This delayed hiking report is from my summit of Mount Bierstadt on Tuesday, July 5th. I didn’t mean to delay this much in writing it! However, the few weeks in between when I did the hike and finished writing it up has also given me some fresh perspective…
I had a four day weekend (Saturday July 2nd till Tuesday July 5th), and while it kind of started off slowly and lazily, it ended on a literal high note!
As I mentioned Monday the 4th in my race report, I kept things pretty quiet on Saturday – skipping my group run, and doing some errands but not otherwise being social until Saturday night, when I went to a yoga class and then out with some friends. On Sunday, I skipped church (oops) and stayed home not really doing much of anything, mostly just being bummed out that I didn’t have a day packed with activity. I made a lot of progress in the really engaging book I’m currently reading, Seveneves (it’s a sci-fi book that I would recommend if you loved The Martian as much as I did). But otherwise, I didn’t really do much until Monday morning.
On Monday the 4th, I ran a fast one mile race, went on a two hour hike with some friends, and closed the day with a great barbecue at my friend Cindy’s house. Unlike traditional 4th of July activities, though, I didn’t stick around Cindy’s long enough for the fireworks. Instead, I went to bed early in preparation for my really big hike on Tuesday: Mount Bierstadt.
Mount Bierstadt is one of the famed Colorado “14ers”, or peaks higher than 14,000 feet. However, it’s well known as one of the easiest – supposedly entire families do the hike. After my experience, though, I’m really surprised by that. I found it to be more difficult than some of the other 14ers I’ve hiked, and I’ll also add that while I saw a lot of families out there today, all of them seemed to only go as far as the shoulder, about half way up; I didn’t see kids anywhere near the summit. To make myself feel better after how much I struggled, I am now telling myself that very few families actually go all the way to the top!
It started out easily enough. I had been pretty stressed about the weather, since it didn’t look quite as clear as I had first hoped. But when I arrived at the trailhead at 6:30am, it didn’t look bad. There were a few clouds in the sky, but they looked fairly non-threatening, and the clouds that were right over the peak looked to be moving out rather than in. So off I trekked on the winding trail through the swampland below the mountain.
The first half mile had really well-defined and pretty paths, as you can see above. Beyond how smooth the paths were (well, aside from some mud puddles), this part of the trail was actually heading down – so it felt nice and easy. Then we came to a creek crossing, which I knew was coming from reading about the route on 14ers.
Because we’ve had such a wet season so far, people on 14ers had warned that the creek was fairly deep, and that you’d have to walk pretty far north to get to a spot where you could cross without getting wet. I had tossed a pair of flip flops in my backpack, so I wouldn’t have to worry about hiking with wet shoes. It only took me a minute to switch from hiking boots/socks to my flip flops, and I was really grateful that I could then just walk right through the water without having to leapfrog much!
From here, the trail started heading up in a lot of switchbacks through a thicket of bushes. I felt kind of like Alice in Wonderland going through a hedge maze – I hadn’t experienced anything like this on a mountain so far! I passed a bunch of families going up, and enjoyed the views looking back down. About a half hour later, I emerged from the thicket and began approaching the shoulder of the mountain. There were wildflowers everywhere, and it was gorgeous!
The shoulder, though, is where things started to get tough. At this point, I was at 12,500 feet of elevation, and that’s always around where I start to have trouble. However, the shoulder at least was relatively flat – so that encouraged me to keep going until the route started really heading up again. Looking at the sky, there were definitely some clouds, but they still looked to be moving out of the area rather than in, so I figured I was safe to just keep going and take my time.
Another 30 minutes or so later, I reached the end of the grassy and relatively flat shoulder, and started heading up a series of rocky switchbacks to the saddle. I got passed by two trail runners who were literally running their way up at a pretty fast clip, and was incredibly impressed. How do people do that?! I was plodding along, just trying to focus on the podcast I was listening to rather than think about how far I still had to go.
Meanwhile, I was getting kind of chilly. The sun was behind a huge bank of clouds, and while I knew it would continue to get colder as I went up, I also thought it might warm up as soon as the sun came back out. 13,000 feet is pretty close to the sun! However, I finally gave up and donned my fleece jacket and headwarmer. A few minutes later, the sun came out, but I still wasn’t hot… so I was glad I put them on!
