On Top of the World
I froze outside room 202 peering in, checking my schedule, checking the room number. Something wasn’t right. The weights weren’t attached to machines, but were clanking around and being propelled by pure manpower.
How could I have registered for the wrong PE class? This wasn’t the kind of surprise I was expecting my first day at Texas A&M University. I was a pretty scrawny 5’10” 120 pounder who was active, but had never, ever, been equated with gym rat status. One look around the room and it was obvious I was out of place, with Adonis-type shirtless bodies, and only one other girl in the whole room (actually it doesn’t sound so bad when looking at it like that).
I wanted to crawl under a bench, and then stay there when I got the next surprise. In order to get an ‘A’ for the semester I was going to have to lift a certain percentage of my body weight. Seriously? Getting an A would be akin to climbing Mt. Everest without oxygen or a Sherpa. Shock was an understatement. I thought the bar was heavy.
Surprise. Unknown. And a semester to remember.
Several years later, my sister-in-law and I decided on a whim to climb to the top of our first 14,000-foot summit (a mountain peak reaching 14,000+ feet). I’d hiked all over the place and had explored most every inch of Colorado, but had never, for some reason, hiked a 14er. How hard could it be?
We were in the prime location, Lake City, Colorado, a tiny hamlet of a town snuggled in southwestern part of the state and surrounded by towering 14,000-foot peaks. Every road in Lake City is jaw-dropping beautiful, and is full of flowing rivers, wildflowers, and aspen trees.
We had spent time in Lake City every summer for years, a tradition my dad’s family started back in the thirties, so it’s hard to believe there was anything unknown to us around town.
Knowing that it’s never a good idea to hit any trail cold turkey, we poured over a 14er guru’s book, soaking in as many tips of the trail as we could.
The rule of thumb when climbing above tree line is to reach the summit by noon so you’ll be on your way down before the afternoon storms roll in. Lightning at 14,000 feet is dangerous. The day before, we saw a woman who’d been brought back into town still convulsing from a near-deadly lightning strike. Her dog was not so lucky.
Because of the weather event, we fully understood the time constraint for being off the peak before the afternoon and that it was a serious proverb.
Our husbands convinced our two older nephews that they should man-up and go with us (the husbands couldn’t imagine hiking that long and that far for no fish, but didn’t want us to go alone on our first trek). It’s true you shouldn’t go alone, but we would have been fine, the two of us sassy outdoorsy girls.
As we pulled into the trailhead parking lot early the next morning the sun was sending its purple rays across the mountains, highlighting the July wildflower-covered basin beautifully. Our pockets and packs were loaded with all sorts of Gu-type products and granola bars, and water packed everywhere we could carry it. Eating a high-energy snack every 30 minutes or so along the way keeps your energy level steady as well as drinking lots of water to stay hydrated throughout the trek. Most experienced 14er enthusiasts recommend bringing at least 3-liters of water. A Camelbak type backpack is ideal, but I didn’t have one the first go-round.
No one had to remind us that a thirty-minute block had passed. Our bodies craved more energy (and oxygen) like clockwork. And so far the views were like most any beautiful mountain hike. Lush, lively, colorful, and all was well with world.
As the climb steepened, as fewer and fewer trees surrounded our path, and as we needed to stop more often to look at the scenery (i.e: catch our breath), Debbie and I laughed about growing up to be the old person who still climbed, explored, and had adventures. We couldn’t then, and we still can’t, imagine ever being still and staying indoors at any age. For Debbie, climbing to the top that day was another way for her to revel in being alive and well. She had escaped death a number of times, from a freak accident in the 80s, to a subsequent thirteen major surgeries, and later, complications. We talked about life, the meaning, and all that.
Feeling the fire in our thighs and the shallowness of our lungs we still managed to belt out the tunes of I am Woman and R-E-S-P-E-C-T (while I’m sure my nephews plugged their ears and tried to ignore us). Corny as it may sound, we both felt more powerful while singing and sucking air that day than we’d ever felt doing anything else before.
I’ll admit that we may have pulled and pushed each other the last few steps of the steep summit before plopping down exhausted to devour our peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and slug down big gulps of water. It was at that moment, sinking my teeth into the soft bread that I really looked around me, I mean really soaked it all in. My mouth fell open, peanut butter and all, in pure amazement. I knew the hike would be gorgeous, but I never expected such a view. I never expected to feel like I was on top of the world. And, I never expected to feel so powerful, so strong.
We had done it.
We sat and stared, took photos, and proudly signed our names in the log of accomplishment.
Leaving the summit was hard.
The descent itself wasn’t hard. In fact we ‘surfed’ down a slippery scree slope, jogged and power walked along the trail as our bodies pumped wildly with adrenaline. All the while, planning our next ascents.
Hard to believe that at sunrise this particular morning the whole 14er experience was unknown to me. There’s something pretty sweet about exploring the unknown and about feeling success afterward.
And, yes, I still call it a success even though the last 50 yards or so of the trail, I started tripping over tiny pebbles and sticks that seemed more like boulders and massive logs. I later realized that my toes were numb from the constant banging against the inside of my favorite hiking boots. Little did I know that the incessant, and at the time, painless, banging would wreak havoc on my toes for the next couple of years.
I got the message a little too late that my boots needed to be a half size larger to allow for the constant jolting on the way down.
Toenails or no toenails, the internal high resonated through my bones for days.
If you’ve bagged a 14er before then you know the feeling of a natural high, you no doubt know about the breathtaking beauty from the summit, and you’ve been lucky enough to experience the feeling that you’re on top of the world.
Give it a try.
By the way, I got an A in the class and left that semester feeling just about as strong and powerful as I did the day I bagged my first 14er.
Keep in Mind…
At 10,000 feet plus, the weather can turn on a dime, so be prepared. Dress in layers so you’ll be comfortable from the cold morning start to the warm afternoon sun. More times than not, it’s been pretty chilly at the top. Check out Athleta’s clothes for layering like the Bra Cup Cutout Cami, the Long Sleeve Twist Top or Hopkinton Top, to the Tech Stretch Hoodie and Cascada Vest. As for your feet, be sure to start with Smartwool socks to wick away the sweat and hiking or trail shoes in a half size larger than normal. Test your shoes on an incline to be sure your tootsies will be safe.
I recommend Gerry Roach’s book Colorado’s Fourteeners: From Hikes to Climbs for planning Colorado ascents.
I’ve been hiking 14’ers for a few years now and eagerly look forward the season to bag more peaks, to tick off more checks on my bucket list. As a matter of fact, it’s about this time of year when I step up my cardio-routine and give more attention to building my leg power. Snowmelt will hit the peaks of my favorite Colorado haunts in no time and I will be climbing to the top. Stay tuned for some updated 14er notes this summer.
Whatever the season, set some goals and get moving.
My motto: Get Fit. Have Fun.