By the time we reached the summit ridge, the persistent cough that had been funny as we hiked uphill had converted to a rattling wheeze accompanying every inhale, and my head was splitting. I’d long since begun to question my “just push through it,” attitude, which had me hiking a pair of 14,000-foot-tall peaks in Colorado despite a lingering cold.
We kept ascending toward the peaks first sketched as dark outlines against the star-filled sky when we started hiking at 4:30 am, and then slowly lit by a pink sunrise. After scrambling past a mirrored lake, then uphill on steep ground, I began to question the wisdom of my choices. As I paused for a rest, the hiker I'd seen trailing us most of the morning caught up and asked if we'd mind if he joined us for a break. He remarked on the line we'd chosen, which wandered from the class two route onto more vertical class three and four terrain, but generally seemed to like the excitement and stuck with us the rest of the day.
At some point on a descent that saw us once again scrambling through loose scree and down-climbing around boulders, Woody, who is from Pagosa Springs, mentioned this was just his second season hiking Colorado's highest peaks. He'd been to the top of 16 last year, and 14 already this summer, with hopes to see two more summits before the end of the season. He commented on us "waiting for the geriatric," but really, I wasn't moving much faster. We'd reach the car after more than 15 hours of hiking, finishing just as the sun was setting.
These were my first two 14ers this year. It has been a summer largely consumed by supporting my family and then leaning on my own support network of friends. While I am trying to revel in the company and enjoy those short hikes I take with family, I've found myself missing my own epic quests in the mountains. The result of the deprivation is to turn those few days I do get to head out into massive undertakings that push every line.
I hiked a gorgeous trail that traversed an alpine ridge from views of the burnished sandstone canyons to the open plains, and shared the mountaintop only with bighorn sheep and elk. Then, I searched alone for a route that kept fading out in the tundra, then became mired in downed trees. By the time I made it home, I wasn't walking straight. Another day took me 10 miles in the morning through the peaks at the southern edge of the Sangre de Cristos and then 6 more miles of stand-up paddle boarding on the Rio Grande. I was so tired that night I didn't eat dinner.
I'm binging as though the mountains will not all still be there next summer, or maybe as a byproduct of the grief that has struck my family this year. I'm out there not to chase something, but to shake what's chasing me. Whatever it is, it has put me in a hurry.
And here's Woody, who has a couple decades on me, just picking up a sport that has shaped my to-do list since my mother carried me up my first 14er when I was 3 years old. He has his tick list and his to-do list, and peace with what may never move from one to the other. In peering uphill, in following two strangers into the unknown on a line that may not go, what I see in him is an open-heartedness to the journey and patience to endure its let-downs. I want so much to own a share of that.
Instead, days later, the compulsion for peaks again has me hiking toward a summit while snow pelts my jacket, returning to the car as sundown rims the clouds in gold, and thinking that perhaps the way to go about ticking those last two Collegiate Peaks left on my list will be to ski them this winter.