Finally, I reached the saddle. I had been telling myself that once I got there, the summit would be so close. But in fact, it was still so far away.
I had hoped that some of the wind on the slope would abate once I got to the ridge, but… nope, it was in fact windier. (Which is obvious when you think about it, but it was so windy on the slope that I was somehow hoping it couldn’t possibly be worse above.) I did enjoy the balance challenge of stepping from rock to rock, but the altitude was also making me kind of worried for my safety. There was no exposure (meaning I couldn’t fall anywhere except the six inches from a rock down to the rock below it), but I recognized how dizzy and out of it I was getting. Unlike in 14ers past, I wasn’t at a point where I needed to sit down to prevent fainting, but I was going really slowly and each step seemed to be a little bit surreal, like I was drunk. Some people do bring beers up to the summit, but knowing how drunk I feel normally at high altitude, I still haven’t done that!
The route started getting steeper again as I made my way along the ridgeline, and the wind was coming back from the direction where I had come. This meant that there was no avoiding the wind unless I could find any boulder big enough for me to get in between it and the mountain. Finally, I found one, and I gratefully settled in behind it for a quick break. I called Adam from here, and recognized as I spoke just how terrible I sounded. I was having trouble forming coherent sentences, and I was with it enough to recognize that, but I couldn’t tell if it was my brain being addled from the altitude or if it was my face being freezing from the wind, making it hard to move my mouth. I kind of wanted to just lie there and nap for an hour or so – I was so tired! – but was still more than coherent enough to know that was a non-starter.
From here on up, I spent most of the way questioning whether I should be subjecting myself to this kind of altitude when it was clear that my body doesn’t deal well with it. Why was I hiking this mountain? Because I wanted to tackle a real challenge, and prove to myself that I could achieve something really tough. But, particularly after recently reading this post by my friend Dane, was I really doing it for myself? Or was I doing it because I wanted to prove something to someone else?
I was moving so slowly at this point that the hike didn’t really feel like a physical challenge – more just a mental game of trying to continue the slow slog and eventually get to the end goal. I wasn’t enjoying myself all that much, and with how my body was rebelling against the altitude, there was a chance I was even putting myself in danger… all just to conquer another “challenge.” Was this really worth it?
(Note: Bierstadt is one of the most popular 14ers, and there were always other hikers within sight both ahead of and behind me. So I felt at least somewhat safe that I wasn’t completely off on my own, even though of course I wanted to be self-sufficient and not rely on someone else for help.)
I was now at 13,800 – only 250 feet of elevation still to go! However, this was one of the toughest scrambles of any of the 14ers I’d done so far. I definitely had to use my hands a lot for almost this entire pitch, making me wonder… how could this possibly the easiest 14er?? The other three I’ve summited hadn’t required any scrambling, and with Bierstadt’s easy reputation, I was expecting this one to be a lot less demanding. I also couldn’t tell where the actual trail was at all, so it’s possible that I was off-trail and doing something different… but there were similarly-sized rocks all the way around, so no path looked any easier. Finally, I made it to the ridgeline and could see over to some gorgeous views. Getting close!
The final pitch was so very windy, but I could see that it wasn’t going to be but a few more minutes to the top. Finally, I reached the peak – and immediately dove for a wind shelter. It seemed like the absolute summit was maybe twenty feet further, but this part was mostly flat so I counted it as close enough for me to take a break, call Adam, and eat a snack. I was so out of it and so grateful to finally stop and hide from the wind!
I called Adam, recognizing that I sounded totally out of it, particularly as he again urged me to come down quickly. I sat long enough to eat a protein bar, but that actually took a while, as I found it really hard to chew. I’m not sure if that was from how cold/numb my face was, or because I hadn’t been drinking enough and didn’t have enough saliva, but it was really hard both to chew and to swallow. Finally, I choked the bar down and prepared to take some summit photos. It was hard to leave the shelter of the rocks, but I did for just a few quick shots, of which I’ll share two…
After just a few quick clicks (without even much thought in terms of setting up the shot to be pretty), I headed back down.As Adam had reminded me, I wanted to get off this mountain ASAP and start thinking more clearly!
