Opinion: Hiking Isn’t All Fun and Games – It Can be Dangerous, Too.

By Kara Thomas

I vividly remember hiking my first fourteener – it was my freshman year of college, I had been living in Colorado for a little under two months, and I had grown up in Chicago (note: no mountains, or even hills, to climb). Although an avid runner, I wasn’t yet fully acclimated to the altitude. However, being an ambitious and energetic freshman, determined to do all the “outdoorsy” things Coloradans did, my friends and I decided to hike Mt. Quandary.

I had never hiked a fourteener before and had absolutely no idea how to prepare myself. In fact, I barely thought about preparations. I simply packed a bag with a hat, gloves, my hiking pants, hiking shoes, a few power bars, a water bottle, and my camera, and thought, “well, that’s about it! I’m ready to climb a mountain!” It didn’t cross my mind to look up the weather on the mountain, how many months you should be living in Colorado before you hike a mountain to make sure you’re fully acclimated to the altitude, or what emergency preparations one should take before they begin hiking. Stubborn me was determined to climb a mountain, so I was going to do it!

My friends and I drove up to Silverthorne, where we slept for two hours in a cabin. One of my friends, who had climbed Quandary before, suggested we get to the top for the sunrise, and we all emphatically agreed . What better than to climb your first mountain, and get to see the sunrise on the top? I was sold. So, we woke up at 2am and started hiking Quandary by 3am. It was cold, I was sleep deprived, and I couldn’t see more than a foot in front of me. Thankfully, we all had headlamps, but the hike up was still scary, not to mention much more dangerous, in the dark. The three of us followed our “expert” hiking friend up the mountain, trampling along in a line like little ducklings. When one of us would fall behind, he wouldn’t even stop to wait. The hike was turning less into an exciting adventure and more into a competition. I was hungry and my fingers were freezing. One of my friends beside me was having trouble breathing. I reached around my backpack to grab my inhaler, only to find out I left it in my dorm.

After we had been hiking for about 2 hours in the dark, we finally reached tree line. At this point, the sky was just starting to get a little brighter, almost as if it were taunting us – would we make it in time to see the sun rise? Up here, it was even colder. I couldn’t even take my phone out of my pocket to check the time – it was too risky. I didn’t want to lose any body heat. My friend was still struggling to breathe. She had to keep stopping, hands on her knees to catch her breath and steady her blurry vision. Altitude sickness. We offered to turn around, but she refused. So, we kept on trudging up the mountain. One foot in front of the other.

The last stretch to the top.

Finally, we reached the last stretch of the hike. Ahead of me lay about a half mile of rocks. Big, pointy, ominous looking rocks. This was a surprise to me. For some reason, I thought the top of a mountain would be just dirt. Rocks never crossed my mind. We started scrambling up the rocks just as the wind shifted and grey clouds rolled in overhead. Soon, my vision was blurred by snow flying all around me. My feet kept slipping on the rocks, now covered in a fine layer of snow and ice. At this point, I couldn’t feel my toes. I desperately needed to go to the bathroom, but couldn’t imagine taking off a layer of clothing to do so. We trudged on.

Finally, after hiking for just over 3 hours, we made it to the top. Right in time to see the sun rise, too. It was us and one other group of hikers. We laughed and joked about the snowstorm, took pictures for each other, then began the journey down the mountain. Or shall I say, the sprint down the mountain. I’m not sure if I’ve ever wanted to get to the bottom so quickly in my life. My social battery had worn out, my fingers and toes felt like icicles, and I was so tired I was convinced if I even sat down on a rock, I’d fall asleep right then and there.

Although my first fourteener didn’t quite live up to my expectations, I did learn some very important lessons. Mostly, what not to do when you decide to climb a fourteener, especially if it’s your first one. The one thing I had going for me was that I was in shape from running, but even that didn’t save me when my lungs started giving out due to the altitude.

Beautiful sunrise at the top of Mt. Quandary.

It took me a long time, three years, to be exact, to climb another fourteener. You could say I was a little traumatized from the first time around. This time, however, I did my homework. I knew what supplies to bring, when the best time of the season was to go, and did my research on the mountain. I was excited, but also a little nervous. Working for a hiking company, Hike for Life, had given me the tools I needed to prepare myself to complete the hike in a safe manner, but my previous fourteener experience loomed in the back of my head. What if we get hit with unexpected weather? What if our car gets stuck just getting to the mountain? What if, what if. I tried to dispel those thoughts by reassuring myself I knew what I was doing, but the reality is, you can be as prepared as possible to hike a fourteener, but unexpected things can always happen. This time, on my second time hiking a fourteener, I had a blast. It was just the adventure I was longing for. I was prepared mentally and physically, and brought with me the proper supplies, and I have to say I killed it. Sure, I was definitely exhausted when I got back down the mountain, but I was happy. I had, this time, successfully and safely climbed a fourteener, and even made it down the mountain before the bad weather hit.

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