Two weekends ago, we hiked our first 14-er! We had hoped to try one when we moved to Colorado two years ago, but we failed to squeeze one in between us working all the time and my internship last year. Nonetheless, it finally happened, and it was very invigorating.
Keegan’s friend Matt and his girlfriend Claire conquered Mount Elbert the weekend before and complained of the bland terrain. We had high hopes for Gray’s Peak (no pun intended). Reports online indicated it was scenic and moderate for a 14er. So we drove to Idaho Springs the day before and checked into our room.
Keegan handled hotel reservations, and it was cute, nestled in the mountains. Columbine Inn sat within walking distance of several stores, breweries and restaurants. Claire recommended Westbound and Down, and Keegan and I love the show Eastbound and Down. The food was okay, but my drink was really good. Plus a woman brought her Siamese cat on a leash, so that was pretty amusing.
We returned to the hotel room when I realized I left my tennis shoes at home. This sucked, because the closest Wal-Mart was about 20 miles away. Keegan reluctantly drove me to the store. We wanted to be in bed by 9, since you have to wake up early to hike a 14er. By the time we got to sleep it was 11:30. I have a hard time falling asleep when I know I won’t be getting much sleep, so waking up at 3:30 in the morning was not very pleasant. But I had my memory foam shoes to boot and I wasn’t about to back out, despite running on limited sleep and being on my period.
Idaho Springs is about an hour and a half from our house, and we still had another 45 minutes to drive that morning. So we left at 4 a.m. and headed towards the trail. It took us another 30 minutes to drive from the parking lot near the highway up the pot-hole-ridden road to the trail head. Matt left his car at the bottom, and the four of us squeezed into Keegan’s tiny cab and crossed our fingers. 4 wheel drive was highly recommended on this narrow, dangerous road. Some people hiked an extra 4 miles by parking at the bottom and walking two miles to the trail head. I had already politely refused to do such a thing. It’s all I can do to hike 8 miles at such a high elevation. Luckily we scored parking at the top, pretty damn close to the trailhead.
We started at about 5:15. Some people brought headlamps, but we knew the sun was coming up soon. The first mile or so was relatively flat and easy but at 11,000 feet, I could feel the elevation from the very beginning. We paused periodically but didn’t require too many breaks until we hit the switchbacks. Before that the trail included railroad ties, “the stunted forest” (my nickname for a thicket of short trees we walked through), a stream, gorgeous wildflowers and a sprawling meadow. Once we saw the switchbacks, I thought, “Oh shit. This is it”.
Pics don’t do it justice. The switchbacks were steep, and the other hikers looked like ants in the distance. We ate a few bites of granola and sipped on some orange juice near the bottom before attempting the daunting climb. The OJ turned out to be a mistake for me. Oddly enough, I felt like I had heartburn shortly after. At one point I worried I might vomit, as the citricy beverage worked its way up my throat. I convinced myself it was nothing and powered through the hike. We didn’t drive this far and wake up so early to give up so easily, although if we hadn’t hiked with Matt and Claire, I might’ve caved without the peer pressure.
The closer we got towards the top, the weaker I felt. My hands and face began to swell. My fingers resembled swollen sausages, and my wedding ring fit like a punishment. Imagine an obsese individual trying to squeeze into a kid-sized tube at the pool. That’s what my left ring finger looked like. With every exhausting step, I became more and more delirious. At one point, I thought I saw an eagle’s face in a rock smiling at me. I did a double take, and it was gone. I started laughing, and Keegan looked at me like I was crazy. Another time I said, “Do you guys see that?”, and what appeared to be a faded, rusted Red Flyer was large, brown rock. I thought I was going to lose my mind. Within a half mile of the top, I had vertigo so bad, I worried I might fall off the edge. All you can is pause, catch your breath and keep moving forward.
For the last stretch, we paused every 3-5 minutes, which sounds excessive, but it’s not. You never really understand the intensity of a 14er until you try one firsthand. It was super windy near the top, and I seriously felt like crying happy tears. This challenge marked my most difficult physical feat yet, and I was so very proud of us!
It’s funny how long it takes to hike something like this, only to spend 10 minutes at the top. It was freezing, slightly crowded and Claire’s hat flew off unexpectedly. I made a secret promise to myself and left some stress at the summit. I refused to take it with me. We snapped several pics and began our descent.
Here’s a few more pics from the top. Epic views were all around us; the beauty of the summit was overwhelming. The sense of accomplishment I experienced was exactly what I needed to motivate me. And by “motivate me”, I mean, to finish the hike and to continue in life in general. Sometimes I need a boost. Keegan laughed at me as I tried not to cry, but fuck it. If there was one place I could let it all hang out, it was here.
Some people tried to talk us into Torrey’s Peak, half a mile away, but we were so dead. I wanted to do both originally, but after reaching Gray’s Peak, I wasn’t about to try Torrey’s. One was enough, and I’m okay with that.
I had more pep in my step on the way down. We didn’t need nearly as many breaks, but we had to take it slow because the mountain was so steep. It’s a miracle I didn’t twist my ankle in my shitty Wal-Mart shoes. Sure, they featured memory foam inserts, but the support was nonexistent, and my feet are flat as fuck.
Claire brought peanut butter jelly sandwiches, which I still attribute to saving my life. Never before had a smushed sandwich taste so delicious to me.
The trip down the summit gave me time to appreciate the scenery. Between the rocky terrain, the moon overhead, the fields bursting with yellow wild flowers and Mount Edwards, I felt an overwhelming sense of gratitude that we chose this peak to be our first 14er.
I reviewed our photos that evening and noticed the contrast between night and day and the bottom and top of the trail. To me, that’s what made this hike so beautiful–comparing the differences from 5 a.m. to noon and from 11,000 feet to 14,278 feet.
The moon at 5 a.m. versus 9:30 a.m.
Mount Edwards on the left at the beginning of our hike versus from the top of Gray’s Peak.
Don’t know the name of this mountain, but seeing it at eye level versus the summit shows how much elevation we gained.
And last but not least, we have the stream in the dark and the stream in the sunlight.
Would I ever hike another 14er again? Probably not. It was hard as hell, and I thought I was literally going to die. But if we were to try one again, we would probably return to Gray’s Peak. I say so begrudgingly, because even though this marked the most challenging hike of my life, it was one of the best hikes I’ve ever enjoyed.