After a fairly sleepless night, I woke up pretty grumpy. After all the scariness the night before, the last thing I wanted to do was take on any more danger by hiking! (Yes, I know Mount Princeton isn’t particularly dangerous, but hiking always carries some risk, and it seemed like we were not very lucky on this trip so far.) I was fully prepared to lobby for us to just fix the flat tire and head home, but after a few minutes of being awake, I started to feel a lot better. New day, new luck, right?
It didn’t take too long to get ready to go hiking, since we hadn’t pitched the tent and mostly just had to put on our hiking clothes and make sure our packs were appropriately packed. However, we ran into one hitch – in the excitement of the night before, my companion had forgotten to fill up his water bottles for both himself and the dog! I was really glad that I had come overprepared with more water than I needed… I just hoped it would be enough for the three of us.
After wolfing down a pack of Nature Valley Blueberry Breakfast Biscuits (#BlendSwag) and some caffeinated Cherry Lime Nuun (instead of coffee), we headed down the road toward the trailhead. I was really happy to see that in the daylight, the scary part of the road didn’t look nearly as bad as when it was pitch black the night before. It was still certainly not going to be easy getting out of there, but I felt like we could do a bit better when we could clearly see where the drop off was. Maybe things were looking up after all!
We got to the trailhead at 6:15am, and saw two groups of guys getting ready to go as well. We kind of went back and forth on the narrow trail for about 1/4 mile, and then they dropped back and we didn’t see them the rest of the way. (Hmm, I am just realizing that now as I think back… I wonder what happened to them?) From the mountain road, we took a set of stone steps up into a grassy field, and then followed a dirt path through the field for about 1/2 mile. This part definitely had a gradual uphill, but nothing serious, and was super easy hiking. If this was what the rest of the way would be like, I was set!
But soon we came to a rocky section that I learned was called a “talus field.” Basically, it was a series of rocks and boulders with no set trail; you just kind of stepped from one rock to the next. I liked this a lot! It certainly wasn’t very hard to move from rock to rock, but it made me feel graceful and dancer-like to do so 🙂 Some of the rocks were a bit loose, so you had to be kind of quick on your feet, but at this point, they were all wedged pretty closely together so I didn’t worry much about slipping down the mountain if a rock slipped. Plus, the slope on this part of the talus field was mostly just horizontal/flat… the climbing would come a bit later.
After about an hour, though, we came to a section of switchbacks that headed up, up, up the mountain. At the same time, we were making our way around a big bowl in between the mountains – “Unnamed 13,273”, which we were technically on, and Mount Princeton that loomed ahead. We were headed all the way up there! I guess it should have been intimidating, but I actually felt like the Mount Princeton summit looked a lot closer than it was. We could do this!
As I tackled the switchbacks up Unnamed 13,273, though, I started getting discouraged. We were probably around 12,000 feet at this point, and I was just so out of breath. I kept having to pause and take breaks to breathe, while my companion and the dog went (way) on ahead, and it seemed like every time I caught up to them taking a break to wait for me, they’d be all set to keep going. I finally had to beg: “Once I catch up to you, give me a few minutes before continuing on, k?” My companion was super nice and told me to take all the breaks I needed, but I found it hard to stop and catch my breath unless he was stopped too. I didn’t want to make him wait! At the same time, the dog was running several hundred feet ahead of both of us, then running back to us, then running forward again… he was making me tired just looking at him!
And while that was all going on, there were tons of hikers who were in much better shape than I was that kept passing me. I would step aside each time they came up, secretly grateful for the little rest break as they went by, but I was also really frustrated. Surely all these people, including the teenager with his jeans and flip flops and the granny (with better legs than me), weren’t in that much better shape than I’m in? I know that a big part of it is that I haven’t at all acclimated to the altitude – yes, I’ve “lived” in Colorado for 4 months, but I’ve also spent at least four days a week every week of that in Dallas, at sea level. Still, I was still really really frustrated to be that slow. I wasn’t passing anyone, and while I could make the other excuse that we started very early (meaning, at that hour it was mostly serious hikers/those who knew what they were doing, since only the newbies would start later in the day not realizing the risk of storms), I just felt really pathetic to be seemingly the slowest person on the mountain 🙁
But slow does still get you there, and we were making progress upward. I really enjoyed the view at the top of Unnamed 13,273, and took advantage of the picture-taking break to also eat some yummy trail mix I had made. Yogurt raisins, banana chips, dried cranberries, dried blueberries, coconut-flavored cashews, and Rice Chex… so basically everything I really liked and nothing I didn’t. Making your own trail mix is fun!
A bunch more people passed us at this viewpoint, and I could now see the summit of Mount Princeton, where we were headed. It honestly didn’t look too far, though I was a bit worried about the scree (tiny rocks/gravel) that we’d have to navigate when we got close to the top. It looked like it might be difficult to keep our footing! A couple of hikers on their way down advised us to stay to the left and go off the formal trail, since we’d have bigger rocks that way and less chance of slipping. Duly noted! And when we got to that part (probably about a mile to go?), I found that going off trail was really not a big deal – since there really wasn’t a trail! Everyone was just kind of making their own way to the top, going from one rock to the next.
