One popular leisure activity during summer months here in Colorado is hiking to the tops of 14,000+ foot high mountains. For Denver residents, this is a (relatively) easy undertaking, since there are several 14ers within an hour or so drive from the city, and there are umpteen books and websites describing various hiking trails to get one to the top of said mountains.
Yes, I said 14,000+ foot high mountains. Many of you may know that Denver’s nickname is the mile-high city, meaning the official altitude is 5,280 feet above sea level – a bit lower than that of Santa Fe, but significantly higher than the capitols of most states. This means that, in climbing a 14er, a Denver dweller will ascend approximately 9,000 feet in just a few hours, in driving to the trailhead and hiking the mountain. I don’t know how many of you have visited altitude while living at sea level, but let’s just say that altitude can have an interesting effect on one’s physical and mental health (it’s a lot easier to get drunk, for one thing, which has the correlating effect of enabling Dan and I to drink like rock stars when we visit sea level). The first time I visited Colorado we drove up to Rocky Mountain National Park my first day here and drove to the parking lot near the top of a 12,000+ foot peak, then hiked the rest of the path to the top. I was considerably loopy that day, being completely unused to altitude, and that evening at dinner I was off my rocker having consumed 1/3 of a glass of wine.
Aww, aren’t I cute? This was August of 2001.
Here’s Dan on the same day.
So climbing a 14er can be a bit of an undertaking just in the unforseen effects altitude can have. There’s a reason why John Denver sang about a Rocky Mountain High – the most common symptom of altitude I get is a brain high from the lack of oxygen. One can also get cramps of various sorts, nausea, lightheadedness, fatigue, and muscle weakness, among many other things, and this can happen to people who live in Denver or even in the foothills – you never know what altitude might do to you on any given day. So when one prepares to climb a 14er, one must be prepared for any or all of these things to occur.
One must also prepare for other things – you need to bring a lot of water and some food, since you’re burning a lot of calories when you hike. You need to be prepared for sudden weather of all types, since the one predictable thing about 14ers is their unpredicability. It can be the end of July and you can have a snowstorm, rain, hail, thunder and lightning, all just minutes after the sky was clear and blue and beautiful. There’s just no way to know. Therefore, climbing a 14er can be a bit of a gamble, since you never know what your body or the weather might do. It’s part of the challenge, part of the adventure – will we make it to the top today?
Most 14ers are inaccessible for the majority of the year to people who are inexperienced. One can need some serious equipment to tackle some of the more challenging mountains, since they’re covered in ice and snow about 10 months out of the year. Most of us try to get in our 14er climbing during the two months where you’re more likely to have clear trails and decent weather (at least before noon), so during that brief period of time, the trails can be pretty crowded on weekends. Some of the easier trails (and by easier, I mean mostly just hiking and not a lot of rock climbing) can have lots of dogs and/or kids. Dan, for example, summited Gray’s Peak when he was 8 years old.
The best precaution (and most conventional wisdom) surrounding the climbing 14ers is to be off the summit by noon. This means one needs to hike up the mountain in time to be able to start hiking down by noon, since afternoon is when storms are most likely to occur. Let’s just say that it is extraordinarily unfun to get stuck at the top of a 14er during a lightning storm, since you are thousands of feet above treeline and usually have no cover to protect you from the storm. This also means that one must wake up at the buttcrack of dawn to drive to whichever hiking trail one will be using and start the hike in time to get to the halfway point (the top) before noon. Some trails on some peaks are longer than others, so some people actually start the hike one day, stay overnight, and finish the hike the next morning before coming down. Some trails are short enough that people can start hiking at 8 or 9 AM and still start back down before noon (depending on how fast one can hike, and how difficult the trail might be – like I said, you never know what might happen at altitude so it’s better to assume you’ll be slower than faster) – but this still means you have to get up early, get in the car, drive to the trailhead and start up the trail before a lot of people even wake up on a weekend.
