Category Archives: 14ers

Mount of the Holy Cross

I did not understand why I heard so many cars going by at 3 A.M. We were camping in a really good spot, along Notch Mountain Road only five miles from the trailhead. Wasn’t the purpose of camping near the trailhead of a 14er (Mountain with a peak 14,000 ft. or higher in elevation, a popular activity in Colorado, particularly in late summer) to be able to sleep a little later? In our spot, we were able to wake up shortly after 5 A.M. and still arrive at the trailhead by sunrise.

The strange thing was, the trailhead was already so packed we had to park half a mile away!

Over the course of the day, we would find out the reason why. The most obvious reason is that The Mt. of the Holy Cross is not just a “14er”. It is a 14er with a warmup hike, a climb of roughly 1200 feet in elevation, followed by a descent into a river valley before the primary 3500 foot steep ascent.

Hiking several days after a full moon has two advantages. First, the moon does not rise in the night sky until an hour or two before midnight, making it possible to see the stars before going to sleep. Then, in the morning, the moon is still out past sunrise.

The opening ascent, which summits right around the tree line is a significant hike of its own. There are probably plenty of people who live more sedentary lives who would not even be able to make it to this summit, which was spectacular at this early hour.

Right after getting to the summit, the trail turned in another direction and suddenly, the mountain the we were going to climb appeared before us while the moon was still prevalent in the morning sky.

It was an image of power, challenge and intimidation in front of us. We had just completed what many would consider a satisfactory hike of its own, a climb of a little over 1000 feet to a scenic panoramic view. Here, it was just a warm up. The moon, still mostly full and bright highlighted the challenge that laid ahead. It may as well have been screaming LEVEL UP.

After seeing the mountain, there can be nothing more disconcerting than descending, giving back the elevation gain we had worked for at the beginning of the day. We descended from near tree line (11,600′) back down into a river valley with Aspen trees nearly 1000 feet lower.

Long distance cycling taught me how to manage situations like these, psychologically speaking. Terrain, on trips like these, are kind of like a metaphor for life. Parts of it are naturally going to be harder. Parts of it are going to be easier. Sometimes you can anticipate it. Sometimes, it is unexpected. When climbing, during the more challenging parts of life, all you can do is toughen up – grind it out. When on a descent, or during times when life takes it a bit easier on you, it is seriously best to just enjoy it, and not worry about paying the price later. We can’t change the terrain, the wind speed or the trail conditions. All we can do is get the full enjoyment out of the experiences that work in our favor.

Around the river valley, there were a serious of campsites, another reason that the trailhead parking lot was so full. Apparently, many people who hike this mountain pack into one of these campsites and then tackle the main ascent in the morning.

After the campgrounds, the climb got intense quite rapidly. It wouldn’t be long before we reached treeline and encountered typical conditions associated with 14ers; A rocky, steep trail with full exposure.

Instantly the full beauty of the heart of the Rocky Moutains was visible in all directions.

I knew I would soon reach the point where I felt exhausted and delirious.

The step scramble up the rocks seemed to go on and on forever. Every time I reached what appeared to be some kind of crest, the trail would just turn in a slightly different direction and the rocky climb would continue.

This very intense section of the mountain, at high elevation, also felt like a metaphor for life. Sometimes, we work really hard at something, complete a task and feel like we have “made it”, only to determine that another, equally challenging task lies ahead of us. It is like working hard to get an advanced degree, then working hard to land a job, then working hard to prove ourselves and get a promotion, or having to work our way into a different, more appropriate position. If anything, the downhill part of this hike was part of that metaphor. Many of us take part in endeavors that we later realize were counterproductive.

The final scramble to the top was so steep it proved ideal conditions for mountain goats.

There was one adverse condition, common to 14ers, that I did not experience that day. That was bad weather of any kind. In the mountains, it is common to encounter chilly winds, even in the middle of summer and afternoon thunderstorms. Consistent with the hot, dry summer of 2020, I relaxed on top of the mountain in a t-shirt, without having to crawl behind rocks to shield from the wind.

I was still almost too exhausted to enjoy being at the top of the mountain. It always feels amazing to be at the top, but I felt quite delirious. I was almost feeling too delirious to make sense of everything. I ceased thinking about every aspect of the experience being some kind of metaphor for life and just gazed around, with no energy for any thought beyond feeling on top of the world and gazing out at the rugged terrain in all directions.

The descent turned out to be almost as exhausting because I keep my dog on leash, she pulls, making a steep descent even scarier, and she spent most of the descent trying to capture small chipmunks.

