Final Thoughts: Hiking on the Heights

"I feel closer to God in the mountains."

I like to hike into the hills and mountains and say Mass outdoors. The beautiful natural world is God’s world. I can see how God adapted things: the Indian paintbrush flowers have dark colors (red, orange and pink) at lower levels and pale yellow and white way at the top. Perhaps there’s a lot more competition for the birds and bees at lower levels so flowers have to be flamboyant.

It started summers in my college years. I worked on the construction of Seminoe Dam, Wyo., about 60 miles north of the Colorado border, where the North Platte had its source in the Snowy Range. We drove 45 miles to Sunday Mass in Rawlins. The unpaved road was so rough that we had to drive the first four miles through the Seminoe Mountains in first or second gear.

It was at Seminoe Dam that I fell in love with mountains and learned where to put my feet on steep ascents. My non-Catholic friend, Jerry Romans, worked as an engineers’ helper. He had access to a pickup truck high enough to avoid low centering when we left the road. Because of my father’s position as field office manager, I could buy steaks and other food at the company commissary. Friday was the evening we often went in search of abandoned one-man mines. I grilled the steaks for Jerry and his partner using dry tumbleweeds for a quick fire, but because of the Friday abstinence regulations then in force, I ate my cheese or peanut butter sandwiches.

It was in Glacier Park in the 1960s that I got serious about hiking on the heights. I met Father J. Raymond Vandegrift, O.P., on the 20-mile Gunsight Pass Trail. Thereafter we teamed up for many summer vacations. He is nine years younger than I and with many technical skills.

In 1967, Fr. Vandegrift persuaded me to join him with the Iowa Mountaineers on their Maligne Lake outing near Jasper in Alberta, Canada. I did 21 summer outings with them, including the Big Horns in Wyoming, the Sawtooth Mountains in Idaho, Bear Lake in Montana and Governor’s Basin and Courthouse Mountain camps in Colorado. I got to the summit of three 14,000-foot mountains in Colorado — Sneffels, Handies and Democrat.

The Canadian outings included group camps near Banff and Lake Louise, and the Lake of the Hanging Glacier in the Purcell Range. The highlight was getting to the summit of Glacier Dome. We were roped up, detoured to where the crevasse narrowed, and there we jumped it.

During the school year I hiked frequently at Interstate Park, Taylors Falls. I took students winter camping there, and at Gooseberry Falls on Lake Superior. We snowshoed a lot. A year ago, Bill Clark ’79 climbed Kilimanjaro’s 19,565-foot peak in Africa. He wrote that his interest started at Taylors Falls.

Fr. Vandegrift and I offered Mass every day. It was easy to do in the Iowa Mountaineers’ community tent, but sometimes we had to set up in the wilderness. In the Sawtooth Mountains of Idaho near Redfish Lake, a Basque shepherd with his tiny covered wagon and working sheepdogs had driven his large flock into the fields beyond our camp. Fr. Vandegrift packed his Mass kit in a sheetcake tin and this provided a level surface when set up on rocks. We were saying Mass on one side of a crater. The sheep were bedded down opposite. Precisely when we prayed, "Behold the Lamb of God," the lead sheep got up and the whole flock followed his example.

As a priest, I feel closer to God in the mountains; it’s not just the elevation. At high altitudes we don’t do too much talking but often say the Rosary on the way down.

Looking down on the Blue Lakes far below the summit of Mount Sneffels or going down into the canyons below Delicate Arch near Moab, Utah, makes one mindful of the immensity of God’s creation. As C.S. Lewis put it, there are some good things that we expect and when we see them, we rejoice. Totally unexpected sights give even a greater spiritual uplift.

John P. Duffy ’82 joined us in 1986. We stayed at the Canadian Alpine Club’s hut at Outpost Lake near Jasper. Duffy carried my heavy items. In late afternoon we kicked steps in the soft snow and watched the "icebergs" tumble down on the other side of the canyon. After sunset, these steps froze. In the morning they made for an easy ascent. Fr. Vandegrift and Duffy got to the summit. I stayed at Outpost Lake taking sunrise pictures.

In 1993, I visited Seminoe Dam and camped in the Snowy Range. In 1997, I got to Skoki Lodge and Merlin Lake near Lake Louise with considerable help from Duffy; I knew this was my last climb in the western mountains. Now vacations are on the North Shore of Lake Superior.

I climb and hike because I enjoy it. It’s a sport and a challenge in an environment worth saving. Some say only a few visit these mainly inaccessible places, but there is a special joy in getting up to mountains — or even looking up from down below.

Monsignor James Lavin ’40 works in the university’s Alumni Office, still lives in Ireland Hall, still feeds students peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and still takes care of those in need.