Ten minutes later, after I’ve finally caught my breath, the rest of the climb proceeds with surprising ease. The trail to E’s first false summit is swept free of snow and nearly level. With each false summit thereafter, my confidence only grows. At one point, giddy, I take out my tape recorder and sing, Julie Andrews-style, "The hills are alive!" Alas, my attempted falsetto, unreachable in the cold, comes out as a manly bass. Treble was I ere I saw Elbert, I croak into the recorder, feeling in some small way Napoleonic on the brink of conquest.
After rounding a final switchback, it’s there: the last, indisputable peak of E. You are a summiteer! I tell the recorder. Not just a false summiteer! A real one!
The wind, gusting at 40 mph, drowns out the boast, but I’m confident I’ll remember it even without voice notes. I haven’t felt this exhilarated in years. If I can make it back down the mountain, there’s a 50-50 chance I’ll return someday to climb an even more challenging 14er. Then again, I could just buy a Segway and never have to take another step under my own power.
I’m mulling such options when suddenly something flaps toward me from the horizon. It’s a solitary raven, black as night, bobbing through the turbulence like an untethered prayer flag. It swoops overhead and gives me a quick, curious look. It almost seems he’s quothing something about my future as a mountaineer, but I can’t make out the sound over the noise of the wind.
Then, as if having reached some tentative conclusion, the raven turns its head and banks its wings to the left. In an instant, it glides into the vast cleavage separating Mt. Elbert from Mt. Massive and the limitless peaks beyond. I follow the flight as long as I can. Somewhere by the Continental Divide, which looks unimaginably vast from here at the top of the world, I lose track of the raven altogether.
Beautiful bird, the raven, and so dark: I’m sure I’ll see another soon enough. For now, I envy the ease of his descent as my breaths come deep and quick in preparation for my own long way down.
A National Magazine Award winner for his health reporting, Jim Thornton often takes unorthodox approaches to his subjects–like the time he laid down with dead cows in the Chihuhuan Desert to see if vultures would land on him.