Monday, November 8, 2010

Climbing to the summit of Mt. Elbert... (Colorado: Part Five)

We woke up early from a cold night of no sleep. When the alarm went off at 4:45 am, I felt like I had finally just shut my eyes for the first time, and it was already time to get up.
We were advised by a man we'd met in town to start our hike early. We needed to beat the early-afternoon lightning storms that come through the mountains.

When the alarm went off, it was still pitch black outside, and the last place we wanted to be was on a trail we didn't know in the dark. We decided to sleep for another couple hours before starting the hike.

We finally woke up around 7:00am, cooked eggs, and drank lots of water to get ready for our long day.

With only our Topographic map, we were immediately lost. We hiked for about 30 minutes before realizing we were actually on the Colorado Trail. There were no markings or directions at the actual trail head. At this point we were cranky to be starting the long hike only 4 hours before the first of the storms would roll in, and having wasted energy back-tracking.
It was 8:30am, we were a little above 10,000 feet in elevation, and we had 4,200 feet to climb.

I had heard someone describe the hike to Elbert's summit as climbing a 5,000 foot staircase. I didn't know it would be worse.

The climb was steep, and unforgiving. During the next few hours we only took 3 breaks. This was my first stop, and the one that made me realize I would not be stopping again for a long, long time. We were about an hour into our hike, and all I wanted to do was sit for a minute to catch my breath. Michael pleaded with me not to stop because he knew that I would have to break through the wall again, to be able to build up stamina to finish the hike.
And how right he was.
I sat for about 4 minutes, and we were off again. It felt like starting over, and I was angry at myself for taking a break so early on. We wouldn't stop again until we were above treeline.

The hike was nothing like I'd imagined. In my head I would take pictures, stop and admire the views, and generally have fun along the way.

For the most part, I can't tell you much about that day, except for the few things I'm talking about, now. I didn't take my camera out, I didn't look around, and I could barely think outside of just moving. Anytime my mind would wander from what I was doing, I was having to break through that wall again. So I didn't let my mind wander.

Everything hurts when you're climbing over 4,000 feet in only a few hours in freezing temperatures. My lungs hurt, my hair hurt, my fingernails hurt, my face hurt. You're producing ridiculous amounts of saliva and snot to the point where I turned into a 12 year old boy, shooting snot rockets and just moving on. For miles, I focused on a breathing pattern and didn't break it. We didn't talk, look at each other, or stop. We just pushed.
I worried about Hunter, knowing how I felt and wondering if his old bones were okay.

We passed hikers along the way that had turned back around 12,500 feet. Their dogs were showing stress and the storm was getting closer. We were halfway, and I couldn't let go of what we had come here to do. We kept hiking.

The 2nd time we stopped was around 13,000 feet. We had to make time to eat and hadn't stopped since our 4 minute break, miles back.
The air was getting thinner at this point, and I was starting to get worried. Hunter wouldn't eat, my hands were freezing, and we still had a long way to go. The steepest and rockiest part of our hike was still ahead, and I was starting to feel the affects of the elevation.

Miles away I imagined our little Yurt tucked into the mountains. I remembered sitting there 3 days ago and looking towards the point where I was sitting, now. We were here, and we would finish it.

From 13,000 feet to 14,433 was the point where I became what I like to call: mountain high. We were only functioning with half of the oxygen level we had when we first started our hike.
I was delirious. Almost crying one minute and laughing the next. Every time Michael would turn around and ask me if I was okay, I would say: "I'm fine, I'm just mountain high."

The last 1,000 feet of our hike looked like the picture above. Even though I knew we were almost there, part of me still wondered if I could make it over these rocks as I started hallucinating and my brain grasped for any oxygen it could take.

We were almost to the top, and the wind was piercing. We had no shelter or protection, and the clouds were getting thick. The temperature had dropped into the low 30's.

And then, after so many false summits, we were there. We finally made it.

It was 12:23 pm. It took us a little under 4 hours to climb 4,200 feet.

The summit was the 3rd and last break we took. I called my parents, we took a picture, and just as we put the camera away, the clouds surrounded us.
From the top of Mt. Elbert, you are looking down at every other summit in the Rocky Mountains. You can see Pike's Peak from there, and it feels like you're standing on top of the world. I was looking forward to this the most, but instead I was feeling ice cold rain on the back of my neck. But it wasn't rain.

