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Longs Peak

Monday, September 10th, 2012

On Saturday, I climbed my 31st 14er, and my toughest one to date, Longs Peak.

Believe me when I tell you that two days later, my entire body hurts.  Not just my quads, y’all – my entire body.  I’m talking about the fronts of my ankles, and the tops of my shoulders, and that fat little hand muscle below the thumb – the one that I imagine would taste like a buffalo wing.  (Consider yourself warned: if we ever find ourselves together in a life or death situation a la “Alive,” I’m going for the buffalo wing.)

The day started just two hours after I went to sleep.  My alarm went off at 12:30am, and I drove to meet the band of strangers that would be my companions for the day.  The only girl in the bunch, I introduced myself, ate a Pop-Tart, and at 2:30am, we were off.

The first 4 hours were in the dark, our path illuminated only by our headlamps and a half moon.  At one point, we turned off our lights to look at the stars – and I can’t remember when I’ve seen stars that bright.  Despite my lack of sleep, I was energetic, and kept up with the men just fine.

As the sky began to grow light, the mountain started to reveal itself.

Longs Peak looming large

And I turned just in time to see the sun come up.

Sunrise

Six miles in, we approached the Keyhole, a huge rock formation that serves as the gateway to the last mile and a half to the summit, and the game changer in terms of terrain.  Up until the Keyhole, it’s just a long hike – but everything from the Keyhole on is a tricky and challenging climb, with an abundance of narrow ledges, loose rock, and near vertical ascensions.  My dad’s advice to me the day before was to “manage my emotions”; he knows me all too well.

The Keyhole - Longs Peak

The Keyhole – Longs Peak

First came the Ledges, a series of vary narrow ridges along a cliff edge.  Hearing that I’ve historically harbored a fear of exposure, our fearless leader Mark gave me the advice to always keep a hand on the rock wall and to never look down.  Now usually, when presented with the command of “don’t look down,” I almost always look down; ever pragmatic, I want to know the grave reality of my circumstances.  But this time, I took Mark’s advice – and I made it across the Ledges with no moments of panic.

Next was the Trough, a 600 vertical foot couloir (a word that my fellow climber Jim taught me – one that makes me feel très French).  The gully is filled with loose rock, which made the wisdom of our climbing helmets all the more obvious.  At the top of the Trough, I was tired – but we weren’t to the summit yet.

Photo by Dan Biro – and that’s my booty

Then came the Narrows, a constricted ledge that took us across another vertical rock face.  Whoever named it “the Narrows” was not messing around; nothing forces you into the present moment like the potential of falling to your death.  I found this video that gives a brief glimpse of the path – and it’s even more dizzying than YouTube makes it look.

Finally, we came to the Homestretch, a polished granite slab at a nearly 90 degree angle.  Hand over foot, it took about 15 minutes to climb 300 feet – and by 9am, we were at the summit.

Homestretch

Photo via iorg.com

We had gorgeous weather, and stayed on the summit for a full hour – longer than I’ve ever hung out on top of a mountain.  I had a brief moment of cell service, and posted this picture for the world to see – bright eyed and proud to have conquered Longs Peak.

(And for those who are keeping score, yes, I realize that this is the exact same picture as the one I took on the summit of Mt. Elbert last summer.  Apparently it’s my signature mountain look.)

Believe it or not, the descent was tougher than the ascent, since we were basically forced to crab walk for a mile and a half back to the Keyhole.  Try climbing off the top of a mountain down steep, sheer rock faces – it’s not for sissies.  Many accidents occur on the way down from a summit, since it’s easy to think that “the hard part is over” when, all the while, your body is that much more tired.

When we made it through the Keyhole and back to the trail, I was exhausted.  It was hard to lift my feet, and my legs felt wobbly.  The miles stretched on and on.  With every twist in the trail, I hoped to see the end – only to be met with more of the same.  It felt like it would last forever.

But 6 hours from the summit, after talking about everything from snowshoeing to dating to “Brian’s Song” (note: if you want to see grown men get emotional, just mention “Brian’s Song”), we emerged from the trees.  We were finished, back at the cars, pulling off boots and peeling off socks.  No matter what you go through, I can tell you this: nothing compares to putting on sandals after a 15-mile excursion.

I was so fortunate to climb with a great group of men through the Colorado Mountain Club – seasoned mountaineers who were encouraging, experienced, and pleasant company – and I am more than proud to check Longs Peak off my list.  It’s a mountain that had given me stress dreams for weeks, as I read first-hand accounts of the challenges (and occasional deaths) along the trail.

But I was encouraged to find that my last few years of mountain climbing have strengthened my courage and confidence; as with so many things in life, experience builds backbone.  I didn’t have any moments of panic, never hyperventilated (something that has happened to me on mountains before), and hand over hand, step by step, focused on one move at a time. This climb forced me to live only in the present moment – which is the only place that life happens, anyway.

Chalk it up to another real life lesson learned in the mountains.

Shavano & Tabeguache

Wednesday, August 1st, 2012

As some of you may know, I’ve spent the past few summers climbing as many 14ers (mountains over 14,000’ high) as I can.  There are 54 in Colorado, and while I’m not sure that I have a goal of climbing every single one of them, I love the challenge and adventure that each one brings.

