I was in trouble. Why had I thought I could do this? I could hardly keep my eyes open and the urge to lie down and go to sleep was almost unbearable. I couldn’t breathe. Ten steps, rest. Then five steps, rest. Counting out loud to keep myself going…one, two, three, four, five. Rest. The periods of rest were getting longer each time. As the altitude sickness worsened, I developed a splitting headache and nausea. To compound matters, I was working with a severely twisted ankle.
About half of a mile in, I had taken out my new camera, took a picture and a step at the same time and went down hard. I had stepped on a large rock and not only was my ankle jacked up, my new camera was in pretty bad shape.
Now I was on the side of Gray’s Peak in a very bad state, mentally and physically. At the time I wasn’t in the best of shape but I had always been a strong hiker and I knew that Gray’s was one of the “easy” ones. The problem was that I didn’t understand that hiking at 14,000’ was no joke. I hadn’t given it the respect it deserved and was paying for it. Another problem was that I had convinced myself that the temperature was going to be comparable to Everest and I was completely overdressed. I had leggings on under my pants, 3 (THREE) layers on top plus a jacket. I was so hot, but to take things off meant I had to carry them and that wasn’t happening, so I sweltered.
I finally did make it to the top of Gray’s and burst into tears, partly from relief that I had done it but even more because I couldn’t believe the situation I had gotten myself into. At the time, wild fires were ravaging Colorado and the view from the top was obscured by smoke, so the hard work wasn’t even rewarded with a spectacular view. Torrey’s Peak was just up the saddle, but I had no desire to attempt it and my ankle was throbbing. All I wanted was to go home. I thought that getting to the summit was the hard part and that getting down would be easy. I was wrong.
Much to my dismay, the trail down was covered with scree, which made it very difficult to descend, especially for someone in my state. We carry retractable hiking poles in case we need them, and I was using them as crutches because every step was agony on my ankle. My “audibles”, the sounds I make while hiking in pain or exhaustion (which range from grunting to whimpering to long strings of profanity) were in full force. When we made it back to the car I was too exhausted and frankly, traumatized, to even cry.
Painful hiking experiences are much like having a baby. With time you forget the pain and focus on the joy. I never wanted to do another 14er. Ever. And I’ll admit that there was no joy on Gray’s Peak that day, even in retrospect, but as time went on I realized that I didn’t want to give up because I knew I could do better.
We have summited 7 more 14ers since Gray’s and because I respect high altitude hiking now and what it can do to you, I make sure to be prepared and haven’t experienced altitude sickness since. We bring camel backs and drink water constantly, and also stop to eat something every 45 min whether we feel hungry or not. Class 1 and 2 mountains are the highest we attempt, as we have no technical experience, but once we have done all the Colorado 14ers in those classes, we may consider going with a guide to tackle a higher class.
Here are the ones we have done and a few thoughts about them:
Gray’s Peak – 14,278’ Not my favorite 🙂 8 miles RT
Mt. Bierstadt – 14,060’ Now this is a favorite! Beautiful wildflower covered meadows with tons of marmots that keep you company with their funny little squeaks the whole way. A perfect choice for your first 14er. 7 miles RT
Quandary Peak – 14,265’ Another favorite. Mountain goats are everywhere and the view from the top is spectacular. Another great choice for beginners. 6.75 miles RT
Mt. Democrat – 14,154’
Mt. Cameron – 14, 238’
Mt. Lincoln – 14,295’
Mt. Bross – 14,177’
These four are done together. You start at Democrat and go from peak to peak via saddles. We zipped up and around and thought they were the easiest yet. Then reality hit. Getting down was hell. It is very steep and the entire 1.6 miles is covered with scree. We basically slid on our butts the whole way down, while getting passed time after time by spry young people. You can avoid this route by skipping Bross and heading down another trail after Lincoln. Technically you’re not even supposed to go up Bross because of a land dispute or something (we’ll never do it again!), so that hellacious decent was instant karma. 7.25 miles RT
Mt. Elbert – 14,400’ Highest peak in Colorado. Fair amount of snow on north facing slopes, even in August. Bring mosquito repellent for the forest section. 9.5 miles RT.
Handies Peak – 14,058’ On tap for Summer 2017 – UPDATE We hiked Handies and the hardest part was the drive. The “road” to the trail head called American Basin Road has massive holes and boulders and at a certain point becomes impassable without a high profile 4×4 vehicle. We were in Brett’s company van, which has taken a lot of abuse, but couldn’t get beyond a certain point. There is a place to park if you can’t make it all the way to the trail head. Parking here makes the length of the hike 7.5 miles RT, as opposed to 5.5 RT if you can make it all the way to the trail head. This hike really is a piece of cake as far as high altitude hiking goes.
Now back to the question, to hike a 14er or not to hike one? You know what my answer is. If you want to challenge yourself and experience the thrill of viewing the world from 14,000’, you can do it! I’m not an expert, but if you have questions, I will help you in any way I can. While most places don’t have 14ers, amazing hikes can be found everywhere so go explore your corner of the world! I’d love to hear where you go.
And yes, someday I will go back and do Gray’s again and hit Torrey’s as well. I didn’t leave a very good impression the first time.
Overheating and crying on the summit of Gray’s Peak while Torrey’s Peak looks on. It might look like smiling but zoom in. That’s crying.
Ahhhh, so much better! The hike to Mt. Bierstadt is beautiful with its meadows of wildflowers.
Dozens of marmots kept us company the whole way.
No tears this time.
The mountain goats of Quandary Peak.
This sign was already there. Too bad they spelled Quandary wrong.
Mt. Elbert, the tippy top of Colorado.