Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Climb Every* Mountain! (*not every mountain; just one)

Oxford Peak stands like a beacon on the south end of Marsh Valley, Idaho. As I grew up in the small town of Arimo, Oxford always stood there, looking down on me. And I would think, "Someday, I'd like to climb that mountain." But I never did.

Oxford Peak!
If you drive south of Pocatello on Interstate 15, you'll see Oxford Peak. The southbound freeway seems to be heading straight for it--the mountain at the south end of the valley that kind of looks like a volcano.

No, it's not a volcano.

My desire to climb to the top of Oxford Peak increased with each passing year. Unfortunately, my physical ability to actually climb the mountain peaked long before I attempted to reach the peak of the mountain. Before I knew it, I was over 50 years old, and the chances I had of reaching the summit of Oxford were quickly diminishing.

The view of Oxford from the high school football field.
(Reminding me that I'm not as young as I once was.)

But then I became friends on Facebook with a guy I kinda knew in high school. He was a couple of years younger than me, and I knew who he was, but I wasn't sure if I had ever actually spoken a word to him. For our purposes here, we'll call him "Andy." (Because that's what his name is.) Over a period of several years, we became better and better friends over Facebook. He mentioned from time to time that he had been to the summit of Oxford on his 40th birthday, and he would like to climb it again. I responded that I had always wanted to climb every that mountain, and he said something along the lines of, "we'll have to do that together someday."

For most people,"We'll have to do that someday," is a polite way of saying, "That would be nice to do, but it's probably never going to happen." Luckily for me, Andy is not most people. He set a date for the climb, and sent out an open invitation to everyone in the local Facebook page, too.

As the day for the hike approached, I thought I had gotten myself ready by taking a few hikes on the mountain behind my house. What I didn't realize was that a little two-hour hike didn't even begin to prepare me for what was to come. (Looking back, being at least 40 pounds overweight wasn't optimal. Perhaps it would have been easier to make the hike if I weren't carrying Ben & Jerry along with me.)

As we started the hike, Andy and I worked together, as we were going at about the same pace. His wife and some of her friends got out ahead of us. Occasionally we would see them off in the distance on the trail ahead of us. One of those friends was a 73 year-old man, which made Andy and I feel bad for feeling bad about our advancing ages. (We were each more than 20 years younger than this guy zooming up the trail ahead of us!)

Beautiful fall foliage! (But no sign of anyone if front of us on the trail.)

The hike up the mountain took longer than I thought it would. We started at the Cherry Creek campground, then slowly gained elevation until we got to a plateau which was followed by some rolling hills until we started up the final ascent. Andy had a playlist of Billy Joel music that we listened to as we climbed and talked. (An appreciation for Billy Joel music was one of the things that Andy and I built our Facebook friendship on.) One song in particular seemed especially appropriate. As we got closer and closer to the summit, it was encouraging to hear Billy sing, "My other world is just a half a mile away."

At this point, that peak looked way more than "half a mile away."
(Despite being a New York Yankees fan, Andy is a pretty good guy.)

Unfortunately, the ascent took longer than the playlist Andy had made for it, and the music changed from Billy Joel to some random older songs. I say "unfortunately" because one of the songs that came on at a particularly steep portion of the hike was "American Pie" by Don McLean. Normally I think this is a great song, but as I was struggling up the mountain I didn't really need to hear the line, "bad news on the doorstep; I couldn't take one more step." Worse yet was the repeated lyrical refrain singing, "This'll be the day that I die. This'll be the day that I die."

Almost there! (But still so far to go.)

We hiked for several hours, but had yet to reach the summit. And then we came to a place where the trail got steeper, and it went up an incline of loose gravel that was almost impossible for two aging, slightly overweight guys to scale. I was beginning to think that instead of saying I had reached the summit of Oxford Peak, that I was just going to be able to say I had gotten quite far up on the mountain. But, we got some encouraging words from the younger (and one older) folk who had reached the top ahead of us, and we backtracked a little bit until we found a small trail that took a bit of a friendlier path to the saddle of the mountain. Once we found this trail, we knew we were going to make it.

And we did!

On top of the world!!!

We made it to the top of Oxford Peak! It took us over five hours to get there, but we did get there! There's nothing quite like the feeling of reaching the summit of a mountain. Even though it was a bit hazy, the view was still incredible. From Oxford's apex you can look down on Marsh Valley to the north, Cache Valley to the east, and parts of the Malad Valley to the west.

At the summit was a flagpole with an old, tattered American flag. Also, there was a little lock box which contained some notebooks which were signed by people who had been there previously. It was an honor and a privilege to put my name in that book. (And, to be honest, a bit of a relief after so many hours of climbing.

On top of Oxford Peak, with Marsh Valley in the distance behind me!

When we got to the summit, we found the other members of our hiking party, plus a few other people who (wisely) went up part of the trail on four-wheelers. Unfortunately, by the time Andy and I made it to the top, most everyone else had been there for so long that they were ready to head back down.

And that's when it sunk in to me: we had to walk all the way back down the way we came. While I do okay going up the mountain for an old, overweight guy, I do not at all like going down the mountain. I'm generally a klutzy guy, so I'm always afraid of losing my footing and falling as I'm trying to descend. As a result, while others tend to go much faster downhill, it takes me just about as long to go down the trail as it does to go up it.

On the way up, Andy and I went at about the same pace, but on the way down he kept having to wait for me. When we got about halfway down, we were back in the rolling hills section of the trail. This meant going down steep hills, which I take very slowly, followed by some steep little climbs, which I no longer had the energy for. I was no longer walking; I was trudging.

Just then, I was rescued. A couple of the people who had been at the summit were driving by us on their four-wheelers. I put on my most desperate, tired face and practically begged them for a ride. Even though they had no room on their vehicle, they took mercy, scrunched together, and let me ride with them for about half a mile until they got to a point where the trails diverged. (They dropped me there because they were going a different way.) As I rode with them, I found out that the driver graduated high school the same year that I was born! Yes, here I was feeling sorry for myself for how old I was, and this guy who was 18 years older than me had easily made it to the summit!

Eventually, Andy and I finally made it back to the trailhead. I had never been so happy to see a mini-van!

In about ten hours of hiking we had made it up to the top of the mountain, then back down again. Along the way I learned a few lessons. I learned that it can take a long time to climb a tall mountain. I learned that the more you weigh, the more weight you have to carry with you up the trail. I learned that "American Pie" is not a good hiking song. I learned that it is faster to travel by four-wheeler than by trudging. And, I learned that there are things you could never do on your own that you can accomplish with the help of a friend.

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