Mount Evans – My Fourteener Finisher!

Six years ago October 4th I climbed my first fourteener. And a few days ago, I stood atop my 58th fourteen-thousand foot mountain in Colorado, successfully completing the full list of the highest peaks in the state. It’s certainly been a wild ride. But this week isn’t only the anniversary of my first fourteener, it’s also another significant anniversary for me. Two years ago this week, instead of getting to celebrate that anniversary of my first ascent like I usually did, I was in the hospital. It was then that I went through a series awful tests like a spinal tap to get a diagnosis of Multiple Sclerosis…because my body thought having asthma, fibromyalgia, two herniated discs, and three knee surgeries weren’t enough of a challenge for climbing these peaks.

The past two years have been a long road to recovery from that hospitalization and flare-up. For many, many months after it, my body was like a shell of what it once had been (which had never been terribly healthy, to begin with).

Getting a blood patch in the ER two years ago, the “fix” for the spinal headache that accompanied my spinal tap

I spent six out of seven days of the week incapable of leaving my home with debilitating fatigue, unable to walk well or at all, and many times had loss of cognitive function and speech capabilities – to name a few of the more significant issues. Not to be beaten, though, I persisted. As is my way, I researched everything I could to figure out the disease and find ways to manage symptoms the best I could to get back some semblance of a normal life and return to climbing. In fact, I am currently writing a thesis for my master’s to further the clinical knowledge in a particular area I have found helpful.

While I am much better than I was two years ago, that flare up has made life, and climbing, exponentially more difficult. In a recent post, I wrote about some of the challenges I still face, so I won’t take up space here with that. And in some ways I’m better off, for instance, this past ice season was my best yet, and I even started leading. Suffice to say it’s hard for me to believe I’ve actually done it: standing atop Mount Evans seemed like such a far off dream two or six years ago, and it’s a little surreal right now.

Once Bitten, Twice Shy

Once bitten, twice…still a goddamn idiot. Last weekend I walked into a snowstorm with four other people in an attempt to get to the summit of Mount Evans.

We had a lot of fun last weekend!

We made good choices that day, and I made the call to turn around when the weather went from miserable to dangerous, even though we were over 14,000 feet. I had envisioned my final summit differently: beautiful blue skies with views of its neighboring peak, my first fourteener Mount Bierstadt, good music in my ears, a beer in my hand, and time for reflection and meditation on my accomplishment. Well, none of that happened this weekend when I summited. Because I’m a goddamn idiot.

While I had three days to chose from this past weekend, the weather for Friday and Saturday looked dicey, so I opted to wait for Sunday, which seemed clear. However, on Saturday afternoon I saw a post from our local climber weather guru who said a big storm was moving in Sunday and Monday that the news sites and apps weren’t reporting. It concerned me, as he was usually spot on, but I decided I would have enough time.

So, Sunday morning I drove to the same trailhead as last weekend, this time alone. In the dark, I saw a Search and Rescue vehicle and a couple of guy setting up a tent near the bathrooms in the parking lot. Last weekend we had encountered the SAR team when we had gotten off the mountain, as they had been looking for a guy who had gotten lost on the route we had decided against due to the weather. I was glad to chat with the guys again, and thank them for their hot cocoa the weekend prior and for their outreach to the hikers going up Bierstadt in tennis shoes in a foot of snow. It was a nice way to wait for the daylight because I wasn’t going to start before then due to the moose we had encountered in the willows last weekend.

Hello, Mr. Moose.

As daylight broke, I headed toward my mountain. It was flurrying a little bit, but cleared after about 30 minutes and was a pleasant morning with my mountains looming over me. I made quick work of the willows, this time knowing the area a little better. However, as I walked nearer the gully, I saw some footprints I was none too happy about. Giant moose footprints in the snow, and not covered by the flurries that had been coming down a half an hour before. They were close. There isn’t much more terrifying than knowing there are three moose lurking among the willows you’re walking alone in, and that with every step you might come upon them unexpectedly. I got my ice axe out but didn’t think it would do much. I felt a little safer when I came to the clearing that headed toward the gully, as I could see the area better and noticed them above me but not the direction I was headed.

The gully had significantly more snow than the weekend prior but still wasn’t challenging. Instead of rain and sleet like the last time, I had beautiful blue skies and gorgeous views of a snow-covered Bierstadt. As I neared the top of the gully, the snow coverage became much denser. I had opted to leave my snowshoes in the car and started regretting it. The section above the gully, while pleasant and more direct when not in a whiteout, was time and energy-consuming without the snowshoes. I was surprised at how much more time it was taking me compared to the weekend before; perhaps the poor weather had made us push harder, or maybe it really was the post-holing in the snow that slowed me down so much.

Look guys, there IS a road up here!
And I could actually see Mount Bierstadt this time!

Eventually, I reached the ridge toward Evans. It was great to see the views I had not gotten to the week before, and while there was more snow on the ridge, it still wasn’t terribly dangerous terrain. I did get my ice axe out, though it was more psychological pro because it wouldn’t actually have helped save me in a fall due to the unconsolidated autumn snow. I also put my helmet on, because I was solo, and there was no reason not to wear it. The going here was slower than the week prior, as well, due to the increased amount of snow: each step was a terrain trap for a broken foot or leg. The large boulders and rocks covered in snow and drifts held holes deep enough to sink you down to your hip, and if you fell in one at the wrong angle, it would be very bad news. Careful steps and prodding with my axe or trekking pole provided a safe passage across the ridge.

I came upon the place I thought was where we turned around the week prior, and I was later in the day than I had wanted to be – much later than we had been the week before even though the weather was nicer this day. I knew I was close, over 14,000 feet, but still didn’t quite know how much farther the summit was. There were some grey clouds building to the north, but they looked pretty far away, and 80% of the sky was yet gorgeous. I opted to keep going, setting a mental turnaround time for myself.

Socked-In Summit

As I rounded a corner on the ridge, I finally saw the parking lot and summit signs. The summit was just up to my left, about 50 vertical feet. This was when the weather got bad. I’ve been on a lot of mountains, but this storm moved in more quickly than any I’ve seen before. Quite suddenly the visibility was gone, I couldn’t see the parking lot, and could barely see the summit. I can’t tell you why I decided to continue to the top, other than that I was there, so I just did it.

Rounding the corner toward the summit

Turning around then wouldn’t have saved me much time or heartache in the storm – I would have needed to turn around much sooner for that – but it would have saved me a miserable finisher. At this point, I really wished I had stopped then, and saved my last peak for a better day that I could experience some solitude for the finish.

There were the summit buildings. The end was nigh.

I took the most direct route up to the top, which involved some light snow-scrambling and lots of post-holing in huge drifts. The top was…awful. It was not the scenic, reflective, meditative summit I had been planning. It was grey, storming, and scary. And I was stupid. Stupid, stupid, stupid. It was way past the time of day I should have been up there, not that I was worried about lightening this time of year, but more that I was concerned about getting back to and finding the gully before dark in a storm. I was so mad at myself for making this poor decision – after all of these mountains, one would think I’d have learned! The worst part was that I didn’t even want this that badly, especially in these conditions, and had proven that, literally, the week before. I honestly can’t tell you why I did it, other than that I was just ready for this goal to be done.

I stayed but a couple of minutes. I didn’t bother to send a message from my GPS communicator but instead sent a text from my cell to my contacts giving them the login and password for how to access the tracking on my communicator. This wasn’t something I’d ever done before, had never felt the need, but I knew that if I didn’t find that gully before dark and got stuck up above 13,000 feet or got lost wandering around in the willows, them having that tracking would be essential. I didn’t tell them I was in another whiteout, no need to worry them. Then I took a quick photo with my summit sign, as I have on all my other peaks, ate a quick bite, and ran into the wind. So much for a contemplative and peaceful summit for my last peak.

What a view…NOT.

Getting back to the ridge from the summit proved quite difficult in the low visibility, as there weren’t as many cairns in the wide open area and the snow was relatively deep. I realized how dangerous it was for me to be up there, and briefly considered if I had been dumb not to bring a bivy and my negative 20 sleeping bag, which was in the car with my snowshoes. I had enough other supplies to have safely stayed the night, but I also knew the storm might last longer than just that.In retrospect, I’m still in agreement with my choice. Not only would even that extra 2 and a half pounds of emergency gear have slowed my already exceedingly plodding ass down more, but I’m of the mind that you are self-sufficient and walk out no matter what. If something happened, I could deal with pain. If Joe Simpson broke his leg and got off the mountain that he did, I can get off a Colorado 14er. I’m glad to have the GPS emergency button, but it would take a hell of a lot for me ever to push it. The tracking info I sent my contacts was more in case they needed to find my body.

Sometimes Strength Comes Out of Nowhere

I had a finite amount of time to get back to the gully before dark descended upon me. The same as last week, I was on this damned ridge in a whiteout, trying to find my way in the whipping wind and snow. But this time, I had to hurry. And I was freaked out about it. Hurrying was difficult, as every time I tried to go quicker, I fell into the rock/snow holes and risked breaking a bone. Luckily, the one time I fell in up to my thigh on my bad knee side, my knee brace saved an overextension that would surely have torn a ligament.

I was breathing hard and pushing my limits, but I forced myself to keep going. There is always the risk with me that MS will rear it’s ugly head at any given moment, and my body will simply shut off. I’ve gotten much better in the last couple years about knowing when it’s going to happen, but it can still surprise me. While on the ridge, I just kept telling myself that I couldn’t stop, no matter what. That’s what self-sufficiency is, and I knew I was the only person who was going to get me out of there. One cairn to the next, I made it off the ridge.

Then came the difficult part. The section above the gully was wide open and very full of deep snow and would be very easy to get lost in (we had, in fact, on the way up last weekend). My sense of direction is generally spot-on, and I started running toward where I thought the gully would be – as fast as one can run in knee deep snow. The whiteout was the worst I’ve seen, and at times got to be like it would be on a glacier: I could literally see nothing, not even rocks in front of me. Up was down, left was right, and it was dizzying.

When the terrain finally started sloping, it was starting to get dark. The thought went through my head that if I didn’t find the gully in the next few minutes, I might not make it out of there, and it occurred to me for a split second to start freaking out.

However, some inner strength popped up out of nowhere, and I held my shit together. I’d been in dire situations before on mountains, a couple of them when I was alone, and neither those or this one were going to be the end of the road. I decided I wasn’t gonna die this day.

I decided it was time to consult the map and GPS route I had recorded on the way up (so thankful I did this). I was only about a hundred feet off and was soon on my way down the gully with a huge burden off my mind, now knowing I would be able to navigate better. The gully wasn’t pleasant, by any means. It was snowing and dark and filled with steep, slick snow that made little miniature snowmen on the soles of my boots I had to kick off every few steps, or the buildup would create ungainly lumps that would land me on my ass (traction just made it worse). But, at least I knew where I was. When I got to the bottom, I sent out a check-in message from my communicator, because I had no idea if the tracking was working. I later found out my sister thought that this was when I was back to my car. Little did she know I had the willows to yet contend with.

I wrote above that I didn’t think there was much scarier than walking through those willows alone that morning knowing I might come upon the moose. Well, there was something scarier: walking in them alone at night, and not even being able to see the moose until they literally killed you in the dark. But, again, there was nothing for it. I needed to stay on the trail, both because of the dark but also because I knew I simply didn’t have the energy to willow-whack like I had last weekend when we had to circumvent the giant beasts. I thought to myself if that became my only option again, I was so tired I was liable to just sit down and quit, letting the moose have me. Maybe Ben and Jerry’s could name an ice cream after me: Meg’s Moose Trampled Bits.

Thankfully, the scary quadrupeds must have been sleeping, and I didn’t walk into any of them. It took me another two hours from the gully to make my way through the willows, even with the help of my GPS route. There were another six inches of snow by the time I got back to my car, which I was none too pleased with wiping off of the vehicle after a day like that. Though people make fun of me for being a gear junky, I can’t praise enough how much I appreciated that I was warm and 100% dry because of my superior clothing. I was, however, ragged and exhausted, and furious with myself for the poor decision making. It wasn’t as if I was attempting some challenging route that I wanted to prove my grit on, one that I would risk all odds (like a snowstorm, two weeks in a row) to get the summit no matter what. I didn’t feel brave or accomplished or proud to have achieved this route, I just felt silly and goddmamn stupid. But, it was done.

58 out of 58

Even though I made dumb decisions on my last route, and it didn’t go anywhere near the way I had imagined it, I’ve still completed the 58 Colorado 14er’s. I certainly won’t stop climbing these mountains; in fact, I’m itching to get back to some of them right away – with a short medical hiatus for my 4th knee surgery, which I’m looking to have soon. This certainly isn’t the end, and I plan to take all of the skills, knowledge, and experience I’ve gained on these peaks on to bigger and tougher goals to continue to challenge myself both mentally and physically. This is the end of a chapter, but not the end of the book.

It’s hard to put into words everything this journey has meant to me, all of the things I’ve learned, the places I’ve gone, the people I’ve shared time with. Experiences I will never forget. I am so grateful that I began this crazy adventure and grateful for the people who have supported me through it. To my parents and sister, thank you for always listening to me bitching about how much things hurt, and how long and tough this or that mountain was, for coming on peaks with me even though mountains aren’t your thing, and for having to sit back worry if I would make it home. I love you for all the times and ways you’ve been there for me, and always will. And Brandon, you’ve been there from the beginning when, as you said, created a monster that day you took me up Hallet, so I blame you for all this (just kidding, you know I love you for it and for all your support and help!) And to all of my other friends, hiking, and climbing partners who have dealt with my slow pace, my sometimes shitty attitude on the way up, my slow pace, lack of ability to carry weight, my even slower pace (seriously, I’m really slow)…I love and thank you all, too! While I did more than a third of my mountains solo, on the other two thirds I got to hang out with some pretty cool people who encouraged and supported me, and we had some awesome times. Here’s to more of those in the future!

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Fourteener #57.5 – My (Almost)Finisher in Guanella Pass

This weekend I was supposed to finish my list of 58 Colorado 14ers on the fun and easy Mount Evans, with my two best and most loyal partners, Brandon and Kerina, and my father Dave and sister Bethany. I’ve had the scenario playing out in my mind for six years now: I would climb Evans solo and finish on my own, have Brandon and Kerina come over the Sawtooth (a ridge connecting Evans and its neighboring peak, Bierstadt) to get me. Then three of us would return to Bierstadt, my first 14er, to meet up with my sister and dad for the celebration. Mount Evans is so easy that I consider my list all but done.

Spoiler alert, if you couldn’t tell from the title, we didn’t summit. But, let me preface this post by saying I would have made the same decision ten times out of ten, and I’m not even remotely upset by what happened. In fact, I find myself incredibly happy, and in a better place emotionally than I was before the climb. Let’s back up and start at the beginning, though.

Mount Evans – My Last 14er
As I explained a bit more thoroughly in my most recent post, my grand plan had been formed years ago after I had summited my first 14er on Bierstadt and decided to climb them all. I wanted my final peak to be the one connected to my first, and to come back across to it via the ridge that had scared the crap out of me that day six years ago (before I had learned how to climb).

Bierstadt and the Sawtooth the night before we climbed

The ridge, called the Sawtooth, isn’t particularly difficult at Class 3, and neither is my finisher, Mount Evans, being a moderate walk-up. It was to be a day of smiles, beer, and celebration. It was to be a day of reflection on how far I’d come since that first day I’d seen the Sawtooth and been scared of it, and show myself how far I’ve come since then that the Sawtooth was now something I wouldn’t blink an eye at.

The forecast was not looking spectacular all week. I had asked our local meteorologist and weather God what was in the cards, and his response said it didn’t look good. We watched the forecast every day, and it didn’t quite know what it wanted to do. I was on the fence as to whether I should postpone it, but getting everyone’s schedule to work out was pressing on me – my dad was driving up from Arizona and is training for a triathlon, so I wasn’t interested in screwing with his schedule a whole lot. It was important to me for all 4 of these people to be there, and they all were able to this weekend, so I figured we would at least try it.

The plan was for me to start up Mount Evans around 3:30 from Guanella Pass, and Brandon and Kerina to start from the same place but to go up Bierstadt and over the Sawtooth first to then meet me on Evans. My sister and dad would arrive around 6:30 to go up Bierstadt. However, the backup was just all to do Evans together if the weather was bad. And at around 1:45 in the morning, laying restless in my car to the sound of torrential rain and then snow covering my windows, I opted for the backup. I guess I have learned something, at least. There was no way I was going to ask my friends to cross the Sawtooth in a storm, or my sister and dad to hike a mountain by themselves in crappy weather. Plus, my route starts with a confusing path through willows which I would most definitely have gotten lost in the dark during that storm. I put aside the want to be alone on my final mountain and decided that I’d rather be with all of them than us all be separate on a day like that. If it was going to be miserable, we’d at least be miserable together.

The morning of, with the remnants of the night’s storms

I went to Brandon’s car and Kerina’s tent to tell them to go back to sleep for a few hours until my family arrived, and by the time my sister and dad did get there in the morning light, the weather had calmed down. The mountains still had some low-hanging clouds and a decent new snow covering, but it wasn’t storming. I was glad to be around my favorite people. The 5 of us set off on our journey, with smiles on our faces and blue skies even peaking out now and then as we descended toward the meadow of willows.

All smiles in the morning

The willows in this area are notorious because of how awful it can be to “willow-whack” your way through the sometimes chest or head high branches. However, because Bierstadt has become such a popular mountain in the past few years, there has been a wooden boardwalk plank built through them as a trail. I remarked how gentrified the route had become since I’d been there last six years ago, and we wondered how far up the trail we’d have to go before getting to the Starbuck’s. Soon enough we were through this area and at the base of the gully heading toward Mount Evans.

Why Wouldn’t You Climb Right Into A Storm?

By the time we reached the gully we had needed to ascend, the weather was getting a little worse again with some wind and rain/sleet. Luckily, though, the wind was at our backs as it funneled up the gully, almost pushing us along like a gentle little nudge from mother nature saying “You can do this!” I recall remarking here to Brandon that it wasn’t ideal, but it wasn’t that bad: precipitation was light if any, the wind wasn’t knocking us over, and it wasn’t cold. It wasn’t actually calendar winter yet, even if there was snow, and that meant the temperatures are still much warmer than they would be in December or January.

The low point in the peaks holds the gully we climbed up
A closer look at the gully climbing

I’ve done 14ers in every month of the year, Brandon and I have even been dumb enough to have gotten caught in a whiteout at above 14k in December, so perhaps our perspective there was a bit skewed. Despite the fresh snow on the trail, everyone’s footing seemed stable and, per usual, I was the slowest one given that even on a good day without wind, I can’t breathe going uphill.

The further up the gully we went, the worse the weather got. We climbed into the cloud, past being able to see the valley below through it. At the top of the gully, the route-finding became more involved as the visibility was worse and the mountain and trail were completely snow-covered. Brandon, a superb route-finder, took the lead while marking waypoints and “breadcrumbs” on his GPS device, and I took up the rear, looking back and taking pictures to memorize the landscape, terrain, and route back to the gully. While I am glad to have had his GPS device, I still like the practice that everyone should know how to get down by themselves – you never know what can happen, and if Brandon fell with his device, I wanted to be able to get back to the gully in a whiteout.

When I say whiteout, it wasn’t truly one. It was a foggy cloud, with some precipitation; visibility was low but not awful. I did not feel it was unsafe for us to continue. Yet, it was the first time that I said out loud “You know guys, we CAN do this another day…,” thinking that I knew my sister and dad hadn’t actually signed up for this. However, Bethany quickly said we must keep going, so we continued up toward the ridge with only some minor detouring in the fog. There were some grumbles here and there, but we were still talking about the beer and scotch we would down on the summit, and about how good the Brazilian Steakhouse dinner in Denver was going to taste when we got back (our celebration prize for the completion of the mountain).

Shit Got Real

We gained Evans’ West Ridge, and things started to get a little more interesting. We were on a cairned route (the small rock piles humans have put there to show the way), but the terrain became more unstable and with challenging large rocks to maneuver which were covered in snow and ice, and the exposure down the side of the mountain had increased. While Brandon, Kerina, and I are experienced in this type of terrain and conditions, my dad and sister are not. They are both very fit and capable people, but this was no place to take Mountaineering 101. I began to feel quite scared and anxious for the both of them, carefully watching each footstep as they crossed some of the treacherous terrains. I continually asked if they were okay, but they said they were. How much was I going to push this? I knew I would never forgive myself if one of them got hurt doing this silly mountain for me.

Bethany on the West Ridge. She usually hates scrambling, exposure, and slippery footing, but she did it all without hesitation. I was so proud of her!

The ridge seemed very, very long. I’m sure that it’s not, under normal conditions. This mountain isn’t a difficult one, after all. As we continued, I checked my altimeter to see how close we were as the weather worsened. We lost sight of any cairns and ended up on a high point of the ridge, which was at 14,229 feet (+/-16 feet). The summit was at 14,264 feet – we couldn’t be that far away. But the wind was now truly terrible, cold and biting into us. We descended back to our last cairn, and I asked for a vote on what we wanted to do. In my mind, we were a team, and we needed to make team decisions. No one said a word. They all wanted this for me so much, and none of them wanted to be the one to turn me away from my finisher. Brandon said he would just go scout ahead quick, to see if he could find the parking lot – yes, there is a huge parking lot and actual road at the top of this mountain and we couldn’t even find it the visibility was so low.

