Hikers are usually rewarded for a trip to the summit of Longs Peak with views that stretch for miles, tired legs and the accomplishment of climbing the tallest mountain in Rocky Mountain National Park at 14,259 feet. But Gal Faganel, who is in his third year as an assistant professor of cello at the University of Northern Colorado and also directs the Colorado Youth Symphony, gave them a little more on July 22.
He and Jenny Shea, a violinist and graduate student at the University of Colorado, performed a free concert.
The concert itself was difficult enough. They had to pause in the middle to warm their hands, and the winds whipped through the strings, giving the upper registers an unwelcome edge. But that, of course, paled in comparison to getting the cello up the mountain in the first place.
Longs is, well, long, at 15 miles, and it's steep, with almost 5,000 feet of elevation gain, and at times it's scary, with exposed scrambling near the summit. It's not really the place for an instrument worth thousands of dollars.
And though Faganel had some experience as a rock climber as a teen in Slovenia -- he quit because he wanted to preserve his fingers for the cello -- he'd never climbed a 14er before. He did hike three times in the month he stayed as a faculty member of the Rocky Ridge Music Center, located about a half-mile from Longs' trailhead in Estes Park, and Shea was a marathoner who had climbed Longs, so he thought he was ready. His wife, Jenny, back home with their 2-year-old daughter, disagreed.
"I said, 'You're going to do WHAT?' " she said and laughed.
And that was before she knew he planned to take his cello to the top.
Still, Faganel's climbing experience helped, as he knew how to keep the back-heavy cello balanced, as well as grip the rock on the tougher parts. He wore a backpack in the front, like a kangaroo pouch. The cello wasn't as heavy as it was awkward and, at times, the wind turned it into a sail. Faganel was prepared to bail on the idea if it got too dangerous, but it was a beautiful day for the most part, he said. The two started at 2:30 a.m. to a full moon after they rehearsed the night before and grabbed a couple hours' sleep.
The concert began at 9 a.m. once they reached the summit and had a look around. Highlights included the famous "Suites for Solo Cello" by Bach, the duo's version of our national anthem and the audience of about 30 who saw at least part of the concert and rewarded them with applause muffled by mittens. They spent an hour-and-a-half on the summit, which included the 45-minute concert, a performance that was extended a bit after a couple hikers made the summit but just missed the show and requested an additional number. They made it back to the music camp by 3:30 p.m.
The rangers at the trailhead said they couldn't remember another concert on top of Longs. Faganel may submit his performance to the "Guinness Book of World Records" for the highest strings concert, or at least the highest cello concert on a peak. But he has other lofty goals.
He could perform next year on Elbert, the tallest mountain in Colorado. Or he could take some students up Longs, either from Rocky Ridge or UNC. He was amazed at how big the summit was when he was up there. There would be more than enough room for an orchestra.
Staff writer Dan England covers the outdoors, entertainment and general assignment stories for The Tribune. His column runs on Tuesday. If you have an idea for a column, call (970) 392-4418 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @DanEngland. ___