We woke up to Money for Nothing by Dire Straits playing over our tents at 3:00 am. It was summit day. We made coffee, took a few shots of Fireball, and watched golden stars sweep across the dark sky.
The day prior, we hiked 8 miles up the mountainside and bushwhacked to make it to our first camp--- a hidden spot off the trail next to three high alpine lakes. We drank the water straight from the source. It was crisp, freezing cold, and the most delicious water I've ever tasted.
With our headlamps on, we bushwhacked back across a boulder field and a field of evergreen trees. We made it back to the trail that would take us to the ridgeline-- a series of switchbacks. At 5:00 am, we were the only ones out there, sticking poles into the dry Colorado dirt and stepping right, left, right, left.
At the end of the switchbacks was "Notch Hill," a little summit before the bit summits. There sat a shelter where a group of about fourteen guys were just packing up.
Megan walked into the shelter like she owns the place.
"Ya'll going for the summit?" Megan asked.
"No, this is it for us. We're headed back down the mountain and gonna get burgers and beers in Vail."
My first reaction was "oh sh*t," and my second reaction was "can I go with you?"
They left and then here we were, staring at a long ridgeline that crossed three13ners (13,000+ ft peaks) to get to the final 14ner peak of Mount of the Holy Cross.
It was 6:12 am. We tightened our packs and began our first few steps across the next few miles of boulder fields. Above the tree-line and above an elevation where green grass can survive. It just rocks over rocks over boulders over boulders at this point.
Our group was four of us. A badass mother from Switzerland, a Ph.D. grad that just wants to be outdoors named "JK," our guide & my friend Belay, and myself.
When I was packing for this trip, I text Belay and said, "Should I just pack a tarp and some paracord for sleeping?" I thought we were going on a springtime stroll. This is on point for many times I've assumed a hike will be much easier than it is. I packed hiking books that look better than feel good, they're not supportive at all. I was also not doing well.
While packing, I put on my #TREKKN4TJ sweatshirt and then knelt into my pack and buried my face in the outer mesh pocket-- crying loudly into it. A cry that I didn't know could come from me.
Gripping the sides of my backpack trying to hold onto something in life, I pressed my face further and cried harder. Something to somehow remove this pain and hurt of wishing I could just call him.
So, my packing for this trip was less than impressive.
This mountain was very reminiscent of a mountain I climbed in the Canadian Rockies in 2017 with my friend Colin. We got stuck on top of the mountain overnight and froze our faces off. We ran out of food and water and bailed off the backside of the mountain, riding scree rock for several hours into exhaustion. Search & Rescue found us.
I called Tj and told him what happened and he said, in a very fatherlike voice, "What did we learn from this?"
Tj wasn't all in on my expeditions. He didn't really like dirt or risk. He wanted to keep me safe. He just wanted me next to him, and I was always risking something.
The boulders on Mount of the Holy Cross were similar - very big and challenging to hike over. We started off tired. Hot spots were already forming in my ridiculous boots. My arches were screaming and a splitting headache started to pound on my temples about an hour into the ridgeline traverse.
I knew I wasn't in great condition. Elevation had never impacted me this much. But this was a trek for TJ and I needed to keep going. I tried to breathe deeply, but oxygen had been hard to come by for several months now. Even in flatland Minnesota. It was hard to breathe everywhere.
We needed to summit and get back off that beast before noon, otherwise, we were risking serious thunderstorms and danger. It was 9:45 and we still had about an hour and a half hike left to make it to the base of the summit. Boulder after boulder, half of our group ended their hike just after the third 13ner. We were all exhausted, but we felt we should try to keep going. Somehow.
JK and I hiked on. Step by step. I began to trip over boulders and could tell dehydration was getting to me. We spent about 45 minutes continuing our hike before we both collapsed on a large boulder and stared at each other. We didn't even need to speak, it wasn't safe to keep going. We were done.
JK stood up and held his arms out welcoming a hug. I cried.
All my life, I've trained to never quit. You Keep Going Even When You Feel Like You're Gonna Pass Out.
JK held up his hiking poles and pointed to the shifting boulders thousands of feet up above other mountains and harsh terrain. "This, all of this, is not good terrain to be pushing oneself past exhaustion. Sometimes the smartest thing to do is turn around, and that's a win in itself."
I nodded and covered my face in my #TREKKN4TJ sweatshirt.
My feet, my spirit, my heart, my head, didn't feel like they could take another step. How would I traverse back across this entire ridge? It took us about three hours. Up and down. Over and under. Tripping over boulders.
By the time we made it back to camp-- at 5:15 pm, we were done. The mountain broke us.
But life breaks us. There are some things that happen in life that just feel like the f*cking end. How do I get through this now? What does life look like from here?
It's terrifying, but somehow, someway, we keep going. And when we can't keep going, we make a new route. A new plan. Sometimes it's best to not push past exhaustion and turn around. I told them this was the mountain I grew up on because I used hiking poles for the first time ever. Take note- old ppl use trekking poles. Young people don't.
Leaving the mountain I felt completely reborn. There truly is nothing like the experience of being pushed to your limit. I hated being on the mountain in that extreme heat and climbing boulder over boulder- but now, I crave going back. I already want to go back. It's in me.
When I made it back to camp, I sat above the high alpine lake and said, "I love you Teej, and you're always coming with me." A soft wind swept across the land and cooled my sunburned face.
The next day, we hiked back down the mountain and listened to Megan's "Coffee with Belay" playlist on Pandora. Highly recommended.
I think Tj would be proud of me for this one-- I came back down the mountain and Search & Rescue didn't have to be called. We talked about the future of Outfit My Life and where Mike and I are going with it. A lot of inspiring exciting things ahead.
Keep climbing, friends.