Luckily, she finally succeeded, and once that adrenaline rush wore off, even an energetic 2-year-old Siberian Husky had to acknowledge that this hike was indeed exhausting.

With a round trip total of around 5500 feet of climbing, this was the most challenging hike I had ever undertaken. It was challenging enough to make me stop thinking of metaphors for life and start seeing just what is. When I reached the crest of the final climb on the return trip, I simply enjoyed one of my favorite foods and gazed back upon the mountain I had just finished climbing.

Suddenly my exhaustion made sense. I mean, come on, look at that thing!

The Highest Point in Colorado


I hiked Mount Elbert last Friday for a few reasons…

I wanted to reach Colorado’s highest point.

Also, it has been a hot summer in the Denver area, with August’s daytime high temperatures running about 4ºF above average.


At Denver International Airport, the average high temperature for the month of August (through the 23rd) was over 91ºF (33°C). Getting up in elevation, where temperatures would be far cooler sounded refreshing.

Despite the heat, I could feel summer’s end approaching, with sunset getting earlier and earlier.


I was starting to feel as if I was allowing my Colorado summer to pass by without that many mountain adventures to show for it.

Finally, as recently as a six months ago, the idea of needing a day away from people would have seemed inconceivable to me. Things changed, and last week I was seriously feeling the desire to spend a day alone (well, with my dog). I guess it is true that even the most extreme introverts need human interaction and even the most extreme extroverts need some time alone.

So, I did the only logical thing. I left Denver at 3:45 A.M. so I could arrive at the Mount Elbert Trailhead at sunrise- in time to get the last parking spot in the lot.

It certainly was cooler. At the start of the day, the temperature had dropped into the mid 30s (≈2ºC).


The Northeast Ridge is the most popular, and most easily navigable route up Mount Elbert. The first mile of this hike follows both the Colorado Trail and the Continental Divide trail.


This first half of this mile is fairly steep, with switchbacks, followed by a flat section.

One of the greatest things about starting a hike this early is being there the moment the sun first hits the top of the trees.


I reached the tree line an hour into the hike.


The Arkansas Valley and the town of Leadville gradually disappeared from behind the trail, as if I was on an airplane taking off.



Due to the time of day, and sun exposure, it began to feel warmer. The trail also got even more intense.


One of the reasons people hike 14ers is to get that feeling of being on top of the world! Because the Mount Elbert Trail is pretty steep right near the tree line, that feeling comes sooner on Mount Elbert than it does on other 14ers. I looked back only about 15 minutes after reaching the tree line, and already felt as if I was looking down on all else.


The other common 14er experience that comes a bit earlier on Mount Elbert (compared to other 14ers) is the “scramble”. This is a really steep and rocky section where there is often not one specific route. On most 14ers, the “scramble” comes right at the top. However, on Mount Elbert it comes a bit earlier.

After a couple more miles of alternating steeper and flatter sections…

An intense “scramble” presents itself.

The top of the scramble, however, is not the summit.


Exhausted from the scramble, the trail seems to drag on forever (although in reality it is about 30 minutes). It is the kind of hike that forces a lot of hikers to reach, deep inside themselves, and find the energy and stamina they did not think they had.


I was able to summit right around 10 A.M., a safe time to summit given the thunderstorm threat is primarily in the afternoon.


Shasta (pictured with me here) was far from the only dog to hike Mount Elbert that day. However, I was surprised to see a mountain bike at the top of the mountain.


A hiker carried this bike up the mountain on his back, and then rode it down the East Ridge- WOW!


The man who carried the mountain bike to the top of the mountain was far from the only person I talked to on this hike. I talked to dozens of people, many others with dogs and even one of the trail volunteers who was helping build an erosion preventing wall along the trail just above tree line. It was not nearly as solitary as I had thought.

I really didn’t mind. In fact, I enjoyed talking to all of the people I met on the trail and felt it made it a better experience. Maybe what I really needed was not a break from all people, just the ones I felt were being demanding.


Downhill was also an adventure. The views are commonly different, as it is much closer to the middle of the day. Some places feel like they took on a somewhat different color.


It also presented a challenge of its own, as parts of the trail were slippery.


And, as was the case with the trip up the hill, it also felt like it dragged on longer than anticipated.



While I had grown tired of all things “demanding”, this hike made me realize that some of the best experiences in life are the demanding ones. The ones that force you to give more than what you were prepared to give. The ones that force you to reach deep inside yourself, both physically and mentally, and find what you did not know you had in you.

