It is 4:15 a.m. on July 17, 2009, at the Mount Princeton trailhead near Nathrop, Colo. It is oh-so-very dark and starry as a caravan of 14 cars churns into the dirt parking lot. Dust swirls in headlights; cars stop, and people with packs emerge. There is a lot of chatter in the pre-dawn chill.
Fifty-seven eager but nervous hikers begin milling about, eventually making their way to the dropped tailgate of an SUV for a final check-in. They swing packs to their backs, snug hats and gloves against the chill. Head lamps and cameras splash the hectic activity with light.
“Are we good to go?” a hiker asks.
“Yes,” replies Sallie Wright s’72, who is recording the names of each of the 57 climbers as they head up the trail.
“Then let’s go,” says the hiker, turning to four companions. Their headlights bob away into the dark up the four-plus-mile road on the way to the 14,197-foot summit of Mount Princeton.
A few minutes later, another group starts and then pauses, confused. Headlamps swing around. There are two roads.
“Is this the right trail? Which way do we go?”
“Up. The main road. Go right,” someone shouts.
They turn and start walking again.
After 18 months of planning and preparation, it is show time. Thirty-three members of the Class of 1972, along with 24 relatives and friends, step away from the parking lot with a common goal: Walk uphill until you can’t go any farther.
For most, this is the beginning of a very long day on Mount Princeton and the end of their dream to try and climb it.
Seemed like a good idea at the time ...
In the fall of 2007, class president Bill deGolian asked Bob Wright ’72 to plan a class mini-reunion with the goal of climbing Mount Princeton.
“I thought it would be an outing that might attract a different group of classmates than earlier trips,” deGolian recalled. “It might be our last, best chance to climb Mount Princeton.”
Wright, who had climbed the mountain before, gulped.
“I had no idea how I was going to pull it off, but I accepted,” said Wright, a Houston native who, in recent years, has climbed numerous 14,000-foot peaks in Colorado with peers as fit as he is. However, he had never organized a large group outing for that purpose, let alone for what was likely mostly novice hikers. An Internet search led to Outdoor Action director Rick Curtis ’79, who had organized Universitywide climbs of Mount Princeton in 1997 and 1999, and the two met for lunch.
“In 2 1/2 hours, I took eight pages of notes,” Wright said, “and Rick confirmed my worst fears about the planning necessary.”
Curtis, a master of logistics, loaded Wright up with details. While anyone can park at the trailhead of Mount Princeton and start hiking, many things have to align – travel, accommodations, permits, transportation, nutrition, and safety to provide an enjoyable, safe group trip. Besides, these Tigers were no cubs.
Shortly afterward, Bob accepted my offer to help with the planning, and two newly acquainted classmates geared up for Class Expeditions 101.
A plan comes together
The early planning followed Curtis’ exhaustive blueprint of the Universitywide Mount Princeton climbs. By May 2008, more than 70 classmates had expressed interest. Wright blocked out the dates of July 14-19 at a resort at the foot of the mountain. Climb day was set for July 17, with a rain date of July 18. We arranged scenic acclimatization hikes, exploring time in the region, casual group meals, and a whitewater raft trip to wrap it up.
By September Bob and I had climbed some nearby peaks on separate trips, scouted the Mount Princeton area, visited the resort, and met with a whitewater rafting outfitter who had worked with Outdoor Action to staff checkpoints on the mountain, a step we intended to duplicate. As many as 125 classmates, family members, and friends were interested. Some classmates made reservations, sight unseen, cost unknown. Nailing down the logistical details of the climb and expenses filled our time until a week before the climb.
Ready or not
The second-guessing started on Highway 24, when our classmates saw Mount Princeton for the first time.
“Are you kidding me? We can’t climb that.”
“That is one big (fill in the blank) mountain.”
The initial reaction ran from swears to prayers ... and then they pulled the car over to take photographs. Mount Princeton is a solitary, massive mountain that fills a windshield. It looks like an Everest from the valley below, and the intimidating sight mutes any pre-trip bravado.
A level of apprehension surfaced as an informal refrain during the week’s acclimatization hikes: “How does this compare with Princeton?”
The short answer, “Princeton’s longer and higher,” fell shy of the request for assurance.
The night before the climb, Curtis gave a briefing suggesting three objectives for the day: Have fun, keep safety in mind, and enjoy time on the mountain. He declined to emphasize the “S-word” – summit – a reminder to pick the right yardstick to measure success. Then he gave the pep talk.
