If you read last week’s post, you know what this week’s will be about. If not, here’s a quick catch-up: to celebrate my 31st birthday, I wanted to try climbing a mountain over 14,000 feet high – a fourteener, in hiker lingo. I enlisted the help of my mountain-savvy sister and her husband, who live in Alamosa, Colorado. We decided we’d tackle Mt. Yale – it’s not far from Alamosa, and my sis figured it would be relatively beginner-friendly.
We arrived at Collegiate Peaks Campground (Mt. Yale shares a swath of the Sawatch Range with Mts. Princeton, Harvard, and Columbia) late Saturday afternoon. We pitched our tents, strolled the campground, did a quick reconnaissance trip to the trailhead, ate supper, and hit the hay early like responsible little hikers. The night’s temperatures dropped a bit lower than expected, but we managed to catch some Z’s before the birds started warbling wake-up calls.
We went on a super-short “wake up the legs and lungs” run, broke camp, and scarfed down a delicious breakfast of homemade banana bread, peanut butter, and honey. Then… on to the mountain!
I wasn’t nervous so much as excited and curious. I knew the hike would be challenging, but well, I was fit, right? I run long distances, I live at high altitude, and gosh darn it, I have willpower. So off we went, into the wilderness.
The first leg wasn’t bad. We had soft, fragrant pine needles under our feet, and a rollicking brook flowing parallel to the trail. We had to cross that brook several times, which made me gulp a little because of my notorious clumsiness, but the crossings were all thankfully splash-free.
We kept on climbing. The temperature dipped and we noticed a small breeze, but nothing surprising – hey, it’s a mountain. We put on long sleeves, slurped some more water, and continued.
And then I learned a very important lesson: Above treeline, things get real.
Treeline, in case you’re wondering, is the point on a mountain where the trees just…stop. Some really cool things about this part of the mountain: Every way you turn, you see views that justify every patriotic song ever written. You can see marmots, high-altitude cousins of groundhogs, scuttling their plump little selves between rocks. You can tell yourself you’re that much closer to the summit.
Some ugly things about this part of the mountain: Lack of trees = total exposure. That little breeze turned into a gust that eased up approximately three times. It blew sideways and carried our breath directly away from us – fun, when the air was already thin! And proximity to the summit meant, on this mountain anyway, rocks. As in, scrambling over them. I’m generally okay with heights, but testing my balance? Different story. Again, that whole clumsiness thing. I get spooked.
Things came to a head about a half-mile or so from the summit. Between the wind, and getting spooked by rock-scrambling, and those two things combining to make normal breathing a chore, I hit a wall. Not like a marathon wall. This was harder than any marathon I’ve ever run. Mountains don’t have aid stations, or big crowds to cheer at you, and there’s certainly no “just put one foot in front of the other” mentality. You do that, and you could put one foot in front of the other right over a cliff.
In that moment, I did what I’ve staunchly refused to do during even my toughest marathons. I sat down and cried.
But that’s why God invented big sisters: to soothe you, calm you down, and help you remember that little skill called breathing.
So I got up, wrinkled my nose defiantly in the direction of the summit, and told myself I could DO this!
Except I hit the wall again. This time, I was clinging to a rock like it was my firstborn. I was mad at myself and mad at the wind and frustrated and tired. My sister, bless her, calmed me down again. I sat there (still grasping the rock just a little), looked up the trail, and saw more of the same. Rocks, wind, misery. My body said “We can probably do this, we have the stamina!” My mind said, “No.”
That really sucked.
I told my family I was ready to turn around. We did an about-face and started the trek back down. I was disappointed, but took some comfort in knowing we had still climbed a considerable distance – higher than Wheeler Peak, New Mexico’s tallest mountain. Not a bad mountain-climbing debut, I suppose. We also had some marmots pop out to greet us, one of which I swear actually posed for my camera.
Getting back below treeline was FABULOUS. Protection from the wind! Warmer temperatures! The thrill of being alive! We tromped back down the mountain, stopping twice for snack breaks. The afternoon warmed up a lot, but luckily, no sneaky thunderstorms typical of fourteeners crept up on us.
We finished the hike mid-afternoon and bee-lined to the aforementioned brook, where we took our shoes off and gave our feet the most heavenly soaking that I, personally, have ever experienced. Then we headed back to Alamosa, stuffed our faces with pizza and hummingbird cake, and breathed a collective “ahhhh.”
To sum up: It was one of my best birthdays ever. I’m still trying to sort out all the lessons I learned from Mt. Yale. And…I kinda want to try another one.