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Climbing Long’s Peak

AMONG the best days that I have had outdoors are the two hundred and fifty-seven that were spent as a guide on Long’s Peak. One day was required from the starting-place near my cabin for each round trip to the summit of the peak. Something of interest occurred to enliven each one of these climbs: a storm, an accident, the wit of some one or the enthusiasm of all the climbers. But the climb I remember with great est satisfaction is the one on which I guided Harriet Peters, an eight-year-old girl, to the top.

It was a cold morning when we started for the top, but it was this day or wait until next season, for Harriet was to start for her Southern home in a day or two and could not wait for a more favorable morning. Harriet had spent the two preceding summers near my cabin, and around it had played with the chipmunks and ridden the burros, and she had made a few climbs with me up through the woods. We often talked of going to the top of Long’s Peak when she should be come strong enough to do so. This time came just after her eighth birthday. As I was as eager to have her make the climb as she was to make it, we started up the next morning after her aunt had given permission for her to go. She was happy when I lifted her at last into the saddle, away up on old “Top’s” back. She was so small that I still wonder how she managed to stay on, but she did so easily.

Long’s Peak is not only one of the most scenic of the peaks in the Rocky Mountains, but it is probably the most rugged. From our starting-place it was seven miles to the top; five of these miles may be ridden, but the last two are so steep and craggy that one must go on foot and climb.

After riding a little more than a mile, we came to a clear, cold brook that is ever coming down in a great hurry over a steep mountain-side, splashing, jumping, and falling over the boulders of one of nature’s stony stairways and forming white cascades which throw their spray among the tall, dark pines. I had told Harriet that ouzels lived by this brook; she was eager to see one, and we stopped at a promising place by the brook to watch. In less than a minute one came flying down the cascades, and so near to the surface of the water that he seemed to be tumbling and sliding down with it. He alighted on a boulder near us, made two or three pleasant curtsies, and started to sing one of his low, sweet songs. He was doing the very thing of which I had so often told Harriet. We watched and listened with breath less interest. In the midst of the song he dived into the brook; in a moment he came up with a water-bug in his bill, settled on the boulder again, gave his nods, and resumed his song, seemingly at the point where he left off. After a few low, sweet notes he broke off again and plunged into the water. This time he came up quickly and alighted on the spot he had just left, and went on with his song without any preliminaries and as if there had been no interruption.

Long's Peak from the Summit of Mt. Meeker

The water-ouzel is found by the alpine lakes and brooks on the mountains of the West. It is a modest-appearing bird, about the size of a thrush, and wears a plain dress of slaty blue.

This dress is finished with a tail-piece somewhat like that of the wren, though it is not upturned so much. The bird seems to love cascades, and often nests by one. It also shows its fondness for water by often flying along the brook, following every bend and break made by the stream, keeping close to the water all the time and frequently touching it. Over the quiet reaches it goes skimming; it plunges over the waterfalls, alights on rocks in the rapids, goes dashing through the spray, its every movement showing the ecstasies of eager life and joy in the hurrying water. Our ouzel was quietly feeding on the edge of the brook, when Harriet said good-bye as our ponies started up the trail.

Harriet had never been in school, but she could read, write, and sing. She had good health, and a brighter, cheerier little girl I have never seen. As we rode up the trail through the woods, the gray Douglas squirrels were busy with the harvest. They were cutting off and storing cones for winter food. In the treetops these squirrels seemed to be bouncing and darting in all directions. One would cut off a cone, then dart to the next, and so swiftly that cones were constantly dropping. Frequently the cones struck limbs and bounded as they fell, often coming to the ground to bounce and roll some distance over the for est floor. An occasional one went rolling and bouncing down the steep mountain-side with two or three happy chipmunks in jolly pursuit.

We watched one squirrel stow cones under trash and in holes in the thick beds of needles. These cones were buried near a tree, in a dead limb of which the squirrel had a hole and a home. Harriet asked many questions concerning the cones, — why they were buried, how the squirrel found them when they were buried in the snow, and what became of those which were left buried. I told her that during the winter the squirrel came down and dug through the snow to the cones and then fed upon the nuts. I also told her that squirrels usually buried more cones than were eaten. The uneaten cones, being left in the ground, were in a way planted, and the nuts in them in time sprouted, and young trees came peeping up among the fallen leaves. The squirrel’s way of observing Arbor Day makes him a useful forester. Harriet said she would tell all her boy and girl friends what she knew of this squirrel’s tree-planting ways, and would ask her uncle not to shoot the little tree-planter.

As we followed the trail up through the woods, I told Harriet many things concerning the trees, and the forces which influenced their distribution and growth. While we were traveling west ward in the bottom of a gulch, I pointed out to her that the trees on the mountain that rose on the right and sloped toward the south were of a different kind from those on the mountain-side which rose on our left and sloped toward the north. After traveling four miles and climbing up two thousand feet above our starting-place, and, after from time to time coming to and passing kinds of trees which did not grow lower down the slopes, we at last came to timber-line, above which trees did not grow at all.

In North America between timber-line on the Rockies, at an altitude of about eleven thousand feet, and sea-level on the Florida coast, there are about six hundred and twenty kinds of trees and shrubs growing. Each kind usually grows in the soil and clime that is best suited to its requirements; in other words, most trees are growing where they can do the best, or where they can do better than any other kind. Some trees do the best at the moist seashore; some thrive in swamps; others live only on the desert’s edge; some live on the edge of a river; and still others manage to endure the storms of bleak heights.

