August 25, 2014

I’m a Quitter… And Proud Of It

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.

Scree Mt Sherman
Here’s a view of the beginning of the hike after we got up the access road.

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.

Cairn Mt Sherman
Yes, this is actually the “trail”, but there were plenty of cairns so you couldn’t go too far off the path even if you lost sight of the (many) other hikers.

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.

DNS Mt Sherman
Quick pic at the highest point we did reach – around 13,800 feet. As I kept reassuring my friends, the visibility was so poor that except for the angle and the other hikers in the background, no one else probably would have known it wasn’t the top!

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!

Snow Angels in August
In my childish glee, I insisted that we stop at one of the snow fields for some snow angel making. Yes, in August. Hooray for unpredictable mountain weather!

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.

Breckenridge Brewery
If you ever have a chance to go there too, get the beer cheese fries. You will not regret one bite.

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.


20 thoughts on “I’m a Quitter… And Proud Of It”

  1. So glad you quit. The weather up above treeline really does impact your day, your attitude and it can really be dangerous. It dismays me when people do stupid things, live to tell about them and are regarded as heroes for endangering their lives. And that happens all too often in Colorado. Plus, it looks like you would not have been able to see anything once you summited so a good, smart decision overall!

    1. Great points, Amy. I couldn’t believe how many people have been just heading up the mountain around 11am when I’ve been finishing my hikes. I guess they figure if others are doing it, it’s not that dumb, and in fairness, I’ve fallen for that logic too. (For example, when the weather was bad this time, we just kept thinking, “hmm, but all those other people are still going up?”) Unfortunately, crowdsourcing something doesn’t make it the right decision!

    1. I think it’s definitely something that will take practice for me, because I’m NOT always good at it… but this was a good start 🙂

  2. This is how I felt about the HIM. Sure, I *could* have done it, but it ended up to not be the goal for me at the time and has freed me up to do the things I really want to do right now.

  3. I think you made a good choice in quitting. Why be miserable only to get to the top and be so windy cloudy foggy that you can’t take in the awesome views. Which in my opinion is what those hikes are about the view from the top. I can’t wait until we return to Colorado and do several hikes with our kids. Don’t think we will do the 14ers with them but some of the smaller ones will be fun.

    1. For me it’s about the experience along the way just as much as the view from the top… and the experience on Saturday was just no fun! I can’t wait to do another on a nice day 🙂

  4. What about spending some time doing some of the 12’s and 13’s in the area until you really build up your endurance and acclimate?
    I used to spend all summer long in the area for summer camp. Our base was 7500 feet and we wouldn’t attempt the 14ers until late in the summer, once we had hiked lots of the lower peaks. This gave us plenty of time to acclimate! Pagoda and Spearhead are my favorites in Rocky Mountain National Park.

    You are probably already doing this, but the “rest step” really helped my hiking abilities…

    I miss Rocky Mountain National Park!

    1. That’s a REALLY great idea! Everyone talks about the 14ers so much that doing the 13ers didn’t even occur to me, though that would probably be a much better match for my fitness level/acclimatization.

      What’s the rest step? Don’t think I’ve heard of that!

    2. Google the rest step and hiking and you will find good descriptions. But, the basic idea is that you lock your non-working knee so that you are using your bones to support yourself, instead of your muscles. So, you take a step, lock your knee as you are bringing your other foot forward, then pull yourself up and lock the knee that you just pulled yourself up with.
      Here is one explanation.

      It really does make it easier to ascend steadily…

      I really miss Colorado and the wonderful hiking.

    3. Oh wow, that is such a cool trick! It sounds like it may require some practice to learn but I am really excited about it. Thank you so much for sharing (and also kindly sending the link and not pointing me to lmgtfy) 🙂

  5. Good for you for making the right choice! It’s so hard when everyone is always talking about NOT quitting, pushing through, etc etc. It’s such a fine line, at times, knowing when you should decide to be smart and try another day. You’re one smart lady 🙂 Congratulations on an awesome day anyway – I have no idea how you do all that! Hopefully someday I can meet you for a hike and you can show me the ropes!

    1. It is a very fine line between pushing yourself beyond what you THINK is possible or pushing yourself beyond what you are actually capable of doing without hurting yourself, and that’s definitely something I struggle with. I’m so glad you got that out of this post! (That’s what I was going for, but I don’t know that I articulated it clearly.)

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