No matter what kind of challenges or difficulties or painful situations you go through in your life, we all have something deep within us that we can reach down and find the inner strength to get through them.Alana Stewart
It was a blissfully balmy bluebird day last Friday when Richard and I snowshoed up the flanks of a Colorado “fourteener,” one of the state’s nearly sixty mountain peaks over 14,000 feet. We’d driven out from Saint Paul to check out this magnificent playground of a state, mostly just taking in the snow-covered ranges from the vantage point of our car. But when our host Karen suggested we take a walk up McCullough Gulch as far as it would take us, we skipped the gulch for a lapis-blue sky and huffed our way to a whole new experience.
Quandary Peak is the highest summit in the Tenmile Range of the Rocky Mountains and towers over the ski village of Breckenridge. With its proximity to Denver and I-70, it’s one of the most accessible 14ers as well as one of the most straightforward. Peak-baggers usually start their quest with Quandary and its 3,500-foot gain in 3 1/2 miles. Steep, but basically a ramp. A gut-busting, altitude-sickness-inducing ramp, but one requiring only spunk and good weather.
And we had both, including a light dusting of snow creating a white path to the top. The clincher for me was reading that Quandary is one of the easiest and safest winter summits. I had no idea people actually walked to the top of 14ers in the winter, none-the-less we’d wisely packed our fantastic MSR Evo Ascent snowshoes, giant boats with a built-in heel lift that clicks into place and saves your calves on the uphills.
We needed those lifts right from the start out of the lightly filled parking lot, a good sign that a trail to the top would be obvious and packed down.
According to legend Quandary was named by miners unable to identify a mineral sample they’d collected on its slopes, in a “quandary” over its nature. Though I like to imagine a more romantic reason for the origin of its name, some perplexing situation that caused great consternation like the one the two of us were experiencing ourselves during our week in Colorado, namely what to do with the rest of our lives.
But as we started our day drinking extra amounts of water and loading up on carbs, we made a conscious decision not to push things and to just let the day unfold, a piece of advice I easily dispense but don’t always follow. I wore only an Ibex wool top and hoodie, a pair of hiking slacks I bought for $5 in Leadville, a baseball cap and sunglasses and stayed plenty warm through the forest, the trees freshly flocked and opening up to portholes looking towards the bright white of the Front Range across the valley.
Two skiers shushing up the trail passed us on skinned skis, turning around to warn us to avoid avalanche terrain. The beauty of Quandary is that the hiker can pretty much avoid getting into trouble by staying high on the ridge, but that means dispensing with the summer route’s switchbacks which are designed to lessen the grade.
Low avalanche danger doesn’t mean no danger, and as we walked higher and higher I did a mental checklist of all I had in my pack:
- layers of warm clothes
- water and snacks
- a headlamp
- lip balm and sunscreen
- warm mitts, hat and balaklava
To be honest, the brilliant sunshine lulled me into feeling like it was just a summer’s walk with all the time in the world. Unwisely, we got a late start and were moving slowly, especially when we reached an open patch of deep snow up to our hips, the “trail” a series of postholes in a long trench. Both of us got stuck with an audible “whumph.” My biggest fear was that my foot would go one way and my leg the other and rip my new titanium prosthetic right out of its socket.
It only turned out to be a short delay before we reached a long flat stretch, the trees disappearing and a rounded snowy summit coming into view. A woman only a few years older approached all smiles. “I was the second one on top today!” she said, assuring me the flanks of the mountain were wind-scoured and easy walking.
The wind, too, was calm as skiers, people training for Everest and a “speed rider” – a sport that combines skiing with paragliding – all joined her on the mountain earlier today, as well as a couple of snowboarders, one flying right towards me unable to stop and crashing into the deep snow next to the trail.
As we cleared the trees, Richard and I spoke up almost at once suggesting I should go on and try for the peak. He made the treeline his goal and I was feeling strong if I went slow. But the morning was waning and a little quick calculation determined that 2:00 was the time I’d need to turn around to avoid being out in the dark – and the bitter cold.
So I put it in low gear and marched on towards the first false summit, blinding white of a vertiginous sweep to nothingness off to my right. I stabbed the ground with my Lekis, my shoes crunching and slapping as I slowly ascended towards rocks all in one gesture, a gesture that only led to more steep whiteness on a sea of cobalt.
For that section things simplified – there was no more “staying under my breath” by walking slow enough to keep from tiring. Any movement up took my breath away completely. So I got systematic. I walked 100 steps, then took a break. One, two, three, four…by the time I got to fifty, my thighs were burning, and my forced breathing heavier and louder…ninety-seven, ninety-eight, ninety-nine, STOP!
My MSR’s hung to the side like champs, but resting was not really resting. My calves fired up as I held myself in place on the steep terrain. I’d look up to where I needed to be which was slightly demoralizing, but looking down was surprisingly uplifting since you can get pretty far in just 100 steps.
I saw a man below me at the rocks just starting, moving slow but steady, clearly a local unaffected by the altitude. How far along am I? I wondered. To my left I could see the little hump above Hoosier Pass where Richard and I hiked a few days ago and tested out these new legs of mine in snowshoes. I was just above it, so 12,000 feet or so.
