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April, 2004

Kendall Mountain

by Larry

I've climbed to the top of a few small peaks over the years, with Sierra Club sponsored groups, with friends, strictly on my own, or later with Valerie, but none were so exhilarating or challenging as the first one Val and I climbed together, Kendall Mountain.

It was 1985. Val and I had been married about a week earlier. Our old Sheltie dog, Dixie, was being looked after at my folks' 10-B ranch on the outskirts of Austin. We would later learn that, roughly at the same time, Dixie had somehow gotten loose, had disappeared from my parents' property, and was frantically being sought up and down Spicewood Springs Road (successfully, as it turned out) by Mom and some of my siblings or their families.

Blissfully unaware of this, Val and I were, in late June, beginning the Colorado phase of our trip, having already enjoyed a few of west Texas' and New Mexico's attractions. The day before, we had set up camp at a beautiful location, under several pine trees and next to a fast moving trout stream at 10,000 feet, and had done some preliminary exploring of the hiking opportunities in the area of our South Mineral campsite. Then that morning we had gone into the nearby community of Silverton for a little essential shopping plus a special honeymoon meal at a fancy (cloth napkins) restaurant.

Kendall Mountain
Well satiated with delicious food and therefore drowsy in the early afternoon, we decided to drive about the town before heading back. It was as we were thus investigating the environs that we were both overcome with temporary insanity. Noticing a particularly inviting piece of high landscape in the adjacent promontories, we chose, entirely on impulse, to walk up to its summit.

Our advance arrangements were minimal. We simply arrived at the starting point of our climb with the clothes we were already wearing, and set off at once. The list of things we could have taken but did not would be extensive, but likely might have at least included heavier jackets, snacks, a map, good hiking shoes, suntan lotion, a little toilet paper, and, last but certainly not least, drinking water.

The trouble was that, from the town, this mountain didn't look very imposing at all. We thought we could see the top from a little dirt road near its base. It appeared to be a mere thousand feet or so above our present location. Moreover, from that vantage point, the peak seemed but a gradual, rolling hillock, hardly a true mountain at all. We thought we'd cut our climbing teeth, so to speak, with an hour or two of easy walking on this diminutive bit of rock, and then be ready for more adventurous ascents later on.

As was true earlier when I'd taken Val, on our second date, into the rather arduous and claustrophobic "airman's cave," through an initial, ten-foot long twisted crawl space entrance only wide enough through the rock to allow chests and hips to be inched along while one were careful not to breath in too deeply, lest he or she get stuck (a fate suffered by one of my fellow Sierra Club members when I'd been there before), and we took with us then only tiny, quickly weakening, drugstore-bought discount flashlights, our state when we began the advance on Kendall Mountain lacked adequate preparation in other ways than an absence of gear and supplies. We were in nothing like really good physical condition for mountain climbing. Nor had we been well above sea level long enough to be acclimated to thinner air.

Nonetheless, willy-nilly, instead of taking the naps our bodies were trying to tell us they required after so rich a gustatory fare, we began, walking at first along a gradually rising dirt and gravel road. "This is not so bad!" we thought.

But after an hour of ambulation, feeling mildly winded already, we came to the end of the road, finding no paths that continued from there. The mountain yet loomed aloft as though we had made little or no progress toward its top.

We had a choice now, whether to retrace our steps and wisely head back to the sanctuary of our car, or to strike off into the unknown with no clear route ahead. Of course, we chose the latter option.

Val at the top

Our climb then began in earnest. The hike along the road had been nothing next to the effort of scaling the heights without a clear route. Lesser, and less foolish, adventurers than we might have been forgiven for periodically feeling that rest breaks for water or other restoratives might have been in order. Empty-handed, only our instamatic cameras strapped across our shoulders, we had no worries over such distractions.

Along the way, we found ourselves at times in realms ruled by various marmots and, in the rock-strewn screes a little higher up, pikas, who considered this their territory and loudly whistled their discontent with our invasion of it.

Much of the balance of that climb, as opposed to its completion, remains in my mind as a kind of nightmare in which the goal was almost perpetually out of reach, with obstacle after obstacle to be overcome. In one stretch, there was loose shale and larger unstable rock covering a broad area where the side of the mountain was also quite steep, perhaps at a 45 to 60 degree angle. A single step could dislodge several stones, precipitating a small avalanche, the falling rocks sometimes painfully hitting the feet or ankles of whomever was still below. Often one stepped upward only to have the progress negated by a slide of at least equal distance, with danger of losing one's footing and falling down much farther. Progress was greatly slowed by this one hurdle. Yet there were more before we had merely gotten above the shrubs and trees to the mountain's vast crown of bare rock.

There was a small part of the climb, for instance, where we needed to traverse little island patches of mushy, melting snow. The white stuff usually would not support us over its hidden surprises. After sinking part-way through, we'd have to climb out again before going on.

Following close to two hours of hiking, the bulk of the mountain was still well above us, even as its top appeared tantalizingly close, perhaps just over that next rise that we could see. Of course, when at length we had ascended to that point, there was yet another rounded rise of rock which then masqueraded as the last one to be scaled, and so on. And once we'd passed the tree line, the wind, howling over the edges of the rocky terrain, was gale-like.

Dehydration, lower oxygen level, fatigue, muscle soreness, cold, and this brisk wind were taking their toll long before mid-afternoon. Val was having a somewhat easier time of it than I, but she too was laboring mightily, while I had moved into a dreamlike trance, at times almost euphoric, yet at others in a state of agonized exhaustion such as I imagined the moments just before death might be. At length, I could only stand and walk upward a few steps at a time before getting so lightheaded I'd all but pass out. Just getting enough air to breath required an effort.

Meanwhile, though, the vista was definitely improving. We gradually got high enough to see a long way in several splendid directions.

Larry at the top
Ultimately, in spite of the less than ideal shape we were in, we made it to the top of Kendall Mountain. Particularly because of how poorly prepared we were, scaling its mere 13,338 feet of elevation had been a major and thrilling accomplishment. From our starting point at Silverton, elevation 9305 feet, to the mountain summit, our change in altitude had been only 4030 feet, less than a mile straight up, but it had felt like a fair afternoon workout.

We were delighted to find a rock cairn at the top, inside which was a lid-covered jar with a notepad, a piece of pencil, and entries by the other intrepid climbers who had made it there. Here too was documentation of the mountain's name and height, till then unknown to us but later confirmed.

We proudly added our own names to the climbers' list. We also took a few scenic pictures with our little cameras. Looking over the sides from the very top, we discovered we were now above a jewel-like lake, its water blue amid ice and snow. It had been on a portion of the mountain unimagined on our trek up a drier, sunnier part of the peak, but now seemed an enchanted place, a gift bestowed for our efforts.

The cold and wind here on the exposed summit, though, were so intense that, even as tired as we were, we had no inclination to wait around, and promptly headed back down, rushing a little and taking extra risks. It was already beginning to get late. Dusk would soon be descending with us.

The way back had its own memorable moments. The generally less used muscles of the shins took the brunt of the effort to keep us upright during our return down the steep parts, and they would remain achy for days afterward. At one point we surprised a pair of snowshoe hares close at hand.

Ordinary liquid refreshment was a magical boon to be savored once, as darkness was blanketing the surrounding peaks, we had found our way to the car and Silverton again.

We were grateful for the experience but also to be safely returned to our snug tent that night, after demonstrating so well how not to climb a mountain.

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