“Get down! Get the fuck off the mountain!”
The above quote is from the summit of Mount Blanca in Colorado. Blanca is the fourth highest 14er in Colorado. It stands at a towering 14,344 feet. Safe to say, Blanca is an impressive mountain.
This story is going to be hard to tell. Blanca provided the challenge and experience that I needed more than ever in my life. A year ago I had part of my liver removed. It took me many months to recover. Numerous infections and set backs took a toll on me mentally. My anxiety hit an all time high. I suffered through panic attacks. I was feeling lost. I feel like Blanca saved me. Let me tell you how.
My friend Conor had been driving in Southern Colorado for work. We happened to be on the phone and shortly after we parted, he sent me a picture. The picture was of Ellingwood, Blanca, and Little Bear peaks. We started to plan our trip right after.
The trip came together quickly. Friends also became interested in our upcoming adventure. Will and Matthew joined in. Matthew currently lives in Atlanta. It took some work to get him to go for it. Will was game immediately, choosing to spend his birthday grinding up a mountain with a 40-pound pack.
I had intended to go backpacking several times over the last three years, but it never panned out. I was determined to make this one happen, but a bit nervous. My mind would not stop fixating on the unknown.
Here We Go:
I spent all week preparing. Going through my gear several times. Making sure I had all my cameras set up and ready to go. Reading trail information. Trying to picture the whole process before it happened.
Thursday at 4 p.m., Elisa took me to the airport. I got my coffee, and sat, reading My First Summer in the Sierra by John Muir. Muir may be the best person to look to before an expedition. I got lost in the book, and did nothing else until I was in Denver.
Once I landed in Denver, it was real. Conor and Alyssa picked me up from the airport. I was excited to see them. I wish it were more often. We headed to their apartment downtown, dropped all my stuff, and headed to a late dinner. It was about 9 p.m.
Beer, fries and a chicken wrap were on the menu. I had officially entered the ‘zero fucks’ zone when it came to diet. Time to fuel up.
After dinner, it was time to make the grocery run. This is when I met Will for the first time. I don’t know if any of us were more enthusiastic about the attempt of climbing two 14ers more than Will. He wanted a challenge for his birthday.
Matthew was on a plane during all of this. Conor, Will and I got the food back to the apartment. Started packing, and then we went to get Matthew. It had been a year and a half since Conor, Matthew, and myself had been together. I was excited for us to be reunited.
It was almost midnight. We were scanning through the crowd to see our friend. At the end of the pickup area, there stood Matthew. Rocking a pack the same size as him, hugs all around. I love that we can pick up right where we left off.
Late night packing concluded. We got to bed for a few hours of sleep. Snooze, a local restaurant, was the first destination in the morning.
Day 1: Friday, July 21
We sat at Snooze and enjoyed some food before we traveled to the trail head. Nervous, excited, maybe some moments of terror. Sharing laughs (occasionally at one another's expense) Trying to anticipate what couldn’t be. How would the trail be? What dangers would we encounter? Unimportant details, and I had to remind myself of that. No adventure happens without struggle and risk. That is why we go on them. Off to the mountains.
There they stood. Beautiful. Three peaks, looking down on those who would dare attempt to conquer them. Any doubt in our ability left our minds. We were all determined to get to the top of those mountains.
Our packs were heavy. We felt the burden before we went a few steps. The sun was beating down on us. Our trailhead was a desert, not the beautiful mountain terrain we had imagined for weeks. After sitting in a car for a few hours, the beginning of the trail was truly brutal. Out of breath, getting used to the pack, and nothing but rocks under your boots. All up hill.
The sun was slowly disappearing. Clouds were coming over the top of the mountain in no clear direction, but getting closer to us. The storm started slowly. A light drizzle convinced us to get out the rain gear, and cover our packs. Soon after, the hail came pouring down, stinging us as we got behind a shrub and under our tarp. The trail quickly flooded. Hail continued to fly down keeping us tucked away from our goal. We were stressed at first. It was late in the afternoon, and we were only a mile into our journey. Would we make it to camp before dark? Would our gear already be soaked? No matter if those things happened, it was part of the experience. "Just enjoy it," I tried to tell myself.
