Bagging a 14'er

Summit snowstorm
The author on the summit of a “14’er,” in a snowstorm.

I’ve been climbing ever since I was a kid. My family travelled to the Catskill Mountains in upstate New York every summer for the “Cousins Picnic.” At nine or ten, I started climbing large hills surrounding the picnic by myself. Then, as I got into my teens, I began climbing mountains.

I’ve never stopped. I’ve climbed in the Rockies, the Pacific Northwest and the Great Smoky Mountains, as well as numerous times in the Alps – Swiss, Austrian and Italian. And climbing is one of the most soul-satisfying things I’ve ever done.

On a climbing trip to Colorado, I met a local woman who was also a climber, and we started planning to scale a peak higher than 14,000 feet. In Colorado parlance, “Bagging a 14’er.”

It was mid-summer in the Rockies...which is why I stupidly chose to leave my fur hat from Alaska and my woolen scarf in the car. Instead, I’d taken a baseball cap!! As an experienced climber who’s seen a lot of snowy mountaintops in summer, I should have known better.

We started our ascent well before dawn. And it wasn’t long until I realized my mistake; that baseball cap wasn’t doing a damn bit of good. When your face and head are freezing, the rest of your body gets cold, too. And by 8,000 feet, my face and head were freezing.

It began to snow at around 12,000 feet. And, by this time, I couldn’t feel my nose or ears, and my chest felt like a frozen meat locker. Every breath I took only seemed to suck more icy air into my lungs. I’m from Florida, where the nearest mountain is several states away. So I only get to pursue my climbing passion on a few trips every year. And, on this particular trip, every muscle in my body was screaming in protest.

I told my partner I hadn’t prepared properly, and I was running out of gas. Whereupon my partner told me – in no uncertain terms – that I hadn't traveled more than 2,000 miles only to give up now.

I realized she was right, of course. So I did the things I needed to do to take charge of my mind and body. I began deep-breathing exercises to calm myself. I began to use the knowledge I’d gained over many years of climbing to warm my extremities. I put myself through an immediate mind-adjustment. And after five minutes, I was ready to go again.

As we got closer to the summit, the climb got progressively steeper. Progressively rockier. Progressively icier. And we were climbing though clouds. We passed a "false" summit, which we’d been warned about by climbers coming back down.

Because of the conditions, we tied ourselves together with a rope. Then we ran into a snowstorm so thick that we could barely see each other. And when we called out to each other, our voices got lost in the wind. But we were able to stay together. And we made it through a snowfield at about 13,000 feet.

As we got closer to the summit, and the snow fell harder, we both slipped on a patch of ice. But we weren’t hurt. We looked up…and through the falling snow, we could see the summit. A half-hour later, we were standing on it. And I posed for the photo accompanying this article.

Finally, the skies began to clear, and the landscape rolling out into the horizon was 30-40 miles of greenery and mountains and valleys and small towns. It was truly breathtaking.

I stood still for the photo above, now on the wall in front of my desk.

It was freezing that day. But that photo always gives me a warm, fuzzy feeling.