The Lady & the Desperado
Elizabeth J. Black
The dog bristled, upset by wolves’ distant howls while frost descended on the small party camped on the shoulder of Longs Peak. But it wasn’t the wild animals or the cold that kept Isabella Bird up through the night – the mountain was calling her. It was October 1873, only five years after the first recorded summiting of Longs Peak. Bird was a proper English lady just shy of her 42nd birthday. In her long dress, she looked distinctly out of place in the wilderness, yet she was determined to climb to the top of this dangerous mountain.
She lay awake under a pine bower near tree line, covered in blankets and resting on an inverted saddle for a pillow, thinking about her guide, Mountain Jim Nugent. She had only met him a few days before, and he’d made quite an impression.
The Rocky Mountains were the domain of Utes, miners and a few settlers hardy enough to put down roots on the frontier. Bears, wolves and other wild animals held court, barely touched by humans yet. Very few tourists had yet discovered the pristine beauty of what is now Rocky Mountain National Park.
Bird had just come to Estes Park on horseback from Longmont. She’d left her home in cold, damp England the year before, a 4-foot-11 woman of 40, frustrated by illness and tired of teaching Sunday school. On her doctor’s recommendation, she’d spent the previous year traveling alone in Australia and Hawaii, and it seemed the freedom, activity and climate was just what the doctor ordered. She soon made plans to visit Colorado in a trip she later recounted in her book A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains.
Immediately, Longs Peak sparked her imagination; she called it the “Mont Blanc of Northern Colorado.” She was determined to find a way to a special place she’d heard about – Estes Park – and get a closer look at the mountain that rose above it, she wrote in one of the letters to her sister Henrietta back in England that formed the bulk of her book. But getting there wasn’t so simple in those days. No road existed, only an intricate horse trail up the canyons from Lyons. After a grueling failed attempt to find the storied Estes Park with a pair of foothills settlers, getting lost and running out of water along the way, Bird was about to give up. She made plans to head to New York via Denver. The night before, the landlord of the house she was boarding at in Longmont came to her room asking if she was willing to “rough it.” She was. He set her up with two young guides and a horse for the next morning.
The cool, clear air and relentless Rocky Mountain scenery floored Bird as she finally approached Estes Park from the 9,000-foot ridge above Muggins Gulch. Longs Peak was aglow with sunset, flanked by deep purple canyons below, but to enter the park, she’d have to pass the outlaw Mountain Jim Nugent’s cabin.
She had been warned Nugent was a desperate character, subject to ugly fits of anger and quick with his gun. An early scout of the plains, he was known throughout the territories for his exploits in frontier warfare. Now he made a living as a trapper, living on a squatter’s claim just outside Estes Park. Bird approached the cabin, which to her looked “more like the den of a wild beast … the mud roof covered with lynx, beaver and other furs laid out to dry.”
Bird was taken aback by his appearance and the revolver sticking out from his shirt. “His face was remarkable,” she wrote. “He is a man about 45, and must have been strikingly handsome.” She admiringly noted his handsome mouth, his aquiline nose and his deep-set, blue-gray eyes – or eye, rather.
“One eye was entirely gone, and the loss made one side of his face repulsive, while the other may have been modeled in marble. ‘Desperado’ was written in large letters all over him,” Bird wrote.
To her surprise, Nugent behaved in the sweetly chivalrous manner of a true gentleman, chatting and offering her water. And a couple of weeks later, it was Nugent – one-eyed from a fight with a bear, she learned – who offered to guide her up Longs Peak.
Precipitous 14,259-foot Longs Peak fends off visitors to this day with its fickle alpine weather, mind-warping and sometimes sickening altitude and grueling, rugged approach. Bird had no idea what she was getting herself into. So few people had climbed the peak, and the terrain was so virgin, that she placed her trust completely in Nugent’s hands.
It was late in the season, but Bird, Nugent and the two young men who had guided her up the canyon packed up bread, steaks, tea, sugar and butter for three days and mounted up. Bird’s boots were so worn, it was painful even to walk around Estes Park in them, so a friend loaned her his hunting boots.
