- Vic Olmstead
"The Peak of Friendship"
(Vol. 10 | Spring 2023 - Cowley Alumni)
He sat with the sunset, watching his friend die. There wasn’t anything Frank could do for his cohort, his wedding’s best man, his fishing, hunting, and climbing buddy. They had experienced a lot of what life had to give together. Only today, while they were climbing, the expectation that something unexpected would happen, did.
When they broke camp that morning, they were near the mid-point of Long’s Peak in Rocky Mountain National Park. Frank knocked some frost off his mustache that accumulated overnight from his breath. PK seldom complained but mentioned how an Owl had kept him up most of the night. It was all part of the adventure. Frank and PK finished packing and continued the trail up. They were leaving the Sandbeach Lake and following Hunter’s Creek towards the summit. An arduous journey only intrepid and hardy climbers attempted. With the packs strapped firmly on their backs, they trudged their way along the creek, stepping over fallen timbers and huge boulders that blocked the path. They hadn’t seen any other trailblazers as their route was less utilized because of its difficulty. PK and Frank accepted the challenge, pocketing this trip as one more experience in their bucket list.
By 10:00 that morning they had only traveled a couple miles, but more elevation nonetheless. When they reached the end of Hunter’s creek at 1PM, they were rewarded with a small lake to sit and have lunch while catching their breath. At this point, they had cleared the tree line, and hiking should be easier.
The rest of the afternoon was more climbing and dodging the plethora of large rocks strewn across the mountainside. The path was nearly invisible, but they soldiered on. Their route would take them to Pagoda Mountain and then up the valley to ascend Long’s Peak itself. Frank and PK were both in great physical shape, but even this was more challenging than they expected. They kept themselves hydrated and stopped every thirty minutes to relax and recover. The thin mountain air was a pox on nearly every climber who wasn’t used to it, causing altitude sickness in many a newbie. It hadn’t affected Frank and PK’s thirty-year-old bodies as much, as they hiked the nearby mountains frequently in preparation for the big one, Long’s Peak.
When they finally reached the summit at 4:45 PM, they hopped up and down and hugged each other in celebration of another accomplishment for their bucket list. They broke out their small bottle of Johnny Walker and proceeded to ignore the wisdom of fellow climbers.
“A toast to the completion of our hike of Rocky Mountain National Park’s highest mountain, at 14,259 feet above sea level!” Frank exclaimed.
“And to two men who never let a challenge go unanswered, regardless of the chances of death and dismemberment!” PK said with a laugh.
“I wouldn’t choose to do this with anyone but you, bro,” Frank said, punching PK in the arm.
“I knew you’d say that,” PK chortled. “Us men got to stick together, reclaim our manhood from the city slickers who have to park by the front door, because they can’t walk a block!”
They knocked back their Scotch and the temptation to throw their empty shot glasses was high. They packed them both in each other’s backpack, stipulating they would assign them a spot on their shelves at home of their accomplishment.
The return trip would take them over to Chasm’s View, The Dove, The Keyhole, and then down Boulder’s Brook. It looked easy from there on.
The shadows were getting long from the pointed rocks in front of them, and the Scotch, though minimal, in this thin air hindered their mental acuity. Frank stumbled a couple of times but recovered without incident. PK seemed to be holding his own, but if he wasn’t, he didn’t show it. As PK was in the lead, Frank followed ten feet back, keeping an eye on the rocky trail and watched if PK had to jump or dodge over something.
“Hang on a second, bro. The trail gets really steep here,” PK said. He looked over a five-foot precipice and hung to his left to circumvent the ledge. At that moment, the ledge slid away from the mountain and it, along with PK tumbled end over end to the bottom of the first creek bank, some 50 yards below. PK stopped tumbling, but the rock heeled over with its momentum and careened another hundred yards before clashing with an existing boulder bigger than it was.
Frank, stunned to watch his friend tumble wildly with the rock ledge, his mouth agape in bewilderment, but no words came out. After a moment, he called out to his best friend, in wild hopes that by a miracle he was still alive.
“PK!...PK!” It echoed through the valley below.
But there was no answer. Frank quickly looked for a way to descend and realized he’d have to pick another path as the ledge had destroyed what path there was in the first sliding, then tumbling down hill.
There didn’t seem to be an easy way to get down, so Frank chose the best places he could to put his feet on rocks he felt could support him. Keeping his hands behind him, he crab walked precariously down to PK. It seemed to take forever. A few times, Frank’s heart jumped as rocks gave way under his own weight, slithering down, dislodging other unstable brothers along the way.
Then he finally reached PK, he saw PK’s body was badly beaten and punctured by all the sharp and jagged rocks protruding up during his tumble. The backpack was of little help to the battering that PK took. Frank checked PK’s neck for a pulse but was heartbroken to barely feel one, regardless of where he checked. As a last resort, he put his ear close to PK’s mouth in hopes of hearing a breath.
“F…Fra…Frank…” came from tortured breath of PK’s lips. Those were the last words of Frank’s best friend.
The creek bank PK landed on was only five feet wide and zigged zagged on its way to the bottom. By now the shadows had crept up the opposite mountain, leaving Frank and PK in an ominous twilight of the setting sun.
Frank pitched his tent on the rough patch of smaller stones, after tossing the larger ones away, enough for he and PK to spend one more night… together, on Long’s Peak.