I had never climbed a 14er before. I originally come from California; sea level and as much oxygen as you can get. There’s an allure to the high altitudes, the more turbulent conditions, the greater challenge with less oxygen. Just standing that high up, looking over the surrounding landscape, it makes for a real sense of accomplishment being on the summit of a 14er.
It’s a nagging challenge that rests perfectly in view from Colorado State University. Good ol’ Long’s Peak. When I came back to Fort Collins after summer, a buddy was looking for partners to climb Long’s Peak with.
I jumped at the chance.
As someone who had never climbed a 14er, my first cause of doubt was the oxygen. I would have a week to adjust to the altitude and adding 9,000 more feet to the situation didn’t calm my nerves. I drank water constantly and starting exercising to make sure I didn’t collapse right at the start of the trail; I tend to neglect my cardio for long periods of time. The tag of Longs Peak being one of the deadliest of the 14ers didn’t help my confidence in bagging the peak.
Once the day came, myself and three others woke bright and early, a bit too early, made some food for the trip, and began the drive to Longs.
Getting to the peak of Longs was more of a beginning than an end for me. It was the start to a new academic year and standing atop such a titan within my first week of being back showed a positive trajectory for the rest of my second year at CSU.
We got to the trail head and made the trek through the beginning in darkness. The trail up made me understand why they call it Long’s Peak, it takes forever to get up to the damn thing. The four of us felt good and we all had confidence in reaching the peak. The weather was fine, the temperature was alright and our timing seemed perfect.
Nothing could stop us as we shared ghost stories and talked about summer while trekking on under the night sky.
Eventually, after a couple breaks, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and some number of miles, we arrived at the boulder field. The temperature got chillier and the wind picked up. We looked for an escape from the elements in one of the various rock formations around the area. We decided to hole up until the sun was close to rising. The four of us didn’t expect it to be this cold. Two of us only brought shorts and all four of us lacked an extra layer that would’ve made the hike much more comfortable.
After trying to (emphasis on trying) get warmer in a respite within the boulder field we chose to continue making our way up. We scrambled up the boulder field, the landscape of rocks before the keyhole, and after minutes of continuous climbing we got there.
Too cold. Too icy. Too Dangerous.
The homestretch was far too risky and we couldn’t move ahead. We, along with the other 20 or so journeyers, could not complete the mission. Longs is a deadly peak. When conditions aren’t right and attempting the last thousand feet with freezing air blasts isn’t a wise choice.
We took in the view from 13,000 feet high and headed back down the mountain, a task that seemed to take forever. We were all bitter and at the same time we understood that nature does not care of our goals.
Not all stories reach their conclusion. Nothing makes that more apparent than a trek up Longs ended by a firm ‘no’ from mother nature. It lead me to an inquiry of the saying “it’s the journey, not the destination.” The beauty of the was hike is no doubt fulfilling, but the failure to finish at the peak was saddening.
What do we actually want to get out of standing atop a mountain? Is it telling the world that I do what I put my mind and body to? Is it the chance to experience the world from higher than ever before? Or, is it to journey with people you cherish?
For me, I find that it’s a little bit of everything. Maybe there is some ego-oriented reason for me journeying to the peaks of mountains or through tough terrain, but that may leave me distraught by my Long’s Peak attempt that was cut short. Ego-climbing likely prevents me from fully experiencing and enjoying the outdoors. I could never be present when my minds on the future.
And, I wonder if this is the same for others too. Is it really the journey, not the destination? I just need to get to summit Longs, and then maybe I’ll figure it out.
Collegian Outdoors Blogger Troy Wilkinson can be reached online at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @BluMitts.