There’s one thing I’ve wanted to do since I moved to Denver.
Okay, since before I moved to Denver.
Well, actually there are a lot of things. But there’s been one specific thing on my mind since I got here. And that’s hiking a 14er.
Fourteener. Yeah, I didn’t really know what it was, either when I first heard about it. And then even after I heard about it, I thought it was a stupid term. Sounds silly.
Maybe you’re outdoorsy and know what a 14er is. Maybe you’re just smart and know what it is. Either way, I’m still gonna tell you what it is.
A 14er is a mountain that meets or exceeds 14,000 feet in altitude above sea level.
If you’re not familiar with mountains, 14,000 is pretty high, but not rare. According to Wikipedia, Colorado has the most 14ers in the US with 53. California is the second, with 11. (Yay!! Colorado!!) But, the tallest mountain in the US is Mt. Mckinley which is (according to Wikipedia) 20,236 feet tall.
So, I figured when would be a better time to hike a 14er than the fricken 4th of July? Independence Day? Happy Birthday to America, I’m on a mountain.
Generally, hiking a 14er is no small feat. Aside from the fact that you’re climbing up a dang mountain, the air up there is practically void of Oxygen (okay, not void, but it’s thin!) making breathing a struggle.
After moving to Denver, I definitely felt the effects of the higher altitude. I had a headache for a good two weeks and was tired all the time. I didn’t exercise for at least a month and now that I finally am exercising, I feel like I’m gasping for air the entire time.
I’ve heard different theories about how long it takes to acclimate to the altitude. Some say 6 months, some say 4 weeks, some say never. I’m impatient so I chose to believe the 4 weeks theory.
I’ve been here almost exactly eight weeks at this point. By my theory, I should have been able to hike up that mountain perfectly fine.
My friend Kim, who has hiked a 14er before, went with me. She recommended Mt. Bierstadt because it’s one of the easier 14ers. You’re already at about 11,500 feet when you begin the ascent up the mountain. (If you’re keeping track, that’s about 11,000 feet above the elevation at which I’ve lived for the past 26 years and about 6,000 feet above the elevation at which I currently live.)
The trip started out great. We camped at the base of the trail the night before so we could get up extra early and begin our hike and be back down below tree line before the afternoon storms (seriously! That’s a thing here.)
Not having reserved a camping spot (on 4th of July weekend!), we lucked out and snagged the last spot at one of the sites near the trailhead. We set up our tent right before a thunderstorm and were able to hang out in our tent munching on snacks as the storm rolled through before resting up for our big day.
We woke up at 5:00 a.m., ate some oatmeal, drank some delicious coffee (sidebar: coffee in the morning when camping may be the best thing ever) and headed to the trailhead.
So It Begins
Before we even started the hike, I had a headache. I’m sure it was a mixture of the altitude, the beer I drank before going to bed, and the nuts I had for dinner (our planned campfire meal kind of got rained out) but I tried to ignore it because I’m tough, I can deal.
The further we got up the trail, the worse I started to feel. It wasn’t the constant uphill, it wasn’t the wind, it wasn’t the heat, it was breathing. Walking five feet felt like running five miles.
It seemed like I had to stop every couple minutes to catch my breath. Meanwhile, Kim, who’s lived here for three years, was running circles around me as I was doubled over gasping at the air as if I had been drowning and was just resuscitated via CPR. (Okay, that’s an exaggeration, Kim was very patient with me and never once made it seem like I was holding her up with my constant breathing breaks.)
Every step I took I was fighting with myself.
“The further you go, the worse it’s going to get.”
“If you keep going, you’re going to throw up and then you’ll really look like an idiot.”
“Stop being such a wimp, look at that five year old walking past you, how come she can do it and you can’t?”
“All this talk about being healthy and in shape and you can’t even hike 4 miles.”
At this point, we had been hiking for an hour and a half and I could literally see people standing on top of the mountain.
I forced myself to carry on. Vowing that I wouldn’t give up, I couldn’t give up.
I don’t give up.
If there’s one thing people say about me, I hope it’s that I finish what I start. If I say I’m going to do something, I do it. No question.
This couldn’t be any different. I couldn’t stop.
Then I started getting dizzy. We stopped near a point that overlooked another mountain peak and as I looked over it, it seemed to be zooming in and out.
I ignored it and just kept looking at the rocks underneath my feet. Keep walking. Don’t think about it. Don’t look around. Just keep going.
