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Lucius Shea, left, and his dad Bill climbed Africa's highest peak, Kilimanjaro, in 2022. The duo climbed more than 80 peaks in Colorado to train for the ascent, helping Lucius develop skills for living with autism. (Courtesy photo)

This story first appeared in The Outsider, the premium outdoor newsletter by Jason Blevins.

In it, he covers the industry from the inside out, plus the fun side of being outdoors in our beautiful state.

The hundreds of mountains Bill Shea has climbed with his son are not just a way to burn off the insatiable energy Lucius wakes up with every day. But no one would blame Bill if that were his true intent. 

The inevitable question sometimes flummoxes Bill and April Shea of Centennial: “When did you know Lucius was different?” They made a pact, early on, that their lives would recognize, even celebrate, his differences rather than focus on his deficiencies. They would not compare him to his older brother, Xavier, who was “normal,” whatever that means. But, yes, there were signs that Lucius was autistic. 

There were odd behaviors, such as running in a circle or staring into a chandelier’s prism, both for hours, or lining up toy cars and losing his mind if someone moved one, even unintentionally. Lucius didn’t talk until he was nearly 4, forcing Bill and April to teach him sign language. But perhaps the most noticeable sign, at least to the Sheas, was Lucius’ seemingly limitless reserve of energy.

At 18 months, Lucius gave up naps, leaving April, a stay-at-home mom with two toddlers, without the precious break young parents need. Lucius ran, literally, on five hours of sleep a day. They had to lock him in his room at night. They know how that sounds, but dammit, they needed a little more rest. 

The energy was not directly tied to his autism, but it is a part of Lucius and, tangentially, a part of his condition. Autism is unique to each person, more so than, say, Down syndrome. More on that in a bit.

Bill told April he’d take on the Lucius project when they figured out that meant the parent’s version of an ultramarathon every day. Bill could play games of basketball and go on bike rides with him. It was impressive how long he could go, Bill had to admit, even if it was also exhausting. 

“He’s crazy,” Bill, 42, said while laughing, because he can, now that Lucius is 17. “It was harder to keep him inside than get him to go out.” 

Bill, though, also understood Lucius in a way perhaps no one else could because he, too, was drawn to the outdoors. He’d hiked part of the Appalachian Trail. When they decided to enroll Lucius in the Joshua School after an especially horrible fifth grade, it meant moving from Tennessee to Colorado in 2018, something that Bill admits excited him: He’d climbed Longs Peak the year before on vacation. 

He got a hard lesson in mountaineering two weeks after the move: He attempted to climb Grays and Torreys, two relatively mild 14ers. He climbed Grays and was hopping down to the saddle on his way to Torreys when nausea overcame him. He crouched in between the peaks and puked. 

“I thought, ‘Are you supposed to feel this way?’” Bill said. 

Even so, he was proud and eventually showed the pictures of his first few climbs to Lucius. Lucius, in his high-pitched, insistent voice, said four words that changed their lives, to an extent Bill or April could not imagine at the time. 

“I want to go.” 

A goat, or, really, a kid

At first, Lucius’ mountaineering didn’t worry April, a self-described “what-if girl” who admits to fretting those first few times when Bill went out on his own. Bill understood the basic rules, such as staying on the route and leaving early to avoid thunderstorms, and he didn’t mind repeating the peaks he’d done so he knew the way. They started with the so-called easier ones, such as Mount Bierstadt. Several 14ers take gumption, not much skill, to summit, and Lucius had plenty of that.

“I was more worried about him over-exerting himself,” April said. “He’s very goal-oriented.” 

Bill, though, wasn’t sure how long it would last. Lucius was relatively young to begin climbing mountains: He was 12. Nearly all 12-year-olds, regardless of their functioning levels, don’t understand why it’s important to get up before dawn or the grind it takes to chip away at a summit, a step at a time, until the top. 

“It’s a long day,” Bill said, “especially if you’re not used to walking that long.” 

