Lessons in Resiliency from the Mountains

The Bark of the Cony follows the tale of the 1960s local legends, the Climbing Smiths—a father and four sons who together climbed all the Colorado 14ers, finishing while the youngest, Tyle, was just eight years old.

In his memoir, George Nash Smith tells of key life experiences that led to his attitude of challenging himself and the development of his unique life philosophy, Not If, But How. Through mountain climbing he learned a love of nature and imparted his life philosophy to his four sons. In 1969 they finished climbing all 67 peaks over 14,000 feet in the contiguous 48 states while forging strong family bonds, learning important values, and setting records along the way.

Enjoy this free excerpt from The Bark of the Cony to discover what it is that makes The Climbing Smiths so remarkable. 

The Climbing Smiths smile at the camera, backpacks on, spread across the trail.

Photos courtesy of the Smith Family

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Let's Climb 'Em All

(An excerpt from The Bark of the Cony, by George Nash Smith) 

At the beginning of the 1967 climbing season, the kids all seemed to enjoy the mountains. However, the idea to climb all of the Colorado 14ers as a family had not yet been born, except within me. The youngest person of record to have climbed all of the 14ers in Colorado was Bob Melzer, a 9-year-old boy, who climbed them with his dad, Carl, in 1937. When I was with Monte Carroll & Co., in the late 1950s, Grace Melzer, Bob's mother, was also there as a salesperson and we talked 14ers many times. 

And what do you know, at dinner on Sunday, June 4, the day after we Smiths had climbed Pikes Peak, Flint brought up the idea of climbing all of the 14ers as a family. After talking about it we took a vote. It was unanimous! We would do it! So, that became our family goal, and we would try to get it done before Tyle turned 9 on July 24 next year.  At this time he had made it to the top of thirteen 14ers and only needed forty more. We were practically there! 

In those days, when a climber signed a summit register, most would sign as being affiliated with a group of some kind, such as the Colorado Mountain Club, Boulder Mountain Club, El Paso Mountain Club, etc. And for me, not to be outdone, I had been signing as "OMC" which had been short for "Own Mountain Club." Now, because of our new family goal, I wanted "OMC" to represent something more and changed the same to "Outpost Mountain Club," in honor of our dance hall. 

In 1967 I was calling square dances for the "Promenaders," a singles group that met weekly at the Denver YMCA. My fee was $10.00. One of the dancers was Virginia Nolan, a member of the Colorado Mountain Club. She was the fortieth person to have climbed all of Colorado's recognized 14ers, having finished with a climb of Crestone Peak in 1952. The Crestones (Needle and Peak), are two of the four 14ers in the Sangre de Cristo range near the town of Westcliffe, and were next on our list to do. So far this summer we had climbed twelve new 14ers, and because the Crestones were considered to be tough climbs I thought we could use some help. Earlier, I had asked Virginia if she would lead us and she declined, but said she would check with her friend, Bill Arnold, to see if he would be interested. He lived in Pueblo and was a member of the El Paso Mountain Club, and was the thirty-third person to have climbed them all. Bill said "Yes" to leading us. And because of that, Virginia said she would join us. The hike was planned for early August. 

The last seven miles of the South Colony Lakes road, which is the suggested approach to climb the four peaks, requires a 4WD vehicle so I had rented a Jeep Wagoneer. We met Bill and Virginia where they had parked at the start of the 4WD section on Friday morning, August 4. They had carpooled and were in a sedan. The Wagoneer wasn't big enough for seven people plus gear. So, I needed to perform two shuttles. The four Smith kids were in the first load, but before we reached the end of the road, as luck would it, we got a flat. We changed tires and then drove to the trailhead where I dropped the kids off with their gear. They packed in the one mile to lower South Colony Lake to set up camp while I went back to do the second shuttle. That afternoon, Bill and Virginia set up their camp and we Smiths climbed Humboldt Peak, which was a four-hour round trip. The plan was for all of us to climb the Crestones tomorrow, and we Smiths would then climb Kit Carson on Sunday to complete the four peaks. 

At 6:30 on Saturday morning the seven of us started up Crestone Needle. The rock was conglomerate and offered many big, solid handholds. the climb went well. We got to the summit in three and a half hours. Now to Crestone Peak. Virginia pointed out a route off the top that she had once taken which avoided an immediate and exposed forty-foot rappel down a nearly vertical face. Bill would lead. There were numerous ridges, gulleys and pinnacles to cross. Clouds surrounded us and it began to rain lightly. We came to a tough section and used ropes for the first time. Virginia belayed us across a traverse to Bill and then he belayed us down a steep wall. 

To quote Bill Arnold: 

"Although the ropes got tangled a little, the whole party negotiated the delicate pitch without a slip. I had to admire the Smiths for this performance . . . During the day I had been quite favorably impressed by the Smith boys' climbing ability, especially that of Flint, the oldest, and of Tyle, the youngest. The way George got around was something to behold, too."

We got on top of Crestone Peak after a six-hour traverse. From the Peak back to camp was another three and a half, for a round-trip total of thirteen hours. 

To quote Virginia Nolan: 

"It was at timberline on a soft summer evening that I met the Smith boys . . . I had had some qualms about climbing the Crestones, two of Colorado's more difficult peaks, with this young a group. I had always climbed with a more mature group and for some queer reason, felt that it took age to produce a good climber. I could not have been further wrong. What impressed me the most throughout the entire climb was their team work. I could never quite figure out whether each of the older boys was assigned to a particular younger boy, or whether it was their policy to always have one of the older boys climbing with one of the younger boys. In any case, they tackled the mountain like veterans. Their father brought up the rear which made for an ideal team pattern. The entire team could adapt to any change without so much as a halt and without (with) very little or no comment. My hard had is off to the Climbing Smiths."

The next day, we Smiths climbed Kit Carson Peak, which is also considered to be one of the tougher Colorado 14ers. We had a rope with us but didn't use it. A group of climbers from the El Paso Section of the Colorado Mountain Club showed interest in our route selection and followed us. We topped out, signed the register, and headed back to camp. It hailed pretty good on the way but we were done with the tough parts by then. The climb had taken us about twelve hours. We broke camp, hiked to the Jeep, drove down the 4WD road and back to Denver. Our thanks go to Bill and Virginia for helping us climb the Crestones. 

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To hear more about the Climbing Smiths and their journey to summit all the 14ers, join us for a free virtual discussion on August 12, and read the book, The Bark of the Cony, available here.