Morning rays illuminate late-blooming flowers in the Weminuche
I awake to my phone’s alarm, buzzing incessantly beneath my pillow, and rub three hours of sleep from my eyes. Out of bed, I hazily double-check my gear and try to figure out how my obsession with suffering in beautiful places got this bad. I’d been preparing all summer, pushing myself farther and longer with each run while living and working in Jackson, WY. Before returning to East Coast for my fall semester, I wanted to test myself, and I chose do so by attempting to run to and climb a set of fourteen-thousand-foot peaks nestled deep within the vast Weminuche Wilderness, then return to the trailhead--forty-one miles of trail running and 10,000 vertical feet of gain and loss in a single day. In no time, I’m driving up Durango’s deserted main street in my parents’ Sienna minivan, straining to keep my eyes open against a BBC reporter’s lethargic voice. I pull up to a red light, cursing the fact that there is, in fact, no one to wait for, and feeling singled out by the stoplight’s tenacious bid to make itself useful in the middle of the goddamned night. My phone vibrates. It’s a Snapchat from a friend who is red-eyed, chugging a beer and shouting something unintelligible. I remind myself that he probably won’t go to bed for another two hours.
2:15 am – Mile 0.0
I arrive at the trailhead and shiver in the dark, lacing up my shoes. The trail yawns ominously into darkness before me, and, after a remorseful look over my shoulder at the van’s warm interior, I click on my headlamp and set off at an easy pace. To battle the first few hours of inky darkness, I’ve opted to start my run listening to music, and Sam Smith’s angelic voice reaches my ears. The dew-drenched grass that hangs over the muddy trail instantly soaks my shoes. My hands are cold. My core is too warm. At least the song is nice.
I keep glimpsing oddly shaped logs out of the corner of my eye and have to turn and shine my light on them before I’m convinced I’m not about to be jumped by the restless ghost of some old mining prospector.
3:30 am – Mile 4.5
I’ve made the descent to the bridge crossing the Animas River and stop briefly to re-tie my shoes and take off my outer shell. As I stand over the dark river with my earbuds out, a cold wind chills my sweaty undershirt, and the silence of the night presses in around me. I adjust my backpack and my iPhone plops out, landing inches from a swift drop to the icy water below.
The first glimpses of sunlight
4:15 am – Mile 8
The darkness is weirding me out a bit. I keep glimpsing oddly shaped logs out of the corner of my eye and have to turn and shine my light on them before I’m convinced I’m not about to be jumped by the restless ghost of some old mining prospector. I trip on roots or rocks when I turn to keep tabs on the various stumps that keep scaring me. I make a note to stop looking. Now I just feel like something’s following me.
4:45 am – Mile 10.5
I’ve made it to the turnoff that will lead me up high into the mountains and away from the river I’ve been following. I suck down some water, extend the collapsible poles I’m using to save my knees, and set off at a fast walk up the steep trail. I feel some confidence return, but I still don’t know what the hell I’m doing out here.
6:00 am – Mile 15
DAYLIGHT! I reach the open meadows of Chicago Basin as the sun paints its first bloody-orange rays on the peaks that ring the valley. I’ve emerged from the trees for the first time all day into a picturesque alpine meadow. Tall, grey peaks tower around me. Up ahead, people stumble out of their tents to attack the mountains. Some are already on the trail ahead of me, winding their way up to Twin Lakes. Bastards. I quicken my pace.
Morning sun strikes Eolus Peak above Twin Lakes
6:40 am – Mile 17
The last mile kicked my ass. Straight up 1,500 feet – more like rock climbing than hiking. I stop and refill my Camelbak at the first lake I come to. I can’t see its twin, but I assume it’s out there somewhere. The sun is tantalizingly close now, stretching its fingers down the green slopes that lead up to the rocky crags around me. A fat marmot, one of the fluffy, weasel-like animals that populate the high elevations of Colorado, chirps it’s ‘good morning’ in the distance.
8:30 am – Mile 18 – Summit 1, Sunlight Peak, 14,058 ft.
I share my summit with a family of shady-looking mountain goats. They stick close to humans up here, waiting for nature to call, then clamor for a chance to lick up some sweet, salty human urine – a tough existence in a stunning location. I call my dad from the summit and peer south into New Mexico, where yellowish mesas peak out of the dusty, distant haze. The sky is brilliant blue, and I relish the warming rays of sun even though the rocks on which I sit are still ice cold from the long night. I can see valleys stretching off into the distance, each holding emerald lakes that sparkle in the morning sun. I don’t feel the need to relieve myself. The mountain goats look on reproachfully. I drink more water.
The author atop Sunlight Peak with mountain goats in the background
9:20 am – Mile 18.5
Fatigue hits me on the way up my second peak, but the weather is beautiful and my spirits are high. The hours of running through darkness, splashing through creeks seem far behind.
9:40 am – Mile 19.5 – Summit 2, Windom Peak, 14, 088 ft.
