There are 54 peaks in Colorado that are over 14,000 feet in elevation. We call them 14ers.
In the Northern Peaks of the state, there are the Northern and Southern Sawatch, the Elks, Ten Mile, the Mosquito and Front Range Mountains. In the Southern Peaks, stand Pikes Peak, the Sangre de Cristos, the Needle Mountains, the San Miguel Range and the Southern and Northern San Juans. It is estimated that less than 1000 people have conquered all 54, so I set out to climb all of them. One foot in front of the other. That was my plan.
My love for the mountains was born as a teenage camper out east in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina. It was here where I was introduced to hiking on a trail and getting to the top of a peak. What a thrill to reach the summit at the top of Mount Pinnacle. Out west, on my first ski trip to Colorado, I was mesmerized by the majesty of the mountains. On a chair lift ride up the side of a mountain, it struck me how the hills kept going and going into the horizon. And, a few months studying in Israel for my senior year of high school had me hiking ancient trails and feeling the excitement of the unknown vista around the next corner.
All three of those mountain exposures made me yearn for more. As a recent high school graduate, I signed up for an Outward Bound mountaineering course, a sixteen-day wilderness backpacking trip. It was that Outward Bound trip that was the true impetus for future mountaineering pursuits. Backpacking day in and day out was hard work, and both physically and mentally exhausting. It was during this adventure that I summited my first 14er. At the top of 14,246 foot Mount Wilson in the San Juan Mountain Range, I was in awe of both the view and my accomplishment in getting there. Our moment at the summit was fleeting for the storm clouds were rolling in and we had to descend quickly. My fear and adrenaline were palpable as I glisaded down the snowy slope connected to a rope.
Fear often gets in the way of what we strive to pursue. My own has been known to paralyze me but I have learned that the only way to confront it is to move through it. Although it is not easy to alleviate the fear when it grabs hold, the mountains have taught me to let go of that which I doubt.
My first 14er adventure did not provide me with an epiphany that I needed to conquer more 14ers, nor was there an identifiable moment that acted as a catalyst for my ultimate quest. But, something stuck. It took five more years before I summited another mountain peak. Having finally made my way to live in the mountains of Colorado, I just felt like the peaks were beckoning. Climbing Mount Elbert, the highest peak in the state at 14,433 feet, took three attempts because of inclement weather before I summited. The multiple attempts just made me want to reach the peak even more. As I sprinted down the mountain, I became hooked and the pursuit of these mountains began. My goal of climbing all 54 peaks became real.
Once I began my quest, I found a whole community of hikers and climbers. I met a woman in Boulder who was also climbing peaks and she inspired me to really embrace my new desire. Another new friend climbed eight peaks with me. Together we climbed Humboldt Peak (14,064 ft) starting at midnight and arriving at the summit to share the magnificent views just as light was coming into the sky and the sun was rising. That same friend and I were thrilled to share a summit on Wetterhorn Peak (14,015 ft) with Lou Dawson, the 14er guru who wrote the famous guidebooks.
My dog, Kota, has reached the top of 40 peaks. Ten of those he and I did solo. I had to trust myself to find my way and to climb on often exposed ridge lines, hop large boulders and walk for 8-10-12+ hours on end. I thrived on the physical exertion, and the expansion of my mental capacity which enabled me to hike on, peak after peak after peak.
Adrenaline kept me going strong. I was by no means a speed hiker, but I did like to stay with my momentum and try to hike from trailhead to summit without a stop. Once on top, given the weather was clear, I could finally exhale and relax. On the descent, I often dawdled and took pictures and talked with others at length. Any and all of my own internal fear abated up there on the peak.
I loved watching my dog chase a friend snowboarding down Castle Peak (14,265 ft). Working as an outdoor leader for a child placement agency and taking teenage boys up Snowmass Mountain (14,092 ft) and Mount Belford (14,197 ft) was a unique challenge. Sprinting down the dual climb of Tabeguache Peak (14,155 ft) and Mount Shavano (14,229 ft) after lightening on the summit, and ducking under a tree after we came off the summit of San Luis Peak (14,014 ft) as it roared thunder around us taught me the dangers of weather.
Fall colors on Pyramid Peak (14,018 ft) were so stunning looking out at the Maroon Valley that the sheer beauty caused tears to stream down my face. Scooting over on my bottom — all of 100 feet — at the knife ridge on Capitol Peak (14,130 ft) since thousand foot drop-offs on both sides made me smile from ear-to-ear. Scurrying up hand-over-foot the last part of Wilson Peak (14,017 ft) solo with my heart racing made me somber as I found plane crash debris at the top.
For a few summers, all I did was climb peaks every weekend. Some summers only allowed for a few peaks bagged. All in all it took me twelve summers to reach the top of all 54. Some were a day trip, others a multi-day backpacking trip, and other times multiple peaks could be hit in a weekend or a traverse of two in one day. Once in the San Juan Range, I climbed three peaks during a snowy spring weekend.
The payoff was huge, the views were stunning, and no two summits ever had the same panorama. With each peak I climbed, my sense of adventure and wonder were in motion for one, two or three days, from the sunrise on the hike, to pushing my legs all day, and then collapsing into the tent or car when I was done. There has never been anything else quite like it.
My goal was never about reaching the tops of these mountains. It was more about overcoming fear. After my Outward Bound excursion, I reflected on the deep rooted fears and inhibitions that the mountains brought out of me. I made a conscious decision that that was not who I aspired to be. I wanted to be open to possibility, to delve into the unknown with an adventuresome spirit, all the while embracing the unfamiliar with ease.
I finished climbing the peaks with what some would say was the most challenging peak, Little Bear (14,037 ft). This was the only peak where I held onto fixed ropes to descend a steep gully. It was a bittersweet end on one of those perfect bluebird Colorado days, and it was the only peak I did that whole summer. There was a part of me that was sad it was over. I was, however, relieved that I could indeed pursue a goal and follow my heart all the way until the end. 54 peaks climbed. Total satisfaction. I had conquered my fears and had a glimpse of the person I aspire to be.
Climbing these mountains made me feel alive in a way that transcended all else. While focusing on my goal, everything else fell away and all that was left, in that moment, was the summit in the distance. I felt fully present and awake and aware. Mountains did, and still do enliven my senses and elevate my curiosity.
In graduate school, I once made a clay sculpture to describe my relationship with climbing mountains as a metaphor for ascending towards self-actualization. In my description of the peaks, I claimed it was not actually about the mountain itself but about the striving to reach the top that kept me satiated and yearning for more.
I am constantly seeking that which feels right and true and freeing. Go after that which calls you. Just do it. Don’t ask why. You’ll gain the skills and build the confidence as you go. Embrace yearnings for there are many lessons to learn after you just dive in deeply. Fear will strike. Push through it. Believe in yourself. Pursuing your goals opens so many doors.
The Talmud teaches, “we don’t see the world as it is, we see it as we are.” And, for me, this was my way of making sense of the world. The author Anne Lamott’s book Bird by Bird is about taking writing and inspiration by the slow, methodical pace one would in identifying one bird at a time, hence the title. That was apropos in my approach to conquer mountain top by mountain top. I embraced my fear and it fell away when I could not see anything higher in the distance.