Posted By Clod on August 10, 2011
Traversing the icy path to the summit of Mt. Elbert, Colorado’s highest peak, we struggled to keep our footing on the heavily snow-capped ridge. Suddenly and without warning, a strong blast of rocky mountain wind knocked my friend, Alicia O’Connor, off her feet and dropped me to my knees.
Shielding our faces from the gusting 40-degree air, we both slowly rose up and busted out laughing at the sheer strength and power of the wind whipping across this mountain peak. “Do you believe that?” I yelled.
“I couldn’t stay up,” Alicia shouted back into the wind.
After regaining her stance and brushing the late June snow off her bare legs, Alicia, just 15 feet ahead of me, began ascending again. Then just as I had stood up and put my right foot forward, I gasped for air. And gasped again. “This can’t be!” my mind raced. No air was getting in my lungs. I tried again. “Alicia, I can’t breathe!” All that wind swirling around my head and no air was getting past my nostrils. Sheer panic set in at 14, 300 feet.
Every summer, hundreds of climbers and hikers take to the trails of Colorado’s 54 Fourteeners — mountains rising 14, 000 feet or more in elevation. For some, it is a pastime. For others, it is an all-out competition. Known as peak baggers, hikers scramble up steep inclines, cross over unstable rockslides and trek beyond stubborn snowfields — all in an effort to achieve the ultimate Colorado mountain challenge.
Alicia O’Connor, a native of Greenwood, South Carolina, longtime friend and fellow adventurer, had already experienced the thrill of bagging a peak. Just the summer before, she and several well-seasoned mountain friends submitted the 14,100 feet of Castle Peak. As she described, “We had to climb across this vast, unsteady field of rocks and find our way with no visible path. It was a lot tougher than any of us expected and there was no turning back. We had to get up and over.” Although a frightening experience, she was ready to bag another one.
So on the cool, clear morning of June 29, Alicia and I along with a friend, Rebecca Hanson, who lives year-round in Aspen, set out to “do a Fourteener.”
Now, for someone who lives and plays at sea level, this was an exhilarating endeavor. Here I was, this self-proclaimed adventurer, personal trainer and fitness enthusiast heading up one of Colorado’s most popular Fourteeners. Not to mention going for the highest vista in the state. Just five days before I had been packing my bags in Greenwood, South Carolina — elevation 660 feet.