| Finisher's Reflections from a Moon-lit Lake
I’m sure there are many others on this site that believe as I do, that the journey of climbing Colorado’s Fourteneers is largely one of self-discovery and growth that has the power to change how we see ourselves in this beautiful world. As I’m thinking about my finisher’s trip, a moon-lit hike up Blanca Peak that could not have been more perfect, I just want to share my reflections and the meaning I ascribe to my journey. My apologies, in advanced, for this self-absorbed and downright cheesy and clichéd narrative!
At the age of 25, as my copy of Roach’s second edition collected dust on my book shelf, I was fat, depressed, lazy, and living on disability. Ever since I was 18 and came down with meningitis that left me with a nasty, chronic headache that wouldn’t go away (still hasn’t), my life became a string of excuses. I lost my career dreams and any shred of an active lifestyle.
Two things happened four years ago to change all of that.
The first change was a little relief from the pain. In those first five years after getting meningitis, I tried what seemed like every pill ever invented by the pharmaceutical industry. I let a chiropractor inflate balloons inside my sinuses repeatedly. I got Botox. I had the nerves in the back of my neck frozen into submission. Nothing worked…finally, I heard about peripheral nerve stimulators. Three surgeries later, I had a series of wires than ran from a battery under my arm up my back to “leads” under the skin in my scalp. The system acts like an internal tens unit, delivering a constant small charge that helps override the pain signals coming from my nerves. Every week or so, I recharge the unit by plugging myself into a wall outlet. No joke. My headache didn’t magically disappear, but it did take the edge off. I noticed I could go for a walk without angering the pain. My couch no longer held me as a prisoner.
Then, the second thing happened that would eventually turn my life around: a group of friends asked me to accompany them on Grays Peak.
You know that expression that all you really need to know in life you learned in kindergarten? Well, my Fourteener experience has been a little like that. All I really needed to learn, I learned in my first trip up little, old Grays Peak: I’m stronger than I think I am and it doesn’t matter how tall the peak is, you climb it by taking one step at a time. Two hours into my Fourteener journey, when I rounded the bend in the valley and looked up at Grays Peak so far away, I never thought I would make it. Even from the pictures my friend took as she waited for me a hundred feet below me on the trail (she had an old injury bother her that day), it seemed as though I’m about to keel over. My headache was absolutely splitting and I was exhausted. But I made it. And I’ll never forget the realization that I accomplished something I didn’t think I was capable of. (Hey, I warned you this would be cheesy and cliché.)
The next summer, I climbed my second: Mt. Elbert. By the summit, I was hooked. About eight peaks in, I wondered if I could bag them all. At the time, it was a pie-in-the-sky dream, not something I would ever really achieve. I didn’t even know the difference between Capitol and Handies. But I kept testing myself, one mountain a time.
My watershed moment came on my fourteenth summit, Wetterhorn Peak. I remember driving to the trailhead in early summer late on a week day. Not a soul was around. It would be my first class 3 (other than Longs Peak, which, sorry to minimize, doesn’t have the same level of difficulty in my book with the bull’s eyes and all), and I was absolutely freaked. I had no idea if I could do it. Hell, I had no idea if I would even be able to get my car back down the nasty 4wd road. I didn’t sleep that night; I was so worried I was in over my head. But the sun came up to reveal a Colorado blue sky which always lifts my mood and I went for it. Move by move, I got it done, no problem. Perhaps that was the moment the lesson stuck: I’m stronger than I think. That’s the beauty of mountaineering – it teaches us all what we are made of, and usually it is a positive surprise.
About a year ago, I earned the summit that by far I am the most proud of it. It took four attempts to finally bag Little Bear via the Southwest Ridge route. It put to test all the skills I had been practicing that I would need to finish all 58: route finding, rock scrambling, decision making, a cool head in the face of adversity, serious endurance, and tenacity (to overcome my tremendous lack of good judgment, as my t-shirt says). From there, I enjoyed the confidence that it would be a matter of when, not if, to finish my dream.
Probably the pinnacle of this project came this past winter, in March, when I claimed number 57: Mt of the Holy Cross. My group was fortunate enough to follow the footsteps (literally) of mountaineering greats like Steve Gladbach and Ken Nolan, just to name a few. We had a broken trail that paved the route to the summit, but 30 miles in winter conditions still made for my hardest trip to date. I don’t think I’ve ever puked out of sheer exhaustion before. That summit left just one: Blanca Peak.
What had started as a few post-op walks had turned into my first Fourteener which eventually crept its way into 57 successful summits (not including repeats). In that time, I became a runner again. I completed seven half marathons, including Pikes Peak Ascent twice, and I ran the Rome Marathon. If I can climb all of these mountains”, I realized,” there isn’t anything that this headache is going to keep me from.” With the old excuses long behind me, I finally graduated college and got a real, full-time job. Climbing mountains truly changed every aspect of my life.
It turns out that endorphins are nature’s pain killer. Running and hiking don’t make the pain worse; they make it better. Most headaches (mine, anyway) can be relieved by a few mid-week runs followed by a nice, long trip to the mountains come the weekend. All I have to do is stop feeling sorry for myself long enough to tie on my running shoes. (If only our doctors started advocating exercise to their chronic pain patients, but that rant is for another time.)
