One morning while I was at work, my old college roommate Justin sent me a text: “Let’s hike Mount Elbert…it’s in Colorado.” Since Justin is a serious high pointer (a hiker whose goal it is to reach the top of mountain peaks) and I’ve always wanted to visit Colorado, the idea immediately had my interest. “When?” I asked. “Mid summer…snow should be gone…best chance to summit” Justin replied. My response was “Let’s do it!”
Ever since I was a kid, I’ve loved exploring remote outdoor places. My parents used to take our family on annual camping trips that traversed California in search of forests, rivers, mountains and lakes. As I got older, I sought out more remote and technical trips that challenged me to learn new skills. So when my friend Justin decided to set a personal goal to climb the highest point of each U.S. state; aka become a highpointer, I let him know I wanted a piece of the action.
According to his research, late summer was our best window for reaching the top of Mount Elbert. Just a year earlier, Justin attempted the climb in early summer. On that day the weather report called for clear skies. However the high altitude of the Rockies is known for causing quick and dramatic changes to the weather. Less than a half-mile from reaching the top, the blue skies became dark as thunder clouds formed over head. A sudden lightning strike nearby signaled Justin to get off the mountain ASAP! Following the lead of other hikers around him, he dropped to his feet and slid down the snow-covered slope to the safety of a lower elevation. In order to reach the top, he would have to return another day.
I took the few months of advance notice to prepare myself for the hike. From my experience with hikes to Mount Whitney in California and Boundary Peak in Nevada, I’ve learned that when hiking above 13,000 feet, training is crucial for covering long distances and completing big elevation gains. For me, this meant cardio workouts at the gym during lunch breaks. On weekends with daddy duty my #1 priority, I made the time to hike local peaks and take my daughters Alessandra and Annabel on long walks in their double-stroller. Ever try pushing a double-stroller loaded with two toddlers uphill? It’s a good workout, take my word for it.
The weekend of our trip, my friend and I arranged to meet in Denver and drive together to the trailhead. We brought just enough gear to camp – sleeping gear, a tent, headlamps, hiking clothes, backpacks, water and lightweight trail food. From insight we’ve gained from our collective experiences and fellow hikers, we have learned to trim our camping gear to the bare essentials for trips like these. I was raised in a car camping family where canned food (Rosarita Refried beans, and Dinty Moore stew), full-sized cookware, fluffy sleeping bags, large coolers and the 8-person tent were necessities. When we get together for a big family campout, many of these items still come along. But on a challenging backpacking-style trip, packing light is key, so dehydrated meals, snack bars, dried fruit, trail mix and plenty of water are a must.
The morning of the hike, we started before sunrise. As we walked along the dimly lit path, we relied upon our headlamps to guide our way. Less than a mile on the trail, I started to feel a little doubtful about my training. My pack seemed heavy, my head was pounding and I had to stop frequently to rest and catch my breath. I reassured my friend that I was fine, but inside I was thinking that he would need to finish without me. Fortunately, as we continued along and up the trail, I settled into a comfortable pace that lightened my load and lifted my spirits.
During our steady ascent, we passed picturesque sights – narrow rocky streams, dense aspen and pine tree groves, and lush grassy meadows dotted with bright-colored wildflowers. I was amazed and reminded how much I enjoyed connecting with nature on a very basic level, and how I looked forward to sharing future hikes with my own family again soon. Every so often, Justin and I took breaks to review our trail map and survey the path ahead. We cautiously monitored the clouds above but as we climbed higher and higher, we both became fixated on making it to the top.
Near the base of the last ½ mile, the weather cooled and the winds picked up. This would have been the right time to put on gloves, except mine were back at home. With each step, the air became colder and winds picked up. Occasional gusts threw off our balance. Pea-sized hail peppered our jackets and made my bare face numb. I instinctively tied my handkerchief around my face to keep my nose and cheeks warm. It was at this point that a part of me thought – it’s time to turn around. But the steady upward march of the half dozen other hikers on the trail propelled us forward.
In complete awe at what mother nature was throwing at us, we were thrilled to reach the sign that read “Mt. Elbert, 14,439 feet.” Out of respect for what could still come, Justin and I exchanged high-fives, took a few quick photos and then headed right back down the trail. We took solace knowing that our training and determination were enough for the mountain on that day.
For me, the best part of thinking back on a trip like this is knowing that you leave the experience better prepared to take on the next challenge. Whether a distant mountain or some other exotic location, with my friend Justin or other company, I can’t wait to see what my next adventure has in store for me.
In addition to camping, hiking and “peak bagging” Richard Jr. enjoys fishing, biking, and playing team sports. He also enjoys working as an Urban Planner in Los Angeles County and spending his weekends with his wife, daughters and extended family and friends. Someday he hopes to climb Mt. Rainier, camp in Yellowstone National Park, kayak in Palau and backpack in Europe.