In October, we embarked on my husband’s goal of hiking 14ers in Colorado. We decided to press on it this summer. We started off by hitting it hard, doing two 14ers in two weekends.
First, we decided to tackle Mt Harvard. My father, who avidly hiked 14ers at my present age, warned us that it was going to be challenging. While we believed him, we overestimated ourselves and underestimated the snow.
As my father forecasted, the hike began gently. The first couple miles wound lazily up gentle forest switchbacks. Snow began to appear on the edges of the trail or hidden in the shadows of the trees. I was so excited to see snow after such a disappointing and fruitless winter. As we continued to climb, the snow patches thickened into drifts that began to slow us down.
The winding forest trail eventually sprawled into a large valley beset by the breathtaking peaks of the collegiate 14ers. As the sun show brightly in a vividly clear sky, the scenery was sublime, and our spirits bordered on euphoric.
As we moved out of the gentle valley, the snow increased. We navigated through drifts that were mostly crunchy on the top, yet when my leg plunged through the surface, the snow came up to my vagina. The struggle started comical but gradually grew more arduous as the drifts grew deeper and wider until we faced long, uphill spans of slippery snow. Anxiety crawled on my skin as my paranoid steps tempted exacerbating my hamstring/hip injury.
At the first ocean of snow, I nearly declined to continue. I did not want to get more hurt, but I decided to give it a try. It was less challenging than I expected, so I pressed on. We broke past treeline and approached the rocky step switchbacks.
As we ascended the large, flat rock islands amidst shifting gravel, I wondered how I would ever descent such terrain without killing myself. I fought the increasing incline with decreasing oxygen and remembered that there is a distinct reason trees do not care to grow that high.
We made it all the way to the final ascent, the last cairn where we could see the summit. I saw a trail of steep and slippery snow and large boulders. Here, I decided to accept my limitations. It felt ridiculous to come so far, to be 1 mile and 1,000 feet short of the summit and stop. Yet my instincts banged and hollered to not risk it. So, for once, against who I am, I didn’t.
While I am exceedingly stubborn and often push my body too far, this 14er pursuit is not my dream. I am a supportive partner who will take any excuse to be active, punish myself, and be outside in the mountains. But it’s acceptable if I don’t make every summit or I’m not there for every hike. I am a tourist and a tagalong here, the support staff doing the planning.
Two of us stayed at the cairn for three hours while the other three continued.
Then, the weather decided to turn on us. The morning sun folded under thick clouds, and a piercing wind battered us. We sat on the cairn, had a frozen dance party, and waited. For a while, we could watch their tiny forms ascend. Then they vanished for what seemed like an eternity. We almost resigned ourselves to migrate lower when we finally spotted them–a red shirt, a white shirt, and a black shirt–hiking and sliding back down.
Only one of us was able to fully summit (my husband). One was 10 feet short. One was 100 feet short. It sounded quite intense at the top, so I made the right decision to stay behind. I am no rock climber. I am uncomfortable with heights.
Since we only hiked up Pikes Peak, Harvard was our first decent of a 14er. Turns out, my body is built for coming downhill, just like running. As we approached the boulder stairs that made me so nervous coming up, the footfalls suddenly made complete sense. My feet, never entirely graceful, just knew where to go. I bounded down the hill like a mountain goat and had so much fun doing so.
The descent was never-ending though. The snow had softened during the day, and we continually plunged through the surface. It was daunting and repetitive, and the miles just dragged on. But many hours after we projected, we made it. We did our group hug in the parking lot and hurried off into the night for real food and sleep.
The next weekend, we aimed a little lower. We went up to Breckenridge, stayed overnight, and set out early to attack Quandary Peak. An easier and shorter hike (recommended by my father).
This trail started narrow and quite steep as it climbed up the hill. The switchbacks drew up the side of the mountain quickly. The sun had just broken the horizon, and the temperature hovered in the limbo where I roasted in my fleece but shivered without it.
I, in my infinitely stupidity and relentless affinity for poor life choices, got to carry a pretty severe hangover with me. What could have been a gentle and pleasant hike was instead quite uncomfortable for me. My thighs balked at the activity immediately. Nausea flirted with my throat. I suffered for my foolishness.
After a couple miles in the trees, we arrived at the customary rocky stair-like switchbacks. We also reached the snow, but it did not compare to Harvard. These drifts were ankle-deep rather than vagina-deep. Instead, our unexpected challenge was the wind. By the time we broke treeline, the wind was near unbearable. At points, I had to struggle to move against it.
There always seems to be one factor that we did not plan for on these hikes. Every mountain seems to teach us something new. Don’t underestimate the mountain. Don’t trust trail estimates. Don’t forget your yaks. Don’t forget your windbreaker. Don’t get drunk the night before. So many lessons.
By the time we passed treeline and battled the wind, I thought my hangover had broken. The trail flattened out a bit before the final ascent, and I was feeling good.
I was wrong.
The final ascent of Quandary did not have switchbacks. No, it climbed straight up the ridge to the summit. And it was terrible. At tackling the extreme grade, my hangover resurged over me. Every four steps, I stopped to evaluate my need to vomit. I moved painfully slow up the final ascent. But I did make it.
We crested the hill and enjoyed a nice flat portion before the summit. The wind even finally died down for us to enjoy our celebratory beers.
Then the descent. My favorite part. All the euphoric rush of victory floating on down the mountain.
The snowy descent did make me a little nervous. Again, I did not want to slip and further injure myself. But I found that sliding down the mountain (in established butt trails that didn’t go off the side of the face) was a much quicker and more fun way to get down. Aside from the horrendous stinging of the cold. Worth it.
The descent was pleasant and so much shorter than Harvard. The wind had died down, and the weather was temperate. It was just nice.
We made it back to the car by lunchtime and were able to enjoy the hot tub in Breckenridge before heading home. While Quandary was not as scenically gorgeous as Pikes Peak or Harvard, it definitely was a more pleasant hike overall. If you subtract the idiocy of my hangover.
Currently, we have two more 14ers scheduled for the summer. Perhaps another one or two in the fall. If nothing else, we have made strong strides on my husband’s goal. And I have seen some beautiful things.