This is a journal entry from my summit of mount Beirstadt on November 15, 2012. This marked my third 14,000 ft peak summit. I am scheduled to check a few more off of my list in the fall of 2013.
By the time I pulled into the parking lot at the trailhead it was 10am, which is late for attempting a round trip summit especially this time of the year. The temperate at the base was roughly 30 degrees and the day was sunny with few clouds in the sky. Having tracked the weather for a few days I knew I had a window of opportunity. Off to the west I noticed a few dark clouds and I kept a close watch. Most storms roll-in from the west and when you are at high altitude they come up quick. I had been informed by a number of folks, including an Idaho Springs park ranger (Idaho Springs is about 15 miles from the base of Bierstadt) that one of the many dangers of high altitude climbing is lightening. Storms hit the summit quickly and often times accompanying the snow, sleet and rain are lightening strikes. As you will see in the pictures above 12,000 ft there are no trees or even low growing bushes, so a climber makes for a nice target.
Though this was my third 14,000 ft summit attempt, I must admit I was a bit nervous. I was hiking by myself, and it was late in the season for an attempt of a 14er, unless you have winter climbing experience, which I do not. Several of my friends including a couple that live in Denver suggested I wait until the spring. They said, it is too cold, too windy and the weather is unpredictable. Could be stupidity, stubbornness, a slight addiction to adrenaline, or all the above that propelled me on.
The drive from downtown Denver had taken three hours to reach the trailhead. I stepped out of the car, took a deep breath filling my lungs with cold crisp thin air. Gazing up to the peaks of the Arapahoe mountain range I thought of the beauty and the struggle I would experience on my quest to reach the summit.
I took off my jeans in tennis shoes to layer-up for the hike. I put on fleece pants, waterproof snow pants, two pairs of wool socks and tightly laced waterproof snow boots. I pulled on a thermal undershirt, a cotton tee shirt, a long sleeve polartech shirt, a fleece vest and subzero powder jacket. Considering I had little snow and winter hiking experience I thought it would be a good idea to be prepared for the unexpected, so I brought along my High Sierra 65 liter backpack. This is a large pack that can hold enough gear for a 5-7 day trek. I packed it with an emergency blanket, dry clothes, micro spikes for my boots, winter face mask, gloves, three liters of Gatorade, four liters of water, three protein bars, two packs of energy gu, a pack of energy beans and three mini snickers. I couldn’t think of a better excuse to eat snickers without the gilt. My pack weighted around 20 pounds, which doesn’t sound like much, and as I started up the trail I thought, “no big deal.” Wow, I could not have been more wrong. I had no clue as to how heavy 20 pounds can feel as you punch through 14,000 feet.
The first few hours the trail meanders through a large valley in and out of incredibly thick swaths of willow bushes. The ground was frozen, scattered with ice and packed snow, which made the footing a bit questionable. All the more attention needed to be paid to where your boot landed. As the switch back trail led me out of the valley toward the stoic saw tooth peak, I paused to take-in the view. I stood there amazed at the harsh beauty of the jagged rock face. Something was not right, or not normal. I realized in the 2 hours I had been hiking I had not seen nor heard a single animal. Not a ground squire, a hawk, a blackbird, nothing. The only sounds I could hear were my labored breathing, the wind and my boots pressing into the snow. I have experienced nature’s beauty in a myriad of places but never void of sounds from living creatures. I was alone in the purest essence of the word.
Experiencing not the silence of the world, rather the silence of living creatures the thoughts within your mind increase exponentially. More than once during the trek my mind would leave, wandering elsewhere and I would snap back to the present not quite sure how long I was away. Pressing onward and upward above 13,000 feet the terrain becomes sterile, resembling pictures of Mars, a desolate windswept mountainscape offering harsh winds and blinding sun.
Reaching 14,000 feet the summit was at the top of what can only be described as a large pile of boulders. No obvious trail or path could be seen. I dropped my backpack in order to better maneuver over, around and through the boulders. Nearing exhaustion I pulled myself over the last outcropping of rocks to reach north summit ridge. I stood at the top of Mount Bierstadt and the feeling was euphoric. I signed the summit journal, absorbed the beauty, said goodbye and started down.
The climb to the top is a physical challenge, but the climb down is an intense physical and mental test of willpower. You still have another 3 to 4 hours of hiking before the day is through. The conversation within your mind is a jumble of commands. Don’t slip, trip and twist an ankle. Watch the knees. Where are the storm clouds? One foot in front of the other. Don’t stop. Keep moving. Got to get down before dark. Keep drinking. Keep eating.
One interesting side affect of altitude and perhaps exhaustion I experienced on this hike was yellow spots appearing in my peripheral vision on my way down. The spots appeared around 12,000 feet. I figured if I could keep moving, not stopping until I got to thicker air they would go away. I feared if I stopped I might pass out and that certainly would not be fun. I knew the parking lot at the trailhead was close but I could not increase my pace. The altitude headache had kicked into full gear and I was having a hard time walking more than 20 feet without having to stop, bend over and take several deep breaths fighting the urge to throw-up. At this point no more quiet internal conversations, I shouted out loud, Come on don’t quit! You can do it! Don’t be a F’ing P#$$*!
After six hours I was back to the parking lot at the trailhead. I was completely spent. I took one last look up at saw tooth and Mount Bierstadt before turning the car down the mountain heading back to Denver.
Perhaps it is not stupidity, stubbornness or addiction to adrenaline. Rather knowing you have conquered adversity pushed the boundaries of one’s mental and physical limits. Peeling away the layers discovering inner strength.