There are different kinds of demanding experiences. Some build something in us, such as hikes like these, the basketball coach that wants their players to reach their full potential, or a great boss or mentor that knows going soft on someone with real talent will shortchange them.

Then there are other ones, that do nothing but feed someone else’s ego, or squeeze every last hour of work or bit of energy out of you to line pocketbooks. Sometimes it is hard to tell the difference, especially when tired. I know there were sections of this hike where I was barely able to hold a thought. Somewhere deep inside, we all understand what is going on. All we need to do is trust our instincts and ask ourselves this simple question…

Am I Being Built or Harvested?

Be thankful for the experiences that build us, no matter how frustrating or exhausting they are. Run as fast as you can from those where we are being harvested.

A July 4th Hike Up Mount Evans

IMG_3942.jpgThis Independence Day was a strange one. It was a day with all sorts of mixed feelings. The first is related to the holiday. I love the United States of America, and feel extremely blessed to have been born and live here. However, something just feels a bit off right now. Without getting too into it, as travel and adventure is supposed to be an escape from all of this nonsense, I do not feel that our current political climate is in line with what this country was originally intended to be about. Based on the values of the Enlightenment, we escaped from tyranny and intended to set up a nation where the impact of politics and government on our lives is limited. People feeling that government is important enough that they will de-friend and even act violently towards those that support a different political party just doesn’t feel like America to me.

I was also somewhat mixed about the event. Mount Evans is one of two 14ers (peaks over 14,000 feet in elevation) with a paved road to the top, meaning that people can get to the top of this mountain in their cars (or on a bike). In fact, I know someone who drove to the very same peak on the same day.


I also wasn’t too crazy about leaving Denver at 4 in the morning to arrive at the Summit Lake parking lot just before sunrise.


14ers close to Denver are quite popular, and there was concern about parking availability. In many of my social circles, I find myself among the least cautious. It’s not that I want to go around being reckless, taking risks for the sake of risks. I would just rather deal with things occasionally going wrong than all the missed opportunities and additional stress that comes from being averse to risk.

However, the big picture is that I am hiking to the top of a tall mountain. Waking up two hours earlier than I wanted to guarantee a parking spot at the trailhead is a small compromise, and not one that takes me anywhere near a place where risk avoidance is costing me opportunities. There were also some benefits from starting that early, as each hour of the day is unique in the mountains, and the time around sunrise can be quite magnificent.


Less than twenty minutes into the hike, the sun emerged from behind both the clouds and mountain peaks on the horizon.


They do not call these mountains the Rocky Mountains for nothing. Many of these high elevation hikes are both steep and rocky.


I would definitely recommend some form of hiking boots or trail shoes to traverse terrain like this.


The trail climbs pretty quickly right from the start. Less than an hour into the hike, which is a slow hike, averaging little more than a mile per hour, I began to see Grays and Torreys Peaks, the first 14ers I ever climbed, five years ago.


It wouldn’t be long before that top of the world feeling emerged. This is because, the trek up Mount Evans from Summit Lake is actually two peaks. The first one, Mount Spalding, is only 158 feet shy of being a 14er itself, and has its own scramble to the top.


Like Grays and Torreys, there are many places where hikers conquer two peaks at once. This hike felt very much like this, despite the fact that Mount Spalding does not count as a “14er”.


Saddling between the two peaks was rocky, shaded, and breathtaking. It may have been my favorite part of the hike.

It was kind of strange to reach the summit only to see all the people who had just driven all the way up. We were also able to look down upon the lot where we had parked a couple of hours earlier.

From the top of the road, there is actually an additional 134 feet of climbing to the peak, at 14,264 feet.


We also got a chance to get up close and personal with the mountain goats, who seemed strangely inclined to hang out relatively close to the road.


With the steep rocky sections, and the climb back up Mount Spalding, the return hike was only slightly easier than the climb.

We also encountered a crew of trail maintenance volunteers. I cannot overstate how much I appreciate their work. I had not previously seen them working, but I know they work hard on behalf of the Colorado outdoors, and are an important part of the mission to encourage others to get outside, get active, and enjoy nature.

Then, at the bottom of the trail, we encountered more wildlife- sheep.


I am somewhat in awe of these animals, both the goats at the top and the sheep near Summit Lake. They live their lives on the steepest of all hills. I wonder if they ever fall over, but it feels like they don’t. I spent half the downward trek grabbing onto rocks with my hands for balance, despite having a good pair of hiking boots. The goats and the sheep, they just walk up and down these steep, slippery, and rocky hills like it’s nothing.


