Thursday, September 22, 2016

14 surprising things about climbing a 14er

I recently accomplished something I wasn’t sure I could do.

I climbed a 14er.

(Me on the top of Gray’s Peak)

In the mountaineering world, a 14er is a mountain peak that stretches up at least 14,000 feet in elevation.  Colorado has 53 of these bad boys.  A few of those are classified as “easy”  with well worn and highly trafficked paths.  Many are quite challenging and even dangerous.  My friends and I chose Gray’s Peak because it was recommended as “perfect for your first climb.”  Sold.

As a tribute to this enormous, life changing feat, I thought I would share the surprising, the challenging, the shocking, and everything else that I experienced on the way.

1.) Early wake up call

Ask any climber, and they will tell you, “Start your climb early and plan for quick changes in weather.” Basically, afternoon storms are a real threat, so the earlier you can summit the better.  Reducing your chance of being caught in a lightening storm all exposed on the top of that peak is smart climbing.   Since we live a couple hours drive from the trailhead, that meant we had a very early wake up call.  Like 3 A.M. early.  It was actually not hard to wake up.  Falling asleep was more of a problem.  I guess I was just too excited…

(Right at the bridge at Steven’s Gulch Trailhead….still kind of dark!)

2.)  Up is just so….up….
Yea.  I know how dumb that sounds.  I mean I set out to climb a mountain, right?  I think somehow in all of the reading and research I did to mentally prepare myself, I had convinced myself that it really looked like a pretty nice gentle slope for most of the way.  Of course, the top would be hard, but the lower part couldn’t be that bad, could it?


Oh so wrong.


You cross that bridge and right away settle into a steadily steep climb that has you huffing and puffing right away.  Or at least I was.  We walked as far as we could, stopped to catch our breath, and tried not to take it personal when lots of people passed us by.  This is our journey, not theirs.  Who cares how long it takes? 

3.)  Where’s the air?

No, really….it’s seriously thin up there.  I think the trailhead starts at around 11,000 feet, quite a bit higher then what we were used to.  Like I mentioned already, this meant lots of stopping to catch our breath.  As we neared the summit (probably the last 1,000 feet in elevation) it got even harder.  I started to feel the effects of it with all the classic altitude sickness symptoms: dizziness, headache, nausea, racing heart.  I saw one woman with a portable tank of oxygen, and started wondering why that little item hadn’t made it on my  “what to bring on your 14er climb” list.  Oh well.

4.)  I’m so thirsty but I don’t want to pee….

In preparation of the climb, I purchased a daypack and a water bladder that holds 3 Liters of water.  I also packed a couple of sports drinks, just for good measure.


Trying my best to avoid the altitude sickness (that I ended up with anyway), I drank a few sips every time we stopped.  My comrades did the same, and it wasn’t long before one member of our group needed to potty.  By this point in the trek, we were past all of the trees and the closest thing to provide any sort of privacy were low growing bushes.  Of course, when nature calls, you’ve got to listen or risk walking the remainder of the climb with wet pants.  I managed to summit and had been descending the mountain for about an hour, when I had to obey the call.  All I had for cover was a small rocky stair.  I had to pee so bad, that I basically resigned myself to the idea that people were gonna see me go on this mountain, so who cares?  My legs were in no condition to hold myself in a squat position so this meant sitting right on the grassy-ish patch of earth to do my business.  It also meant that since I couldn’t really hold myself up to ease my pants back on, I ended up flashing a group of descending climbers on the switchback behind us.  Yikes….

I will easily admit, that this was the one part of the climb I was (quite foolishly) anxious about.  It became very evident along the way that many others had to do the same, and now I can proudly say that I peed on the side of Gray’s Peak!

5.)  Your travel companions make all the difference

(Melodie and I, Maya and Melodie)

I’d been toying with the idea of tackling a 14er all summer long, but couldn’t really find anyone available (or willing) to go this year.  So when my friend Melodie casually mentioned that she and her daughter were going to climb Gray’s Peak, I eagerly invited myself along.  I also invited myself to spend the night before the climb at her house.  She’s really amazing like that!  She hosted the sleep-over, and then after the ridiculously early wake-up, drove us to the trailhead.  This included the 4WD stretch of road that was steep, rocky, and so rough, we nearly got stuck. 

I really owe her big time for all that she did to make this climb a reality for me! I found that having friends along that  know how to have fun was really important to me.  I also couldn’t have made it without all of the encouragement and positivity that both ladies steadily gave out.  We talked until our voices ran hoarse, celebrated our victory at the summit, shared in our general shock and awe at just how far we’d gone, and even provided each other with “Pee Scout” services.  (You know,  the lookout….)  I’m so very happy that these beautiful women are part of my climbing story!

