Bierstadt or Bust: Redemption at 14,000 feet

panoramic taken atop Continental Divide, from the Alpine Visitor Center there

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“AAAAAAAAAAGH!” I cried, as I tottered dangerously on and off the steep dirt-and-rock trail along the ridgeline on Mt. Bierstadt. 

I tried to regain my balance after rolling my right ankle on a rock and sending it skidding out from under me but I kept lurching. I swung left then made a wide arc back uphill. I was trying to slow down, but I was gaining momentum and going downhill fast. I was going to hit bottom; It was just a matter of when and how far. 

I feverishly jabbed the hard ground with my hiking poles while tensing and bracing for the inevitable. Like a runaway truck on a steep downhill slope, I looked for a breakdown lane, soft turf, or sand pit to stop and catch me. 

No such luck. I crashed and crumpled into a pile of rocks. My hiking buddies gathered ‘round. One asked, “How are you? Where does it hurt?” “Are you going to be ok?”

“I dunno. This time, I’m not sure.”

You might wonder what two well-seasoned flatlanders from Madison, WI, and Hiram, GA,  plus one acclimated highlander from Denver, were doing on a Colorado 14er in the first place. Skip & Doug are fellow pastors. I had come to appreciate their good works over the years, so I had a measure of both men, but why Bierstadt? 

Good question! We all need a reason why. Mine had to do with redemption, trying to make up for a failure 6 years before when climbing other mountains. When we hear the mountains calling, even an actual mountain calling you, a second chance looms. How you rise to the occasion matters.

turkey, safely off Old Fall River Road. We were driving up to the Continental Divide
Lake Granby, off Trail Ridge Road, now out of RMNP, on the way to Georgetown. After taking this pic, I crossed the road and barely escaped being hit on an oncoming car to my left that I did not see any more than the turkey saw the car heading for it. I failed to look both ways after taking the lake picture and before crossing back across the road. I would have been hit, except for me high stepping and flapping arms to escape harm….
moose, safely off Trail Ridge Road. We were driving down from the Continental Divide -- Shhh, these secrets are embarrassing.... But I was safely uphill when then I shot the moose.

The Call of the Mountains

Mountains give us a compelling reason why and an opportunity at redemption. To finish what we start–that motivation helps us push through to the end when the going gets tough. Without a good reason to keep going, without the end in view, we’re more likely to bail. 

I last bailed when hiking a section of the Appalachian Trail with another pastor friend in 2016. On that occasion, I saw no purpose to keep trudging on, virtually alone and exhausted as I was, when the other guy was outpacing me. He was counting on me to keep up and stay the course. Instead, I was Ill-prepared physically and ill-suited psychologically, so I wimped out four days into a week-long hike. 

I’ve carried the baggage of that disappointment and the desire for redemption ever since. I vowed I’d be hike-ready and stay the course the next time. But, with no major hiking offers or opportunities in the six years hence, I issued the challenge myself. I took on a mountain that would test the capacity, conscience, and connections between men. I chose Bierstadt because it’s known as the most accessible 14er in Colorado, but still a worthy challenge.

While I named and tackled a literal mountain, in your case ‘mountain’ could stand for whatever larger-than-life goal or visionary mountain adventure lies before you. May this message mark the way forward for whatever race or mountain is set before you.

In measuring a man going up against a mountain in search of redemption, I take its measure in four P’s: Preparation & Planning, Power of People, Perseverance, and Peak experience.

The Loch, joy of journey (at hike’s end) meets journal (at day’s end). This pic says it all. AMEN
atop Continental Divide, a brief hike up from the Alpine Visitor Center -- “Cairns (strategically placed rock piles) also serve as mini rest stops or turn outs, to help us catch our breath and catch up with each other. Or catch majestic views! Other signs (of wood, at Continental Divide) confirm we’ve gained altitude—all of 12,005 feet.”

1 – Preparation & Planning

The first P, Preparation, takes place weeks, months, and even years before tackling a 14er like Mt Bierstadt. I start by asking nine cogent questions about how to plan for a hike and let the answers guide me. You need to pick your destination and your team while you prepare your body, mind, and spirit for the undertaking. 

Once you set your goals, write them down. Then work backwards to figure out what you and your body need to complete the task. If you can roll off the couch and climb a mountain, good for you, and shouldn’t you have picked a harder mountain to climb?

