Climbing out of a midlife crisis

How couch potato Mark Obmascik changed his life, and his body, summiting dozens of Colorado mountains in one summer

Published May 25, 2009 11:23AM (EDT)

Some midlife crises involve a fast car, others an affair. Facing middle age, writer Mark Obmascik decided to hike, climb and scramble up all the Colorado mountain peaks over 14,000 feet that he hadn't already summited as a much younger man.

When he embarked on this high-altitude escapade, Obmascik was hardly a bionic exercise bunny in search of his next adrenaline rush. Out-of-shape and a junk-food junkie, he had traded working at the Denver Post, where he won a Pulitzer Prize, for the life of a write-at-home dad. His typical daily workout routine consisted of wrestling his 3-year-old son into a car seat.

In his new book "Halfway to Heaven: My White-Knuckled -- and Knuckleheaded -- Quest for the Rocky Mountain High," Obmascik relays his misadventures training for and scaling Colorado's "14ers." He hit the trails in earnest one Memorial Day, and summited 45 peaks in a single summer.

While he finds much to revere about the Rockies, he has lots of fun mocking himself; one slide on his butt down Castle Peak rips his pants from crotch to waist, leaving a long tail of blue boxer shorts hanging out of a flap in his pants. Memorable wildlife sightings include mountain goats, which are so eager to lick the salt from a hiker's piss that they rudely interrupt urination mid-stream. It's a breezy account that mixes mountain lore of deadly summit attempts gone bad with tidbits of lively Western history. But the meat of Obmascik's tale is the portraits of the motley crew of his fellow climbers, which delve into what has led each of them to head for the sky, too.

Obmascik, now 47, who also wrote a delightful chronicle of obsessive birders called "The Big Year," lives in Denver with his wife and three sons, now ages 15, 11 and 5. Salon spoke by phone with the coach-potato turned climber about reaching new heights at a time when he thought he was in permanent decline.

What inspired you to go on this climbing adventure?

Our 12-year-old son had gone to summer camp and we got a call one day while he was at camp saying, "Dad, I'm in the hospital emergency room." I said "What?"

It turns out that he had fallen from Pikes Peak, elevation 14,115 feet, and slashed his shin to the bone and required 10 surgical staples, but he said: "Dad, I'm OK. I was on the top of the mountain. I summited! I summited and I saw the sunrise from Pikes Peak." You know, the same place that inspired Katherine Lee Bates to write "America the Beautiful."

He couldn't care less about being hurt. He could only care about the view and his accomplishment. Then, he said "You know, Dad, what if we did one of these together?" This is proof that love is blind because he hadn't taken a look at me lately. I'd put on 50 pounds since college, and I was a lot better at burritos than running.

When was the last time you had climbed a 14,000-foot peak at that point?

It would have been before marriage, before kids. It would have been 17 years ago.

I was at the point of my life where I just kind of viewed myself in decline. I liked to play basketball and I wasn't as quick as I used to be. I never was much of a jumper, and now I really couldn't jump, and I had to rely on my elbow more than my shot. You just start to think: Is this it? Is this the long slide to where you're gonna end up, in the ground?

But then I ended up going out with my son. We tried a peak and I had hours with a teenager out of texting range, or out of cellphone range, and there was no Xbox or cable and it was really wonderful. We just had these great heart-to-hearts that you just don't have in town. And I got hooked.

How dangerous are these peaks?

Colorado has 54 mountains over 14,000 feet. Now, of the 54 peaks, 37 of them are really hikes. There's either a trail, or a pretty clear path to the top.

Difficult hikes, usually at least 4,000 feet of elevation gain over several miles, but in general if you can run a mile, you can do a 14er. If you can do a 10K, you can do a 14er without a lot of pain or suffering. But that's for 37 of the peaks.

Seventeen of them involve some more hands-and-feet scrambling. That's where you've got some exposure, some air, and they're really unforgiving.

Does anybody know how many people have actually died on these peaks?

The best estimates are that there are roughly about the same number, or maybe a little more, as have died on Everest [approximately 200]. Of course, the people on Everest are far more prepared. There's a big process before you even attempt that.

The difference with the Colorado peaks is you can sit at lunch and have a cheeseburger and a beer and say, "Hey, I can get up that peak!" Occasionally some [of those people] do, but occasionally they fare much worse.

You tapped into this whole online subculture of people who are trying to summit these peaks, or have done some of them. What were the people you met like?

I had made a deal with my wife that I wouldn't hike anything alone. She was scared that I would die alone of a sprained ankle.

The creepy thing for a father of three is that I did basically the same exact thing that I always warn my kids not to: met strangers online and slept with them.

I would meet up with somebody online and put the kids to bed, and then drive through the night, and then get in a tent with these guys with hopes of going up a peak the next morning.