This past Sunday, we got up at 6 AM, having packed and filled our camelbacks the night before. We blearily ate bowls of cereal, put our hiking boots/shoes in the car, and drove west on I70 for a while until we got to a road that would lead us to the trailhead for Gray’s Peak. Our plan was to summit both Gray’s and Torrey’s peaks (one can do both in one day, since there’s a half-mile-long trail between both summits). Our plan was also to drive to the trailhead, but it had been a few years since we drove that road and it’s much worse than it used to be. We got only a little way before having to turn Moxie around and park at the base of the road. Dejected, we decided that we probably wouldn’t get to summit both peaks that day since we wouldn’t have enough time, but we gamely began to hike up the rutty, bumpy, muddy 3-mile-long road to get to the trailhead.
Luckily, someone took pity on us when we’d hiked about a mile up the road, and we hopped in the back of their truck only to find 5 other people in the same boat. The seven of us shared a short adventure in the truck and were very grateful when we were deposited at the trailhead with plenty of time to begin our hike. We started up the trail right away. My hiking style is the opposite of Dan’s – I hike in short, fast bursts and then stop, burst and stop, while he hikes slowly and steadily. So in effect, I end up waiting for him, hiking ahead, waiting, etc. It usually all works out (eventually) but on Sunday Dan realized after we’d only gone a short way that he wasn’t feeling especially well – the altitude started to bother him. That particular trail up Gray’s is about 4 miles long, during which time one ascends about 3600 feet in altitude, which means one STARTS the trail at over 10,000 feet – it’s not exactly easy to hike uphill starting at 10K feet, even if one lives in Denver. I kept asking him if he was OK, and he kept saying he wasn’t sure but that he wanted to keep going. Eventually even I ran out of my freakish altitude-induced energy and had to eat something to stave off the nausea that’s the second altitude symptom I generally experience.
The halfway point on the hike is marked with a sign that tells you that you are 2 miles from the summit of Gray’s and the estimated hiking time from that point is 1.2 hours. I suppose if you’re in really really good shape and climb 14ers all the time you might make the summit in that amount of time, but I doubt most people do – we generally give ourselves an hour for each mile, just to be on the safe side, but the first two miles of the trail weren’t too bad (of course, we were climbing UP but it wasn’t as bad as the second part of the trail). The third mile is somewhat more difficult, and of course all physical activity becomes more difficult as one climbs in altitude since the air is so much thinner and it becomes harder to get enough oxygen. We saw big groups of kids, lots of dogs, lots of people of all ages on our hike, and by the time we’d finished 3 miles I was pretty sure Dan wouldn’t be able to make it to the summit that day. Especially because the trail became less of a hiking trail and more of a “scrambling over rock that has some dirt here and there” trail.
I turned around at one point and could see how exhausted and miserable he was and waited the few minutes for him to catch up with me. We decided that if he was having that hard of a time during that part of the hike that it wouldn’t make any sense to summit and then have to come back DOWN the mile of rock (down is much more difficult than up on the rocky bits) and then down another over 3 miles to the trailhead – and then possibly down another 3 miles to the car if we didn’t find someone willing to give us a ride to the bottom. We’d probably made it 3.5 miles of the 4 mile trail to the summit of Gray’s, but it wasn’t worth what it would have taken out of him (or worth risking further illness or injury due to exhaustion/altitude) to summit that day. As soon as we turned around and started back down, he seemed to feel a little better, and we both felt better once we got back to the part of the trail that was actually trail-like. We headed for a grassy area and had a little mid-morning picnic, since it was about 10:30 AM at that point.
I hadn’t taken any pictures on the way up the trail, being too focused on making my body do what I wanted it to do despite it telling me it didn’t have nearly enough oxygen to do those things. But during our picnic, and on the trip back down the mountain, I took lots. We passed some amazing scenery and some gorgeous fields of wildflowers – all taking advantage of the super-short mountain summer to bloom their fool heads off. The trail took us through mountain willow (sort of a scrubby plant) and all the way back down to the treeline where the trailhead begins. We sat a bit and rested, then continued down the road until a passing car stopped to pick us up, and we had a nice conversation with some strange people who also like to hike until we got to the bottom of the road. It was 12:30. We drove back to Denver, showered, and took naps and decided to be lazy for the rest of the day. Our hike, while it didn’t include the summit of a 14er, was still a success, and was plenty of exercise for a Sunday morning.