The thunder was booming and we realized that it had started to sleet, and hail. We didn't have time to wait, and I didn't even get my chance to sit down. We ran. Down the rocks and steep trail, my knees were swollen and hurt more than anything. But we couldn't stop, and the freezing rain that fell on us for the next 2,000 feet down was a little bit of an I-just-summited-this-mountain buzzkill.

We didn't stop until we reached treeline, below 12,000 feet. We were soaked all the way through, and everything we had was ruined.

Fortunately my camera was still working, the lens was just foggy and cloudy. I had wrapped it in extra clothes and pushed it to the bottom of my backpack.
My phone was ruined.

In the shelter of the trees the sun started to peek out, and we saw this pretty little bird. It was the first time we'd smiled in over an hour.

Coming down was slow. A hike down that steep puts painful pressure on your knees. It took 3 hours to get back to camp, making our hike 7 hours long, total. (+30 minutes for getting lost in the beginning)

We took a nap when we got back to our tent, and I shamelessly begged to pick up camp and just head to a hotel for the night. We still had another full day of our trip planned, but all I wanted was to be home. I wasn't feeling well, my body hurt, and deep in my body a little baby was nestling in nice and cozy like. I just didn't know it, yet.

We took down our tent, packed, and headed to Leadville for dinner. I wanted a big greasy burger and fries, + a root beer to celebrate our summit. We passed Elbert on the way to town, and I saw a beam of sun breaking through. I was so thankful to not be at the top at that moment.

We decided to drive to Alamosa, so we could go to Sand Dune National Park in the morning before heading home.

It was a 3 hour drive, and for the last time that week, I saw Mt. Elbert. Even though I was standing in those clouds just hours before, I was still intimidated at the size and reality of it.
I watched the clouds swallow the summit as another storm pushed through.

This was a trip we could never forget.

next: Sand Dune National Park


Kathleen said...

congrats! this is a huge accomplishment! Just think of Mt. Elbert when are pushing your little yurt baby out. you'll see, in so many ways they will be similar.
On our honeymoon we hiked on a trail that had signs that kept track of how many people DIED along the way. It was hard, I wanted to quit. My husband wouldn't let me. I yelled at him,I told him I couldn't do it. took a break and then something inside me told me I had to finish and that I COULD finish. and I did. It was the best feeling I could imagine. and i thought of this hike when I was having violet...
Love your adventures Aura, such a strong lady you are :]

Aura said...

That's so funny that you mention that, because when I started researching this hike in February, all I could think was that if I could do this, I could get through labor. It has made the thought of it so much less scary and unfamiliar.

It's amazing how much of our hardest struggles can be overcome with just mental power. We are so much stronger than we think. Michael told me that for months leading up to it, and reminded me along the way many, many times. He's my hiking buddy and soon-to-be doula :) haha

Where was the hike you took on your honeymoon? That's funny, we hiked for our honeymoon, too! We were in the Sierre Madre mountains in Puerto Vallarta. I guess it was an indication of the rest of our married years that I couldn't just pick somewhere beachy and stick to the resort and hold still for week.

Steph said...

It's been such a treat reading about your amazing adventures over the summer. I've been sharing bits with my husband and he has the biggest grin when looking at your pictures. He even said he would love to replicate this hiking trip - we've been thinking of going to Idaho and staying in a yurt there but maybe Colorado instead! And our hearts swell when we see your black "mountain goat" following along because it reminds us of our little Hugo. I love your story telling style!

Noodles and Waffles said...

Your pictures really tell a great story. I felt like I was on the trail with you guys.

Aura said...

Steph- I am wildy biased towards Colorado :) If you need any more information on the places we were or stayed, I can send it your way.

Michael's nickname for Hunter is Mountain Goat. He loves to be outdoors.
How old is Hugo? Hunter will be 8 in a couple months.

If you plan on taking him along for any strenuous hikes, it's just as important to get him in shape as it for you. Hunter went through extensive "doggie training" to get ready for Elbert. We ran him every single day for 2 months until the big trip!

Kathleen said...

Jake just asked me, " we aren't resort people, are we babe?" NOPE! I guess not!
we hiked Kalalau Trail, in Kauai Hawaii. I still have to look at pictures to remind myself that I did it.
Isn't it funny how most things in life are 80% mental and only 20% physical? resiliency is so important!