Beyond that (get ready for another dose of cheesy!), every time I climb a peak I know I’m living my life to the fullest which gives me a mental strength that pain killers just can’t buy. During those moments that I just want to quit my job and go back to living as a strung-out narcotics junkie on the sofa, I know the mountains are waiting for me. They make me want to choose to put my feet on the floor each morning and live in the beautiful, magical world with every ounce of my being.
Half way up my first mountain, Grays Peak. I never would have guessed where that trip would take me. August 2008.
Hooked on 14ers on my second summit, Mt. Elbert. With Alissa. July 2009.
Nick and I on Mt Sherman. July 2009.
Back then, the loose class 2 dirt on top of Missouri Mountain scared me. July 2009.
Some of my favorite, most meaningful trips were the ones I went solo. San Luis, June 2010.
My first solo class 3. Wetterhorn, June 2010.
The mountains remind me how I'm just a little part of this whole big world. Maroon Peak, July 2010.
Just trying to soak it all in. Photo credit: Alissa B. S Maroon, July 2010.
So proud to have just climbed S Maroon. July 2010.
A trail run in 1:41 back to the summit of Grays Peak reminds me how far I've come since that first trip when it took 4 hours. July 2010.
Ready for my first Pikes Peak Ascent. August 2010
Following Chris (Cbauer10) along my first great traverse to Mt Wilson. September 2010.
Train ride out of Chicago Basin after Chris' finisher. With JasonF and Cbauer10. August 2010.
That elusive Little Bear summit. December 2010.
Crossing a ledge of the Mama Bear Traverse. Photo credit: nkan02. May 2011.
Capitol Peak on a perfect day. August 2011.
The knife edge. Photo credit: nkan02. August 2011.
My favorite winter summit (Humboldt Peak) with views of my favorite climb ever (Crestone Needle). December 2011.
Robco and I taking a break during the long haul to Mt of the Holy Cross. Photo credit: Dancesatmoonrise. March 2012.
Robco, Iman86, and I on Mt of the Holy Cross. March 2012.
At 10pm, as we’re trying to park the car as level as possible at 8,800 on Lake Como Road so that we might be able to sleep for a few hours, my husband Nick (Mr. Positivity) is going on and on about how nice the weather is currently. The stars are coming out, a near full-moon is rising on the horizon, and there’s little breeze to negate the nice, warm temperature.
“Then why don’t we just hike now?” I say jokingly.
“Okay,” he says in a serious tone.
That gives me pause. “Why don’t we hike it now?” I ask myself. I’ve wanted to see a sunrise for a summit for years. It’s the perfect opportunity.
You have to understand, I’m a planner. And for the last year, I’ve had all sorts of big ideas about how I would finish this thing. At first, I wanted to save Evans so that my non-climbing friends could join me in my big moment. But with only four to go at the beginning of last winter, I abandoned that plan. At the end of the winter, when I only had Blanca, the plan was to finish via the Little Bear-Blanca traverse. But how many months would I have to wait for conditions to be right and everyone’s schedules to line up? Yesterday, I woke up and realized I just wanted to reach Blanca and enjoy the fruits of this three year project. On a whim, Nick and I packed our bags and headed to Como.
As we play with the idea of hiking Blanca entirely in the dark to reach the summit at sunrise, I consider the risks. What about our headlamps, will they last that long? We each have extra sets of batteries, we confirmed. What about any sketchy parts at the top, will those be an issue in the dark? Full moon and warm enough temperatures we can always sit and wait. What about the bears, will they eat us as we pass through Lake Como? Well, you’ll just have to outrun me, Nick jokes. In less than five minutes, we change course on our plans and are throwing our packs on our shoulders.
The beautiful night and the great company with Mr. Positivity (“This road is so wonderful!”) almost make Lake Como Road bearable. We reach the lake in just over two and a half hours. I’m so proud of my husband who, in the last three months, has been coming along on my trips and has lost about twenty-five pounds. I’m also concerned about topping out way too early, so we take a long break in the shack.
My second fear about the night hike doesn’t come to fruition; the bears leave us alone.
Back on the so-called road again, it is becoming clear just how magical of a night it really is. The lake reflects the image of the full moon. Even with fewer stars with the bright moon, the stars are glorious. I can make out the faint outline of the Milky Way. We can even clearly see the ridge line of Little Bear, that peak I was so proud of myself for climbing just a year ago, over our heads. I’m struck with how perfect the night is – what are the chances of doing an overnight peak on a whim and end up with such fabulous conditions?
Route-finding becomes more difficult above 13,000, and knowing how easy it is to make a wrong turn in the dark, we weigh all of our options before committing to each new direction in the maze of pseudo-trails. There are still patches of snow and ice intermittently to negotiate as well so we take our time.
