Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Climbing a Mountain: My First Experience Climbing 14,000 Feet

In my travel research, I noticed that every great adventurist has at least one particular mountain summit that marks their list of accomplishments. As someone who had not yet climbed a mountain taller than that to which the southeastern Appalachian trails extends, the idea of summiting a major climb "peaked" my interest, and started my research into how to become a mountain climber. I have created a beginners guide to climbing mountains in the Adventure tab above, but also wanted to share my first experience climbing a 14,000ft mountain.

It was cold. Waking up at 4am in the Smoky Mountains left me almost breathless; It was only down to 33 degrees, but being used to the normal humid 98 degrees that Georgia boasts was catching me off my guard. I had been planning this trip for months, and finally, the day was here and I was going to climb my first 14er: the name given to mountains taller than 14,000 ft. Through all of my research, there was one lingering aspect that kept me feeling uneasy: Altitude sickness. Altitude sickness can make or break any ascent from a 5,000ft climb, to the peaks of Everest. There is no way for you to know, until you start your ascent and feel that terrible feeling described in so many articles as "non-specific flu like symptoms." Once you have it, it will only get worse the higher you climb, and can even result in death. You must descend to relieve the pressure, and forfeit the goal that you set to achieve. Because of this terrifying possibility, I had done everything in my power to avoid it; I arrived in Colorado a week earlier to get used to higher pressure and thinner air, I had driven to the top of Pikes Peak which is another 14er reachable by car, I had been running, and hiking, and even stopped drinking beer weeks in advance. I was going to make it to the top; I had to!

Image result for grays and torreys routes
Grays Peak was the mountain that I had planned to attempt. At 14,278ft tall, it is the 10th highest mountain in the USA. While this is no small feat, there are trails that range from easy to difficult, so I could start on an easy trail and move to a more challenging version half-way up the mountain if I wanted. In addition, there is another adjacent 14er called Torreys Peak, which is tied to Grays by a thin neck; it is possible to climb from the top of Grays to the top of Torreys, provided that you have the energy, daylight, and lung capacity to do so. This was my goal, but would be happy with the Grays summit alone.

Watching my breath in the cold morning air, I headed towards the base of the mountain. Upon arrival at the parking lot, my climbing partner noticed that we could see no mountain at all, and that we needed to continue along the steep rocky road that lead straight upwards. We ventured on, and discovered that our smooth rental car was no match for the perilous mud and rocks that we tried to navigate. At a speedy 2 mph, we narrowly passed a hole in the side of the road that was deeper than our vehicle before we found the line of cars that were parked to one side, and had beaten us to the climb. We turned the parking brake on, checked it again, packed our equipment, and started upward on the road to what we hopped would be base camp.

Approximately 1hr and 30mins later, we arrived at the base of the mountain. Still cold, but now sweating from the vertical hike, we took a short breather and prepared for what lay ahead. As we looked up at Grays and Torreys, I was filled with excitement and a little disbelief; it didn’t look quite as tall as I had imagined! From there, it was all uphill (haha, obviously!). I could not possibly describe the views that we encountered, and even with the many pictures that I took, they just don’t do it justice. We went from mud, to rivers and very green grass. From the grass we reached new and unique flora. From these flowers we reached gravel, and from the gravel we approached rock. The entire time we were moving up hill, but it was not overwhelming and was not much of a difference in elevation than some of the mountains found back in the southeast.

When we reached the rocks, we followed the path in front of us; Later, we realized that we had taken the much more challenging trail than the easy version to which we had started. We took short breaks as needed for water, snacks, and to help with the air that was gradually getting more thin. Just as you would expect, the higher I climbed, the more challenging it was to breath. The challenging trail had taken me towards the saddle between Grays and Torreys Peaks, and suddenly, I was faced with a narrow ledge: made of ice! The ledge was about 20 feet long, and only had enough width for one foot at a time! If you saw this ledge on a movie, you would not think twice about the main character taking a few steps across and moving right along, however, this was not a movie, and on the other side of the narrow hold, there was only a vertical fall downwards as far as I could see. Leading the way, I stepped forward with my right foot and planted my bare hands into the melting ice in front of me. One small step at a time we moved forward. Half way up, I realized that I had been holding my breath as I walked; as if that was going to help! When I finally reached the top of the ledge, my hands were burning from the cold ice, but I was back on rocks again, and now, almost instantly, at the top of the saddle!

The rest of the way up might be completely non-existent in my memory. I remember that the rocks were humongous and that it was probably the most challenging section of the climb, but I might as well have been floating to the top. When I reached it, I found myself in the midst of other mountaineers, and we all enjoyed together the bliss that surrounded us. There are so many things going through your head as you reach the summit of the mountain; “I did it, I reached the top!" "Wow, look at the scenery!" "This is the most quiet place in the world!" "This is the loudest place in the world!" "I have to pee!" "I can’t catch my breath!” The list of thoughts continues on and on, and at the same time, there is nothingness, and peace...

So that’s my attempt to describe it, but again, I just don't have the vocabulary for it.

After the many pictures that we took, the snacks, and the meditative self-reflection that this experience causes you, I felt like I was on top of the world; and I guess that I wasn’t that far off! This thought process convinced me that we needed to reach the top of Torreys Peak, which would take us about 2.5 additional hours. As we moved forward, the hike started to become a challenge. We made it to the summit of Torreys, and it was almost as amazing, if not more so, than Grays! It was less popular, and many did not want to do both in the same day, so we had it mostly to ourselves. It was a lot more quiet and relaxing, so I spent more time staring into the endless distance and enjoying the world as I understood it at that moment. When it was time to go, I had to be forced to leave; but the sun was getting lower, and we did not want to be on the mountain at dark.

Here is something that I did not expect going into this venture: you know the saying, “It’s all downhill from here”? Well, when climbing down a mountain, this phrase does not translate. Getting back down, was so much more of a struggle than reaching the top! All the adrenaline and the prospect of reaching the top are completely gone, you start to realize that you have been hiking for hours and hours, you notice your calves feel every step that you take, and your entire body is exhausted. While I’m sure that we reached back down to base camp in a much shorter period than it took us to reach the top, it certainly felt 10x longer. After finally reaching our rental car, navigating back down the treacherous road in the dark, might have been the most terrifying aspect of the entire process. The day had started at 4am, and we reached the main road in our car at 8pm.

Image result for can of avery beerI realize that this was a longer post than normal, yet I still feel that my experience was nowhere near encapsulated by my descriptions. There were highs and there were lows; both of which reached extremes. Overall, it was one of the best experiences of my life, and I plan on it being the first of many mountain climbs. The pictures that I took, litter my websites, my office, and my home; and my memory will never lose what I gained through the adventure. There is no sweeter taste in the world than the beer after your first major climb, and I can say that honestly…at least until my next one!