“It is the most exhilarating, and strengthening, and soothing. I would rather live on these hills than anywhere else in the world.”
—The Return of the Native, Thomas Hardy
With all due respect Thomas Hardy was (in this instance) full of crap. He has never lived anywhere with mountains, and if he had, he would’ve stricken “hills” from that last line. Last week while on vacation, Lauren decided to take her dog Riley and I on an adventure and climb Castle Peak, a 14,000 foot mountain. I am a nordic skier and spend most of my time outdoors running up inclines; however, I was born roughly 700 feet above sea level and that means going to altitude can be difficult for me. It can be especially difficult when I don’t acclimate and wait just 2 days before attempting to climb one of Colorado’s highest peaks. What follows is a sea-leveler’s journal of this adventure through each of the 14,000 feet.
7,900 feet- The starting elevation of our adventure and also Aspen,Colorado.
9,728 feet- This part was easier than I thought, we drove there in a Toyota and I was eating chips and salsa.
11,100 feet- This was the largest gain in elevation between notable spots on the route, but it was also the longest horizontal distance traveled so it didn’t seem so bad. It was an uneven and rocky dirt road, and we ran most of it.
12,400 feet- This was the section when I began to suspect that this hike would be incredibly difficult. The air was growing incredibly thin, and up to our right were the remains of an old mine that had to be abandoned because working that high was considered too “aggravating.” The splintered remains of the tunnel entrance and the decaying steel cable draped across the landscape like dying vegetation were beautiful and historic, and also made me feel like the end was near.
12,800 feet- Sweet mother of god, a flat spot. I decided to lie down in an attempt to get some amount of oxygen into my body. I closed my eyes for what felt like the longest, most wonderful rest in the world but was really probably just 5 minutes spent lying on the ground panting like the German Shepard.
13,300 feet- Have you ever tried breathing through a straw? This is what being 13,000 feet above sea level is like when you were born in the lowlands. My muscles really started to fail me here. Every single step was surprisingly more laborious than the last one. I began to question how badly it would hurt to just roll down the mountain.
13,700 feet- I don’t know what sort of strength is in Riley’s bones, but after watching him climb the mountain, I would sell my soul for a teaspoon of it. If you ever want to feel physically useless I suggest you go climb a gigantic mountain and watch a freaking dog trot away from you like a hoofless mountain goat while you wheeze like a leaf-blower in the background.
14,152 feet- This is the end of our journey. If you are from Colorado, or care incessantly about fact checking, you already know that Castle Peak is 14,279 feet, and we did not make the summit. On the last shoulder before the summit there is a narrow, nearly vertical wall of rock just short enough for a human to scramble over, but just too tall for a German Shepard to do the same. Our options were essentially to try and carry Riley over the wall or tie him up and hope he he waited. Both of these gave less than acceptable odds of a human and an animal tumbling several thousand feet down a field of boulders, so we decided to call it a day.
Climbing mountains can be surprisingly, painfully difficult, but we pushed hard to finish above 14,000 feet in elevation. On the way up, my increasingly oxygen deprived life began to flash before my eyes, and I found myself wondering why that number was so decidedly important. After all, sometimes records or milestones exist for a very specific reason; Mt. Everest matters because it’s the highest point on earth. In my mind, 14,000 feet had no such concrete significance. But when we were sitting up top, tired and chilled, I looked down the mountain, saw the valley that had encompassed all of my suffering, and felt very very proud.
Maybe the most incredible thing about our climb was not that we did it successfully but that, we really had no reason to do it at all. Yes, we practically live in the outdoors, and run/hike nearly every day of our lives, but that’s actually kind of the point: taking the concept of adventuring to such an extreme extent was a reminder that adventuring can be more than just training. Adventuring can be insanely fun. Sure our adventure may lead to some increases in fitness. But that’s not why we’ll remember it, or continue to tell people about the numbers of our hike.
In Colorado 14,000 feet is a milestone that exists for no real reason, which is the best reason of all.