Published August 7, 2017
“It’s a test of ultimate will, a heartbreak climb uphill”—Rush, “Marathon”
Yesterday, I led a group of dedicated Rush fans up to the summit of Mount Sherman (14,036 ft) in Colorado. It was a hard climb, especially for the flatlanders—members of our group came from all across the country, from Virginia, Missouri, North Carolina, California, and Colorado. This was our second year in a row, reaching the top of the world.
In 2011, I climbed a mountain with my long-time friend, Neil Peart, the drummer and lyricist for legendary rock group Rush, when they were in Denver for their Time Machine Tour. During that climb to the summit of Mount Evans (14,265 ft), Neil and I plotted the characters and storyline of our novel Clockwork Angels, based on the Rush concept album Neil was writing at that time. When released in 2012, the Clockwork Angels album became the #1 bestselling album in North America and our novel Clockwork Angels hit the New York Times bestseller list and won several awards. We followed that up in 2015 with Clockwork Lives (a novel we both think is even better), which won the Colorado Book Award.
The story of how Neil and I plotted the novel while climbing a mountain became well known in Rush fan groups. Last year, my friend and fellow Rush fan Chris Reed asked if I might be willing to lead a group of fans on a repeat of the hike up Mount Evans. I was a little skeptical—this is a hard hike if you aren’t used to it—and I asked if he could gauge the interest to see if we might get a few fans willing to sign up, fly out to Colorado, and do the climb. If we got five I would do it. More than a dozen jumped at the chance within the first hour, at which point I frantically cut it off. That’s a very large group! We succeded, and not only had a great and exhilarating climb, we also formed a powerful bond of friendship we hadn’t expected. This diverse group of climbers was bound together by our shared love of Rush, and now we had a personal connection as well.
“I wish that I could live it all again.”—Rush, “Headlong Flight”
Not satisfied with climbing only one peak, the group wanted to do it again and soon began pestering me about what mountain I was going to choose for 2017. I tried to find another Fourteener (peaks over 14,000-ft) that might be doable. I have climbed all 54 of the Fourteeners, and I needed to select one that was within the abilities of our diverse group. Last September, on a scouting expedition, I climbed Mount Sherman myself (my third time up to that summit), and I decided this one was it. We began to make our plans. We picked the date in early August 2017, so we could be confident the snowpack would be gone. We reserved our hotel rooms in the only hotel in town (Fairplay, the actual town of “South Park” as satirized in the cartoon). Fifteen people wanted to come, nearly all of last year’s group plus some new climbers. In June, to prepare for the season, I climbed Mount Sherman again (my fourth time), checking the trail, taking video and many photos so the team would know what they were getting into.
Finally, the first weekend in August arrived. The entire group met in Fairplay after flying in to Denver International Airport, and we immediately rediscovered our fellowship. We had a great introductory dinner in the South Park Brewery while we made our plans for the next day. My brother-in-law Tim, my frequent hiking partner, also joined us as he had done last year. Tim was our co-guide, bringing up the rear. We had brought spare hiking sticks, daypacks, windbreakers, hats, and shared them around to anyone who needed them.
One of our climbers, Tracy, a longtime friend of mine, went with us last year for Mount Evans, but had suffered serious altitude sickness and had to turn back early on. This year, he was absolutely determined to make it to the top. One of our other hikers, Tara, suffered from severe agoraphobia and couldn’t face the climb last year, although her husband Brian and 11-year-old son Alex made it to the summit of Evans; this year, she was sure she could do it. We were all cheerleaders for each other.
We met in the hotel lobby the following morning at 5:45 AM, and the hotel desk clerk generously opened the breakfast room for us so we could load ourselves with coffee, orange juice, and carbs for the climb. We packed the cars, managed to fit all fifteen of us into three SUVs, and headed off into the brightening dawn down a 13 mile bumpy dirt road, climbing up to road’s end at 11,680 ft, a gate, some old mining ruins—and about 25 other vehicles parked there, climbers who had gotten an even earlier start. This is a very popular climb.
