Courtesy of Trish Conlon
Courtesy of Trish Conlon
Whenever it all felt like too much, when she’d say, stripped off her fourth layer of paint on the windows just to find another, all Trish Conlon had to do was walk outside, saunter a bit down her long driveway and look west.
There was majestic Longs Peak, one of the state’s most famous Fourteeners, giving her the strength to stay after it.
Restoration projects are never easy. Movies have been made about them, usually wacky comedies that goad the audience to laugh when the heroes check out the old home’s foundation and find a pile of mice, some daylight and a small stack of bricks or stones on each corner. That actually happened to Conlon. And at the time, she wasn’t laughing. Real-life foundations like that aren’t funny.
In 2009, John Gerry, her great uncle, died suddenly, and Conlon, now 40, inherited the 160-acre farm, its home and the barns. The place was a mess. Gerry, who was in his early 80s when he died, had grown tired of the work it took to care for a place like that, Conlon said.
But rather than laugh at the piles of stuff inside – Gerry navigated it through a thin walker’s trail that cut through the clutter – and the home and the outbuildings that were in disrepair, Conlon saw it as a challenge. She is that kind of person. That’s why she loved the view of Longs so much. She was closing in on climbing all 54 Fourteeners in Colorado.
She didn’t know anything about restoring an old house, but she wanted to live there. She didn’t know anything about climbing mountains when she first started, either. In fact, for many years, she climbed them because it was something to do with her stepfather, and she wasn’t planning on finishing them. A trip up one of the hardest changed that.
Gerry first met Conlon when she was 4 days old, and from then on, she was his special girl. He was “only” a great-uncle, but he never married, never had kids and the two formed a quick bond. Gerry was, for all intents, a grandfather to her. When he died, the coroner called her. He got her phone number from a notepad Gerry kept in his front pocket with her information scratched into it.
He served in World War II and had a dry sense of humor – he liked to answer the phone “Joe’s Bar and Grill” – but he treasured the family history, and he loved the old place four miles from Greeley’s city limits because it was the foundation of that history.
John Thompson established the homestead in 1871, when he moved to join the original Union Colony. He built the home three years later. It meant the world to Gerry, and Conlon knew it, and she loved him. She was honored to inherit the home.
“But I’d rather have my uncle back,” she said.
That’s why Conlon didn’t listen to the first two contractors who suggested she simply tear it down because the job was too big or too hard. The third understood the heritage and history and bought into Conlon’s desire to list it on the National Register of Historic Places, even if that meant sticking to certain materials and meeting requirements that would make it even tougher. For instance, to fix that foundation, they couldn’t move the house. Those are the rules. So they lifted it, poured the concrete and put it back down.
The vastness of the job didn’t scare Conlon. She would work four 10-hour days at her job as a claims adjuster and spend the other three working much longer days at the house. She knew nothing about restoration, but she could find people who did. She would take the home down to the studs and bring it back up.
“You just ask, ask, ask and ask,” Conlon said.
Again, she had that view of Longs Peak. It was a good reminder of her other journey. Climbing all the Fourteeners was a big job, too, something that usually took at least a decade to finish. Why should six months fixing up a home scare her?
Patrick Lilly, her stepfather – we’ll just call him her dad from now on, as Conlon met him when she was 5 and thinks of him that way – loved backpacking and hiking and wanted to share it with his new family. Their first trip to Gunnison didn’t go well. She was 7, maybe 8, and a storm hit. She brought in hot chocolate and spilled it all over her bag. But she learned from it, and didn’t complain when he later wanted to camp at the foot of the Fourteeners Belford, Oxford and Missouri.
Her mother wasn’t a fan of the outdoors. She preferred crafts (she would, many years later, help Conlon with some curtains for the windows in her uncle’s home). By then, Conlon was a teenager, a figure skater who ran track and cross country, so she was game for a Fourteener. She made both summits. It was fun.
She went with Lilly on the peaks after that because it was a challenge and a way to spend time with him. She didn’t train for them, and she was slow, but she did enjoy plugging away at them for the sense of accomplishment as much as anything. She was about halfway through them when she did her first “double black diamond,” Crestone Needle.
She calls it that because of a T-shirt that ranked the Fourteeners as if they were ski slopes – by blues, greens and black diamonds. The shirt ranked the Needle as one of the hardest of the group. Completing that one made her think she could complete many of them, or even all of them.
“It was one of the hard ones, and I could do it,” Conlon said. “I enjoyed it, in fact.”
She knew what awaited her if that was, indeed, going to be her goal. Many of those hard peaks featured airy, exposed routes, and one, Capitol, had an infamous knife edge that left some hikers feel as if they were crawling across a tightrope. And there was only one problem with that: She was afraid of heights.
Conlon crept across the knife edge on Capitol, with open air blowing on her from both sides, terrified. Her fear of heights didn’t help, but on the way back, about halfway through, her boot got stuck in a rock.
“My mouth was completely dry,” she said.
She’d had some close calls, which are almost inevitable during a quest to climb all 54 Fourteeners. All of them were with her father, and that made sense, given that she’d climbed all but four with him.
They climbed Longs Peak via the most common route, the keyhole, but they did it in June, when it still was coated in snow. They had climbed in snow, so they weren’t too worried, until a slab broke. It dragged her more than 100 yards, and he went more than 250. Both self-arrested with their ice axes, and they held, saving their lives.
On a clear day on North Maroon, clouds moved in as unassuming as ninjas and released a bolt of lightning that traveled through her and her father. The bolt stunned them, but that was all it did, and they escaped to a ridge, where they looked for a way down until they noticed the sky was blue again. So, of course, they went back up.
She’d been hurt only one other time, and it was, ironically, on one of the easiest, San Luis. She started the day at 4:30 a.m., and it was so dark that she was holding her father’s hand, as if she were a 10-year-old. On the way down, in broad daylight, she was walking on a log and slipped and sliced her leg open. It bled a lot but didn’t require stitches.
She remembered those moments on Capitol, and she was able to free her foot and continue crawling across. It’s one of the few she definitely won’t do again.
She finished just a week or two after her father. He finished on Handies, a relatively short, easy jaunt deep in the San Juans. She finished Sept. 22, on Sherman, what some consider the easiest Fourteener of them all. She wanted to celebrate during the climb and saved an easy one for last.
“It felt awesome,” she said.
It felt just as good to get the house done. She appreciated the way she stayed within a budget, just like she did in climbing all the Fourteeners. She was OK with Eddie Bauer mittens, Walmart trekking poles and a windbreaker for a jacket. She bought expensive boots and got some of the worst blisters a doctor’s ever seen, so she went cheap on footwear, too, and they cleared up.
All the work on the home paid off. On May 13, 2011, it made the National Register of Historic Places.
She understands why her great uncle gave up on the upkeep. The 5 acres she watches over now – she leases 160 acres of farmland – are overwhelming and exhausting. There’s dust and barns and a cat that she’s allergic to, but it’s friendly, so she lets it hang around. Two dogs share her place, a big husky/Australian shepherd mix named Cimarron and a shy German shepherd mix who was under her dad’s foster care and fell in love with Cimarron on Handies. She also keeps a couple of donkeys around to stomp away random coyotes.
She doesn’t know if the home will be truly finished. She doesn’t know how much she’ll hike now, but she doesn’t think she’s truly done with that, either.
She said she just wants to enjoy both now. She wants to enjoy her house, with its view of Longs Peak in the background and the memories of her great uncle. She knows she’ll see both again one day.