Lost toenails, sore legs, and fast fathers: my climb up Mt. Elbert

Mt. Elbert, Colorado’s highest peak,
as viewed along Route 24 outside of Leadville.

It’s not that I expect to be good at everything. Hell, I’m not even sure I’m good at anything. Still, when your fifty-seven year-old father beats you to the summit of a 14,000 foot peak, you can’t help but feel a little miffed. Especially since the last time, along an easier trail, he couldn’t even complete the trip. (Well, as he always corrects me, he could have gotten to the summit that time if my mom hadn’t been afflicted with a serious case of altitude sickness and needed to be taken down the mountain immediately. Regardless, I was faster than him that time.)

Like a good sport, I should just take this moment of defeat as a life lesson. As my father always wittingly points out, no matter how good you are at something, there’s always someone better than you. I guess it wouldn’t be so disheartening if I didn’t remember all so clearly that I was always the slowest hiker in my hiking group with the Colorado Mountain Club (CMC). Even after living in Colorado for a year–fully acclimated and doing much more hiking than I do now–I was still the slowest. Walking, I guess, is just not my thing. It doesn’t mean I enjoy it any less. In fact, I think my slow mode allows me to observe more than those swift-footed fast movers.

That’s what I try to tell myself, anyway.

I should not let my disappointment overshadow the amazing achievement of my father’s strong comeback in his second attempt to climb Mt. Elbert. Not only did he beat me up the mountain, he beat me up by two hours, arriving at the summit in just over three hours. I maintained my normal 1mph average and arrived at the summit in five. I guess that’s what you get when you hike with a man who runs about five miles a day and purposely programs his treadmill for rough inclines.

In trying to keep up with him early on, I pushed myself a little harder than I normally do, resulting in a bit of altitude issues. When I realized at one point that my father was permanently out of sight, and as I was experiencing some lower abdominal cramping, I stopped to take a breather on a rock beside the trail. As I sat down, my vision went white, like what happens when you turn the brightness setting up too high on your tv. A feeling of nausea slammed my senses, dizzying me as the sound of the world around me grew muffled. I thought I would faint for just a moment because this is usually a prelude to fainting (I have been induced to fainting many times at the sight of blood so the process is pretty routine to me).

Life just above timberline along the north Elbert trail.

It was at about this time that I started to panic, noticing suddenly that the air seemed thin. I think the perceived lack of air had to do more with my panicked state than actually noticing the reduction of air in the atmosphere at 12K feet. I usually don’t notice the air quantity at 14K unless I’m trying to do something physical, such as run. For a few minutes time, a single thought raced through my brain, “I can’t breathe! I can’t breathe!”

Then logical Mars Girl took over with a firm, “No, you can breathe. You’re just having altitude problems. Relax, drink something, chew on a Powerbar. Then decide whether or not you have to come down.”

Which is precisely what I did. The world slowly popped back into my eyes and ears. A few people passed me on the trail, asked if I was okay, and I tried to cover up my state because people get really serious about altitude out there… I didn’t want to have anyone insisting I needed to climb down unless I truly felt I needed to climb down.

The world drops below at about 12,000 feet. This is where I stopped
to take my breather during my plight with altitude.

Unfortunately, the cramping resulted in the sudden, unwanted urge to visit a few big boulders beyond the sight of those climbing up or going down the trail. It’s a good thing I always pack toilet paper in my day pack. You haven’t lived until you’ve had a run in with Montezuma’s Revenge on a high altitude trail above timberline. Good times. (For a more serious, in-depth discussion of this topic, read How to Shit in the Woods by Kathleen Meyer–I bought a copy for my husband for Christmas or his birthday one year. Though I did not, as this book suggests, use the environmentally friendly way (packing it out) of handling the situation…)

After about forty-five minutes of rest and other distraction, I found I was feeling much better and decided I could continue on with my “summit bid.” I was frustrated with myself for feeling the affects of altitude. The only other time I had an encounter with altitude-related illness was while climbing Mt. Bierstadt–another Colorado 14er–with a group of fast hikers in the CMC. Again, I kept pace with them and didn’t take the stops to rest that I usually do on the way up, and I found myself feeling as though I had a hang-over from about 12K feet to 14K feet. I sat on the summit that time in a lot of pain and trying to hide it from my peers so they wouldn’t chastise me for attempting the hike as I was classified by the club as an “A” hiker (lowest, slowest level) and that hike had been “C” hike (faster, higher level). That time, too, I’d had a panicky feeling of suffocating slowly.