The true joy of reaching the summit–any summit–is the culmination of the work that you put into it. Rewards aren’t as sweet without sacrifice, and you’ll learn as much or more about yourself through the journey, as you will standing at the destination.

Don’t let the brevity of this P section dissuade you from its importance. Instead, understand that it was vital enough that I spun it off into a separate service piece that’s linked above. Every great endeavor begins with preparation and planning.

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Chasm Falls, off The Old Fall River Road on way up to the Continental Divide.
Downstream of Chasm Falls, off The Old Fall River Road on way up to the Continental Divide. -- “I played a different role in shooting Chasm Falls. No sooner had I shot the falls coming down from above me but, in turning to shoot down stream, I catch Dane (age 15) leaping the chasm. He makes it over and back—but not his cell phone, which falls into the stream. Minutes later the waterproof phone is retrieved. I catch it all in pictures to share. This guy must live a charmed life.

2 – Power of People

Five men initially took me up on the challenge and call of the mountains. Two joined me—and made all the difference in a story in redemption and taking the measure of mountains and men. The mountain taught me to value people, especially those who add resilience. I never gave into weakness or gave up hope, convinced that the task ahead is not as great as the power behind us.

I’ve always valued hiking buddies; conversely, I’ve suffered from lack of companionship. Hiking in groups is so rewarding, joyful, and bonding—providing safety and support—which all couples, families with kids, or aging Boomers need. These are not esoteric ideas, but core principles that I have seen in action time and time again.

Every mountain story pivots on the truth that two are better than one, and three are better yet. After my fall that you read in the opening stanza, Doug urged and infused resilience by pulling me up. Skip & Doug guided my feet or held my hand and helped me find my way back to the path. 

After huffing and puffing my way up to 10,000 feet, I ran out of water. My 72-oz CamelBak® water bladder was not enough. Joshua (a seminary student) unexpectedly gave me “a cup of cold water in Jesus’ name” (Matthew 10:42). How kind to empty his water bottle into mine! I was so grateful.

The mountain was always reminding us that ‘the race’—of life and of mountain climbing—is not to the swift nor to the strong. Sure, we were humbled, even rattled, when the 4-y-o and her golden doodle passed us. Likewise when a local hiking club of elderly women passed us. But upon further reflection, we realize now that such troopers—so old and so young—encourage us to believe that people of any age can do the Rockies. We thank God for such people. In the end, it wasn’t a race at all but a journey to the finish.

The pre-work of preparation and bonds with such people power us onward. May you, my dear readers, come to appreciate the people in your life who lift you up when you fall, fill you up when you come up empty, or simply accompany you with encouraging wordsAs I learned in Ecclesiastes 4.9-12:

Two are better than one, because they have a good return for their labor:  If either of them falls down, one can help the other up. But pity anyone who falls  and has no one to help them up….  A cord of three strands is not quickly broken.

group photo taken August 3 (Day 3) at Ouzel Falls, en route to Ouzel Lake. - We are blessed with hiking partners responding to that call of the mountains (L-R: Skip, Joshua [our guide], Ken, Regina, Ryan & Leslie, their son Levi and friend Tobin)
Also hiking with us most of the way from Ouzel Falls to Ouzel Lake (below, at 10,000 feet altitude) are four women from a local hiking club (L-R, age 80 to 76). I have no names I can recall from that group of ladies, they preferred instead to share their respective ages.
The Johnstons from Iowa (L to R: Eric, Heather, teenage daughters Katelyn & Jacey, and son Cy) were special to us. Cy (age 8) became my best new friend of the week. Cy helped me bring up the rear. From him, I learned the “power of people.” He even played minigolf with us afterward, where he chose to partner with me over his dad. That’s how close we got. Together with those in their 70s and 80s (photo above, at right), this proves that you can do the Rockies at any age.
“This trek was also about “finding my soul.” All week we met people of soul and substance. We met them in forest and up & down the trail. But all day long on Bierstadt, I hiked with two guys (Skip & Doug) willing to pause, stay with me and give me a lift.

3 – Perseverance

Besides hike-readiness facilitated by extensive Preparation & Planning and People able to power us through, we made it to the top through Perseverance. We’re talking the perseverance of the believers, as depicted in Hebrews 12:1: Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, … let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.” In our ‘races’ this week, those ‘witnesses’ are the people named herein, with more witnesses to come and back home.

