Leo, my fabulous friend and running buddy that I met through DailyMile.com last winter, invited me to join him on a company hike up Mount Elbert on June 26. The mountain is 14,440 in elevation, the highest peak in Colorado. As I’ve never hiked a 14er and always put it on my list of amazing things to do each and every summer, I did a little happy dance and jumped at the chance to tag along with a group that actually knew what they were doing.
As the day got closer and more discussion ensued, Leo and I came up with the brilliant plan to run the mountain. Neither of us had ever summitted a 14er and we thought for sure this was a good idea. We’re both trail runners and have a pretty realistic gauge of each other’s strengths and capabilities. We hashed through a gear list a few days before, and put together enough food as fuel during the run and a ton of yummy things to look forward to when we got back to the car. We were set.
I got to bed at 10:30pm Saturday night, a full two hours later than I wanted. My alarm was set to go off at 3:30am, so I was glad to get at least five hours of sleep. At 2:30am I woke with a rumbling stomach; food poisoning had reared its ugly head. After two trips to the bathroom that cleaned me out from both ends, a dose of Ibuprofen for the headache and two glasses of water, I called Leo at 3:30 and told him that I was mobile, but he better drive our carpool. He was awake and making a quadruple batch of his gourmet dirty chai; one for each of our travel mugs (he made mine extra strong, with 3 shots of espresso), and another double batch for the thermos that would sustain us for the two hour drive up the mountain with enough left over as a tasty treat when we returned to the car, tired and thirsty, after making a 9-mile round trip covering 9000 feet of elevation.
At 4:20 I pulled into his apartment complex parking lot. We transferred my gear into his car. He tucked a travel mug of dirty chai into my hand; I sipped at the caffeine concoction, shut my eyes and opened them again when we pulled into the T-Rex parking lot at the intersection of Hwy 93 and I-70, to rendezvous with two of Leo’s co-workers. After loading our gear into the SUV, we headed into the mountains.
Mount Elbert, a mountain within the Sawatch mountain range in Colorado, is directly next to Mount Massive. As we drove deeper into the Rocky Mountains we watched dawn break and chatted between catnaps in the car. At 7am we pulled into the trailhead parking lot and parked next to another member of the group. One more car of people was expected, and we were meeting two other people a little farther up on the trail; they were hiking a section of the Colorado Trail, and were going to jump in on the hike up Mount Elbert as a way to round out their vacation.
At the trailhead I reassessed my clothing choice. I was in a lightweight, long-sleeved wicking shirt, and wore shorts underneath my running pants. My windbreaker was tucked into my Nathan hydration pack, which was filled to capacity with 70 oz. of water. Quickly I changed into a heavier wicking long-sleeve shirt; I worried about wind chill and lower temps at the higher elevations.
By 7:40 we were ready. Leo and I waved goodbye to the group and hit the trail. The ground was shaded by conifers and early morning sunlight filtered to the soft dirt in patches. Muffled footsteps coupled with damp, springy earth underneath our feet made running through the pines a little slice of heaven. We grinned at each other and settled into an easy pace.
The soft dirt gave way to narrow trail that was littered with medium-sized rocks. After twenty minutes we stopped to take a picture. The sunlight had shifted from a soft haze to stark slashes of light, and I was glad to have my sunglasses on to provide definition between the brightness and dark shadows that challenged my vision.
We kept going up. Leo was in the lead and I snapped a picture of what would become a normal sight for me; his back. He disappeared around a bend. I tucked my little point-and-shoot camera back in the pocket of my hydration pack and started running again.
Every so often I took a little breathing break. Leo got longer breaks than me, as he was faster and stopped to wait. After 90 minutes we were both sweating hard by the time I caught up again. He was sitting on a fallen log, gazing at the view of where we were headed. I eased myself down and enjoyed the rest break.
I removed my pants and fiddled with my gear. When I looked up again a bird that had been watching us flew over to a branch just 10 feet away. Being careful to not make any sudden movements, I pulled out my camera and snapped several pictures of the beauty. He responded by turning his head to each side, to make sure I got several profile shots of him in all his early-morning glory.