We got back to the car before noon. By the end of the hike, I really did not know what to feel. Hiking to the top of a tall mountain is no longer a new experience for me. It’s beautiful but familiar. 2018 so far has been quite emotional for me already, dealing with issues related to our mean spirited and way to identity-driven political climate, as well as drama related to my career, social standing, and even identity. Maybe, at this point in time, I do not need some kind of grand emotional response to my activities. I just need to enjoy them, laugh with friends, and see nature for the majesty that it is. That was good enough for me before I started writing this blog, and some things are indeed true regardless of time, place and culture.

Back on Top of the World


Four in the morning is such as strange time of day.  It feels almost surreal.  Everything around you is so much quieter than we all have become accustomed to seeing it.  It is a time when the streets of your home town, even the blocks surrounding your home, feel strange and distant.  For many of us, it is the only time that our surroundings appear restful, as nearly every other time of day, the streets are full of people; people in motion, with agendas, and tasks to attend to.  It is almost as if you are experiencing a completely different place than the one you experience on a day-to-day basis during normal waking hours.

The few people you do see out and about at this hour have widely differing experiences.  There are some for which it is still last night.  The parties, after parties, drama, and other events that had been unfolding since the previous evening are still unfolding.  They have not transitioned to the next day yet.  For others, though, the new day has already begun.  They are starting some sort of project that has already carried them into the new day.  Basically, although the calendar says Sunday, some people are still on Saturday, while others had moved on to Sunday.  It very much reminds me of the International Date Line, which physically separates one day from the next day.  Only here, it is much murkier.  And having been on both sides of this line, it is definitely a challenge to make sense of everything I see around me.

I woke up at four in the morning in order to climb Quandary Peak, one of Colorado’s “14ers“, located in Summit County, just under two hours from Denver.  Climbing “14ers” is one of Colorado’s pastimes, and a rite of passage I first accomplished just over two years ago.  Unfortunately for anyone that hates early mornings, those climbing these peaks are generally advised to get an early start for safety reasons, as the weather here can be somewhat chaotic.  Sometimes unexpected weather here can lead to horrible results, even on days when inclement weather was not expected.  It is recommended that most hikers begin these climbs by 7 A.M. to minimize such risks.  So, I woke up at 4, to get ready, and get to the trailhead by 7.


I have only climbed three other 14ers, so I have little experience to compare this particular hike to.  But, from the very beginning this hike seemed anomalous.  Most hikes, particularly Mount Bierstadt, begin relatively flat, with steeper grades coming farther into the hike, and closer to the top of the mountain.  This hike, however, had some fairly intense grades right at the start of the trail.

IMG_4110 IMG_4111

Still, it felt like we spent a considerable amount of time, 40 minutes or so, hiking before we got above the tree line.  There is some variance as to the elevation of the tree line in Colorado.  On this hike, it certainly felt like I climbed to nearly 12,000 feet in elevation before getting above the trees.

IMG_4118 IMG_4146

The other aspect of this particular trail that sets it apart from nearly every hike I have ever undertook is how much of this trail is covered by rocks.  The portion of the trail above the tree line, which is most of the trail, is more than half covered by rocks.  This is well more rock coverage than I remember from the other 14ers I have climbed.

IMG_4115 IMG_4116 IMG_4124 IMG_4145

And then there were the mountain goats.  I probably encountered roughly a dozen of them today.  Most of them hung out a little bit above the tree line, but there were a couple of them that were actually spotted closer to the summit. I was surprised to encounter the first mountain goat I came across today.  I was even more surprised to keep encountering them, sometimes in packs.

Unlike many other mountains, Quandary Peak’s “intimidation factor” actually slowly builds up as one approaches the summit.


While the mountain does appear big from the start, it appears somewhat gentile in nature when compared to some of the other mountains I have hiked.  From this vantage point, still below the tree line, it almost feels as if there will be a slow, steady, and merciful climb to this peak.

IMG_4120 IMG_4117

Just above the tree line the mountain’s summit comes into clear view, appearing significantly less gentile than it did just 30 short minutes ago.

IMG_4122 IMG_4123

The closer I got to the summit, the more I realized that the last 1000 foot climb would not be gentile at all.  In fact, this final stretch resembles any other 14er I have experienced or seen posts about.  This final section, leading up to the summit, will be a place where I will trudge to the top, focusing one exhausting step at a time.  This is the way it always goes down.

IMG_4126 IMG_4131 IMG_4132

Despite the fact that I have already successfully hiked to the top of a mountain that is technically a few feet taller than this one, it was hard not to feel a sense of accomplishment when reaching this summit.  Looking down on the intense terrain I had just navigated, and the mountains that surround me, all of which are below me, I was once again on top of the world.  And, once again, I had earned it.