This time I’m alone on the summit. I pee unimpeded off a massive precipice. I keep a mental list of the most beautiful places I’ve peed. This one’s up there. From here, I can see the slopes of Purgatory Ski Area, near the trailhead. The distance strikes me as I gaze over the valleys and ridges that separate me from the place I still must return to. I scarf down a banana sandwich and a Snickers bar, then lie flat on the big summit block, soaking up the sun. I call my mom this time.
Peering east into the Weminuche Wilderness from Windom Peak
10:15 am – Mile 21
Back at Twin Lakes, I refill my Camelbak at a spring I spotted on my way up. My breaks are getting longer and I have a headache, so I chug water from the spring, sticking my mouth directly to the rock and lapping up the cool water. A group of mountain goats passes by, following the trail, walking one by one. I eye them with amusement, and they seem to take pity on me. I debate whether I should attempt to head up Eolus Peak, the third ‘Fourteener’ in the cirque. I flex my legs and peer up into the sky, still largely cloud-free, and make the decision to try for one more summit.
11:00 am - Mile 22
Breathing is more of a challenge than it usually is. Deep inside me, I can feel an ominous exhaustion welling up. I stop often. Reaching the first technical section of the peak, I almost welcome the clap of thunder that echoes in the distance. It’s still astounding to me how quickly storms can appear at high elevations in Colorado. Feigning disappointment to fellow climbers, most of whom are on their way down from the summit, I turn to head back down the peak. ‘What a newbie; trying to summit a Fourteener at noon?’ they must be thinking. ‘I bet he’s from out-of-state.’ I brainstorm clever retorts as I cruise downhill, resuming the incessant pounding my knees receive on the steep trail.
Now, suddenly, welling up inside me is the understanding of why I’m out here, why I’ve been trudging through these breathtaking peaks since one in the morning. This is crazy. This is unique. This is alive.
12:00 pm – Mile 24
I lie sprawled across the trail in Chicago Basin, a sorry sight, sucking at my Camelbak. I eat a handful of nuts, savoring the salt before chewing, and get shakily to my feet. The carpets of wildflowers that cover the basin floor are more visible in the midday sun, but to my dehydrated brain, it seems the saturation has been turned down. The trail in front of me stretches hazily onward. I yell satisfyingly at a few mountain goats as I head off, wincing, at a jog.
12:15 pm – Mile 26
As I continue downhill, I get excited. My legs hurt, but as the miles add up, I start to feel elated at what I’ve accomplished so far. I run faster, telling myself I’m a badass. As I approach the river and trail intersection, I begin passing people coming uphill, straining under their packs in the midday heat. I try to hide the pain in my step as I stride by, giving a curt nod and furrowing my brow, emulating, as best I can, the runners I’ve seen cruise through aid stations on the infamous Hard Rock 100 trail race like they’re out for a Sunday jog.
Greeting the sun
1:20 pm - Mile 30
The five miles downriver go by smoothly enough. In the light of day, the trail is smooth and I cruise along for the most part. I do fall in a creek, however, and eat some wild raspberries that grow along the trail.
2:15 pm – Mile 36
At the far side of the river, I slow to a walk and break out my poles and attack a steep switch-backed section for all I’m worth, which isn’t much. All uphill to the trailhead from here. I don’t think I’m thinking clearly. The trail flattens out after a while, however, and I can see up-canyon toward the trailhead. I smell the barn. I push on at a faster clip, listening to the pounding of a distant creek at the bottom of the canyon below the trail.
2:40 pm – Mile 38
I’ve been watching the storm’s steady approach down the canyon. When it hits, it storms hard. Rain lashes down and turns the trail into a rivulet of brown water. I remove my soaked shirt only to have the rain turn to hail, which stings my bare flesh. Now, suddenly, welling up inside me is the understanding of why I’m out here, why I’ve been trudging through these breathtaking peaks since one in the morning. This is crazy. This is unique. This is alive. I splash through puddles with a childlike enthusiasm as the falling rain wipes away the miles from my tired body. I can’t keep the grin from my face. I laugh out loud, then yell back at the storm with everything I have.
The author pushing through the final stretch
3:00 pm – Mile 40.5
The storm has passed. My surroundings are wet and subdued and weary. So am I. I’ve slowed to a determined, methodical walk for the last, steep half-mile to the trailhead. ‘One-two, three-four. One-two, three-four’ – I count my steps in my head, urging myself onward. I squelch through mud and slog through puddles while the world around me drips, aspens shaking themselves off after the long rain. As I round one of the last switchbacks, I run into my dad, who has come to meet me. Brandishing poles of his own, he lets out a cheer. Together we make our way back to the parking lot.
3:20 pm – Mile 41
I strip off my wet layers and collapse into the front seat. The fatigue hits me like a freight train. My mind zooms through the past thirteen hours, struggling to comprehend the sheer volume of the experience. I bathe in the sense of personal accomplishment I feel. There is something so invigoratingly primal about pushing my body as far as it can go. But if someone told me I had to turn around and do the whole thing over right then? Well, that would just be the worst thing in the whole, wide world.
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