Bill and Lucius Shea started climbing Colorado’s 14ers in the winter of 2018, when Lucius was barely a teenager. Today, the father-son duo have climbed more than 100 of the state’s highest peaks, helping Lucius better navigate life with autism. (Courtesy photo)

Lucius was used to Tennessee’s relentlessly nice weather and didn’t like the chill of the alpine, even when it was hot at his house several thousand feet below. Clothing took care of that. But Lucius found it easy to adjust to the other challenges: He even seemed to relish them. 

He loved collecting summits and soaking up the planning and timeline of a day and knowing when they should be on and off the peak. He also felt tired after a peak, a new, wonderful sensation that left him without the gnawing urge to move. Being tired is something we all feel, probably every day to some degree, but imagine a life without ever experiencing the bliss in relaxing after a hard day. 

“It gave him something to look forward to,” Bill said. “He knew he could be out for 10-12 hours once a week.”

There was little doubt Lucius loved it. April said when Lucius was nonverbal, she heard from other parents with autistic kids that there would be a time when they would actually want him to shut up. April had her doubts about that. Lucius seemed so quiet and in his own world. But then he began climbing mountains, and Lucius focuses on them in a way only those with autism can appreciate. 

“We’ve now gotten to that point, especially about the mountains,” April said and laughed. “I love his enthusiasm and his desire to learn and his want to understand and make connections. But there are times that he needs to stick a pin in it.” 

A need to move

Lucius had already made the connection between his social skills and ability to stay focused in school with physical activity. But the mountains affirmed it. He started to go outside on most days before school and jump on his trampoline. 

“He was very good about being in tune with what his body needed,” April said. “He knew that helped him.” 

Most students with autism are sedentary, said Kate Loving, his counselor at the Joshua School. There are numerous reasons for this, but for just one, think, for a second, how social fitness can be, and you can see why those with autism may struggle with it. Autistic students may not be comfortable playing a team sport and yet may not find the internal struggle required in running or swimming as satisfying as focusing on a puzzle or a task. 

And yet, Lucius’ vast reserve of energy was a reflection of an autistic student’s amazing ability to focus, Loving said. 

“He knows it helped him regulate his emotions,” she said. “He loves fitness and energy and has a stick-to-it-ness that most don’t have.” 

And mountaineering demands of its pupils that stick-to-it trait, perhaps more than any other skill.

“That’s a potential upside for him,” Loving said of Lucius’ autism. “He has that increased ability to just focus and do it for a long, long time.” 

That focus is more of an obsession at this point, both from Lucius and Bill. Last year, they climbed more than 80 peaks. Part of the intense schedule was to train for Kilimanjaro, Africa’s tallest peak, but part of it was just because they both love to do it. 

Going out that much would test any teenager. One of Lucius’ challenges at the Joshua School was his tendency to be too amiable. He wouldn’t advocate for himself, Loving said. That would create problems in the so-called real world. But there is also little doubt that Lucius wants to climb with his father.

The two are an inspiration, Loving said, and role models for the school. 

“You don’t see that all the time,” she said of Lucius and his relationship with his father. “His ability to persist is something we can all look to.” 

Lucius was quiet during a talk with a guest, but as if to demonstrate this point, Bill turned to him and asked him a simple question: “Have you ever not wanted to climb a mountain?” Lucius smiled at the question, as if it was a little stupid. 

“No,” he said. 

Moving on up 

Inevitably, in order for Bill and Lucius to climb all the 14ers, they would have to tackle the harder ones, not just the relatively cushy trails on Bierstadt or Sherman or Pikes Peak. Lucius had the drive, focus and endurance to do them, but peaks such as Pyramid, the Maroon Bells and the Crestones would test Lucius in a way life rarely did: He’d have to cope with a changing environment. 

Scrambling, as the harder ones require, can mean picking your way across routes full of broken rock, which makes factors such as fatigue, the danger and, of course, the weather much more difficult. Even a simple shower complicates things, as it makes exposed routes slicker: Bill would have to be much more conservative with the weather. Lucius, like most autistic kids, didn’t like uncertainty. 

Bill and Lucius Shea have been climbing Colorado’s highest peaks for five years, developing tools that eventually could lead Lucius, who has autism, toward an independent life. The father-son duo plan to climb Mount Everest next year as a fundraiser for a charity. (Courtesy photo)

Lucius made Bill a better mountaineer: He had to be sure his technique was exact so he could show his son how to do it. 

