I climbed a mountain!
This was a new experience and one I won’t forget. As a kid, I had the dream to be a professional mountain climber. Reality set in though, I needed to pay bills and frankly, I’m afraid of heights. So it may not have been the best plan, but I did always enjoy climbing. The “going up” is usually okay, it’s the “being up there and seeing how far away the ground is” and the “coming down from said height” that’s hard for me.
There’s no doubt, my fear of heights came into play on this excursion, but I was so excited to tackle this new adventure; I didn’t let my fears hold me back. In 1924, George Mallory may have felt compelled to climb Everest “Because it’s there,” but I climbed “Because I’m here.”
I went to Colorado with a group of friends for a couple of GORUCK events which included taking us up “a fourteener.” We climbed Grays Peak, which sits 14,278 feet. In the same area, there is also Torreys Peak sitting at 14,270 feet. You can summit Grays and come down to the saddle between the peaks which is at 13,700 and then go up and summit Torreys. Online it says that from the parking lot, it’s right around 3 1/2 miles to Grays Peak. If you have the time to hit Torreys Peak as well, it’s about 4 ½ miles one way.
Let me add, on this trip, we drove from Tulsa to Colorado the day before; Tulsa’s elevation is listed at 636 feet. There was no time allotted for acclimating, and these details came into play as I climbed.
We met at the park at 5:30 am. My crew had a 45-minute drive to get there, so it was a very early morning for us but heading out first thing is key with hiking up a mountain. I think we ended up getting less than 4 hours sleep due to getting into our campsite around midnight the night before.
Thank goodness for adrenaline! Once at the park, we caravanned up a long very bumpy dirt road that had no guardrails, despite the steep drop to plummet off to a parking lot at the trailhead. I kept my eyes closed for a good part of this ride. There were 43 people in our group to hit the trail at about 6:30 am. We were given instructions: “You must turn around and head down the mountain at 10:30 am. You must be in the parking lot by 1:00 pm.” Storms typically come in the afternoon so our guide wasn’t taking any chances and was getting us off the mountain well before any storms.
The trail begins by crossing a bridge from the trailhead, gently ascending up. Grays and Torreys were, at first, not visible from the trailhead (“We’re going there. No, I think it’s that one.”) We were surrounded by mountains and I had no idea where we were going, so I made sure to keep people in my sight. I did not want to add “getting lost in Colorado” to my adventure. All the mountains looked daunting from where we were.
There’s a quote that says, ”do not to look at the whole mountain, take it one piece at a time.” This is something I came to understand and appreciate.
We walked uphill via several switch backs on a trail. Our large group eventually settled into multiple small groups of people that were able to move at similar paces. We had to stop every so often on that initial mile to two miles to breathe. There was quite a bit of snow on the ground still but it was starting to melt. This meant the water from the melted snow flowed underneath to the river. When we would step on the remaining snow above, we would sink down. I had snow up to my hip on more than one occasion, and most of the time, you at least sank up to your knees. It’s exhausting to walk through. You use a great deal of energy freeing your foot and hoping your next step will be solid enough to hold your weight. I used lots of core, ankle and hip strength. Rest breaks were needed not only to catch your breath (because of the thin air), but also to rest the multiple muscle groups you were using trudging through snow.
Just after the 12,700 foot mark, the climb became more intense. It is steeper, very rocky and the path narrows. As I stood on a small ledge of snow and rocks, I witnessed a small avalanche. It’s definitely a different experience in person standing a seemingly short distance from it than seeing it on television. You can hear the rumble of snow and rocks tumble down. This kicked in my fear of heights; I envisioned tumbling down the mountain face. I thought, “Please don’t fall, I wouldn’t be able to stop.” There was nothing to hold onto up there; a hiking pole would have come in handy. Without one, you walk more hunched over and use your hands on the ground for balance. This posture of course doesn’t help with the thin air, because you’re not positioned for a full breath.