“Mount Princeton is a long, hot climb,” he said. “You are making a roundtrip of 13 miles that climbs 5,400 feet from bottom to top.”
He described the two main segments: four-plus miles on a four-wheel-drive road that climbs 3,000 feet, followed by a 2,400-foot climb of less than two miles over a rocky trail. Once you leave the road, the real work begins: There’s no shade, no more water (we arranged water refill stations along the road), and a boulder field, where you pick your way up a mountainside jumbled with coffee table-sized rocks.
Just like exams, the steepest thousand feet are at the end, when legs are tired, the air is thin, and spirits sagging. And you are so tired of rocks.
The next day on the mountain, Jim Willut, secretary to the Chaffee County search-and-rescue squad, who volunteered to be on-mountain with his truck, portable oxygen, and a backboard, gave us this ringing endorsement:
“I sure wouldn’t pick this as my first 14er.”
A success by any measure
By sunrise on July 17 – 112 years to the day after the first recorded ascent – the early gaggle of hikers had elongated up the trail like a Slinky, snaking through the pine forest. By the time commuters started their day in the East, most hikers had reached the tree line, where a cairn and rock stairs signal the trail’s departure from the road up and over an alpine shoulder called the “grassy knoll.” Before them was the summit, gleaming like Oz, 2,000 feet above them. It looked close, until they saw the “ants” – hikers dwarfed by the scale of the boulder jumble.
The boulder field is where group events devolve to become personal challenges with stamina and the mountain, time, and weather. Weather was on our side, and most hikers pressed on.
At 9 a.m., a cell phone rang at the trailhead with the celebratory declaration, “Tigers on top,” the trip motto. It would be the first of many similarly buoyant calls.
Meanwhile, an informal “welcome wagon” assembled at the trailhead to cheer and photograph the return of each climber. To a person, they were whipped, but grinning. Many had been on the mountain for more than 12 hours. Their reward was a shuttle to a shower.
“You could see it in their faces as they returned,” said Ginny Boyle s’72. “They left it all on the mountain. You didn’t know how high they got, and it didn’t matter.”
“If Bob and Merc had been totally candid about the climb, far fewer classmates would have signed up. They sold it without scaring folks off!” said deGolian afterward.
In this case, some innocent ignorance was turned into bliss.
The Class of 1972’s assault on Mount Princeton attracted 72 classmates, relatives, and friends. On climb day, 57 participants started up the trail, and 57 returned of their own accord. There were no injuries beyond some scrapes and contusions. Forty-seven of the hikers climbed to the summit ridge and 36 topped out the mountain. In all, 24 classmates hoisted the class banner on the summit. Among them were Diana Foster and Helena Novakova, who – with classmate Daryl English, also on the trek – climbed another mountain named Princeton 37 years ago as young women pioneers at Old Nassau.
By class measure, July 17, 2009, was a banner day filled with personal summits. A few folks made it to the top of a mountain as well.
On July 17, 1877, William Libbey – Class of 1877 and a future professor of physical geography at Princeton – made the first recorded ascent of Mount Princeton in the Sawatch Range of central Colorado. He would write afterward that he “found no particular difficulty until within 1,500 feet of the top, when his only way lay over a bed of débris; the size of the boulders being such that nothing but the hardest sort of crawling would answer.”
The description rings true today. In an article for the Princeton Alumni Weekly following the 1997 Universitywide climb, J.I. Merritt ’66 notes that Libby never claimed credit for naming the mountain. In fact, it may have already been named. Merritt cites A Climbing Guide to Colorado’s Fourteeners as stating the name had likely been in use since 1873. If that is indeed the case, then it is likely that the name was given by Henry Gannet, a Harvard graduate serving as chief topographer on a government survey expedition in that year. Gannet merely completed a “trifecta” started on an 1869 trip to Colorado as a student at the Harvard Mining School. He participated in an expedition led by Harvard Professor, Josiah D. Whitney. The good professor was out to determine the highest ranges that he could reach. The highest summit that he could find (14,420 feet) he named Mount Harvard, his employer and sponsoring institution for his expedition. The second-highest peak immediately to the south he named Mount Yale, for his alma mater.
Gannet very well might have stepped up and tagged the massive solitary mountain to the south of Mount Yale (14,196 feet) as Mount Princeton. If so, his generosity of spirit deserves a “locomotive” because it notched 14,197 feet, a foot taller than Mount Yale.
Not to be left out, a Columbia student climbed and dedicated a peak to his school as well, making four named after Eastern colleges and establishing the group referred to today as the Collegiate Peaks. – Glenn “Merc” Morris ’72