Fourteener: n. "In mountaineering terminology in the United States, a fourteener is a mountain that meets or exceeds an elevation of 14,000 feet above sea level."
Colorado has 54 such mountains.
Standing on top of this mountain was, quite literally, like standing on top of the world. It's hard to explain how high up 14,000+ feet feels like or how tall and insurmountable it seems from the bottom. As I stood at the top, I truly felt like I could do anything. (But mainly I felt terrified because, as I said, we were incredibly high up).
There was so much anticipation going into this hike for me. I've seen pictures of my Colorado friends hiking 14ers since I started having Colorado friends - almost 3.5 years ago. To me, they were an unfeasible goal. In my head, these 54 peaks were virtually impossible: long (possibly multi-day) hikes, mountaineering skills, and altitude acclimation, among other things like not living anywhere near one of these peaks. After moving here, they became slightly less unreachable, but only because I was geographically closer to them. I was still incredibly intimidated by the notion of a peak over 14,000 feet in elevation (and even though I knew Mount Bierstadt is the most accessible, the thought of actually summiting a mountain gave me chills of anticipation and fear).
I had been doing my very best to keep this trip a secret. I wanted people to be taken aback and in awe when they see a summit picture. Also, I didn't want to talk a big game and then have something prevent Logan and I from hiking it (like the damnably changing weather). What I lacked in public hype, though, I made up for with behind the scenes preparations. When Logan and I moved out here, we had next to nothing as far as hiking/camping equipment. Logan had boots (that have now broken), I had an old pair of tennis shoes that tore my heels apart. Logan has somewhat adequate clothing thanks to football film crew in the winter and Eddie Bauer outlet shopping. I probably had perfectly adequate clothing, but I pretended I didn't for the sake of buying new things (I made a deal with myself that whenever I order something from Amazon, I have to also purchase something that will go towards camping/hiking. It has turned into me only buying things for camping/hiking)
Things I have purchased:
- Waterproof matches
- Paracord bracelet (with whistle and fire starter)
- Dry fit t-shirt
- Camelbak 2.5 liter water reservoir
- Fleece pullovee
- KEEN hiking boots (pictured above)
- Two pairs of hiking socks
- North Face hiking pack (THRIFTED!)
This really isn't close to being all that we need, but it covers the basics while keeping us safe. It's getting to be a little late in the season for us novices to backcountry camp, but mom graciously offered to lend us a tent (thanks mom!).
As far as mental preparation goes, I read a ridiculous amount of blogs and hiking websites, looked at hundreds of pictures of the route, downloaded maps, and generally filled my brain with all things Mount Bierstadt.
And even after all that preparation, I had no idea what I was in for.
Unless you have climbed a 14er yourself, there is no way for me to explain what it feels like. Trees stop growing between 11,000 and 12,000 feet because there isn't enough oxygen for them to grow and it isn't warm enough long enough to stimulate growth. Our hike began above the timberline. At around 11,000 feet, oxygen is 2/3 that of at sea level, meaning you get out of breath very quickly with very little exertion - as it turns out, climbing a mountain takes a significant amount of exertion and on our way up the steepest incline, we stopped every 25-50 yards to catch our breath and get some oxygen to our muscles.
The trail up Mount Bierstadt begins with a downhill slope (something I would curse, often and loudly, on our way back) through a meadow speckled with lakes and creeks. Approximately .75 miles in, the trail begins a series of switchbacks up a relatively shallow incline. The trail was pretty narrow here because of the this bushes that grow at that elevation - passing people was incredibly difficult and made for awkward encounters. 2 miles in, we reached a ridge that Logan thought was right below the summit (because it was so steep, you can't see the actual summit from that point). Turns out we had another 3 miles to go, mostly straight up. At this point I had to put my camera away because the going was so tough and rocky that I was worried I was going to fall and break it. At almost the top of what felt like and endless uphill battle, we saw 3 mountain goats and used them as an excuse to stop for about 10 minutes and regain what little energy we could. We finally reached the ridge right below the summit, out of breath, exhausted, and freezing, only to be greeted by a 300-400 ft tall pile of boulders we would have to scramble over.
This scramble was easily the most terrifying part of our ascent. Once on the boulders, you're given a 270 degree panoramic view, which also allows you to see how high up you are, and how steep the edge is if you lose your balance. Logan was a champ and guided me through the boulders in the safest possible way, while keeping me calm and not allowing me to stop and turn back. (I was so exhausted both mentally and physically, I thought about turning around several times). However, we reached the top at around noon and it became so worth it. 14,000 feet in the air, as it turns out, is very cold. I was wearing spandex, long pants, a dry fit shirt, a fleece, and gloves. Logan was wearing two pairs of shorts, a thermal shirt, a normal shirt, a jacket, gloves, and a hat (We took the gloves off to work the cameras so you won't see any pictures of them, but we wore them for about half the hike).
I made this summit sign for our pictures at the top, and was super excited to get to show it off. After we took our pictures, two different families asked me if they could borrow it because they liked it so much! Once we finished sharing my sign and taking in the views and watching birds play in the wind below us, we decided to make our way back down. We followed one of the families who borrowed our sign down about half of the boulders, and then caught up with a safe part of the "trail" (it was really just an area that most people walked on so you could tell there was a path) and finished scrambling down. We took a pit stop so I could photograph the beautiful succulents that grow that high, and then picked our way down to the trail. Logan and I managed to make our way down with only minor falls (thanks for holding me up the whole way, Logan) and were going about double the pace we ascended at. At that point we had been on the trail for 5 hours (like I said, we grossly underestimated the strenuousness of a 14er) and our legs were jello. We managed to descend the steepest part safely, and began to breathe easier - literally.
Going down was so much easier than going up, but by that point the sun had come out in full force. I had to stop to take off my long pants, and then again a little further to reapply sunscreen. The sun is so much stronger at that altitude, and even though you might be wearing gloves and a hat, you have to put sunscreen on repeatedly to protect yourself. Logan and I ended up getting some pretty hilariously shaped sunburns from not applying sunscreen often enough, but wearing so many layers.
7.5 hours after we started, we finally made it back to the car. We stood there, out of breath, exhausted, and sweaty, and looked back at where we came from. This was the hardest thing I think I have ever done, both physically and mentally, and also the most incredible (as Logan said, "I think I'm dead. But we still have more to go so I must be in hell." And, "we will never climb another first 14er. This was amazing"). Not many people can say they've climbed a 14er, and this is an accomplishment Logan and I will remember for the rest of our lives.
(Hover over any of the pictures for descriptions)