Finally we intercept the ridge at just less than 14,000 feet and make the sharp, right turn to gain the last few hundred feet. We had timed it perfectly: as we stand on the ridge and get our first view of the Huerfano valley, the sun starts to come up behind Mt. Lindsey. Those last few moments that it takes to climb to Blanca’s summit are beyond surreal. We watch the sun continue to rise above Mt Lindsey from the summit. I often struggle to take in the enormity of the beauty of the mountains; at this moment, combined with the emotions of a three year journey that mean so much to me, it feels impossible.
As a side-note, I want to explain why I don’t have any pictures before the Blanca summit. As we had pulled onto Lake Como Road the night before and we came to a quick halt due to the dozens or so cattle on the road, I pulled out my camera to discover that the battery was completely dead (Indeed, I hadn’t charged it for months). After a massive temper tantrum, I decided, reluctantly, to continue with the trip anyway. My canon had been my one piece of gear on every Fourteener summit to date and has survived drop after drop, hail storms, and -17 F temperatures. Once I got caught in a nasty thunderstorm on my way down Little Bear and my partner and I were convinced we were going the wrong way until I stumbled upon the camera sitting peacefully at 13,500 feet where I had lost it on the way up. I was ticked I was about to do my final Fourteener without it.
At the Blanca summit, I pull out the camera just to see if it would perhaps give us one shot. Amazingly, it suddenly says it has a full battery. It doesn’t complain then or after each of the hundred or shots I took on the way back down. Another finisher’s trip gift.
It isn’t until the way home that I realize that Blanca Peak, one of the Navajo’s four sacred mountains, is associated with the dawn. Again, I’m struck with how serendipitously this trip came together and ended up being a perfect way to celebrate this accomplishment and the triumphs it symbolizes in my life. Indeed, traveling Colorado’s Fourteeners has acted as a dawn of a new day for me.
Total elation on my 58th summit
The later part of the sunrise over Mt Lindsey
First rays on Little Bear and the shadow of Blanca Peak on the valley 7,000 feet below. No wonder the Navajos associated this mountain with dawn.
North to the Crestones
So proud of Nick for rocking this trip
Looking over the Ellingwood on the way down
The valley between 13 and 14k. Still some snow to either negotiate or avoid
Still jubilant even back down at 13k
Looking back at Blanca (right) and Ellingwood (left)
Two of my loves: Nick and Little Bear
It blows my mind that climbing Colorado’s Fourteeners is really a lot like mountaineering 101; it’s just scratching the surface of what our mountains have to offer. So now it’s time to pick a major: technical climbing, the winter game, centennial/high point lists, out-of-state/international climbs, trail running…the choices go on and on.
Thousands have climbed all of Colorado’s Fourteeners before me and there are so many on this site who have far more impressive mountaineering resumes. But what I think is so great about what our mountains offer is that at the end of the day, it is really just you and the peak you are climbing and pushing yourself to achieve what you are personally capable of. What I’ve learned about myself is that what really drives me is looking up at a mountain and thinking, “I can’t get up that,” and then proving myself wrong. To me, the feeling is similar whether it is up Little Bear or a little Boulder foothill on the way to work that I’m attempting to trail run.
There are a lot of facets of true mountaineering I am never going to be an expert with: I don’t trust snow (my irrational thinking: it comes down as flakes for crying out loud!), I hate to be cold, and I get homesick after about two days. But my favorite challenges are tests of endurance and speed (relative to myself), so if I have to choose a major, trail running would probably be my niche. I’m looking forward to keeping the Pikes Peak Ascent/Marathon as a yearly tradition (is this the year I'm able to slash my PR?). I hope to run an ultra someday. Who knows what else the mountains have in store for me. All I know is that, “list” or no list, savoring the mountains is a lifestyle I’m not about to give up anytime soon.
I want to thank a few of my hiking partners who in particular really helped me along the way.
Thanks Alissa for your encouragement up that first peak and for always being my cheerleader.
Thanks Chris (CBauer10) for taking a chance on me after we happened to meet on Wetterhorn. I like to think that I’m a good rock scrambler because of those trips I got to share with you. More importantly, you taught me that while it is okay to want to check off a list, it’s never okay to leave a partner behind and other climbing lessons that would have been devastating to miss. Your generous spirit is contagious and I so appreciate our time together.
Thanks Jim (Dancesatmoonrise) for your encouragement and advice.
Thanks Jen, for having the grand idea of attempting the Southwest Ridge back before it was popular and for those fun hikes together in the summer of 2010.
Thanks Natalie (nkan02) for hanging in there with me up the Southwest Ridge. Even though we eventually moved in very different directions, I will always be proud of our smoking 2011 summer season.
Thanks to Rob (Robco) and Matt (Iman86) for inviting me to join your team (Go Team IceDynos!) and for cracking jokes at 4am.
Most importantly, I want to thank my husband, who has never once complained about the time or money that has gone missing since the first time I wondered if I could climb them all. Nick, thanks for your unending support. I’ve always been so grateful to come home to you and tell you the stories from each of my trips. I’m looking forward to sharing more hikes and climbs with you; the amazing thing about having you at my side (prepare here for one last corny comment!) is that I can travel to any summit without ever feeling like I left home.
Thanks, everyone, for letting me share my story. I hope that all of you who have traveled these trails before me can relate, at least in part, to the transformative power of our mountains.
Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):