I sat down on a large piece of scree to catch my breath, collect my thoughts, and accept that I was not going to the summit. I eyed the summit again. I was glad I was quitting. I didn’t want to do it anymore. And when I stood up I kept climbing up, not down.
I made it to the summit that day – Mount Elbert, 14,433 feet above sea level, the highest mountain in the Rocky Mountains and the second highest mountain in the contiguous United States.
It was the hardest hike I have ever done. The mantra in my head switched constantly between “It’s OK to quit,” to “I got this!”
Unlike the Little Engine That Could, I wasn’t so sure I could.
I have had the goal to hike to 14,000 when I first learned about 14ers in 2012 when my then-boyfriend and I were on vacation in northeast New Mexico.
Up until that point, the only experience I had with any kind of altitude was when I went to summer camp near Colorado Springs at age 12. I remember walking up a hill and breathing so hard I thought I was going to pass out.
On my vacation in northeast New Mexico, I hiked Wheeler Peak, the highest mountain in New Mexico at 13,159 – only I didn’t summit it. Having let the mountain get the better of me (or actually, more importantly, listening to my body and making the safe call), I began researching mountains and altitude when I got home.
I then learned the highest mountain in the lower 48 is Mount Whitney in California at 14,505 and the highest mountain in the Rockies is Mount Elbert. I also learned that Colorado is home to 53 “14ers,” a mountain that rises at least 14,000 feet above sea level.
After learning that, I was sold on big mountains.
I wanted to bag a 14er, so I made it my life goal. But every life goal it needs to be hard to obtain to make it special. And this goal was not easy.
The year before I traveled to Colorado with my goal of bagging a 14er. However the weather did not cooperate, and I didn’t even get the chance to attempt it. You see 14,000 feet is not just a hard climb. It can be dangerous. Summits are prone to lightning and dangerous winds, so not the place you want to be during bad weather.
I came home without an achievement but instead with a mad drive to get back and meet my goal. So when the window of opportunity came this past summer to make my summit, I gave myself a full five days to get it done.
But which 14ers should I do? That question went around and around in my head. I didn’t want to pick one that was too hard and not summit. Finally, I decided on Mount Bierstadt because many people recommended it for a good first 14er hike. The only unfortunate thing was that my friends who I wanted to hike with could only go on Friday, the last day I was in Colorado. And remembering the previous year, I didn’t want to give myself only one day to summit.
I had the rest of the week open before then. And who said I couldn’t do two? I went back and forth and decided on Mount Elbert. It might be harder than Bierstadt, but if I didn’t summit, I still had another chance to meet my goal with Bierstadt.
To train for hiking a 14er, I spent all spring on long hard hikes in Arkansas.
All summer I spent paddling long miles across Lake Ouachita, and I began running with a 10K training app on my phone.
Last summer I had a goal to climb Mount Washington in New Hampshire. It might not be a 14er, but it is definitely a hard hike. I didn’t make the summit via hiking and had to come home with my tail between my legs. And that failed attempt, I couldn’t blame on the weather.
I really, really didn’t want to have to come home with my tail between my legs two years in a row.
All my research told me to begin a 14er hike as early as possible. Most people begin around sunrise. But because I’m a “flatlander” and not used to the elevation gain and thin air, I thought it best to begin even earlier. I decided to start at around 5 a.m.
My morning got off to a bad start when I accidentally turned off my alarm in a hurry to silence it so I wouldn’t wake the other campers. Now, I was running 30 minutes late.
I ate my oatmeal as I drove to find the trailhead, but in the dark, I missed the turn and drove all the way to the end of the wrong road. I got out of my car where the road ended and attempted to search for the trailhead only to find nothing. So I got back in the car to find the right spot.
When I finally found the trailhead and began hiking it was 6:30 a.m. – an hour and a half late.
When hiking a 14er, it is really important to be off the summit by noon to avoid the inevitable afternoon storms that pop up. The silver lining to my late start was that if I didn’t make my summit, I could always blame it and the road mixup.
“Well, I could have summited. But I couldn’t find the trailhead in the dark and didn’t get an early enough start,” I could tell people.
I wasn’t the only one who failed to get a before-sunrise start. I began my hike with a couple from Kansas City. But quickly fell behind their pace. About a mile further, a man passed me. But after that, I was alone until I began to see hikers returning from the summit.
