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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Six Years But I’ve Finally Done It
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.
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!