We all have limits. It’s moving beyond them that calls into question our character, inner drive and sensibilities. I can easily count the times in my life when I’ve been at the edge of my comfort zone and had to make the call to quit or to push forward. I faced the demon once again recently on our family Colorado adventure to summit Mt. Elbert, (altitude 14,433′, 2nd highest peak in the lower 48 and high point of Colorado). Footnote: My husband has a bucket list item – summit all the lower 48 state mountain high points.
Not one who wants to be left behind, I added this June Colorado trip to my “vacation” itinerary. That decision triggered training for distance (which I know how to do) and for altitude (which Illinois doesn’t allow for at 586′). My DNA is not wired to do sustained distance high altitude climbing efforts. I am a thoroughbred through and through. A “drop dead” sprinter as all my past swimming coaches would confirm for you. Fast twitch, white muscle fibers – the opposite of slow twitch, red muscles needed for such a feat as summiting Mt. Elbert. But nonetheless, the adventure began at 6:00 am, an “alpine start,” the best way to reach the top and get back down to avoid afternoon weather systems.
Perhaps the challenge is what appealed to me. Or was it not wanting to have my family leave me behind? Whatever the reason, I found myself again at the crossroads of pushing beyond on Sunday, June 18, 2017. The early hours of hiking were pleasant, I could talk and laugh and enjoy the scenery. Once we got above the tree line (about 12,000′), I stopped talking and the struggles began. My pulse raced above 160 at the slightest exertion and with rest, only barely dropped under 140; exhaustion began to consume my body. This first nod to the possibility that I wouldn’t summit crossed my mind while plopped down on a rock and mumbling, “I don’t think I’m going to make it” to my husband. A little encouragement, a swig of Powerade and a bite of energy gel got me back on my feet.
The second realization I was in trouble happened at about 13,500′. Again, collapsing on a rock in utter exhaustion, I barely got out verse two of, “I don’t think I’m gonna make it.” Steve, who had been hiking slowly with me (I have 31″ inseam, so add that to the list of why I’m a slow high altitude hiker) at the end of the group, started to articulate options. All I could think of was that I was the weak link on this family chain and I just couldn’t see holding back my husband’s checking off this state (and mountain) from his list, so got back up and pressed on.
It was the third time sitting down and muttering, “I really don’t think I can make it” that the reality of a failed attempt, just some 500′ feet from the summit kicked in. The weight of my weary body in relation to the thin air seemed insurmountable. My physical self had given in, so it was time for my mental side to convince my body otherwise. A check of my pulse was my only way to verify if I had recovered enough to press on. It was either time to submit or summit. Pause, meditate and take a deep breath; I focused on overcoming. Once my “resting” pulse got under 140, somehow my spent body listened to my inner will to summit. (Meanwhile my husband was making plans in his head to get me back down the easier side of the mountain, but first we’d have to reach the top). I left my poles next to the snow ledge at this point so I could better navigate the rocks with both hands.
Spying family members taking their first steps on the summit was just the motivation I needed to put one foot in front of another. Traversing between the snow route and bouldering over the last pile of rocks, my weary feet finally found the flat summit. My son Owen’s welcoming hug enveloped me, giving way to my silent, uncontrollable sobbing. I had made it, yes, made it. It wasn’t pretty and I had to push beyond to get there, but I got there. Everybody else looked like it was no big deal. But to me it was a really big deal.
So, indeed, this photo is one of sheer joy and utter exhaustion. We discovered a home made cardboard sign left for us by others to help mark and revel in the accomplishment. Cracking open the summit beers they brought, the kids toasted the top of the mountain. As I raised my Nalgene, I could finally bask in the accomplishment. Enjoying the makeshift backpack picnic I had prepared at 9,000′ the night before, energy slowly returned to my aching limbs. It is amazing how good salami and cheese tastes on top of a mountain. Nothing better I thought. Lots of photos later, it was time to think about going back down the mountain. As my legs tightened up, I was looking for the elevator or a helicopter service…
So if you are wondering if I got down off Mt Elbert, yes I did. I’m not blogging from the mountain top, though the cell reception was excellent up there. Our group split up into two – my nephew Jonathan drew the short straw to accompany me down the front of the mountain, which was shorter and less strenuous (thanks Jonny). The others went back the way we came up. I used Steve’s poles and he retrieved mine, which were waiting some 500′ down the mountain for him right where I left them. Although Jonny and I encountered lots more snow on our route, some of which ended up in my britches and down my socks, the easier way down was what I needed. The scenery coming down was euphoric and a steady pace helped my pulse stay under 140 the rest of the trip. Sure, I fell 6x coming down (twice in the snow and 4x on loose rocks), we hit patches of mosquitos attacking us and to top it off, we came upon a washed out road with a raging river running through it and hitched a ride across in a most precarious manner. Twelve hours later we were all back in the same car, sitting in the same seats where we had anticipated the day. We all swam in a silent sea of accomplishment as we rode back to the cabin.
So now the only thing left to do for me is to sew this patch onto my backpack. It is truly a badge of honor for me and will be a reminder of the day I pushed beyond. Will I feel the need to do this again? It may be like childbirth – time makes you forget how painful the labor is. Yes, time will tell. I am ever thankful I made it up and down safely and can spend years sharing stories and memories imprinted by Mt. Elbert.
I wonder what’s next? I hear Machu Picchu calling…