I skydive out of airplanes with a parachute and free fall for nearly 45 seconds at a lower altitude than the top of this mountain. It was the first 14'er I’ve climbed and snowboarded down. This would be her first peak at this altitude as well.
This isn’t something I wanted her to do and convinced her to do it, she knows my passion for the mountains and had her own reasons and desires to attempt something out of her regular hobbies. She asked my brother (who’s a mountain guide) and I if we could take her up, so we coordinated everything to work together nearly 6 months ago and gave it a 100% preparation and effort. She created a goal, trained, prepared, and learned possibly the most difficult lesson of all along the way.
She’s 110 pounds, has no mountaineering experience, doesn’t backpack regularly and I wouldn’t say she enjoys the snow very much. Me on the other hand; the complete opposite. I love it all. I moved to the mountains 5 years ago to follow that dream. She didn’t complain to me once, she was fired up the entire time and she carried everything she needed on her back, she had trained for a solid year and really pushed herself the past 6 months. We ran through every environment and situation a mountaineer could in a single trip. We started out a day delayed due to bad weather, cutting our trip down from 3 days to 2 days.
When we hit the trail it was nearly a 70' summer day at 6,950 feet. Geared up with about 35 pounds of gear, food, water and a flask of whiskey we started our trek up our first volcano together. I never really wanted to have a mountaineering partner that was also my girlfriend. The idea of her slipping off the edge of a cliff and me being helpless or triggering an avalanche and me digging her out has haunted me for years. I dreaded something like this becoming a reality.
A few hours into our hike we arrived at our home for the night. Averaging nearly a thousand feet an hour which impressed the hell out of me. Her training was paying off. Now 5:00pm or so and the temperatures began to drop. They dropped so fast and so many clouds rolled in that it began hailing at our campsite (which hovered around 9500 feet in elevation). We quickly put on all of our gear, made dinner and we were just about to call it a night. Then the clouds opened up and we were graced with one hell of a sunset. Normally you’re looking up or out across at a sunset.
On this night, right as this storm was passing we found ourselves INSIDE the sunset. Literally every direction you could see 5 minutes ago was full of fog, and now we were blessed to be inside a gigantic pink and orange cotton candy wonderland. It was one of those “money can't buy” moments in life, just plain rad..just part of the adventure.
We woke up at 1:30am and fired up the Jetboil. I cooked up some oatmeal before we all strapped on our crampons, grabbed our ice axes and began the most difficult part up. Step, pole, breath, step, pole breath. One hour of walking, 10 minutes of break where you hydrate and eat, that's the goal. As we climbed higher and higher the weather slowly started to creep back in. I was concerned because I knew weather can change rapidly at high elevations. I knew we were rolling the dice with every step we took... she had no idea. Our chances were getting thinner and thinner every step we took, every break we extended, every time we took that “one more breath" we were one step further away from the summit.
From 13,000 to 14,000 feet we were in a high-wind and low-visibility trek which required us to be close to each other as we slowly walked up mystery hill. This is the final push until you get to the saddle and then you’ve just got the pinnacle left. It was windy, cold, our jackets were beginning to freeze, ice on our boots and gloves..everything was frozen and any exposed piece of skin was getting pretty solid wind burn.
This is where the 4th person on our team really began to fall off the map, and where I knew we wouldn’t make it to the summit together as a team. I was mentally prepared to wait back with this member if need be and let the remaining people continue up to make the summit. This is where my girlfriend will learn her first major lesson: be aware of who you choose to bring on a trip and their ability to know their own body and where their limits are/how physically fit and mentally strong they are at their worst.
As we trekked higher and higher the 4th person on our team got worse. I asked and explained to person #4 that the next part was a no fall/no stop zone. Where we cannot stop, we cannot take a break and we cannot screw up. We had to stay close together as a team or they could stay back. The response was “no way in hell I’m letting this mountain beat me” so together as a group we proceed. This is where knowing your body and its limits plays a major role in safety, especially with a group. A few hundred feet into the the dark deep clouds navigating only by compass with glaciers on both sides of the saddle a few feet off target and any one of us could slip and fall to their death. In fact, someone had slipped and fallen just a few weeks prior with no wind or weather to speak of. They luckily survived and had a laundry list of broken bones. A search and rescue at this point was out of the question today. We didn’t have enough food or water to stay at this altitude and get down safely for much longer. We pressed on. In the middle of the “football field” which is literally the last stretch, the length of a football field, right before the pinnacle, is the last vertical portion to the summit..and we had to turn around. Member #4 stopped, headed down, and was hurting. That was it, that was the end of our journey up.
Just a few hundred feet away from the most mentally and physically challenging thing she had ever done we had to call it quits. All that effort, all that endurance, all that pain, all that suffering was currently shattered in an instant just shy of the summit. It's easy to get summit fever and forget about the process in which the whole adventure took you on. We were in a sunset, we laughed in the hail, we laid down warm in a tent with full bellies and experienced so many things that people never get to experience in their lifetime all within a two day period. Now we had to turn around, like a dog with its tail between its legs. Totally gassed, we safely began the trek down. It was a long haul going from just above 14,000 feet down to 6,950 on foot. I had never walked down that far, and I’ll never do it again.