6.)  I should have bought those hiking boots from Sierra Trading Post….

I’d recently retired my last pair of Brooks after logging over 900 miles in them.  I knew I wouldn’t have time to break in a new pair of hiking boots, so I opted for a pair of trail runners with an extra thick sole. 


The shoes did very well, after very little “breaking in” the week before.  My feet actually did ok too, though walking hurt for several days afterward.  The worst was my sore big toe, from going back down that steep mountain trail.  I probably could have prevented some of that by re-lacing and tightening my shoelaces, but honestly…I couldn’t easily bend down to do it!  My legs were so sore and tired.  I had one goal in mind at that point and that was to reach the car.  Melodie and I joked that we would be asking for hiking boots for Christmas.  You know, for the next climb.  Winking smile

You definitely want a pair of boots if you don’t have a really thick sole.  Otherwise you’ll feel every one of those rocks on the trail.  Speaking of rocks….

7.)  “Holy Rocky Mountainside, Batman!”


This was the part of the trail that I started to feel really ill from the lack of oxygen.  And those rocks!  It was challenging stepping up one tall rock after another.  This is also where I remembered why I avoided doing the stair climber at the Y.  I really don’t like climbing stairs.  Or rocks.  Why did I think this was a good idea?

I think it was near this point that we were passed by a gentleman in his 70’s, who confidently told us he was a bit slower this time around than the last time he climbed it.  I was really feeling weak, slow, and now I was starting to get discouraged.  We also encountered the first people to descend, which meant that they had passed us on the way up and were now passing us on the way down.  Ugh.

Just keep moving.  Step…..step….step….breathe….don’t vomit….don’t pass out….step….step….breathe….

8.)  You will meet all kinds of people, and some of them just may save your life.

Ok I may be exaggerating a little.

This is the part of the story that I get all choked up over.  I seriously spent the entire day after the climb re-living this amazing experience and bawling my eyes out.  It could have been from sheer exhaustion, but I know myself…I really do tend to get sappy over stuff like this…

Like I mentioned, I was really struggling.  We were to the switchbacks and the climbing was hard. My legs were tired, my head was pounding, and I couldn’t shake the feeling of puking up the power bar I’d just eaten.  I had to stop after every few steps and was seriously doubting my ability to make the summit.

The problem was, I really didn’t want to give up.  I wanted that summit and so onward we climbed, even after my friends graciously offered to descend with me.  Nope.  It’s not going to end that way. 

Right then a group of three passed us up.  One man in the group looked at me and asked if I was okay.  Nope.  I want to vomit.  He had me reach in his backpack for a packet of GU, told me it would help with the altitude sickness and give me the energy to summit.

(The key for me was not looking up at how far I still had to go, but looking back instead, at all I had done!)

He and his friends stayed with us for the rest of the climb up, cheering us on, pushing us forward, and distracting us just enough to be able to push through.  Sure enough, the GU started working, and although the climb was still difficult, I suddenly could walk 50 steps instead of 5.  My pounding headache was gone and so was that annoying nausea.  Before I knew it I was stepping onto the summit of Gray’s Peak, barely able to hold back the emotion and relief of making it up there.  I really don’t think I could have made it without this help from these three amazing people!

9.)  The summit is worth it!

Gray's Peak 3Gray's Peak

Really, the pictures do not do it justice.  The sheer will and determination that it takes to get here and then you are rewarded with this amazing view!  Right in the belly of the Rocky Mountains.

I bawled my eyes out when I summited, it was just such an incredible experience for me.  I hope I never forget the feelings, the view, or the people who made it topside with me.  So many times I wondered if I could make it.  So many times I was tempted to turn around.


But that summit was worth all the work, the sweat, the sore muscles, the achy toes.  Worth all the training, the preparation, the early wake up. Proud doesn’t even begin to touch how I feel about this accomplishment in my life.  Victory comes a little closer, but still falls woefully short.  It was nothing short of a spiritual, life-altering experience that I hope opens up a willingness in my life that hasn’t been there before. A triumph over a very hard thing that could easily translate into many areas of my life.

10.)  I like going back down

Gray's Peak 2

We spent a little time at the summit, but it was far too windy to enjoy the snack and break that we’d planned to have up there.  It had also gotten late, so down we went.  The first hour or so was slippery with loose gravel and steep switchbacks.  After that came all of the tall rocks, not exactly easy on the knees.  I’m crediting all of those Body Pump classes at the Y that built up my quad muscles, though now I think I should have spent just as much time on the stair climber too.