Around 13,000 feet, the altitude was kicking my butt. The group I ended up with were all feeling the thinner air by this point, and our pace had slowed significantly. I think everyone in my group lives in states a lot closer to sea level, so we were fighting the altitude difference. As you climb, you must continue to fight the battle against yourself. You want to turn back and take the easy way out. You’re tired, hungry, and sick of not being able to breathe. It doesn’t get any easier as you go higher, but you push on. I am thankful for my climbing group, as we worked together to keep moving. Thank you!
I made a rookie mistake not fueling myself along the way. I found myself suddenly hungry. I had let my body fall into a deficit of calories, fat, and sugar, so I’m sure that made things much harder for me. I ate 2 granola bars and downed a 5-hour energy drink while I sat down. I used this minute of solitude to take it all in.
I was sitting at close to 13,500 feet on a mountain. When would I ever get an opportunity to say this again? I took a minute to give thanks for my body being able to do this. We can see pictures of these places and we can long to go there, but actually doing the work to get to these places cuts many out of the crowd. The time and effort required to climb a mountain, can be too much for many. I thought about the amazing friends to go on this adventure with me. The amazing mountain views that you see in pictures does not compare to the real life experience. The clouds are so close, and my surroundings seemed untouched, perfect and beautiful. You can see for miles and miles. There is no noise. Taking in the view, you forget all of the pain you had to endure.
We kept moving to make it to the saddle between the two peaks. We took many pictures and rested before heading up to the Grays Peak summit; we were almost “energetic” at this point, ready to complete the task.
This last stretch is even steeper and is all rock, and there is no snow this high up. We climb up to 14,170 feet when our guide meets us and tells us it is 10:30 am and we have to turn around. What? We are 100 feet from the summit! It was crushing. We try to coax him into letting us reach the top since we are so close, but he holds firm to his initial rule. After discussing it more with him, we begrudgingly start climbing down. Disappointment was heavy on our group’s morale. Maybe if we climbed faster, took less breaks to breathe, and didn’t take so many pictures, we could have made it. Our will and drive was there to finish — but we ran out of time.
Shortly after passing the saddle, our guide says that we can slide down the mountain if we want. WHAT!! In an effort to get our group down faster, we weren’t going to climb down like everyone else that made it up to the summit, we were going to sled down. There was a group of more experienced hikers, not with our group, doing it.
We received some instruction of how and where to go. We sat down on our butts, pushed off and started sledding down. It was amazing. You control your speed and direction with your legs as snow piles up around your lap. Lift your feet to go faster and drive them down to slow down. Adrenaline and excitement took over as I squealed down the mountain. It’s like sledding as a kid but for much, much longer.
We were able to go down over 1,000 feet. Cold and wet, I came to a stop laughing as loud as I could. We stopped and walked a bit before hitting another spot where we could sled down. The disappointment of missing the summit by a measly 100 feet was forgotten with the quick snow-filled descent. I actually felt fortunate to be in that group that didn’t make it to the top because we were the only ones that got to slide down. We decided to credit ourselves because we did climb a fourteener by making it to 14,170 feet (and had we had another 30 minutes we would have made it.) We were a strong, determined group and came far too close to stop.
After our slide, we hiked the rest of the way back to where we started. Nothing looked the same. Somehow we couldn’t remember what things looked like just a few hours before; maybe the snow melted or we just were so focused on climbing and looking towards the mountain that we missed our surroundings along the way. Eventually, we made it to the parking lot and joined the rest of the group waiting on us. With one final group picture and a talk from our guide, we headed home for much needed food and rest.
“It is not the mountain we conquer, but ourselves.” —Edmund Hillary.
This was a physically challenging event for me; reaching the top of a mountain is a physical, mental, and emotional accomplishment. I had moments where I questioned if I could do it. Climbing mountains will teach you patience, persistence and gratitude.
You push yourself beyond the temporary struggle and focus on achieving your goal. Once reached, that goal never can be taken away. Reaching the top requires the perseverance to keep putting one foot in front of the other. When life gets tough, I try to remember that all we can do is put one foot in front of the other and just keep going.
As you descend down the mountain, one thing you start to do is start thinking about hiking again (even after you swore you’d never hike again on the way up). I am already planning my next climb. You can do more than you think you can and you just have to trust yourself, believe in yourself and take it one bit at a time. Before you know it, you will be standing on the peak.
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