Dan Crossey flips slowly through five volumes of photographs from his decades of roaming Colorado’s mountains.
“A tough old girl,” he says as he gazes at a photo of a venerable mountain sheep that survived, with long scars to prove it, a mountain lion attack.
“Oh, there’s Mark,” he says as he looks at a friend leaping from rock to rock.
“Incredible,” he says as he examines a long-ago campsite on the side of a fourteener.
He’s sitting in his backyard on the west side of Colorado Springs, but as he looks through photos he’s only barely in the present. He’s returned to his wondrous and perilous past as an indomitable Colorado mountain man.
Crossey, 66, had painful reason to stop roaming the peaks. As a teenager in 1970, a winter attempt with friends to summit the Crestone Needle transformed to trouble. Temperatures plunged to minus 38 on their trudge back to the trailhead.
Crossey had spent the first semester of the school year as a Colorado College student.
He spent the second semester at the Air Force Academy hospital, as doctors struggled to save his feet. He lost both big toes and portions from his other toes.
“I’ve got about seven left,” he says with a shrug. “I have chunks and halves and tips missing. I ended up with some really funky feet.”
Still, the beauty and challenge kept calling. Crossey, a 1970 Wasson High graduate who spent most of his childhood in the Springs, was blessed with four years in Alaska. His father, Jim, was a lieutenant colonel who helped oversee construction of the architecturally revolutionary Air Force Academy campus.
Jim spent most of his time in a cozy office.
But not all of his time.
A pilot, he flew to the Arctic to oversee Air Force construction projects. This meant he had to undergo military survival training.
“Dad always was clean shaven,” Crossey says. “A real officer and gentlemen.”
Well, almost always. When Jim returned from survival training, his face was covered with stubble, and he smelled like a campfire. He told stories of trapping rabbits and using his parachute as a tipilike tent. Office man transformed to man of the wild.
Crossey, then in grade school, wanted to follow his father and spend days and nights in the woods far from comfort and safety.
After his feet healed, he returned to climbing. He climbed Crestone Needle two dozen times. “At least,” he says, laughing. He climbed Colorado’s fourteeners, save Culebra, which is on private land.
The simplicity of these quests kept drawing him back. For a few dozen hours, he could escape the complications of Colorado Springs.
“Mountaineering and climbing has that basic nature,” he says. “It’s food, shelter and clothing. No matter how many Facebook friends you have, it’s still food, shelter and clothing, the three things that are going to get you through the day.
“It cuts life down to such a minimum. Wherever you’re going, everything you’re going to use is on the pack on your back. It’s not like car camping, which I love, with your cooler and beer and everything else. It’s your clothes, your food, your shelter, and it’s all on your back.”
His favorite climbs were overnight journeys. He would spend the first day on a vigorous hike and then, with friends, pitch a tent dozens of miles from anywhere. During his long era of climbing, these mountain destinations were usually vacant. Just him and friends and quiet and magnificent views and a joyful sense of us.
He could not be stopped. He got lost in howling, blinding snowstorms. He spent hours in his tent while thunder rumbled nearby. He suffered through soaking summer rainstorms.
On April 25, 1995, Crossey and friends Mike Houston, Nate Porter and Bill Blair decided to spend an afternoon skiing Pikes Peak. They took the Cog Railway to Windy Point and hiked to the summit. They planned to ski the north face, but fierce winds had left the top of the slope bare.
So they chose the east face, the one that faces Colorado Springs. The same fierce winds had left deep snow. It was a lightly overcast, chilly spring day.
While skiing, Crossey heard a deafening sound that resembled the roar of a freeway. A massive avalanche soon engulfed him and his friends. After tumbling several hundred yards, he realized he had a fractured right hip. Houston, who had come to rest nearby, had a fractured femur.
Porter, relatively unharmed, decided to ski to help. He quickly found Blair, partially buried in the snow. Blair died within a few minutes from a head wound.
A spring blizzard prevented rapid rescue. Crossey and Houston spent the night, joined by three members of a search and rescue team, on the side of the mountain. They were rescued shortly after noon April 26.
Yet again, he could not be stopped.
Crossey says he didn’t return to mountain ascents for years, but in his search of photos he discovers images from September 1996. He was hiking in the Chicago Basin, surrounded by friends and stunning scenery. He returned to the peaks faster than he had remembered.
Pain in his knees and plantar fasciitis in his left foot have curtailed his mountain adventures. He still skis, but overnight ascents have ended.
If friends called and if his feet and knees were feeling right, he might answer the call of those mountain peaks.
“I’d love,” he says, “to do it again.”