My determination to summit a 14,000 foot peak solidified last summer, crouched under an oversized boulder 11,000 feet above sea level, as lightening thundered down all around me. The rangers at the Longs Peak station advise hikers to start early, as Colorado’s Rocky Mountain thunderstorms are quick and unpredictable. As I huddled beneath a rock, fearful for my life, I began to wonder why I hadn’t started my ascent much earlier. My hopes of summiting the Colorado fourteener were dashed that day, but a spark ignited a flame that could only be doused by a successful summit.
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I found myself the next summer at the base of an even more formidable mass of earth and granite. Just outside the town of Lone Pine, California sits Mt. Whitney, the tallest mountain in the contiguous United States, at 14,505 feet tall. My spirits were high as I strapped on my 40 pound backpack, said goodbye to my mom and sister, and set off up the trail, letting my father set the pace. We walked for several miles, interrupted only by the occasional mountain stream and panoramic vista. Arriving at our camp for the evening, a field of boulders surrounded by snow and jagged peaks that seemed to touch the heavens, we set up our camp and stumbled into our tent. Too tired to do much else, we slid into our sleeping bags and prepared for a restless night, due to the constant wind buffeting the tent.
We rose early and prepared for the summit push. Breakfasting on granola bars and murky stream water, we quickly packed our bags, fastened our crampons to our boots, and began the long, exhausting climb up the “trail” to the summit. Seven hours later, after a grueling, 75 degree vertical climb up a 3 mile wall of snow and ice, after scrambling over countless truck-sized boulders, my father and I had reached the summit. We snapped pictures to prove that we had actually made it, and before we could even begin to comprehend how supremely exhausted we both were, our descent began.
The hike back to our tent went slightly faster, as we practiced the delicate art of glissading, or sliding in a controlled manner, down the very snow and ice sheet that had almost done us in hours before. Time was not in our favor as we embarked on the final leg of our journey. Tension became even greater when the trail suddenly disappeared, with only a massive glacier before us. Just as hope was almost lost, I caught a glimpse of a group of hikers, who we had met earlier in the day. In a fervor fueled by our will to survive, we ran to catch them, and were instantly relieved when we discovered that they did in fact know what they were doing, and where they were going. We arrived back at the trailhead at 9:30 p.m., where my mom and sister were waiting nervously for our return. We had been hiking and climbing for 15 hours, ascending the final 2,500 feet and then descending the whole 6,100 feet and 11 miles back to the trailhead.
Literally too exhausted to stand, we stumbled into the car, and were sleeping like babies shortly thereafter. I had defeated the mountain, and had redeemed my dashed hopes from the unsuccessful trip a year earlier. My alpine adventure was one that will be remembered for many years to come. Not only did I achieve my goal, but I was allowed to experience it alongside my father, who has always been my biggest influence and mentor over the years.
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