Little did I know at the time, but Skip and Doug made a pact, a resolution between them, to make sure I summited Bierstadt. As Skip put it: “Aware of your last experience on the mountain when you had to bail, my personal goal—which was also Doug’s—was to see to it that you summited.”

Thus, being so resolved, I did reach trail’s end each day. The value of pre-arranged hiking buddies who resolve to stick with you, no matter what, is an invaluable life lesson which mountains teach. 

To persevere in the race set before us, we need someone to set the pace and pull us along. For us on Bierstadt, that fearless leader was Doug. Our Bierstadt hike was above tree line the whole time so we kept our eyes fixed on him, the pioneer and perfector of our hike. With thunderclouds rolling in and rain overtaking our clear skies, Doug stepped up and led by example: “Let’s get down and off the mountain quick. Follow me.” Slow afoot, I knew I’d hold us up and get wet. I did and we did.

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Which brings me back to the opening scenario and my scary fall….

I stayed put, crumpled up, for several AAAAAAAAAAGonizing seconds. Doug extended a strong firm hand, which I grabbed with both of mine. He pulled back and up. A steady hold by Skip balanced me. I checked myself out: One hiking pole bent, two knees bloodied, one ego bruised, but camera and glasses were intact. I looked around, more embarrassed than anything.

Now upright, I timidly pushed away, “I’m alright, nothing broken, good to go.” I tried believing it.

Ha! This was not my first fall that day, nor my last. But as I knew from my football playing days: “It matters not how often you get tackled, but whether you get back up to run the next play.” 

And so, I made it to the top of the 14,060-foot-tall Mount Bierstadt and—more importantly—back down. As one of them reminded me of an earlier resolution: “You don’t have to make it up to the top of the mountain, but you do have to make it back down.”

the boulders atop Bierstadt --“Yet at the top, there is no trail—just boulders to crawl up and claw over (at left). This called for more resolve to help each other to the top. Up and over, we go.”
“I made it to the top of Colorado 14ers,” as my hopeful shirt says. The other shirts quote John Muir: “The mountains are calling, and I must go” (worn by Doug, at my right), and “Into the forest I must go, to lose my mind and find my soul” (worn by Skip, at my left). If we seem to be on Cloud 9, we are!

4 – Peak Experiences

This leads us to our final P for todaypeak experiences. Tall mountains are known to play peek-a-boo—or as I call it, peak-a-boo.This happens when fog or clouds enshroud us. Back in 2010 when I last hiked Bierstadt, the mount was cloaked by thick fog and low-lying clouds. That left me cool, forcing jackets. Also, feeling lost, lost in mystery. The white shrouded cover made me want to wave a wand (my pole) to stir up magic (the wind), to make the mountain reappear. 

But this mountain had the final say and only revealed its majestic secrets at the very top, later.

Cairns also served as rest stops or turnouts—to help us catch our breath and catch up with each other. Or catch majestic views—but only on a clear day! As it is, with reverence for the mystery enveloping today’s mountain peak, we wandered in thought and wondered in worship. Hmm….

Another version of mountains going “peek-a-boo happened on clear days, even. What appeared to be the mountaintop, visible from trailhead, was not what appears. 

There’s more to the peak than meets the eye. 

Looking up from the trailhead, even from halfway up, we did not see the true top. We saw false summits. And that’s on a clear day. 

So also in life, we rarely see the end from the beginning. I found myself crying out often, as the child in the backseat does, “Are we there yet?”

It’s early morning, quiet, so all I heard in reply were the marmots’ piercing chirps.

Even before we got to the trail’s end or mountaintop, we enjoyed peak experiences. Inspired by the flow of friendly people and mighty waterpower, I yearned for the same. I want to drink from the fountain of youth. 

I tried dancing in the rain. I wanted a river of life to flow in and through me. 

Such peak experiences, inspired by mountains and ever-flowing waterfalls, powered me forward.

Hiking to see where these streams originate was rewarding. Curiosity will go a long way in propelling one in life, as well as in hiking. The kids hiking along with us were more curious than me. They climbed all over the rocks and trees, lengthening our trail but exuding joy.

The gurgling, gushing sounds of water flowing over rocks was like white noise to me—very soothing, refreshing, invigorating. What I wouldn’t give for more of that flow in my life back in Wisconsin. Kudos to those volunteers—including those with the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC, 1933-42), and, more recently,  inmates from prison on work release—who blazed and upgraded the trails we hiked.