I met up with an ex-drag racer whose goal was to do a headstand on top of every 14,000 foot mountain, and I watched him do it on a summit that was snow encrusted, there was a 20 mph wind and a 20-foot abyss over his shoulder. I went up with the lead oboe player in a Hebrew salsa band. I went up with a young man in college who took me up the same peak from which he had fallen 400 feet in an accident that had killed his father.

In the backcountry, I met a 70-year-old man with two artificial hips who was climbing. Another guy got so scared with exposure that he chain-smoked Marlboros every time he felt some air below his butt and I think he knocked off half a pack on the way down, especially before the glissades.

Glissading is where you slide down a mountain on your butt. That was my one great mountaineering talent. In some of these glissades, these young guys would get behind me because I had a really big ass. I would just carve out this plush luge run. These guys would just go right down on my tracks. At age 47, who knows that you're good at something?

What was it like making these decisions about safety with people you had literally just met?

I found that it was a lot scarier in theory than it was in practice. In a city you've got Democrats and Republicans, but on a mountain, everybody's a libertarian. You're responsible for yourself.

One of my favorite quotes was that a mountaineer with no fear has no judgment. On a mountain, nobody really knows how big your house is or what kind of car you drive or what job you have or how much you're bringing home. What they know is your judgments and your sense of responsibility and your willingness to accept risks, acceptable or unacceptable levels.

You really judge someone based on what's in their heart or what's in their character. And it's just so different than the way that you judge someone in town. And I really found that invigorating, it was really life affirming. I had wonderful talks with people that even in the most alcohol-soaked bars you don't talk that way.

You wrote that being over 12,000 feet is like a truth serum, and people start confessing. Why do you think that is?

On the way up you've got all this nervous energy. Can I make it to the top? Is the weather going to let me? Will my body let me? And then you hit the top and the adrenaline rush is gone but you've got to be cautious because the vast majority of accidents happen on the way down.

You're tired. Your guard is down.

So, what you do is you just start talking. One of the great recurring themes I think in the Western mountains is about the man with the troubled love life, who sets out for the West to either try to heal himself, or just try to work over the scars.

That started with William Henry Jackson in the 1800s; after his fiancée [Caddie Eastman] left him, he went out and took the great photos that convinced Congress to make Yellowstone the first national park. And later his wife [Mollie Greer Jackson] died in childbirth, and his newborn daughter died and William Henry Jackson went West with a vengeance and got the first photos of Garden of the Gods and Mesa Verde and Mount of the Holy Cross -- an amazing 14,000 peak west of Vail that has this couloir, or snow gully, that is taller than most downtown buildings in America. It became really one of the world's most famous religious shrines.

So, there's this recurring theme of people with romantic trouble to work out in the mountains. They put their energy or frustration on the peak. I had a lot of heart-to-hearts about that, I had a lot of heart-to-hearts with guys about raising kids, about what was happening with their wives. Some work, but, frankly, that's boring, you live with work.

One of the terrific things about a mountain is you could care less about how much paperwork is stacking up on your desk. You're out of cell range. It's liberating.

What was the contrast like between climbing versus being at home with your kids?

I really missed my kids when I was doing the peaks, and I got to do some with my oldest son, but climbing is selfish. You're not really helping anyone but yourself and your climbing partner, so there's guilt involved when you hike.

And I thought a lot about risks, of "Is this fair to do something like this with my family? What if something happened?" At the same time, I've got three boys. What would they think if their father had a dream and took a pass on it?

Ultimately, I'm a conservative climber. I don't think I ever really put myself in a bad situation. In fact, I've felt a lot more scared on Interstate 70 at rush hour than I ever felt on any of the peaks.

What was it like when you had to turn around before you made it to the top of a peak?

There were many times. The first time was with our oldest son, when we tried a peak after he had gone up Pikes and he asked me to do it, after my 17- or 18-year hiatus, and we came within 400 feet of the summit, spent hours working to that point, and my son got crazy feet. I think the altitude just kicked in.

What are crazy feet?

Like, you're in the 15th round with Muhammad Ali. You get wobbly, dizzy, there's 30 or 40 percent less oxygen up there than there is at sea level, and if you're not accustomed to it, it's difficult.

So he got dizzy and wobbly, and we sat down a lot, and finally just decided to hell with this. The mountain will always be here. We can come back and try again another time.

I was proud of him for turning around because one of the worst maladies on the peaks is to have summit fever, where you just try to get to the top at all costs, and sometimes the costs are too horrible.

And what was your hairiest moment, when you thought, "What have I gotten into?"

When we got on top of Mount Massive in June, a beautiful spring day, we summitted at 10 a.m., which is usually early enough, and started getting pelted by graupel -- kind of like this styrofoam-like snow -- and knew that with warm air temperatures but cold precipitation coming down, this is a recipe for badness.

