For breakfast I have coffee and chocolate-covered almonds because when I’m camping and it’s 90 degrees out I eat whatever I want even if that’s barely anything. Our campsite is right next to the Mount Elbert trailhead. I didn’t pick the spot but when I notice it is right next to the trailhead I figure why not? I am camping with a bunch of fisher people. I don’t fish I am just here for the company. So I brought my hiking shoes.
Everyone else has to work on Monday. But I don’t. So after my coffee I pack up my tent and drive fifty feet to the trailhead. I park. I say hi to two men in the lot who leave for the trail before me. I wear: shorts, a cropped cotton t-shirt, a flannel that I tie around my waist because it is already hot out. I wear hiking boots and socks which are the only things I’m wearing that make me look like I know what I’m doing.
I take a fanny pack. I don’t do backpacks much these days because they irritate my collarbone and because I don’t really have a good one and that’s fine. In the fanny pack I barely fit: two liters of water, sunscreen, phone, car keys, photo ID, knife, apple, four mini kind bars, a handful of Swedish fish and a handful of salted almonds. I’m aware that this is probably not enough water and probably not enough food for hiking twelve miles and climbing 5,000ish feet but I figure if I feel like I’m dying I’ll turn around and come back. (Even though I hate turning around.)
I’m also faintly aware that doing my first fourteener by myself without any particular training or plan and probably without enough water or food or clothing might be not the best idea. Sometimes I feel guilty about my brazen decision-making. But then I remind myself that some people like to take risks and some people like to play it safe and it’s good that there are both types of people in the world because otherwise I don’t think the world would work.
So at 9am (way too late), I begin. The trail is lovely. You can see the twin lakes. I have to follow the Colorado Trail for a few miles to get to the Mt. Elbert south summit trail. It goes along a few campsites. I pass people coming the other way. There’s a huge grove of Aspens that will be beautiful in the fall. But also it’s beautiful now there are so many and their white trunks are skinny little columns with bursts of vibrant green leaves at the top. I cross a loud and rushing river on a footbridge. I hike up a few switchbacks. I’m feeling good and hiking fast. A couple with a golden retriever pulls him aside when I pass and I say that he is a good dog and they smile. These are the first people I’ve passed going the same direction as me.
I hike farther. I get a bloody nose. I get them a lot and because it is so hot this week I’ve been getting them every night. It starts so quickly it’s like a faucet of blood down my face and I stuff my one tissue in my nose and keep hiking but quickly decide that it would be better to sit. So I sit. I eat my apple while the tissue in my nose slowly blooms red. My face and hands are caked in blood. The couple with the retriever passes me and I wave but kind of sideways and don’t make eye contact so they know I’m okay but please don’t ask me if I need help. They don’t.
I take the tissue out and decide it needs to go back in. I eat my apple to the core and put the core in the bag with the almonds. I would feel bad if an apple tree grew up here and it was my fault. But the bloody tissue I put under a rock go ahead and sue me. I use some of my water to try to clean the blood off of my face. And onward.
The trail crosses another river. This one is quiet and cold. I properly wash the blood off of my hands and face here and I dump a handful on the back of my neck which always helps the nosebleeds. Trails diverge and I keep following the Colorado and signs that point to the Mt. Elbert summit trail. I pass one more couple with a dog. Then, I get to the Elbert trailhead.
The trail climbs. There are wooden steps sometimes. It goes up and up and up. I’m hiking for almost an hour and I see no one. I take my shirt off until it just hangs around my neck. I always think it’s good for my belly and my back to get sun. But there’s not that much sun because there are still trees. So many trees. I’m ready to get above the treeline and I’m annoyed at how long it is taking. I can’t get to the top of this mountain if I never get out of these trees.
Finally they begin to thin. At one of the last shady spots there is a felled tree that is a perfect place for sitting so I eat two of my kind bars and put on more sunscreen. I see the first people on the summit trail. They are coming down. They look like they know what they’re doing. Then more people pass me coming down. I’m glad actually because for a while there I felt really alone up here.
Then I catch up to someone; it’s the two men that I saw in the parking lot. They are stopped to rest and we talk for a minute. Have you done this before? I ask. Because I don’t know what I’m doing and I’d like someone to be able to explain it to me. But they shake their heads no. This is their first fourteener. Oh me too! I say. Well I guess none of us are saving each other. Did I mention that I am getting kind of worried up here? It is very windy, very high, and very exposed. The two men and I hike up together but only for a few minutes. It gets so windy it’s hard to walk in a straight line. The two men stop. I pass them.
The trail turns to rocks and rock stairs. Sometimes I claw my way up. Not because I have to but because my hands can help my feet out a little. Mountain beavers scurry and hide in the cairns. (I know they’re not mountain beavers but I’ll call them whatever I want because this is my story.) A couple with big packs comes down towards me. DO YOU HAVE ENOUGH WATER? The man asks. WHAT? I yell because it’s so windy it’s hard to hear exactly. DO YOU HAVE ENOUGH WATER? I do not ask: what about me right now makes you concerned that I do not have enough water? DO YOU NEED ANY WATER? He asks again. I say: If you have extra I’ll take some no pressure. They give me a whole bottle and I drink it all.
My legs start to hurt. Particularly my calves and my right ankle. I hike alongside patches of snow and a blue-green mountain lake. It is so windy I have to hold my hat on my head. I take deep deep breaths. I eat some Swedish fish. An older man in a puffy jacket and hat comes down. I ask him how long to the top and if it’s doable. He says that I’m close. Maybe twenty minutes away. If it was much farther than that I don’t know if I would keep going. He asks if I have more clothes than what I’m wearing. I say no. I ask if he thinks I’ll be okay, even though I don’t think it matters what he answers. But he says yes he thinks so.
What keeps me going the rest of the way is that I know I am close. And then I am at the top. For the first time I can see the range of mountains behind this mountain. And my heart beats an extra beat because I can see down the other side and it is steep. I cower from the wind. I take some pictures. The top is cool, but it’s not really about the top. Also I am kind of scared and very alone up here. So I do not linger.
I hike down for twenty minutes before I come across the same two men from the parking lot. YOU ARE INCREDIBLE, one says. I laugh. Why? YOU PASSED US TWICE. YOU’RE SO FAST. I do not say: this is an out-and-back trail so the way it works is if I pass you once I will by default pass you twice. I do say, YOU’RE AMAZING TOO. Which is true. Because we are all well over 13,000 feet here and probably for the first time. These two men are the last people I see for the next three hours.
I take my shirt off again. I have entire conversations out loud with no one. My legs are a mess. But back under the trees I know now that there’s no way I won’t make it back to the car. I carefully note landmarks that I see for the second time: the river, the switchbacks, the trail crossings. When I cross back over the cold quiet stream I wash my face and my hair. I am very close to the parking lot when I get to the last fork in the trail. It is not totally clear to me which one to take. I think it’s left. And then a hiker comes up from behind me, moving briskly. We look at each other. Is the parking lot this way? I ask. He says he thinks so. And we walk together. I ask him where he’s from and what he does. The answer involves a few cities and a trailer. He says, well, I bought the trailer back in 2013–then he interrupts himself and laughs a little–sorry you’re getting the whole story now.
I say, I’ve hardly talked to anyone all day. Please, tell me the whole story.