Cut Corner in Gym, Cut Corners In Life.

We had this high school gym coach who said, “If you cut corners in gym, you’ll cut corners in life.” We always laughed at this, and, indeed, it was funny. But it was also true. I’m not much of a corner cutter, or at least I’m not anymore. My middle school ancients teacher said, “Plan your work and work your plan.” This better describes my style.

When I started hiking fourteeners with my wife, I realized the importance of plans. She would visit websites like 14ers.com, where she would study previous hikers’ photos and read comments about the pathways they took up the mountains. I saw the value in this, and we took to talking about our routes weeks before we left on expedition.

One time, however, we summited an impromptu fourteener. We’d hiked Mount Princeton the day before, and we had an extra day, so we decided to go up Mount Antero. Antero is the highest summit of the Sawatch Mountain range, rising 14,276 feet into the sky. Most experienced fourteener hikers will tell you Antero isn’t a difficult climb. They’ll talk about its wider trails which drive an increase of four wheeler traffic and Jeep enthusiasts (indeed, we ran into the Denver Jeep Jamboree; we also met four wheelers from Iowa who couldn’t handle the altitude, so they trekked down to catch a smoke). Another thing they’ll tell you about Antero is to be on watch for “aqua”, or aquamarine gems, which are the state gem of Colorado. They’re mined on Antero. (We did see prospectors—see Photo No. 11; they mine behind the 13,800-foot point).

Because our ascent was spur of the moment, we had little time to prepare. Of course we packed our 10 essentials. And the night before, we sat outside at the South Main Eddyline, where we planned our next day’s trek.

Around the 12,100-foot mark is a trail that winds around the base of the 13,800-foot plateau. We had heard you can shortcut your way up from the existing trail at 12,100 and up onto the 13,800 plateau, which comes out to about a 1,700-foot altitude change. To stay on the recommended path added somewhere around a mile to our hike, and we thought by the look of things that we could scramble up the west face without trouble.

We began our ascent, and we knew almost instantly we’d ventured into dangerous territory. For starters, it was cold. My hands were especially cold. The sun was tucked on the other side of the mountain, so we climbed in shadows. And the incline was more than we bargained for. It was hand-over-hand climbing; scrambling. I shifted out from climbing behind my wife because I feared scree might dislodge and smash me in the face. We climbed and climbed. When we looked up, we eventually lost the plateau, blinded by the sun. I asked my wife, who’s summited something like 17 14-thousand peaks all over the word, what her experience told her. She said, “We should climb down.” Down we went. Below is a picture of my wife pointing out the extreme incline of the shortcut. I took this on our way down.

Jennifer points out the incline from our shortcut.

Jennifer points out the incline from our shortcut.

We used a lot of energy here, and we still had the 1,700-foot elevation gain to overcome along with a rather treacherous looking saddle before we made our break for the summit.

Here Jennifer begins her ascent of the saddle, the final push before the 400-foot lead to the summit.

Here Jennifer begins her ascent of the saddle, the final push before the 400-foot lead to the summit.

The saddle, at least for me, was no joke. I thought it was a difficult trek. Once we reached the top of the saddle, we found ourselves at the base of the summit. Apparently, there’s a switchback trail which guides you through (or around) a snowfield (at the time) and zigzags you all the way up. Somehow, we missed the cairn that marked the start of the trail; so, again, we began a direct assault to the top. This push was as if not more treacherous than the incline of the shortcut we had previously abandoned.

About 100 feet from the top, I was wasted out of breath, took a break, and pressed my back into the rock. I had to sit there for a minute or two before I finished the climb. And, I might add, this was a climb. Long gone were the simple slight incline hikes from earlier in the morning. We again found ourselves hand-over-hand scrambling up the rock and scree. Again I repositioned myself so as not to catch loose rock to the face. We essentially completed the same type of climb we had begun just a few hours earlier.

The final push to the summit on Antero. If you look to the right, you’ll see two small figures toward the top. These are hikers who found the properly marked cairn trail and took the switchback route. We, of course, made a direct assault.

The final push to the summit on Antero. If you look to the right, you’ll see two small figures toward the top. These are hikers who found the properly marked cairn trail and took the switchback route. We, of course, made a direct assault.

We foolishly—and I say “we” but in reality I was the one who wanted to—parked two miles short of the trailhead. We were so exhausted that, once we reached the trailhead, we hitched a ride back to my car. That’s when I discovered I’d snapped a bolt on my Thule bike rack. I had the pleasure of spending the next hour dismantling and reassembling the rack before we could return to Buena Vista.

While I’ve learned several lessons about short cuts, this is the one I’ll never forgot. It’s not that we didn’t plan. It’s not that we were unprepared. It’s just that we thought we could shave some time off the hike—we deviated from our original and planned route. And I’d wager the reason we missed the cairn for the easier switchbacks to summit the peak was because we were tired from the failed shortcut attempt.

Jennifer, after this hike, appropriated Tolstoy’s opening to Anna Karenina when she said, “Each fourtneener is a fourteener in its own way.” I hear people talk about fear all the time and about how most fears are imagined. I’ve encountered all sorts of imagined fears; but on Antero I found real fear. And it wouldn’t be the last time I’d find fear in mountaineering adventures.

Ever since, when a shortcut presents itself, I remember this experience, and I ask myself one simple question: “Is it worth it.” I’m all for spur of the moment! I’m all for shifting gears mid-adventure! But I also have experience under my belt now about what happens when you try to shortcut something unexpectedly.

Parker McConachieComment