About 2.5 miles into my hike the trail got really steep. I was around 12,000 feet and struggling to breathe. For every three steps I took, I had to stop and catch my breath. I checked the map; I still had 2,500 feet to climb. That’s when the first thought of not making the summit hit me.
“It’s OK to quit.”
I looked up ahead on the trail and saw that the really steep part seemed to level out a little way up. “I’ll make to there and reassess,” I told myself.
At the top of the incline, the trail did not level out as I thought, but the steepness did subside a little. By exerting a little less effort, I was able to catch my breath a little bit better. I noticed I was making better headway toward the summit.
“I got this!”
I could see the summit from this point on. There were tall skinny black lines on the top. “Is that people? Or is that a fence? It’s moving around. That’s people,” went the conversation with myself.
I slowly inched toward my goal, and exhaustion, the inability to breath, and the ticking clock got the better of me.
“It’s OK to quit.”
I was so tired I sat down for a snack. Another mistake I made, I did not fuel properly. When I stood up, I could see people hiking down and I thought they were immediately coming off the summit. “Is it just that much further? I’m almost there!”I thought.
I saw the couple from Kansas City who I had started my hike with, and they assured me that I was “almost there.” As I saw more people around the corner, and I thought I was so close.
“I got this!”
I kept climbing, and I could tell the next part of the trail was going to be steep and hard. But with my new found energy and excitement I blazed up it fairly quickly.
Another couple came up behind me. I said to the woman, “You want see what elevation we are at?” She looked tired and said yes, so I checked my phone.
“13,500. Awe, I thought we were definitely at 14,000 by now.” She agreed and continued on. When I got to the part where I thought the hikers were coming off the summit, I realized that it was not, in fact, the summit. The trail circumvented the summit and we up on the other side. I still had a ways to go.
I kept pushing toward the summit. When I got to the final push and incline with about 500 feet to still to climb, I wished for storm clouds. Continuing the climb was simply not something I wanted to do. I prayed for storm clouds.
“I got so close! But the storms chased me off,” I could tell people. Storm chasing you off the summit is much cooler than admitted you were too tired to continue. I kept a close eye on the clouds because it was getting late in the morning.
Exhausted I sat down one last time. I checked my phone and realized I was at 14,200. I had met my goal of hiking 14,000 feet. Had I hike a different 14er, I would have summited. Why did I pick the highest one? I eyed the summit and the 200 feet of scree to climb.
“It’s OK to quit.”
Even though the people on the summit grew much bigger, I was done, ready to be able to breathe again and have a big meal.
But when I stood up to hike back down, I kept going up. I was on the ridge in no time.
“I got this!”
A man from another route summited the same time as I did. “I thought I was the last one up,” I said to him. “I did too,” he answered.
The women who I had shown our elevation too and her boyfriend greeted me with a cheerful, “Hey! You made it!”
I took in the view and I was on top of the world. Well, at least the Rockies.
“I got this!”
I did it. Because it was so late I took a few pictures and booked back down the mountain. Nearly sliding down the really steep parts, I wanted to be below the tree line as soon as I could. I was also starving and way exhausted. I just wanted to be back at my camp.
Near the tree line, I met up with another couple. A woman and her father from Colorado. We had a great visit the rest of the way down, and I really appreciated their company. It made the rest of the hike go much quicker.
It wasn’t until I was below the tree line when I said to them, “I’ve had a life goal of hiking to 14,000 feet for a long time.” It wasn’t until then that it dawned on me.
I met my life goal.
I was so exhausted and ready to be down while I was on the summit, I didn’t realize I had met my goal. And even as I said it to them, I made a mental note to process it later.
Back at camp, I didn’t feel like eating my dehydrated meals, I wanted a burger. And I wanted to check in with my parents, make sure they knew I was safe and off the mountains. Being extremely filthy and tired, I didn’t feel like getting out of the car. But the town of Buena Vista, Colorado, has no drive-thru that I could find.
I found a drive-in burger joint, but I still had to get out of my car and walk to the window. I seriously considered rolling down my window and offering someone $10 to order for me and bring me a burger. But in the end, I decided that would be weird.
I believe if someone had hiked with me, I probably would not have summited. I completely made the decision to quit three times, but I simply kept going up. Who would want to hike with someone as wishy-washy as that? Not me. In the end, going solo led me to the top. Also, I love that the summit was all mine. I had no one pushing me or encouraging me but myself. The hike and the accomplishment belong to me and me alone. And that is extremely empowering.