Kathleen said...

p.s. a GOOD hiking backpack for your little one is totally worth the extra cash :]

Stephanie said...

Thanks for sharing your beautiful adventures with all of us...My husband and I love hiking and camping with our two year old daugher, Avery, and I was showing her your amazing pictures today. She is now pretending to "hike" around our house. (On a side note, we too have a black lab, and after seeing the pictures of your dog, Avery is convinced that you have kidnapped our dog Molly.)

Have a wonderful day!

mb said...

aura- i just love your blog, i am one of those silent lurker/admirers for the most part but i had to comment on the photo of the mariposa lily- so beautiful, and i wondered if you knew they are a symbol of motherhood- the mountain's blessing for your next big journey... anyway, congrats on reaching the summit!!!

Amber said...

I was cheering you and Michael on while reading your story!! I kept saying "you can do it"...and I think I found myself having a hard time breathing. Ha! You write your stories that well:)

What an amazing journey! Thank you for sharing and proving that our bodies can do what we set out to do!

Anonymous said...

I just love your blog. I really enjoying reading your stories and looking at your beautiful photos. So I say ask this question with love and concern.

Do you ever worry about getting out that far and something happening to you and baby?

I would hate for anything to happen and it seems so desolate. I would be worried about bears or wild animals and especially having no cell phone service in the event of an emergency?

Just don't want anything to happen to you that's all. That's my 2 cents. So I'll shut up now. Keep up the great blog.


Christine--RHP said...

wow--YOU DID IT!!!!

Notes from Holly St. said...

wow what an amazing journey! the sense of accomplishment must be so satisfying at the end. i would have wanted to give up so many times along the way...i was feeling your pain on your way up. well done!

Unknown said...

Hi Aura! I agree with Kathleen about the childbirth parallel. I was seriously thinking the exact same thing. Especially right around this part:

"The hike was nothing like I'd imagined. In my head I would take pictures, stop and admire the views, and generally have fun along the way.

For the most part, I can't tell you much about that day, except for the few things I'm talking about, now. I didn't take my camera out, I didn't look around, and I could barely think outside of just moving. Anytime my mind would wander from what I was doing, I was having to break through that wall again. So I didn't let my mind wander."

It's like that in a lot of ways. For much of it, you're in that "zone" where you're super focused. At least it was for me.

The pictures are beautiful!

Anonymous said...

YOU DID IT!!! I'm so happy for you!

Julie-Inspired said...

You did it! It must have really felt a.m.a.z.i.n.g! About five years ago I read A walk in the woods by Bill Bryson and fell absolutely in love with the whole idea of hiking the Appalachian trail. So a year or so after that, I hiked part of the trail and it was such an unbelievable experience! So...good for you that you did it!

Julie xo

Cath said...

you are an inspiration... and such a sweet woman too. I showed your blog to my teenage daughters...they said
'OMG - that is so cool!'

Shannon said...

Congratulations! That is quite a feat, especially with a little one just getting cozy inside! I loved reading your story. I am in the research phase of a Mt. Elbert climb myself for next summer. You are inspiring! Thanks for sharing!


jenn from midlife modern said...

I just found your blog, and I'm so glad I did. I used to live in Colorado and am in love with your photos of the Rocky Mountains. Can't wait to follow along on your adventures! Hope your next hike isn't as difficult as this one was.

Kelly @ turned UP to ELEVEN! said...

Congrats on making it to the top. I'm sorry your moment up there was cut short by a storm but I must say that image of Hunter all wet is amazing. Thank you for sharing!

Mommy Emily said...

wow, aura, these photos... extraordinary. i have been in the colorado mountains, and they claimed part of me. i will always miss them. thank you for this. (and doesn't the first meal following a long hike taste divine? :))

Monique said...

Congratulations on making it all the way up to the top. This hike sounded really challenging, yet exhilarating. Can't wait to hear about Sand Dune NP. I really enjoy your stories and photos. Most of my hiking has been in Central and S. America. While I've been to Acadia and Joshua Tree I'm saving U.S. NP's for when I have a family.
Have a wonderful week. Much love and light to you.


Unknown said...

This is an amazing story and series of photos. Kudos to your family for doing this and never giving up! What an important lesson, and you're teaching it to so many people.

