“Experiences, not things” is a motto I am striving to live by. In several posts over the last year, I was concentrated on losing things, but I have also been hunting down experiences I would like to engage in.
One such experience was hiking up a 14,000-foot mountain and experience it in Colorado, known as a 14er. When I first heard of a 14er, I couldn’t even get my head around why anyone would want to do that. People I had talked to who had done them described them as long, painful, potentially dangerous, and amazing. When I actually thought about doing one, and I found myself getting nervous at the thought, I knew I had to do it.
Yesterday I went up 14,270 feet to the top of Grays Peak. It was every bit as awesome as I thought it would be.
Some experiences can’t just be had for free – you need to work to have them, and a 14er is one such experience. I have been hiking almost every weekend for eight months to prepare. I kept looking for longer, tougher hikes and hikes at higher elevations to get prepared.
Keep in mind that when I first thought of this, I was quite a bit overweight, nearing 50 years old, and not exactly in great physical shape. Since changing my diet and subsequently losing some weight, I’ve been feeling the best I have in years. So when I conquered several tough hikes and the Manitou Springs Incline, I felt ready for the challenge.
I went with a friend who has done a lot of 14ers and her Chocolate Lab “Champ”.
We started at around 7:00 AM at the trailhead past Idaho Springs, Colorado. It was a little chilly but very sunny, beautiful Colorado day. But the key to a 14er is to make sure you are heading back down the mountain by noon, as the weather can change and even become dangerous up there very quickly, and they often do.
There are three sections to this particular hike; The start, which is a good incline, but relatively easy. The second section is a bit more of an incline with a lot more rocks, and the whole third part is a rocky, high-grade incline with switchback after switchback.
This hike started at 11,280 feet above sea level and went 8.5 miles up to 14,270 to Grays peak.
The weather was gorgeous until we got up to about the third section. At that point, it got cold and windy, and we stopped to put on some additional clothing. At this point, we also did something I had never done before: We stepped right up into the clouds.
The people you meet on these hikes are awesome; they are in great spirits, friendly, encouraging, positive, and will jump to help any stranger who may be in trouble or distress.
Even at the start, the elevation means it’s a little tougher to get your breath while exerting yourself. The higher you get, the tougher that gets. The only way to do is to stop every time you’re having trouble catching your breath and your heart rate is too high. For most of the trek, I probably stopped to catch my breathe every couple of blocks. I had to take a seat and rest a bit at least four times on the way up. As I got closer to the top, I had to stop to catch my breath every couple of yards. In the last couple of switchbacks, it was more like every couple of feet.
My hiking companion has lived in Colorado most of her life and is in really great shape. She could have made this hike in a lot less time. She went at her own pace ahead of me but often stopped to make sure I was okay and still moving. Her dog Champ was the coolest thing ever. He would follow his owner, occasionally darting off to chase a smell, but would quickly come back. As we got farther apart, Champ would often run back to me and make sure I was okay. Once he and I made eye contact or scratched his ear a little bit, he ran ahead to make sure she was still okay. He did that all the way up and back.
Towards the top it was, as I was often told, a case of mind over matter; while your body is screaming to quit, you have to keep those feet moving. It was at this stage of the hike that I thought of all the people that had been encouraging me and that I couldn’t let them (or me!) down. I had to make it, and it wasn’t a choice to quit.
I even stopped several times because I thought I was going to hurl. I never did, but it sure felt like it was going to happen.
So to recap, as I neared the top, my lungs were on fire, my legs were worn out, it was freezing (I was told later it was in the ’30s), I was sometimes nauseous, and the low oxygen levels had, in fact, made me more than a little loopy. I kept looking up and seeing switchback after switchback and then looking down to avoid the thought of “it will never end.”
When I thought there were two switchbacks left and I was really questioning if I could make those, I looked up to see my hiking buddy yelling, “This this the top!” and she was all of a few yards in front of me.
That last few year was physically a challenge, and when I got to the top, it was what I imagine winning a 26-mile marathon would feel like. The peak was quite thin, with steep drop-offs on either side. Hikers who had made it were all celebrating, taking pictures, texting loved ones, posting to social media, hugging, having some sandwiches, enjoying the views (through the clouds).
We took some photos, rested a bit, helped others take pictures, gave Champ a snack, and then decided to hurry up and head back down because of the cold.
Another thing I was warned about was that going down is a lot harder than going up. As we started down, it felt great that my lungs were not working so hard, and my legs felt good. But as we got to the second part of the hike, it started to rain, and it got slippery. It made it a lot more work on the legs and jumping down the rocks quickly took its toll on my knees.
Then it started to hail, and I was still wearing shorts. They got wet, the back of my legs got pelted with hail, and I realized the real danger in a 14er is the weather. If you got stuck for any reason on that hill when that weather goes bad, you would be in real trouble.
But we made it; Seven hours and twenty-seven minutes from when we started, we were at the trailhead again. Tired, worn out, and thrilled.
When I got home, I was so beaten that I had not realized that I had eaten only some egg white and Canadian bacon for breakfast and some trail mix all day throughout the day. But I was not the least bit hungry all day until I got home and rested a bit.
So with that experience under my belt, the question is: Would I do it again?
No question about it, I absolutely will do it again, and I’m already looking forward to it.