In this last thousand feet of vert, though, I just started getting really tired and out of breath. I have always been kind of prone to fainting (I probably faint once every year or two?), so I warned my companion that he shouldn’t panic if I did pass out. I am used to it enough that I can tell when it’s coming, and pre-emptively sit down or lie down with my head as low as possible, which sometimes works to stave it off. I definitely got that feeling a few times on the mountain, and each time, I just sat down on the nearest rock and waited for the dizziness to fade. In addition, I found myself getting super sleepy. I had already had the equivalent of two cups of coffee, so I didn’t want to have any more caffeine, but at some points I had to really fight the urge to turn my sit-break into short naps. Must. Keep. Going.
I wasn’t breathing all that crazily during those near-fainting episodes (though I was definitely getting my heart rate up and breathing hard throughout the hike, don’t get me wrong). But I noticed something really weird: it seemed like I was getting dizziest whenever I stopped, whereas when I was actually moving ahead, I felt more normal. To keep myself going without taking too many breaks, I settled into an interval cadence: take ten steps (counting them), then take a ten second break (counting at the same speed as my steps). Sticking to that rhythm helped me keep going much more steadily than I had been doing before, and on that cadence, I only had to take one sit-break to fight the dizziness of a potential-faint. I could do this!
(Side note: while I am making this sound like a really big deal, there were plenty of hikers on this part going much, much, much faster than me, and without all the stupid sit-breaks. So it’s not that the trail was all that tough; I seem to just be incredibly unadjusted to altitude and incredibly bad at hiking.)
Finally, though, after one more short break where I was so close that I could see the top… I made it!!!
The views from the top were really fantastic, though I was frustrated to find later that my camera didn’t quite capture how magnificent it was up there. Also magnificent: getting to sit and eat a turkey sandwich that I had packed. Yum yum yum!
But while the top definitely marks a victory, we didn’t want to make the amateur mistake of spending too long up there. The weather looked beautiful, but it was approaching 10am and we wanted to make sure we got back down the mountain before the storms rolled in. (Especially since we still had to change the tire when we got back to the car.) The weather reports had predicted storms for 11am, which is a bit earlier than the normal 1pm or so thunderstorm time, so we tried to hustle our way down the mountain.
While it might have been fun to magically teleport ourselves from the top of the mountain all the way down to the base so that we could immediately soak in Mount Princeton Hot Springs, I found that the descent actually served a really important purpose for hiking: it made me forget how hard the uphill was! Although I had to be careful to watch my step, I wasn’t getting out of breath at all coming down, and I had a lot of fun hopping from rock to rock like a mountain goat. Whee!
About half an hour from the car, though, the fun ended – we heard a thunderstorm and saw dark clouds quickly coming around the other side of the mountain. Now it was time to really hustle! Only a few minutes before, we had seen some hikers just starting out on the trek up, and we hoped that everyone was smart enough to heed the storm and start getting their butt down. Storms are scary stuff at 14,000 feet! We ended up making it back to the car only about 5 minutes after the rain started, and the storm passed just another 5 minutes after that. Oh, Colorado weather, how fickle you are!
My companion managed to change out the tire on the truck really quickly (while I was mostly useless though trying hard to be helpful), and then it was time for the true test: the scary ride past the super narrow section of road that had the big dropoff. I know how annoying I can be when I’m worrying/scared, so I tried to just hold my breath, grip the edge of my seat, and not say a word for this part. But we cleared it! The rest of the ride down was not going to be a picnic, but we both felt pretty confident now that we were past this suicidal stretch.
Until, just a few hundred feet later, I heard this whistling sound. “Oh, god, NO!” my companion said, listening out the windows. “Wait, what is that?” I asked, picturing some kind of deadly bug that made that noise. (You know, like we were in the Amazon rainforest instead of just the regular Rockies.) Another 200 feet later, we pulled to a stop at a rare turnaround in the road, and I learned the answer: we had gotten another flat tire! This one was completely undriveable, and since we had already had one flat, we didn’t even have a spare tire anymore to replace it. Of all the luck!
Fortunately, it was now daylight, and there were plenty of other people around, so I wasn’t so much scared as I was pissed off at fate for doing this to us. All we wanted to do was get down to the hot springs, relax, and celebrate our first 14er… but instead, we spent the next eight hours hitchhiking down the mountain with a truck full of amazingly kind strangers, calling every hotel/motel/B&B in a 20 mile radius to find a room for the night, calling every auto shop in a 50 mile radius in search of tires… and finally starting to get things together.
After several dozen calls, I found that Salida Auto Sales had a tire that would fit, and a generous couple at the resort offered us their car to get there and pick it up. When we got to Salida, we learned that they had misunderstood me on the phone and they only had a tire, but no rim… until they magically found a rim that would work, gave it to us at a great price, and had one of their workers put it together for us immediately so that we coudl be on their way. Then, instead of us having to pay $500 for a towing company to take us back up the road and help us get the tire on, we met someone else who volunteered to do it for free. And throughout all this, the amazing front desk staff at the Mount Princeton Resort kept checking up on us, bringing us bottled water and a bowl of water for the dog, and trying to do whatever they could to help. We are so lucky that all of these amazing strangers were so kind – it makes me so proud to live in the state of Colorado, where everyone helps everyone! I could not imagine even one of these favors being done for us if this happened back in New York.
We didn’t end up making it back home and getting dinner until about 10pm, which was an exhaustingly long day, but we ended it with smiles on our faces for sure. I couldn’t believe all the good luck we had along the way, and while the night before had really terrified me, I ended up feeling like it had been a pretty positive experience after all. On to the next 14er!
…assuming there is a 14er that has a paved road to the trailhead 🙂