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).
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!