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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.