I am too hard on my body. I don’t mean in the sense of pushing myself too hard physically, though one might argue that I am guilty of that as well. In this instance, I mean the relentless judgement I apply to the flesh doing the work of carrying me around every day.
I had this realization as it dragged me up the side of Mount Antero at a pace I deemed too slow.
When I run ten miles, my pace should have been a minute faster or I should not have taken a breather. When I complete a barre class, I didn’t hold a plank long enough or squat low enough. When I summit a mountain, I did it too sluggishly. When I lose 10 pounds, it should have been 10 more or 20 more. When I grow, birth, and feed two beautiful children, I didn’t rebound and snap back well enough. I could go on in the pathological and cyclical pattern of the thoughts.
As ludicrous as I know the thoughts are, they persist. I had them even as I had the realization that I judge myself far too harshly as my body hoisted me up a 14,000 foot mountain. I cannot roll my eyes hard enough at myself, in that my moment or now reflecting back on it.
But to the hike…
We have not hiked a 14er since the ill-fated (for me) Decalibron Loop in 2018. We managed Cheyenne Mountain last summer, but that is only a 13er so does not exactly count. So this was my first 14er since hip surgery and altitude sickness. We had stayed out of the mountains for most of the pandemic summer but wanted to sneak one in before the season ended (or the world imploded with the way 2020 is going).
We left home when it was still night by my definition to arrive at the trailhead before daybreak. We knew from trail research that we could opt to drive nearly to the summit; however, we did not want to make quite that easy on ourselves. Nor, did we want to start from the base eight miles down. We bounced my vehicle up the rocky trail until it met the stream, leaving us a couple miles before treeline.
Since the trail was “driveable,” it was wide and relatively groomed with sections of small, ankle-testing rocks. Initially, the path just eased straight up the side of the mountain, peppered on the side with campsites.
Once we crested treeline, other peaks emerged in the distance. We had driven through my typically favorite part of the 14er journey in the dark, the meadow in the middle. However, as the Antero trail began to climb the bare hillside, it did offer gorgeous views of peaks bleeding orange with rust. Clouds played in the sky, keeping the temperature low.
The trail, like a mountain road, wound up in long and lazy switchbacks, which are much more boring to hike. The grade was gentle enough. With the cloud cover, I kept thinking to myself how easy the hike felt, which I knew is usually a trap. Like thinking a run could be easy.
When the trail crested the ridge, it opened up the view to all the peaks on the other side of Mount Antero. The trail cut back against the mountain, bringing us along the opposite face. The sun finally decided to make an unwelcome appearance as the clouds below frothed and steamed as if coming off a cauldron.
At this point, we could see what could be mistaken as the top and would ultimately be revealed as the upper parking lot. The switchbacks shortened across the white stones.
Our pace finally slowed. The hike finally did not seem so easy. Altitude and grade began to wear on us. I fell farther and farther behind my companions. Initially, I felt drained, “out of gas.” I kept stopping to eat to perk myself up. It would work at first then burn off quickly. I assumed it was just being out of hiking shape since I had not put boots on a mountain trail since Cheyenne Mountain a year ago.
We pressed, slowly, through the upper parking lot. Past the point of vehicles, the trail went from practically being a mountain road to barely being a trail. Multiple path options spidered through unstable rocks and patches of scree. The first section balanced on a ridge, leaving us largely exposed on both sides. This tightrope walk bridged the parking lot to the final ascent to the summit.
I had felt drained if not weak when we approached and passed the parking lot. As we moved into the actual climbing past the gate, I started to feel decidedly shaky. Whenever my heart rate rose, whenever I had to truly engage my quads to hoist myself up, my head seemed to swim. It felt very reminiscent of when the hike over Mount Cameron went so terrible, and paranoia swelled over me. I fell farther and farther behind, cursing myself.
The trail wrapped around the final peak then turned up to the summit. As I was hiking up, I questioned my sanity; I questioned my ability. I did not think I could make it, and I did not think I could do it ever again. I thought something was truly wrong. Yet when I finally caught up with my companions at the summit, I could not believe that was it. It was a strange contradiction.
At the top, I felt fine. We sat down as clouds enveloped the mountain. All edges around us dropped off into nothing but swirling gray. We quickly enjoyed our brunch and our summit beers before turning back down the trail to beat the impending storms in the forecast.
I had been fantasizing about the descent during the entire ascent, and descending is always my favorite part of hiking; however, I was still not right. I felt wonky, unstable. Whereas I usually prance ahead of my party like a mountain goat across the boulders, I continue to struggle slowly through each step.
I told my husband that my legs were not doing what I told them to do, that they felt shaky. He said he thought I was not trusting myself. That seemed like a reasonable explanation, especially after my swell of altitude sickness paranoia, so I attempted to fall into my usual downhill cadence. I promptly fell.
By some stroke of sheer luck, I landed perfectly in a pocket between many jagged rocks. My hips, my shoulders, and my head all touched down between sharp, hard, and unforgiving edges. After I fell, my hands were numb for probably another thousand feet of descent. I felt better and better as we descended but still just off. When I spoke, it felt like the words came out slow and lethargic, half a sentence behind where my mind was. My hands did not execute tasks well; when my husband needed his hat, I struggled with the zipper of his backpack. I remained wobbly and unsteady.
I believe the altitude affected me again, and I think it happened around 13,500 feet. I believe if we had been attempting multiple summits, as we had on the Decalibron Loop, it would have unfolded the same way. After I got home, I felt normal-ish as long as I did not move. If I walked again, I again had that swimming head and unstable feeling. I did not recover fully until sleeping overnight.
Unfortunately, this may mean that I can no longer summit 14ers. I did fine with the 13,000 feet of Cheyenne Mountain and for the first 13,000 feet of Antero, but I could definitely feel the difference. It was like hitting a wall on the trail. And it is definitely not worth pushing through to risk another experience like Decalibron or to feel so shitty for the second half of the experience and rest of the day. It disappoints me to consider giving up the ambition or cutting off the consummation of the goal and watching the rest of the crew attain it as I wait, but it really feels like my body is saying no.
This hike was a test. My first 14er after hip surgery and altitude sickness. The hip passed. My blood oxygenation did not seem to.
That has to be acceptable. What my body can do, all it does for me has to be acceptable. Maybe I can find a way to summit another 14er; maybe I can’t. That has to be OK. The thousands of feet up to 13,000 are still beautiful, even if I don’t get to see 14,000. Just because the final ascent makes me sick doesn’t mean I shouldn’t hike at all.
Never being satisfied with myself physically has nothing to do with the performance or appearance of my body, but it does prevent me from appreciating and experiencing these things fully. I have gotten to a place of forgiving and accepting myself mentally yet have not been able to translate that to the physical, so I waste chunks of my life on imaginary shit that does not matter, especially in times like these when everything matters more.
So the hike was good, even if it is the last time I look down from the summit above 14,000.