One of the better looking and easy to spot cairns

The weather had turned in a matter of minutes from “This Really Fucking Sucks” to “You’re Probably Gonna Die,” and I decided that if Brandon didn’t come back from his scouting mission with news of a summit, we were turning around. My finisher wasn’t supposed to be an epic adventure – I had purposely saved an easy one for last so that it wouldn’t be epic. I wanted to sit at the top and enjoy the view with a beer in my hand (I’ve never drunk alcohol on a mountain because, given my three knee surgeries and MS, I don’t need any more reasons to fall on my face). Even if we did make it another few hundred feet to the top – we aren’t entirely sure how far away we were, the visibility was that bad – it wouldn’t have been any fun. I realized that these four people loved me so much that they were willing to go through this for me, but I loved them more than that summit. The important thing to me wasn’t the top, it was the four of them, and they had sacrificed enough.

I took the lead as the wind snapped sleet and hail into our eyes (our eyewear was fogged up). It is hard to see, and from this angle, the cairns were covered entirely in white snow and hard to spot; when I found one I had them stay at it until I found the next so that we didn’t lose it if I got off route. Soon the route descended a bit down on the ridge more and offered more protection from the wind, and the going was a bit easier. It took significantly less time to get back to the gully than it had coming up. However, the wind direction had not changed in the gully, and it was still whirling up it like a funnel, but this time we were facing it. Instead of pushing at our backs, it was now catapulting icy projectiles into our eyes at massive speeds.

Starting down the windy gully

You Think You’re Done? Think Again

We finally made it out of the gully and off the mountain proper, thinking we were in safety from there. As we walked along the gentler terrain back toward the willows, however, we heard yells from above, near the Sawtooth ridge and the summit of Bierstadt. It was around 4:30-4:45 pm by that point, and with the massive storm we assumed no one would be attempting that ridge then (we surely had opted out of it). The calls responded to us a number of times though we couldn’t make out the words, it was definitely not someone just screwing around on top of Bierstadt. We decided to use Brandon’s satellite device to message a friend who could contact Search and Rescue since we were still ways away from cell service.

Family bonding

My knee was getting quite sore and needed a break so Brandon and I hung back a little from the others as he messaged back and forth on the device. At the lower altitude it was raining, and we were getting colder as the temps started to drop. I’ve been called a gear junkie a few times recently, but in situations like this it works out very well to have the extra gear to give to your sister and dad.

Unlike my dad, I did put my warmest jacket on. I love my stay puft marshmallow man Rab Neutrino puffy!

We had all stayed warm and mostly dry all day, and I was glad my dad’s hands did well in my -40 degree mittens; he has the same issue as me with Raynaud’s, though his is caused by frostbite and mine from autoimmune issues. He even had another jacket he never donned all day because he didn’t need it. Yep, it was still September.

When we caught up with them again, they were standing still, staring ahead. “There are three very large moose up there,” Kerina said. “They’re staring at us.” Well shit. I told everyone to stay calm, not make any aggressive movements or loud noises, and we were going to back up and find a different way. We crossed a stream and into some trees and followed along the edge of it, while the biggest bull watched us and came toward us, grunting and digging in the ground. It was more terrifying than anything that happened on the mountain. Clearly, I’m the slowest person there so if it charged I’d be trampled first. We slowly crept off and away from it, circumnavigating the entire willowy marshland that held a maintained route back to our cars.

Once we were firmly past them, we still needed to find some way back to the trailhead. Kerina took the lead here (though I don’t know why we sent the smallest person first through the willows), and the willow-whacking began. Recall how I mentioned at the beginning how there is a gentrified boardwalk through the willows? Only if you’re on route, which we were not. We were cold, wet, tired, hungry, and not in the mood to literally PUSH our way through those awful thicket-bramble-nightmare-inducing-plants. It was the final kick in the face of a very long day.

A photo of the willows from the morning. By the end of the day, none of us cared about pictures anymore

Every step your foot sunk into a mire of swampland muck, which you had to pull out with that awful suction sound, while at the same time using your arms to keep the willows from strangling you or hitting you in the face as you tried to force your way through as the sleet pelted from above. I imagine it was like Vietnam, but frozen, and moose trying to kill you instead of bullets.

At long last, we reached the parking lot, where there were a whole team and bus of Search and Rescue people waiting who had hot cocoa (we found the Starbucks!). Not for us, though my mom had, indeed called them. There really had been someone up on the Sawtooth, missing since 10 am, and these guys were still out there looking for him. However, I want to take this moment to publicly apologize to my poor mom, because none of us thought to put her on the contact list for either mine or Brandon’s satellite communication devices. She usually just prefers not to know when I climb, so she doesn’t worry, but obviously this time she knew since her entire family was up there. I’m such a jackass – sorry mom!!

I Still Get To Do It Again

Going into this last mountain, I was having a really hard time connecting with what it meant to me. The six-year journey has been so incredible I felt I needed to get in touch with that a bit more, to look back and reflect on how far I’d come. But it just wasn’t working last week. I have a lot on my plate right now aside from mountains (grad school is like, hard), and for some reason just couldn’t get into that space needed to be present for this huge moment in my life. Before I left for the peak, I tried looking at photos of some of the other 57 peaks, but it just wasn’t sinking in. I figured I would reflect on it alone atop Evans or show myself how far I’d come after crossing the Sawtooth and have that “feeling” hit me when I was back on Bierstadt again.

I didn’t get to do either of those things this weekend, but I realized I don’t need to. Obviously, I’ll still summit Evans and finish the list, and at some point, I’ll go across the Sawtooth back to Bierstadt. But I realized a few things during this climb that were really important. One, I have come a really long way from that first mountain, and I don’t need to do a class 3 scramble to prove that to myself. I’ve done much harder and more impressive things that have tested my strength and courage to a greater extent. Even this weekend proved that – knowing how to navigate that kind of weather, terrain, and conditions without it even phasing me, because I’ve done it more than a few times, showed me that.

And two, I’ve realized that while I haven’t lost the drive to go up mountains, I’ve lost that hugely depressing feeling I used to get when I had to turn back from the summit. I’ve had to turn around from more than a few peaks with only a few hundred feet to go, for various reasons, and it used just to kill me. It takes A LOT of work for someone with my health issues to get up there, and the thought of going back to do it again was so demoralizing. Perhaps that feeling has gone because I’ve lost the pressure of my “list,” or more likely, I’ve realized that the adventure and experience are more important than the summit. Twice this summer I climbed the Cable’s route on Long’s Peak, having to turn back due to weather only a few hundred feet from the top the first time. However, that first time was the more fun time, and if I had to pick one over the other, I’d still choose the first day on it, even without the summit.

This was another of those instances, I think. I’ve decided I will solo Mount Evans now, for my finisher. I’ve had a grand, epic adventure with the four most important people I could have wanted with me, and nothing I do at this point will top our ridiculous day up there. When I do go I will enjoy being up there by myself – hopefully on a day with better weather – but my best memories of my last peak will always be of my dad, sister, Kerina, and Brandon climbing into the maw of a howling and screeching mountain which was trying to destroy them. It really meant a lot to me to see how much they cared and supported me (not that I didn’t know it before), and this was one of those days I’ll cherish for a lifetime.

 

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Despite Having MS and All This Chronic Pain, I FINISHED THE 14ERS!

Okay, technically I still have my final finisher left to hike up in order to actually finish the list of 58 Colorado mountains over 14,000 feet. However, my finisher Mount Evans, is “easy” enough that, at least this time, I’m counting my chickens before they hatch. And oh my, what a beautiful little chicken that will be.

In my last blog post, I talked about what it’s like to climb with Multiple Sclerosis, and how hard it’s been for me to bag my last 6 peaks this summer. However, I want to take the time now to also reflect not just on my MS, but on some of the other things that have made my journey challenging – and all the more rewarding for it.

A Brief History of Meg

For those of you just tuning in, or for anyone who’s ear I haven’t yet yapped off about why I chose to take on this crazy task of doing the 58 tallest mountains in Colorado, let’s start at the beginning.

Handies Peak – one of my favorite 14ers, due to the beauty.

Flashback to Meg as a middle schooler, which is when I developed exercise-induced asthma. You see, I’m a pretty fast runner, but all of a sudden around the 6th grade I started developing issues with breathing when I ran. I joined the track team in 7th grade as a sprinter, but still couldn’t even do the warm-up runs the whole team needed to do. I wasn’t overly confident at that age: I was already much taller than all the boys and had a body type that elicited phrases like “you’re not fat, you’re just muscular” – something I’ve now learned to take pride in (they better get someone with more muscle than Gal Gadot to play me when my movie deal comes through), but at 13 years old it’s a pretty euphemism for being too big and fat. I became a volleyball player, and put aside thoughts of sports that included any sort of running or endurance.

Volleyball was a great love of mine over the years, though as many great loves are wont to do, it caused me much pain and suffering. Due to unfortunate genetics, I was prone to have a bad low back, which volleyball exacerbated starting in high school and has now progressed to degenerative disc disease and two herniated discs at my L3/L4 and L4/L5 levels. It’s caused me intense agony over the years, and I have been on the cusp of diving into major back surgery a number of times only to edge back again for fear of such a serious procedure.

A view from Capitol – one of the hardest 14ers

In fact, I even started the 14ers list with the promise to myself that I could have the surgery after I was done, so that if something went wrong with it and I couldn’t be active anymore I would at least have had some accomplishment behind me.

My senior year of college was a particularly bad time for my back, and I also recall having a migraine for about 6 months straight. I was so tired, and everything hurt. That’s when I was finally diagnosed with Fibromyalgia. While I had been in chronic pain for years, I had never had a disease. It was a tough pill to swallow, though I actually decided not to swallow any literal pills. I’ve never been a big fan of medications, and pain pills make me sick. Over the next few years in my mid-twenties I learned how to cope with my disease and manage my pain with lifestyle and diet changes, eventually getting back to a point where life was mostly livable again.

Mount Antero – my first calendar winter solo

My First Fourteener

By this point, I had made the move from Wisconsin to Colorado, and it was a major life shift for me. In Wisco I had enjoyed biking, but took one look at the hills in Colorado and knew my asthma would keep me from being able to do much on my bike – my asthma isn’t just a little wheezing, it’s more like the screech of a T-Rex trying to tie his shoelaces. Thus, I started training in the foothills around Boulder to get my stamina up. I was in love with the mountains but didn’t really know what “14ers” were, not even when I went up my first 13er in Rocky Mountain National Park. I hadn’t quite made the connection that, for instance, Denver as the mile high city meant it was at an elevation of 5,280 feet above sea level, and that these 14ers were much higher than that at 14,000 feet above sea level. Yet, after doing well on my first 13er, and about 4 months after moving to the state, I decided I was ready for one of these big hikes people talked about.

Mount Bierstadt on the day of my first 14er.

I wanted to give myself the best chance for success, so I chose one of the “easier” peaks according to the research online. I wasn’t entirely sure I would make it, given that many people get altitude sickness, and I knew the fibromyalgia and asthma put me at a disadvantage. I chose Mount Bierstadt, which is a peak not too far away from Denver, and drove there on a Tuesday in early October. While slow and had to huff and puff, *spoiler alert*, I did make it. I recall there weren’t that many people (Bierstadt is a circus these days with 200+ people on a weekend day in the summer), and remember being in awe at a couple guys who had done seventeen 14ers. Another couple of guys were discussing the route over to Mount Evans, a neighboring peak which was connected by a ridgeline called the Sawtooth.

Now, Bierstadt is not a particularly dangerous peak and does not have a lot of exposure or large drops off the summit. Even so, I was a little freaked out looking over the edge, being up that high for the first time – I had never climbed anything before. When those guys asked me if I wanted to join them in going across the Sawtooth, I thought they were crazy and decided I didn’t want to die. I felt quite happy in my accomplishment of getting to the top of my first 14er and would call it a day at that, and enjoyed the solo summit for about 45 minutes after the other parties left. I’ll never forget that view, or that time by myself, for the first time realizing that I could really do something like that. The confidence was overwhelming and like nothing I’d ever felt before. I’d never be able to run a marathon (or even a half), but this, this I could do. I could climb these mountains, and I decided right then and there I would do all 58 of them. A monster was born.

Bierstadt and the Sawtooth ridge

Some More Bumps in the Road

Soon the weather and season turned, and I wasn’t able (or knowledgeable enough) to attain any more peaks that year. I set my mind to learning to rock climb over the winter in order to help further my goals on the peaks – even though you don’t need to know any technical climbing or ropes for any of them – I thought it would certainly help and may ease some of my fear of heights.

Kit Carson Peak and Challenger Point – my first solo backpack.

However, only two months after my first 14er, something happened that changed my health for the worse for years to come: a few days away from Thanksgiving, I was playing volleyball and snapped my ACL in half and tore my meniscus. All of my hiking and climbing plans went down the drain, all of my hard-earned fitness progress diminished. I had surgery in February and was back on mountains by August, but unfortunately, my knee has never really recovered. I ended up having two more surgeries over the years, and it is still a major pain for me today, swollen and aching on most things I do. However, through the years I was able to limp my way up most of the 14ers, taking time off, sometimes months at a time, to recoup the knee (or my back, or my fatigue levels, etc.) when I had pushed too hard.

Furthermore, and which was an even more dramatic event, I was hospitalized and diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis two years ago. It took all of the symptoms I had previously and made them significantly worse and then added about as many new symptoms to contend with. I’ve probably had it since college and definitely had it since moving to Colorado even though it was just recently diagnosed. It’s a laundry list of neurological and inflammatory issues that I won’t bother taking space with here, but feel free to ask me about it anytime if you’re curious.  I spent most of a year after the hospitalization not being able to leave my home due to how ill I was, let alone be able to work, socialize, or climb. Luckily, I have been able to find the “new normal”, and have spent much of my time figuring out symptom/pain management and therapies in order to gain back even a semblance of what I used to be able to do. Check out my most recent post to learn how some of the symptoms have affected my climbing this summer.

My MS symptoms be like…

 

Six Years But I’ve Finally Done It

Mount Wilson – a nemesis, but one of my favorite routes in the end.

This October 4th it’ll be six years since I first sat atop Mount Bierstadt, as I haven’t returned to it since. It’s been a long journey, and I don’t think I quite knew what I was getting into when I originally set the goal. But, I’m nothing if not persistent. At that time I was afraid of the Sawtooth, a class 3 ridge. Six years later I have climbed these mountains in every month of the year (and found I actually prefer the snow), learned how to lead both rock and ice, and have soloed routes that the Meg of six years ago couldn’t have imagined and probably would have made her pee her pants.

Stuff with me goes wrong so often that I still didn’t really believe I would finish until last weekend when I was sitting atop number 57, South Maroon. South Maroon’s standard route, by the way, was a never-again route due to the loose rock, crappy route-finding, and all around-ugliness. I won’t do that mountain again unless it’s in the snow; it was almost so icky I think I had a hard time enjoying the solo summit like I usually do just because I wanted off the damn thing so badly. However, it strikes me that both of the “Deadly” Maroon Bells were easy for me, as far as the climbing was concerned, and neither those nor any of the other difficult peaks I had left this summer were scary to me, even those that I soloed. My confidence has certainly come a long way since Bierstadt, and since that too-big girl trying to run track.

Longs Peak – the only 14er I did a technical route on.

I have made mention often of the Sawtooth, the ridge that goes between Mount Bierstadt and Mount Evans, for a reason. I have not gone back to Bierstadt since that first day on it six years ago because I want my finisher to be Mount Evans, after which I will cross the Sawtooth back over to Bierstadt to complete the circle I started. I will do Evans alone because I started this journey alone and will finish it alone – but I am asking the two people who have done the most mountains with me and have been my best adventure partners to come over and join me on Evans. They will then go with me across the Sawtooth and deliver me safely (because I’ll probably be a blubbering emotional mess) to the rest of the people who are there to celebrate with me on Bierstadt – hopefully with a keg or six of gluten free beer. The invite to join me on Bierstadt is open to anyone who has climbed with me, done a mountain with me, blocked me from your news feed because you’re so sick of my climbing posts, have heard me talk about climbing so much my voice haunts your dreams…you get the point – I’d love to see you up there, even if it’s your first one! Message me for details about the date and time; it’s gonna be a fun day!

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But You Don’t Look Sick – Mount Eolus and North Maroon Peak

But you don’t look sick, or another similar epithet is the most common thing heard by someone with Multiple Sclerosis. Having an invisible illness means suffering the pain, drowning in the fatigue, and living the misery without showing the usual signs of an apparent handicap. We know that people who say this generally mean well, even to compliment us, but it’s actually a subtle way of delegitimizing our disease. If you don’t look sick, it must not be that bad, right? It must not even be real.

I don’t often talk in-depth about my symptoms in my posts, a smattering here or there, but I think mostly I don’t like to wallow too much or feel like I’m complaining so I leave it out. When I’ve climbed a mountain or completed a big route, I like to revel in the positivity of the accomplishment, not in the pain along the way. However, as I get ever so nearer my goal of finishing the Colorado 14ers, I’ve realized that this may be adding to the “I don’t look sick” perspective. It may be time to explain what an extremely difficult journey this has been for me and thus what a big deal it is for me to finish the list. Thus, instead of my usual trip reports of a couple of the last (really fun!!) mountains, I’ve done, here is a day in the life, so to speak, of what it’s like to have my health issues.

Putting the Time In

There are 58 mountains in Colorado that are over 14,000 feet, and starting 2017 I had 8 of them left to summit. While I was (miraculously) able to do one during my spring semester, Mount Wilson, which was at the same time one of my favorite and scariest climbs to date, going into this summer I had 7 left. Really, only 6 of them, because my last one, the “finisher”, is an easier one that can be done any time of year. Given that I’m a grad student and aside from volunteering and some of my research to pursue, one would assume I would have had plenty of time to get those done in the summer months.

That’s just not the case when MS is involved. First off, that first month of summer? Wipe it off the drawing board. After a quite stressful end of a semester and some digestive symptoms flaring, mid-May to mid-June was off the table for climbing – even though it was my favorite time for it with spring snow. Each week I would intend to get out into the mountains, would plan a climb, but even a couple hours volunteering (I work with children with disabilities who do equine therapy) would be enough to knock me out for the whole next day. If I could barely do that, there’s no way I could make it up a mountain. Certainly not any of the difficult ones I had left. It’s kind of like having the flu or bronchitis for a month – you may get a couple small things done here or there, but mostly you just bide your time until it passes. I was lucky it only lasted a month.

When I did start feeling better and attempting routes, not all of them were successes. And with long drives and even some amount of hiking, that still meant recovery time for me. Which means waiting another few days or longer before trying again. Normal people exercise and build up strength, muscle, endurance, etc. That might be the case for me over a six month or year period, but in the short term exercise is counterproductive and makes me need to rest exponentially longer than the amount of original time I put in. It’s like walking uphill in sand – one step forward and sliding three back. The time I need to rest after a mountain is quite a bit, and I can’t do too much exercise or climbing in between.

What’s It Like When I am Climbing

When I did start feeling a little better this summer, and began attempting some mountains in July, even then MS was always with me. It’s with me every day, every minute, every second of my life. I need to make sure I bring more food and water than in the past – 4 liters a day on a mountain. I CANNOT forget my cooling scarf because if I get overheated I will literally loose my mind, i.e. cognitive issues of confusion, memory loss, and trouble with decision making. I have to plan routes differently because I am so much slower than the average, or even slower than average (not exaggerating here) person. Route description says slower people may want to start at 2 am? That means I’m starting at 11 pm. Yep. Climbing all night long if I want that route. Tried that a couple times this summer, on two different routes, and it didn’t work. Sleep is one of the biggest triggers of my symptoms, and if I mess with sleep it’s pretty bad news.

The third time it worked. Luckily, I started to get some successes and summits. I’m getting better at carefully planning around my disabilities and knowing when to stop before my symptoms show up in a bad way, putting myself or my partner in danger. However, that also means turning around more often than I used to, or not even going in the first place. I’m someone who is very used to pushing myself, to ignoring the pain; for instance, after 3 knee surgeries shit just hurts, and I get through it anyway. MS doesn’t care and doesn’t allow for that because I’ll simply fall over on the trail and not be able to walk, use my hands, or speak for an hour (yes, that’s happened a couple times, too.)

I had a trip to go get Eolus Peak, located in Chicago Basin in the San Juan’s in Southern Colorado. It’s a long journey: 6.5-hour drive one way, then take a train to get to the trailhead, then a 6 mile, 3,000ft hike up just to get to the campsite before another 3,000ft to the peak. I’ve done it before but wasn’t able to nab one of the four peaks down there, so had to go back for Eolus. My original intention while down there was to do them all again, or maybe Eolus and a nearby 13er. However, after the first day backpacking in and the second on Eolus, I decided to sleep in and snuggled up for 13 hours straight. This is what I call conserving spoons. You see, spoons is the most common phrase you’ll hear someone with MS say about ourselves. If you haven’t heard of The Spoon Theory (read about it!), the basic premise is that someone with a chronic illness only has so many spoons, or energy, to go around, and if you start taking spoons away from one day, you won’t have them for the next. Normal people don’t have to worry about that – sure you will be a little tired the next day, but you’ll still function properly. I won’t. After getting my one peak in Chicago Basin, I realized that was enough for me and I was happy to just enjoy the beauty of the area and conserve my spoons to be able to get back to the train without symptoms or placing a burden on my partners.

