So, this is me, standing on top of Grays Peak in central Colorado. At 14,278 feet, it’s the tallest point along the Continental Divide and the 10th highest in the state. And if this were my Twitter or Instagram feeds, this is likely where the story would stop. Me. Smiling. My second 14er topped.
Like every story, though, there’s a lot more to this hike that makes it matter. In fact, while summiting was great, getting there was often terrible, which is why it’s worth doing in the first place.
Hiking a mountain is never easy. A year ago, I thought I might not be able to do it anymore. I took a trip last-minute, without preparing enough, and tried to do too much. In most cases, that would have meant burning out, not being able to do the best part of the hike, and some embarrassment (all three of which occurred).
But it’s what happened to my heart that had me questioning whether or not something larger was going on inside of me. Long story short, in the middle of
trying to hike Half Dome in Yosemite there was a four-hour stretch of time that day where things went all sorts of sideways on me, a long, slow hike out that was way worse than I let on, and then a few months of serious worry on my part.
After putting it off too long by pretending I was too busy, I did my due diligence and had the doctor check out my heart. The scan and blood work said the ticker is in working order. But there are some other issues that I need to address.
Of course, that meant finding a very difficult hike and acting like completing it would be no big deal. This is the problem when sarcasm is your love language. Even I sometimes forget I’m being ironic…which is…ironic…
So I picked an arbitrary hike in Colorado where my wife’s family lives—the much more difficult Longs Peak ascent—and asked some people if they wanted to do the slow climb with me. My brother- and sister-in-law hopped in and I’m glad they did, and not just because they helped me avoid the mistake of making Longs my first big attempt since my heart issue (though I’ll be back for it at some point).
Rather, knowing they were going to hike with me was motivation to get myself ready. It helped me to get in the training I needed because I’ve always been motivated by making sure I don’t let my team down.
And, when things were really difficult for me on the trail—the equation altitude + self-doubt = no summit is much harder to solve alone, regardless of the variables—they patiently encouraged me to take the rests I needed and see the progress we were making. It’s no exaggeration to say I would not have made it up without them.
Along the way, this hike did what most really good ones do: it forced my desire to complete the hike and my fear that I couldn’t surface together and made me sit with them for the entire hike. And not in some metaphoric way. In tangible, literal moments I was faced with deciding whether or not I wanted to or even could go on.
That’s the best thing about hiking. It’s not the metaphor people want to make of it. That’s the talking about the hike we do after the fact (some of which you might just see me doing here later).
Hiking, especially when you don’t do it as often as you might like, merely communicates what it will. It tells you that you’re heavier than you should be. Or you’re not in as good of shape as you thought. Or you’re too goal oriented to appreciate what it has to offer. Or you’re not as self-assured as you tell others.
Of course it can remind you of good things in life too. That’s the point. Like so much of living, a serious hike is capable of inducing all elements of the spectrum of human emotion, and not always along the same trails.
Often, the best elements of the hike come from how elevation provides clear evidence of the progress you’ve made. While I’m walking, I’m often completely focused on the next step or two. I find it’s the best way to avoid falling off the mountain. But it’s also an extremely effective way of not having a grid for how much you’ve actually accomplished to that point.
It is important to look back from time to time, physically, and view the trail you’ve covered as it unspools behind and below you if you’re going to complete what’s left of it in front of you.
It’s also important to watch for the elements of the hike that are unique to that specific trip. A lot of hiking is the same. Follow the trail. Hydrate regularly. Eat enough to keep going but not so much you create problems on the walk. A lot of the work is standard.
But every hike, even the ones you’ve done a number to times, is going to give you something you haven’t experienced before, whether that’s internal or external. On this hike, it was goats. Literal ones of the mountain variety. An entire herd of them marching single file down the ridge line just below the summit. They were a small message: we were visiting someone else’s home and should behave accordingly.
Then we rounded a switchback and saw a mother with her kid, both nonchalantly grazing, undisturbed by us or the altitude, just doing what I assume mountain goats do with or without an audience.
Their appearance was a solid reminder that I needed to do the same. Regardless of the people on the trail, I needed to do what I came for as long it felt like my body would allow me to do it.
So I did it. And it didn’t get easier just because a couple of goats made me feel like I was being to sensitive about every stray increase in my heart rate or fear that I’d be letting people down if I turned and headed back down. In fact, it got even more difficult at some points. Rather, those goats were one part of the process I needed to go through to get more than just some excellent photos of the stunning views from the top of the mountain.
For me, this hike was mostly painful in the best possible ways because it helped me find something I thought might be lost.
It didn’t show me I’d regained the ease that went with hiking in my youth. Pretty sure that ship has sailed and probably sunk.
It didn’t reveal some spiritual secret I’d been missing in the form of a metaphysical push up the toughest sections of the path or the emergence of a well-timed goat.
And it didn’t trivialize the process with a trail that made it easy for me to feel like this was an accomplishment of my own.
Rather, this was a literal exercise of regaining the trust that must be placed in the intersection of the path I walk, the preparation I’ve done, the willingness to struggle I engage, and the people I let in who are willing to walk with me.
All of those combine to make mountains that seem unclimbable from the bottom feel inevitable from the top.