That left me with another 2,000 feet to go.
Oh hell, get on with it and up I went in my stubborn determination, 100 steps, break, 100 steps, break.
Bit by bit a pyramid of mountain poked out over my snowy hill; the “real” summit ahead. Why I felt elated seeing that distant bit of effort I can’t explain, except that maybe I knew that would be the last of it. Just then, three hikers approached on their return. Dressed much like me but wearing only microspikes, they moved well and fast down the slope. Still, they took time to encourage me along.
“Will I make it?” I asked a bit nervous.
“Of course!” And as if a reward, I reached a flat section brushed clean to the rock. I didn’t bother taking off my shoes as I picked my way from one snow patch to the next along a sheer cliff. Ski tracks directly at its sharp edge were evidence of a solution to the rock problem, though I gladly scratched my shoes to steer clear of a 1,000 foot fall. The man from below passed me, both of us thrilled by our luck with such a day.
I was certain my 100 step method would take me right up the precipitous and rocky ridge, but no such luck as I slowed to 50 paces before breathing hard. Several hikers passed me coming down in mountaineering boots and crampons, awkwardly clomping, heel-toe, heel-toe.
I saw the skiers from earlier in the day neatly carving S’s in the bowl as my steps shortened yet again. Here it was less a false summit than simply impossible to see the summit being so close and directly beneath it. Alone with my thoughts, my breath, my fear that maybe I was getting out of my comfort zone only two months away from my second hip replacement, I slowed my steps yet again to 10.
Ten steps. Ten breathes, Repeat.
I pulled out my phone to check the time. 1:47. Can I do this thing? I did the mental check again:
- I’m right on time
- I’m warm enough
- I’ve had enough to eat and drink
- I’m tired, but don’t feel any symptoms of altitude sickness
But where the heck is the summit? It just seems to keep going on and on. Just then, the man that passed me on the ridge section appeared above. In an optical illusion, he looked giant compared to what my eye expected to see above me. If he’s coming down from the top, it’s not that far!
He stopped to talk to me asking, as if I’m a local, if I come here often. Well, no. He then exclaims he’s never seen such a day – crystal clear, warm and no wind. But should I go to the top? Nonchalant in his ski boots ready to fly off this mountain on a glorious day, he tells me just like the others, “Of course! It’s right there!”
As skier man disappeared down the rocks to grab his skis, I headed up now just five steps on and five off. But just as he said, it was right there, the summit flattening off and leading to stone windbreaks, frozen and covered in snow. My breathing never relaxed but I no longer had to count my steps. If there’s a peak logbook, I never found it, but someone did leave a cardboard sign for my selfie.
I didn’t linger long as the time ticks past 2:00. I really had no idea how my snowshoes would grab hold heading down and I was surprised they clung tightly. I placed the handle of my Lekis tightly under my palms and assured the tips grab in front of me as I crawled down the mountain, my quads on fire and the treeline looking a long way away.
Two snowboarders reached me as well as two more hikers heading up, making me feel less panicky that I was the only one left out there as the sun began to make long shadows in the snow. Down and down and down I went, thinking I really should have rested for a moment, but instead I just kept going, feeling kind of bad I left Richard waiting.
After the false summit, the snow thickened having gotten soft in the sun. It was hard going but I saw someone below in the rocks holding his arms up in a V. Richard! He climbed up one of the steep sections to a dry patch. How many steps will it take me to get to him? 500? I counted as I went, sinking deep and struggling to stay upright. I fell at one point with a thump into deep snow. After all these months afraid of falling, I just went and did it and it was no big deal.
But it was a slippery, messy 500 steps to the rocks and Richard’s congratulations. I did stop for a snack and water, though it was hard to eat with my breathing still heavy, even going down. The next section was even deeper and messier, but we pushed past and soon met our trail through the forest.
Yes, the summit is only half-way there and we all have a tendency to underestimate the strength it will take to get us safely off a mountain. But I was in the home stretch with only the one deep trench section to go, one I managed to bypass by doing a switchback to the far left.
All the way down we talked about our day, the slow but methodical steps I took to the top and Richard’s meeting everyone coming down, most telling him they remember meeting me after he described me as “the hiker smiling from ear-to-ear!” It seemed even without going all the way, he enjoyed the sunshine and the view – and I’m amazed I managed the top, not so much the being in shape and stubborn part, but that my new titanium hips could carry me that far.
I also managed to get down fast enough so we could drive back over Hoosier Pass and reach Fairplay in time to pick up a few items at the store for dinner.
As we cooked in the waning light, Pikes Peak glowing pink from the sunset, I realized I did follow my own advice and let the day unfold. I had no agenda to reach the top and only decided to go when the going looked like a good idea. I also put myself in a position throughout to change my mind and turn around, no regrets. But it would seem people kept appearing in my path to encourage me to go on. Of course you should go!
The other surprising thing was that not once during the entire day did I think about my own quandary and what I direction my life was going to take. Simply putting one foot in front of the other and making progress bit by bit was enough.
Seeing snow-covered mountain upon mountain like waves disappearing into the horizon calmed my worry for the future as well as assuaging my fear of the unknown, that just like the tiny summit crown it will reveal itself when the time comes.