I felt much better the rest of the hike up Mt. Elbert. I was a little miffed at my father for taking off and deserting me, but I decided to just pretend I was hiking alone, which is more fun to me anyway because I don’t have to match anyone’s pace. This trail I’d chosen–the north approach from the trailhead at Half Moon camp–was a lot harder than I remembered. It doesn’t really have switchbacks–maybe one or two–above timberline and goes straight up the north side of the mountain. The last time I’d used this trail (for I’d been up Elbert three other times), I found it to be the prettiest of the three major trails. I suppose it was due to the sweeping views the trail offers once you get past timberline. The last time I’d hiked this trail, I was a seasoned Colorado hiker, having lived there for several months. It probably was a lot easier on me then.

Plus, any difficult hiking I’d endured that day was completely underscored by the experience of “walking above the clouds” I had. My hike had started out on a drizzling morning and, as I crossed the threshold of timberline through what my mind perceived as simply a thick fog, I found myself walking above the clouds. It had been absolutely breath-taking, indescribably beautiful. Especially since the other two hikes I’d made up that mountain had been tempered by feelings of stress that matched the thunderstorms storms that chased me down (especially the day I put my husband’s ashes up there). To me, that single, beautiful experience was almost like a sign welcoming me atop that mountain for the first time on my own terms. It was the one time I didn’t bring a camera so all I have is the memory of standing above the clouds with the peaks of many neighboring mountains, and Elbert’s false summit, jutting up majestically through a ruffled blanket of white.

On this climb up Elbert, though, the sky was spotted with higher altitude cloud puffs. Four years have passed since I was a resident of Colorado and my blood is once again that of a flatlander. That mystical moment I shared with only myself–stuck forever in my memory–was not to be repeated this time. Every hike, even when repeated, is it’s own experience. If I am to take any memory from this particular hike, I will remember the brisk wind that almost blew my cute little hiking hat from my head (forcing me to put it in my backpack).

As I made it past Elbert’s false summit, I was greeted by some hikers on their way down who informed me, as every hiker does, that the real summit wasn’t that far away. The same sort of hopeful information is passed from ride leaders to cyclists all the time–“There’s no more hills for the rest of the ride,” they will say. I knew to take this information lightly.

This, my friends, is what a false summit looks like…
can you see DISAPPOINTMENT etched in its stone?

A few people passed to tell me that they’d seen my father on the summit and that he was worried about me. About a half hour later, twenty or so minutes’ walk from the summit, I found my dad making his way down the mountain. I was kind of disappointed that he was already descending and it kind of deflated my drive to finish the summit push, but, to my great relief, my dad decided to turn around and go back to the top so that we could take pictures on the summit together. It’s good that he actually wanted, like me, to share the father-daughter bonding moment, even if his first crossing of the summit was not mine to witness.

The last few steps toward the summit are always the most difficult. You’ve been climbing for hours and spring is the last thing in your step, even when you sight the top and the crowd of people gathered there. I still had to pause for a few moments after several steps. I couldn’t believe I was this badly out of shape. Maybe I really am getting old.

The north trail intersects with the south trail right before the summit. We encountered a couple of very gleeful men about my dad’s age coming up the south trail who, I was to learn later, had carried a flask of Scotch whiskey to toast to at the top. The one guy explained to me that Elbert was his elusive summit, that he had had to turn back right below the summit some 29 years ago due to encroaching darkness (is that all? I would have gone to the top anyway!), and he’d never gotten the chance to attempt it again until now. I guess that certainly constitutes a moment to enjoy Scotch on the summit of a mountain!

A group of young hikers passed us. A religious group of some sort, as the blonde girl passed me, she exclaimed with an elated smile and a maniacal trill in her voice, “Jesus is alive! This is the proof!”

If not the parameters of their dogma, I could understand their fervor. It’s always been at moments like these–atop mountains, pumping my pedals hard on a beautiful summer’s day, swinging a raft along a river–where I’ve found felt my place in a part of something larger than myself. Whether you call it God or Jesus or Mother Nature or Planet Earth or the Great and Grand Mystical Universe, it is truly awesome. It’s moments like these where I feel the most alive and the most connected with not only myself but with the life of which I’m apart. It certainly is no mystery why I left my husband’s ashes atop a mountain. He shared my love of the outdoors and that pioneering spirit that always made us thirst for more adventures in exploration. I know he’s happy with the resting place I chose for him.

I almost shouted back cheerily at the group of young Jesus enthusiasts, “Praise be!” My fear of other hikers misinterpreting my response held my tongue back. (Not everyone wants to be identified as a religious enthusiast among seculars. And I do care about my image. Maybe too much.)

