18 August 2009

Mount Elbert

After I climbed Longs Peak, one of the more difficult 14ers in Colorado, I vowed to never climb another mountain as long as I live.

It’s a promise I did not keep and have no intention of keeping now. In the year that followed Longs, I mapped out a schedule to climb as many of Colorado’s 14ers as I am able. Then, the plan was to finish in five years. Here I am, nine years later, and I’m not done yet. But I haven't quit trying, either.

My second 14er came on the anniversary of my first. I (nearly) scaled Mount Elbert on Labor Day, 6 September 2001. Elbert is the tallest peak in the state, and the second tallest peak in the lower 48. The mountain gets its name from Colorado Territory Governor Samuel Hitt Elbert, who brokered a treaty with the Ute tribe that opened more than 3,000,000 acres of Indian reservation to mining and railroad activity. Mount Elbert is known as one of the easiest 14ers to ascend.

You don't really "climb" Elbert. You walk up. That’s even what they call it in guide books. A “walk-up.” I thought I would be literally “walking” up an easy mountain. I didn't expect it to so closely resemble climbing 60 flights of stairs over and over and over again the entire hike! I could reach in front of me and touch the trail I was supposed to be walking up. I remembered why, after the previous year’s climb, I didn’t want to climb any more mountains. But even that was not enough to keep me out of high country for too long.

There’s just something about alpine tundra. It makes me want to keep going back.

The moon was full and casting an eerie blue glow on Elbert’s southern slope when I began my climb. The mountain still was dark enough that I had to be careful about where I put my feet. I didn’t want any rocks or tree roots reaching out to grab my ankles.

An alpine lake in the shadow of the summit was too far off the beaten path to explore and still be able to witness sunrise from more than two miles above sea level. That lake made me remember, albeit briefly, I’m a destination hiker. Not a peakbagger. I like to take pictures of beautiful sights other hikers don’t notice, not pass them by.

When I hit Elbert’s treeline and spooked a herd of elk in the dark, yet another adrenaline explosion ignited inside me. I remembered why I like to hike. During daylight. I like to photograph animals, not scare them. And I definitely don’t like it when they put a few extra gray hairs on MY head!

Shortly after crossing paths with the excited elk and singing aloud "Lions and Tigers and Bears, Oh, My!", I could hear voices of hikers behind me. At about 12,000 feet, I hadn’t expected to make it so far without being passed.

After I cleared Elbert’s first false summit, I decided to catch my breath and let the four hikers behind me pass. I thought I would be able to give the next portion of the climb everything I had if I fully rested and then followed other hikers. I would be able to keep their pace.

The hikers behind me took a long time to pass me. I began to shiver. I noticed for the first time frost on the ground. I hadn’t noticed the cold until I stood still long enough to slow my heartbeat.

When the other hikers finally passed me, we exchanged greetings, and I began to follow, but soon grew discouraged because they were moving much slower than I wanted to go, partly because of the temperature and partly because of the burst of energy I’d mustered.

I stopped again and let the other hikers pull far enough ahead of me that I couldn’t make out their conversation anymore. Then I tried to dig into that combustible energy I’d stored and hustle up the second false summit.

When I saw the true summit, my heart sank. It was much further than the first two had been. I was only about 200 yards beneath the peak, but it was at the edge of a huge bowl I would have to circle. I judged the twilight distance at about half a mile. I sat down on a rock, discouraged and out of breath. Within seconds, my fingers and toes were stinging from the cold, and my earlobes were soon to follow.

I looked out at the eastern horizon. The sun would be rising in about 10 minutes. The clouds weren’t painting the dramatic sunrise I’d hoped for, and the skyline of distant 14ers, due to cloud cover, wasn’t as distinct as I’d envisioned. Momentarily, I entertained the thought of shooting the sunrise and then heading back down the mountain, but my hands were too cold to pull my camera out of my backpack. Plus, I wasn’t sure I’d want to put the pack back on my shoulders if I took it off.

I turned and looked at the summit one more time. I knew I could do it. But would I be able to get back down the mountain?

I stood to judge my strength.

I nearly toppled over. My knees had grown stiff and cold. I was overwhelmed with humiliation, and the summit no longer called out to me. Without a second thought, I post haste began traipsing back down the mountain, hoping that by forcing my blood to circulate again, my knees would loosen up and I would chase the ominous frostbite from my extremities.

I was angry that I got up so early for nothing, but I didn’t regret not pushing forward. I didn’t regret not taking a single photo. In fact, I even convinced myself in the next hour that by failing to summit and having nothing to show for the entire experience, I would never again forget how much I hate climbing mountains. This was a lesson that would stay with me for life. I tried to pat myself on the back and congratulate myself for making it up one of the most difficult 14ers in the state and for attempting to make the tallest summit in the state on defective equipment aching body parts.

Once I got back into the trees, I roamed around looking for a sturdy branch I could use as a walking stick. I went down the rest of the mountain sideways to cushion the impact on my knees. I wore blisters on the downslope sides of my feet. However, my knees were safe.

Because my feet didn’t touch the actual summit, this climb doesn’t count in official circles, and I will go back one day. But for now, it’s number two on my list of peaks I’ve climbed, and you’ll never catch me looking down upon anyone who wasn’t able to make the entire climb. Even after I climb Elbert again – successfully – I will always be able to say I climbed a big mountain alone with no one to motivate me and keep me going and with a bike-wrecked knee and softball-stressed shoulder while lugging 50 pounds of camera equipment that never got used.

One promise I do intend to keep – I will have pictures after my next trip up Elbert!

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