They rode around an 11,000-foot peak and past Lily Lake, then upward through the gloomy forested shoulders of Longs Peak itself, “the horses breathless, and requiring to stop every few yards,” she wrote. The untouched forest grew thin as they approached tree line. Purple gorges opened eastward below them outward toward the gray, distant plains, with crystalline, partly frozen streams flowing down into them.
Building a big fire and setting up beds of pine shoots, the foursome settled in for the night. Despite the warnings she had heard about Nugent, he was nothing like the unsavory character people had made him out to be. He sang songs around the campfire and even recited poetry. Still, she was restless. “Above all, it was exciting to lie there,” she wrote, “with no better shelter than a bower of pines, on a mountain 11,000 feet high, in the very heart of the Rocky Range.”
The night passed quickly, overtaken by a ruby-red sunrise. By 7 a.m., they had finished breakfast and were riding toward the Boulder Field below Longs Peak, where they continued on foot. At Nugent’s urging, Bird had left all her extra wraps, and she shivered in the freezing air, stumbling as she tried to find footing in the large borrowed boots. As if miraculously, they stumbled upon a small pair of overshoes left by an exploratory party, and they bore her much more nimbly to the feature known as the Keyhole, where the view opened onto turquoise alpine lakes beyond.
Through the Keyhole, Bird found herself below the towering peak, with thousands of feet of broken rock shelves falling away below and smooth granite ribs with “barely a foothold” extending onward. She was terrified – this was more than she had bargained for.
“Had I known that the ascent was a real mountaineering feat I should not have felt the slightest ambition to perform it,” Bird later told her sister. But there she was, roped to Nugent, her feet slipping from under her. The party soon turned around because the route was iced over, and Bird insisted her fellow climbers go ahead without her, knowing she was holding them back.
Instead, Nugent insisted if she wasn’t going, they wouldn’t go at all. After some exploration they found an alternate route.
“Slipping, faltering, gasping from the exhausting toil in the rarefied air,” she continued along, crouching around overhangs and trying not to think about the 3,000-foot abyss at her feet. Dizzied by the view of the final stretch to the summit, it took an hour to pass the final 500 feet, crawling on hands and feet, tortured by thirst, as all the water on the mountain was frozen.
And then they were there: the summit at last.
At the top they signed their names in a tin stashed in a crevice and quickly turned around, dangerously thirsty. Driven farther down the mountain by sheets of ice, they were soon climbing over boulders, Bird on hands and knees, with Nugent sometimes pulling her up by her arms or a lariat. They made it to the Keyhole just as twilight was deepening purple around them.
Nugent had been “gentle and considerate beyond anything,” Bird wrote, though she felt she had “grievously disappointed” him with her ineptitude. Dehydrated and exhausted, they painfully crossed the Boulder Field, and Nugent carried her to her horse. Reaching camp, he lifted her from her horse, placing her on a pile of blankets.
After a good night’s rest under a shining moon, the party rode back down to Estes Park, the first snow of winter soon falling on the peak. Nugent must not have been too disappointed in Bird, because when she decided to stay on in Estes Park into the winter, they became unlikely friends, sharing stories over the fire and working together to survive, isolated among the snow and wild animals. Historians speculate about the nature of their unexpected relationship, and the story of their Longs Peak ascent lives in legend partly because she was one of the first tourist visitors to the area, and maybe partly because of the appealing picture of the small, tough Englishwoman wooed by the rough-around-the-edges mountain poet.
As gentle as Nugent was with Bird, he hadn’t abandoned his wild ways. Just nine months after his Longs Peak adventure with Bird, he was shot to death not far from his cabin. “Of the five differing versions which have been written to me of the act itself and its immediate causes, it is best to give none,” Bird wrote of her friend’s sad end.
Nugent could have been quickly forgotten – just another desperado gunned down in the Old West – but Bird never forgot him. She turned her letters to her sister into the best-selling A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains, and the character who stood out from all the others was the larger-than-life Mountain Jim – not the violent, ill-tempered man everyone else seemed to think he was, but the sweet, caring Mountain Jim she knew him to be.