As the day progressed, I saw more and more of two types of people on the trail.  First, large groups of either high school or college aged people.  But, also, I began to see more people wearing headphones on their hikes.  And, unlike the trail runners in headphones I encountered on Bierstadt, the people wearing them were not all trail runners.  Or, well, they were not all running.  Some were climbing the mountain at a fairly leisurely (for an intense climb like this) pace.

It made me wonder what this experience was about for these particular individuals.  How does having music on change the experience of the scenery around you?  I can imagine it having a negative impact on the connection one can make with nature at a place like this.  I am for certain that it would have a negative impact on one’s ability to share experiences with others.


As was the case with the other 14ers I had climbed a couple of years ago, I was fortunate to have good company with me for the journey.  The experience, like many of the others I write about, would not have been the same had I taken them on alone.  My friend and I were discussing a mutual acquaintance who was hiking one of these 14ers solo.  I know that I would have significantly more trouble motivating myself to get up at the hour of 4 A.M. for a solo excursion.  For me, connecting with others plays a significant role in a lot of what I do, and I would have a hard time finding myself wearing headphones at a place like this.

Mount Bierstadt on a Windy Sunday

One of the hardest truths to accept in life is that you never know when opportunities are going to run out.  There are all kinds of reasons life gets interrupted; new job, new city, new responsibility.  And, before you know it the opportunities for certain activities have come and passed.  This is why I embrace opportunities when they come about, unless I have a good reason not to.   In other words, I make yes a default.  It’s kind of like how in the United States, when you are on trial, you are considered innocent until proven guilty “beyond a reasonable doubt”.   I tend to say yes to things unless I have “reasonable doubt” about them for one reason or another (or another prior engagement, which is actually by far the most common reason I refuse invitations to anything).

Consistent with my desire to fully embrace the Colorado Rocky Mountain experience, when I got invited to climb another mountain, Mount Bierstadt, eight days after hiking my first 14er (peak whose elevation is greater than 14,000 feet), I accepted.  Although, the more I think about some of the interactions I have had with people around town, the more I realize that climbing mountain peaks at this frequency is far from unheard of.  I think I remember hearing about people climbing 10 in one year, which would have to involve at least 5 days (most likely more) of climbing, or 5 weekends, out of about 15 weekends from June to September where climbing these mountains does not involve trudging though excessive amounts of snow.

IMG_0893 IMG_0894

This particular trip came about when one of my friends wanted to take a friend from out of town on her first “14er”.  Despite this being her first climb above 14,000 feet, with more hiking experience than me, she is a stronger hiker than me.  Mount Bierstadt is actually one of the easiest “14ers” to climb, and it is also fairly easy to get to from Denver.  So, we were actually able to sleep relatively late, leaving Denver just after 6:00 A.M., not arriving at the trail head until about 7:30.

I already notice a few differences between this hike and the one I did last weekend.  This hike seemed to be about the same difficulty as the last one (Gray’s and Torrey’s Peak) minute for minute, but it lasted less time.  It took us only two hours and fifteen minutes to get to the top, and that is with me slowing my more experienced hiking partners down.  There was also not as much of an intimidation factor as there was at Gray’s Peak.  In fact, I was not even able to point out which mountain we would be climbing at first glance,  which I most definitely was able to at Gray’s and Torrey’s.  I had heard that this mountain was known for having “false summits”, where it looks like you are reaching the top of the mountain based on your viewpoint, but aren’t actually at the top.  There were a couple of places on this hike where I felt that way, but I still think there are more “false summits” at Rocky Mountain National Park, possibly because all of those hikes are mostly below the tree line, and therefore are in the woods where you can’t see as far.

The other thing I encountered on this mountain were guys, mostly by themselves, and mostly wearing headphones, practically running up the mountain.  My guess is that they are quite experienced with these types of hikes and were trying to make the best time possible.  I wonder how long it took them to get to the top, because I considered 135 minutes to be a decent time.  I really don’t see myself ever getting to this level.  In fact, seeing this does give me reasonable suspicion about going on a hiking trip like this with some of the most hard core people I know.

It reminds me of the saying that no matter how good you get at something you will always encounter someone better (although there are exceptions; Michael Jordan, Usain Bolt, etc.).  It is impossible to fully enjoy any activities like this without accepting this fact, and learning how to be satisfied with your own progress (as long as you find it acceptable) regardless of what you see from others around you.  This is the only way a beginner can get on that mountain, basketball court, or ballfield, knowing they’ll look a bit silly the first couple of times, but that even those most experienced participants around them were also once the newbies in awe of the performance of others, insecure about whether or not they truly belong.