So we started running from the summit and sure enough, Kaboom! Kaboom! Kaboom! -- three giant blasts of thunder and lightning. I threw up. I pulled out my my ice ax, and I sat on my butt and I slid for several thousand feet on my butt, gave myself a snow enema on a glissade. I slid down the mountain faster than lightning.

What was one of the most sublime moments for you?

I don't want to sound too hokey, but it ain't the Discovery Channel out there. To watch the sun rise over a rise of the Rockies and hear the vesper sparrows call to greet it and watch ptarmigan walk across your boot tracks and see big-horn sheep up on the ridge top, knowing that you're visitors in their domain.

Fewer Americans have been camping and hiking in recent decades. What do you think about that phenomenon?

Ask my kids. My boys, like many other Americans, love their Wii. They love their iPods. But there's just something to be said for a really cheap date, where you go and you're away from all that. It's not you against the mountain, but it's you against yourself.

There's nothing I think that just so perfectly tests your physical and emotional limits as hiking a peak. For a parent to be able to do that with kids who have grown up on technology, who love technology, who are dependent on technology, and then to see your kids excited about something that has no connection whatsoever to consumer electronics, is a real testament to how powerful that experience can be. You feel really lucky.

And, plus, when you pull out that box of Ho-Hos on the summit, or Twinkies, you feel like you're the greatest person in the world in that moment because they are so grateful.

You were often climbing with people who were much faster climbers than you. How did you handle that?

There wasn't an Internet man date that I had without a lot of performance anxiety. There are definitely a lot of hard bodies out there. But still it's ultimately about teamwork. Nobody ever dropped me.

Everybody has their own pace. But you're still looking out for each other. No matter how fast the hiker, you could still roll an ankle, you could still get hit by a rock. You could still make a bad judgment on a rock that's over an abyss, so you really need each other.

Did you feel like taking on the peaks was your version of a midlife crisis?

Well, I hit a certain age and I still really liked my wife. And I had no interest in Harleys or Porsches. But I still wanted to test myself. I think there's a lot to be said for figuring out for better or worse, what you're made of, what your limits are. And it's just as important to find out what you can do as it is what you can't do.

Stuff that would've terrified me at the beginning of the summer, by the end of the summer, it was nothing. By the end of the summer, I'd be doing moves on some rock and would look down and say, That's no big deal, only a 60-foot drop.

At some point you learned in your life to beat down joy. You're not supposed to be like a kindergartner whooping anymore or screaming for happiness but you look at a peak and you can be like a kid in a jungle gym. It can be really fun. You're hopping from talus to talus and doing some moves just like you might've been on the monkey bars in kindergarten. And you can still do it. You can. You can really surprise yourself. It happened to me and I'm grateful for it.

Does it still shock you that you actually did it?

Yes! Yes. And if people look at me, they're shocked that I did it, too.

How did it change your body at the end of the summer?

Well, I lost 15 pounds and a bunch of it was around the middle. Part of my problem, when I trained over the winter, was that I played some high school football -- I was never very good -- but that was my definition of getting in shape. So, I did things that I remembered from high school football, which for climbing was pretty stupid. I got, for me, a pretty big bench press again.

A bench press does not help you get up a mountain. What it does is build upper-body weight, which is more of a burden to haul up on a mountain. The classic body type for a climber would be somebody very thin. When I started the thing, I was maybe like 6 foot, 225. The great climbers are more like 6 foot, 130 or 140.

What advice do you have for somebody who wants try their first 14er?

Get a basic level of fitness. If you can run a mile, there are peaks you can do that are close to Denver that will be a wonderful day out.

You have to really be prepared and respectful of the mountain. Hope for the best but expect the worst. You can get caught in a really nasty thunderstorm so be prepared for it.

Have rain gear, have clothes that are OK if you have to get wet. Make sure you've got enough water and some food for refueling. And go early. Thunderstorms and lightning storms that hit the high country are horrific and they roll in early in Colorado in the summer. Go early and beat those things off the mountain.

Believe me, there are few things more fear-inducing than having the hairs stand up on the back of your neck. Have any metal on your body start crackling like AM radio and then just having that humongous blast around your head while you're trying to get down from the peaks.

I like to start before dawn. You'd go up in the morning with a headlamp, and you'd feel like Jacques Cousteau on one of those old PBS shows where he's scuba diving into a black cave, and then on the way down when you're really tired and trying to concentrate enough to not make a stupid mistake, you get to a place and say, "Wow, this is really magnificent. I didn't see this at all this morning because it was totally black!"

It's like you've gone on two hikes. So the boredom factor is immediately wiped out. That's why I like to do that.

And finally be humble. Arrogance is what kills people.

By Katharine Mieszkowski

Katharine Mieszkowski is a senior writer for Salon.

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