We spent most of our hour talking, having fun and being shocked by the size of the hail. Mother nature finally let up. The water ran off the trail, and we continued. It must be mentioned here that Matthew forgot his rain jacket. He is an Eagle Scout. It was an enjoyable topic of conversation the rest of the trip.
We started back on the trail with enhanced determination. Some time had to be made up if we were going to have light at camp and get a decent amount of sleep for the next day. Motivation came with every switchback completed. Vehicles were still making their way up the muddy trail. We were shocked to see one SUV hanging close to the edge of a cliff. The owner sulked in his tent as he waited for help.
Hours went by. We enjoyed each others' company, but the day was beginning to take its toll. Matthew was getting altitude sickness. Will was cramping badly. All of us were realizing we wouldn’t make it to camp before dark. We continued to stay positive and motivate each other. It is fine to show up at night, but just a pain in the ass.
It was about 9:00 pm. We finally got to camp. It didn’t take us long to find our spot. The camp was set up as quickly as possible. Backpacking tents are just the best. So easy to put up. The rough part was seeing all of the gear, and keeping it organized. We managed to get everything together. I must admit, I was not in the best of moods at this moment. I was so hungry. I wasn’t going to eat until everything was done, so the hustle was real.
The camp was finally set up. We had a beautiful spot. Surrounded by trees, and soft ground. Matthew was still in bad shape. Altitude sickness was giving him a run for his money. Conor, Will and I were getting some freeze-dried meals going. I recommend the chili mac. At the moment, it was the best meal ever. Will commented how quickly my mood changed a couple of bites into dinner. Apparently, I was hangry,and I didn’t even know it.
We sat around the JetBoil and sipped on some tea, and encouraged Matthew to eat some ramen. He needed to eat, or he would not be in good shape in the morning.
I didn’t have much trouble sleeping that night. I was ready for the adventure that would come in the morning. The tent is one of my favorite places to rest. Nothing more comfortable. It had been a hard day. An exciting day. Time to rest.
Day 2: The Summit of Blanca
There is nothing like cold, crisp mountain air in the morning. It gives you a particular type of energy. The energy needed to explore.
We rose out of the tents. Matthew was still not feeling that great. All of us were feeling beat up from the previous day. If only we knew the pains that the present would bring us.
Wilderness does not provide many relaxing moments. After taking in the morning air, it was time for us to get to work. Get the day packs together, filter water, eat, make coffee, do our morning business, and the list goes on. We quickly felt that we should have got up a bit earlier.
All four of us were ready. Mentally and physically (kind of). We made our way around Lake Como, and up a little hill. Once we got out of the tree line, our path was clear. Straight up and beautiful. The task of climbing Blanca and Ellingwood was more daunting at that moment. It's like the power of the peak grows as you get closer.
I have walked through many beautiful places, but this was especially breath taking. If you are a fan of Middle Earth, then this is the place for you. Lush grass all around. Crystal mountain water was flowing by the trail. The four of us were feeling what I can only describe as true joy. There were no concerns, except that moment.
The beauty of our trail distracted us a bit from the clouds above the peaks. I think we all felt that there wasn’t much that could bring us down. We continued up, making great time. Much easier to move when the pack isn’t 50 pounds.
Up and up we went. Rock started to replace grass; snow was hiding in the shade, cloud continued to circle in the valley over the ridge. Once we got to about 13,000 ft, it was time to scramble. Nothing too crazy. It made life a bit more exciting. We could see the top getting closer. The thought of standing on that peak inspired us, conquering the elements to do something great. Something we would remember forever.
Day 2: The Storm
Life can take a quick downturn on the mountains. This is how our day went from amazing to terrifying. At this point in the tale, I will only speak my own thoughts.
It got colder, darker, and the scrambling became more difficult, with no quick path away from these dark clouds. Conor and Will stormed forward determined to beat out the approaching storm. Matthew and I were moving a bit slower. Sensing retreat may be close. I should have listened to myself, but ego prevailed.