Thank you Aura for your inspiration!

Jessica said...

I just have to say that every time I visit your blog, and read another post, I leave it inspired. I myself have never had the opportunity to hike up a mountain but would love to experience the sheer ferocity and beauty of it. I noticed that another commenter compared climbing the mountain to labor, which I am VERY familiar with :). I have a 15 month old, and it feels like yesterday that I was pushing through labor to get her here. I have been doing research as of late on natural childbirth, home birth and the like. Her delivery was in a hospital, and with the help of some medication, which actually didn't take as it should and wore off throughout the delivery. I was entirely unaware of so many options for birth that there are! Eventually when my husband and I have more children, I am definitely curious to look into midwifery/doulas and home birth or natural birth.

Are you considering this option for your baby? I can't remember if I read a post where you mentioned you may be possibly considering a home/birth. I believe it to be a personal choice for the mother and that she will choose what is right for her and her baby.

I wish you nothing but blessings in this new beautiful journey in your life. Becoming a mother, a family, changes you in every fiber of your being. Thank you for sharing your experiences with us. I truly enjoy getting to witness such an inspiring and beautiful family as yours.

Brightest Blessings

siniann said...

Wow, congratulations! That's so amazing. How was Hunter feeling after the hike? I guess he was just sleeping.

Meemo said...

Wow, I could fell your pain while reading this. What an accomplishment. And what a good lesson for you and your husband to be able to deal with each other under such strenuous circumstances. You're one tough chica.

umi said...

heeeeeeeeeeeey! i am a mostly silent lurker and i found you throu rummeybears some while back. i am so happy for your adventuring spirit to be diving into one of the biggest adventures of all... parenthood! all the best for your homebirth (i am a 2-times hb-er) and your journey head. with your curious and brave and kind hearts your little juju is in good hands...xx tali

Bethany Bassett said...

I was rooting you on throughout the post too; what an accomplishment! Do you have more of the I-just-summited-a-mountain buzz now that you're safely back home?

Oh, and it has to be said: Elbert would make a great baby name. ;)

Kristina said...

How beautiful, and (as always) so inspiring! I'm glad you guys made it!

Breeze said...

I love your stories!! I am new to your blog and have already been so inspired and encouraged. Thank you for sharing your life!

Johanna said...

Congratulations on meeting the summit! After a day of hiking, without fail, I always crave a big greasy burger. :) Kurt laughs at me because I tell him I'm a hamburgologist.

Unknown said...

WOW!- just found ya - gourgous hike/climb! - i'm in awwwwwe of it all!!!

PS - want FREE art? - come 1 come all and *JOIN PHOTOgraphy Give-Away * .. if you interested of course!

*kiss kiss*

Anonymous said...

YES! That is awesome! I can't believe how hard it would be to keep on keep'n on, but you did! Whoo hoo!

Unknown said...

You did it! Congratulations! =) I've so been there, too - this summer DH and I went on a 5-day backcountry hiking trip in CO and it was insane, even after training for it. We went early in the summer and ended up (at one point) hiking through snow drifts 5-6 feet high. Hubs was proud of me for finishing, but it was really tough. We're trying to decide where to go next - there's still so much left to see and experience. That's what makes it all worth it, after the numbness is gone: you'll carry a bit of that 'summitting' feeling with you forever.

a little black cloud in a dress said...

I completely agree with the comparasions to childbirth. I remember thinking to myself "I cannot do this" but really, what are you going to do when you have a baby that no longer wants to live inside of you? haha. I don't remember much other than the important stuff from that day either.

This has been such an epic trip and I've loved reading about it!

Snappy-Q said...

WOW! You did it! Congratulations. This story is so great, I love how you told it. The pictures are stunning too, as usual.
I love that your wee baby was there with you too, even though you didn't know it. That will be a cool story to tell them when they are older.

KIKA said...

Aura, I am a new follow of your blogs . I live in Toronto and I have seen your growth ever since the days of myspace . You have truly became very inspirational, I dont get blown away by much, but your photos and stories are so pleasent to read. If you wrote a book or perhaps made a movie on your life, many people would learn from you and although we all have our personal battles, you seem to take everything for what it is and enjoy life to its full potential . I dont know you personaly other than reading your blogs , but I know you will be known for your inspiration and beauty .

happy milestones