My First (Incomplete) Fourteener

I didn’t know the term “fourteener” until I moved to Denver. Wikipedia validates this: “In mountaineering terminology in the United States, a fourteener is a mountain that exceeds 14,000 feet (4,267.2 m) above mean sea level. There are 546 fourteeners in the world. The importance of fourteeners is greatest in Colorado, which has the majority of such peaks in North America.”

Last weekend, we hiked Mount Harvard, a fourteener in the Sawatch range. Someone neglected to tell me it was the third highest mountain in Colorado. The route was 13.5 miles (You can get an idea of it from the photo at 14ers.com). We started out at 6:15 AM and got back to the trailhead at 6:45 PM. I did not reach the summit.

We camped overnight at Cottonwood Lake nearby. In order to be able to finish the hike in daylight, we woke up at 4:30 AM. I’ve learned that many worthwhile activities in Colorado—skiing, hiking—involve rising at ungodly hours.

Cottonwood Lake on Fourteener Eve
Cottonwood Lake way too early in the morning
Hiking is an odd enterprise because you spend a prolonged period of time with your own thoughts. You might be hiking with other people, but I find that you don’t talk much. If you’re like me, it’s because you can’t—you’re out of breath.

This was taken at a wooden bridge that will become important on the way home.
On the past two hikes I’ve thought of the line from The Satanic Verses: “Everything will be required of us, and everything will be given.” This is to say that I find the surrounding natural beauty rewarding, but fuck, it is physically and mentally exhausting.

The initial leg of the hike was chilly and pleasant. We ran into two older women who were aiming to hike nearby Mount Columbia. One rule of the woods is you always greet passing hikers. For someone who grew up with East Coast Elevator Etiquette, this still requires effort. The women told us there would be snow at the top, but that we would make it.

The best part of the hike was when Edward Cullen slung me on his back and climbed this tree.
This was the first hike I did wearing actual hiking boots. Proper footwear makes a huge difference! The trail was muddy, with the winter’s snowfall not dried out yet. The boots helped with stone jumping and monkey walking. Hiking requires a lot of ungraceful movement, particularly around “technical crossings.” Remember how I told you I learned many things on my last camping trip? For example, technical crossings are crossings of streams or other obstacles that usually ends up with you getting wet, clinging to a bush, and/or jumping like a jackass from one bank to another. This hike had one notable technical crossing. We avoided getting wet on the ascent by crossing a snow bridge slightly upstream of the trail.

Technical Crossing

I have very little conception of time or distance traveled on the hike. On flat ground, I know how long it takes me to cover a mile. On a climb that I knew would take half a day, I tried not to look at the time much. I guess it’s about a mile an hour all told, but the up miles take a bit longer than the downward ones.

What I was thinking about: food.

After about 2 hours (?) the trail led out to open space and we could guess at the goal. Overall the trail was well marked, but there were parts, especially with the snow, where you could lose it. We met a couple (and their DOG!) who had veered off course and climbed the wrong ridge for a while.

That peak in the background is where we are headed.

I took pictures of the hike with my phone, but they do not do justice. It was stunning. I wouldn’t do this otherwise.

I go to the hills when my heart is lonely.

What I was thinking about: I sang “The Sound of Music” in my head about 800 times. I sent out some prayers of thanks.

The upper half of the hike got interesting. It required rock scrambling, which was fun. It required tromping through snow, which was not, because you don’t really know how deep the snow is and you want to avoid falling in to waist level. Thus you step where you see others have stepped.

The altitude can be a problem. At this stage I found that my breathing was normal, my legs felt good, but my heart was pumping like it would fly right out of my chest. I had to slow down as the climb got steeper. This leg of the trip could be titled:

Keep Your Shit Together, Part 1
I would count ten steps under my breath, and break for ten seconds. It was my hiking application of the “run-walk” method of race training. This pace put me far behind the rest of my group, but I was perfectly fine with that and knew it was the only way I had a chance of getting to the summit. (JP’s sister and Farzad had completed two 10-mile runs in the past two days. I would not put our abilities at equal.)