Literally as soon as I started descending, the hike felt easier and more comfortable. Sure, I was still at altitude, but I felt a lot better not having to exert the effort to ascend. (And in retrospect, I bet the power bar I ate also helped.) It was a lot of sliding and jumping to get down that first rocky part of the ascent, since once again I couldn’t figure out exactly where the trail was, but pretty soon I was at the saddle and things got a lot easier.
As I wound my way down the still-rocky-but-now-obvious trail, I noticed that I was passing a ton of hikers. Evidently what I lack in speed on the ascent I can make up on the descent! I was psyched that the trip down was going to be so much shorter than the trip up. After how exhausting it was at the top, I was looking forward to getting down to my car and going home… and maybe taking a nap. But I was also trying to hurry because of the weather. There were supposed to be some storms rolling in around noon, and I had seen some clouds when I was up top. I wanted to be long gone before they let loose!
At some point on the descent, my Bluetooth headphones died (and earlier on in the hike, my backup set wouldn’t connect). So that meant no podcasts and no music; just me and my thoughts. Throughout the descent, all I could keep thinking was how miserable the hike had been on the way up, and how I might have put myself in some danger when I was suffering from altitude sickness (or some mild version of it.)
It’s pretty scary how out of it I get when I’m at really high altitudes, and while Bierstadt is very crowded, it might not be the best idea for me to continue hiking 14ers solo, crowded or not. It’s not like I’m trying to climb them all (ha, I am nowhere near qualified for that), so why should I keep putting myself through the exhaustion and the misery when there are plenty of other hikes in Colorado that I could do?
Of course, this was also mixed in with thoughts of how nice the descent was. See, this is how the mountains drag you in – by the time you get down to the bottom, you’ve forgotten how hard it was to get to the top! The more I thought about it, though, the more I thought that 14ers just aren’t worth it for me. There are lots of other mountains that are just as steep and pretty, but don’t involve the challenge of altitude – and perhaps I should focus my attention on those. By the time I reached the end of the hike, I was convinced that I’d never do this again.
It’s been two weeks since I hiked Bierstadt, and my feelings have kind of softened since I was on the mountain… as I kind of suspected they might. In hindsight, the terrain on Bierstadt really wasn’t that tough. It definitely required some use of my hands for that final scramble, which I hadn’t been expecting. Bierstadt is billed as the easiest 14er, and the others I’ve done haven’t required any scrambling. But if I had been more with it and not suffering from the high altitude, the whole thing would have been totally easy and fun.
After talking to a bunch of friends about it, several pointed out that food can really help alleviate feelings of altitude sickness. I realized that I didn’t stop to eat on this hike except once at the very top! That’s far less than I’ve eaten when hiking 14ers in the past, so perhaps that’s part of why I felt so terrible. Definitely something to keep an eye on for future hikes, whether they’re at high altitude or lower.
I’m still a little torn whether it would have been better to go with a group rather than solo solo. Solo was probably more dangerous when I was getting delirious (though don’t worry, Mom, there isn’t much exposure so it’s not like I would have fallen off the mountain). But even looking at the other hikers around me on my ascent, I know I am a lot slower than most others, and I hate the pressure (real or not) to go faster when I’m in a group.
In a group, I’m sure that people would be nice about it if I were going slower (as they have been in the past), but I get really self-conscious and worry that people are secretly resenting me when I hike at altitude with them and am so much slower. I’ve gotten over that fear when I’m doing a low elevation hike in Boulder, where I’ve gotten used to hiking with Adam and then have branched out to hiking with Amanda and other friends. But at high altitude, I still feel like I’m the slowest, worst hiker on the mountain, and it just makes me feel better to know that no one is waiting on me.
With other people or solo, though, I haven’t done a complete about face (yet). I felt really strongly when I got home that Bierstadt was going to be the last 14er I did, at least for a very long time. But the lure of the mountains is so appealing that I’m sure I won’t stay away for too long, and I’ve already been contemplating some high-altitude hikes I’ve seen on blogs or Meetup groups. Knowing how I love a challenge and love proving that I can do something I thought I couldn’t, I’m sure I’ll be back up in the clouds at some point before fall.
This weekend, I’m currently en route to Mammoth Lakes for the running retreat I mentioned a few weeks ago. Tomorrow evening has us running up a mountain that peaks at 11,053 feet, so that will give me a taste of the high altitude I’m so scared of. Perhaps with Adam at my side I’ll learn there’s nothing all that scary about it? We shall see.