Having listened to Into Thin Air for what has to be the millionth time, I was craving an ass kicking of the alpine variety.
I did a little research and found some 14,000 foot peaks in Colorado that could be summited with Mak. But getting my first 14er wasn't good enough, I wanted to get five 14,000 ft peaks in 24hrs. Weather and timing aligned and on Saturday, I would head east to Colorado for a solo mission.
Legs still a mess of quivering jell-o from the Discrete Cirque Series race, I hopped in my car after crossing the finish line and headed straight for the first trailhead, leading to Colorado's highest point. Eight hours later, I parked and began the trek at 3am with no sleep and on legs still sore from the brutal descent from Baldy during the race.
In the silent pre-dawn darkness, I quickly ascended through the lower forest. Fatigue caused my eyes to see menacing shapes and shadows lurking behind the edge of my headlamp's glow. But I was alone. I clutched my bear spray and pushed on, eventually climbing above tree line. As I turned toward the upper shoulder of the mountain, I was blasted by icy winds. My eyes watered as each forceful gust penetrated another layer of my sweat-soaked down jacket and sent another quaking shiver through me. Without a mile tracker, I had no idea how far I had gone or how much further I had left to go. Behind me, the sky was lightening as the sun prepared to rise. Eager to reach the summit by dawn, I clenched my teeth against the biting cold and pushed on to the summit.
Or the false summit, as I would come to find out. I reached the rocky peak, eager to pull out my carefully packed can of PBR and celebrate. I looked up only to find the trail continued on, winding its way upward toward an impossibly steep peak. Fuuuuuuuck. After hours of relentless climbing, I was exhausted, emotionally wrecked, and hungry. The heartbreak of realising I was possibly hours from the end sent me to my knees; I fought back tears. Don't quit. After a moment, I rose again and slowly plodded on.
The last 200 yards to the summit were tough. My heart thundered in my ears and my lungs felt like they were packed full of cotton, each burning gasp searching for oxygen as futile as sucking air through a straw. Bracing myself against winds threatening to blow me off the ridge, I began to count my steps in sets of twenty five.
One, two, three, four, five.
The "why" that drives these sadistic ventures is hard to explain to those who don't also indulge in similar vices. There's a pride in setting an audacious goal and burning myself out physically and mentally in my attempt to reach it. But it's more than just pride.
Six, seven, eight, nine, ten.
It's partially about feeling out my boundaries and purposefully pushing the edges out a little further. It's finding joy in the face of discomfort, ignoring burning legs and lungs to grind out just a few more yards. It's pushing onward when every sinew and fiber is screaming to quit. It's looking defeat in the face, firing off a "fuck you", and blazing forward.
Eleven, twelve, thirteen, fourteen, fifteen.
Our minds have become so disconnected from our bodies. Even when we take time before or after work to physically exert ourselves, we distract ourselves from the grueling task at hand with treadmill TVs, headphones, blaring music, or informative podcasts. Rarely do we sweat in silence. Rarely do we embrace the suck with open arms and hearts.
Sixteen, seventeen, eighteen, nineteen, twenty.
But in these quiet moments of silent suffering, there's an intrinsic realness to each passing moment. A rawness of unfettered existence that doesn't seem to penetrate our daily lives. When I'm up there, I'm not thinking about my bills or why I can't look like the models on Instagram; I'm not too slow or too small, I just am. It's life stripped down to the basics: me, the mountain, the fire in my lungs, each next footstep carrying me closer to the top. Pure focus. Every neurotransmitter is fully absorbed in processing each gust of wind, coordinating the muscles required to lift and place another step, calculating the power left in my burning legs, and drinking in the stunning views of the valley stretching out below. It's everything and nothing, time is suspended and accelerated in the effort.
Twenty-one, twenty-two, twenty-three, twenty-four, twenty-five.
It was over. I made the final turn to the summit and was almost bowled over by the silence. The wind ceased its roar. Sharpened spires of summits stretched out for miles around me. My windburned lips cracked as I grinned from ear to ear. Ho-ly shit. Giggling breathlessly, I sat down hard on the rocks littering the top of the peak as my shaky legs finally gave out. The sun gilded each peak with a wash of golden light, the sky blushing at the beauty of the rising dawn. After hours of slogging up the mountain, every muscle aching from exertion and the continuous shivering, lungs heaving, I had fucking done it.
This is why. To stand on a peak, arms outstretched, to close my eyes and feel the kiss of fresh sunlight on my face. To feel alive. Suffering is life, in the best possible way. I had clawed my way up nearly 5,000 feet of elevation to reach this very spot at this very moment. In the face-off between me and the mountain, I had not been defeated. Strange, though. Standing atop the second highest point in the continental states didn't make me feel grandiose at all but instead, I felt very, very small. Just a speck on the endlessly undulating landscape. Half dead but smiling, I drank in the dozens of sunlit peaks stretching out before me. Deep inside, an ember flared and caught, igniting a desire to conquer them all.