Taken on Bierstadt, but 12 years prior, in 2010. Pictured with me is Bill Taylor. Caption is embedded in story, making a point about the mountain reveal their secrets only as we climb: “Peaks go peek-a-boo—in fog, clouds, false summits. When we hiked Bierstadt in 2010 (above, left), the mount was cloaked by fog and low-lying clouds. Back then, vital cairns pointed the way (see the one over my left shoulder, as I’m sitting down).”
The 12 years distinction notwithstanding, the two pics meant to show a contrast in weather conditions and the fact of false summits, even on a clear day. -- “In 2022, cairns and crowds point the way to the top. Still, what I’m pointing toward proved to be a false summit, its peak a secret to the end, revealed right at end of a long hike.”

Once at the top, I could hardly catch my breath. I’m briefly dizzy, feeling exhilarated, but no longer exhausted. I extend my arms like a bird and feel the wind beneath my wings. Mission accomplished. 

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I’m pumped, flapping and fist-pumping the air. 

I gulp for air, water, also GORP (“good ol’ raisins & peanuts”), energy bars and granola bars. Plus, we take in views—rather, they take in us! Pure joy. I want this present moment to last.

Cirrus clouds high above are dispersing and regathering lower for an encore as rain clouds. Rain is threatening, but the sun keeps peeking through. Gentle breezes and warm hugs wick away our sweat. I offer hugs all around—not just to my teammates but fellow trekkers we had seen along the way. I count six groups with dogs and offer high-five kudos all around.

These special feelings merged with other summit experiences but felt richer. This summit —because it’s the culmination of so much planning, preparation, and perseverance—felt unlike anything else in the world.

And kudos to those volunteers—including those with the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC, 1933-42), others recent inmates from a nearby prison on work release—who blazed and upgraded the trails we were on. The trails were also recently upgraded by the Fourteener Initiative, led by “Peak Steward” Gary, trail name Dr. Funhog. His PhD is in managing National Parks for recreational use. What a fun job, hence his trail name.
Ouzel Falls, photo taken August 3 (Day 3)- “Waterfalls connect four lakes at 10,000-ft elevation and higher. I imagine rivers of life flowing in and through our tired bodies”.
taken August 2 (Day 2) at “the Loch” illustrating a hidden gem of a lake inside RMNP - At Emerald Lake, joy of journey (at hike’s end) meets journal (at day’s end). This pic says it all. AMEN

Words to Remember 

Mountains provide open spaces that help us redefine anyone limited by tight spaces back home. Mountains call us upward and onward to connect with our Creator. Hence, we hikers kept going to see even more. Mountains—revered as they are—gave up their secrets, but only as we poled and pushed to the top. Such lofty goals and gracious striving revealed glimpses of God’s goodness and human resilience on the way. 

To follow suit, just remember the four P’s. If you forget one or two, the mountains will remind you. 

  • By advanced Preparation & Planning to get hike-ready,… 
  • By resilient People to lift us up (“You got this, Dietrich!”),… 
  • By rugged Perseverance to make it up and over,…
  • By many Peak experiences to enjoy on the way, you will get the most out of hiking a 14er such as Bierstadt. 

Wilderness is not just a National Park but a state of mind or experience. Let your imagination carry you to the heights of whatever mountain you face. If not for the aspirations I put in writing each day for others to reflect upon, I might not have made it to the top on Day Five. Yes, I poled myself up. Doug & Skip pulled and prodded. But ‘followers’ online had my back

Also, sharing that experience with others is key to one’s mental health. So, for your health and to encourage others on a trek, I invite you to share this blog with others. To experience joy, listen to the mountains calling you and engage with others, especially those close at hand. And when you write your own travel blog, you will better remember what you did and what you learned.

May this blog be as uplifting for you to read as it was for me to write and help you visualize.

Dietrich Gruen. For almost five decades, he has been a pastor in various settings: first with students on college campuses in Minnesota and nationwide, next writing/editing books and Bible projects, later with the dying and their families in hospice, now in a second decade working with the poor and (more recently) those impacted by COVID-19. He is the husband of one, parent of three, grandfather of three. He competes in racquetball and slowly treks mountains—12 summers in the Rockies and the Appalachian Trail. Dietrich aspires to visit 2-3 more National Parks every year before turning 80.

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View of mountain peaks from Mountain
Mountain meadow and peaks in the distance in fall.
Rugged mountain peak in winter with some snow.
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