We were within 100 ft of the summit. So close. The clouds were beginning to surround the ridge. We could not see the valley below. Only a sheer drop to the left, so I made sure to keep my scrambling to the right. Conor was out of sight, so I assumed he summited. Will was almost there. Matthew a few yards behind me. I stopped and spoke to all the climbers making their way down. They provided words of caution and encouragement. “You have about 30 minutes. You can make it if you hurry, but don’t hang out up there.”
Only if we had 30 minutes, but only seconds after I lost sight of Will, he was coming back yelling at me “Get down! Get the fuck off the mountain!” He and Conor had been literally shocked by the rocks. Electricity was shooting through the ridge. Time had run out. Panic took over. I yelled down to Matthew that we needed to move. We did not wait on each other. Every man for himself at this point.
There was a moment that will never leave my mind. We were all making our way down. Fourteen people stood on the mountain other than ourselves. Everyone was trying to make their way down. Suddenly, everything halted, and lighting shot across the sky, striking the ridge behind us. The ridge we were on only moments ago. Time stopped. I looked around. No one was moving. We were in trouble.
Thunder from the strike trailed off. I have never moved with such intensity. I saw Will fall ahead of me, his knee covered in blood. Immediately after, I fell over a boulder. It didn’t matter what damage was done. I was going. Matthew was doing the same. Conor was bolting down ahead. I caught up with Will. Rain started to fall, making our escape even more dangerous. We had no choice, but to fight through frequent falling. Our bodies were banging on the rocks. Wondering if our friends were making it down, while considering our fate.
Dime sized hail began its assault on us. We were completely exposed. All we could do was push forward. We had lost the trail immediately after the lightning strike. Electing to b-line it for safety. There was a spot with a ridge part of the way down. We were hoping to shield ourselves under that.
Will and I made it down to the ridge. We still had no clue where Conor and Matthew were. All we could do was get ourselves to safety. As we found the safest way down the wet rock, I heard my name through the howl of the storm. I looked down to see Conor under the ridge. I was happy to see he was okay, but we were still a long way from safety. The storm came on so quickly that none of got out our rain gear, so we were soaked.
Where was Matthew? Will and I lost sight of him when the hail started coming down. He was 60-70 yards behind us before the hail came crashing in. That is a long way on that mountain top. I began to panic. Hopefully, he isn’t alone. Hopefully, he didn’t fall. How could we even help him? I stepped out from under the ledge, looking up into the storm, there stood Matthew, 20ft above us. I called out to him, waving my arms, smiling at the sight of my friend. Matthew was in bad shape. Him and I got under a ledge, he couldn’t stop shivering. I did my best to help him stay warm, but not moving wasn’t helping.
Two more hikers joined us under the ledge, seeking any shelter from the storm. Conor and Will were under the tarp with the two newcomers. Both in cotton and without rain gear.
Matthew and I sat under the ledge, looking out to the raging storm, wondering how we could get out of this. Matthew was getting worse by the minute. Do we just sit there, and become hypothermic? Do we move, risk falling, or lightning strike? There was no reasonable solution. At that moment, we both thought we were completely fucked. We should have turned back when we go that bad feeling in our guts, but we didn’t, and now we might not make it down.
Under that ledge, everything that is precious to me went through my mind. Family dinners, watching tv with Elisa and Arlo. All the people I may not see again. Our potential demise was real. A new understanding of what it means to be finite.
Minutes go by slowly, as we sit in our situation. Half hearted attempts at positivity. I noticed movement below us, where Conor, Will, and the two other hikers were. The two hikers were starting their descent. I then looked out to the storm, and the hail was a bit lighter. It was our moment. Our chance to make a break for the trees, that was still another 2.5 miles off in the distance. I went down to Conor and Will, saying we should go while we can, Matthew needed to move, or he would be in serious trouble within the hour. We all gathered our gear. Thunder was still heard in the valley behind us. I through my trekking poles, and Helle knife to the ground. The less gear to attract lightning the better. A gift for the fellow adventurer.
