06 July 2011

We don't know what the highest peak in the US is, but it's doubtful we'll stand on the top of it

Colorado has a number of mountains more than 14,000 feet in elevation, affectionately known as Fourteeners, so what else were we to do, but climb one of them. We probably didn't need to choose the highest of Colorado's peaks, Mount Elbert, to be our Fourteener, as it also happens to be the second highest peak in the United States, although by only about 60 feet (roughly 18 metres, we climbed ladders taller than that at Mesa Verde). So the day after our rafting trip, with slightly sore backs and arms, we set off on what had been described as a 7 hour fairly easy hike. Whoever wrote that description is prone to exaggeration or flat out lied. And to the person (maybe the same) who decided that switchbacks would add unnecessary length, and that going up was an entirely sensible idea – our legs and lungs disagree.

Fairly early into the hike, I told Brad I didn't think I would make it, a phrase I would repeat at regular intervals throughout the rest of the upward journey. I'll be the first to admit it wasn't my finest hour, and I thought I would have to withdraw my earlier claim to new found fitness and keeping up with Brad.

It was part way through the gravelly rock layer (we'd already passed through Aspens, evergreens and a grassy-ish layer) things started to seem as though I was hardly able to walk ten steps before stopping to rest again. In an attempt to prove to myself I was making progress, I started counting my steps (and I was making progress, about 200 steps each time). After several rounds of this we came across snow covering the path with no foreseeable way around. It looked shallow and firm enough to cross, and it was, until we were nearly midway and Brad went down thigh deep. Several more such steps later I thought I'd found firmer snow and set out on my own path, only to go down thigh deep too. Did I mention we were both wearing shorts? Over a week later, my legs still bear the cuts and bruises from the snow. Before too long, headaches set in, and the hike began to get a little soul destroying. The angle we were approaching the summit from made it look as though other peaks were higher and we still had a long way to go. As well, it looked as that, if in fact the closest peak was the highest, the actual summit would be unreachable due to snow and we would come so close, only to fall short.

The peak was in fact the nearest one, and not unreachable and after almost exactly six hours we made it to the 14,440 foot (4401 metre) high summit. Snowy peaks (all lower than us) stretched far on all sides, but sadly the sense of achievement and being on top of the world (or perhaps just Colorado) was overcome by our pounding headaches and the knowledge we still had a long trip back down.

After a very late lunch and a few photos, we started our decent, which was as tough on our knees and ankles as the climb had been on our calves and thighs, though without the need for frequent rest stops. The snow drift was no kinder to us either despite our approaching it from a different angle. It was however kinder to the only other group we saw on the hike, half a dozen teenagers who we'd leap frogged most of the way up. We felt old and boring as they fearlessly slid down on their stomachs.

On our upwards journey, we'd encountered a particularly thick patch of mosquitoes, this was nothing compared to what we encountered on our return when we came to the same section at precisely mosquito-o'clock. We could feel the tiny guys whacking into us, rather than landing, so thick were they in the air. They must've known the advantage they held as they were slow moving enough for multiples to be squished with one hand with little effort. Brad got slight revenge by swallowing several and attempted to prevent landings by flailing his arms. From where I walked he looked liked a marionette with a drunk puppeteer. I barely had the energy to put one foot in front of the other let alone swipe mosquitoes, so resorted to putting on my polar fleece. Eventually we arrived home at around 6:30pm and after having panadol and asprin (yes, both), somehow made it promptly into bed, before any soreness set in. I vaguely recall being woken several hours later by Brad loudly munching on crackers, and being given pureed fruit and more panadol, but this may have been a dream.

Some stats just for the achievement file:

Total hiking time: 10 hours

Overall elevation gain: 4890 feet/1490 metres (this doesn't take into account that we had some downhill bits that had to be climbed again)

Total distance: this is in debate, according the internet it's just over 9kms each way, we started a little ahead of the trailhead by setting out from our camp site. Brad was tracking our hike on his phone and we still had a fair way to go on the upwards journey when the battery died. At last check we were at 9.81kms. Therefore we estimate the round trip to be approx more than 20kms.

Post hike nap: 14 hours

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