I like oxygen.
Whether it is simple easy breathing at sea level or sucking air while hiking a couple of miles higher, I like oxygen .
On my “want-to-do” list for the last couple of years has been to successfully climb a 14er (a 14,000+ foot high mountain), and I am delighted to have a friend say she will join me on this adventure. Even though I have lived in Colorado for a few years, as a native Floridian, I am not too sure if I will be properly acclimatized or not. There is only one way to find out.
We choose a Monday, review some websites (www.14ers.com and www.alltrails.com), and organize our gear. I borrow a new Osprey backpack, complete with a two liter Camelbak water pouch, which makes me feel prepared and look as if I know what I am doing.
Leaving my home by 4:30 a.m. is a feat in itself, but I don’t want to be late for my 4:55 a.m. pickup at Debbie’s house; after all, we want to park at the Mt. Bierstadt trailhead before the parking lot fills up. And, getting an early start will mean we’ll be off the mountain before any afternoon storms roll in. I talk to Siri on my iPhone and request directions to Mt. Bierstadt. It is unnecessary since I know we are headed to Georgetown, where we will pick up the signs to the trailhead. Nevertheless.
Mountain or Trailhead?
Mountains are mountains and trailheads are trailheads…and when I originally asked Siri for directions to Mt. Bierstadt, she gave the directions via Mount Evans. We’re 30 minutes up the wrong mountain before I realize we aren’t in Georgetown. Duh. That is what a 4:30 a.m. start-time does to me. I then ask Siri for directions to Mt. Bierstadt trailhead, circle back, and are ultimately are relieved to get the last parking spot at the real trailhead. It is 8 a.m.
A visit to the restroom, an extra Advil, and a shake and a jostle to set the pack just right on my back, and we are off. We are happy. It’s easy; the trail is actually a wooden footpath, built over the marsh. And somehow we are descending, which is nice. Can’t quite figure out why people say this will be hard.
Eventually the footpath turns to hard packed trail which winds its way up the side of the mountain. We talk, we hike, we enjoy the sun’s warmth and camaraderie along the trail. We burn an hour; we are closer, but hmmm, still a ways to go. Another hour. The path now has steps and bigger rocks to avoid. Sawtooth, the jagged ridge between Mt. Bierstadt and Mt. Evans, is rugged and beautiful. I’m glad I won’t have to try that one. We break for snacks, to pet a dog or to put on a layer when the sun disappears and the wind picks ups. I sip water from the hose on my handy Camelbak often. My heart rate is steady in the 120-130s.
Debbie and I separate along the way. I’m sucking air and can’t keep up. She’s bouncing along and only later do I learn she too struggled (just 100 yards in front of me!). Grey clouds are moving in, the wind is picking up and now there are little snow balls falling on us. They melt immediately, but I’m concerned about our exposure. We meet again and devise hand signals so if we separate again, we can easily communicate. Our bright blue jackets make it easy to see each other on the mountain.
My heart rate is steady in the 140-150s. I’m cranky. I have a slight headache. I eat but I’m not hungry. No need to pee. Light snow returns, and I give the signal to Debbie that we should descend. She waves me off and continues up. I’m torn – I did not want to go this far and not reach the summit, but I also don’t want to get caught in a storm. Other hikers feel we all have enough time to reach the top and still get down safely. Decision changed, now here I come!
But here come the big rocks and it’s time for the scramble. It takes a good half hour to climb up and over boulders and to make my way to the summit. We are happy to connect with each other up there; it would have been too easy for Debbie to descend on another route that I couldn’t see. My heart rate decreases, I eat half a sandwich. The snow has stopped. We take turns with other hikers posing for photos; we are on top of the world, at least our world for the moment. We are 14,060 feet high, which is well over two miles above sea level. It feels good. Really good.
Geography 101 teaches us that Mount Everest, the world’s highest mountain, rises 29,029 feet above sea level. So half of that is 14,514. At the Mt. Bierstadt summit, we figure we are just shy of Half Way to Everest. Wow.
Now that it just took me nearly four hours to hike 3 1/2 miles, it is time to hike another 3 1/2 miles back to the trailhead and I hope it won’t take that long. On Mount Everest, they say most accidents happen on the descent. Hmmm. My legs are tired, but with each step I’m getting more oxygen, so maybe I’ll be ok. And remember, I like oxygen.
For the first half hour we hike down huge boulders, sometimes sliding along on our butts. My upper body and shoulders, ensuring safety and security, are getting a workout. Alas, Debbie and I get back on a trail and we stick together. It is well after noon, and we see fewer hikers, but we are not alone. We are steady in our pursuit of the trailhead, but I’m astonished that after another hour or so, Debbie tells me we are only 4 miles through our 7 mile adventure. It seems like we should be farther along, and that the end of the trail is just around the next corner. Our knees hurt on the descent and we are envious of hikers who have trekking poles.
The weather changes often, and we too often have to stop to add or remove a layer. I think my headache is disappearing, but I’m still ready to be finished. I had read the hike could take between 5 – 8 hours, and I thought we would fall in the 6-7 hour range. Nope. We finally end at 7 hours and 45 minutes, which includes a 40 minute break at the summit. We are exhausted, exhilarated and feeling very accomplished. Wow, we did it. Half way to Everest.