“Gotta stop to breathe,” I yelled to my friend, Julie. Holy shit! I forgot how the altitude affects your breathing. I forgot how difficult even an ‘easy’ 14er can be.
A 14er is a 14,000 foot mountain. There are officially 53 of them in Colorado, a state I lived in for 15 years. I had summited a few of these over my years there – 13 to be exact. Even when I lived at 5800 feet in Golden these mountains were still challenging to ascend. But, now, being a “flatlander” and standing on the doorstep of 50, well, I was feeling it.
Julie suggested Mt Bierstadt for our Monday hike, knowing that I was interested in attempting a 14er on my visit. The bonus was going on Monday when crowds on these easier, and easy to get to hikes, would be lighter than on the weekend. So, on a gorgeous, and warmer than average late September day, we headed to Georgetown from Golden then on up Guanella Pass where the trailhead is.
Back in the day (meaning in the first 5 years I lived in Colorado), Guanella Pass was not paved all the way up, becoming a good dirt road just a short way up the switchbacks. Now it is paved and whoa! what a difference. Aspens line the road and it’s a fabulous place for leaf peeping in autumn. I am sure it was packed with cars and people over the weekend, but we only saw a few cars on the drive up. And the color was spectacular!
I had summited Bierstadt before in winter – Christmas Day to be exact. I think it was 2004. There was hardly any snow so we didn’t need the snowshoes we brought. It was very windy and cloudy so there wasn’t much in the way of views. Today, it would be different. I was super excited!
Starting at around 11,600 feet, Bierstadt is an ‘easy’ 14er as it is only 3 1/2 miles to the summit and it gains around 2800 feet in elevation, topping out at 14,060 feet. Many other 14ers are 10-20 mile hikes and gain 3000-6000 feet in elevation.
Julie and I began our hike around 8:45am, a little late by what is typically recommended, but the weather would be stable. There were just a few wispy clouds off to the southwest and nothing but bluebird skies above us. It felt so good to be in the mountains of Colorado. To see that clear sapphire blue sky. To look out and see nothing but mountain peaks and glacial valleys dotted with lakes. To breathe that clean, fresh air, even if it has far less oxygen than I’ve been used to over the past 4 years. I felt at home.
As we ascended slowly up the mountain, first through the willows (wow! there’s now a boardwalk through those so you don’t have to fight through them), then up above tree line, then up to the rocky area over 13,000 feet, I kept stopping to take in the views – and to catch my breath! I was slow, but Julie was so awesome, keeping her pace a little slower and stopping to look back at me to make sure I was okay. It took a while, but we summited at noon. I had done it!
Usually it’s quite windy on the top of 14ers, but not today. There was a slight breeze and it was not too cold. We sat at the top, eating our snacks – potato chips for Julie and trail mix for me. We snapped some pics of us on the top of the peak and of the views. But, we still had to descend so it was time to start our trek down.
We took our time on the hike down, again enjoying the views. The light had shifted and the foliage on the mountains was glowing. As we approached the willows at the beginning of the hike, we stripped down to short sleeves. The sun was intense and the breeze had died.
Back at the car, we reveled in our accomplishment and soaked in the beauty that surrounded us. We ate some more snacks and commented on knowing who had hiked (those of us who were all grimy, hanging out in the back of SUV’s and pickups, chowing down on salty snacks) and those who were just out driving and had stopped by to look around and snap some pics (those in sandals and looking fresh and clean). It was a funny mix of people!
I have to admit, I’m pretty proud of myself. I don’t think I’ve done a 14er since 2006 – maybe even 2005. Thanks to my dear friend, Julie, I have now hiked a 14er as a “flatlander”.
It’s truly a special place to be, on the top of a 14,000 foot mountain, looking out at all the natural beauty that surrounds you. It puts life into perspective and yes, can make you feel pretty small in this great big world. You realize that your so-called ‘big’ problems aren’t so big after all. You see the result of time in the carvings of mountains and valleys. You gaze at the beauty of nature. Life is, indeed, pretty darn good!