As of Friday night, I had climbed 26 14ers – just one away from having bagged half of the total 54.  I really wanted to make it past the halfway point, so I planned to climb two mountains on Saturday, Shavano and Tabeguache.  These mountains are just outside of Salida, which is a good distance from Denver, so I was driving by 4:30am in order to hit the trailhead by 7:30 or so – which already felt like a late start, but the best that I could do.

The 3-hour drive was uneventful, and I psyched myself up for a long day of hiking.  But when I finally pulled up at the trailhead, I was met with a gigantic sign: “NO TRESPASSING. VIOLATORS WILL BE PROSECUTED.”

I was crushed.  Ever a rule-follower, I didn’t dare take that trail – because it would be just my luck to be met by a man with a shotgun, or worse, a man with a banjo.

Defeated, I thought, “I should just drive back to Denver.”

But then I thought of how much money I had spent on gas, and how I’d eaten a gigantic piece of banana bread and needed to burn it off, and how much I wanted to check another mountain off of my list – and I decided not to give up just yet.  I pulled out my 14ers book and searched for another path up the peaks, and when I found one that looked promising, I drove 30 minutes around the mountain to a different trailhead.

By this time, it was after 8am, and the sun was high and bright.  As one with a healthy fear of afternoon storms above tree-line, I had some reservations about starting so late.  “What if I get struck by lightning?” I thought.  “Who would take care of Toad?  Who would water my basil?  I should just go home.”

But again, that slice of banana bread taunted me.  As is the case with so many of my decisions, if nothing else, I needed to burn some calories.  So I decided to start hiking and just see how far I could go before it got too late in the day.  Maybe I would make it to the top of the first peak – maybe – but I tossed aside any illusions of being able to climb both.

I wound up making great time (fine: I tore up the trail, passing every grown man in my path, and felt a little bit smug about it), and was at the top of Shavano in less than 3 hours.  That alone felt like a victory – I had climbed my 27th 14er, and was halfway to 54.  I could go back to the car and feel decent about my efforts.  I texted my dad and told him that I was at the top of Shavano, and was done for the day.  I strapped on my pack, and turned back the way that I came.

But then I looked over at Tabeguache.

It was so close – only a mile away – and yet so, so far.  To reach the summit, I would have to climb all the way down Shavano, and then all the way up Tabeguache – and then I would have to turn around and re-climb Shavano in order to get back to the car.  That would make for three summits in a day.  I didn’t know if I had it in me, but…

“I could do it,” I thought.  “I could do it.”

And you know what?  I did it.  Before I could talk myself out of it, I booked it off of Shavano, scrambling over boulders and scampering down the trail like a – I was going to say a “mountain goat,” but probably a more accurate description would be a “really gigantic, loping mountain troll” – only to reach the base of Tabeguache and have to go straight back up, only to reach the top of Tabeguache and go straight back down, only to reach the base of Shavano and go straight back up, only to reach the top of Shavano and go straight back down.  The thunder and lightning started as soon as I reached tree-line, and it poured for the last hour of my hike.  By the time I arrived back at my Subaru, I was sopping wet and shivering – but so happy.  I was happy to be finished and happy to be alive and happy to have climbed 27 AND 28 – meaning that I’m over halfway to 54.

Even when you’re positive you know how something is going to turn out, maybe you should try it anyway.  Maybe instead of turning around, you should keep going.  Maybe you should risk a little rain just to see how far you can make it, just to see if you can outrun the lightning, just to see what it feels like to surprise yourself.

Wetterhorn

Monday, July 12th, 2010

On Friday morning, my dad and I left at 4am and drove for over 2 hours to hike for 6 and see only one other person all day.  It’s a very, very thin slice of the world’s population who will ever stand where we were on Friday – between the remote location and the 4-wheel drive roads and the amount of physicality one has to employ to get there, you have to REALLY mean to go.

But we had an opportunity, and we grabbed it.  We really meant to go.

The hike was long and steep, but my daily walkoftriumphs have paid off, and we kept a good pace.  Nearing the top, the summit looked so close.

But when we actually got closer, I realized that we were going to have to scale this (see here for another perspective):

Now, listen.  I’m no rock climber.  I have no triceps, remember?  Plus, heights and me?  We don’t get along so well.  It’s not so much the heights that bother me – it’s more of the plunging to my death that really freaks me out.  I don’t even like to skin my knees, let alone break bones, lose limbs, chip teeth, etc.  And wouldn’t you know, the first really scary part, when my dad assured me that the rock was secure, and if I just put my hand *right there*, I could get a good grip – the rock BROKE OFF IN MY HAND.

But there was only one way to the top, and I wasn’t walking off that mountain without a summit.

Despite my fears, and freezing a couple of times, unable to move or breathe, starting the stressed-out-whistle-breath thing, after a long, slow climb, I made one last quick hand-over-foot movement and scrambled my way onto the top of Wetterhorn Peak.

Fears: faced, engaged, overcome.
Self-confidence: boosted.
First 14er of the season: conquered.

(Now go read my dad’s post about what HE did the next day.  AAAAGH.)