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I am a New York-based writer, travel lover, and author of The Drive North and Destination Paranormal. I have several other books in the works, including fiction.

Climbing a Colorado Mountain

My legs shook like trees in the wind as I stopped to take a picture of a stream that ran through the forest on the east side of Mount Elbert, the tallest peak in all of the Rocky Mountains. I paused to rest for a moment – wondering if a few more trips to the gym would have really helped the situation – and covered for my weakness by taking a quick photo. I needed the break more than the memories, if I was going to skip across three stones in the water to continue back down to the trailhead.
I rarely make New Year’s Resolutions. I find them shallow and holding little merit. After all, if someone wants to change, then they will do so on their own accord – not because they feel obligated to make a promise on a particular day of the year.
Yet, on New Year’s Day, I made the resolution to try to get back into working out more in 2011 and thus getting in a little better shape. Things had started falling off for me when I quit judo approximately 18 months previously for various reasons and I was beginning to notice. But, I rarely do well with such ultimatums unless I have a goal. And so, a couple of months after making my resolution, I set my eyes on one: I was going to climb my first 14er – a 14,000 foot mountain peak – in the summer.
The water fell over my face in the shower the morning of the climb. The day before I had boasted to a friend that I had no doubt in my mind that I was ready and would make it to the top. But, as I stood there in a sleepy stupor, I questioned whether I could truly make it. Sure, it was one of the easiest 14er hikes in Colorado, or so I read, but it was still the tallest mountain in the Rockies at 14,433 feet. Maybe I had underestimated it and overestimated my own abilities. After all, I had never done anything remotely similar to this before.
Not even once.
The trailhead was at a lofty 10,400 feet above sea level. I had climbed to that height before, even breaking tree line, but never started there. The thought of I’m not sure I can do this crossed my mind in another flash for a second. I wanted to believe I could, though, so I tried to exude a confident demeanor; I was hoping I’d find a groove and in the end make the summit through sheer stubborness – one of my finer personality traits.
From the trailhead, I huffed and puffed and pushed my way through the forest with a single thought: the summit was only 3.8 miles away. We discussed the point at the start that this would mean more than a 1,000 foot gain in elevation for each mile, but I banished the idea; it would only cripple me further. I needed to keep my focus on smaller goals, various bends and landmarks in the trail, and then I would be fine.
With my chin tucked tight to my chest, trying not to look at the continual uphill climb, I followed my friend – Kory Kilmer – up the trail, letting him set the pace. He is a more experienced hiker, having climbed a couple of 14ers in the past, and knew what needed to be done. All I had to do was keep my eyes on the trail, so I wouldn’t stumble and twist an ankle, and keep up with him as best I could.
The climb was hard, but we gained heart when we moved out of the trees. We were at least 11,000 feet above sea level at this point – and debated if we weren’t higher – while we stopped for a snack. Our legs were already tired and we required the rest, but started to feel a little adrenaline pump now that what we thought was the summit was in site – further observations proved this to be true, what we were seeing was the peak and not a false one.
Our pace slowed as we gained elevation; the air was becoming noticeably thinner. I started to fade first, sometimes falling as far as a city block behind Kory and the strong pace he was able to hold. Despite a significantly slower pace, I couldn’t breathe and needed frequent stops in order to catch my breath and slog on. But, I wasn’t going to be denied. I had come this far from the first day of the year and wanted to prove myself by reaching the summit.
I was not going to quit.
And then I quit. We were less than a football field in height from the summit, not even a mile of switchbacks away, before I threw in the towel. I couldn’t breathe, I was dizzy to the point of falling over, and I had a raging headache – all symptoms of altitude sickness. I knew it, but didn’t want to admit it – plopping down to pout on a trail-side rock while ignoring the beautiful view – until it meant it could be both a danger to either of us.
“I don’t know how experienced of hikers you guys are,” said a grizzled old man who had obviously seen the top of his fair share of 14ers, “but there’s storm clouds moving in and that means lightning. It may not be safe to be up there much longer.” I wanted to punch him for pointing out the discouragingly obvious; I knew the clouds were rolling in, but I didn’t want to hear another reason as to why I should be walking back down the mountain instead of up.
Yet, shortly after hearing his words, that is what we did. We both agreed that we had reached a respectable height and, for all intents and purposes, accomplished our goal. It didn’t matter that we weren’t on the summit, looking 360 degrees all around at the lesser peaks, because we had made 14,000 feet without breaking a leg or being struck by lightning – something that happens more per capita in Colorado than in any other state save Florida.
I choked on my pride while I bounded down the mountain at a far faster pace than going up. I was happy with the height we reached, but grumbled about it the whole way down. I had made my attempt, coming close enough to call it mission accomplished, but was doing nothing more than venting my frustrations; I had come so far and worked so hard and was now admitting defeat to any future 14er. I would never try climbing one again.
I continued to grumble – another one of my finer personality traits – for the two hour drive down the mountain to Denver. I wanted to say I did well enough through bitching and moaning, but I was only winding myself up for another attempt. Sure, I made a respectable go of it and hit 14,000 feet, but close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades, not – even though I snipped about it many times afterwards – when it comes to climbing 14ers.

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  1. Planning the Hiking Season | Jason's Travels - April 8, 2014

    […] either get by without feeling any effects or be royally screwed, due to the lack of oxygen. While trying to hike a 14,000-foot-tall peak a few years ago, I realize I’m in the royally screwed category. So Anna and I need to start […]

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