That’s when I realized I had to stop. I wasn’t having fun. I was on the verge of barfing all over the trail or passing out or something worse. This just wasn’t my day.
What was the point of even getting to the top if I was going to be miserable the entire way there and the entire way back?
But how could I give up now? I was probably 500 feet from the top (500 feet…which was still a 45 minute hike up a winding trail). Was I really going to quit when I was so close?
The reality was, things could only get worse and even though I was only 45 minutes from the top, I would still only be halfway done when I got there. I still had to walk all the way down. And who knew how I’d be feeling by then.
I stopped and told Kim to go on without me. I was giving up. Then, I made my way back down the mountain. Holding back tears. I had failed. I didn’t finish what I had come to do. I didn’t reach my goal.
I would have to tell everyone who asked that, no, I didn’t make it to the top. How embarrassing.
After about 15 minutes of a pity party, I stopped. I was letting myself ruin something that, although not what I was planning on, was still pretty incredible.
I think it was the fact that coming down the mountain took way longer than expected that made me realize I had still done something to be proud of. I couldn’t believe how far up I had actually hiked.
Maybe I hadn’t done what I came to do, but the mountain is still there, and I’m still living in Colorado. I will hike to the top of that mountain, eventually. Not this month. Maybe not even next month, but I will do it.
I learned a few things that day.
It Takes Strength To Know Your Limit
Sometimes, knowing when to stop is the hardest part.
For me, I think what I’m most afraid of is looking back and thinking, I could have finished it. I shouldn’t have given up.
But it’s important to realize that the fact that you knew when to stop and you made that decision is something to be proud of.
Yeah, sometimes people do give up too early because they just don’t want to go on, but that clearly wasn’t the case with me and I needed to realize that. I wasn’t just being lazy, I was being smart.
A couple months ago when I was doing workouts for the Crossfit open, one of the girls at my box couldn’t complete her workout because she hurt her shoulder. She was devastated and probably felt like she had failed even though everyone in the box was telling her that she should stop and applauding her for knowing when enough was enough.
That day, I admired her courage to stop. I admired her ability to know when she was on the edge of going too far.
As I was walking down that mountain, I had to remind myself of that moment and recognize that this was not something to be ashamed of. It was something to celebrate.
Don’t Minimize What You’ve Actually Achieved
Sure, I didn’t reach 14,000 feet. But I did reach 13,500 feet. I did hike for four hours straight, up a mountain. Something I had never done before and something, two years ago, I never would have been able to do.
“The dumb thing is, I’m barely sore today. It was just the stupid air. I couldn’t breathe. My muscles are fine. I should have kept going.”
I said to my cousin this morning when I was brooding about my failure. That’s when she reminded me that I had actually done something incredible.
“Alysia, people train for 14ers. There are people who have lived in Colorado all their lives who can’t hike to even 13,000 feet. You moved here two months ago and you made it almost all the way to the top without any training. There are plenty of 13ers in Colorado that you could easily hike to the top of right now if you wanted to.
And she’s right. I did that. I hiked almost to the top, higher than I’ve ever been before in my entire life. That’s not something to be ashamed of.
This applies to everything.
Maybe you gave up fast food for a week but then had a particularly busy day and gave in and stopped at McDonald’s. Don’t focus on the fact that you gave in, focus on the fact that you had the willpower to even give it up for a week.
Maybe you started exercising and everything was going great for a month but then you got a cold and once you were healthy again, you just couldn’t get back into your routine.
You still exercised for a month straight. You had the discipline to do that.
Don’t let one failure stop you from realizing your accomplishments.
Try, Try Again
Guess what I’m doing in August?
I’m gonna try again. And I really, really hope I can do it this time. But if I can’t, there’s always next time.
Just the fact that I’m going to try again is good enough for me.
In the meantime, I’ll be preparing. I’m going to research ways to help myself breathe more efficiently and I’m going to make sure that the entire week before, my diet is excellent.
And I am absolutely not going to drink a beer the day before (not a great idea).
If I have to give up again, I’ll remember:
- It takes strength to know your limit
- Don’t minimize what you’ve achieved
- You can always try again
I’ll get to the top of that mountain eventually and you can expect to hear about it when I do.
Have You Given Up?
What are some times when you’ve had to give up?
Do you feel like it was necessary? What did you learn? Let me know in the comments!