Monday, September 12, 2016

I climbed a mountain and turned around

I was out on Saturday, driving around, running errands, when I came over a rise and had this magnificent view of the Rockies. It was a clear, beautiful day - one of those days when I am struck, once again, by how amazing it is to live here.  And suddenly, I felt an overwhelming need to get out there and climb a mountain.

I carried that transformative hike up the Longs Peak trail with me to Emma's funeral. I started walking to work as a way to foster the healing process. Walking gave me a release and made me feel closer to her.

Last year, around the anniversary of her death, I climbed Mt. Quandary to scatter her ashes.

And I guess my brain has decided that I have to make it an annual thing - a hard climb as a way of honoring her by pushing my physical limits and celebrating the beauty of the world and of being alive. I felt compelled.

So I called my friend Christin, my hiking buddy on Longs and Quandary, and someone who I really love hanging out with. She was game, so we agreed to meet at the crack of dawn and climb Mt. Bierstadt.

As soon as we solidified the plan I had this sense of dread. Fourteeners are so hard for me. Above 12,000 feet, I really feel the altitude and it's a struggle.  Quandary was an emotional hike and I'm glad I did it, but it also kicked my ass physically.

"It's going to suck," I thought to myself. "It's going to be hard and grueling and I'm going to feel like shit. I'm out of shape from being sick so long and I'm still coughing sporadically and it's going to suck."

But I couldn't back out. I had to do it.

I stopped on the way home from errands and bought new hiking poles. I went to the grocery store and loaded up on snacks. I went home and made sandwiches and laid out my clothes. I packed my backpack and threw in my inhaler (that my doctor had prescribed for the coughing fits) just in case. I went to the app store and downloaded an altimeter onto my phone, so we could track our altitude. On Christin's advice, I threw in a parka, hat and gloves, because it's been chilly up in the mountains. I tied my green Red Sox baseball hat to my pack - Emma was a Sox fan and I'd worn that hat on all my other big climbs.

The entire time I was thinking, "ugh, why am I doing this?"

That thought stayed with me after a shitty night's sleep, and after waking up at 4:30, and as I drove out in the dark to meet Christin at our designated meeting place. We had a laugh because she had a shitty night's sleep as well, and we were both thinking about how we were going to be tired and it was going to suck.

But we got to chatting and perked up as we drove up to the trailhead. The sun came out and the view was beautiful and we were happy to be out there once we started.

At the trailhead. Christin was right - it was chilly.  And as soon as I saw this picture I ordered new long hiking pants - those capris look ridiculous.
The sun comes up behind the mountains.
My sense of dread turned out to be unfounded - the hike was spectacular, perhaps only second to the Longs hike that was so perfect. The setting is gorgeous - lots of greens and golds, beautiful vistas all the way up, and some truly phenomenal clouds.  It was cold and windy and overcast on the way up, but we were prepared and it wasn't unpleasant at all.

Heading up the trail through the willows. Those clouds, tho...
that jagged peak behind us is called the Sawtooth. Behind it is the summit of Mt. Evans, which I climbed three years ago (it was my first fourteener).  The Bierstadt summit 
is out of the picture, to the right.
There were a lot of people doing the climb that day. That's the view 
behind us as we were climbing up. 
The view down the mountain from about 13,500 feet.  Check out the nuns in full habits. They were impressive climbers - they passed us on the way up and on the way down.
The view up towards the summit from 13,500.  It looked so daunting, 
but it was only another 500 vertical. 
The climb was challenging, but it felt much less grueling than last year's. I think it's because Quandary is more of a steady uphill climb up the ridge line, so it feels endless and kind of boring.  Bierstadt has more switchbacks, so you'll have a really steep pitch and then it will level out a bit and you can catch your breath.

The last 200 feet are actually kind of fun - rather than straight hiking there's a lot of boulder climbing, which Christin and I really enjoyed.

And then we were there and it was exhilarating. The views were breathtaking, and right when we reached the top, the wind died down, the clouds parted, and the sun came out.

The crowd at the summit.
I love this shot. This guy sitting with his feet hanging down, with the incredible view of the mountains and valleys in the background, is quintessential Colorado.

We hung out at the summit for about 20 minutes. I ate my PB&J. We talked about Emma a little bit and I teared up, but mostly I felt this sense of elation, almost like doing the climb in Emma's honor and having it go well was kismet (even though I don't believe in that sort of thing). What I thought would be a painful act of mourning felt more like a celebration, and one that Christin and I decided we would do every year.

As we had done on the way up, we talked the entire way down - an analysis of Kundera's The Unbearable Lightness of Being, the ethical dilemmas of putting an infirm pet to sleep vs. pulling the plug on a human who was ready to die, the most cringe-worthy antics we got up to in college, the importance of access to quality reproductive health for women, the uncomfortable dynamics of having to fire an employee, and on and on. As we were descending, the nuns hauled ass past us as they recited "hail Mary, full of grace..." We laughed, and maybe rolled our eyes a little.

By the time we were at the bottom, it was warm and sunny and we had shed our winter gear.

Before heading to our respective homes, we stopped in Idaho Springs for celebratory beer and nachos. The beer was the tastiest beer ever brewed. The nachos were the most perfect nachos ever assembled. And after another perfect hike, we planted the seeds for next year's celebration.

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