(I still can’t believe I climbed UP that steep mountain!)

There’s a complete switch in your mental state after summiting.  You go from, “Oh my goodness, I can’t climb another step” to “I just climbed that mountain!  I can do anything!”  (That and “I really need to get down this mountain so I can pee!”)

There is a joy in your heart, a lightness to your step, and the smile that disappeared has found it’s was back on your face.  You may even realize how hungry you have gotten now that breathing feels easier.

11.)  Feed me

Sure, we were all hungry on the way down.  We talked about what treat from Starbucks we wanted once we made it into Idaho Springs. I’d packed several snacks in my new daypack and had a cooler full of goodies waiting for me in the car.  Chips and Guacamole, Sausage sticks, Cheese and Crackers, Honeydew, Tate’s GF Chocolate Chip Cookies, Peanut Butter, Power Bars.  We ate what we could and went on our way, too tired to actually stop at the Starbucks and too eager to get home to waste the time doing it.  By now it was nearing 5:00pm…

(Near the end of the trail….an absolutely beautiful autumn day!)

I was completely starving by the time Saul came to pick me up at Melodie’s house two hours later.  He fed me a yummy spaghetti dinner that helped quiet my gnawing stomach.  It wasn’t long lasting though.   The three days that followed I could not get enough food in my system.  I was hungry all the time!  I wanted fried fish.  I wanted cheesecake.  I really wanted chips and queso.  I remember sitting on the sofa texting Saul every hour or so, begging him to bring me some food.  On Friday my mom took me out for lunch and as we were leaving the restaurant, my stomach growled for more.

12.)  Recovery is serious business

Ok so this may seem really dumb, but I was not at all prepared for the recovery.  I figured I’d be sore that night.  I’d certainly be tired.  I knew that Thursday I’d have the house to myself because the boys would be in school and the girls were still camping with their grandparents.  Honestly I was (naively) planning a light swim, a few errands, maybe even a bit of cleaning.

It’s okay….you can laugh at me.

My husband was laughing too.  Every time I rolled over in my sleep, he said I groaned and grunted in pain.  I couldn’t bend over to pull up my pants, so rather than fight with them all day, I opted for a nightshirt.  Walking, sitting, standing, and laying down were all incredibly painful, even with the round-the-clock doses of Tylenol and Motrin.  I even took a few doses of L Glutamine hoping to ease my muscle recovery (and speed it up too!)  Somehow I managed to put on a pair of sweatpants so that I could go pick up the boys from school that afternoon.  When one of my sons snarkly commented on my impaired walking abilities, I called Saul and cried on the phone.  He reminded me that I probably needed more food, and not to take the comments of 12 year old boys too seriously.  Alright….solid advice…

The next day I was managing the stairs a little better.  I was walking slow, but I was walking.  Mostly I was really tired.  On the third day, I was tired of feeling lazy.  Since Saul was taking the kids to the Y, I decided to join them for Zumba class, which looking back, probably wasn’t a really smart idea.  I somehow made it through 45 minutes, waddled my way to the lobby, and pouted.  Golly.  How long is this recovery going to take????  I celebrated with more food and a three hour nap.

13.)  Telling my family about my climb was almost as rewarding as the climb itself.

I was really excited to share my experience with Saul and the kids.  They’ve faithfully cheered me on all year as I’ve tackled one new challenge after another, and this was no exception.  I still get really emotional telling the story.  I guess I just really want them to learn from their mom that you can do hard things.  I want them to be brave and try new things.  And I want them to have a lifetime of experiences like this.  If I can inspire my children, even just a little, I can count that a huge success!

14.)  My first but probably not my last

I came home, fresh with the painful experience in my mind and told my family I was done climbing mountains.  This was met with sheer disappointment from both girls and Isaac who all said they wanted to climb a 14er with their mom!  Oh….seriously sweet!

I think I’ve already gotten “mountain amnesia” because even now I’m thinking of ways to improve my next climb.  What?!?  Yea, that’s right.  I’m going to have to do this again.  Next time though, more serious training, especially on the stair climber.  Having GU is essential.  Probably hiking boots too. 

It’ll be a while for the next climb.  I’m nowhere near any kind of shape to be tackling it now that I know what I’m up against.  But the kids need to be older anyway, so I’ve got plenty of time to get ready.  I also have a lot to look forward to: who better to tackle my next mountain with than my amazing kids?

A very special thank you to these two beautiful, amazing,
courageous, kind, smart, fun ladies who I have the privilege to call friends!  I Love you both!

(Melodie, ready for the next one? Winking smile)