Mt. Whitney &The Stoke Butterfly Effect

“Nothing you can do about hail. Just let it fall.”

The girl who said this was perfectly calm and sincere, dirty sandals and a bag of cheetos strapped to the back of her pack. Her friend smiled as thunder rumbled, “Have a good run.” And they were gone. I think you have to know what you’re looking for to recognize real through hikers, and you have to be open to inhaling some of their calmness. I am rarely calm, but I know their feeling of contentment, of acceptance, and I spent the next 13 miles thinking that there are two things I need to cultivate in my life, the difference between a hiker and a through hiker being one of them. The other is the stoke and joy and sense of community that I felt on Mt. Whitney.

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Mt. Whitney from the Portal NRT

Mt. Whitney is a remarkable mountain but it’s not hard to climb. It’s the highest in this country. And if you look at a map, you can see why I no longer consider Alaska to be a part of this country any more than Alaskans do. 70 feet higher than Mt. Elbert, which is a completely unimportant distinction, and 100 feet higher than Rainier. Its prominence and jagged summit block is incredible, it rises over 10,000 feet from the valley [we’ll all see if I remember to look this up] but it doesn’t have the distinction the Tetons do so really it just looks far away.

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Mt. Whitney from Trail Camp, summit being in those clouds on the right, the Chute being the steep snow to the left of all those pointy things

I was at the Whitney Portal for almost a week before I saw it, as it was mired in storms, getting dumped on 24 hours a day. Whitney is the only important mountain in California, if you ask Californians, who couldn’t be bothered to build a trail on any other mountain in the Sierras (maybe in Yosemite? I think that’s the only place I don’t have a trail map of). When I realized [decided? I guess] that I was going to Lone Pine I looked into the permit system, and was certain I wouldn’t be able to do it at all. You have to apply for permits in the winter, and they assign you your dates sometime in the spring, and from May 1st on, only those that had entered the permit lottery months in advance would be allowed to go above 10,500ft or so.

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looking west from Trail Crest

I went up to Lone Pine Lake a few times after arriving, which is the highest you’re allowed to go without a permit in hand, and talked to dozens of failed climbers. “The snow, it was awful.” “We only made it to the Chute.” “We only made it to Consultation Lake.” “We only made it to Trail Camp.” Those three milestones are all in the same place. By chance, I learned that once assigned a permit date, you still have to accept it, and because of this year’s snowpack (200%, I heard) a lot of the spring permits offered weren’t accepted. I went to the ranger’s station and gained a permit for June 3rd. The ranger shrugged while he filled it out, “Between all the new snow and the avalanche danger, nobody’s getting up.” I didn’t check the weather and was on the trail at 6am.

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Sequoia National Park I guess

Most of this story would be boring if I bothered to tell it. I took the standard route, because for $21, I wanted my best shot, and I was worried about getting off route and the resulting time loss if I went up one of the technical routes in the snow alone. The snow allowed for an alternate route, where I could don crampons and climb straight up and skip a whole bunch of miles. I arrived at Trail Crest in a little under three hours and was invited into a heatedly excited conversation about the battery lives of GoPros and Garmins. I assumed the folks I was talking to were all togteher, but they were parts of three different teams that were waiting on partners climbing up the Chute and jacketing up as the sky grew dark and the wind picked up, and they went on to happily speculate about the weather. A group of us departed to the next section on the west side.

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“Windows” looking east

Apparently it’s normally a trail that’s been carved into the side of cliffs, but in its current winter conditions, there was a narrow path one crampon wide stomped into the side of a nearly vertical wall of snow. I realized, looking at the fear in my new friends’ faces, that mountain climbing is just moving your feet until you arrive at an obstacle that is above your adventure level threshold. I lost my companions, and instead passed several on their way down, none of whom had summited. I passed one team telling another team to turn back. I had yet to see any reason to turn around, but I had even less faith of making it, if that were even possible, but I was still in good spirits. Every day in high altitude is a good day.

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Enter a caption

Finally, on this bizarre rock feature that felt like a cave when it was buried in snow, I met the first summiter of the day. He was a Californian by birth but has been in South America for the last 10 years or so. He planned to snowboard from Trail Crest. He looked at me intensely and said, “You’re going to make it, I can tell. But the summit’s socked in, no views.” I warmly congratulated and hugged this stranger and my heart was buoyed, it reminded me of a 100k finish, in the Black Canyon when I was completely resolved to drop, and crossing the finish line the official Finish Line Hugger looked me in the eye and said, “You did it.”

