It’s just before 7 a.m. on a late August morning, and I’m standing in a dirt parking lot in the San Isabel National Forest outside of Leadville, Colo. Along with five strangers, I’m breathing the breath of joy: loud, yogic-inspired exhales made more dramatic with sweeping arm movements. It’s the kind of thing that usually cracks me up, but I’m not in a smiley mood. In fact, I’m a little nauseated thinking about what lies ahead.
After our joyful breaths, meant to get the oxygen flowing through our blood, we’re headed up to the summit of Mount Belford, 14,197 lung-burning feet above sea level. But even though we’re standing at an elevation of more than 9,600 feet, the mountain isn’t even in sight. All I see is a super-steep slope called Missouri Gulch, which will eventually lead us to the path up Belford.
“We’re heading straight up,” comes the unnecessary explanation from Nate Goldberg, director of the Beaver Creek Hiking Center and leader of today’s trip. Next to me is Mike Morrow, a 56-year-old mortgage broker from Dallas who has been preparing for this day for about a year. He draws me out of my what-the-hell-am-I-doing-here mood. “I’ve got about two-dozen PowerBars in my pack,” he boasts in his Southern drawl. “Don’t know what else I got in there, but I’m not going to starve on that mountain.”
Colorado has 54 peaks over 14,000 feet, or “fourteeners,” as they are known by climbing insiders. Belford ranks a respectable 19th on the master list. Climbing a fourteener is a staple on most hardcore athletic to-do lists; summiting all 54 is a lifetime quest for many people. According to the Colorado Mountain Club (CMC), as of October 2004, a total of 1,118 people had reported bagging all 54 peaks.
Although a few of the mountains require ropes in some spots, the majority require just a reasonable level of fitness, the ability to put one appropriately shod foot in front of the other and an appreciation for an ever-increasing bird’s-eye view. I meet all three qualifications, although prior to my trip, I was a little unsure of my fitness level. So I spent about four weeks exercising with this fourteener in mind: In addition to a weekly spinning class and near-daily hourlong walks with my dog, I went on a couple of 45-minute runs and climbed a 9,200-foot mountain outside Santa Fe, N.M., where I live. Beyond that, I generally just hoped for the best.
Show On the Road
Under a perfect bluebird-hued sky, we head up in the 55-degree morning air. Goldberg sets goals for us: Climb 1,000 feet per hour, and reach the summit by 11:30 a.m. so we can turn back before any afternoon storms roll in. He also counsels that we “go in like a lamb and out like a lion.” Translation: Walk, don’t sprint. “We’ve got a long eight-hour day ahead of us and you need to conserve energy,” he cautions.
Goldberg emphasizes his point by demonstrating the lockstep, a technique in which you lock your knee after every step, thus giving your leg muscles a mini-break. As we move up the trail, I chat with some of the other hikers – most are locals, already acclimatized to the thin air – and forget about the steep switchbacks and my initial worries. We hear a coyote howl in the distance; Goldberg announces we’ve climbed about 1,100 feet in 45 minutes. I haven’t broken out the lockstep once. This is going to be a great day.
We continue our ascent out of the aspens, through a grassy meadow and over a sizable stream covered by a thin layer of ice. Eventually, we meet the trail that snakes up the shoulder of Belford. The switchbacks seem never-ending, but I’m encouraged: So far, this seems like a pleasant walk, not a tough hike. Occasionally, we stop to drink Gatorade or eat a PowerBar (it turns out, Morrow has just six, not 24, in his pack).
About one-third of the way up the rocky shoulder, my hamstrings start to yell, but there are plenty of diversions to keep me from focusing on the ache. Morrow, whose stroll has slowed to an amble, tells me he read a Dallas Morning News story about climbing fourteeners a year ago and that he’s had his eyes on the prize ever since. “I’m the talk of my gym,” he says. “None of my lazy friends think I can do this. But I’m just taking small steps, and I’ll keep going until I get there.” As Morrow pauses in his monologue to catch his breath, I watch the pikas,_ rodent-like animals that move in twitchy bursts, stuffing their cheeks with grass in preparation for winter hibernation.
At 11:36, the first of our group reaches the summit: 14,197 feet above the ocean. My legs, having climbed 4,482 of those feet, have that postexercise glow, and while my lungs recognize the thinner air, getting enough oxygen doesn’t feel problematic. Morrow and Goldberg bring up the rear about five minutes later. We break out 3-inch-thick turkey sandwiches and plate-sized brownies before taking in the amazing panorama.
From here, we can see the city of Colorado Springs and a handful of other fourteeners, including Missouri Mountain and mounts Harvard, Princeton, Yale and Oxford – the last is so close that hiking another 30 minutes would bag us two fourteeners in a single day. But I’m content to let a pair of binoculars make the ascent. After all, our day is only half done.
We start down. Fortunately, just a few wispy clouds hang in the sky – no threat of storms. The descent is surprisingly hard on my legs: My quads ache within 10 minutes of leaving the summit and, with each step, I lean as much weight into my hiking poles as I can. Each time we stop, my leg muscles start quivering, and the sewing-machine syndrome doesn’t end until I begin walking again. Morrow is definitely struggling down the steeper slopes. “It didn’t feel this hard coming up,” he tells me.
I feel the same way. Eight hours later, as Goldberg predicted, we reach the car. I can’t believe the day is over, and, although exhausted, I’ve barely broken a sweat. Morrow proclaims he’ll be back for another summit next summer, after tending to his mouth in the interim. “I’ve drunk so much Gatorade and eaten so many PowerBars, I need to see a dentist,” he says. Meanwhile, I realize that I can officially check off my first fourteener. It’s such an exhilarating rush that, were I not so physically beat, I’d probably suggest another round of the breath of joy.
Dimity McDowell lives in Santa Fe, N.M.