I decided not to take a picture with that sign that they pass around, with the name of the mountain, the elevation, and the date.  Maybe I was a bit scared to hold the sign, as it was significantly windier on this hike than it was on the hike I did last weekend.  While on the mountain, I wondered if this mountain tended to be windier than the others, as Colorado’s terrain causes a lot of small scale variations in weather.  However, on the way back to Denver, I noticed it was still windy.  So, I am thinking that Sunday was just a windier day, which makes sense because Friday and Saturday were stormy in the mountains.  This picture, I think, makes it pretty clear that we were  on the top of the mountain.


Another interesting occurrence was what happened with the sandwich I packed in Denver, and ate at the summit of the mountain.  I guess this photo above proves that I pack my sandwiches well, as the bag expanded significantly due to the pressure decrease of being at a higher altitude.  Denver’s atmospheric pressure is around 850 millibars (sea level is just over 1000).  At 14,000 feet, the pressure is only about 600.

IMG_0900 IMG_0901

The trip back down the mountain was somewhat treacherous.  The part near the top is something often referred to as a “scramble”, which basically means that rather than a clear trail, it is mostly just rocks that you just kind of self-navigate the best path up.  This was the hardest part on the climb up the mountain, as it is pretty steep, at a high altitude, and required me to do a bit more with my upper body to propel me around the rocks.  Somewhat lower on the mountain, there are several areas with little streams that actually made the trail a bit wet.  On the way up the mountain, I did not care about this, but on the way down it did kind of worry me a bit.

Additionally, the time we were descending the mountain, from roughly 10:20 to 12:20, there seemed to be an even mix of people traveling in both directions (upwards and downwards).  I am guessing that since this hike is somewhat shorter than most “14ers”, it is more acceptable to get a somewhat later start here.  All of these factors probably made the trip down the mountain take nearly as much time as the trip up the mountain.  I really need to stop expecting the downward trip to take too much less time as the upward trip, but these are the kinds of things that we all learn through experience.

The only real annoyance on this particular trip was the traffic on Interstate 70 on the way back to Denver in the early afternoon.  I was told that is to be expected on any summer Sunday in Colorado, but for some reason all of us had just simply forgotten about this, and not really planned for it.  They are widening part of the road to three lanes in each direction, and the construction may have made the traffic worse.  Hopefully the additional lanes will make traffic move faster in the future.

I spent most of the day today (Monday) being worn out, but was back to my normal energy level sometime in the afternoon.  Maybe I am lucky that my energy recovers quickly, but I think part of the reason for it is that I embraced an active lifestyle long ago.  I started making yes a default long before the Jim Carey movie Yes Man came out, and, as a result, I have been on top of the world three times this month.

A Rite of Passage

IMG_2367 IMG_2376

Birth to roughly age 22 is an endless barrage of rites of passages.  There is birth itself, first steps, first words, first day of school, learning to ride a bike, first kiss, then high school and college are one eight year long rite of passage into adulthood which includes learning to drive, and then all of the other things you can legally do at age 17, then 18, then 21.  Due to the ridiculous drinking age in this country, many of us end up going a little bit overboard somewhere in there.  On top of that, there are a bunch of rites of passages in there that are specific to each individual, like first baseball games, or learning musical instruments.

The final rite of passage in all of this is graduating and getting a job (or, for some people graduate school).  At this point in time, most of us are quite sick of rites of passages.  This is especially true for some of us that went to graduate school.  The time has just come for us to stop preparing for our lives and live our lives.  However, the transition is quite abrupt.  We go from being in a near constant state of flux and trying to figure out where are lives are going, to a quasi-steady state, where day in, day out, week in, week out, year in, year out, has the potential to follow some routine that never changes, and never progresses.  After a few years of this, it is natural to get a bit restless.  Before long, we see American Pie, or Superbad, or Clueless, or whatever movie reminds us of that time in our lives, and almost become nostalgic for the time in our lives when the future, heck, the next week, was an open book, as opposed to a likely mirror of the last.

IMG_2347 IMG_2349

In Colorado, it is considered somewhat of a rite of passage to climb to the top of a “14er” for the first time.  A “14er” is a mountain whose peak is more than 14,000 feet in elevation.  The selection of the number 14,000 seemed a bit arbitrary to me at first.  It seemed like it just happened to be the nearest round number, and that it would be different if the U.S. were on the metric system.  But, this demarcation of peaks exceeding 14,000 feet seems useful to Coloradans for two reasons:

1.  With a total of 54 “14ers”, it gives Colorado hikers a large enough variety of places to go and hike these peaks, but not so many that climbing all of them is out of reach.