Are Any Climbs Pain and Symptom-Free?

It’s always something with me. I’ve jokingly said I wish I was a hypochondriac, because at least then it wouldn’t be so painful. I can recall very few mountains of the now 56 and some odd repeats that I’ve only had minor or “normal people” aches and pains. Consider my most recent climb, North Maroon Peak. It and its neighbor South Maroon have eluded me on many attempts, hence why they are my last peaks. Heading into the weekend I took an extra day of rest and sleep on Friday, and chose to hike in on Saturday, climb Sunday, despite Monday being the first day of my semester. It seems as though I still wasn’t quite well-rested enough even then, as I forgot, for the first time ever, my knee brace.

I’ve only done one 14er, my first, without a knee injury, and have been climbing with that $1200 custom brace for 5 years. I still can’t believe I left it at home but determined to still go I bought a $17.95 brace at King Soopers Pharmacy in Aspen and went up the mountain. My knee did surprisingly well on the way up – it was a marvelously fun mountain that I thoroughly enjoyed! However, on the way down my knee felt less like a joint and more like an overheated watermelon ready to burst at any second. And a week later as I write this, it still feels like that.

The Maroon Bells are iconic peaks, but still very dangerous – they even have a sign out in front because so many people have died on them. However, I found North Maroon to be great climbing, and if not for my stupidity regarding my knee brace I may have actually had a pain-free day on it. The MS hit the next day, as I hadn’t conserved enough spoons for starting school. I didn’t have quite enough energy to combat the heat of a 90 degree day and a non-airconditioned room, so sure enough I had to stumble out of my first class with a claw-like spastic hand, confusion, and weird speech – what happens when I get overheated. Thankfully, my classmates know me well enough by now, and are very gracious, and they grabbed up my things and helped me to my car.

My stupidity wasn’t done, though, because after I got my body temperature cooled down I decided I needed to go to the grocery store for some dinner. This is probably what my friends and family yell at me about when they say I push too far. Couldn’t use a basket, the rungs hurt my arms when there is weight in it. Plus, a cart is better to lean on when my legs give out. Had to put my earplugs in (I don’t have to use them too much anymore), because when I’m tired, my body can’t handle sounds and noises and they become painful. Eventually, I made it through the store and back outside with my bounty. Smartly, at least I had parked in the closest handicap spot even though I had been walking fine on the way in. 10 feet away from it a wave of exhaustion hit me – the spoons were gone. I mean gone. I stood there, leaning on my cart, 10 feet away from my car, at least 10 minutes before I could take another step. A few steps more, the car was only about 5 feet away, and another long rest. This is what is meant by MS fatigue – so tired I couldn’t take 3 steps, I literally couldn’t raise my arm to push my cart. Raise your arm right now. Go ahead, do it. Can you imagine being so tired you couldn’t do that?

Grateful to Be As I Am

Climbing these mountains, or climbing anything be it rock or ice routes, is really, really tough for me. But I love it, and I will always do it. I spent almost a year with all of the symptoms I’ve mentioned above plaguing me for the majority of my days, to the point I couldn’t leave my house. I have recovered and learned symptom management in order to return to the things that bring me joy, even if I’ll never be as strong or good at them as I once was. After staring down the barrel of a wheelchair and spending many of my days loosing cognitive capabilities, I’m profoundly happy and grateful to be in grad school and to be climbing again.

I write this not to complain about how shitty it is to live with MS (it is, don’t get me wrong), but to hopefully help you understand a little more about my disease. Perhaps next time you see photos of me on peaks, or someone who seems to be “walking just fine” from a handicap spot, or hear someone with a chronic illness say “I’m tired”, perhaps you’ll see that things aren’t always as they seem.

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Finding My Confidence – Solo on Little Bear Peak

Have you ever had a goal or milestone that you’ve built up so much in your mind it almost seems accomplishing it will take some sort of supernatural strength or divine intervention? That is what Little Bear Peak has been for me.

For almost 6 years I’ve been trying to complete the 58 Colorado fourteeners, some of which are easy walk-ups, others more difficult scrambles and climbs.

A view of some of the exposure on Capitol Peak.

I did the “hardest” mountain on the list, Capitol Peak, about four years ago, but since then Little Bear always been nagging away at me because it’s generally regarded as just as difficult as Capitol, or a close second to it. For years it’s been an ever-present objective I knew someday I must overcome.

Part of the reason for the dread of this peak stems from too much time spent in a past relationship in which I experienced gaslighting about my physical abilities and skill as a climber. I was continually told that due to my disabilities I was incapable of certain climbs or routes, turned around from summits because he didn’t think I could continue (it was never my choice), and told I wouldn’t be able to complete certain mountains without his help, or someone at least as experienced as he was. Little Bear was the epitome of that tall tale: I was led to believe I couldn’t possibly do it without him. Regardless of the arguments and pushback from me, given that I know how to read my body well and have the experience to know what I can do or not do, over time my confidence about what I could accomplish was completely eroded. 

Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to play the victim card. I believe everyone should take responsibility for their own actions, and as much blame sits with me for staying in such a toxic situation and allowing myself to get lost within the mire of someone else’s perception. We can only learn from our mistakes, and since then I have spent time cultivating positive relationships and surrounding myself with people who see my strength and potential instead of holding me down. However, that is only part of the battle: I don’t think my confidence, either as a climber or as a person, should stem solely from other people’s views of me. There are certain things I’ve needed to do to prove to myself that I am still the strong, confident female I once was.

Little Bear was to be the biggest test of that. Sure, I have friends who would have gone with me to go bag the peak, but this was something I wanted to do solo. Needed to do solo. I’ve gained much of my confidence and certainty back as a climber, have learned to trust my abilities and instincts again, yet Little Bear had been put on such a pedestal (not only in my past, but by the 14ers community at large) that I needed to do this one alone. It would be the ultimate victory to show myself my merit and gain back that last bit of confidence I was still missing. 

The kitties always want to come with.

The mountain sits just outside of Alamosa, CO, and is part of the cluster of peaks that create the Great Sand Dunes. It also boasts the “hardest road” in Colorado, up to Lake Como at 11,000ft, which will destroy ANY stock vehicle past a certain point. Most people opt to hike in (though occasionally modified vehicles and ATVs are used), and it is a truly terrible approach full of rocks and direct sunlight straight up the side of a mountain. I’ve hiked it twice before, once on a trip to get the other two easier peaks next to Little Bear, Ellingwood Point and Blanca Peak, and once on another attempt of Ursa Minor.

While I did want to do the summit day solo, I realized I wouldn’t mind having company for the backpack in and camping. Because all of my climbing friends know of the terrible Lake Como road and would never just do it to do it, my sister Bethany was the perfect victim. She lives in Pueblo, and had told me earlier in the summer to let her know if I had any mountains near her that she could do the approach/backpack. I did warn her that no one likes to hike that road, but she still wanted to come.

She even insisted on shouldering my big pack with the extra weight (which, to be fair, was her weight anyway because my stuff is all ultralight). While I was prepared to carry the weight and do the climb completely autonomously, it was nice to have the company and I was glad for her taking the brunt of the haul up that road. She’s pretty badass for doing it, considering she doesn’t backpack ever.

Bethany on the way up Lake Como road.
Bethany on the way down the road.

With a mid-morning start, we made it to Lake Como with ample time to set up camp and make some food before I needed to go to sleep. There were a number of other tents around, and it turned out there were going to be five other people on the route I was doing the next day. Due to the major difficulty in Little Bear’s route, the Hourglass, which funnels loose rocks down on people if there are climbers above, it’s best to try to get after the peak on a weekday in the summer. I was a little surprised and dismayed that there were that

Little Bear Peak from Lake Como

many other people there on a Tuesday/Wednesday, but after talking to them all I felt a little better as they were all experienced climbers who knew the etiquette and had the skills to not kill me if I was ascending after them.

As I sat at the lake in the afternoon staring at the rocky peak looming over us, I contemplated all the emotional energy I’d put into making this happen. Was it finally time to do it? After all these years of stress about this one mountain, would tomorrow finally be the day? While it was only 1.75 miles away from the lake, Little Bear is a steep and challenging ascent. One must first go up a loose, scree-filled gully to gain the ridgeline, then traverse over to another, much steeper gully containing the Hourglass. This feature is a well-known entity on the 14er list, as its Class 4 climbing and habit of dropping rocks onto people make it difficult and dangerous. It was the reason I had previously thought I would need someone else’s help for this climb. There are usually fixed rope lines left by kind souls for people who do not have the ability to climb the section, though trusting them before inspecting the anchor and rope quality is a dangerous business.

The Hourglass

However, going over the route in my mind, I knew it wouldn’t be an issue. I felt no anxiousness about the climb – after all it was Class 4, and I am a strong climber who knows both mountains and technical climbing harder than Class 4. I felt certain the climb was well within my abilities, else I wouldn’t have made the hike all the way in there to do it solo. Even though it turned out there were other people on the route for that day, I went into the trip knowing I may be the only person and was totally prepared to be self-sufficient.

Out of the six of us on Little Bear that day, mine was definitely the first headlamp shining it’s way up the gully. Since I had done a fair bit of the route previously, I felt comfortable doing the first part in the dark. I left my tent at 3:23am, wishing my sister good luck on her day – she was going to go up a neighboring peak, Ellingwood Point.

The last time I had done the first gully it was still snowy, and was fun. This time it was a shitty, loose, scree-filled, shitty piece of shit. The darkness did not help either my mood or the climb. If you don’t know what hiking up a steep gully filled with scree, think about trying to walk up a very steep sand dune, but only worse because if the sand gives way under you it doesn’t kill you.

At long last I reached the top of the gully, just as night turned into day. Three of the guys who were climbing the 5.4 West Ridge (after having done the Northwest Face and Little Bear -> Blanca traverse the day before – they were machines) caught up with me there and headed up toward their harder objective.

Top of the first gully as the other three headed up to the West Ridge.

I dipped down on the other side of the mountain a bit to do my traverse on easier terrain toward the Hourglass. My music went in and my mood improved.

During this easier section is when the other two solo climbers passed me by at different points, but eventually I was at the base of the Hourglass. I had discussed timing with the three on the ridge route, and knew the other two guys were already up above me, but had to trust that they wouldn’t drop rocks on me. Luckily, one was coming down just as I started up the hard part, and he waited till I got past him.

The rock was a bit more angled, slopey, and slabby than I prefer, with a lot of the handholds not quite as positive as I was hoping for from good Sangres rock. At one point the thought went through my head: “Ugh, these handholds are shitty little crimps,” which probably meant I was climbing harder terrain than needed in order to avoid slab. I’ve laughed with friends lately that because we are technical climbers, sometimes we end up doing much more difficult things on mountains than we need to, just because we know how to. Soon enough I was past the Hourglass, with perfect timing, as the three from the ridge and remaining solo-er were just reaching me. The solo-er wasn’t wearing a helmet, so I waited a bit as they grabbed the fixed lines and went down.

The first climber I passed on my way up, as he was descending.

The remaining section toward the summit was short, but still took me a little while to route-find. There isn’t a defined trail, and some of the other climbers had given me their thoughts about which way to go. None of those thoughts really made sense, so I just picked my own line and went up, finally reaching the top!

It was 11:20, and had taken me almost exactly 8 hours to go 1.75 miles. I’m certainly not racing anyone, or upset that I got lapped by all those guys, but let’s just take a minute to laugh at how absurdly slow that is.  The weather was great and I was at the top; I didn’t really care how long it had taken – though I do wish there had been a female up there who had both the climbing ability and speed to represent and show those men what’s up!

I did it! Multiple Sclerosis, asthma, knee surgeries, herniated discs in my back be damned, I soloed Little Bear. The top was a glorious feeling. Funny enough, it hadn’t scared me as much as some of the other peaks I’ve done – I’ve taken non-standard routes up some that have been more challenging than this. It had felt so easy it was almost a letdown. Almost.

Sadly, the view of Blanca Peak and it’s traverse from Little Bear was shrouded in a huge, white, and puffy cloud, but I could see Ellingwood Point. I hoped my sister had made it – for someone who doesn’t hike, backpack, or spend much time on mountains, she sure set a pretty high goal for herself!

Even with the prettier views obscured, I was glad to spend some time alone on top of a summit. I spent about 25 minutes hanging out and enjoying my accomplishment, trying to let it settle in that I had really done it. However, I didn’t want to spend too long, as even though the weather was great, I knew I still had a long trip back to the lake.

Show yourself Blanca!

When I got back to the top of the Hourglass I decided to try a rappel technique on the fixed rope lines that have been set up through the steep section. The anchor and rope were both safe and in good condition, and while I could down-climb, it would be a lot easier (and faster) to just use the rope. I felt it was only cheating if I didn’t think I could down-climb the section, but since I knew I was capable I decide the old “worker smarter, not harder” was an appropriate decision. I hadn’t felt I would need a harness because I wasn’t bringing my own rope, and decided I wanted to try an arm rappel since I rarely have occasion to do such things on fixed lines. It worked out well, and after it and some down-climbing below the rope, I was back onto the easier terrain on the traverse back to the first gully.

 

Similar to my climb the week before on Snowmass, I was feeling great and was having no issues with my knee or with MS. The direct sunlight on the traverse gave the MS issues a run for it’s money, though, as heat + MS = real bad. Luckily no one else was on the route when I stripped down to my skivvies to avoid having my brain baked. The heat slowed me down quite a bit, but my faculties remained intact, and after what seemed like forever I was back at the top ofthe first gully. It wasn’t much better in the daylight, but after some very undignified butt-scooting and not-so-fun rock skiing I was back at the base of the mountain where my sister was waiting to walk back to the lake with me. She had gotten her peak, too, and we had both had a very successful, albeit long in my case, day.

I had the confidence going into the climb I was fully capable of it, but wasn’t quite sure I could until I did. Now that it’s over, it almost seems silly that it was such a big deal because it wasn’t all that difficult. I’m supremely happy to never have to hike the Lake Como road again, and glad this obstacle is behind me. I don’t have many 14ers left on my list, and I think it’s time I start setting higher goals for myself as a climber. I might be slow, and have a bum leg, and have some neurological issues that aren’t pleasant, but I’m still a competent and experienced climber. Little Bear helped remind me of that, and I will never forget it again.

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A Snowmass Summit without the Snow

It’s not very often I have a day out in the hills that just feels good. Between the knee that’s had three surgeries, two herniated discs in my back, and Multiple Sclerosis, (just to name a few things I have going on), there is usually something for me to bitch about. So, when I get after a mountain and the whole time I feel strong, without any kind of symptoms and pain-free, it’s a pretty remarkable thing.

The notorious Logjam on the standard route

That’s how my recent trip up Snowmass Mountain, near Aspen, was. I have attempted this peak before, from the very long standard route, two summers ago, which amounted in a very near miss of the summit. While that route is gorgeous, I’m not entirely sure I have sixteen miles of backpacking in me at this point, especially if I can avoid it. Luckily, my friend Alex wanted to get some revenge on this mountain, especially the West Slopes route, as a couple summers ago she had had a near miss, too.

Snow shenanigans from the standard route

Also lucky for me, Alex has a Toyota 4Runner and she likes to off-road. The West Slopes route of Snowmass is quite a bit less popular than the standard route, even though it’s much shorter, but only if you can drive in the difficult 4WD road. If you can drive it, it’s only 9 miles of mountain versus 22 for the standard route. I’ve taken my beloved Forester on many roads in Colorado it probably shouldn’t have gone, but this is one I just didn’t want to risk it on. She and I met up in Carbondale, as she was coming from dropping her fiancé off who was going to have a climbing adventure in Yosemite, and we set out for the mountain.

The road in wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be and, in fact, there was only one place I think my vehicle would potentially have had an issue. We had decided to backpack into Lake Geneva, which was only 1.5 miles, but it did shave off about 1,300 feet of elevation. Plus, it made for a gorgeous afternoon hike in an absolutely stunning area – much better than doing it in the wee hours of the morning! It’s been a while since I’ve done a summer hike like that, and I was pleasantly surprised with the lush greenness and wildflowers everywhere. In no time at all we were at the lake and set up our campsite, just in time to get rained and hailed on a little bit under our tents.

This trip was the perfect meeting of two partner’s abilities, as Alex has been backpacking since she was a wee one. I was happy to learn a few hacks and tricks from her. While I started with hiking and mountains, then learned backpacking and camping out of necessity from that, she is the other way around having only done one other 14er and the previous attempt on Snowmass. Our skills complemented each other perfectly throughout the trip. I’ve had a lot of great successes in climbing partners lately, and it adds so much more to an experience.

Up early, we left our tents around 4:15 am toward the base of the peak. Once there, it’s mostly a straight shot up steep rocks. While Alex had done a lot of this route on her previous attempt, her party last time had had some route-finding issues and she hadn’t been the rock climber she is now to be comfortable when they got into some 5th Class climbing. I told her I the best way for her to get some experience route-finding was to go first, but I was happy to take over whenever she was unsure or unhappy with it. She did an awesome job, and quite soon we were at the small grassy section that was a tiny waterfall with some Class 3 moves. It reminded me quite a bit of the waterfall I had to climb the week before on Long’s Peak, just easier and greener.

Up and up we went, but it was mostly easier than I thought it would be, Class 2 to 2+ for much of the way if we carefully picked our path. Snowmass is a mountain well known for having huge, loose rocks everywhere. Refrigerator sized loose rocks. I had been expecting to climb 3,000 feet of Class 3 of that, but it wasn’t really that. We had started with plenty of time, and so took our time in order that I would continue to feel good. I told Alex I would probably slow down over 13,500 feet, as the altitude always starts to affect me there.

The “Mass” of snow is on the other side of the mountain, sadly.

There was still some snow in the gully we had been traveling alongside and had I been alone I probably would have just gone up that. However, Alex doesn’t know how to self-arrest, and she had approach shoes on which were already wet from creek crossings, so I figured the rock was our best choice for the day. I guess I’ll have to wait a couple more months for my beloved snow and ice to come back. After we reached the top of the snow and crossed over, the real fun began. The route said to go straight up from the gully to meet up with the ridge on top of the peak, then cut over to the summit along the ridgeline. We were at about 13,600 feet, and this is where I took over the lead, as the climbing started getting a little bit more difficult. This is also where clouds started coming over the eastern side of the summit that looked just a little bit more gray than they should have.

Alex was not liking the clouds, and I knew it, but I also knew they weren’t storm clouds. I had no scientific evidence to back that up, only empirical and anecdotal experience of having been around enough summertime mountains to know that these clouds weren’t dangerous. However, me not being able to vocalize that didn’t make her feel much better. We were so close. I could see the summit block. I had gotten this close last time I was on Snowmass and turned around. I had gotten this close to Long’s Peak last weekend and had to turn around. I couldn’t do it again! I looked back at her: “I’m gunnin’ it.”

I’m not exaggerating when I say I’ve never climbed so fast in my life. I honestly don’t think I have. It was mostly Class 3 with a few interspersed moves of 4, and I was route-finding and charging up those last few hundred feet toward the ridge like a bandit. I really shocked myself with how fast I was able to move, and that my asthma and breathing at such high altitude didn’t hold me back. It takes mental calculation to be able to pick your route, your “line” through the rocks, test them for being loose, and know your own stableness and points of contact (each hand and foot) while moving. While I wasn’t able to enjoy it at the time, it was fun and a great confidence booster.

We reached the tall pillar of rock on the ridgeline I had been aiming for, as we both knew Snowmass had a big vertical block at its summit. Sunshine and blue sky peeked out from the clouds every couple of minutes, and Alex was feeling a bit better by that point. When I realized the rock I had been aiming for (you can even see it from the lake) is not the summit, the swear words that came out of my mouth were quite loud.

We looked around and did not see a lot of favorable options. None of them Class 3, which is what this whole route is supposed to be if you stay on it. Had I made an error in the directions? No, this is where we were supposed to be. We found a section we thought we could do, and Alex opted to go first. She did fine but said there was a part that there were no hands. Since we had brought ice axes, I told her to find a good seat and “belay stance”, and hand it down to me for that part. It was a lot quicker than me taking 10 minutes to puzzle through the section on tricky moves because I tend to like using my hands and arms more than my unstable leg.

After that section, it was time to traverse along the ridge, and time for Alex’s excellent profanity vocabulary to surface. She did just fine on it, but she didn’t particularly like some of the moves. I had an easier time with this, as I’m a bit taller and have a longer reach around some of the boulders. We were fine and we were safe, but I wish I had a recording of the ten minutes of this part of the day so we could listen and laugh in retrospect. Finally, the summit.

We enjoyed a few minutes up there but didn’t stay too long. It was a long way down, and not 20 minutes after we left we got some Dippin’ Dots hail for about 2 minutes – although even with some thunder throughout the rest of the afternoon, that was the only precipitation we felt all day. We happily took an alternate way down from the summit back to our gully, which avoided the ridge that neither of us had appreciated much. With my knee feeling stable – I was even walking on slab – and Alex having less experience on mountains than with climbing or backpacking, I was a bit faster here so took the lead again. Neither of us was above butt-scooting, though. The worst part was mostly when we got back to the Class 3 nearer the base and the waterfall section. Again, I’m a little taller than her, so at points, it was easier for me to find footholds or slide down. We worked really well together all day, providing foot and hand-holds, even a shoulder once, for the other when needed.

