for the first time that i can remember, i set out to climb a mountain but didn’t make it to the top.
the Persied meteor shower passed by my neck of the woods last weekend. it’s an event that frequents once a year, just after my birthday. maybe it’s a gift from the Pachamama herself, but more likely it’s simply science (a concept i regularly ignore with preference to ghosts, aliens, coincidences, mermaids, magic, luck and faith).
saturday evening 14 of us set out from Denver, leap frogging by car into the darkness of the west and my favorite valley in Colorado. the plan was to climb a 14er in the name of Persied. around 10:30pm or somewhere after with headlamps strapped to our heads and packs to our backs, we started to hike towards Mt. Harvard (the fourth tallest mountain in the lower 48).
there were nine boys and five girls. i knew the girl who invited me and i knew her boyfriend, too. i had invited one of my own, a girl i’ve found to be the perfect competition/motivation during my morning runs and lunch training (in addition to being as big of a wanderlust as i am). she brought two friends, a boy i’d met briefly at my birthday party a few nights before (playing giant jenga during karaoke at a drag bar affectionately named Hamburger Mary’s) and another girl i’d never met. the rest were complete strangers.
in my lifetime, i’ve climbed far more mountains than i can count but i’ve never really thought of myself as a “summit bagger.” instead, i’m a mountain goat. for me, it’s about getting above treeline. it’s about whispering to the high alpine flowers that hug tightly to the slopes. it’s about looking out onto the world below. it’s about letting my legs prove their worth. of course, i love shouting from the top in nothing less than a victory cry. that’s the cherry on top of the rocky, steep cone.
but i think being a true summit bagger would mean i’ve kept count. i haven’t. i don’t take my summit picture holding the sign with the peak’s name. i have zero desire to climb all of the 14ers in the state or the country or the world. i just want the journey. i just want the climb. instead of marking each trip with a check off a list, my memories of summits are a blur of beautiful landscapes usually taken in by shiver from the cool altitude breeze. sometimes, my memories are even colder.
in yellowstone national park, i climbed a beautiful thing named Electric Peak. the approach was long and we had to backpack in just to ease the mileage. we spent the last few miles up navigating scree fields that moved with every step. we passed one actual mountain goat, but weren’t fortunate enough to spot a wolverine. at the top, we looked out and celebrated our victory. we saw storm clouds to the west, but they were plenty far away. in less than a half an hour, it was sprinkling. then, raining. then, hailing. the hair on my arms stood straight up as i ran/scree skied down the face of the mountain quite confident i was going to die either from lightning strike or poor foot placement. i had hail welts on the back of my legs for two weeks and scraps on my arms from the bushes we hid under once we finally found shelter below the scramble zone.
that same summer, i backpacked to a place called Heart Lake. it rests at an impressive 7,641 ft. it’s home to grizzly bears and the most mosquitoes i’ve ever seen in my life. we hiked in to climb Mt. Sheridan the next morning. that night, a storm rolled in. it poured. lightning filled the sky three to four times per minute. thunder boomed so loudly it filled my chest as if i was standing 2nd row at a radiohead concert (been there, done that). i laid in my tent half horrified, half invigorated, fully certain i was going to die.
i’ve hiked over countless passes and saddles and ridges through storms that genuinely could have taken my life. i’ve seen blue skies change to black to navy to green faster than you can say “there’s no place like home.” i’ve even trudged in rainstorms when there weren’t clouds in the sky. there were times when i was being irresponsible, ignorant, or maybe naive, but there were times when the weather just won.
i can’t remember the hour (1, 2am?), but after a good five miles at least, we came above treeline towards Mt. Harvard. climbing at night is completely disorienting because you have little concept of distance, location or further pursuit.
looking up at the stars for the first time out of treeline during a meteor shower is even more disorienting. it’s breathtaking, even on nights when it’s cold enough to see your breath. the sky was clear and the stars were shooting.
we kept moving up and the group started to split. skill levels became apparent; elevation started to weigh in. the higher we climbed, the more we could see, but what we could see wasn’t much of anything at all. it was a dark night on a tall mountain. even the stars started to disappear.