After our heart rates had settled down and before the sweat was dried, we took off again. I’d guess that we were somewhere around 11,500 feet at this point… getting close to tree line but still a little away from the place where the trail would exit the forest. We started seeing patches of deep snow that was up to our knees, tucked against pine trees and rocks, protected from the warm winds and hot sun.
And then we saw the break, the place where the trail continued on and the trees ended. We had come to tree line, the place where the air is thin enough that trees no longer grow in the higher altitude. Walking along tree line is a surreal experience; it felt like I had feet in two worlds. The world of trees is a world of height and shade and many different kinds of flora coexisting together. The world that exists above the trees is a bright world where the wind gusts and almost pushes me over, where I have to look closely at the ground to see tiny flowering plants tucked securely against the rocky mountain.
We ran steadily for another minute or two before allowing ourselves the luxury of admiring the view. Our goal was to get high enough so that we could see the valley and mountains in the distance; we wanted a topographical perspective of the world.
The trail got steeper at this point. There was very little traversing now; we were going straight up. The rocks were sharper, the earth was drier, and the wind was stronger up here. Walk breaks became more frequent, at least for me. Leo was still running uphill. I lost sight of him frequently now, as he reached ridges and then disappeared behind each false summit. I was hiking a lot and running little at this point; my calves and glutes wouldn’t let me do much more.
I found Leo waiting for me at the top of the first of three false summits. We peered around and laughed that we were looking straight across to Mount Massive. We jogged another hundred feet up the trail, just so we could take a picture and show that we were looking directly across to the mountain that has more area above 14,000 feet than any other mountain in the contiguous United States.
We hiked together now. The trail was as steep as anything I’ve ever encountered. When I looked at the trail I could focus my eyes, but every time I had to look up to get my bearings I started to feel woozy. The altitude was starting to get to me. I told Leo that my head was starting to feel funny. He stopped in his tracks and massaged my shoulders and neck to get more oxygen circulating in my body. I breathed deeply, let my body relax, and we pressed forward.
We were at 13,000 feet and my feet started to slip. My legs didn’t have their same power and the lack of oxygen slowed my muscles. The fierce wind gusted and knocked me off balance. Leo looked over at me and took pity; he grabbed my hand and started pulling me up the mountain. I was literally anchored to him now, and even though I was going faster because of his long steps, my effort had diminished. Breathing became easier for me and I let myself be towed upwards.
Even with me weighing him down, Leo had strength to propel us past several groups of hikers. We were flying up the mountain as fast as two mortals with running shoes and hydration packs could possibly go. People stepped out of our way, smiled and watched our backs as we pushed upwards. He was the engine; I was the small but sturdy caboose, adding as much power as I could offer to our group effort.
As rest breaks grew more frequent our words tapered off. I stopped to put a glove on the hand he wasn’t holding; that appendage was freezing cold now. My confused body had one cold hand, one sweaty hand, two sweaty legs and one cold arm. We were close to the summit now. Our excitement was palpable. We were almost there. We were about to summit our very first 14er. I’ve lived in Colorado for 35 years and have never climbed a mountain this big. It’s been on my bucket list for ten years, and finally, FINALLY, I was really going to do it.
We reached the summit and stopped short, taking in the view.
The area was crowded with people taking pictures and typing intently on cell phones. Snow covered much of the flat ground and the wind whipped us hard. Leo borrowed a cardboard sign from a “peak box” that lived on the mountain and I held it while he took my picture. Now there was proof that I was there. He added our names and the date to the informal registry inside the box; as long as that box stayed on the mountain, we were part of a select few people on the continent that had seen the Rocky Mountains from the top of this peak. I checked the time; it was 10:40am, exactly three hours since we left the trailhead. Our time included almost thirty minutes total of rest breaks.
We parked ourselves next to a three-foot high crop of rocks and ducked out of the wind. Lunch consisted of cheese slices on gluten-free crackers, salted almonds, carrots and sliced turkey. It was the best lunch ever – every bite was pure happiness in my mouth. I sipped water and ate until I could feel my blood sugar level stabilize. After fifteen minutes or so we packed up again and headed down the mountain. We were getting cold, and didn’t want our muscles to lose excessive heat and mobility.