I believe we got back to the base of the mountain around 5:30 pm. The weather had held all day, and we had climbed the mountain and were both feeling good aside from the usual aches and pains. Alex didn’t want to drive the 4WD road in the dark, so we decided to pack up camp and hike back to sleep in the 4Runner and drive out in the morning.

Let’s have a quick talk about time though – while I’m very grateful that I felt awesome all day and we had a successful summit, don’t forget to do the math about how incredibly slow I am! Even on a good day, it still takes me a massive amount of time to do these things. For comparison, my friend John was trying to meet us for the climb but left late in the morning. He ran an extra 7 miles from the 2WD drive road starting at 10:45 am up to 12,000 feet by 2 pm. Granted, he’s in excellent alpine shape, but still. (Bummed we didn’t get to climb with him, but we did get to have breakfast the next morning…after he ran all the way back out again. And people think I’M nuts.)

As I started off saying, it’s a rare time out in the hills when something doesn’t go wrong with me. I’d had such a physically good day, it was almost as if the universe had to make sure it didn’t go perfectly (It wasn’t the universe, it’s just me. That saying is silly as Bill Nye will explain.) One of the things I’ve noticed since the huge MS flare up almost two years ago is that I consume a lot more water and food on big days than I even used to before, probably because my body burns through more energy due to the extreme muscle fatigue caused by MS. I drank 4 liters on the mountain and had run out by the time we got back to camp. Alex had plenty and had even switched to beer. I had a bit of her H2O but didn’t think much of it on the short pack out.

Not 20 minutes from the vehicle, a wave of exhaustion hit me complete with a host of MS symptoms. I got dizzy, my speech got distorted, my legs became weak to the point that I was wobbling on my trekking poles trying to remain upright, and my mental acuity became that of a 5-year-old. I should have eaten and drunk more before we had left for the car; it was a silly oversight that could have been avoided. Alex loves being a pack animal, and without hesitation, she picked up my pack, slung it over her shoulder along with her already giant 70L, and we slowly crept on. Fortunately, all my gear is ultralight, and I had managed to get everything into a 35L for this trip. She had to help me the last 100 feet to the car, definitely the crux of my day, as my legs were not really connected to my brain by that point. We made it, though, and I’m so grateful to have an awesome friend who without a thought knows how to help.

If out of the whole day and climb, I only have to spend 20 minutes with neurological issues, and the rest of the time my legs and back and mind are strong, I’ll take it. I’ll call that a win. I’m thrilled to have been out there, with Alex, and have checked off another peak toward my goal of summiting all the 58 fourteeners in Colorado. Only 6 left!

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Celebrating the Struggle

I watched a short video recently of a rock climber putting up a challenging route, but he did it with such effortless ease and grace it didn’t seem possible the route could be as hard as it is. I don’t doubt that it is truly that grade, but I realized I wanted to see a video of the time he spent projecting the route, the toil and sweat, the battle and the energy that all went into making a climb that looked so perfect. It was the struggle that was interesting, not just the polished product.

I often write and reflect on my successes, whether on mountains or climbs, but realized I rarely communicate the struggle in the times I don’t have good days or when I don’t make it up to my goal. And with Multiple Sclerosis, those days come fairly frequently, so I think I need to start appreciating that as a part of my journey.

The Maroon Bells, some of the most photographic mountains in the country.

Summer has been busy for me, and I haven’t gotten after the remaining seven 14ers on my list as actively as I would like. Springtime and early summer are usually my favorite time to get on peaks, as I love the snow, but the opportunities just didn’t quite happen this season. I did have one route I very much wanted to do, the Bell Cord on South Maroon, and even tried it a couple of times. It’s a quite long snow climb in between the iconic Maroon Bells near Aspen. The first time I turned back before even starting up the snow portion because I was experiencing just enough MS symptoms to feel unsafe on that long and dangerous of a route. The second time I felt great, but unfortunately one of my partners did not, and we were high enough on the route that I did not feel comfortable leaving her to go back alone. Each time provided me with a new learning experience, in different ways, and even if I didn’t get the route, I enjoyed the company and the time out.

Time spent camping the the Maroon Bells wilderness is never wasted time.

Given the long drive to Aspen we had done twice in the past few weeks with no success, Dan and me decided to take a stab at something a little closer to home this time around. He’d been itching to get after an alpine route on Longs before he bounded away to South America for another month, anyway. We decided to go after the North Face/Cables Route on Longs Peak, with a very early start time, given that I am so dreadfully slow. Due to the last minute nature of the plans, I didn’t design my sleep very well, i.e. I didn’t sleep at all as we left my place at midnight and hiked all night. That was probably not a good idea. Sleep is the biggest trigger of my MS issues.

Longs Peak is a unique mountain, indeed the only true alpine peak in Colorado. It offers a multitude of routes for high altitude rock, snow, and ice. The famous sheer face called the Diamond gives it it’s iconic

Longs Peak, with the Diamond peaking out on the right.

look – our route goes up the side of the Diamond. The Cables route used to be the standard route, which had actual cable wires running through giant eyebolts on the steep sections. The cables are gone now, as they are enormous and unsafe lightening conductors, but the eyebolts remain. It is a much shorter route than today’s standard route, the Keyhole, but that’s because it’s quite a bit steeper and involves technical climbing. Depending on skill level, some people solo it without a rope and others bring gear to protect from falling. Most people generally bring a rope to at least descend it, sometimes even if they have climbed a different route up simply because it’s the shortest way off the top. I was interested in leading the route but wasn’t quite comfortable soloing, so we brought a rope and light rack of protection.

We started on the trail around 1:30 am and made pretty good time up to treeline, even thinking we might be ahead of schedule. I’m never ahead of schedule because I’m SLOW, and we probably shouldn’t have taken our time during the next section of the mountain. Around dawn, I hit a wall, most likely because of lack of sleep, and probably lost a good hour between that and talking to people who were camping in the boulder field. As we broke off from the standard trail and started up toward our route, I was feeling

Another look at the Diamond and our route, which goes up the side just skirting the cliff.

better but knew I shouldn’t be leading. Dan was a gem to have carried the rope and all the gear and still allow me to lead the fun part, but it should have been his to do anyway!

The Cables Route in red, as seen when dry.

 

 

There was still a fair amount of snow below the Cables section, which was, of course, my favorite part. However, we got a little extra treat that morning. As we were slogging up the snow, we saw a party of two down-climbing the rock quite adeptly instead of rappelling, who then went over to yell hearty cheers to some people on the Diamond. Dan and I figured they must have been climbing the Diamond (they did have harnesses on, but we saw no rope?) and realized that we hadn’t seen them on the way up, meaning they had probably lapped us. That was terribly depressing until they came down toward us, and we realized it was Tommy Caldwell. It’s okay to be lapped by one of the best climbers in the world. We exchanged brief pleasantries (he and I in obvious disagreement about the value of a snow slog versus rock climbing, haha!), and he said they had climbed the Casual Route on the Diamond. While the Cables in no way equals the skill it takes to do the Casual on the Diamond, I love that I get to climb in an area that even puts me in the region of running into climbing All Stars – Colorado is great. That made our day and was so much cooler than taking a pic with a climbing celeb in a gym.

We continued up the snow, poor Dan with only his trekking poles – we didn’t think there would still be quite that much, so he didn’t bring an ax and I only brought one of my usual two. Most of it was easy, although I did find one hard-packed snow/ice section that I needed to swing the business end of my ax into to get up and would have appreciated crampons over microspikes (Dan smartly avoided that part). We got the base of the Cables and racked up, Dan taking the lead. I was a little bummed I wasn’t going to lead, but for time’s sake I knew it was best he did. I also wasn’t thrilled about the condition the route was in. We were late enough in the day that the route wasn’t iced over with verglass, but it also wasn’t a gently crying drip, either. It was a gushing, flowing waterfall. Luckily, the dry treatment on my rope is still in good shape. Dan was comfortable soloing it, even with the water, but since we had brought the gear, he figured he might as well use it. He made quick work out of it, but in the middle of the pitch, we could see the weather toward the North turning poor. He down-climbed a bit to get back in earshot of me, and we discussed continuing. The storm was pretty far off and did not look to be heading in our direction; we felt good going on, as all other orientations (that we could see) looked good.

Dan said he had decided if I had taken a long time on the technical section he would have wanted to turn back then, but I also ran up it quickly, so we decided to keep going. Unfortunately, my phone is broken and died early in the morning so I don’t have photos of Dan climbing and of the fun stuff, but it was enjoyable for sure! We tied the rope off on the last eyebolt as an easy reference point to come back to and started scrambling up. It was mostly straightforward class 3 with a bit of class 4 until we got to a pretty sketchy snow traverse that held a drop-off over the Diamond. The clouds were starting to become more ominous, but we were so close to the top. Just after the snow section we heard a number of loud thunder claps and knew we were done. Having to go back over that snow section

Scary section. The photo doesn’t quite show how big of a drop is just off to the left.

just after we crossed it was not my favorite thing, as it was poor, mushy snow and it was a left leaning traverse which makes the knee that’s had three surgeries scream in pain. The area was close enough to the edge of the cliff that there wouldn’t be time for recovery, and one misstep would result in a very long and sheer fall. I’ve been on many exposed ridges and faces and plenty of “no fall” zones, but perhaps the immensity of the Diamond just made it seem worse. However, I’d do it again in a heartbeat, so that probably means there’s something wrong with my psyche.

We were so close, and all of the hard stuff was behind us. It was incredibly disappointing to turn around about 250 feet from the summit, especially as once we got back to our rope the sun came out for a bit again. We knew it might not hold, though, and that we’d made the right choice. We were still high on the mountain and had a lot of metal on us (for instance, I had a giant ax sticking out of my pack acting as an excellent lightening rod). We started our rappel down back to the relative safety of the boulder field. Other than me flinging my belay device off the cliff before our second rap, everything went smoothly (luckily we found it because I love my DMM Pivot).

I usually give Dan a hard time because he never pays for his gear (and brings things like Costco trekking poles up Longs), but the nice gear he does have is at least really nice! Gotta give a shout out to Arc’teryx Denver for bein awesome!

It wasn’t the first, or even second, time I’ve turned around that close to a summit, and I’m sure it won’t be the last. When Dan gets back in August, I’m sure we’ll run up the route again and it will be totally dry and seem terribly boring. The important part is to appreciate the time spent out, and what was accomplished and learned even if we didn’t make it that last 250 feet. First of all, it is good to know that I can do the entirety of the route, especially in less than perfect conditions. Leaving an hour earlier (which seems insane, given how long we spent on the mountain), or allowing myself more sleep to start out with probably would have made the difference, but I will know that for next time.

I promise it’s only a happy coincidence my rope and my hair match.

Secondly, it’s very great to have a successful alpine climb when you and your partner are on the same page, in good communication when things get hairy, and know that you know and trust one another’s skills enough to do a climb like that. Especially so, in my case, as I come with a host of disabilities, and finding people who are willing to put up with my slow speed is a rarity!

Lastly, I want to appreciate my struggle. I will certainly get to the top of Longs and many other peaks, but right now I should reflect on the aspects of my days out that are contributing to making me a stronger climber and person even if I don’t achieve the goal that day. It would be easy to ruminate on my failures, on how hard it is for me keep trying and floundering. Because it is hard to do this kind of stuff with a bum leg, asthma, and MS. Yet, I think without appreciating that struggle, when I get to the top of the mountain, or to the end of the road of my 58 fourteeners list it won’t be such a huge accomplishment for me. So here’s to all the days that just really suck, the type II fun, the goals I didn’t quite reach, and rewards I didn’t quite achieve.

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Me Against the Mountain – Revenge on Mount Wilson

   5th time’s a charm? Technically speaking, that’s how many times I’ve gone after this 14,246-foot mountain in Southern Colorado. The first was almost three years ago, when I had planned to do the traverse between Wilson and it’s neighboring peak, El Diente, but, weather forced me down after the first summit before ever setting foot near Wilson. I didn’t try it again until the next year when I made it to within 200 vertical feet of the summit via the standard route, but my partner and I again decided to turn around due to weather (which ended up being an excellent choice). Fed up with that route, last spring I made a couple short-lived and meager tries at the East Face route, but due to my newly diagnosed MS and difficult route finding, respectively, I didn’t make it out of treeline either time. At 6.5 hours of driving one way, it’s a tough mountain to keep failing on for that reason alone.

One of my past attempts on Mount Wilson, where poor weather turned us around very close to the top.

    Starting the 2017 year I only had 8 of the 58 14ers in Colorado to finish, and I can’t say that I have been motivated to get after too many of them. I’ve attempted all but one of them and my finisher, many of those attempts having been very near misses – i.e. turn arounds very close to the summits, for various reasons. The idea of going back to do it all over again, knowing just how difficult it will be and how much work it will take makes it all the more difficult for me to want go up the peak. It’s almost as if the knowing is what makes it worse. This was the position I found myself in with Mount Wilson this past weekend: I was feeling great physically, it was a perfect weather forecast, and it was the calm before the storm as far as the end of my school semester. I had no reason not to go, but I still didn’t want to.

   I used to relish the idea of a long car drive alone, a solo adventure, taking some Meg time. Perhaps it was because I’ve done this particular adventure so many times and failed that even the night before I left, laying in my warm bed, I thought to myself: “Ugh, tomorrow night I’m going to be coldly sleeping in my car at this time, do I really want to do this again? I could just stay home.” The next morning I woke up and hesitantly started to pack, again trying to think of reasons to not go; I even messaged a friend to see if he was going rock climbing the next day (I knew he would be, he always is). That’s when I knew I just had to get in the car and drive – it’s a cold day in hell when Meg chooses rock climbing over a snowy mountain.

Mount Wilson’s East Face

Gladstone Peak in the center back.

  Mount Wilson is one of the more difficult 14ers due to some difficult and exposed climbing moves on it’s easiest route (the one I almost got two years ago). However, I prefer snow to rock, especially on this peak, because the rock here is very, very loose. Thus why I switched to the less often climbed East Face route that does not actually have a defined trail through the forest. The rule with doing snow climbs in the spring is get on and off them early in the day to get good snow conditions and avoid avalanches before the sun warms it up. For me, this means I have to start really early because I’m so miserably slow due to my asthma and MS. The idea of bushwhacking through those trees again through the wee hours of the morning did not appeal to me, but after making that drive I was determined to at least get out of my car in the middle of the night (though the thought did occur to me to go back to sleep and then go eat some breakfast in Telluride).

    Luckily the moon was out, it was a gorgeous night, and I had a big cat’s paw prints to keep me company on the trail. That, by the way, was very creepy at dawn. I had a GPX file to follow for the trail and got slightly off-route, but was able to easily correct once it was light out. Soon enough, I found myself staring at the 13er Gladstone Peak in the early morning light, which was my objective for the time being as it stood guarding the view of the summit of Mount Wilson. There was a perfect amount of snow for this time of year – not too little and not too much as in some other years – and as I made my way up the first headwall toward Gladstone I appreciated some of the unique features the snow created that you don’t often see in Colorado.

    When I finally reached the base of Gladstone at around 12,900 ft and got full eyes on the remaining portion of my route, my motivation faltered again. I had been going pretty slow up the snow so far, even though it wasn’t particularly steep; I’m just slow. Looking ahead, it was straight up the steep snow until the summit at 14,246ft. It was later in the day than I wanted it to be, which I knew would happen, but the snow was actually in really great condition because the temperature was still freezing. I knew about how long it would take me to get up that snow, and knew how difficult it would be for me even if I didn’t have avalanche to worry about. I didn’t want to do it. Nevertheless, I persisted.

The East Face of Mt Wilson. This was an epic glissade down – took me about 3 minutes to descend what took 3 hours to get up.

    Small goals, I told myself. There weren’t a lot of landmarks in the wide open route, so I aimed for the first rock from where I had stashed my snowshoes. Then to the next rock outcropping, etc. The snow was bulletproof, and though my breathing was belabored as it always is at altitude, I was enjoying myself. This. This is what I drove all the way out here for and hiked through the night for. It was so tranquil, calm, and still. For once, I didn’t have fast and loud metal or dubstep blasting in my ears as I pushed up the steep sections, but played soft piano music to accompany the serenity around me. There was no one but me and the mountain, the gentle push of my footsteps into her rising side.

When It Gets Tough

    Up and up, kicking steps I went. The snow was still in great condition, not mushy or sliding at all, which made things much easier. Usually I need two ice axes, and feel the need to plunge each in fully to the head because my bad leg is so unstable. However, for most of the route, due to the great snow and what I guess is a stronger leg due to my recent physical therapy, I didn’t need to do this. Eventually, it did start aching and screaming at me, though. I tried to practice the mindfulness technique of focusing on my breath and just checking in at the edge of the pain, then going back to my breath. Yeah right. I think perhaps the people who came up with those techniques were thinking of a hangnail or a stubbed toe when they came up with that method. My leg throbbed with every heartbeat, yelling that it needed a break, that it wanted to stop, that it could go no further. So, I tried another technique aimed at a little self-compassion. I started talking to my leg inside my head, telling it that it was strong, that I was proud of it for carrying me up all of the mountains it had, and that I knew it could get me up this one. If I had been in a little less pain I may have thought about how hokey this sounds (or that my hippy university may be finally rubbing off on me!), but golly gee it worked. The throbbing stopped, and it felt more stable as I kicked it into the snow. Turns out my knee has just been fishing for compliments this whole time.

    The upper portion of the snow climb steepened a fair bit, and it had some rocks on either side below which made it a definite no-fall zone. It wasn’t until about fifteen feet to the end of it that I got truly exhausted. Even my good leg was doing the Elvis dance, and I had to switch to the full “ladder climbing” technique with two axes. This means I had to put most of my weight on my arms and pull myself up with them instead of just walking up with my legs. Consider how much more energy it takes to do a pull-up or push-up than walk up a steep staircase and it will be apparent why this is not the preferred climbing technique. Luckily I did not have to do this for long, as I reached the top of the couloir soon.

    This snow route pops the climber out pretty near the summit, with only about 150 feet of rocks left to gain the top. Since my attempts on this route last season, a description of it has appeared on the 14ers.com website, which is always welcome. For this section it recommended to drop down ten feet into the opposite side of the couloir and get on the rocks for class 3 scrambling. However, conditions at this time of year vary considerably and following the “route description” is not always a good idea. The snow at the top of the climb had started to turn soft, and there was no way I was going down the very steep other side in the conditions it was in. I had to gain the rocks from where I was, which looked miserable. Some expletives came out of my mouth, and I angrily considered my life against this summit. How badly did I really want this?

From the summit, Gladstone Peak and Wilson Peak.

    The transition from snow to rock seems to be a difficult one for me, as something similar happened to me on Snowmass mountain a couple summers ago and I didn’t get that summit. Those thoughts flashed through my head, but this day I determined I would not stop yet not no matter how scared I was. There seemed to be a loose class 3 way to get onto the rocks, but it was quite exposed and I didn’t like it. I looked for another option and found a finger crack system leading up a vertical wall with less exposure and drop below, but probably 5th class climbing. However, it was cracks, so I felt very confident on it. I ended up doing it twice, in fact, because I had opted to leave my pack but had to come back for my axe after I realized there was still snow up ahead. It was only 150 feet of climbing to the summit, but it really freaked me out. Loose rocks and mushy snow over exposure really gets the heart racing. Finally I reached the summit, but didn’t hang out long because I just wanted to get off those damn rocks.

It’s hard to relate the scope of how tall and far away this is – for reference that first little rock speck in the center left snow field is big enough for about 5 people to hang out on comfortably.

Alone on the Mountain

    There is just something different about soloing a mountain. I have soloed 21 of my 51 peaks. Some of those were “solos” that there were other people on the mountain with me, just not my actual partners. Some of those, like Mount Wilson, were true solos that I was really alone on the mountain, not seeing another person the whole time. At times, like with this peak, it takes really digging deep to even have the motivation to go. Walking alone through that forest without a trail is awful, and I got lost both to and from the car (which is very demoralizing). You have to make route-finding decisions on your own, which on a route like this when there isn’t a trail, are life and death. It’s a lot easier when someone else is there to confer with. The group mentality is also just nicer when your courage starts to fail, like mine did toward the top. A partner is there to bolster your nerve, and literally lend a hand if you’re gimp like me. If you get hurt on a mountain like that, there’s no one for miles and miles to help you.

    Yet, that’s what true mountaineering is. It’s you against nature, and learning to respect that while learning your own limits. That’s what makes it exciting and worthwhile. I find days like that so much more rewarding, knowing that I only have myself to rely on. It’s been a while since I’ve challenged myself like this, and I needed to remind myself that it was still in me to accomplish something great. When I started up the final summit pitch I swore to myself I wouldn’t do any more difficult mountains by myself, but of course I will.

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3 Ways Being Disabled Has Helped My Climbing

(Article contains explicit language)

March seems to be a month to remember and be aware of a lot of things, and Multiple Sclerosis is no exception. If you know someone with MS, or better yet if you don’t, I urge you to take 3 minutes watch this video, read this short article, or send me a message and ask me any questions you may have (I’d love to hear from you!). I often write on here about my success stories and how well I’m doing, but life with MS isn’t all unicorns pooping rainbows. It’s a crappy disease which for me has progressed to the point where irreversible symptoms affect me every day, hour, and minute. It’s literally a constant struggle. However, I’m not one to dwell on the negative for very long or be the victim of my circumstances, so here’s another post about me trying to find the positive for the hand I’ve been dealt and make my own MS version of unicorn poop.