Will and I took off swiftly. Conor stayed behind to help Matthew get dry clothes, and his down jacket on. We were all trying to move quickly, but Matthew was struggling to warm up. I kept checking back to see where they were. I quickly caught up with the two other hikers. The rain and hail had finally stopped, and we gave ourselves a break to wait on the others. We were all cold. One of the hikers was in t shift and shorts. I took the opportunity to get my down jacket out. I felt guilty, but that is why you prepare.
As we waited, I did not examine my camera or any other gear. I was thankful to have a bit of warmth and to be closer to safety. To have all of my friends be okay.
The distance between us and the storm grew, but our fear did not do the same. We all knew what could have happened. We all knew we could just as easily have lost everything. We could have been no more. There were still more people in the middle of that storm. Two little girls with their Dads. Their uncle was one of the two hikers that had joined with us. A couple from Kansas that was separated when the storm rolled in. How were they doing? Were they safe? Could they get out of the storm as we did? The day still seemed desolate.
Matthew was improving as he continued to move. We knew his sleeping bag was where he needed to be, and out of wet clothes.
All six of us were still contemplating what had happened. How do we go about explaining what we just went through? How would our loved ones react? Something that couldn’t be answered in the moment. Terror was leaving us, and trauma began.
Our situation improved with each step. The sun was starting to show itself. Giving a bit of warmth to our still cold and wet bodies, we had made it down to the waterfall that flows in a beautiful meadow when the sun came all the way out. We celebrated with a water break. I shared what I had with our two new friends. We checked in with Matthew, and he was doing much better. At least in a sense, we weren’t worried about him not making it.
We talked about making a big fire back at the camp. Taking shots of whiskey to celebrate life. Sharing other moments when we had been that terrified. Happy to be in the calm meadow. So beautiful and welcoming. Getting closer to the safety of the trees.
The tree line was welcomed. I turned back to see clouds continuing to rage over Blanca’s peak. The camp was just down the hill, and around Lake Como. One of our friends was already camping, but the man in a t-shirt and shorts still had to go another 5 miles to the car. I invited him to sit, warm up, and have a stiff drink, but he elected to get back home as soon as possible.
I stubbled into camp first. I fell to the soft, pine covered, forest floor. Looking into the trees, thinking how lucky I am, how amazing of an adventure that was, and that I couldn’t wait to see my loved ones. The desolate view from under that ledge, burnt into my mind, reminding me of my lowest moment, and what becomes clear when a moment like that happens. Conor walked into the camp next, and we hugged each other, happy we were safely at camp. Will and Matthew appeared shortly after. We all embraced, not believing what had just happened. Now we could celebrate our conquest of Blanca.
Day 2: The Celebration
Getting out of our wet clothes was a joyus feeling. I just rocked my long underwear and down jacket. We were all exhausted, and looking to enjoy our afternoon, and attempt to calm down from what had just happened. We made coffee and tea (Also, took some shots of whiskey) while reliving what had just happened. Putting the pieces of our adventure together. Going through the moments, we all thought it was over, and I am not exaggerating about that. All four of us shared the experience when we thought the mountain might keep us forever. We talked for a while. Repeating how much disbelief we felt about what just happened. Not believing we just went through that, such intensity and fear.
Disbelief and shock would be a theme for us the next two days, but eventually, that afternoon we briefly moved on. Getting our hammocks out, and continuing to drink. Talking about other adventures, and exciting things in life. Our fun was ended by rain. This time we had our tents to go to. Never have I been so happy to go into my sleeping bag. Matthew, and I could not sleep as easily as Conor and Will did. We talked for a while; catching up on what has been going on in Atlanta and Kansas City. Matthew tried to sleep a bit, so i decided to record my thoughts on the day. I will keep that to myself for now, but it is important to look back on, and not forget.
The rain came down for three hours. The afternoon we had planned didn’t quite pan out, but neither did a lot of what we imagined for the trip. I still enjoyed what we got. Once the rain was over, it was time to have dinner. I was excited about a warm freeze-dried meal. Matthew was feeling better, so he tried to make a fire again, but we had the same result. It made for a good laugh.