2.  With a total of 54 “14ers”, Colorado has significantly more of these peaks than all other states, including Alaska (14) and California (12).  So, despite the fact that those states have the tallest peaks in North America and the lower 48 respectively, Colorado has a basis to claim the top position in the country with regards to mountains and mountaineering.

This is why yesterday I woke up before sunrise and made the trek to Gray’s Peak in order to accomplish the feat of climbing my first “14er”, and becoming a true Coloradan (in the eyes of some).


Gray’s peak is actually the highest point on the Continental Divide, and the trail up to the top of this peak (as well as Torrey’s Peak) is part of a national scenic trail that follows the continental divide.  This trail is only about 70% complete.  If someone wanted to traverse the entire trail, they would have to do some road-walking.  This is most likely why we don’t hear about this trail as much as the Appalachian and the Pacific Crest trails.


I was lucky enough to go with a group of people that included three first timers (including myself), and a mixture of people who had varying levels of experience climbing “14ers”.  A couple of people had been up over ten of these peaks, some others had done only a couple.  It is also just fun for me to do activities in groups like this, and I am glad I got to share this accomplishment with them.


Whenever attempting something that requires physical strength or endurance, part of the battle is always mental.  Seeing Gray’s Peak (left), and Torrey’s Peak (right, partially hidden behind the hill), toward the beginning of the climb definitely created an intimidation factor that somewhat reminded me of the first time I went skiing in the Rocky Mountains, at Steamboat Springs, and looked at the ski mountain, after having only seen ski mountains in the Midwest.


The trail up the mountain follows a path that has been mapped out for some time, and has been improved and preserved by the Colorado Fourteeners Initiative.  It is likely the safest way to hike up the mountain, but it follows a ridge that looks a bit scary, as the thought of being on a small linear feature like the one seen in this picture can be somewhat frightening.  Luckily, when we got there, it was actually less scary up close than it was looking at it from afar.

IMG_2361 IMG_2362

With pretty much the entire hike being above the tree line, I began to get some pretty scenic views only halfway up the mountain, which is already above 12,000 feet in elevation.  It was quite interesting to see some of the other peaks looking away from the top of the mountain, to the north.  As a scientist, it is hard not to be intrigued by seeing a mountain where one side is getting a significant amount of sun and the other is not.  It appears as if grass grows on one side but not the other, which indicates a different ecosystem and a different climate, all within the arctic tundra, dependent on local topography.

IMG_2363 IMG_2365

For roughly the first two thirds of the way up the first peak, I was actually able to keep up with the fastest people among the group.  However, having less experience climbing at these altitudes, it was inevitable that I would eventually drop back.  I took this opportunity to get some image of the others in the group hiking, as there was a switchback zone after the ridge we had previously followed.  Hiking trails like these definitely involves a significant amount of looking at the ground, as there are a lot of small rocks, which need to be approached somewhat carefully.  Even after I let everyone know I was taking pictures, some people still did not look up.

It took me about three hours to get to the top, and I summited just after 10 A.M.  The feeling of getting to the top is hard to describe, especially for a first timer like myself.  It is definitely a feeling of accomplishment, and a really good confidence builder.  It is also mixed with this feeling of being on top of the world.  All of the mountains, the ones that I typically view from Denver as towering over the city from the west were all below me.  I had climbed to the top, conquered it in a way.  I may never look upon these mountains the same way again.  The very scenery that I can see on all non-cloudy days from the back window of my apartment has been suddenly transformed from symbolizing what is challenging, wild, and untamed to symbolizing that all things are possible, and that challenges can be met with determination and proper planning.

IMG_2370 IMG_2369 IMG_2368

At the top of Gray’s Peak, we actually found a pretty nice place to sit, where the rocks somewhat shielded us from the wind.  For some reason, it is always significantly windier at the top of a mountain peak than it is just a mere 100 feet lower.  I have noticed this before, but wondered if it would feel different on this hike, which was pretty much all above the tree line.  It wasn’t, it felt more than twice as windy at the top of Gray’s peak.  I also learned something very surprising about hiking yesterday.  On the way up to the mountain, I was told that all hikers should bring a lemon with them on their hike.  This made absolutely no sense to me, as I was under the impression that I should stick with sandwiches and power bars to avoid carrying excess weight.  Liz and Laura (pictured above) followed by this advice, brought the lemons, and actually let us have some.  I had one lemon wedge, so I probably did not receive too much impact from it, but it did seem refreshing and energizing.  Who would have thought.IMG_2372

I also brought Bigfooting to new heights, doing my pose at 14,270 feet above sea level, and on the Continental Divide!  The scenery behind me is looking in the other direction (South), where I could see more gigantic mountains from above- exhilarating!