as we gained elevation, my nerves started to rise. i started to think about all of the crappy tennis shoes i saw at the trail head instead of mountain worthy boots. i thought about the river we crossed at least three times by stone steps, and how likely it is that feet got wet. i thought about the guy i saw wearing jeans or the girl who got a nose bleed while we drove through Leadville, already feeling the effects of the altitude. i thought about the other guy who’s headlamp died miles back or how even the working lights disappeared instantly with a change in step or a new boulder blocking its shine. i thought about all of the climbing books i’ve read and all of the experienced, well respected climbers who have lost their lives due to the unpreparedness of others or the weather simply winning.
i thought about the fact that clouds were rolling in and standing at 13,000 ft, i had no idea what the weather looked like.
i decided to stay back to consult other climbers. there were only two people ahead of me, so it was a good time to make a decision. as each climber passed, i pointed out how few stars we could see, how the horizon line had disappeared, now filled with black clouds and unknown intentions. each climber looked out and agreed, there were more clouds. then, they kept hiking without giving it another thought. when the leader of the group showed up (hiking back with the stragglers), he made a joke, “if you see lightning, run.” i half laughed, not knowing what to say. i thought about how many times i’d run down peak sides in broad daylight searching for shelter and how tonight, i couldn’t see more than five feet ahead. if we see lightning, i thought, we’re dead.
deciding to turn back on a climb is harder than the climb itself. it takes discipline, clear thinking and a little bit of heart break. it’s hard to remember that getting to the top is only the halfway mark. the way back down is often when altitude symptoms actually appear. it’s when adrenaline wears off and the exhaustion sets in. it’s when water runs out and legs start cramping. it’s the hard part.
approx 1/2 mile from the top, and very near to 14,000 ft, i spotted rain kissing the ridge of neighboring Mt. Columbia. I made the hard decision to turn back (my friend joined me). as we headed down, we passed all of the remaining hikers still pushing for the summit. i told each of them what i saw, and they still did not care about the rain or the clouds or the cold or the tired. they wanted to bag it. they wanted the top. i let them go on because i believed they needed to learn for themselves what hail and lightning and rain and fear felt like above treeline. i wanted to be safe, dry, and capable to help them if an emergency did arise.
i spent the first part of the hike down trying to reassure myself i’d made the right decision. i worked through scenarios and counted all of the times in my life that i shouldn’t have made it. i thought about how there’s only one summit on my mind and it’s not Mt. Harvard. at this point, i wouldn’t risk Mt. Kilimanjaro for anything. i worried that maybe i was even getting a little soft, boring, or safe. but soon our conversation drifted to better things like boyfriends and backpacking trips and dreams of traveling the world. at one point, my friend had to take an emergency pit stop off the trail. unfortunately neither of us had toilet paper or kleenex or even soft sided grass, further evidence to our unpreparedness (what? everybody poops). inevitably the conversation moved to squatting-in-the-woods stories and poop stories and stories that prove i’ve never been accused of being a lady. soon i started to just enjoy the journey again.
when we had reached the bottom of the boulder field, my companion and i took off our packs, laid on rocks, and looked up at the stars. we spotted what i’m certain was a ufo, dancing spontaneously in the night sky. we gasped at meteors soaring by.
then we started to get cold and she started to get spooked. she turned her headlamp back on and looked around. i tried to comfort her. “i have a knife,” i said without admitting i couldn’t imagine using it on another living being ever (I mostly carry it to cut apple slices).
my friend looked at me blankly and said, “you’re right. you have a knife and i have poop in my pants. nothing’s going to touch us.”
around 4am completely exhausted sitting at 13,000 feet after climbing for six hours through the night watching meteors devour the sky above, i laughed so hard i almost peed my own pants. what an incredibly epic journey, i thought to myself.
after returning back to civilization, i called my brother (the person i trust in the woods more than anyone) and told him the whole story hoping for reassurance. he listened quietly.
then he simply said, “it’s not about getting to the top. it’s about the journey.” turning back, i have no regrets.