We ran into the rest of our group after another twenty minutes or so, and paused to chat with them. The sun was getting higher in the cloudless sky and the wind was easing at the lower elevation. Leo was ahead of me now, trotting steadily down the mountain. He has a good six inches on me and his cycling quads are eons stronger than mine. I may have stamina, but I will never have the pure strength that he has. I went at my own pace and enjoyed the feeling of gaining oxygen as I eased my way down the mountain.
The trail was dusty, rocky and steep. Perfect quad-burning conditions. I saw Leo’s head bobbing along a quarter mile in front of me when I looked up from time to time. People littered the trail, still climbing up. I got a ton of smiles as I bounced down the mountain. “There goes the second part of the dynamic duo!” someone said to their friend as they yielded trail.
A little farther down a threesome was resting. A woman saw me coming and said, “Do you run the Leadville 100?” I stopped to laugh really, really hard. “No way,” I said, “That’s for crazy people! I just like to run trails!” After I caught my breath I focused on my feet and continued down the mountain.
I caught up to Leo and we re-entered tree line together. By that point I had rolled my left ankle twice; it gave out on me due to the massive quad and glute burn. Nothing hurt though, I was injury-free. The sun was getting hotter and hotter, and I could smell my stink through the fleece wicking shirt.
The shade from the trees provided some relief, and the trail wasn’t quite as dry and dusty as it was at 13,000 feet. We ran together now (mostly), and I could hear my breathing. At one point I looked up briefly from the trail and started to ask Leo a question. It was poor timing, as we were jumping through a tangle of tree roots. My left foot hit a root at an odd angle, the ankle rolled and I hit the ground. This time I cried out. Leo turned around and saw me on the floor holding my ankle. He crouched down and we both looked at it, then looked at each other wordlessly. The question was in his eyes: Was I okay? Would he have to carry me down the mountain? I moved the foot around with my hand and gave it a quick rub; it was fine. Move it on out.
We started running again and covered another mile and a half before the ankle went out on me again. Again, it rolled over and I hit the ground with a cry. Again, I moved it around and determined it to be fine. Let’s finish this thing.
Leo promised me a soak in the icy waters of the stream close to the trailhead when we got back, to help minimize the swelling that we both knew was coming. I pulled off my pants, stuffed them into the backpack, and pushed up my sleeves. I couldn’t wait to get my hot, sweaty, stinky running clothes off.
The last mile was pure bliss. We ran easily through the forest and cut along the easy switchbacks. The trail was easy, there was plenty of oxygen at 10,500 feet, and I could have kept running at this easy pace, at this altitude, all day long. The patchy sun shone strong and warm though the trees as I descended the mountain five hours after we first started running.
We finished the run down the mountain 100 minutes after we left from the peak; it was 12:40 when we pulled back into the parking lot. We eased into a walk and headed back to the truck, where we dug through our gear to change clothes, pull out the cooler and eat the best tuna fish sandwich I’ve ever tasted. Food tastes better after a serious trail run, and it’s absolute nirvana after you’ve been on a mountain and seen the world from 14,400 feet.
We meandered back up the trail about a hundred yards to the stream that was flowing swiftly across the trail. Leo took off his sandals, waded into the water and plopped himself down on a rock with his legs submerged up to his knees. He looked at me with a smile and motioned for me to do the same, since I was the one with the ankle that had rolled four times. I tried standing in the water and almost cried with the shock of the water; forty degree mountain snow-melt is a hard pill to swallow. It took me almost fifteen minutes of putting my legs in and out of the water to finally be able to stand in the rushing water for a full three minutes, icing my ankle.
I will always remember June 26, 2011 as the Sunday that I reached the summit of Mount Elbert, my very first 14er. The weather was absolute perfection; clear blue skies and temperatures in the 40’s, 50’s and finally, the 60’s back at the trailhead. I can’t wait to do it again. Maybe next time I won’t run up the mountain, and I don’t care. I just want to be there to try. It’s an amazing experience to just TRY.