IMG_2375 IMG_2379

From Gray’s Peak, it is possible to “saddle” over to Torrey’s Peak.  To do this, I had to descend 575 feet along a ridge between the two peaks, which actually follows along the Continental Divide, and then climb up the second peak.  Apparently, this picture taken at the top of Torrey’s Peak, with a Which Which bag in the photo, entitles me to a free sandwich at Which Which.  I wonder if I can upgrade to a large size sandwich for posting this picture here.

Climbing up Torrey’s Peak was harder than climbing up Gray’s.  The trail up was steeper, and, possibly because I was already tired from climbing the first peak, I had to stop and catch my breath several times.


When I reached the top of my second “14er”, I was quite worn out.  This is how I knew that I had given it my everything, and truly pushed my limit.  I could have stopped after peak #1 already having accomplished my rite of passage.  But, I decided I wanted to leave with absolutely no doubt that I had pushed my body as hard as it was willing to go.  I even had to leave the Bigfooting up to others on this peak.


Going down was scary, especially this second peak, which was steeper than the first.  I don’t know how I feel about it.  I had become accustomed to having trees to hold onto in a pinch, but this hike was all above the tree line.  I actually went pretty slow at first, but then started resorting to descending the mountain using some of my skiing techniques, primarily facing my feet sideways and turning back and forth.

IMG_2384 IMG_2385

To get down from Torrey’s Peak, one must return to the saddle area between the two peaks, and then follow another trail down towards the parking area.  This lead us down the mountain on a slightly different path.

IMG_2390 IMG_2391

We actually had to trudge through an area with residual snowpack.  While I do find it interesting to ponder why part of this mountainside still has snow and other parts, facing the same direction do not, this was my least favorite part of the hike.  It was real slippery and we were descending.  I consider hiking and skiing (or snowshoeing) to be two different activities, and usually plan to avoid hiking on too much snow.  This snow is still melting obviously, and some small streams of water from this snowmelt were observed further down the trail.

After another area of switchbacks, the descent got less steep, and the rest of the hike was somewhat uneventful.  We got back to the parking lot around 2:30 P.M., about an hour before thunderstorms erupted in the area, but apparently there were already storms elsewhere in the area.  What was amazing for me to see, were people starting their ascent up the mountain after noon.  We wanted to tell them to turn back and wait for another day, but I am never sure what to do about that.  As someone who is typically not a fan of unsolicited advice, I am hesitant about giving it to people, even in the case where their idiocy is blatantly obvious.  A general rule about climbing “14ers” is to get there as early as possibly, preferably before 7 A.M. (which we did not quite make).  If arrival before 9 A.M. is not possible, it is probably not worth it to go.  I learned this within a month of moving to Colorado, without even seeking this knowledge.  So I find it hard to believe that someone would try to scale this mountain starting at 1 P.M. on a day with greater than normal monsoonal thunderstorm likelihoods.

IMG_2387 IMG_2388 IMG_2389

It was wonderful to have completed this, my first “14er”, and traversed this rite of passage.  Having done this will give me something akin to the Colorado version of street-cred.  With two other first timers amongst us, we took some “graduation photos”, with the mountains we had climbed in the background.  I actually billed this the “14er Class of 2013”, but I was possibly a bit warn out and light-headed when I came up with that one.  At this level (still over 13,500 feet), there is 35-40% less oxygen available than at sea level.

Does this make me a true Coloradan now?  No.  It actually makes me something more akin to a true Colorado transplant.  One of the things I have learned over the past year is that it is the transplants that are the ones obsessed with skiing, hiking, and all of the mountain activities in general.  The only people I have met over the past year here that do not ski have been Colorado natives.  But, what makes someone a true Coloradan?  One could argue that those of us that are going out and experiencing what Colorado has to offer are the truest Coloradans there are.  It is in the same vein that some argue that some immigrants can be counted amongst the truest Americans there are.  Of course, there are valid arguments on the other side, but as I have viewed tons of Colorado Native bumper stickers over the past year, I do find it hard to accept that being born in a certain location is a prerequisite for belonging there.