I forgot what it felt like to climb a Fourteener for the first time: it's certainly challenging both mentally and physically. The path can be hard to locate, boulder fields can be intimidating, and then there's the vertigo that comes from being so high. Unless versed in mountaineering, there's really no way to know what lies ahead; and even if you have a great imagination, you never know what hand the weather will deal you. The first time I did it, I envisioned Castle Peak to be like any other hike I had taken over the course of my life, just somehow more... upward. I almost fell off a mountain that day (but that's a story for another time). This time around, I just wanted to remind myself that I could go out and climb a mountain.
We arrived at the trail head of Mt. Democrat in the dewy chill of the 6 am hour. I was militant about getting moving, more so than I needed to be. We were surrounded by 100s of others aiming to achieve the same goal and not in quite such a rush: a mountain top view for lunch. We set out on the trail, crossing a river rock by rock, passing a lake and approaching the task at hand. A staircase of rocks upward sent messages to our lungs. The sun was rising on the peaks surrounding us and, though were immersed in a trail of people, there was a certain silence to it all. Breathing was hard and loud and created more of a backdrop than the chatter of ants on a hill. Movement was slow; breaks to take in the view were often.
We came to a vantage point where Nancy and Deb decided it was a good place to turn around. First a photo for posterity. We headed upward from there. Our water full, our packs packed. Cairns marked the way, conversation marked the climate. The weather let us be. We passed others; others passed us. The saddle was in our sights.
It was a welcome reprieve and really only the halfway point. Now the elevation gained in a shorter amount of space. Movement grew slower; breath got even more shallow; thoughts got louder.
A fake summit can be disheartening, especially when you aren't expecting it. There's no way you're going to stop when you reach it, but then again, you really feel like you have given it your all and there's no energy left. Still you push that last piece because you've come to far to turn around. And then you're there: on top of the world with a great view to greet you, a sense of accomplishment, and a sandwich that tastes pretty unbelievable (even if it's PB&J).
|It would seem we are alone |
but I would guess at least 30 of our closest "friends" were up there when we were.
I started hiking "later" in life and experienced a 14ner for the first time at 25. I can't imagine being 15 and climbing a mountain, which is what my awesome niece has done in this photo. She stuck to it and signed the log like the rest of us; leaving her mark on a mountain top.
This was the first time too for Chris as well, but she's a natural athlete (like me, lol). Given her great shape as of late, I think the reality of the climb surprised her but that's true for anyone. I also believe that's what makes the summit even more enjoyable. So much so, you almost forget you still have to get down the hill.
Downward: knees burn; feet ache; you really just want a beer. The pack is lighter but you're also probably almost out of water and could drink all of it with every rationed sip. The sun is closer than it's ever been before and it's breathing heavy on your neck. You stop and let those headed upward pass. You lend sage advice and throw out support to help lift them up to the top. You curse yourself for looking down. You stop at the saddle again to rest.
From there the slope doesn't seem as unforgiving. There's still a ways to go but you find yourself feeling like you're on a hike again and not in a battle with nature, loose shale, gravity, etc.
You pass things you remember from an earlier hour, which now feels like a lifetime ago. You look back to make sure your achievement is still there; to study what you now know so intimately.
And then you're home.