How A Colorado Mountain Became a Permanent Part of this Family
By: Anna Winkel Szczepanski
My son is named after a mountain. It is a Colorado cliché, I suppose, to name a child — or a dog — after a mountain. He is named after a mountain, but not for the reasons you might guess. He wasn’t conceived on that mountain. I didn’t hike to its peak with a round, extended belly. He most certainly wasn’t born up there.
The mountain for which my son is named sits in the Vasquez Peak Wilderness Area. From our small home in Winter Park, you can hike to it following a variety of paths: up the Vasquez Creek drainage and over an old wagon pass. Or more directly through the Arapaho National Forest that doubles as the Winter Park and Mary Jane Ski Complex.
When we hiked it, in the summer of 2019 when my son was seven, we drove to the top of Berthoud Pass. The elevation gain is much more manageable if you start at 11,307 feet. We went on a Sunday in late August, right before school started. It was my idea — this hike, I hoped, would become an annual family tradition.
My husband, son, and I followed the well-worn path from the base of a now-defunct ski area. Before long the evergreen trees grew stunted due to the harsh environment. At tree line the landscape became barren with swaths of exposed rock and the delicate mix of tundra flora. My son was delighted by the calls of the fat marmots on rocks. Their chirps were like taunts: “I will sunbathe here while you climb on, sweating and gasping for air.” I snapped close-ups of the tiny, delicate flowers. How do they manage to grow, in spite of more than eight months of snow, wind, and freezing temperatures?
To hike to the mountain for which my son is named, you have to have patience. Once you conquer a steep face of switchbacks, the trail stretches ahead of you like Hansel and Gretel’s breadcrumbs, narrow and brown and disappearing over the horizon.
We were able to cajole my son to the summit, with promises of snacks and rest. The 360-degree views were well-worth it. Mouse-like pikas popped out from cracks between the rocks, hoping we would share our raisins and peanuts.
A few weeks later my son started second grade. His class had to report on something they had done over the summer. I was surprised when he told his teacher: “I hiked to the top of Mount Stanley. It’s the reason for my name.”
In December of 2011, we drove home from a Denver hospital with my newborn son tucked tight in his car seat. He was nameless, much to the chagrin of the delivery-room nurses. My husband and I could not agree: Ethan or Frederick? Wyatt or Robert? Then, as we started up the pass toward home, my husband told the tiny infant, “Look, there is Mount Stanley and the Stanley avalanche path.” He caught my eye in the rearview mirror and said, “What do you think of the name Stanley?” At home we checked the map and discovered that Mount Stanley, at 12,500 feet, matched my son’s December 5th Birthday. We took it as a sign. Five days after he was born, his name became official.
This September of 2020, we tried to continue the tradition. But we didn’t realize that the Vasquez Peak Wilderness was closed due to the Williams Fork wildfire burning to the west. The fire burned almost 15,000 acres of forest from when it stared in August until it was contained in early November.
We arrived at a trailhead crowded with cars. A couple with two dogs led the way before us, and behind us a large group of tourists spilled out of a huge SUV with rental plates. We got to the closure sign and there was nowhere to go. We were trapped: fire burning to one side of us and a mass of people, all seeking the respite of the outdoors, pressing behind.
We turned back and found different hike to do that September day: there was no peak to climb. My hope is that we can continue our tradition next year, in a new year, when the pandemic has lessened and the trail becomes clear once again.
Author: Anna Winkel Szczepanski is a librarian who doesn’t wear glasses and has worked in libraries in Colorado and Guatemala. Originally from New Mexico, she now calls Winter Park, Colorado home. A good day for her is a mix of reading, writing, and recreating.Photo:Stanley, age 7, on the top of his namesake mountain in Colorado, looking south into Clear Creek County. He was born on December 5th, and Mount Stanley has an elevation of 12,500 feet.