We sat around the Jetboil, looking back on what had been the craziest 48 hours of our lives, and talking about what our next adventure would be. I continue to push for a visit to the Tetons. It would certainly result in an epic journey.
We went to bed more thankful than ever. Knowing what it felt like to almost not be. Our sleep was continuously interrupted by another nasty storm coming. The mountain had to have one last laugh before we left in the morning. I suppose I do not blame it one bit.
Day 3: A 5 Mile Goodbye
We woke at 5:30 yelling “Time to wake up!”. I question how those camping near us felt, but we got up quickly! My body felt so useless, too stiff, and beat up to move, but it was time to get back. It seemed like my friends were suffering from the same problem, especially Matthew.
No breakfast till we made it back to town, so we just had some bars and peanut butter. Those who had to do the morning business did, and off we went! Leaving the mountain more complete than we were when we set up camp.
Mother nature decided to give us a beautiful morning. The mountain air without rain, and the rising sun coming through the pines. I was going down in my trail runners. My boots had been soaked in the storm from the night before. The wind took the cover off my boots. The trail runners felt good because they were so light, but hurt when the trail became rocky. I had to walk with a bit more care. Matthew was behind us the whole time. His body was the most bruised from the ungraceful escape the morning before.
Despite how our bodies felt, we kept a good pace to the car. The thought of a warm breakfast is what drove me, but I cannot speak for the others. We recounted our weekend the entire way down. Talking about that day is something we will do the rest of our lives. Blanca will always be one of our favorite stories.
We experienced some fun moments on the way down, reminding us the journey was not over yet. There is a stream to cross, and the storm had turned it into a small river. Conor and Will made it across without too much effort. Matthew decided to forsake his trail shoes and go across the rocks with them. I through my trail runners across the water, to the other side (Conor stopped one from getting away down stream). I then put my wet boots on and walked through the water around Matthew. My running through the water made for a good laugh.
Fun moments continued on the trail. I tripped over a small rock, and I have to thank my pack for breaking most of the fall. I blame the loss of concentration on not eating much before we left. We passed many hikers on the way up. Our story was shared with most of them. At least some of the bigger details. We wished all of them better luck with the weather.
The final section of the trail that is in the valley was just as unenjoyable as the first day. The rocks were bigger, and no soft ground for relief. My trail runners were not great for my feet at this moment. The car was close, and so was the end of our journey.
A Grand Meal:
Conor made it to the first, followed by myself, Will, and then Matthew. We took our packs off with great satisfaction, looking back to the mountain that had just been the challenge of a lifetime. To breakfast, we went. A storm was raging over Blanca as we drove away. We wished those who were up there a safe trip down.
Hunger seems like an insufficient adjective for what I felt when walked into a local diner. We craved beer, coffee, water, and food, so that exactly what I ordered. I enjoyed all three of my drinks with great appreciation. The beer was so smooth and crisp. My meal was a giant pancake and Western omelet. My belly was satisfied and happy that I waited till after the hike to eat. I know my friends enjoyed their food, Will most of all. After he took one bite of his meal, he stopped, and says in the middle of the full diner, “Fuck freeze-dried food!”. Our table erupted with laughter. There was nothing better that could have been said.
We seemed to laugh so much at breakfast. We imagined how we would share the epic tale of our weekend. How would I write it on this blog? Would I share all the details? It seemed like I had to. After breakfast, it was back to Denver. Our adventure was complete.
I continue to talk about my friends about Blanca weekly. I think about it every day. Under that ledge, during the storm, I wished I had never stepped foot on the trail, and that I could be as far away from that danger as possible. It is only natural to think like this. Now, I do not wish that. I am happy I had the experience I did. We do not go on adventures to experience comfort and a cool view. That just doesn’t feel real, but what happened to us did. We went on Blanca for a challenge, and that is what we got. That is what we needed. Blanca humbled all of us. Giving the strongest of reminders, that there is no room for ego in the wild.
I said that Blanca saved me, and I meant that. Blanca showed me what matters most because it almost took it away. Everything that weighed on my mind before, shrank. I couldn’t have asked for a greater gift.