On Saturday morning, I set out with two friends to attempt my second fourteener. We had our sights set on Mount Sherman, which is one of the easier Class 2 climbs and is in the Mosquito Range, not too far from where I conquered Mount Princeton a few weeks ago.
We left downtown Denver around 4:45am and then got a little bit turned around getting on the right highway (there are lots of road closures this time of year), so we didn’t arrive at the trailhead until about 7:15am. Kind of a late start for a 14er, but I thought we would still be okay as long as we tried to hustle up the mountain.
Unfortunately, I just do not have any hustle in me when it comes to a 14er. I thought that Sherman was a little bit harder than Princeton, because you were hiking up scree (small rocks) right from the start, whereas Princeton had started out with kind of a winding grassy field and then a big talus (big rocks) field. I actually really like hiking on talus – I feel like a gazelle delicately bounding from rock to rock… even though I know I am pretty slow and plodding and look nothing like that to anyone else 🙂 Scree, on the other hand, sucks because you kind of slide back on the gravel a bit with each step, so it’s harder to make forward progress.
As soon as we hit around 11,500 feet, though, I started really struggling with my breathing. Just like on Princeton, I would get kind of lightheaded/dizzy – but in this case, the trail was pretty exposed on one side, so I was much more aware of the consequences of fainting. I tried to just go slowly and sit and rest a lot, but I found myself really frustrated with how everyone kept passing me and how far ahead of me my friends kept getting. I know that I’m not in as great shape as many of the Colorado all-stars who regularly do these hikes, but I feel like I should be able to do better than this – and that I definitely shouldn’t be the slowest one on the trail! Since I’ve been reasonably fast lately when hiking Mount Sanitas (a 6800′ peak very close to my apartment that I’ve been time trialing on weekday mornings), I think the answer is that I am not at all good with altitude… and I really want to figure out ways to improve that. Hopefully being in Colorado more regularly will be a good start, but I also want to look into what else I can do to acclimate and get better at breathing this high, so I’m not as limited in my hiking abilities.
In that pic above, you can see that early on, there were a lot of clouds, but still some sun and blue skies peeking through. Within about 45 minutes, though, that changed – the sky was just completely gray. As the clouds continued to move in over the next hour, they obscured vision so you couldn’t see more than about 100 feet in front of yourself.
Shortly after this cairn, though, it just got brutal. We had all heeded the basic mountaineering advice to make sure that we brought some extra layers, but by this point, we realized we weren’t fully prepared with just how many extra layers we would need. I was wearing a fleece-lined tank, a long-sleeved tech tee, a fleece-lined turtleneck, and a fleece jacket, and I was just barely warm enough at about 12,500 feet. The only articles of clothing still in my pack were a down vest (which I figured I’d put on close to the summit) and a rain jacket (which wouldn’t keep me warm). That said, while my core wasn’t super cold, my hands and my head were. I had brought only light gloves and a headband-style ear cover, not heavy gloves and a thick hat – and now I found myself ready to barter with hikers on the way down for theirs! That was definitely a mistake on my part, and something I’ll be sure to pack in the future. And unfortunately, my friends were in similar lack-of-gear situations. (This is why you probably shouldn’t go hiking as a group of three 14er newbies.)
But for now, we were halfway up the side of a mountain, where the temperature was 30° F and dropping as we continued to climb. Hikers returning from the summit were reporting that the temperature at the top was only 20° F, and that there were also 50 mph winds up there! We had thought the wind where we were was hard enough, since it made it difficult to keep moving upward, but 50 mph was really crazy. Finally, a duo of female hikers passed us on their way down, and told us they were warning everyone to turn around. They had successfully summited, but “today just isn’t the day for it,” they said. And I agreed. So with only about 250 feet of vertical climb left till the top (but probably at least a mile of hiking across the ridge), we called it quits.
Could we have reached the summit? Absolutely. Would it have been dangerous to do so? I think my fingers might have gotten frostbitten given my shoddy gloves, but since I was alternating putting them in my pockets, they probably would have been okay. But would we have fun getting to the top? No way, Jose. As close as we might have been and as far as we might have come, the last part would have been really miserable – and that was not what I signed up for.
Some goals are important enough that you have to go for them even if they’re difficult – the “no pain, no gain” philosophy that makes you keep going even when it’s not fun. But then there are things you just do for fun – and it’s equally important to quit them when it stops being fun. If a movie sucks, it’s better to walk out than try to “get your money’s worth” by continuing to sit there, right? I don’t really have a goal of doing all the 14ers. Frankly, I think that feat is way beyond my abilities (see my notes about altitude struggles above), and I don’t care enough about it to push myself to get better and do it. I would instead just like to do “a bunch” of the 14ers (probably the easiest ones), and in no specific time frame. My reason for attempting any of the 14ers is that I want to get a good workout, enjoy the beautiful views, have fun doing them.
So how did this hike stack up to those three criteria? Well, I had already gotten a great workout getting as far as we did up the mountain. But there were no views to be had, and I was not having fun anymore. I was cold and tired, and the mountain was so windy that I couldn’t talk to my friends at all (both because it was too exhausting to talk and because the wind made it difficult to hear anyway). So when we turned around, I knew right away it was a really good decision – and I was very proud of us for making it. My friends commented on how immediately happy I was as soon as we started heading down, and they were right. Whee! We don’t have to keep going up!
When I did my 50by25 challenge a few years ago, long-time readers may remember that I stopped blogging for a few months. The reason was not so much that I was busy running, but because I was going through a struggle with depression at that time and didn’t want to write about it. (In light of what’s happened recently with Robin Williams, I feel like it’s important to fully admit that instead of not mentioning it because I was embarrassed/ashamed.) I kept pushing through and running marathons because I really wanted to hit my 50by25 goal… but when I look back on it, that might not have been the smartest decision. It definitely wasn’t good for me that I was alone all the time traveling to races, instead of being home with friends/family to support me with what I was going through. I thought about this a lot while coming down Mount Sherman on Saturday, and I think part of why it felt so good to quit Mount Sherman is that it felt a little bit like redemption for the choice I should have made years ago. Don’t get me wrong, I am really proud of myself for achieving my 50by25 goal, and it made me really happy when I finally did it! But I don’t know that it was the right decision to push myself like that when I was already struggling – and I’m lucky it all turned out okay and that I was able to recover anyway.
In this case, I wouldn’t have been putting myself in danger by continuing, but reaching the summit didn’t have anything to do with whether I had fun on the hike. Of course I would have been proud to make it, but it also wasn’t all that important to me – so it felt like an easy decision not to do it. I know there will be hikes in the future where I’ll have to make the decision of whether to keep going or whether to stop, and on some of those hikes, it may be a very, very dangerous decision to keep going. (For example, if there’s a thunderstorm.) I am really happy that I am getting used to DNSing (Did Not Summit-ing), which sets the early precedent that it’s okay to do that. Yes, I am a quitter, but I quit something that wasn’t a true goal – and I’m really happy that I had the courage to do that rather than just to keep blindly trudging up that mountain and being miserable. Instead, we ended up with the extra time in our morning to drive to Breckenridge and stop for lunch at Breckenridge Brewery – a place that’s been on my must visit list for over ten years.
At some point in the future, I’d like to go back to Mount Sherman and try again… and for all my talk about how I’m glad that I quit, I bet that I will be really proud when I finally do make it to the summit. But for now, I couldn’t be happier with how things turned out this weekend – it feels like it just wasn’t meant to be.