I stepped from Plank to Plank
A slow and cautious way
The Stars about my Head I felt
About my feet the Sea.

I knew not but the next
Would be my final inch -
This gave me that precarious Gait
Some call Experience.

Emily Dickinson, c. 1864

Sunday, August 22, 2010


In a comment on my friend Linda's blog where she wrote about her son's mountain climbing experience, I mentioned that I had climbed 26 of Colorado's fourteeners (peaks at least 14,000 feet high). She wrote back and suggested that I write an Eye blog about how that happened, so here it is.

Looking back, I have wondered just where it was that I began to exercise regularly, because I recall only hazy memories that included cigarettes and eating poorly. In thinking about how it came about, it happened with a group of friends I met when I first moved to Boulder. I was living in a rooming house with perhaps fifteen or so other residents. Although it was not an official communal living experience, it turned out to be so in many ways. We each had a smallish room but we shared the kitchen and bathrooms, which means you get to know each other pretty well. Among them were a bunch of guys who made trips into the Rockies to "bag" fourteeners. One day, they invited me to join them.

I was instructed to pack a lunch, take rain gear, water, and wear absolutely NO cotton anywhere. This seemed strange to me, as it was midsummer and hot without a cloud in the sky. I did as I was told and very early one morning we piled into Jim's big old van and headed up the road from Boulder to bag Quandary Peak.

What I remember most about that day is how early we started and how long the three miles to the top were, relentlessly heading up and up. I stopped often and cursed the heaviness of my pack and wished I had not agreed to come on the trip. Every time I thought I was close to the top, I would climb a little more and find that it was still in the distance. I will never ever forget the experience of reaching the top, however: it was glorious. I truly felt I was on top of the world, with 360-degree views of the surrounding mountains. The air at 14,000 feet is thin but exhilarating in a way I had never before experienced. We didn't have any rain that day, and I felt so good as I headed back down the trail, I wanted to do it again and again.

I went on to climb all the peaks near Boulder with these friends or others who I met through them. This was the beginning of my getting in shape. I also learned the reason for the rain gear and the early starts.
I don't remember which peak this was, but one of my friends had a camera and took this picture as he was amazed that my hair was standing on end. This, of course, was from the lightning that was just getting ready to strike! I had noticed a tingling feeling on my scalp but didn't know this was what it looked like. One friend who knew about this told us to hustle back down the trail because this was a dangerous sign. As we descended quickly, the storm moved in faster than I could have imagined possible, and above our heads we saw dark clouds forming and heard thunder. I didn't see any lightning but I did get quite wet and was grateful for my rain gear.

Over the years, I traveled around the state and ended up climbing some of the more difficult ones. Some are quite easy, actually, and one day I climbed three in one day, but they are all next to each other (Lincoln, Democrat and Bross). To be considered a distinct fourteener, a peak must rise at least 300 feet from the saddle that connects it to the nearby mountains. The most difficult one I ever climbed was Pyramid Peak. It was very steep and nothing but loose rocks in many places. I remember someone above me dislodged a huge rock that went barreling down fairly close to me. He yelled, "rock!" as it went whizzing by I realized that it would have killed me if I had been unable to avoid it. I also smelled ozone as it bounced from rock to rock. I quickly turned and yelled to the climbers below me.

This was much later in my years climbing fourteeners. I learned to be much safer in the mountains and sometimes spent as long as a week camping with my friends and climbing mountains, large and small. It was the beginning of my lifelong love of the outdoors. It's funny when I think of it, and wonder how different my life would have been had I not chosen to rent a room in that old house in Boulder.


Anonymous said...

Why weren't you allowed to wear cotton anywhere? Even underwear???

What do you do if you need to use the bathroom? No bushes? Will the others wait til you are finished with your business?

DJan said...

First of all, you don't wear cotton because it absorbs water quickly and pulls the heat away from your body. I learned that the hard way a few times. Cotton underwear is okay, because you probably have something wool or polyester over the top of them. But even so, I have been soaked down to the skin, and in Colorado's weather, you can get hypothermic very quickly. These days I have rain pains and a goretex rain jacket, so I could wear cotton and not die.

And yes, you have to crouch down behind a big boulder and take a leak. Hopefully nobody is below you, or you have to wait to find a spot. The guys, of course, just stand there! And yes, they wait for you, since you need to stay within eyesight of each other or it becomes very dangerous. Good questions!

Nancy said...

You answered my question about the cotton. I have to admit to wearing it for short hikes in the Sierra's. But never on my feet. Great story. I can see why you look back to the fork in the road at the rooming house - it was a big part of who you are now.

Nancy/BLissed-Out Grandma said...

That's a wonderful story about how you got started on your life of fitness and adventure.

#1Nana said...

It's it funny how small decisions that we make can have a big impact. If only real life had a sound track and we would know when a momentous event was happening by the music, but would we make different decisions?

I enjoyed this post.

Far Side of Fifty said...

I am starting to think that you should have been a bird..you must have earned your wings by now..great recall of how you started hiking the tall ones, I enjoyed it:)

The Retired One said...

Just look how young and eager you looked in that photo! Marvelous..and I LOVE that she captured your hair on end from the static electricity..so unique!

Gigi said...

It really is amazing how one little decision or choice can totally change the course of your life! Thanks for sharing.

Linda Myers said...

What a great place you had to start from! And you were willing to do it. That's the most important piece, I think. The willingness to say "yes".

Donna B. said...

Wow! You really are something else. I admire you so much for your writing but your sense of adventure.

I knew why you should not wear cotton from watching SURVIVORMAN and MAN VS WILD. I love those survivor type shows. Very interesting and one never knows what information may save ones life!

I so enjoy reading about your adventures. You always tell a great story.

Donna B. said...

PS...that picture of you with your hair standing on end due to impending lightning, is absolutely incredible! The look on your face shows a strong woman who knows the exhilaration of conquering goals and quests.

Whitney Lee said...

You are amazing. Seriously. Stories like this make you wonder, don't they, about the choices you've made in life. It's always fascinating to me how often a choice that seems like such an ordinary one turns out to be life changing.

I didn't know that about the cotton (seems like I'm not the only one). I can't imagine how difficult it must have been to hike up a mountain when not quite certain what you're getting into. Then again, if you'd known what the day entailed, would you have been as game?