Mt. Elbert, Top of Colorado

14,433 Feet

The Start of It All, June 3, 2003

by Cecilia La France

My scariest experience on a 14er had to have been my first.  It was June of 2003 and I was once again camping in Twin Lakes, one of my favorite locations in Colorado.  I lived in Iowa then and was accustomed to elevations of 400 feet rather than the 10,000 ft. elevation of my campground.  I had camped here several years in a row, always in awe of the mountains that surrounded me.  In 2003, I decided it would be the year I tackle the top of Colorado.

I set off around 7 a.m., walking up old 4WD roads through great trees, which would break sometimes to reveal the beautiful Twin Lakes and Upper Reservoir where I had fished often.  Soon it was true trail and switchbacks galore.  Time ticked away and so did my energy.  I was not in the best of shape, not horrible either, but the altitude and endurance required was zapping me.  I stopped and ate a snack, rehydrated, and rested.  I saw one other person on the trail who was just hiking with no intention of summiting.  It was a weekday, so this famous “easy” 14er wasn’t seeing the traffic I would later encounter when 14ers became a passion. 

I worked my way above tree level and then just pushed one foot in front of the other for miles.  I laughed at my first marmot, which I didn’t know was called a marmot then, as it ran along the trail in front of me and then followed me for a bit.  It’s fat, fuzzy body jiggled and dragged along under him.   

So, what’s so scary?  I had altitude sickness and no one was around to tell my stubborn mind to turn around.  My head was pounding, so I sat on a rock leaning back, nearly passing out, when a chirping noise became irritating enough for me to get up and investigate.  It came from a tiny fury rodent with round ears barking from the boulder behind me, later to be known to me as a pica.  I got his message and moved out of his terrain. 

The summit seemed so close (it wasn’t—this is where I learned about “false summits”).  I had come so far.  I didn’t want to turn back when I was this close.  I kept going.  I don’t know how long it took.  But, by the time my running shoes stepped through the last snow-packed steps to the 14,431 ft. summit, I was not in a state to enjoy the accomplishment.  My head pounded, the kind of pain that spreads through the sinuses and radiates down my spine.  I set up my camera for a timed photo just in time to capture losing my hat to the wind. 

A man bounded up (yes, bounded, as in with energy and spirit) and greeted me.  I tried to be civil and not puke as he explained why I didn’t see him behind me on my way up.  Oh, he took the north trail, obviously not mine.  Yes, I’m alone.  No, his daughter and her friend are behind him.  Yes, yes, enjoy your day.  And I want down!

I walk away from him and immediately feel take a small bit of comfort at the ease of stepping down.  I can really gain distance and not run out of breath.  I still want to cry at the pain in my head, but don’t want to give into it.  I get into a zone and just go.  I barely even say hello to the two girls who pass by on their way up. 

Did you catch it?  I did about 10 minutes later. 

The man’s daughter and her friend.  The north trail.  Not mine.  I look down the mountain and sure enough, the lakes are in the wrong spot. 

I’ll admit that some tears did leak out when I turned around to see how far I had come down and how far I would have to go back up in order to get to my trail.  500ft?  I take a few steps back up the trail.  The pounding begins in earnest again.  I cannot go up. 

It’s a funny thing that happens when I’m in these situations.  Logic?  Stupidity?  My trail is on the west face and I am on the north, my mind calculates.  A mountain is a cone and if I leave the trail and round the mountain to the southwest, I will intersect with my trail. 

The first few steps reveal the difference between an established trail versus loose talus and careful footing over and on rocks that often teetered and questioned my balance.  So, when I encountered the snow, I was grateful.  I’d just walk over it, in my running shoes, wearing jeans.  This worked until my new route rounded into the west side, which had been exposed to the sun all morning.  Posthole: a term learned later but best described as when my confident steps encountered soft mushy snow, deep snow just living out its last spring life until some fool steps on it.  The human foot, narrower than all points of the body thereon upwards, acts as a spear and the body proceeds to slice down until there is enough pack underneath said foot or the body width serves as a block to further progression.  I’ve had worse posthole experiences since then, but it was a bad day for me.  By the time I intersected my trail, my jeans were heavy with cold wet, I was even more tired from a few struggles up and out of the snow, and I was fighting to hold on to vision as blackness tried to take over. 

Down, down, down and I was out of water. I was almost to tree range again.  My body starved for hydration and fuel.  All I had left was an orange.  (I did not know at this time of the amount of calories burned while fighting elevation for hours.  I now bring along an arsenal of food for the hike, and can eat an entire Chipotle burrito and stop for ice cream for dessert after each summit.)  I sat on a boulder and I ate the orange.  I leaned over the boulder and expelled the orange and whatever else was left.  I leaned back on the boulder, closed my eyes, and let the pounding of my pulse explode through my body.  It was so loud and painful, I couldn’t even pass out.

I heard barking and movement.  I sat up and my vision slowly caught up with me to spot a dog running up to my rock and further back a man walking slowly up the trail.  I got off the rock, embarrassed if he should come close and see my stomach contents.  He was a pleasant person from Wisconsin, just scouting the route for his planned ascent tomorrow, camping just down the trail from here off in the trees. 

The trees.  They weren’t far away and my mind recalled the route back down and the 4WD road and my car parked where I dared not take it up any further that morning.  Car, drive to campground, cooler and big 2-pound bag of peanut M&Ms.  I wished him well (always trying to be polite) and began down again. 

Let me interject a note here for anyone who happens to encounter a fool like me that day.  Ask a few logical questions and offer water, food, and companionship back down.  I was incredibly lucky that day not to have suffered more than I did.  I often hike solo on mountains now, but bring the essentials and tackle summits within my skill and fitness level, which has drastically improved since my first 14er.  People die on 14ers, often—ten last year—the majority occurring on the descent.  I now stop and check on people I see in that exhausted state or give warning to that mom who’s rushing her kids above treeline despite the building storm and its undiscriminating lightning.  I was foolish that day.  I made it to my tent after dark and spent the better part of the next day suffering the after effects.

Those miseries are rare, however.  Since I moved to Colorado in 2010, some of my best experiences have been 14er summits.  The challenge, the endurance, the sense of accomplishment, and the incredible views serve as my reward.  I went back to Mt. Elbert, with the correct gear and with company, and made that route in nearly half the time as the previous trip.  This time, the tears at the top were of joy.

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