Mt. Elbert, CO
Yesterday, I summited my first 14er when I reached the top of Colorado’s highest peak, Mt. Elbert, using the North Mt. Elbert Trail. It was the hardest hike I’ve done to date and one that challenged me mentally as much as it did physically. It was steep, long, and high in altitude, making it one of the harder hikes you can do.
Since I underestimated the hike because I hadn’t done adequate research, I was surprised by the intensity of the challenge it presented me with. There were times I didn’t think I could make it and times I felt like the most badass lady in the world. Mountains like that will do that to you… they present a constant wave of emotions while you step foot by foot in the direction of the summit that you know you must reach to be content with yourself.
The trail started out with gradual switchbacks through the pine forest, a glorious flat ground for about half a mile and began to hardcore steepen before we were even past the tree line. I remember telling my friends “wow that part was so steep”… little did I know the rest of the trail would be that way… Once we were past the tree line, two friends and I stopped to take a break, looking back at a beautiful view of the mountain range in front of us and trees below us. At that point, we were already tired and realizing this hike was going to be much harder than we realized. We asked passerby’s how much longer we had and while they were honest and told us we had quite a while, they were encouraging and confident we would get there. That is where the real trek began… From then on, it was straight up the mountain from hell (jk but kinda). I had to take several breaks at nearly every sort of turn or even halfway up a stretch to catch my breath and motivate myself to continue.
Inclining for the whole rest of the hike was tough. At first it didn’t seem so bad (hence when I felt like a badass) but as the elevation increased, it only got harder to breathe and to exert the energy required to take steps towards the summit. I must’ve taken a break every 12 ft. or so before I would have to stop and take a breather, and sometimes even sit down and have a snack and some water before I could even imagine continuing on. That is where the mental challenge came in. At that point, I had to have patience with myself and awareness of my body like I never had to before. I had to pay close attention to how much my muscles could handle and how much my lungs could take without much oxygen before I had to stop again.
There stretch before the final climb to the top was a bit of a scramble. It was rocky, sandy and slippery, and so so high up. It took enough mental strength to keep going as it was… I can’t imagine if I was afraid of heights. Looking down at the peaks of Colorado made me realize just how high up I was and while beautiful, it was also incredibly humbling to think how little you are in this big, big planet.
As I slowly yet excitedly trekked up my last stretch to the top, many people who had passed me going up were coming down with encouraging words and smiles, happy they were going down and genuinely happy to see me going up. Somehow on the mountain other’s accomplishments become almost as important as your own. You want to see everyone achieve the summit and be able to walk down with pride. Everyone on the trail becomes your team, and if it isn’t enough to make yourself proud, you want to make them proud as well. After all, they took time to encourage you and believe in your ability to reach the top when you doubted yourself, and you don’t want to let them down. As much as it is a solo journey and achievement to summit a 14er, it is a social achievement. As my friend’s who hiked behind me trickled up to the summit, I was so happy and relieved to see they made it. After all the challenges you and your crew goes through to reach that peak, the last thing you want to think is that you don’t all make it. You experience raw human emotion, humility and unique perspective climbing up a mountain like that and as hard and hellish as it may sound, it was purely and beautifully awesome.
I think 14er trails like the one to the top of Mt. Elbert put human struggles into perspective and challenge our bodies and minds in ways we are not commonly challenged anymore. What our bodies are capable of is amazing and how well they can adapt to a range of climates and elements makes you wonder why we don’t use these strengths more often. I suppose this is the reason many love to hike, to climb, to bike, to play sports, etc… because it is re-creating the activity that was once required of us. While in today’s world this kind of strenuous physical activity is rarely required, it still brings people joy to realize what their body is capable of. It’s human nature. It’s what we’re supposed to do. And you can bet I’m going to keep doing it.