Don’t Over-grip!

This weekend I put in day 12 on ice for the season and returned to the first route I ever swung tools into – but this time I climbed it on lead. It was incredible to recognize how I’ve come full circle not only in climbing but also in life since that first time on ice. This year, my fourth on ice, has been full of progressing and learning, a lot of which was about these new MS symptoms I’ve had to work through. The biggest problem has been my hands exhibiting spasticity and tremors which both take over after muscle fatigue kicks in, e.g. after I’ve been holding onto ice axes to haul myself up a frozen waterfall. It’s been a process of trial and error both on ice and in the climbing gym figuring out what the warning signs are, how far I can push it, and if I do get these symptoms, how long the spasticity and shaking will last. Sometimes they come for only a few minutes, but sometimes up to 20. When it happens, I affectionately call it my T-Rex pose.

One of the biggest rules in ice climbing is don’t over-grip your ice tools. First off, this helps blood flow continue to course through your fingers and stave off the screaming barfies, because let’s face it, ice climbing is damn cold. Secondly, it helps prevent muscle fatigue in your hands and arms which cause the dreaded “pump”, which is what makes many climbers fall when their arms are just done holding on. I have problems with the cold due to my Raynaud’s Syndrome, but the MS symptoms have given me an even heartier gift with the spasticity and tremors. Everyone has to deal with getting pumped out on a route, but due to my extreme fatigue, I now get an almost immediate reaction in my hands in the form of a little shock being sent down to them, telling me that I’m over-gripping. It saves me a lot of wasted energy having that little trigger of pain in real time; for instance, this weekend I was placing an ice screw with one hand, and my other hand on the ice tool started hurting. I realized I didn’t need to be gripping that hard and really only needed a hand on that tool for balance as my feet were set in a good stance. Over the course of an entire route this saved energy is crucial, especially to me!

Try Climbing With One Leg

After my second knee surgery I was still pretty determined to keep training and climbing, but knew I’d better listen to the advice of my physical therapist and give the joint a break. Solution? Climb without it. I spent a whole winter in the gym climbing easier routes with big handholds that I did pull-ups on the entire way up because I didn’t allow myself to put my left leg on even one foothold. My arms got pretty buff that year.

Not exactly how crampons are supposed to go on your boots.

However, it taught me something I didn’t realize I was learning at the time and has been beneficial to me even still. Climbing without one leg forces you to learn to balance your body in new ways and reorient yourself to the wall in order to find your center of gravity. I did allow myself to put my bad leg’s foot on the wall, just not a foothold (so that I wouldn’t be tempted to put weight on it), and this allowed me to learn techniques like flagging. Balance is such a crucial skill for any type of climbing, and injury of no, I suggest everyone try climbing up a few routes with one leg. It also forces you to really think out your moves and consider each of your three available limbs because you are much more limited. These advantages came in really handy a couple weeks ago when my crampon fell off mid-route on some ice!

The Fuck You Stop

For many reasons I like to do mountains on my own, but when I choose to hike or climb with other people I commonly experience what us slow people call the Fuck You Stop. The slow people know what I’m talking about: you’re the last one in the pack, huffing and puffing, wishing you could keep up while the others skip ahead with smiles on their faces. You plod and push to catch up to them feeling bad that you’re holding everyone up. Finally, you notice they’ve stopped in the distance! Hooray! When you finally catch up to them, out of breath and so, so, ready for a break, they see that you’ve caught up and start walking again. The expletives explode out of your mouth between belabored breaths, but luckily your friends are already so far ahead again they don’t hear you.

At least we get a nice view of our partner’s butt.

Fast and light is a big thing in the mountaineering and alpinism community. I think it’s great! Except that no matter what I do, I’m going to be slow and light. I’ve been slow since I was a kid, getting asthma in middle school. The last ten years of fibromyalgia and now MS have only made it worse. It’s hard to look at how slow I am and see it as a good thing because it does certainly hold me back from things. However, it has taught me a few things. First, because of the inability of some partners to pace and recognize the need for slower people’s need for breaks, too, it’s taught me to speak up for my needs regarding my limitations. I’ve realized that if I don’t take short breaks for breathing often enough because I’m worried about keeping up with a partner or a group, I’ll actually end up going slower overall. Also, I’ve learned how to pace and read my body, which is so crucial to any sport but even more so at altitude. Lastly, it’s taught me patience. Sure, I could get frustrated with my slowness or my friends for leaving me in the dust, but neither of those things is going help me go faster, so I don’t. And surprisingly, a time or two I’ve actually been out with people who are even slower than me and been able to afford them a partner who will always give them the time they need.

It’s MS Awareness Month! Check out some of the links below to find out more about the disease:

https://multiplesclerosis.net/

http://www.nationalmssociety.org/

https://www.mslifelines.com/index

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Why Use a Cane When You Can Lead Ice Instead?

Staring up at the height above me, I knew I needed to reach the top, even if I didn’t know how I was going to do it. One foot at a time, practicing as steady footwork as I could manage. I knew this route well, had done it many times. Halfway up there was a rest, but after that, it got more difficult as the handholds on one side became much more slopey and slippery. One foot up, get a good hand, rest. Another step up, move another leg up, rest. Repeat again, and again, hoping not to fall. Even when I did fall, I knew I had to rally and try again. There was no excuse for just sitting there and giving up. I had to get to the top of the staircase.

That staircase was the bane of my existence for many months, as my room was located upstairs in my house. After my Multiple Sclerosis diagnosis, walking, especially up stairs but even just generally around, was very difficult. My legs gave out unexpectedly as if the signal wasn’t coming through from my brain that the leg needed to hold up the rest of my body. And when I was fatigued (which was ALL the time), they would tremor and shake, and wobble around like a newborn calf. I fell a lot.

Many people admonished me that I should get a cane, and the physical therapist even said I needed two. My weaker neurological side, the left one, happens to be the same side I’ve had three knee surgeries on, and the limping and giving out of that leg started to take its toll on an already weary limb. So the practical side of me gave in and bought a cane – a nice little collapsible one I could fit in my purse and carry around with me should I really need it – I most certainly did need it, so carried it around all the time. Yet, there was a stubborn part of me that argued with the practical one and refused to use it. I fell often but also used walls for support, railings, even begrudgingly gave in and accepted people’s arms to lead me around like a 90-year-old.  Just not that cane.

I wouldn’t use that cane because soon the dreaded word “wheelchair” was floated around, people saying I would most certainly need one in certain instances if I was going to go this place or that. So I didn’t go this place or that and stayed home for months and months. My sister asked what the big difference between using that cane and using trekking poles for my knee while I hike was. To her there was no difference; to me, it was everything. Trekking poles while hiking to help with an orthopedic, sports-related injury was a whole world of difference to using a cane every day of your life and accepting that you could no longer walk without it. That cane was the slippery slope to a wheelchair I was afraid I’d never get out of – MS is progressive, after all. Somewhere deep down in all that pain and misery I still had a glimmer of hope that I would climb one day again, like I used to. So I didn’t use the cane and pushed myself up that staircase every day for the better part of a year until it wasn’t difficult any longer.

It’s hard even to imagine that as being me, my life is so different now. I recount it almost as if I were telling someone else’s story. Last February I went out to climb something, and it was almost all I could do just to get to the base of the climb, let alone have a very successful rock route. The pain and fatigue after that day kept me in bed literally for days. This past weekend, I not only climbed rock, but I led a fun route in Eldorado Canyon, and then led an ice route in Rocky Mountain National Park, too.

Leading ice has been a goal of mine for years. Ice climbing has been my favorite medium of climbing since I started it four seasons ago, for various reasons. I feel much more comfortable on it than rock, and have more experience with it. Yet, leading ice is substantially more dangerous than leading rock. Mom – I always think of you when I write things like this, and since I know you won’t put your earmuffs on anyway, I’ll explain why – leading a route means you’re trailing the rope up from under you, putting in your “protection” from falling as you go. This is opposed to having a secure anchor already set from the top with the rope safely above. In the instance of ice, that protection comes in the form of screws that you stop and actually screw into the ice, then clip your rope into, hopefully well enough that, should you fall, the screws will stay there and catch you. The rule with leading ice is that you don’t fall (which is not necessarily the case with leading rock), because of the multitude of variables that can go wrong and the statistical probability of injury due to things like the ice breaking, all of the sharp pointy things, etc. There are many climbers who will not climb ice, and there are quite a few less who will ever choose to lead it.

I’m not a thrill seeker or adrenaline junkie, and my desire to lead either rock or ice has never been born from such attitudes. It is more that I seek to progress in the evolution of my skill and to be a more self-reliant climber in both expertise and ability. Leading means that I can stop relying on other people to put up a route for me, but instead that I have the strength to do it myself. It represents a milestone in my physical achievements because it’s me overcoming that teenage girl with asthma always huffing and puffing behind the group in track warm-up in middle school, and the gimp with a bum knee limping up a mountain behind everyone, or the girl with MS who can’t walk and is led around on someone’s arm like a geriatric. For years leading ice has been a dream, a fantasy really, in the back of my head that I never thought could be realized.

Yet, there I was, with Alex and Dan as we made the hike out to Jewel Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park for some late season ice. It was time to ante up. Luckily Alex led one of the harder routes first, and I got in a warm-up. But soon enough we moved over to the easier section, and the screws were right there dangling on my harness, begging to be placed in that gleaming ice. All of a sudden self-doubt hit me like it never had before. Sure, I’ve backed off routes and leads because of conditions, or an injury, but I didn’t have any of those excuses then. I’ve never chickened out before. I don’t get scared very often, and I’m not sure if I was scared or if I just had this idea of leading ice so built up in my head that I didn’t know what to make of it. I asked Alex if he was sure I could do this. His nonchalant, matter-of-fact response of “Yes, I’m sure you can do this. This isn’t harder than what you’ve soloed,” was exactly what I needed. I suddenly saw what he saw – he’s only been climbing with me this season, and didn’t see the years of doubt, of disability, of low-self confidence in my climbing abilities and physical impairments that made me think I wasn’t capable.  I don’t think I would have actually chickened out, given how much I wanted it, but the encouragement and support from both Alex and Dan was very welcome. I’ve come to really appreciate surrounding myself with positive and motivating people.

A couple swings into the ice and I was at home, in my element, and loving it. No fear, no more uncertainty, just complete confidence in my strength and skill. No way I was going to fall. Such a huge difference both physically and mentally from where I was this time last year that, as I mentioned earlier, it’s hard for me to believe I couldn’t walk around my own house for most of my days. I’m glad I never gave into that cane and always kept pushing. It’s been a remarkable journey of recovery that I hope to continue, with this being a huge benchmark that opens up so many more possibilities. I’m dreaming big again, looking at life with a new set of eyes that say “Hell yea, I can do that,” instead of “Sure, that route looks fun, but I don’t think I’d be able.” My aspirations are big again, and the sky isn’t my limit – because I’m going to climb high enough to touch it.

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My First Trad Lead

Hello and welcome back! I’ve been on hiatus from my blog for quite some time. Many reasons for that, we can probably sum it up with “life happens”. I’m back, though, and ready to regale you with more tales of my (sometimes ridiculous) adventures.

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Alex on lead with Jason offering guidance; Dan on a route to the right.

Last week was the year anniversary of my Multiple Sclerosis diagnosis. I can’t believe it’s been a whole year, and I look back and wonder what happened to all of that time. It’s been a very tough year for me, a lot of my perspectives and outlooks on things have shifted. I have made good choices and bad, but still keep swingin, determined to learn from my mistakes in order to continue to grow and evolve. I’ve made some tough, though ultimately really positive, decisions which have caused my health to rebound spectacularly within the last few months, and have even started grad school in Boulder.

One perspective that has had to change is my expectation for what I can accomplish in my outdoor athletics. I’ve realized that I have unfortunately spent the last couple years letting myself be told that I’m not good enough, that I’m too disabled (name one of my many ailments here) to do X, and simply that I am not capable. While yes it’s true that I have a lot wrong with me, I’m also very good at judging my own body and ability. There is always a delicate balance of what my disabilities hold me back from and what my mind wants me to accomplish, and I must walk the thin line in between in order to stay safe. I’ve realized it’s time to start trusting my own good judgment again and stop listening to the influence of what anyone else thinks I can or can’t do. I have enough experience at this point to know what I’m getting myself into, I know my body better than anyone else, and most importantly I’m not afraid to back off when I think it’s too dangerous or too much to continue. Injuries remove all pride and dignity from climbing!

Me on the route with "Coach Jason" above
Me on the route with “Coach Jason” above

Keeping that in mind, I still usually keep my expectations pretty low for a day out climbing, and have definitely had to adjust to perhaps having more ‘bad days’ than before because MS simply doesn’t allow me to push through the pain like I used to – it just shuts my body off completely and I fall over shaking. I consider myself lucky to even be able to hike up to the crag, as there are still many days and times that it isn’t a possibility. I started the day out yesterday thinking I would try a route, and most likely get halfway up it before I had to stop (that had been the case for a couple of other times I’d been out this summer). I was happy just to be outside and with friends, even ‘trying’ to climb. In a conversation in the morning I mentioned to my friend Jason that not this upcoming summer, but the summer after, I would like to start lead climbing and working on my rock skills wholeheartedly. “I still have a few mountains to do this summer, and then I’ll concentrate on rock,” I said. It was nowhere in my mind that today would be the day I’d do a trad lead.

For anyone unversed the in lingo of climbing, traditional or “trad” climbing is a form of rock climbing that requires one to put pieces of protection, often times shortened to “pro”, into little nooks or cracks found within the rock in order to anchor you from falling if you should come off the rock. The common question from non-climbers is always “how do you get the rope up there?”, and that’s what we mean here by lead climbing. A lead climber drags the ropeimg_7291 below them as they place pieces of pro into the wall and clips the rope into the pro, until the end of the route where they make an anchor from which other climbers can follow,usually called top-roping. Top-roping isn’t as dangerous because your anchor from above is already set and stable, you can flail about and fall as much as you wish – not so on lead which takes significantly more energy, concentration, knowledge, and risk. While I have spent years watching, learning, and helping others lead climb and have known I know how to do it, I have never felt my body was in good enough condition to take the risk of it.

After a couple friends did the first route of the day we moved over to another section at the crag, and Jason looked at Alex and said she should lead the route – it would be her first lead. I had done the route years before, and the words just spilled out of my mouth that I wanted to, too. For some reason, it just felt right. I decided I wanted to follow and clean Alex’s route to make sure my body was in okay shape for the day, and to learn the moves so as not to waste my precious energy on the actual lead by trying to figure out sequences. Alex did a great job on her lead – she’s been climbing a shorter time than me and is already so much stronger! I had almost done a trad lead 3 years ago with Jason, but had gotten 10 feet up on the wall and backed off due to my knee – it turns out I made a good choice because it was so bad he basically had to carry me back to the car and I ended up having my third surgery about a month after. I felt none of that apprehension with this; in typical Meg fashion, I thought nothing of falling or fear about what “could happen”, but simply concentrated on the task at hand. I’ve been unroped on mountains and felt real fear because I knew I was in danger of falling, but that didn’t happen here. I was comfortable, stable, and knew when to rest in order to give my body the break it needed to continue. It was a great exercise in trusting myself again. And luckily I had my coach Jason right by my side to check all my gear placements and guide me along!

Not to say that climbing is all unicorns and sunshine for me. This spring I did some functionality testing specific to MS which, while not the intention, gave me some really interesting insight into my climbing ability. One test was a grip strength test designed to show objective and quantifiable data about MS fatigue: it showed that img_7302even after 3 seconds of gripping someone with MS has a very sharp decline (sometimes 75%) in strength, and after the computer told me to “start” the test there was at least a .5 second delay before my hands gripped, meaning that the signal from my brain to my hand was delayed. Furthermore, after 10 minutes of this testing both my hands experienced severe tremors and spasticity – basically, I looked like a T-Rex who’d drank 4 Red Bulls. While the fatigue test was only done with my hands, the idea extends to all the muscles in my body: I have delayed signals to some of my motor functions, muscle fatigue is much greater than that of a normal person, and when that fatigue occurs my body starts to tremor and lock up. Apply that to someone trying to climb and you can understand at least a few of the challenges I deal with.

When I get off a route and the fatigue kicks in I start shaking and my hands lock up (totally embarassing at a crowded area), but luckily it seems that these symptoms are starting to get a little better. Perhaps I’m just learning to work around them a bit better (I rested quite a bit on route so as not to aggravate my breathing and asthma, which always spurs the fatigue in short order). In fact most of my symptoms have started to get better, and it’s hard to imagine that last year at this time I could barely walk, had double vision so bad I couldn’t see much of anything and was in so much pain and misery that life was a daily trauma so much so that even brushing my teeth became a nightmare. I remember posting online then as I was going through a particularly painful spinal

Last year at this time, going through a particularly painful procedure
Last year at this time, during the painful spinal procedure

procedure that “I hope a year from today I would be doing something fantastic to celebrate how far I’d come since this awful time.” It took me quite some time to get here, but I have. The last 8 weeks have in particular been fantastic, and I am thankful for the new people in my life and my renewed sense of positivity.

Rock has never been my favorite avenue for climbing, I’ve always preferred mountains, snow, and ice over it, but yesterday it gave me a great gift in the form of confidence in myself. It’s given me my trust back and inspiration to keep pushing forward so that perhaps next year I’ll be writing here about something else great that I’ve been able to accomplish. I also can’t thank my friends enough for their support, as taking me out for a day of climbing always means someone else has to carry more weight, do something extra because I can’t, or take care of me somehow, yet all of my friends always do it without question. And yesterday not only did they do all of that, but they helped and inspired me to push further and harder than I thought was possible. Here’s to more adventures to come!

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Let’s Go Rock Climbing In February They Said. It’ll Be Fun They Said.

Okay, to be fair, it was fun. But it was also very cold. Frozen, numb digits, cold. Which is why I still maintain that it is still ice season, and if you’re going to be that cold you may as well be ice climbing. Ice is, after all, my favorite medium to grunt and painfully pull my way to the top of. However, when my friends said it was supposed to be a balmy 67 degrees in Boulder, the lack of driving distance and desire to get out for whatever I could got the better of me, and off to Eldorado Canyon State Park we went.

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Drew on the left, leading Gonzo


Eldo is a great place to climb, a mecca for some of the best rock climbs in the country. The canyon has a rich climbing history and boasts many multi-pitch trad routes on towering and exposed cliff faces. The grades in Eldo tend to be harder than elsewhere in the area, dating back to the days of when the routes were put up by some of the first generations of rock climbers. I haven’t climbed there nearly enough, considering it’s right in my own backyard. Yet I would say I just haven’t rock climbed enough, as it tends to be my least favorite if given the choice of ice, snow and mountains (rock is usually the hardest on my knee, so I’ve stayed away from it as not to aggravate the injury). But right now, I’d do anything just to get out, even if it just meant a short hike with good friends.

Sitting On the Sidelines

Any athlete who has been injured, or even anyone who has been laid up due to an illness or impairment in some way, can understand what it’s like to be benched for a while. To sit by as life wiles away, powerless to do anything to change the slow passage of time ticking away while you watch others enjoy the activities you know you’re supposed to be taking part in. When I first got sick with MS at the beginning of October, I thought: ‘Ok, I’ll be through this and back to normal in a couple weeks.” That was five months ago, and I look back almost unbelievingly that so much time has passed without me doing anything concrete or eventful.

Birthday ice in Vail

I had my 30th birthday in January, and not that most people are super thrilled about that particular day, but mine was a special reminder of just how sidelined I was at this point in my life. My original goal for finishing the 14ers was to be done by my 30th birthday. I knew this summer that wasn’t going to happen, and instead made other plans. I booked a trip to go climbing in Scotland for two weeks, but had to cancel due to my illness. I ended up going to Vail to ice climb, but even that was a pretty miserable attempt on my part. I only got halfway up the route – granted it was a long route, but still. I’ve only been out on ice two times this whole season, and compared to the number of times in the past two winters I’ve been out on ice and mountains, combined with the fact that I was also working full time, I can’t help but look back over the last five months and wonder what happened to it.

Whether it was a sprained ankle playing volleyball when I was younger, or the multiple sclerosis now, this is something I will get through and get back to my life. I have decided to take a very aggressive medication called Rituxan, right now used off-label for MS, but it’s used to treat people with Lupus and RA. The hope is that is that it will help someone like me who has a number of autoimmune conditions. I also stumbled across this article on Multiplesclerosis.net that describes exactly what my biggest and worst symptom is, and one that neither of my neurologists have had an answer for. It’s called Stimulus Sensitive Myoclonus, and for me it means that I am continually overstimulated by my environment – noise being the worst offender, but touch and smell playing small roles at times. To leave my house I need to wear ear plugs, and even in my house there are noises that flare my symptoms to the point of rendering me incapacitated within the span of 30 seconds. Needless to say I am overjoyed to have found this, and will be exploring it with my doctors in the coming weeks in order to get off the sidelines and take back my life.