After getting out into a chilly and breezy 40°F, we donned jackets, gloves, backpacks, sunscreen. Fifteen of us trudged up the dwindling road, past mine ruins, streams, always ascending. We were starting well above treeline, and kept going higher. We still had about 2300 ft of elevation to gain.
We spread out as we climbed, and puffed, and panted, at our own pace. Gradually, the group separated into the faster hikers and the slower hikers. I led the first pack, while Tim shepherded the others. We climbed a relentless trail, up to another set of high mining ruins—an amazing and extensive operation, which made us all wonder about the thriving settlement from more than a century ago. The fast hikers waited, trying to spot the rest of the group with Tim, Tracy, Tara, Brian, and 12-year-old Alex, but we couldn’t find them even though we could see the dirt road many miles behind us. Did they turn back? We couldn’t get a cell signal, couldn’t stay in touch. We waited, but saw no sign of them, and finally pushed on. I was rooting for Tracy, hoping he hadn’t suffered altitude sickness again, and for Tara to see how far she could climb, but they were far behind. We were sure they had given up and gone back to the cars to wait for us.
My group of ten left the mining ruins and climbed up steeper switchbacks to a glorious saddle between Mount Sherman and Mount Sheridan (13,748 ft—still one of the highest peaks in CO). Suddenly the view opened up for countless miles and mountains in the other direction as well—and the winds roared even harder. We didn’t take time to rest. Ahead of us, we could see the miles-long relentless slope that led to the summit of Sherman. We trudged onward, ever ascending.
More than an hour later, we reached an elevation of 13,700 ft, where the terrain took a dramatic turn, growing much steeper, rockier, and narrower. Some of our hikers were getting exhausted, lagging behind, and we spread out even more. I tried texting and calling Tim again, but got no response. We still hadn’t seen him, Tracy, Tara, Alex, and Brian. Two more of our group stopped there, feeling altitude sickness, and a couple of others were really lagging, getting exhausted. The rest made the final push to the summit, and when five of us reached a wind shelter near the top, I called a halt, hoping the others would catch up so we could all celebrate together at the summit. Only five of our original 15 had made it this far.
One member of our “final five,” John, volunteered to head back down the trail to see if he could round up any of our stragglers. At this altitude, he and I could text each other, so he promised to report back as soon as he saw anybody. He headed off back downhill (knowing he would have to climb up all over again!). The rest of us sat down among the rocks out of the wind and ate some snacks and rested. About fifteen minutes later, I received a shocking text from John: “All here! Even Tracy and Tim! Alex, too!” The whole group had made it up after all and were only a few minutes behind us. [It turns out Tim’s group had taken an alternate route to the saddle, where we couldn’t see them. They had made it up by supporting each other, calling themselves Team Dory, by calling out “Keep climbing, keep climbing!”]
Two had turned back from the altitude sickness, and Tara and Brian had reached the 13,700 point and decided to stop where the terrain grew much more extreme. (It was by no means a small accomplishment and a very tough hike up to that point; they had climbed higher than most peaks in Colorado.)
The eleven of us pushed to the top. The last few steps were hard, but the group stood on the summit. Tracy had made it, and Alex, to much rejoicing, along with Warren, James, John, Melissa, Ronald, Kelly, Jim, and Tim. We took the requisite pictures, shared snacks, but by now nasty-looking clouds were closing in and we decided to start the descent. Climbing down 2500 feet is just as tough as climbing up.
We finally made it back to the car a little after 1 PM and drove down the bumpy dirt road to our hotel, just as it started to rain. Taking a hot shower after a tough climb is almost as exhilarating as reaching the summit!
We gathered at a small restaurant for our celebratory dinner (very delicious after only granola and beef jerky all day), passed out certificates and special awards, took more photos and said very heartfelt goodbyes. Chris, Jim, and Ethan from northern Virginia, Ronald and Kelly from southern Virginia, Warren, James, and Melissa from Missouri, Tracy from Salt Lake City, Tara, Brian, and Alex from Raleigh, NC, and John, Tim, and me from Colorado. Some people were departing right away. Others would leave at the crack of dawn. I—wisely—had decided to sleep in!
We’re already planning for next year.