“The better I got,” Bill said, “the easier it was to teach him.” 

But he was pleasantly surprised at how good of a partner Lucius became. He followed Bill’s every move. Bill isn’t really a good judge of this, because he’s only really climbed with Lucius, but he believes his son might be the ideal partner: Lucius wouldn’t go off on his own route and do something foolish. He merely copied his Dad and stayed by his side. There’s a time for going your own way, as Fleetwood Mac sings, but the mountains aren’t one of them. 

In fact, Bill had to push him a bit to become more independent. Those harder routes also meant something could happen to Bill. Lucius had to learn how to evaluate what he needed, out of his own pack, when he needed it. Bill would tell Lucius that if something happened to him, Lucius would have to get to safety on his own. 

Lucius has yet to face a really bad day, Bill said, as the only nasty storm they’ve run into, even with some winter climbing, was a trip up Harvard and Columbia, when a black cloud came up from behind and thrashed them after they reached Columbia. But that hasn’t stopped Lucius from leading the climbs now. He can even read Bill’s emotional cues and know when it’s time to get serious, aka when they’re on a route that could kill them. 

Lucius’ mother was astonished the first time Bill told her Lucius took the lead on a route and led them up. 

“His confidence level has gone through the roof,” she said. “He was always happy but quiet. I know the routes can be hard to find. It had to be incredible for Bill to see him, as a parent of a child like that, go out front and take charge.” 

His biggest test yet came when the two decided to climb Kilimanjaro last year, and perhaps the mountain was the easiest part. Traveling to another country means so many different things. Sure enough, there was a delay for a day, a mix-up that slipped through even Bill’s meticulous planning, and they got stuck in a strange place, Tanzania, in Africa. It smelled weird, there were crowds of people shouting phrases nearly all Americans wouldn’t understand, and they didn’t know when they could get moving again. 

Lucius would have had a meltdown years ago. In the past, something as simple as the toilet flushing would set him off. But he handled the incident without any problems, Bill said. 

“Honestly,” April said, “I’m not sure I could have done that.”

The biggest goal

The ever-changing environment of the mountains seems to have taught Lucius how to go with the flow. This is hard for anyone, let alone those with autism. 

“He has his bad days on the mountains just like anyone else,” Bill said. “But he is capable of dealing with more now. That’s mountaineering in a nutshell. You have to adjust.” 

He did so well in school that he will spend his senior year at a public high school in Highlands Ranch. 

“I can’t wait to graduate,” he said. 

He has plans to work at King Soopers and climb more mountains — “just have fun,” he said — and yet, when he’s asked if he would like his own place, Lucius seemed confused. 

“Why would I want to leave?” he said. 

Lucius doesn’t want a driver’s license, April said, and that would make it hard to be independent. And he’s far from functioning 100 percent on his own. That will always be a challenge. 

“Social cues and interactions can be hard,” she said. “He also needs to learn how he can deal with people who challenge us every day.” 

Lucius and Bill will face their biggest challenge together after Lucius graduates high school. The two plan to climb Everest, the world’s tallest mountain, and raise money for The Joshua School while doing it. 

“We are super stoked about doing something this substantial and being able to provide light, inspiration and support to those kids and parents throughout this community by just doing something that we love,” Bill said in an email. 

And yet, it won’t be the biggest goal Lucius will face in his life. The fact that independence seems possible now shows the progress he’s made. Bill’s already seen it. There are times when they are walking back to the car, exhausted after a long day, and Lucius will start to ask him questions about life, not the mountains anymore. These are the moments that make hunting or fishing or playing catch in the backyard so magical. Bill was used to Lucius approaching him at all hours for ways to burn off his energy, but this has been on a deeper level. 

“It’s definitely been something where we’ve connected, even more than usual,” Bill said. 

Bill has his days on the mountain too, when he’s tired and may not want to go on. In the past, he’d probably worry about Lucius and his ability to lead his son up another difficult peak. But on those days now, Lucius gives him the motivation he needs to push to the top.

“He’s pulling me along now,” Bill said.

Special to The Colorado Sun
Twitter: @DanEngland