One August, about a year after I had resettled in Colorado after college, my dad, brother, and I hiked Pikes Peak, one of 54 mountains over 14,000 feet high in the state. We set out before sunrise, wearing running shoes, with backpacks full of snacks and water bottles. I had always assumed I was in decent shape until I was about halfway through the 13 mile hike. The altitude started to affect me and my pace slowed. Two miles from the top, I was faced with seemingly unending switchbacks and wondered if I would make it to the summit. Realizing that a difficult two miles was easier than turning around and rehiking 11 miles, I trudged to the top. Since Pikes Peak has a highway allowing vehicles to drive to the summit, I was met with tourists in high heels, eating donuts, not at all sweaty. My first reaction was to never put myself through such physical strain again. I was exhausted!
A year later, my dad asked if I wanted to hike Gray’s and Torrey’s Peaks with him. These two “14-ers” (as we locals call the 14,000 foot peaks) are close enough and easy enough that one can hike them both in a day. Somehow, the memory of Pikes Peak had dimmed, and I agreed to meet him before sunrise, this time with hiking boots rather than sneakers and a hydration backpack rather than water bottles. The hike was beautiful and, since there were no roads to the top, the summit was quiet with amazing views of Colorado’s mountain ranges.
This began a summer of hiking for my dad and I. Almost every week, we would look for “Class 1” mountains to hike. Class 1 meant that it was simply walking up a trail – no boulder fields or scrambling or handholds necessary. I treasured these hikes. Since I had been away for college, it was an amazing time to reconnect with my dad and create some incredible memories. We were fairly strict about our Class 1 rule: We wanted these hikes to be times of discussion and talking. Yes, they were physically challenging, as most things above a 10,000 foot elevation are likely to be. However, they were easy enough that we could just enjoy the scenery and our time together, rather than thinking too much.
One weekend, we decided to hike Mt. Quandary. Described as an easy family hike, we thought it would fit into our requirements perfectly. We followed the signs to the trailhead, parked, and set out on our hike. The trail wasn’t well marked, but we found enough cairns along the way to keep us going. We hiked through a beautiful wildflower meadow before coming to a very steep climb, covered with loose rocks. We scrambled through the scree and soon found ourselves surrounded by high boulders. We lost sight of the cairns but trekked on, thinking we’d find one around the next corner. As we continued along the high ledges, well out of our comfort zones, we realized we were no longer on the trail. At one point, we thought we could see the summit of Quandary, but we also saw several “false summits” between us.
We sat down on a ledge to have lunch and assess our situation. As we were eating, I dropped my energy drink and watched it bounce down the mountain, past what seemed to be a destroyed mining shack. At that moment, I realized we were stuck. Turning around was not an option; We had scrambled up ledges that were beyond our skill set to go down. Without a summit in view, wondering what to do, watching my water bottle roll down the mountain, I had a moment of panic, wondering if my insurance covered Search and Rescue calls.
At this moment of desperation, we ran into two other hikers. One was from Colorado and an avid hiker. His brother was from Texas and looked about as uncertain as we did. The avid hiker took us under his wing and coached us through the rest of our hike. Having someone tell me where to go, what to do with my feet made me realize I probably would not die on the mountain that day. The hike definitely did not get easier; At one point, I felt around a ledge with my toe, reached for an unseen handhold, and swung around the side of a rock to a narrow ledge. At another point, with the encouragement of our new friend, I leapt across a small crevice, forcing myself to look at him and not down to the boulders below. I’m sure this hiker and his brother would have made it to the summit faster without us, but they stayed by, coaching, helping, and encouraging us.
We eventually made it to the summit, but because of our delayed ascent, we didn’t enjoy it much. We stayed for a brief snack and photo before heading back down the mountain (the easy, family friendly way this time) before the afternoon thunderclouds rolled in. Our adventure wasn’t quite over: When we reached the bottom, we realized we were in the wrong parking lot – the official one that we had somehow missed on the way in. As we trudged up the road to our car, I looked up at the mountain, amazed that we had made it up and back alive.
On the drive home, exhausted, I wondered if I would hike anymore mountains or if this would be it for my adventures. After a hot shower and a good night’s sleep, I woke up sore but ready to continue. I have never hiked the really tough peaks, but after my Quandary experience, I branched out to Class 2 and even a couple Class 3 mountains. I haven’t hiked as many as I did that year, but I’ve completed 14 of the 54 high mountains.
Hiking Quandary empowered me not only in my hiking skills but in my ability to seek out and accept help from others. I would probably still be sitting on that ledge had it not been for the patience and kindness of those brothers.
Linked with SheLove’s Magazine’s month of Empowered.