Finding the Joy Again

The morning of my rock climb dawned, and I wasn’t feeling in top shape, though it is probably a 1 in 10 chance I wake up without any symptoms at all these days. I told my friends I probably wouldn’t be able to climb anything, but I would bring my harness just in case and be glad to just get out and get some sunshine. With over 500 routes in Eldo canyon, I admittedly IMG_6225had no idea where we were going, even though I recognized the place-names. While there are climbs right next to the car, we ironically went to a place that included a 1000ft+ hike in – the guy who picked the route didn’t know me, thus didn’t know how incredibly slow I am! But I made it, and enjoyed it and the sun. It was invigorating to be out, and I started to yearn for the mountains as I hopped across the talus fields. The canyon was gorgeous: we were high enough to see the mesa in Golden in the distance, and the train that winded along the mountainside was picturesque.

As I finally reached the crag, Jason and Alex dutifully staying with me the whole of the hike, some of our friends were already gearing up for their first route. We decided their route was probably a little stout for us and our particular injuries and skill (the route had a roof that didn’t look appealing to a shoulder injury of Alex’s). We jumped over to another route, called Let It Vee, where Jason made short and easy work out of the lead. We were cruelly remind it was still February as the weather had turned cold and windy, and we were pretty high up and exposed so it cut to the bone. Alex was up next and cleaned the route, and did really, really well considering she is new to crack climbing.

The route was tailor-made for me. Though I was freezing, I really wanted a shot at it. It was a dihedral (explained well on this site) with finger and hand cracks the whole way up – if I couldn’t climb this I couldn’t climb anything. Crack climbing has always come naturally to me for some reason; IMG_6230it always means you have hand holds. Since my left leg doesn’t work so well, I really, really need hand holds – same reason I like ice so much. And dihedrals, well, you can rest and use your whole body to shimmy your way up, giving the weaker limb a break. It was great! I actually made it to the top of the route, and through the insane breathing problems and over-exertion there were a couple moments that I remembered why this was fun and why I liked this so much. It was incredibly satisfying.

Once again I’m reminded how lucky I am to have such great people in my life to take me out on days like this and take special considerations for my disabilities and difficulties. And not only that, but also everyone who has held me up and supported me through all this: the flowers my friends at work got me on my birthday, to the many emails and letters clients at work have sent, to the friends who have offered and made food or just come over to see me because I can’t come to them. Little things like that are surprisingly meaningful and help to keep me going, so that I can continue pressing on to do the things that I love.

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Can You Ice Climb With MS?

Looking down at that ice tool in my hand, a flood of excitement and fear washed over me. I had been waiting for this for some time. But this was not the normal fear one might have before ice climbing, I was on top-rope after all, but fear that my left hand may not grip the axe. I might lift my left arm and my hand could spasm, unable to hold the weight of the heavy Nomic. I might take a couple swings and the weakness of neuropathy could kick in, not being able to continue to swing or hold myself up. I might loose another limb in the battle of my health vs climbing – I’m already down my left leg with all my knee surgeries, I can’t afford to loose the left arm, too. To put it simply: I might not ever be able to ice climb again.

IMG_5748gimpLast month’s hike up the 14er Grey’s Peak was a momentous day for me both physically and emotionally after getting diagnosed with multiple sclerosis at the beginning of October. It proved to me that I could still summit mountains even though I’m dealing with even more serious health issues than ever before.  But walking up a snow-covered mountain is much different than ice climbing, and the limb most effected by my MS has been my left hand. This Sunday was another such day as that day on Grey’s, and I’ve been waiting for it for a while. Ice season has come late to Colorado this year, with not much precipitation and freeze/thaw cycles there has been little ice to form in the month of November in the area. Most early season ice is alpine ice in Rocky Mountain National Park, and woefully out of reach in my current condition because the approach to get there would be too much for me to contend with. Thus Matt, Greg, and I set out on I70 toward Breckinridge with thoughts of Lincoln Falls.

When I say I’m an ice climber, one of the most common questions I get is: “Really? Where do you climb ice around here?” What happened Sunday makes me laugh a little at that, because the answer could be right next to the highway. There is a flow in a gully near the small town of Silver Plume, which you can see from I70 if you look for it. So we did a drive-by, to see if the ice had formed, and decided it had enough to climb there instead of driving an hour longer each way (aIMG_5847nd deal with ski traffic on opening day). It also had a much shorter approach, so it had my vote just on that merit alone. Not to mention with Lincoln Falls being the only main flow of ice in at this time, it’s crowded on a weekend day; we were the only people at Silver Plume. Ironically, this U-turn method of ice finding at Silver Plume is tIMG_5845he second year in a row I’ve ended up there for my first day of the season instead of Lincoln. I’m starting to really like the place.

Silver Plume is an old mining town that now houses only a couple hundred people, with a few pieces of the old Georgetown Railway train IMG_5844stationed there to greet you as you get off the highway. There’s an interesting history, as the little town boomed between 1885 and 1905 when silver was discovered there but is now more of a ghost town. To get to the Silver Plume Falls, we parked near the old building that I’m sure you’ve driven by many times and would recognize, but you’ve just never payed attention to. As we walked up the gully there was little snow this year, and pieces of rebar, rusted cables, and old wooden structures peaked out of the landscape. Very Coloradoesque.

IMG_5728gimpThe boys went ahead of me to set up the ropes so that I could take my time, and the bright sun and blue sky put me in a great mood on the short hike up to the ice. It wasn’t until I was almost there that I realized my leg felt totally fine and I wasn’t limping at all. It’s awesome to be pain and symptom-free. There wasn’t quite as much ice as other times I’ve been there, and today had some running water yelling loudly at us, but it was enough for the three of us on a casual day out. It was enough for me to find out if I could still climb.

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Greg on his first route

Greg was up first, then Matt, and then I knew I couldn’t put it off any longer. It had been a long time since I’d swung ice tools; while I was lucky to get around 20 days in last season, most of them were early season. My leg injuries got exacerbated by the end of the season last year so much that I had to bitterly give up on ice for the last month and a half to rest up, and wait for spring snow climbing. January was probably the last time I had been on ice, and a lot has happened to my body since then. If I can’t climb today because of my hand, it might mean I’m done ice climbing for good.

Testing out those first few moves
Testing out those first few moves

As I picked up the axes my grip felt good, strong. The first couple swings got blessedly easy sticks in the ice, so I kept going. The boys had taken the mixed start, up the rocks to the right of the waterfall, but I generally like ice better than rock. It was a nice little warm up, then a slushy walk-on-belay (don’t fall into the running water) to the choose-your-own-adventure. I chose a line that had easy footwork, so that I could utilize my legs and not pump out my arms trying to hold onto the tools. It was fun, and techy, and made me remember why I love this so much. My breathing was the only issue, and I hadn’t brought my inhaler, so I took it easy on the first route. But I expected the breathing to be an issue, because I’m pretty weak right now, and I’m not worried about that. I can hold the axes, and grip long enough to pull myself up! Win!IMG_5778gimp

The next route I did went even better, and we all enjoyed our casual day out. I achieved my goal, which was to find out what my new limitations will be. I needed to know how much the neuropathy would effect this sport. My entire left side is a little weaker, sure, and I will definitely have to be careful to push even less limits than I used to. My breathing and worsened asthma will be an issue, and that may or may not get better with time. Sunday was incredibly warm for an ice climbing day, so I haven’t been tested yet in extreme cold. I’m sure my Raynaud’s will add another layer onto the neuropathy, but at least I know I cant get out there and try.

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Matt doing some snow bouldering

And trying is all I can hope for. A lot of times I climb with guys who are very, very good at these particular sports. I’m very lucky to be able to watch and learn from them, but it’s hard not to hold myself to a certain standard. I will always be not as good as probably anyone I’m climbing with, and have a difficult time doing whatever it is I’m doing. Yet in the recent couple of months, with the prospect of not being able to climb at all, I’m happy to just be trying, to just be out there. I’m happy that I have people in my life willing to go with me, to put up with my issues and take special considerations just to enable me to be there and be outside. In fact my symptoms  are lesser and I seem to do very well when outdoors. Only when I got to the restaurant in town did my left side start malfunctioning, as it always seems to in crowded areas. I know it’s because my right brain is dealing with sensory overload (thus left-side body issues), but I’ll still take that as a sign the universe is telling me to go climbing more. Now that I know I can.

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25 Days Ago I Was Diagnosed With MS, But Today I Stood Atop A 14,000ft Mountain

If You’re Breathing, There’s Still More Right With You Than Wrong

I heard that saying somewhere in the overabundance of time spent binge watching in the past few weeks. Unfortunately staring at my tv screen is all I’ve really been able to do because my central nervous
IMG_5670gimpsystem is fried. Stressors from busy environments cause my symptoms to flare up almost immediately, to the point where I had my first ever “anxiety” attack from standing in a P.F. Chang’s waiting to get my take-out food. Too many moving objects, too crowded, too noisy – my brain can’t handle the sensory input right now and simply shuts down, making all my symptoms appear. 

Last week was a tough one for me, as I had wanted to get back to work finally. My body said otherwise, and it wasn’t easy to handle physically or emotionally. The odds seem to be stacking up more and more against me, with each medical problem being piled on the list getting worse and worse. I clung to that saying about still breathing, thinking that at least I’m still alive so I should keep fighting.

I put on a front for people, but many days have been really tough.  IMG_5661Some days the only thing I could accomplish was to make one meal for myself, or one day I just really wanted my hair dried and styled but it was all I could do to keep my head up while I tried to accomplish the task (it didn’t get done). One day the only thing I got done was brushing my teeth. Have you ever been brushing your teeth and thought: “Wow, this is really difficult.”? I hope you never do.

The Fight For Control

I think of The Spoon Theory often; if you haven’t heard of it I encourage you to take the time to give it a quick read, especially if you know someone with chronic pain or illness. These days I may not have many ‘spoons’ to go on, but I am learning. I’m learning what causes my symptoms to flare up, and how much rest I need at this point in my life to store up more energy for the next day to be okay, too. But there’s a mental game at play, as well, and I needed to address that this week. Because when you’re a 29 year old climber but feel like a 79 year old invalid, incapable of doing menial things IMG_5651gimplike preparing meals, a part of yourself is lost.

I know some people will think me reckless for doing a 14er so soon after getting sick, pushing too hard while still clearly in a flare-up. I could give many reasons why hiking could be positive for me right now, such as Vitamin D intake (there’s a correlation between MS and Vitamin D deficiency), time out of the house, or just exercise in general, etc., all of which are valid, but the truth is that I needed it for my state of mind. I know why I climb: to overcome my physical shortcomings. MS has left a big question mark in the area of what I’ll be capable of climbing-wise in the future.

Call it meditating through wilderness, call it soul-searching, call it whatever you want. I needed to Eat, Pray, Love myself into a better state of mind by getting on top of a mountain. I could say the words in my head, but I needed to prove to myself that my life wasn’t over just because I have MS. The mountain (or rock route, or ice route, etc.) becomes a metaphor for the freedom and control you have IMG_5658over your ailments, once you master them and gain the top. Sure I could have done an easy Boulder trail, or a 12er or 13er, but I knew that wouldn’t satisfy that question mark flashing at me. Only one of the highest peaks in Colorado would do.

Taking the Gamble

One of the highest peaks, yes, but I’m not an idiot. I chose one of the easiest and closest 14ers, Gray’s Peak, one I have been to many times and know well. It snowed 1-2 feet last week, with a clear forecast for Saturday and Sunday, so I also waited to go on Sunday knowing that with the popularity of the mountain there would be many before me that would lay down a trench in the snow (thus negating the need for things like snowshoes). I wasn’t trying to blaze a new route, make a new record, or even check a new summit off my IMG_5675 (1)gimplist; I went into the day with the mindset that I just wanted some sunshine and snow, and that I would turn around the second an MS symptom popped up.

Yet this was still a gamble. I really didn’t know if this would help or hinder my physical state, and I didn’t know if I was making the right choice. I went alone because, 1) I love being on mountains by myself, but 2) I didn’t want to ruin a friend’s whole day if I got there and was only able to make it 1/2 mile. Hell, I didn’t even know if I’d be able to make the hour and fifteen minute drive to the trailhead. I was determined to at least try, though, and get as far as I could.

As I went up the snow-packed trail, taking literal baby-steps to ensure I wasn’t going too fast as to over-exert myself, I continually checked myself for signs of my MS issues. None appeared. So I kept going, stopping even more often and eating and drinking more than I normally would, just in case. The farther I went, the stronger I felt. It was such a beautiful day, and my recent sheltered life gave me much IMG_5669gimpmore of an appreciation than I would normally have for those peaks (I have never actually had a pleasant experience on Gray’s and Torrey’s, either due to weather or overcrowding). My mind was at ease, my heart at peace, truly one of those transcendent experiences you have only so often yet crave so desperately.

The last 300ft was a little difficult for me, but by that point I knew I wasn’t turning back. It took me a long time, yet I was still safe and without signs of either MS or AMS. At the top I had the peak to myself. I put on my music and surprised myself by bursting out with tears. I was awash with a full spectrum of emotions: saddened at what I’ve gone through, anxious about the future, but so incredibly happy to have made the summit and be sitting there in the snow and sun with absolutely gorgeous views extending in front of me. I knew in that moment that everything would be ok, that I would get through this no matter what it takes. My symptoms will go away, I will return to work, I will return to climbing, it will be ok. I guess I just needed to sit on top of a mountain to remember that.IMG_5664gimp

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Turns Out I Have Multiple Sclerosis

When It Hits

‘I don’t think we should do the Cables route tomorrow…’ I looked over and said to Matt on the bright Saturday morning as we were discussing the details of the climb we had planned for the morrow. At long last I had thought I may be able to summit Longs Peak: I had attempted and failed due to poor avalanche conditions at the beginning of this past March, and planned but didn’t go for some reason or another on many other occasions. Surely this time it would finally work and be majestic, as it would be the 50th 14er summit on my list. Alas, my words were the beginning of the end. Later that night my vision would deteriorate to that of a cross-eye hillbilly and motor functionality on the left side of my body would have me wavering and falling about like a freshman frat boy at his first college party.

The North Face 'Cables' route of Longs Peak where we bailed from last March.
The North Face ‘Cables’ route of Longs Peak the day we bailed last March.

A few days later I was in the hospital, and had a diagnosis of Multiple Sclerosis, certainly not climbing mountains anytime soon. While the symptoms seemed to strike quickly, in truth I was experiencing a strange dizziness for a couple weeks beforehand and the eyesight issues had been building for some days. Eventually my eyesight turned to full double vision coupled with severe vertigo, and my left leg and hand became quite weak and spastic. You know that feeling at 1am on a Saturday night when you’ve had way, way too much to drink? When you’re so dizzy you bounce from wall to wall, and the room starts spinning even when you lay down and you feel so nauseated by it you’d actually rather throw up than continue to feel like this? That’s what I’ve been dealing with. For weeks.

The docs at the hospital pumped me full of steroids to lower my immune system – MS is an immune-related disease in which your immune system attacks your central nervous system – and sent me on my way to recover from this particular flare up, which can take quite some time I’ve been told. At this point I’m doing better than I was at the worst, but I’m not sure if I’m still in a flare up, or just sick from the roids still coursing through me. It’s hard to sit or stand for too long without getting sick, and reading is quite difficult. It’s taken me quite some time to write this.

One Step At a Time

October 4th was the 4 year anniversary of my first 14er, my solo on Mt Bierstadt. At the beginning of this year I had hoped to have all of the 14ers finished by that weekend, and celebrate with my last one

A photo of Mt Bierstadt Oct. 4, 2011, my first 14er. Another shot is the feature photo of this article.
A photo of Mt Bierstadt Oct. 4, 2011, my first 14er. Another shot is the feature photo of this article.

then. With a tragic death in the family this summer, and the recent decision to sell my condo and buy a new house, I realized months ago finishing this year wasn’t going to happen because sometimes other things in life are more important. I’m a very goal-oriented person, and so even while sitting in my hospital bed waiting to get a spinal tap 3 days before the anniversary, I asked about being able to get out to altitude on that date. They said as long as it healed okay I should be good to go, so I stayed in good spirits, dreaming of the fall colors I’d soon be seeing.

The anniversary came and went, with no 14er for me. Unfortunately the lumbar puncture did not heal okay, and I had to return to the hospital on my anniversary for a painful procedure to ‘patch’ it up. I didn’t think to take many photos over this whole process, but I did on that day. iPhoto categorizes by date, and next year when I’m on a 14er on October 4th I want to look back on this year’s day and be glad of how far I’ve come. I actually feel worse now, after the hospital, than before, but I do truly feel that is my sensitivity to the medication. I have yet to make it out for even a short hike, but I am taking it day by day, assessing how I feel and making small goals in order to get myself back to the job and mountains I miss.

Letting a Diagnosis Define You

I have been chronically ill for years. Hell, now I even write a blog about how I deal with it in the climbing world. I was 22 when I got slapped with the fibromyalgia diagnosis, and it was tough to handle. It’s never easy to be told that you have something that’s never going to get better. I had been living in a private world of pain, just out of a bad relationship, had cut myself off from much of the supportive people in my life because they just didn’t understand or because it’s just my introverted way of coping. But eventually I pulled myself up and figured out how to deal with all the things wrong with me, find my triggers, and still live a (somewhat) normal life. The alternative was much worse. Life is much different now; I am a stronger person, have a loving and caring partner at my side, and so many, many people to count on should I need them.

I have spent years altering my diet, figuring out how much sleep I need, and what stress levels I can push to in order to keep my health under control. I am quite good at managing my health, and it took some pretty insane circumstances like a death in the family and buying/selling a house to send me into a flare up like this. I have read the reports of the MRIs, and I have multiple lesions on my brain and spinal cord indicating this has been going on for quite some time, maybe even a decade. The one regret I have is that I never pushed

The not so pleasant 14er anniversary day procedure of simultaneous blood draw and lumbar puncture to help it heal.
The not so pleasant 14er anniversary day procedure of simultaneous blood draw and second lumbar puncture to help it heal.

any doctors to test further so that it may have been picked up sooner. I’ve always known there was some underlying cause that would connect all the little weird things wrong with me and joked I needed Dr. House to figure me out. Yet unfortunately I feel that unless you walk into a medical office looking like you just had a stroke doctors don’t always take you seriously as a young female. I mean, even my primary care doctor told me ‘this might just be stress’.

I wasn’t shocked about the MS diagnosis. At first sign of my symptoms I Google-doctored myself and it fit exactly. I did a little preliminary research, and thus had it in my mind the whole time. While everyone else seemed quite worried about a brain tumor and stroke, I wasn’t worried I was going to die. The doctor who broke the news to me said some people would rather have a tumor than MS, as it’s just a surgery and it’s gone. Not me. I know and can handle chronic pain. This I can do. The first thing my sister said to me was ‘this disease will not define you’. I hadn’t really thought about that before, but I’ve decided to not let it. Already I feel the diagnosis trying to, as people have started treating me a bit differently, little things here or there. But I’m the same person I was a few weeks ago, with, realistically speaking, the same disease I’ve probably had for years, I just have a name for it now.

In fact I feel lucky. I am now armed with more knowledge and can finally start treating and addressing the problems. I will tackle this problem the same way I have all the others, with extensive research and self-knowledge about my condition, and a more natural and holistic approach (i.e. diet, sleep, stress management) before resorting to medications with unwanted side effects. Many people have this disease and have been reaching out with offers of help – and please continue to do so, I want all the knowledge I can get – and I am feeling positive that I can figure out what works best for my body now that I finally have an answer. I will be back on mountains soon, and ice climbing season is coming up so I’m looking forward to that. Each day brings me a little closer.

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End Note

I haven’t started any of my own research or reading into the disease yet as reading is still difficult for me. I have watched this TedTalk.  It gives me great hope, and is exactly the direction I plan on going. I welcome any and all information, personal stories, and experiences people would wish to share with me to help get me started down my path toward better health.

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I Probably Beat the Speed Record: Kit Carson Peak and Challenger Point

The speed record for slowest overall time, ever, of course. I’m always pretty slow, but this trip took the prize. It was not only a long trip, but one long in the making: I’ve been doing a lot of backpacking for 14ers this summer and have been considering a solo trip with the 60liter, and Kit Carson Peak and Challenger Point seemed like the perfect mountains to try it out on.  At 14.5 miles, some people are fast enough to do these two peaks in one push, but for me the other thing to consider is the total elevation gain of 6,250ft and the considerable time spent above 13,000k.

Almost had a stowaway. She get sad when she sees the pack because she knows I'm leaving.
Almost had a stowaway. She gets sad when she sees the pack because she knows I’m leaving.

With that in mind and the (somewhat stupid) notion of wanting to solo backpack and camp, I loaded up my pack mid-afternoon and started off on the 4.25mi approach to Willow Lake where I would shelter for the night. Curiously the beginning of the trail was sandy, which made sense a little as I knew these peaks are near the Sand Dunes National Park. Must be in the geography down there. It was a beautiful, if hot, day on a trail that boasted many switchbacks. I tried to pack light, and it certainly did seem lighter than many of my other trips which included snow camping and climbing gear, but the herniated disc in my low back certainly felt it by the time I reached the lake. I began to lament the decision of not having a partner. Or a yak.

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My accommodations for the night. Very spacious, like getting an MRI.