This happened.
Looks can be deceiving. Sometimes you think you see the summit, but it turns out it is a crest. My breaks got more and more frequent. Everyone advises you to keep moving because restarting is always the worst. I know that from running, but my pulse was at DEFCON 1.

We had climbed several rock fields and snow patches and passed an “unnamed peak” of 13,500 feet. I got to a point where I saw another hill of snow to contend with, and all desire to go further left me. I had pushed through the feeling about two or three times before. This was it. The distance to the summit was not far, but at my pace, I estimated it was at least another 45 minutes. At this time we had been hiking for 8 hours. The summit would not happen on this trip. I found a large rock to sit up against and took a snapshot.

Not bad, Colorado.
I ate a lettuce, tomato, and cheese sandwich. Food is the best.

I could see the summit from where I was sitting and guessed at which people might be JP, Nina, and Farzad. I tried to determine when they were leaving so that we could meet back up. I felt refreshed after lunch, but I always find the hike down to be more difficult. Or, it’s difficult in a different way. The climb up requires more physical exertion, but the trek down requires more focus to avoid things like tripping on a rock and spraining an ankle. Alone, starting the descent is a segment I like to call:

Keep Your Shit Together, Part 2
One lesson learned very quickly is that as the day goes on, the snow melts. Do you know what is fucking terrifying? Trying to traverse a mountain in melting snow, slipping every few steps, and seeing boulders below you to welcome you should you lose your footing. This was the worst part for me. I began that ragged, panicky breathing and instead of walking I mostly crawled with hands and feet in the snow to try to advance. I stopped, trying to gain composure, and talked to myself, out loud. (This indicated that shit was serious). “Brian, you have to relax! You didn’t make it up here by freaking out.” This helped marginally. I continued crawl-walking across the snow. When I made it back to solid rock, I looked up and saw JP and the crew on their way down.

The advantage of snow still being on the mountain was soon revealed. The next segment of the trip was the best part. We had seen others doing it on our way up the mountain, so when we got to a long slope of snow, we slid down, as you would on a waterslide. The man from the couple we saw earlier put the dog on his lap and slid down. (The dog made it all the way to the summit.) It saved a lot of walking, too.

That shape is me getting a frozen enema!
The dominant thought at the start of the trip down is to avoid getting injured. It is scary to think what happens if you get hurt when you are still five miles away from the car in an area where phones are useless.

The snow bridge we used to cross the stream in the morning collapsed by the time we reached the stream again. JP and I talk off our boots and stepped through the stream. Freezing!

The ending phase of all hikes for me is the same. You scour the area to see if you recognize any landmarks, something that will communicate that you are almost finished. You become obsessed with reaching this point. I knew we crossed a wooden bridge about a mile into the trail. I plodded on, silently angry, seething, eventually just a sweaty ball of rage with one thought: WHERE THE FUCK IS THE BRIDGE?!?!?!?!

We reached the bridge. I was elated for about a minute. It meant we were close to the end! The end was only a mile and a half away! Only. Hiking miles and real miles must be like dog years and human years. I picked up the pace, thinking the trail would end at every corner. Each time the trail kept going the anger would build back up. There is absolutely no talking during this leg of a hike. If you’re like me, it’s because if you open your mouth you would breathe fire (dangerous to do in these surroundings). At the end of the trail, I half-heartedly raised my arms and gave a quiet, weary variation of the Victory Fist.

I want to finish a fourteener before I leave Colorado. It will never be my favorite activity, but having come so close and missing means there is work to be done.


Yvonne said...

I am proud of you Brian!

Erica said...

Brian, you are one of the funniest people I know. I'd go hiking with you any time. Perhaps we can both climb our first 14er in August! I'm thinking Mt Evans, where you can drive almost to the summit and only have to walk a quarter of a mile... :)