At the top, after exchanging cameras and picture-taking moments, I plunked down on a rock and soared on a long-missed climbers’ high as I looked down at the jaded peaks surrounding me. All of the trials of my hike, including the altitude sickness, just floated away from my thoughts, lost in the thin air that surrounded the peaks. Despite the strong winds pushing at me on the climb up, the summit was unusually quiet and still and I was filled with the peace found only at the summit of a high peak where a silence surrounds you as if you were inside a bubble. The guys with the Scotch offered me a sip and I took a little. Even the small bit that rolled on my tongue intoxicated me instantly. It felt good for a few moments.

I quickly inhaled a turkey wrap I’d lugged up (partly to reduce the weight in my day pack) and then pulled Tanya’s ashes from the canister in which they had come to me. I waited a few moments for the small crowd to finish taking pictures around the little wood post erected next to the USGS marker. I found a little niche beneath the mound of stones holding the post in place and emptied the bag of ashes into it. Tanya was released to Mike, her favorite human, at last, after three years of patient waiting.

Tanya’s resting place (circled lightly) at improvised summit marker.
Mike’s ashes were left nearby at the USGS marker seven years ago.

At that moment, a black bird of some sort swooped over my head and across the summit. For a few moments, the bird rode the wind current like a para-glider. I could see its feathers ruffling in the current as the bird floated surrealistically next to the edge of the summit.

My dad joked, “That bird is saying, ‘Why you stupid people walk up this thing? Just fly!'”

We chuckled and watched as the bird floated off. It was one of those moments where you wish you could have attempted to get a picture. Of course, by the time my fingers reached for the camera, the bird was gone. Maybe it was supposed to be that way–another Elbert memory committed only to memory. A memory made at a particular moment when I’d returned my cat’s ashes to the side of her master. It makes you wonder. I’ll leave you, the reader, to draw your own conclusions about this event, for I’m totally wiped out of spiritual philosophy this evening… But I will point out that Tanya was a black cat…

Anyway, we stayed up there about forty-five minutes, and then headed down. My dad was kinder on the descent; though he wanted to go faster and very well could have, he waited for me every time he got too far ahead (but not without commenting about how much faster he could have gone down if not for his slow daughter). I was having an unusual amount of trouble on the descent–more than usual. I think the boots I was wearing were not tight enough around my ankles, for I kept having problems with my ankle twisting on some of my downward steps, which caused me to fall twice. More of a hurt ego, though, than true injury. I kept telling my dad that with the way I was supporting myself so heavily on the hiking poles (definitely could not have made it down without them) that I looked like a polio child. Cruel joke, I know, but so true. I did look like a child with polio the way I was walking. Or MS or something. It was obnoxiously bad.

My boots had also failed me miserably in the comfort department. I managed to badly bruise the toenails on both of my big toes on the descent. Now, over a week later, the skin beneath the nails is a very deep shade of purple, so much so that it looks like they simply have nail polish on them. I’m definitely going to lose the nail on the left toe and the one on the right–the one that I recently lost as a result of skiing earlier this year–isn’t looking too great either. The joys of being an athletic woman: I will never have pretty feet. I’m thinking of masking the grossness for awhile by painting the rest of my toenails purple. I’m pretty sure I have a shade of polish that matches the hue of the bruising.

I also have a broken blister on the back of my heel that is struggling to mend itself (it keeps getting reopened by the backs of my shoes). I was pretty sore for four days after the climb, the first two days being the worst with walking up and down stairs being a struggle. Turning myself in bed was a painful experience. I don’t think I used to get that sore.

My dad was pretty proud of his success on the climb. In a moment of competitive jealousy, I told him that I could kick his ass on a bike any time. Of course, if I bettered my dad on the bike, it would only inspire him to work harder for a goal, and the next thing I would know it, he’d be riding with the hammerheads of the 6pm ABC ride on Thursdays, leaving his athletically-retarded daughter in his dust. He’s just more of a natural with athletics than me; I think I take after my mom, a little bit less sure on my feet. Unfortunately, I got my competitive nature from him and my unstoppable drive to push myself towards a challenging goal until I achieve it. I guess those are good qualities, even for a dunce like me. My mind is always willing when my body isn’t always ready to meet the task. But you bet I’m going to push myself onward anyway, no matter what the cost and no matter what negative comments the naysayers will shout. I think that’s why husband used to tell me that I’m a survivor. It’s the survivor in me that made me get up on those cold mornings after his death; the survivor eventually dragged me out of the valley of despair that threatened to consume me.

Well, I’m proud of my dad too. He may have kicked my ass. But maybe I need someone to sober the overbloated sense of entitlement I have in my athletic pursuits. I admit to an elitist competitive streak that I’m sure my friends and family find frustrating. I struggle to contain that. Having my dad kick my butt up the mountain was just the cure. I guess I’m willing to share a hobby with my father. Though, it really won’t stop me from wanting to try to better him next time.

Mars Girl and Mars Dad, together,
on the summit of Mt. Elbert (14,433 ft).


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