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The Longs Peak romance of adventurer Isabella Bird

October 1, 2023
Elisabeth Sherwin -- ensherwin@gmail dot com

Did the famed adventurer Isabella Bird have a dalliance with the mountain man who helped her climb Colorado's Longs Peak? Maybe.

This year marks the 150th anniversary of Englishwoman Isabella Bird's climb to the top of Longs Peak, which she accomplished on Sept. 30, 1873, when she was 41 years old.

By her own account, it was not an easy climb. She wrote about it in "A Lady's Life in the Rocky Mountains," which began as a collection of letters to her sister.

"(I) was dragged up like a bale of goods," she wrote. Her ascent took place only five years after it had first been climbed. She could not have finished the climb without the insistence and help of "Mountain Jim" Nugent.

The horseback tour of the Rockies that she describes took place during the autumn and early winter of 1873 on her way back to England from the Hawaiian Islands.

She would go on to travel the world, found a school for medical missionaries, get married, establish hospitals in Kashmir and Punjab, China and Korea, and become the first woman elected to the Royal Geographical Society. She wrote many books about her adventures.

But in 1873 she was quite single and a committed risk-taker. Such a woman, in love with nature and the mountains, must have had a strong romantic streak.

Then she met Mountain Jim, already a famous scout, in a collection of cabins that was Estes Park.

"His face was remarkable…he must have been strikingly handsome," she wrote.

But he had tangled with a bear and had the scars to prove it.

"One eye was entirely gone, and the loss made one side of his face repulsive, while the other might have been modeled in marble," she wrote.

When she began talking to him, she found a charming, intelligent, and even elegant companion.

"I forgot both his reputation and appearance," she told her sister. In some ways, they were soul mates.

And even better, he agreed to take her up Longs Peak late in the season when other expeditions had turned back.

Her descriptions of the scenery, the cold, the overnight camps, the mountain sunrise, are wonderful. And to think she made the trek in ill-fitting men's boots replaced by smaller overshoes she found by chance under a rock left by an earlier group that gave up due to weather.

"Had I known that the ascent was a real mountaineering feat I should not…have performed it," she wrote.

But Mountain Jim dragged her along with patience, skill and determination. Yet it is still terrifying to read her account of the ice, the slippery rocks, the sheer cliffs.

As spectacular as the final view atop the peak was, they could not remain long. They put their names and the date in a tin and placed it in a crevice. I wonder if it has ever been found.

Can you imagine how indebted she felt to her hero Jim, how happy she was to be alive, how amazing she must have felt at the camp that night? And cold? Maybe she crawled over to his sleeping space with an extra quilt. Maybe he helped wrap a blanket around her cold feet and then stayed. Maybe they had an exquisite mountain night together. I like to think so.

Because they had no future. Mountain Jim was described by someone who knew him as a perfect gentleman when sober but when drunk the most awful ruffian in Colorado.

In a quiet moment she asked him to embrace sobriety and reform his desperado ways, but he could not. "Too late, too late!" he said.

He was shot to death within two miles of his Estes Park cabin less than a year after guiding Isabella Bird up the mountain.

"I would not exchange my memories of (the peak's) perfect beauty and extraordinary sublimity for any other experience of mountaineering in any part of the world," she wrote. And part of that precious memory must include Mountain Jim.

But, being a lady, she never told.

-- Reach Elisabeth Sherwin at ensherwin@gmail.com

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