So I was hiking up 12,785-foot Ajax Peak last weekend, and wasn’t totally loving my internal dialogue.
To ascend Ajax, most folks park near the top of Bridal Veil Falls and commence hoofing up Black Bear Road, which is a road in name only. A more appropriate tag would be “Black Bear Geological Scar.” Heck, one of my topo maps of the Telluride region, the one from Drake Mountain Maps, doesn’t even recognize Black Bear Road with so much as a squiggly line. My Latitude 40° Maps version, meanwhile, notes the lower section of Black Bear Road is called “The Steps” and describes it as a “very technical 4WD section.” Black Bear is known far and wide as Most Dangerous Drive in Colorado — and sometimes all of America. Black Bear Road has killed humankind before, and will certainly kill again.
Ascending the Darkest Ursine just a few months after my right quadricep had been surgically re-attached to my right patella … well, it didn’t exactly feel right. My first hike in the high country since surgery, it induced an arse-whuppin’ of pain and suffering. The atrophied quadriceps, like a sullen teenager, scarcely acknowledged commands to work from its parent (in this case, my brain).
I sucked breath as if through a very thin straw. My internal dialogue began sounding oddly like George W. Bush. The former POTUS never was too articulate. Laboring from the steep pitch of the so-called “road,” I flashed back to Bush’s 2004 debate with John Kerry, when 43 described the presidency as “hard work” not once or twice but 11 times! I was rendered similarly redundant and unimaginative. “This is hard,” I informed my slowly shuffling self. “It’s hard work. I’m working hard.”
Doctors have told me it takes a full year to heal from a ruptured quadriceps tendon. Now, eight months after the knife that left a five-inch scar right down the middle, my kneecap enjoys full flexion, zero swelling, and following beach time in Carolina’s Outer Banks, a swell tan. What sucks is the pathetic lack of muscle tone in my right thigh. It’s actually less a “thigh,” and more a “rubbery flipper.”
The five other hikers in my party — my sister, brother-in-law and three nephews — and I paused at Ingram Creek just before it fell in frothy thunder 175 feet to battered, tortured stone. I filled my hydration bladder with the crystal-clear, succulent water — giardiasis be damned! I did not actually intend to slake my thirst with Lewis Mine runoff, but the hydration pack dried up the day before while mountain biking, and I forgot to re-fill it. Why? Perhaps my mountain man instincts were as dulled by injury/lengthy recovery as the aforementioned rubbery flipper.
(Writing this three days later, I am indeed happy to note zero evidence of giardia. Plus, I savored the best Rocky Mountain water conceivable … and you didn’t … so there.)
Following the main crossing of Ingram, the road turned sharply east up the largest snowfield I’ve ever seen on Black Bear Road, which is blessedly closed to motor vehicles these days. Thanks to the prodigious winter of 2018-19, Ajax Peak hikers hear no dirt bikes or Jeeps whining away in first gear. Another realization: When the Via Ferrata appeared last decade, it reordered my Eastern Box Canyon Priorities. Since the VF, I’ve climbed Ajax only twice, most recently in 2015.
Back then, a small wooden sign pointed the way off Black Bear toward the 12,785-foot peak. On Sunday, no such sign was to be found. Surely, a ginormous 2019 avalanche had pulverized it into a billion splinters.
From the junction, the trail angled gently up in an endless series of switchbacks. The six of us fell into a smoothly paced line. I often venture outdoors solo. While recreating alone can be fun, hiking in a group engenders a number of social opportunities. For one, the opportunity to scare the holy hell out of your friends. Just three months ago, on a Flintstones-esque trail in Moab, I burst yelling from behind a boulder and nearly caused mitochondrial infarctions in my girlfriend and half-son. On the trail to Ajax, screaming lunatics hide — like my brother-in-law did before terrifying a nephew and me — in rusty abandoned mining carts.
We had the climb mostly to ourselves, as if the steepness of the initial pitch weeded out the weak and unwilling. Unlike most road-trail hybrids, the single-track part of the Ajax climb goes more smoothly than the jeep road part. We enjoyed vibrantly beautiful, if short and small, wildflowers. The final approach to the summit is gloriously simple — flat enough to permit Buttercup and Wesley to run romantically in slow motion toward each other. From there, the views of Telluride and Bridal Veil and the San Juans is mind-blowing.
Looming ever-visible on Telluride’s eastern horizon, Ajax Peak is the ultimate bragging-rights mountain. It never gets old to jerk a glance Ajax’s way, and boast, “Yeah, I climbed that.” Still, it seems some tourists and high country visitors are so preoccupied with bagging 14ers that they ignore the 12,785-foot monolith. That’s silly to me.
Do hikers who follow the metric system write off mountains lower than 4,268 meters? Of course not, even though 4,268 is the exact equivalent of the over-played elevation of 14,000 feet. Oh, well. More power to those who forsake Ajax for Wilson Peak, Mt. Wilson and El Diente. They ultimately leave more room on Ajax for me and my rubbery flipper.