At timber-line the trees have a hard time of it. All of them at this place are dwarfed, many distorted, some crushed to the earth, flattened out upon the ground like pressed flowers, by the snowdrifts that have so long lain upon them. The winter winds at this place blow almost constantly from the same quarter for days at a time, and often attain a high velocity. The effect of these winds is strikingly shown by the trees. None of the trees are tall, and most of them are leaning, pushed partly over by the wind. Some are sprawled on the ground like uncouth vines or spread out from the stump like a fan with the onsweeping direction of the storms. Most of the standing, unsheltered trees have limbs only on the leeward quarter, all the other limbs having been blown off by the wind or cut off by the wind blown gravel. Most of the exposed trees are destitute of bark on the portion of the trunk that faces these winter winds. Some of the dead standing trees are carved into strange totem-poles by the sand-blasts of many fierce storms. With all the trees warped or distorted, the effect of timber-line is weird and strange.

Harriet and I got off the ponies the better to examine some of the storm-beaten trees. Harriet was attracted to a few dwarf spruces that were standing in a drift of recently fallen snow. Al though these dwarfed little trees were more than a hundred years old, they were so short that the little mountain-climber who stood by them was taller than they. After stroking one of the trees with her hand, Harriet stood for a time in silence, then out of her warm childish nature she said, “What brave little trees to live up here where they have to stand all the time in the snow!” Timber-line, with its strange tree statuary and treeless snowy peaks and crags rising above it, together with its many kinds of bird and animal life and its flower-fringed snowdrifts, is one of nature’s most expressive exhibits, and I wish every one might visit it. At an altitude of about eleven thousand seven hundred feet we came to the last tree. It was ragged, and so small that you could have hidden it beneath a hat. It nestled up to a boulder, and appeared so cold and pitiful that Harriet wanted to know if it was lost. It certainly appeared as if it had been lost for a long, long time.

Among the crags Harriet and I kept sharp watch for mountain sheep, but we did not see any. We were fortunate enough, however, to see a flock of ptarmigan. These birds were huddled in a hole which narrowly escaped being trampled on by Top. They walked quietly away, and we had a good look at them. They were almost white; in winter they are pure white, while in summer they are of a grayish brown. At all times their dress matches the surroundings fairly well, so that they have a protective coloring which makes it difficult for their enemies to see them.

At an altitude of twelve thousand five hundred feet the horses were tied to boulders and left behind. From this place to the top of the peak the way is too rough or precipitous for horses. For a mile Harriet and I went forward over the boulders of an old moraine. The last half-mile was the most difficult of all; the way was steep and broken, and was entirely over rocks, which were covered with a few inches of snow that had fallen during the night.

We climbed slowly; all good climbers go slowly. Harriet also faithfully followed another good mountain rule, — “Look before you step.” She did not fall, slip, or stumble while making the climb. Of course we occasionally rested, and whenever we stopped near a flat rock or a level place, we made use of it by lying down on our backs, straightening out arms and legs, relaxing every muscle, and for a time resting as loosely as possible. Just before reaching the top, we made a long climb through the deepest snow that we had encountered. Though the sun was warm, the air, rocks, and snow were cold. Not only was the snow cold to the feet, but climbing through it was tiresome, and at the first convenient place we stopped to rest. Finding a large, smooth rock, we lay down on our backs side by side. We talked for a time and watched an eagle soaring around up in the blue sky. I think Harriet must have recalled a suggestion which I made at timber-line, for without moving she suddenly remarked, “Mr. Mills, my feet are so cold that I can’t tell whether my toes are wiggling or not.”

Five hours after starting, Harriet stepped upon the top, the youngest climber to scale Long’s Peak. The top is fourteen thousand two hundred and fifty-nine feet above the sea, is almost level, and, though rough, is roomy enough for a baseball game. Of course if the ball went over the edge, it would tumble a mile or so before stopping. With the top so large, you will realize that the base measures miles across. The upper three thousand feet of the peak is but a gigantic mass, almost destitute of soil or vegetation. Some of the rocks are flecked and spotted with lichens, and a few patches of moss and straggling, beautiful alpine flowers can be found during August. There is but little chance for snow to lodge, and for nearly three thousand feet the peak rises a bald, broken, impressive stone tower.

While Harriet and I were eating luncheon, a ground-hog that I had fed on other visits came out to see if there was anything for him. Some sparrows also lighted near; they looked hungry, so we left some bread for them and then climbed upon the “tip-top,” where our picture was taken.

From the tip-top we could see more than a hundred miles toward any point of the compass. West of us we saw several streams that were flowing away toward the Pacific; east of us the streams flowed to the Atlantic. I told Harriet that the many small streams we saw all grew larger as they neared the sea. Harriet lived at the “big” end of the Arkansas River. She suddenly wanted to know if I could show her the “little end of the Arkansas River.”

After an hour on top we started downward and homeward, the little mountain-climber feeling happy and lively. But she was careful, and only once during the day did she slip, and this slip was hardly her fault: we were coming off an enormous smooth boulder that was wet from the new snow that was melting, when both Harriet’s feet shot from under her and she fell, laughing, into my arms.

On the Tip-Top of Long’s Peak

Hello, Top, I am glad to see you,” said Harriet when we came to the horses. While riding homeward I told Harriet that I had often climbed the peak by moonlight. On the way down she said good-bye to the little trees at timber-line, the squirrels, and the ouzel. When I at last lifted Harriet off old Top at the cabin, many people came out to greet her. To all she said, “Yes, I’m tired, but some time I want to go up by moonlight.”

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