Because I was there on a Monday, I was able to grab a great camping spot. I spent a little time setting up my tent and camp, filtered some water, and tried to settle in for the night. I had never used the tent I brought, as with partners I usually brought the 3 person tent, but to save weight I packed the solo this time. It was, well, cozy, to say the least. At least it wasn’t a bivy. I also didn’t bring any cooking gear for a hot meal, so it was a quick dinner and off to sleep. It wasn’t too bad of a night, considering some of the crappy ‘summer’ camping I’ve had this year (4th of July hailstorms for instance).

I decided to start early because I knew it would be a long day, and IMG_5348that meant before dark. The 14ers.com route description does advise to scout the area around the lake in daylight, and after I did not do that, I might advise that, as well. I was able to figure out the maze without any backtracking (I think got just got lucky), but it would have been easier to do the afternoon before rather than in the dark. Before long it was getting light out, and I was staring up at the North Slope of Challenger Point. It wasn’t so bad, and I was making good time until just after 13k.

I’ve decided these two mountains should be renamed Mount Cairns Everywhere and Scree Nightmare Peak. I had been under the impression that these peaks by the standard routes would be a slightly easier version of their close neighbors, the Crestones, which rank among my favorite 14ers for their solid, grippy rock and what I call ‘Hail Mary’ hand North Slope of Challenger Pointholds. I had the wrong impression. There was very little grippy rock to be climbed here; there was just a lot of loose scree and small rock underfoot on steep slopes. I would have preferred slightly more technical climbing than that crap, and did take any chance I got to do class 3. But as my first suggested name implies, there wasn’t really a ‘route’, so much as cairns placed every which way, and it was a cluster of time consuming decisIMG_5367gimpion-making. While at times I did consider just saying screw it to being on route, I was the only one on the mountain that day and was truly solo, so rather than cliffing myself out or getting into a silly situation of something I shouldn’t be climbing, I choose prudence and tried to stay on some semblance of a path.

Though it took me much longer than expected, I eventually gained the ridge and hopped over to the summit of Challenger Point. The weather was hazy, but not a cloud in sight, so I decided to push on toward Kit Carson Peak. Turns out there were two other climbers that were behind me, but they only did the first peak and watched as I went forward. It was a little later in the morning than I wanted, but my thought was that it was just a walk over the Avenue and up some easy class 3 scrambling to the top a la Crestone Peak. Piece of cake, right?

Kit Carson Avenue is the widest and topmost crack shown here.
Kit Carson Avenue is the widest and topmost crack shown here.

Kit Carson Avenue: whispered in hushed and reverent tones among the 14ers crowd. It is a strip of land running along KC with some exposure off to the side, and depending on conditions can be a little sketchy. I first looked up this route as a winter route, just curious what it looked like then, about a week before I met Matt – and remember putting two and two together that he was the nutjob from that trip report. Those conditions were a little worse than the ones I encountered and my knee probably isn’t stable enough to handle a full day like that in the winter, though I don’t deny the snow calls to me. The avenue as I had it was literally a walk in the park, or as he puts it: “You could drive a Mini-Coop across it.” I also got a great view of The Prow, a fin of rock that boasts a 5.8 rock climb that would even be more enjoyable for my knee than the pile of looseness I went up.

An awesome shot and edit of these peaks in winter from Jim's trip report with Matt. Click on the picture to check out their write up.
An awesome shot and edit of these peaks in winter from Jim DiNapoli’s trip report with Matt. Click on the picture to check out their write up.

Up and down the Avenue, and to the gully on Kit Carson Peak. Here was supposed to be the fun part, but it wasn’t. It was just more non-route, and more dusty scree. I became quite frustrated here, feeling cheated out of my climbing, with an aching knee on loose pebbles. This part again took me much longer than I had thought it would (I keep saying that, but I’ve met me, and I should know better by now…) Eventually I got to the summit, and instead of feeling of joy, I saw the dot of the lake, with my camp below that, and felt dejected with how very far away from home I was. All the way back down KC, over and back up Challenger, all the way down that nightmare scree slope, back to the lake and camp, pack that up, pack that out 4.25 miles, and drive over 4 hours home. At least the weather was still holding; it could have been worse I suppose.

On the way down from KC I chose a different route because it looked easier than the scree I had followed on the way up, and it certainly was for me, though it was more technical. It was the only

Obligatory summit selfie with Crestone Peak and Needle in the background
Obligatory summit selfie with Crestone Peak and Needle in the background

time during the trip I began to enjoy myself, and found the Sangres rock I know and love. There were a few times I had to face in to downclimb, but only because I was probably too lazy to walk 5 feet to the left or right to find an easier section. The gully popped me out right on to the Avenue, and I realized it was the route the 14ers.com description warns not to turn off from the Avenue too soon and climb up. I almost wish I had, as I’m a strong enough climber to have handled it and my knee would prefer that to loose scree. No one likes scree, but as the day wore on my knee got really bad at it. The trick with it is actually to put more weight on the rocks to keep them in place, not less weight. Yet with more and more strain on my knee I put less weight on it and more on the other leg and my trekking poles, and that kind of terrain becomes increasingly difficult for me.

While going down Challenger Point’s North Slope I finally got to experience what a rock slide felt like. I believe that many accidents are preventable, and this one happened because I was exhausted and had a throbbing knee, thus not using proper footwork to cross a scree gully. Everything just started moving around me; I fell into the IMG_5416gimprocks and pushed my weight in, in order to stop it, and was able to. But every time I made a move it started falling again. I realized I’d simply have to make a jump for solid ground. So I did, and luckily made it while the gully washed away under me. There wasn’t too much exposure and I had my helmet on, so I probably should have taken the free ride. I certainly would have made it down faster than I did otherwise. All in all I spent over 9 hours above 13,000 feet.

Eventually I made it back to camp, luckily before dark, and was able to start my journey back to the car in daylight. Most of it was in the dark, however, and even if it was a pleasant night I just wanted to be done. One foot in front of the other, sort of thing, still hoping my spirit animal yak would appear to carry me down…and maybe drive me back home, too. If I had planned it better, I would have taken IMG_5441gimpthree days and just slept at the lake another night, but I didn’t. I’m still a little shocked I was able to carry all my own stuff – perhaps not a big deal for most, but for someone with 3 knee surgeries and a herniated L4/L5 it’s a challenge – and a little shocked that I have the skills to camp on my own, because I’ve only been learning for a couple years. Two years ago if you had told me I would be taking a trip like this I may have actually tried to smack the silly out of you. This made my 20th 14er solo, so over 1/3 of my total so far, and I’m proud I did it.  It wasn’t altogether as bad as some other trips and mountains I’ve done, though I do think it’ll be some time before I set my mind to backpacking solo again. At least until I find a yak.

If I could offer any advice for someone looking to do these peaks, it would be don’t do the standard routes. Granted the whole experience was trying for me, from solo backpacking and camping, to the awful route-finding and amount of time it took me, and even perhaps the underwhelming beauty since it was so hazy, but these didn’t top my list. I may be back to them at some point, but I would not do that route again. There are a couple of great ridges, some awesome snow climbs if you’re so inclined in the winter or spring, and even technical rock. In my opinion the Avenue wasn’t so cool of a feature that I would want to mess around with that loose stuff again, and you can see it from other ways if you really want to.

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Culebra Peak: The Donald Trump of 14ers

I couldn’t help the comparison that sneaked into my mind when I hiked Culebra Peak, Colorado’s southernmost and a privately owned 14er; the ‘snake’ mountain seemed to draw my ire the same as that fool Donald Trump. Exorbitant wealth run amuck trying to dress up a big, ugly lump of pretender, all the while the closer you peer the more the inflation seems apparent. A waste of your consideration, time, and money, almost unbelievable in it’s intrinsic existence: a one of a kind. Culebra is just like the Don: ever staring at you on the list as you try to ignore it and put it off, until you realize you must deal with the ridiculousness because it’s not going to go away until you do.

IMG_5265gimpAll exaggerated political satire jokes and silly complaints by me aside, let us have a real discussion about this privately owned mountain, as it draws many varied and controversial opinions from the hiking community in Colorado. Because I want to complete the 58 14ers list I knew that I would pay the money, $150, to the owners of the ranch to walk up this peak, but I tried to keep an open mind and reserve my thoughts until I completed the task. There is a very detailed and interesting land history of the peak at the peak’s page on SummitPost here along with information about some other peaks in the region all on private land, including Red Mountain – a Colorado Centennial, meaning one of the highest 100 peaks.

From what I understand, poaching these peaks instead of paying the money is a long and arduous task, needing to go almost 40 miles of ridgeline to get there. It is also not very ethical, as you run the risk of ticking off the ranch and screwing up the system for the rest of the hikers who are allowed to legally summit the peaks. After all, they don’t have to let anyone on their land. And from what I’ve read of the last couple of decades of owners, some of whom shut down all access or only allowed a few days per summer, my experience wasn’t all too terrible. The current owners have a website you can book yourself (individually, even, not requiring large groups as previous owners did) on Fridays or Saturdays in June, July, and August. They also try to open the peak up for one weekend during the winter, as they understand that some climbers are trying to complete the winter 14er list or are trying to ski all the peaks.IMG_5271

As I sat waiting at the gate to the ranch in the morning with a caravan of other vehicles, I couldn’t help but think how unnatural it was to have all these hikers still in their cars at daylight at the bottom of a 14er (as slow as I am, I would have started much earlier to make sure I beat the afternoon storms!).  It seemed so synthetic as we drove in a parade and 30 of us rushed out of the gates to get up the mountain in a time limit or be threatened to forfeit more money – if you don’t make it back in time, the waiver states you must ‘donate’ $100 to the Costilla County Search and Rescue. The ranch staff gave us a short spiel about safety, route-finding, and getting back on time, with the “please get back before 5pm, otherwise we have to come looking for you” that seemed a little more out of annoyance of an interruption of their day and less out of concern for our safety. Yet this isn’t the front desk at The Bellagio, it’s a ranch in Southern Colorado, so I suppose a little gruffness of demeanor can be accepted.

I think perhaps a little of my perception about the inorganic nature of the morning only stems from the fact that I rarely do peaks with many people on them. After all I can recall recent photos on the 14ers.com facebook group that show conga lines of hundreds of people up some of the front range 14ers, or a video of cars for miles down the road of some of the peaks on weekends. I avoid those peaks like the plague. This is where I become a little more polarized with my opinion on whether it is right or wrong to charge this kind of money for these peaks.

Summit photo on Culebra with Red Mountain in the background
Summit of Culebra with Red Mountain in the background

Take Mount Bross, the other privately owned peak in Colorado, a very easy peak to ‘poach’, as it is connected to 3 other very easy peaks to drive and hike and is not operated or maintained like Culebra. I have heard that even in the past few years the trail has become a nightmare to descend because so many people travel it. Or consider even most of the front range 14ers, which see so much traffic during summer weekends, hundreds of people a day, that the damage to the mountains is getting out of hand. Not to mention, who wants to find peace in nature with 200 of your closest friends and strangers! Culebra is an easy and mellow peak, meaning it is a Class 2 walk-up with no scrambling or climbing necessary, and while it is pretty out of the way, it might still see more damage if fully opened up. I can’t necessarily fault the ranchers for not wanting all those people driving through their land all the time. While I do think the amount they charge is a bit excessive, (when you do the math they are making a fair profit, even if they do maintain the road) that is my only my opinion.

The answer to heavily trafficked peaks and overuse is not anIMG_5266 easy one. From Everest to our very own 58 here in CO, the climbing community has yet to come up with a fix. While peaks like Everest do require pricey permits and fees to climb (and let’s not open another can of worms getting me discussing my views on that particular circus) in order to keep the congestion down, it clearly isn’t working. People joke that the permits are coming here, but this isn’t truly a viable financial or practical plan to implement here in Colorado. We are loving our wilderness too much – not to death, because in a geological timeframe our traffic and waste on mountains really has a much lower impact than say, climate change – but it does ruin the beauty and short term ecosystems. I have not the solution, and a small part of me is just a little thankful that the ranchers are keeping Culebra wild.

Rainbow over Red Mountain
Rainbow over Red Mountain

As for those of you considering the choice on whether or not to take the plunge and pay to climb this peak here are my thoughts after all was said and done: if you’re not a little OCD about completing the (I’ll admit, arbitrary) list of 14ers like I am, don’t bother with this one. I had perfect weather all day, and still couldn’t muster up enough positivity to make myself feel like it was worth the money. And I was able even to get the 13er Red Mountain, too, so that I’d never have to pay again should I one day choose to go after the centennials. The whole thing made me cranky. Not only did I have to pay, but I had to take time off work, I was on someone else’s time during the day which put someone slow like me under even more stress, and perhaps it was because I had just spent time in Chicago Basin the week before but it was not a scenic or beautiful time out. The views were pretty lame in comparison with other peaks I’ve been on, the surrounding areas dull and dry; Culebra was a boring ridge walk, Red an ugly lump of scree. I tried with all my creativity and a iPhone filters to get some good pictures, but it was a stretch.

Yet I know I wouldn’t personally feel like I have completed my (somewhat silly but important to me) list of 14ers until I did this one. I can’t expect to like them all, and I certainly have had my favorites and ‘never again’ routes along the way. Might I have enjoyed the peak minus the privately run aspects of it? Sure. But in the end I didn’t let that bother me too much, because my thoughts are usually that you shouldn’t let something stress you out unless you can do something to change it. I can’t control or change the fact that Culebra Peak is a pay-to-summit mountain, so while I may whine a little under my breath, it’s not worth my time to truly rail against the wind. As for Trump, at least I have a vote there.IMG_5268

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Finding Perspective in Chicago Basin: Matt’s Official 14er Finisher (Kind Of)

“The only thing you sometimes have control over is perspective. You don’t have control over your situation. But you have a choice about how you view it.” -Chris Pine

A land removed from time: rugged and remote, boasting peaks that encompass from all angles with rainbow-hued flowers, sandy desert rock, and rivers so clear and clean one may catch a glimpse of the soul while peering in. Taken there by a steam-powered locomotive IMG_5235from another era that seems to erase worries of the modern world the farther it chugs along its rails and into yesteryear. The mind slowly seeps away from the madness and into the calm as legs carry closer to the heart of the wild, gently but unmistakably reminding a connection to the universe. The mountains in Chicago Basin are truly a place to regain perspective.

And perspective is just what we needed after suffering the tragic loss of Matt’s sister, Amy, less than two weeks ago. There are many IMG_5242gimpways to deal with grief, and certainly Matt will go through many of them in the upcoming months and years, but as climbers our first notion is to head for the hills. Since we had taken the time off to be on Mt Rainier that week we decided to get away to the Chi Basin 14ers, a group of four peaks remotely located in the San Juan Mountain Range. To get to the trailhead at Needleton, you have to option of hiking in 7 miles or taking the Narrow Gauge Train that runs between Durango and Silverton. From Needleton it is another 6 miles to pack into the basin; most people opt for the train.

We arrived in Silverton on Tuesday afternoon, just in time (in typical us fashion) to throw the last of the supplies in our packs and board the train as it left on it’s journey through the winding canyons. It was a pleasant and sunny ride, before the engine unceremoniously dropped us and the other hikers at our stop with a certain finality as it continued on with the tourists waving goodbye. We looked around, swatted some bugs that seem to be extra awful this suIMG_5165mmer in CO, and started up our 6 mile approach to where we would camp. It was a gentle and serene 2,800ft of gain, with waterfalls galore, and we were at camp before we knew it. A dehydrated meal for dinner (which I must say I’m getting quite good at making) and to bed early, as we had peaks to get after on the morrow!

While there are many mountains in this area, we were solely looking at the four 14ers: Sunlight, Windom, Aeolus, and North Aeolus, as they were peaks I have still left on my list and after a few  summits Matt had gotten this winter, these were the only he had left to stand atop. Sunlight and Windom are (supposedly) the hardest and easiest of the bunch, respectively, and they were on the docket for the first day out. A 5am start brought us into the view of the basin with the

This pic is unfiltered or retouched! Such a beautiful morning.
This pic is unfiltered or retouched! Such a beautiful morning.

alpineglow abounding, steering us toward the steep but majestic hike up toward Twin Lakes as the sun broke over Needle Ridge. Finally able to see the first objective, we broke left toward Sunlight Peak.

Sparkling bright orange in the morning sun, the terrain of dust and rock was in stark contrast to the skyline as we made our way up the loose gully toward the saddle between Sunlight Peak and Sunlight Spire. A note about perspective here, as Sunlight Spire is a summit that has intrigued and inspired (no pun intended!) me for years. Next to Sunlight Peak it is a jagged grouping of rocks ending in an obelisk with a solid crack running up it, and does reach exactly 14,000ft after a reclassification from the USGS some years ago; however, it doesn’t have the prominence to be considered a mountain of its very

Sunlight Peak (left) and Sunlight Spire (right) from the summit of Windom Peak.
Sunlight Peak (left) and Sunlight Spire (right) from the summit of Windom Peak.

own (a definition and discussion of mountain prominence here). It is considered the hardest 14er in the lower 48, as that last 100ft of crack is difficult technical climbing, but it is not included on any of the Colorado 14er’s lists, no matter which numbered list you are going by because of its lack of prominence – a fact which would make sense if there weren’t four other peaks that are definitely included regardless of their lack of topographic height from it’s parent peak. I think that is simply because it is so much more difficult than any other on the list by the easiest routes, and no one wants to haul all that rock climbing gear out there (or learn how to rock climb in the first place) to do what is considered a very illusive and difficult climb. Methinks Colorado would have many fewer 14er finishers if that one were to be included. I have my sights set on it for when my knee is back in rock shape, as I happen to love crack climbing.

I looked up in envy as the crack stared down at us, making our way over to the 3rd and 4th class terrain on Sunlight Peak. The rock was grippy and blessedly stable, a nice change for me from the last few mountains I’ve been on. The route was fairly straightforward, and we only took a slight detour via Matt’s route-finding that gave us a IMG_5110gimpdihedral to climb (a climbing term for a corner). Between my punctuality and Matt’s sense of direction, I’m surprised we make it anywhere to be honest. But soon enough we were back on track, and enjoyed the rest of the scrambling, especially through the last chimney to the summit. The final bit of this peak sports a IMG_9728gimptough slab-filled few moves up blocks of rock toward one final chunk you must make a jump for. The USGS summit marker and register are just before, signaling the end of the line for many climbers, and the move with the jump leads to a block with a 1,500ft drop on the other side. Most of us are just happy to ‘touch’ the summit, IMG_5123without feeling the particular need to stand on top. While Matt inched over to it, with three knee surgeries under my belt there isn’t much hopping going on in my life, so I chose life over pride that day.

A few pictures and a snack later we were on our way since there was still Windom Peak to get over to before the weather turned. We quickly descended Sunlight, but in the gully the clouds started getting a little grey. We decided Matt had better run ahead and tag the peak, since he was the one who really neededIMG_5128gimp it this weekend, and I would follow at my own pace, getting the summit if I could. We didn’t need to go back down all the way to the lakes, but could traverse over on the only snow left in the area and up to Windom. It is considered ‘difficult class 2’, which is of course also a matter of perspective. Technically, any time you need to use your hands more than just for balance as you climb, it is considered a class 3 scramble, but the moves on Windom were very easy to negotiate and not steep, so perhaps that’s why it’s downgraded. Turns out we had

Aeolus, North Aeolus, Sunlight, and Sunlight Spire from the Windom Summit
Aeolus, North Aeolus, Sunlight, and Sunlight Spire from the Windom Summit

plenty of time before the rain; Matt summited and came back to meet me at 13,800ft (what a nice guy), making the last bit go very quickly as I didn’t have to worry about route-finding. Our goal for the day accomplished, we headed back to camp for some dinner and much deserved rest.

Though we were of the mind that the next day was going to be a rainy one, our spirits were high after the successes of the previous day. A bit later of a start this day so we could sleep in; it was a little IMG_5240misty in the morning, but I’m usually of the mind to push on until you get poured on (or it becomes dangerous above treeline, i.e. lightening) because you never know how the weather will turn. I was right that day, and we made our way back up again toward Mount Aeolus and North Aeolus as the clouds burned off. Still not quite as quite clear as the previous day, the area had a Scottish quality that somehow still soothed as we gained ground toward the jutting cliffs. We got to the ‘ramp’ that leans upward to the more technical section of the day, with the harder climbing area looming overhead.

This is when Matt started to get a little of what I call ‘climber’s anxiety’. We all get it at times, for this reason or that, and it either goes away or we go back down. The main reason Matt gets this is usually when climbing with me, as it is a very hard thing to see your significant other in danger. We have always thought it a good thing that I’m as injured as I am and not able to do the kind of expedition

Mount Aeolus with the 'Catwalk'
Mount Aeolus with the ‘Catwalk’

and high altitude alpinism he is (would if I could), because while couples can make for excellent climbing partners it is also exceedingly hard to watch them get injured or die. It is less of a problem for me on 14ers than him because he is much more capable and skilled, while I am quite handicapped and unstable. After the emotional turmoil he had been through the last week and a half, one of the reasons we picked Chicago Basin was because we didn’t want to do anything scary or risky and these mountains weren’t supposed to be too tough. In fact, that’s why we did Sunlight first, as it’s supposed to be harder, but it all depends on perspective, I guess.

