By Jeff Vandenbussche
When my friends ask me why I picked Colorado as home, I simply reply: “The mountains are calling…I must go.”
As I sit here looking up at Pikes Peak, America’s Mountain, I cannot help but feel a sense of wonder. It still has the same beauty and majesty as it had a few weeks ago, but now I look at it with even greater admiration. You see, I climbed the mountain! It was my first 14er–that is what we call mountains over 14,000 feet, and there are more than fifty of them in Colorado., The mountain has not changed, it doesn’t even know I was there. I, however, am profoundly changed. What started as a bucket list item, turned into something more.
I have only been in Colorado Springs six months. After retiring from the military, my wife and I decided to settle in the front range area. I am from Oregon, she is from Kansas, so the mountains, rivers, streams and down-home people provide a perfect blend of outdoor adventure and Midwest values. For the past few years, I have followed friends on Facebook, posting pictures of their ascents up different 14ers around the state, and thought it looked like fun. Once we moved here and I looked up at Pikes Peak, it became more than a passing fancy, it became a “bucket list” item.
On Veteran’s day, I drove my family to the top of the mountain and we took in the views from all points of the compass. At -2 wind-chill however, we did not stay outside long. For the next three months, I would look up at the Peak and think, maybe next summer. I had been working out regularly, but I came from sea level, and physical exertion at 7,000 feet, let alone 14,000 feet would take some getting used to. I planned to hike to the top of the mountain in the summer with my two boys.
I was getting the boys used to hiking at Palmer Park. We love those trails, and the combinations are endless. We also did a quick ascent up Mt. Herman 9,063’ one Saturday morning. The views from there are amazing also. I figured over the next few months, we would increase millage and altitude gained to get ready for our first 14er once the weather warmed. The timeline was working well, until I got an invite from friend and colleague Bruce McClintock to climb the Peak with him and his son-in-law, Travis. I could not pass up the opportunity. I could make the climb with an experienced hiker and mountaineer14er and be better prepared to help my sons on their ascent.
Although not in the shape I wanted to be in to tackle my first 14er, I pressed ahead. We had an early morning drive to get to the Crags trailhead by first light. When we arrived, the temperature gauge read 11 degrees, Bruce quipped: “There’s no such thing as too cold, just improper clothing.” So, after donning multiple layers and gaiters (too keep snow out of our pants and shoes), we set off in the snow. Bruce set a fairly quick pace to start, wanting to generate heat as soon as possible.
Bruce has a theory about 14er hikes he calls the “rule of thirds.” The first third of a hike is exciting…anticipation and adrenaline are both in full effect. The next third is just the grind, slogging away to eat up miles and altitude. The last third is the OMG! third…will I ever get to the top. After the first 2/3s of the hike, I was hanging in there, then at 13,000 feet elevation, after hiking five miles, with about two miles and a little over a 1,000 feet remaining, it hit…the hiking “bonk.” Bruce had been showing me the rest step and forced breathing along the way–both helped. What helped more however, were the views. The absolute beauty of the Rockies was incredible. During my rest steps, I would take in the panorama and get a boost of energy.
These frequent psychological recharges helped push me through the last third. Just about six hours after setting out, I reached the summit. I was out of breath and out of energy, but I was so invigorated. I had done it! I had climbed my first 14er…and it was Pikes Peak. Although I had been here before, this time was different. This time I “earned” it. The sense of accomplishment was amazing. My wife always talks about the runner’s high she gets during long, exhausting runs…now I think I understand that feeling.
There is a funny thing about the “rule of thirds,” it works both ways. On the way down, although much easier, I still experienced similar feelings. Excitement about making my way back down, the long slow trudge of downhill, then the OMG “who moved the trailhead an additional mile! We finished just as light was fading. I had never been more excited to see a Subaru in my life. I slowly peeled off my layers and collapsed in the back seat.
On the drive home, we discussed the hike and Bruce asked me what I thought. Still part hypoxic and plum worn out, I couldn’t quite capture the experience. I simply wanted a hot shower and a soft bed. The last thing I thought before closing my eyes, was thank God I made it…never again!
I learned a few things on my first fourteener:
- Do not underestimate the challenge of climbing a fourteener. I am in decent physical condition but found out just how challenging even a relatively “easy” fourteener can be. I never would have guessed it would take six hours to hike six miles to the top!
- Be prepared for all weather possibilities. We had a beautiful day and say temperatures ranging from 11 degrees to 30 degrees. Similar temperatures are possible even in the summer!
- Hiking with an experienced partner is incredibly valuable! I had hunted many times before but learned quite a few things along the way thanks to being with a guide.
As I drove my son to school the next morning, and looked up at the mountain, I couldn’t help but hear the sirens that are the peaks of the Rockies calling. Now the only thing on my mind, is which one is next?