It only took two hours of hiking up a ten-degree grade slope, with more than half of it by means of a “shoulder ride”, one sobbing fit, a lightning storm, and about 50 stops before we actually reached the start of our first attempt at summiting, as a family, the Twin Owls formation. After two short, roped pitches of what amounted to easy fifth-class climbing up the Bowels of the Owls route, we found ourselves on the summit and enjoying a beautiful view of Lumpy Ridge, a storied climbing area that sits just outside of Estes Park, Colorado.
Two weeks earlier, we had left Minneapolis in our 1989 Volkswagen Westfalia on our annual summer pilgrimage to travel westward, visit friends, play on the rocks, and explore areas old and new. After the birth of our son, my wife and I were determined to keep road-tripping. The experiences we have shared and those that continue to unfold are priceless memories that I am certain someday I will miss dearly. I can still remember being packed in the back of my dad’s ’98 Oldsmobile with my two sisters and nothing more than some books and a handful of army men to keep me occupied. My dad would point the car west each summer, and without a care, we were on the road for the next two weeks. We would look out the windows and watched the Great Plains spill out in front of us like one vast canvass just waiting to be explored.
Earlier in the spring months, while planning the kick-off for 50×50, and considering our options for connecting with friends along the way, my wife and I had made plans to reconnect with our good friends Juan Esteban, Kelly and their son, Rojan. They had moved from Minnesota to Colorado a few years earlier, and had recently relocated to Boulder after spending a couple years in Estes Park. Like a lot of our friends, Juan Esteban and Kelly are incredible climbers. Juan Esteban is an amazing artist and climbing phenom. Kelly has climbed all over the U.S. and internationally. Their son, Rojan, is only a couple years older than Rhys. Anyone who is a parent understands that, while we parents are great and all, kids enjoy the company of other kids. Rhys and Rojan were definitely looking forward to hanging out.
Since moving to Colorado’s Front Range, Juan Esteban and Kelly have surrounded themselves with a close-knit community of climbers, and the mountains are their oyster. So when we got together to catch up on what was new, it wasn’t surprising that a fun afternoon for them involved inviting us to join them and some of their friends in climbing the Twin Owls rock formation at Lumpy Ridge. They knew of my plan to get Rhys to do a climb with me for the 50×50 project and suggested an easy, but challenging climb on the back side of the Twin Owls.
In all my years of climbing, there is one thing I have learned about climbers that live on the Front Range of Colorado, and generally most outdoor enthusiasts who live in mountains — the majority of them are über fit. It is not uncommon for the typical Colorado rock jock to wake up in the morning at 5:00 a.m., park at the trailhead at Long’s Peak and go for a “jog” to tag the summit, a mere 14.5-mile approach up approximately 5,100 feet of elevation gain, only to be back at the car by lunch time. This exemplifies Juan Esteban and Kelly perfectly, and they are growing a mini Juan Esteban in Rojan, who seems to run up the trails as if it is no different than walking to school.
Our son, Rhys, has been around climbing his entire life, but to say that Rhys loves climbing would not be a fair statement. I mean, Rhys likes climbing well enough, but let’s all remember he is five! So Rhys likes everything. He loves running, wrestling, jumping, scrambling on the rocks, hiding in caves, building forts, making mud, and tons of other messy, mischievous activities. He does like climbing, though, and when the challenge was put up for a vote, Rhys was in and so were we.
The Twin Owls…
So as we all started down the trail with the sun out and smiles on our faces, we had not quite prepared ourselves for the extent of the hike. After about eight city blocks of hiking, or a quarter of a mile, Rhys was lagging behind, and feeling the effects of the alpine terrain.
As we turned uphill for a short section of the trail, Kelly pointed up to our objective with the Twin Owls standing proudly above us, a good 30-45 minute hike still remaining before we could reach the base of the route. Bronwyn and I exchanged looks and hoped Rhys could pull it off. Ten minutes later, Rhys was begging for a shoulder ride. I considered it fun, and even my responsibility, to carry Rhys on my shoulders when he was 1,2,3 and even 4, but at 5 years old my shoulders were starting to bark back each time I lifted the 45-pounder up on my back. Not to mention I had a 40 pound pack on to boot! But, if you want to climb, and want your kid to climb, certain sacrifices must be made, and so the uphill hike began.
The shoulder ride sounded good and all at first, but of course the other two young ones were having all sorts of fun on the trail and Rhys needed to be part of it, too. So he disembarked as soon as there was a spear grass discovery, and threw grass spears for a good ten minutes before we moved on. Slowly, but surely, we pushed on. Water stops helped ease the suffering, and switchbacks were opportunities to stop and watch the thunderstorm that was building over Long’s Peak in the distance. Fantastic views and wildlife were great distractions, and before I knew it, Rhys was back hiking again, and making his way to the climb.
We arrived at the base just in time for a good, old fashioned Rocky Mountain thunderstorm that had us all running for cover. Rain coats came out and we all scrambled to try and stay out of danger as the sky rumbled and shook, but the lightening did not become a serious threat. While the kids were talking about what to do if the storm ensued, the hardcore Coloradans were getting ready to set up the climb with Juan Esteban working out the system with Kelly, so that each kid would summit, and then rappel back to the base. We all worked together getting the kids ready, securing their harnesses, and jockeying them into position. At some point in it all, Rhys lost it. Maybe it was anxiety, or more likely it was the almost two-hour hike we had just finished, but he was inconsolable. Little by little the crying stopped, a PB&J soothed the tears, and Rhys was suddenly ready to climb.
With me in front, Rhys in the middle, and Bronwyn behind, we began our ascent up a narrow but secure chimney feature that allowed for great holds and easy climbing. Rhys moved adeptly, talking up a storm, and telling everyone he would “punch the lightening in the face” as he gained the first belay station. From this point, it was only a very short scramble to the summit of the Twin Owls. We all gathered to take in the beautiful view of our surroundings. I had to laugh at the simplicity of it all. There we were sitting on top of a grand rock climb, but Rhys had no idea exactly what we had just done. He was just happy we were all together, and I guess after I thought about it more, so was I.
The hike down felt easy, with the hard work now well behind us. For a while, Juan Esteban and I walked along and caught up on life, work and climbing dreams. Then I found myself hiking with Rhys alone, hand-in-hand. Bronwyn caught up and took some photos, we talked some more, and each switch back seemed to spur on a new conversation or an opportunity to embrace our natural surroundings. It felt good to be part of something so special, knowing someday that we would look back on this with fond memories.
Back in town, we celebrated our accomplishment with pizzas and root beers, as we talked about the waning months of summer and our busy lives. It was time to point the van east toward home, with a few stops left before our summer dreams were written in the sage brush of the wild west.