We reached the saddle between the two peaks by 11am, but the clouds weren’t looking too promising. While I could make it to the summit of Mount Aeolus, it could take me an amount of time that might catch us in a place you don’t want to be in bad weather, so we decided I would wait there. Wind snapped around me, as did other climbers intent upon both summits (one guy from Louisiana actually asked me what was with the helmets!!). Aeolus has a fun section called ‘the catwalk’, which from my view didn’t look as tough as it’s reputation builds it up to be, but the exposed climbing after it is definitely a ‘choose your own adventure’ area with high, exposed

Matt jogging back over the Catwalk as some guys pose for a pic on it
Matt jogging back over the Catwalk as some guys pose for a pic on it

drop-offs and difficult route-finding. Matt was able to ‘jog’ up to the summit and back to me within a half an hour, and he admitted that no matter the weather, he wasn’t in the state of mind right now to be on that peak with me. That is fair enough, and I can respect that after what he’s been through. I don’t want to put more stress on him during this awful time just because I’m a gimp. It’s not the most terrible place to have to return to, after all!

The weather still held, and looked up toward North Aeolus, and IMG_9808Matt’s completion of the 14ers. Not to diminish his finishing ‘peak’, but I must interject a personal opinion (read: rant) about this particular hump of ridge. North Aeolus is a peak that is only counted if one is doing the 58 fourteeners list, not the 53 or 54. The prominence thing again. While I am also doing the 58 list, this ‘peak’ was pretty lame. It only has a prominence of a little less than 200ft, and from my vantage point of starting from the saddle it was pretty damn easy to get to. A couple

Sunlight Spire - Photo from www.14erfun.com  Click the photo to check out a cool trip report of climbing it!
Sunlight Spire – Photo from www.14erfun.com
Click the photo to check out a cool trip report of an attempt at it!

of the other ‘un-ranked’ peaks that make the 58 list but not the others, such as the famed North Maroon Peak or the particularly awful El Diente (my least favorite 14er, but that story is for another time) make you work much, much harder to attain the summit. I can see why those are ‘counted’, but North Aeolus was sort of silly, especially when in comparison to Sunlight Spire in the same basin, which isn’t. It brings to light how arbitrary this list thing is that we all cling to, but it’s all a matter of perspective…

Either way, we scrambled upward on slabby rock that my knee hated and got the summit to ourselves so that Matt could complete his first time of finishing the 14ers. While this was his ‘official’ finisher, he has been ardently working on completing the 14ers in calendar winter, between the winter solstice and spring equinox. Only 5 people have achieved this feat to date, (Sarah, the 5th and IMG_9813only female to do so completing it in Jan. 2014) though more finishers are soon on their way. Matt could have finished the 58 peaks long ago, having over 100 fourteener summits to date; even when I planned my ill-fated trip to Chicago Basin on the 4th of July weekend this year he chose to go rock climbing instead of joining and finishing the peaks. You see, we must all set our goals high enough that it takes hard work to achieve them. While it takes every ounce of my being (and then some) for me to get to the top of some of these peaks no matter the time of year, for Matt, running up even the hardest ones in summer is a piece of pie. We all must work within our limits, yet push them at the same time in order to better ourselves. While I don’t relish the fact that he still needs to go up the Bell Cord in winter, he doesn’t sit well with a few of the more difficult of the 12 summits I have left on my list. While neither of us can change the situation we can control our outlook on it and work to support one another’s goals despite the anxiety because every person’s goals, no matter the ‘difficulty’, are important.

We didn’t stay long on the summit, with weather closing in, and made it further down to easy terrain before breaking out the IMG_9821gimpJohnnie Walker – for him, not me, because I don’t need any more reasons to fall on my face at altitude – and took some celebratory photos with his sign for his sister saying “To The Stars, Amy” and “#celebrateagrabina”, along with a football from FSU and a some Rangers schwag. It was bittersweet, as memories and loss were high on our minds, though it is hard to not feel the overwhelming comfort of the serenity surrounding you up there. It was a a rejuvenating trip, and I was glad to see Matt smile, making the transition from depressive grief to being able to celebrate what was, even if it hurts. His healing process will be long and his loss is one from which you never fully recover, but there is something about being in a place like that which uplifts and touches the soul, bringing about a oneness of peaceful realization.

“Those who see the cosmic perspective as a depressing outlook, they really need to reassess how they think about the world. Because when I look up in the universe, I know I’m small but I’m also big. I’m big because I’m connected to the universe, and the universe is connected to me.” – Neil deGrasse Tyson

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Check out the video of our adventure on my YouTube Channel here!

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You Can’t Cure Stupid

“Do you want some help with that?” Anna asked me as I despairingly fumbled with the strings of my mittens. “No, I’m just being dumb,” was my response. “Well, you can’t cure stupid.” As I looked up at her and ruefully laughed, I wondered if she meant that comment about the knot I’d accidentally tied into my mittens, or about my current choice to attempt another 14er when the universe was clearly telling me it was time to go home.

Anna, myself, and my friend Brandon had had this weekend planned for some time. We wanted to climb the 14ers of the Chicago Basin group: 4 mountains located in southern Colorado that one must take the Durango-Silverton train or hike in an extra 7mi each way from IMG_4980the last point you can drive to. We had 5 days, including the train and 6.5 hour drive time, and were quite determined to get the peaks. However, there was a rockslide that took out the tracks on the afternoon we arrived in Silverton. The train employees had no assurances that the train would be working the next afternoon, so we had to choose to risk staying there and loose a full day, perhaps more, or leave and get after some different peaks in the region.

Though quite peeved at the (stupid) train, we chose to not sit around and gamble, thinking the other mountains would be a sure thing. There are three 14ers located near Telluride called the Wilson Group, one of which I did last summer and was hands down the worst day of my life (I’ll tell you that story some other time). The two I had yet to summit, Wilson Peak and Mount Wilson, were difficult peaks but we felt up to the challenge. Anna got a little altitude sick and had a pretty rough FridaIMG_4920y night. Yet she held strong and still wanted to pack in on the morning of the 4th, and we set out on Saturday morning with our heavy packs toward the Wilson Peak saddle at 13,000ft.

The approach wasn’t bad, but with all the late snowfall this year there was quite a bit of the cold, white stuff left. There was a traverse we needed to cross to get to the saddle, and some places of unsure footing across some rock gullies. Unfortunately for Anna, she didn’t have microspikes with her and took a short slide down one of these, successfully freaking the hell P1050857out of all three of us. She was able to arrest her fall by using her ice ax in the dirt, and came out with only some scratches, but it was a scary moment.

We made it to the Wilson Peak saddle, but decided it was too late in the day to make an attempt on the peak as there were some clouds rolling in. We opted to move down into the basin to find a place for camp, and just as we found a place it started raining. Right as we got the tent set and started making some food, it turned into a full hail thunderstorm that didn’t let up for hours. It was pretty miserable, but we were glad we were at least not on the peak. We set our sights on Mount Wilson for the morning, and went to bed early.

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Mount Wilson – sunny on the day after we climbed.

Mount Wilson still held quite a bit of snow. Anna decided it wasn’t for her (successfully making a smart decision and leaving the stupid ones to us), so Brandon and I took off around 6am while she hung back at camp. The peak looked a little socked in, but we figured the clouds would burn off within a couple hours. It was a valid assumption, but ended up being a stupid choice. Not only did the weather look rough, but we had a slight gear issue here, too, for stupid choice number two today.

Microspike
Microspike

Because we had planned on being in Chicago Basin, where we hadn’t planned on encountering terribly steep snow, I had only brought microspikes with me for traction. Brandon had crampons with him, because he had crampons that would strap on to any boot; my crampons have clips that must go onto special mountaineering boots with toe/heel bails, and I had not

Crampon
Crampon

been in the mood to haul my heavy boots with me on this trip – thus only the microspikes.

The first bit of the climb was straightforward and easy. The clouds had not lifted, however, and had in fact gotten worse. They weren’t stormy or dangerous, simply blocking the view of our route. There were footprints through the snow, even though we knew from the pictures that wasn’t the ‘standard’ way to go, but chose to follow those prints because it was the only thing we could see. This was a hard traverse for me, as my knee isn’t the most stable in the first place, but with only microspikes for traction it was even worse. Brandon offered to split the crampons, but I told him I’d rather have him stable and kicking good steps for me.

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Our route

Eventually we were able to turn and start moving straight up instead of sideways, which was actually easier for me even though it became quite steep. My leg is still a little wobbly when I move sideways on unsure terrain, but moving straight up steep snow allows me to rely on my quads and calves – my two strongest leg muscles. I also carry two ice axes, which allows me to compensate here with my arms, because with good snow that I can plunge the ax into, I can essentially pull myself up instead of push off my bad leg (similar to the reason I like ice climbing so much). P1050879gimpWhen we had been in the basin the previous day Brandon had remarked how steep he thought the snow looked, and I had said “it’s never as steep as it looks from down here.” Well, it was. And it was sustained. We finally got to the top, me only with the help of Brandon’s kick-steps, and took a big rest.

From here we put the ice axes away and switched gears to rock-mentality, as we had some class 3 terrain to overcome for a while on the ridge. The clouds had still not lifted, and the rocks were dewy with moisture. Not very fun when these particular mountains are known for loose rock in the first place. Brandon is an excellent route finder, and we were lucky to find the cairns in the fog (though he did take a lot of pictures backward in order to help us find the way back). As we climbed on we we able to see more and more sheer cliff faces come into view, which I’m sure would be spectacular when the weather was clear.P1050884

As I climbed through a particularly steep section up to him, he was just sitting there with his head down. Immediately I asked what was up, and his response was: “I’m assessing what my risk tolerance is.” The route in front of us was steep, seriously exposed, and we knew the last move to the summit of Mount Wilson, the ‘crux’ move, was a particularly difficult one. He said even if he might be able to do the climbing moves himself, he didn’t think he’d be able to help me here, and especially not on wet rock. The other major thing to consider was that it was 12:30pm, and if there was a storm coming in we would have no idea because of all the cloud cover. We were about 300ft from the summit over the ridge, only 100 vertical feet below it.

IMG_4958gimpBrandon is a very strong climber and has a lot of experience on mountains, and we’ve climbed a lot of peaks together. I trust his opinion, skill, and knowledge more than anyone. I should mention also that he had an accident on a 14er a year and a half ago in which he broke his neck and head open, requiring brain surgery. So when he said he was done climbing, it wasn’t a question for me that we needed to turn around, and I was totally ok with it. After all, we’d already had dangerous moments of ‘please don’t tell my mom I’m doing this’, and it was only going to get worse from there (Kathy, if you’re reading this, I promise we were only walking through an open meadow).

Though we had been making a weekend full of stupid choices to this point, luckily when it came down to the important one we didn’t choose the stupid option. Anger and disappointment abounded, IMG_4957though I seemed more at peace with the choice than he. Perhaps because I had just experienced this range of emotions with my trip on Snowmass and was simply getting used to it as status quo? Either way, we descended back down the ridge toward the snow. Here is where I almost lost it.

The snow was steep, and I had never downclimbed snow this steep – on purpose. All other times I’ve climbed snow this steep I glissaded down on my butt, but that wasn’t an option here because there was a huge cliff at the bottom of this snow. This snow was too steep to ‘walk’ down, and we would need to face in to get down it. There is a reason I’ve never done that before, and I knew it would be bad. You see, when I had my ACL reconstruction they used my hamstring, and it’s never recovered. Facing in toward the mountain to downclimb, whether on rock or snow, weakens my leg very quickly and hurts terribly. Brandon and I did split the crampons here, and he went first IMG_4964gimpkicking even better steps than he had on the way up, but my leg wasn’t to be saved.

There were some utterances from me along the longs of ‘I never want to climb a mountain again’ and ‘WTF is this snow doing here in July’, etc., along with some creative cursing. I will admit I was quite scared here, my limb starting to do the ‘Elvis leg’ maneuver, knowing that if it gave out I was going to fall and either give Brandon a crampon to the face before I took him out or simply fall down into the abyss of fog and cliffs. He was very positive and supportive for me, and we chose to transfer over onto the rocks before I slid into nothingness. We stuck to the rocks from then on, strangely since I always like snow so much, and these rocks were rotten, loose, piles of crap.

Just as we got back onto the shallower snow traverse section it P1050888started hailing, just to kick us in the face a little more. We hurried as much as we could back down the scrambling of the bottom of the mountain, but my asthma kicked in from the wind and being soaked and cold. It became an even more miserable time back to camp, with a full-blown attack by the time I got there. We were cold and wet and very unhappy, and not too pleased to only be back at only a tent and not a car to drive home to a warm bed (though Anna was glad we were back alive!). To bed early again; Brandon wanted to try Wilson Peak in the morning.

We got up and packed up camp, got to the saddle, and looked up at Wilson Peak. Anna again thought the better of it, but he was determinded to get at least one 14er that weekend. I was too stubborn to not at least try, but Anna’s poignant remark about stupidity started to sink in as I climbed with Brandon toward the

The Wilson Peak/Gladstone Saddle, with Mount Wilson in the background. Sunny of course, on Sunday.
The Wilson Peak/Gladstone Saddle, with Mount Wilson in the background. Sunny of course, on Sunday.

Wilson Peak/Gladstone saddle. My leg was throbbing in pain, unstable and wobbly. The last time it had felt like that and I had pushed it on a mountain, I had needed to take 2 months off from any physical activity and it eventually led to another surgery. I thought the better of it, and my asthma, and wished Brandon luck on his solo as I headed back to Anna and the pack-out to the car.

He did get the peak, so at least someone accomplished something. The weekend was a total bust for me. Because of the stupid train and not getting to Chicago Basin, it looks like I probably won’t be going to Rainier if I want to get the 14ers done this year due to scheduling and time-off. It’s a hard choice, though one I feel I must make due to the goal I’ve made for the Colorado peaks. Yet after 2 big camping trips now, Snowmass and Mount Wilson, with huge effort and no payoff, it’s hard to remain positive. The weather we experienced in the Wilsons was absolutely awful for July, and really beat us down. I would expect that if winter or spring climbing, and be okay with it, but this is summer, and it just sucked. I know we made the right choice this weekend, as we would have gotten stuck on technical terrain when the hailstorm hit on Mount Wilson if we had continued on to the summit. Yet just as with Snowmass, it doesn’t make it any less disappointing. Hopefully the next few climbs will show better weather and improve my outlook.IMG_4973

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Hard Lessons on Colorado’s Longest 14er

13,950ft I sat on the ridge, a mere 142 vertical feet and less than 1/5 of a mile away from the summit, and watched my partner continue on without me. A bitter taste filled my mouth, wind smacking me in the face, while severe disappointment with myself welled up inside, questioning my decision to bail after having come so very far.

Snowmass was not one of those mountains I had ever looked forward to climbing. By it’s standard route, it is Colorado’s longest, and did not hold any particular feature or spectacular aspect that, in my mind, made it worth the 22 miles. Kerina and I decided to sleep at the trailhead on Saturday night, pack in on Sunday, climb Monday and pack out then if we were up to it, too. On Sunday during the 11 mile pack in, I thought to myself that this was one of those mountains I would simply not be doing if not for this 14er list I’ve challenged myself to do.

IMG_4593The trip was ill-fated to begin with, and perhaps I should have just went along with my pessimism right then and there and gone out for burgers, when we started at the wrong trailhead on Sunday morning thus adding another few miles and 1,000ft of gain to our day. Yet we persisted, and put those 30lb packs back on to go the 8.25mi up to Snowmass Lake. It was very hot, and I did feel a bit silly wearing boots warm enough to take on Denali during June in Colorado, but they are the only mountaineering boots I have, so there it is. The scenery was beautiful at least, but I was still not IMG_9519gimpfeeling it, try though I might. I’m just not a backpacker, and am starting to get why people pay Sherpa to carry their crap for them. Soon enough we were at the infamous logjam, which wasn’t as fun as I had first thought it might be. I really didn’t want to go for a swim, and every time I slightly lost my balance I just thought about the prospect of buying a new iPhone because I fell into the lake.

After a long haul we did get to the lake, albeit pretty tired, but set up our camp and were able to see what was in store for us the next day. By some miracle my knee and back didn’t hurt from the pack in, and I was pretty shocked but relieved by this. We were able to look at the

Looking back down at Snowmass Lake
Looking back down at Snowmass Lake

entirety of the route for tomorrow, and it did look quite long – 3 more miles and 3,000ft more of gain straight up the giant mass of snow. After a dehydrated meal I cooked up we fell asleep pretty quick for our 4:00am start time.

We wanted to be at the base of the mountain by sunrise, but that meant navigating around the lake in the dark. The lake trail was a quagmire of willows and swamp-like mud; as the sky lightened I kept looking for dead faces to float up because I thought I was in Mordor. Eventually though we started up the rock gully, which turned into a steeper snow area, and it became a little more enjoyable.

IMG_9545This was Kerina’s first official time on steep snow, although she is an experienced climber and has practiced snow skills and self arrest before. I was not worried about her at all, and we made good time to the area above the gully where we could see our destination. It mellowed out for a long time, in almost a rolling hill sort of fashion, with a steeper section followed by another run-out that was almost like interval training. Our goal had always been to climb the upper left section, then gain the ridge over to the summit, as Matt had warned the the ‘more direct’ variation on snow was probably too steep for us. However, the footprints we were following from people of the day before kept heading toward the steeper line, and the ‘easier’ section seemed farther and farther away.

Our intended route - the left 'bump' the easier way, the middle 'bump' the summit.
Our intended route – the left ‘bump’ the easier way, the middle ‘bump’ the summit.

By the time we got to an area we really needed to make a choice about which way to go, it was getting a little later in the morning. The weather was beautiful, not a cloud in the sky, but on an east-facing slope that meant the sun was baking our snow. We could also see that there was a huge cornice at the top of the steeper line, but I reasoned that since I knew the people from yesterday had in fact summited, those footprints meant there was an exit from the cornice and onto the ridge. I said let’s go for it, and we started up the steep section. This was actually the most fun of the day, and we didn’t find the steepness difficult at all. Surprisingly my knee did just fine, and I was able to completely trust it’s stability for the first time in years.

IMG_4653gimpThe cornice was another matter, however. We climbed to the right of it, but had to somehow get past it to gain the ridge. We hugged the rock, but the mushy, soft snow broke away from the rock and tried to swallow us into an abyss – forcing us to walk along the top of the back of the cornice and hope that it wasn’t too much to send it flying (taking us with it). We made it to IMG_4655the safety of the rocks on the ridge, but quickly realized the summit was not simply a hop, skip and a jump away as we had been thinking. We tried to figure out the best route to take to continue on, but the way that seemed to be the ‘route’, based on our description, was blocked by a 50 degree snice slope that would certainly send you on a 3,000ft ride to the valley below.

IMG_4657gimp
My view from my stopping point

The only option left to us was to rock climb on the crest of the ridge, some more difficult rock climbing than I had originally bargained for with the intended class 3 ridge. Kerina started up, me following, but within a few moves my knee started hurting. It was as if all of a sudden something had slammed into me, and everything was wrong: I couldn’t see out of my sunglasses well enough, my boots were too big and clunky to make the correct moves, my knee felt wobbly, my confidence gone. I looked up at Kerina and told her I didn’t feel good about this, and in that moment, if she had said “you got this, we’re almost there, just make this move, then this one, and we’ll be there in no time”, I may have continued. But she didn’t. Her nerves were fried. She just stared at me with a bleak look, and asked what I was going to do. I knew then I wouldn’t go any further.

Kerina climbing up the section I bailed on
Kerina climbing up the section I bailed on

Though I didn’t know how to vocalize it right at that time, I knew something was wrong and that the rock climbing would be too difficult for my leg and with her as my partner. Don’t get me wrong, she is an amazing climber and wonderful partner, and I’m proud of her for pushing her own limits by soloing the final, dangerous moves to the summit. As I sat waiting for her to return, I agonized over my decision, considering just climbing up on my own, as I know I’ve climbed harder moves on harder mountains. But I knew that the instant I made the decision I had made the correct one, and it was because when I have done similar or even harder things on mountains before, I’ve always had a partner there capable of bailing me out.

The truth is I’m a handicapped rock climber. I do well on ice and snow, but my leg hates rock. I think the reasoIMG_9556gimpn it’s been doing so much better over the last few months is because I’ve fully given up rock. And as a handicapped climber, I need to accept that I may sometimes need help on mountains like this – help that comes from a partner with a lot of alpine experience and who is used to guiding. Kerina is a great rock climber, but a guide she is not, and I knew I couldn’t ask or force her into that role in order to get me up to the summit. I knew that if I tried, one of us would most likely get very hurt or very dead.

I made the right decision for both her and I, no matter the self-doubt and loathing that comes with it. It was so incredibly disheartening to go all that way to get so close, and know that I have to repeat it again this summer if I want to finish my 14er list. She said later that she knew it was dumb of her to solo those moves, but she had gone so far and wouldn’t have dared turn back. I told her I wonder what she’ll be like with another 20 or 30 mountains under her belt, because I used to feel like that, too. I’ve always said I will turn around for weather or bad conditions, but never my own weakness. For the first time this trip I did, and perhaps that is me finally growing up a little in my mountaineering mentality. I know that I will summit Snowmass, perhaps this time by a shorter route (if any of my friends who have a high clearance 4WD want to come with or lend me their vehicle…), and the success will be all the sweeter. After all, there are bold climbers, and there are old climbers, but there are no old bold climbers.

Watch the video of the climb here!

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