After coming down off Mount Elbert, we attempted to nap in the tent before getting kicked out of our spot by a ranger (in my defense, there was no posted sign stating it was day use only AND there was dispersed camping in every spot except the one we were in). Internally cursing the cranky ranger and lack of signage, I drove two hours to the next trailhead and managed to settle into bed by 9pm.
The 1am wake up call was brutal. My entire body cried out in pain; I felt heavy, unable to move. Every inch of me was stiff, aching, and uncooperative. Ooph. I continued to lay in my warm sleeping bag, the smell of a sleeping Mak encouraging me to remain motionless. Bundled in layers of cozy down, I weighed my options. On one hand, I could sleep in and risk getting caught in an inevitable afternoon storm after completing just a single summit. I mean, I'd probably feel a little more alive. Or I could just grit my teeth and will my broken body to rise from the dead and stumble out onto the trail in the darkness like a true mountaineer.
I hit snooze.
I finally dragged myself out of my warm tent and began assembling my pack with cold fingers around 3am. Now I was two hours behind schedule. I was plagued with guilt and fueled with renewed determination but didn't feel any less shitty with the extra sleep.
The Decalibron Loop officially consists of Mount Democrat, Mount Cameron, and Mount Lincoln. Unofficially, it also includes Mount Bross, which resides on privately owned land and is technically illegal to summit (shhhh). There are are two ways to approach the loop, though the majority of people choose to start up Mount Democrat and finish the trip by descending Lincoln, leaving sketchy ass Mount Bross out of the picture altogether. I had received some helpful beta the day before from a burly Coloradoan on the top of Elbert who explained the descent off Bross would be a nightmare, due to the steepness of the trail and the instability of the gravelly pebbles that served as the trail, so I should consider reversing the loop.
I stared up at the dark giant looming above me, barely visible against the pre dawn sky. Stupidly, I was too eager to eat and sleep when I got to the trail head so I hadn't located the actual trail before sunset the night before. So here I was at 3:50am, squinting through the inky blackness trying to see any hint of a trail. Ah, there it is! Step one: done. Only a million more to go.
The ascent up Bross turned out to be the best choice, though definitely not the easiest. The sharp loose rocks underfoot gave way after every other step, making progress in a "two steps up, one long sliding step down" style. Cold, aching, and coughing, I was pissed. I was mad about my self-induced late start. Mad about the impending sickness, mad at the steepness of the trail and the stupidity of my own idea. I angrily kicked my toes into the loose rock and stomped my way up, each slide back down stoking the raging fire building inside of me. I finally let out a gutteral roar as I charged up the last section of sliding rock below the summit. Winded, I lay on the rocks heaving and spluttering for air. Three more of these motherfuckers?!
On the summit, wind drove into us, flattening Mak's ears against his head and forcing both of us to squint in the icy blasts. I hunkered down behind a crudely constructed rock shelter thinking I'd find some refuge from the wind and (hopefully) sneak in a short nap. That dream was quickly abandoned as I was shaking too hard from the cold to relax, let alone fall asleep. I decided to keep moving and we began to push on toward the next peak.
The last two peaks were conquered in fairly quick succession. While on Mount Cameron, our last stop before Democrat, I paused to adjust my pack and cast my eyes skyward to assess the weather. On the not too distant horizon, storm clouds were marching ever closer. Already, a few fluffy clouds had sped by us, gathering on the other side of the ridge. A storm was brewing. And quickly. In the mountains, the most friendly looking clouds can soon develop into terrifying thunderheads, threatening to strike down any person (or dog) caught in their downpour.
At my feet, Mak was curled tightly in a ball on the rock strewn trail, snoozing away. I looked back up at Mount Democrat. Its peak rose up sharply from the saddle, which dipped far below the ridge where we stood. The people slowly marching up the trail were mere ants dotting its vertical flanks. I sighed.
Turning back from a goal, regardless of how logical the decision, is always heart-breaking. Even more so when the peak is in sight and seemingly within reach. I stood there, at 14,328 feet, hair blowing wildly in the gathering storm, desperately seeking a way I could justify a summit bid for Mount Democrat. Tears pricking my windburned eyes, I fought hard against my better judgement. A younger, more stupidly reckless me would have thrown caution and consequence to the wind and pushed onward. But I couldn't do it. Mak was barely hanging on as it was and there was still a long descent to consider. We had lost a lot of time taking frequent rest breaks so he could get off his feet. I had planned to be off the mountain hours ago but now the storm was coming on fast and we'd be lucky to make it to the car before the sky broke open. Plus, we were still facing a very long drive home.
Bitterly, I turned to glare up at the mountain that remained tauntingly untouchable before making our descent. The peak was so tantalizingly close yet it may as well have been a hundred miles away for all the good it did my spirit.
I sulked the entire drive home, mourning the death of my project and nursing a bruised ego. I kept telling myself at every gas station stop that getting four summits in 24hrs was still commendable and definitely a huge milestone for myself. But wasn't very convincing.
After I quit pouting and had time to reflect on the mission, mostly due to the nasty post-trip bronchitis that forced me to have infinite quiet time, I was finally able to change my perspective on the project. Yes, walking away from a goal that's in sight is a crushing feeling. It's heartbreaking and it's a punch to the ego. Blah. Blah. Blah. But learning how to read the signs and turn back is good and necessary training, especially as I began to take on more risk and bigger challenges. Teaching myself to forgo a potentially reachable summit in favor of safety and the opportunity to live to climb another day is an accomplishment in itself.
Summit fever is a very real and dangerous thing. As renowned mountaineer David Breashears said in a 1996 NOVA interview regarding the deadliest season on Everest that same year, "Remember that getting up Everest is the easy part, getting down is the hard part." Same with smaller mountains; the overwhelming majority of accidents on the mountain happen on the way back down, when you're mentally exhausted and physically fatigued.
My stakes were low. So while I probably wouldn't have died if I had kept on pushing, I definitely made the right choice to turn back, forgoing further injury and minimizing my risk. On the heels of listening to Krakauer's "Into Thin Air" and the tragic consequences associated with that very decision, it was a much needed lesson and reminder of the high cost of making the wrong choice. Turning back isn't failing, it's a challenge in its own right, a challenge to prioritize reason over blind and risky ambition. So I can finally say it, my 14ers project was a smashing success! It was tough, it was beautiful, it was painful, and it wasn't fatal. Stay safe out there!