The Last Cowboy Song

Photo by Thomas Niedzinski courtesy of Volker K.S. Dankmeyer

Photo by Thomas Niedzinski courtesy of Volker K.S. Dankmeyer

I stared at the broken ice axe lying among the rocks at my feet. A shattered wooden hilt and rusted pick gave a sudden eeriness to this landscape as a shiver shook my body. A few worn leather straps and the remains of a crampon, I wondered how long they must have been lying here and the stories they could tell. The solitude in these mountains was unnerving, the silence… desolation. In the past three days we had seen no one, only one red tent, far off in the distance between a smoldering horizon filled with plumes of smoke from the continuing wildfires and the high alpine lake a few thousand feet below. My own body felt as broken as the axe, amid my thoughts I heard Tom’s concern over not having brought crampons.

My weariness accompanied my thoughts of the axe and Tom’s joke “this Mutha’s gonna break your back…” as we slowly ascended the ice field: sideways, step by step, driving a pole into the snow and using it as a foothold up the long slope, over and over again. I ached; the final long approach to “base camp” with overstuffed packs two days ago and the failed 14-hour attempt yesterday had taken their toll. An earlier start today and seven hours into the climb I began to dream of cheeseburgers…

We succeeded in climbing to the ridge only to find another small valley between the peak and ourselves. A crown of fourteen thousand foot peaks and small glaciers surrounded us, crumbling and broken by time. A quick nutritional break gave us a chance to survey the situation and our line of ascent. Rockslides had transformed the entire slope; the final approach to the peak would become a dangerous balancing act. My worries faded as the small brook at my feet played a relaxing tune and the warmth of the sun on my face helped ease my pain.


“It all starts with two Grade A, all American beef patties sizzling on the grill, a bun baked and toasted to perfection, caramelized onions, quality real California cheddar cheese melting…”

I felt incredible energy returning to limbs I hadn’t felt in many days. My pace quickened, I felt lively, I felt that irresistible urge to find and eat that burger. Oh, what I would do for a cold beer. On the descent my legs shook with every step, I was exhausted. The peak had brought us a hard gained victory after a long 17-hour day. The final nerve rattling unroped climb and the “High Anxiety” brought by the final stretches on the ridge; the long walk back home… I was tired.

The high peaks of the Sierra Nevada bring with them an unimaginable beauty and sense of freedom. I thought about the remnants of the broken axe and crampon and of our forefathers, the pioneers that had first scaled these peaks so long ago. Finally, humbled by the natural beauty that is our world and overjoyed to have succeeded on our quest… I lit a cigar and joined Tom in belting out the chorus of “The Last Cowboy Song” as we drove down the road in search of the greatest American Cheeseburger.

I would like to ask everyone reading this to please take a moment and remember what a beautiful world we live in. Please help save it.