Type 1 diabetes could have crushed her, but Joyce Cummings lived a graceful life. She spent her last, 85th year making dresses for girls around the world.
She died January 2018 — almost a year to the day her son embarked on a wild quest up the Manitou Incline.
It was Jan. 12, 2019. Greg Cummings, 62, living with the same, savage disease, would ascend the Pikes Peak region’s most infamous trail as many times as he could by Jan. 11, 2020, with the calendar year record of 1,719 in mind.
And on Saturday morning, a crowd of people awaited him at the summit, cheering him on for trip No. 1,720 on the set of railroad ties gaining 2,000 feet in less than a mile.
While averaging five ascents a day for 343 days, many times a Tim McGraw song played in Cummings’ headphones. It was “Humble and Kind.” It’s always made him think of his mother.
“I know you got mountains to climb,” goes one line, “but always stay humble and kind.”
Joyce Cummings preferred her son not doing these crazy things.
She’d rather he had stopped in 2010, on his way to 601 Inclines on the year. She’d rather he had stopped in 2014, when Cummings notched 1,400, besting Roger Austin’s 719 the year prior.
Austin claimed 1,719 in 2015. And no way would Cummings’ mother have wanted him to do this again.
“But once (the records) were over,” he recalled, “she was so proud and had a wonderful time telling all her friends.”
So, on Saturday, he thought of her as proud, proud like his fans all over.
Austin was there to congratulate his friend but admitted to having “the bug.” The record might not stand long, he hinted.
“I’m sure it’s OCD, and not just me, but Greg as well. No sane person does this.”
Atop the mountain, Cummings took a selfie with a placard displaying “1,720” — as he’s done for every number, the record’s unwritten rule of verification.
That made it about 3.4 million vertical feet on the year. That’s compared with the 1.3 million vertical feet at which the International Space Station hovers above Earth. That’s elevation no athlete has achieved in a year, according to obscure corners of the internet where such records are kept.
Also on the placard read, “Camp Wapiyapi,” the nonprofit Cummings has been supporting. That’s the Woodland Park summer camp for kids with cancer.
Cummings’ mother would be proud, him raising awareness like that. His wife was proud.
But Alison Cummings felt somewhat removed from the celebration Saturday. The months have made her, in her words, “pretty resentful.”
Saturday was nice. But Greg still had three more weeks on the calendar year to push his record ahead.
Alison let out a long sigh. “Jan. 11 will be, thank God it’s over.”
Jan. 11 will be the day.
“I’m so ready for this thing to be done,” Greg said.
Why not end it there Saturday? Why not end it any number of times the past 344 days?
Such as when a tibial hairline fracture forced him to miss four days? Or when his wife wanted to go to Hawaii for her 60th birthday? Her sister went instead. Her sister, not Greg, helped move their parents to Colorado Springs as the elders’ health deteriorated in Arizona.
“He’s not a quitter,” Alison said of her husband. “I think you have to have a balance, and I think he’s humble and kind, but he’s ambitious and driven.”
Perhaps to a fault.
For his pursuit, she had given him her reluctant blessing on certain grounds: He said he would start early and be back around dinnertime. In his first year of retirement, it would be as if he was working full time.
But then hot days made him prefer climbing through the night. Then, piles of snow left him shoveling the Incline, just one trip taking five hours.
It’s been a twilight existence. It’s been getting home late — the bushes getting bigger, the two dogs needing walks, bills on the counter, dinners cold — and sitting before the TV with Alison, only to fall asleep within 10 minutes.
“We’re just sails,” she said. “Like boats passing in the wind.”
Finally, Alison brought up divorce. What followed was one of Greg’s few single-trip days. “I was so depressed,” he said.
But another streak kept Alison at his side. “Forty years,” she said of their time together.
They had been married eight months when he was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes. They were brave together, him holding on to mountain ambitions, her saving his life dozens of times. She would find him seizing, on the verge of cardiac arrest.
“One minute he’ll be right there, and the next he’s gone, unconscious,” said his daughter, Christi. “We’ve all had a lot of trauma from it.”
The threat would remain constant as ever on the Incline. He’d go up with a fanny pack of bloody Kleenex, constantly pricking his finger to check his glucose levels. Too low, and he could pass out.
One evening, during his sixth ascent of the day, his head was spinning. Gravity tugged him backward. He crashed into a rock.
Alison was out of the state, visiting Christi. His wife called around to doctors, seeing when he could get checked in.
But the hairline fracture couldn’t stop him. After four days off, he carried the throbbing pain once up the Incline. Then once the next day. Twice the next, twice the next, soon back up to five trips, six, seven.
And nothing could stop him Saturday. Entering the crowd’s embrace, he stopped to look around. “Where is she?”
And there was Alison, who said nothing but smiled, giving him a quick kiss. Christi came to his side, and the three wrapped their arms around each other for pictures.
And he felt proud, but a song about humility and kindness would keep him in check. There was another line from Tim McGraw, one like a warning:
“Don’t take for granted the love this life gives you ...”