’t be alive much longer and when I die the painting will double in price overnight.” That was what I needed to hear. I bought it on the spot. Since 1980 the painting has hung in our living room, magestic and compelling. See a picture of Sicard’s painting above and to the right.
Day after day, I would gaze at the magnificient painting in my living room and soon began to think: “I have to climb Long’s Peak before I die.” Well, I sort of did — I climbed Twin-Sisters so I could get the best view of Long’s Peak. I took a picture of it. My son-in-laws, Kevin Nickell, M.D. and Rob Pearce, have actually climbed Long’s Peak itself. It is a much more daunting hike and you wind up on the other side of the mountain, which is actually the view Sicard depicted in his painting above. The picture below is what I saw from Twin-Sisters Mt.
Viewing the magnificient, magestic Long’s Peak up close (OK, not so close), with its true “diamond cut” appearance was a great experience. I was pleased I had done it. And, I have Kevin Nickell to thank for encouraging me every step of the way up that mountain, 11-cross tracks (I stopped counting), then the hike up the barren stony mountain to the top and my view of the horizon. Truly, it was an awesome experience, though not without pain. Two days later I still have sore muscles and cannot walk down steps without wincing.
In fact, that is where I must disagree with Pema Chodron, at the peak of a mountain top we don’t transcend all pain. Thinking back, even though I was aching all over, I was thrilled. Together with my fellow hikers we had achieved something I could not or would not have done alone. The teenagers raced ahead and I wasn’t the last one up the mountain, either. Some were saying, “I am nearly half your age and you are ahead of me.” Okay, fine. Matters not how fast you get to the top or who gets there first. I got there. Enough said.
Only, it was the hike down the mountain that was the most painful. I used muscles I don’t think I have used in decades. You move much faster going down and therein is the danger. One false step and you can break an ankle or worse. So, you had to plant each step you took with measured care. That I did, but by the end I was literally staggering down the mountain. I think I was experiencing hypoxia and hypoglycemia combined. Nothing ever felt so good as to sit in our car and have Kevin drive us back to YMCA camp where a hot tub bath never felt so good.
I slept for two hours that afternoon and felt like a human again. A human who had conquered a mountain — well hardly. A human who had reached the top and returned alive. Enough bragging. Enough about “transcending pain.” How about experiencing severe, excruciating pain and surving. That is closer to the truth. Any prisoner having to hike up that mountain unprepared might well call it “cruel and unusual punishment.” If he did, I would have to smile and say, “Oh, yeah. Ain’t it so?” But, was it worth it? Absolutely.