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Trail brothers

THE gravel road was still in pre-dawn shadow as we snaked our way up the canyon, but newly minted light inched down the ridge on the west side of the car. The weightless avalanche gilded trees and rock outcrop-pings as it slid toward the tumbling creek beside the road. My brother pulled the car into a small parking area at the foot of the trail to Mt. Yale. The mountain, one of four named after Ivy League schools in Colorado's Collegiate Range, was our destination this midsummer day. With an elevation more than 14,000 feet above sea level, Yale's summit is one of the highest points in the continental United States.

We disembarked and began our preparations for the climb. There was a time when John and I went through this ritual five or six times a summer. But that was before half a continent and con-flicting family and work obligations stood between us. Years now passed between these brotherly outings, and even this one-day excursion had been arranged only after negotiations that would have done credit to Mideast diplomats.

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The old habits came back easily, though. We double-checked our gear, consulted our topographical map one more time, and designated rendezvous times and places in case we became separated. Slipping on our day-packs, we struck out for the summit, some five hiking miles and 5,000 vertical feet away.

The path wound through dense pine forests and copses of white-barked aspens. In a valley where beaver had dammed a stream, the squat obelisks remaining from the felled trees poked up through the marsh grass that ringed their pond.

The early grades were gentle, and we chatted effortlessly as we hiked. At first we spoke of our jobs and sports and politics, hesitant to presume too quickly on each other's readiness for intimacy. But the conversation, like the morning air, warmed, and we started to touch on more personal matters involving our families and mutual friends.

As the trail grew intermittently steeper, John and I would fall silent for periods as we bent to our work; then, after a pause to catch our breath where the grade eased, we would take up where we were before the panting interruption.

We hit timberline late in the morning. The line above which no trees grew was as clean as though created by a giant trimming tool. The lightning-charred spars of a few pines that had dared to violate the boundary stood as ghostly warnings to other nonconformists.

Now the real climbing began. We dug the toes of our boots into grass tufts and loose shale as we switchbacked up steep slopes. The stronger climber, John occasionally liked to loosen the reins on his eager legs, and he would stride ahead until nearly out of sight around the shoulder of a ridge. These were outbursts of exhilaration rather than impatience, though, and he would gaze contentedly at the widening panorama as he waited for me to catch up.

We reached the boulder field and the last half-mile of the ascent. Centuries of geological heaving from beneath and the battering of wind and snow from above have ground the caps of the Rockies into enormous heaps of broken stone, as lifeless as the moon save for the gray-green splotches of lichens that cling to the rock.

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Using our hands as well as our feet, John and I scrambled over the boulders, skirting the slippery ice fields that crown much of the peak 12 months a year.

With breathless yelps of victory we finally gained the summit. We signed the scrolled register tucked inside a twist-cap pipe, took our photos, and sat down to eat oranges and a trail-food mixture of nuts, dried fruit, and chocolate chips. Spread out before us, as far in every direction as the eye could see, were the mountains of the Continental Divide, their snow-capped crests mirroring the white puffs that dotted the sky.

We sat silently for awhile, needing to drink in the view along with the water from our canteens. Our conversation, once it began, also was at a lofty elevation. We spoke of the rarefied things of the heart -- of our dreams and aspirations.

It was only in a geographical sense that John and I had drifted apart. Once we had been nearly inseparable. How odd it seemed to me that now there are many people -- not just his wife and children, but also friends, work associates, even some casual acquaintances -- who know more about John's daily life and figure more prominently in his affairs than I.

But one of the things John and I still shared together, and with few others, was companionship at 14,000 feet. The blend of natural beauty, triumphant exhaustion, and the revealing of innermost thoughts repeatedly experienced nearly three miles above sea level had forged ties between us that will not snap.

It was time to start down, but we tarried, wanting to prolong the mountain's spell. We knew it would break somewhere on the tedious descent, when our thoughts inevitably would turn back to the myriad details of our individual lives awaiting us at the bottom. It was consoling to know, as we put our packs back on, that our mountaintop brotherhood was as enduring as the sunlit peak at our backs.

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