I summitted my first fourteener in July.
I meant to summit two.
I did a lot of research before I went. I was staying in Denver for the most part, so I wanted something within a reasonable drive. Spectacular scenery was a must. I also wanted a relatively doable hike, because I only had one shot at this–it’s not like I can fly back to Colorado every weekend. I ruled out Pike’s Peak pretty quickly, because while I probably could manage it, I wanted something I absolutely could take on, barring factors outside my control such as thunder storms and altitude sickness.
That left me with Mt. Bierstadt, Quandary, Gray’s, and Torrey’s. I chose Gray’s/Torrey’s for one simple reason: Two peaks in one day. The route is totally doable: 8.5 miles, Class 2, highly populated trail. There’s a perennial snow field, but nothing regular hiking boots can’t manage. Easy.
In the month leading up to my Denver trip, I asked anyone with fourteener experience for advice. Do I really need four wheel drive to get to the trailhead? (Yes. Do not second guess this.) What time should I start hiking? (Pre-dawn, both because of parking issues and to avoid afternoon thunderstorms.) Is the trail safe for solo hikers? (Yes. Well-populated, Class 2.) How do you prevent altitude sickness? (Eh. Some get it, some don’t. Many people suggested a dose of ibuprofen the night before and then again an hour before hiking. This worked for me. Acclimation also helps. I didn’t try to hike a fourteener my first day in Denver.) How hard is it really? (For Gray’s, if you can run a 5k, you can do this trail, even if you’re not really a hiker. Although the more you hike, the easier this will be, obviously.)
It was pitch black when I drove from Denver to the trailhead, which was a shame because the drive through the mountains is gorgeous, as I discovered on the way back. The parking lot was almost full by the time I arrived, even though it was not yet dawn. The temperature was a perfect 39 degrees. (Bring gloves and a hat, but don’t worry about bundling up too much. Hiking will keep you warm.)
The trail starts out nice and easy. There are a couple streams, but nothing that will get your feet wet, at least when I was there. I don’t know if they ever get bigger. The first few miles go through a beautiful meadow. The wildflowers are incredible. I wanted to take pictures every couple feet, but I forced myself to continue, promising that I would take my time on the way down. I moved through this section pretty quickly; the trail here isn’t steep or rocky.
I started to feel cocky.
And then the altitude increased.
At first I barely noticed that my pace had significantly decreased. The trail became steeper, but still not what I would consider hard, under less-altitudy situations. My legs didn’t burn, although they started to feel heavy. I wasn’t struggling to breathe, and no headache.
Somewhere around 13000 feet or so I realized the view wasn’t changing. Behind me was a lovely green peak. In front of me was the monotonous, never-ending trek across gray rocks. I wondered if I had time for a nap.
Three bros decided this was the perfect place to light up. I was deeply offended. How dare they flaunt their lung capacity like this? I decided if they made it to the top, I would push them off into the snow field, and that made me feel a little better. (They didn’t. They probably never intended to.)
I paused to rest again ten steps later. I was too tired to sit down, so I just stood there on the path. In the distance I saw a white fuzzy thing.
“Is that a dog or a goat?” I asked a solo hiker who also stopped to rest.
He got really excited about this. If we had been at 11000 feet, I probably would have been, too. He hustled over to take a picture. Eventually I started moving again. The goat was still there. I took a picture with my phone, not bothering to take out my real camera, which I was hauling up the mountain for the sole purpose of taking pictures of goats.
My pace settled into a new rhythm. One, two, three, four, pause. One, two, three, four, pause.
I made it to the top, along with a bunch of other people. There were a couple cardboard placards left under rocks, detailing the place and altitude. I briefly thought about picking one up for a photograph, but I really couldn’t be bothered. I ate a Clif bar and squinted at Torrey’s.
People gave me lots of advice about the effects of altitude on the body–shortness of breath, nausea, headaches that feel like a railroad spike is being pounded into your eye sockets. For me, it came as a general malaise and a strong dislike for anything that wasn’t a bed.
Not once on the hike up did it occur to me that I wouldn’t summit Gray’s. The idea of turning back never flitted across my soggy brain. Barring injury or weather, once I’m on a mountain, I get to the top, no matter how hard it is. If I had started on the trail to Torrey’s after I left Gray’s, I would have finished it, simply because any other option wouldn’t have occurred to me. There’s no doubt in my mind.
Which means that when I was back down to 13000 feet, I started kicking myself. How could I have made such a terrible decision at the top of Gray’s? Look how much energy I had now! I was practically frolicking among the wildflowers!
Looking back, I still have those conflicting emotions: Elation at summitting my first fourteener, and deep annoyance at my failure to take two. This changes things for me. My plan was to do Pike’s Peak next summer, and I’ll still do that.
But first I’m going to climb that goddamn mountain. The gauntlet is thrown. Torrey’s, I’m coming for you.
(I mean, not until like July 2017, but still. It’s happening.)
Below: All the wildflowers.