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looking west

I passed two teams on their way down and we celebrated together, with high fives and laughs and votes of confidence. I told them, with all of my sincerest happiness for them, “You did it!” And they told me, “I might as well congratulate you now because you’re going to make it, too, you’re nearly there!” I passed another solo climber, a man who was struggling with exhaustion, just before the last climb. I told him, “We’ve got this, man. That climb’s going to be rough but we’re almost there and we can do it.” I passed a team of three still headed up and they cheered me on. I made it to the top of that climb and saw a building.

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Somebody left the damn door open.

In front of the building was a box, and in the box was the summit register. I stepped around it and walked to the edge, clouded in it looked like the end of the world. And I was full of joy. There was a lot of doubt, but no struggle. There’s nothing hard about this climb besides it being long. Some folks were afraid of the exposure in the snow, but I had liked it. It was just enough to make it feel exciting. Someone had dug out the USGS seal.

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my cramponed feets with the USGS seal

 

I had a good amount of time alone on the summit, and I had a think about why I climb mountains. Now that I’ve done some difficult and super scary ascents, I know that there’s value in the struggle, in facing your fear. There’s something about finishing something that you didn’t think you could, whatever the reason. Like you have this mindset, we’ll keep going up until we find something that makes us stop. Turning around is perfectly noble as long as it’s not fear based. I think that’s the thing I’m still trying to put my finger on. You will face a lot of obstacles in mountain climbing, and most of them are fear based. Doubt, insecurity, lack of confidence, laziness, tiredness, weakness, and just plain unspecific fear. If you make it to the top despite all of those things, then you’ve won something important. It’s like a bet that you’ve made with yourself. If I am strong enough and brave enough …

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Me, summit of Mt. Whitney, not that you can tell

Before I left, I wrote in the summit register. There were dozens of huge pages, maybe the last year’s worth. The guys before me had squeezed their names in on the bottom of a page, well below the actual lines, fully filling it up so I pulled out the next one and in huge letters across the top of the whole page I wrote, “YOU DID IT!” And I hoped that everyone who read it would feel the way I did in that moment.

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Mt. Whitney Summit Register with my YOU DID IT page

Running down the last climb, I met the solo climber, and he looked like he wished he was dead. I told him, “You’re there, that’s it, that’s the summit.” and he looked at me warily and mumbled something like, “I don’t know if I can do it.” And I grabbed this stranger by the shoulders, and I got in his face, and I said, “Don’t miss this, don’t walk away now, you are 100 feet away, you just can’t see it in the clouds. You can do this.” And tears ran down both of our faces, and mine again as I’m writing this, and he continued, one lock step at a time. I saw the team of three heading up the climb and I whooped loudly and they threw their arms in the air and I threw my arms in the air and when we met, we high fived and they patted me on the back and I told them that climb isn’t so bad, and you don’t even realize how close you are until you’re there. I asked them to hug the guy in red when they saw him up there, and congratulate him for me. I passed a solo girl, and she asked if I thought she could make it. I said, “I mean, YEAH! You’re nearly there!” And we high fived and shared a moment of female solidarity before she went on to tackle that last climb with gusto. Over the next half hour, I could faintly hear victory whoops in the wind.

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Off the edge of the summit

Isn’t this how it should be? I know I’ve taken summits for granted because I love standing on top of things and do it so often. I know I let a variety of factors color my interactions with my fellow climbers. What made this different? All these strangers were cheering each other on, lifting each others spirits. It was like there was a line we all crossed, once you’re above this line, no one will be bitter about other people passing them, no one will complain about the climbs or advise anyone else to turn back. Could it have been that one guy? That guy that said to me, “You’re going to make it.” The stoke butterfly effect. Maybe that’s all it takes to change the vibe of the whole mountain for everyone on it. It wasn’t the difference between me making it or not, and nothing I said to anybody was the difference between them making it or not, because the ability to summit was in our hearts and heads and legs all along. Or … was it?

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Looking down on trail camp from the Chute I’m pretty sure.

 

Ouray & Silverton: does sleeping in your truck make you feel like a badass?

Last year I started a new tradition of mountaining for my birthday, continuing this year in the beautiful (and relatively remote) towns of Silverton and Ouray, Colorado. Of course, in true Sarah’s birthday tradition, there was snow. And mountains! And coffee.

trail to ice lakes, near Silverton

trail to ice lakes, near Silverton

I had been dreaming this trip up for months; I hadn’t yet been to Silverton (my planned trip was postponed in favor of going to Lake City to meet up with my badass runner friend Trish) and basically I’ve been wanting to get back to Ouray ever since the last time I was there in March. In sharp contrast to my usual running trips, I had wild designs to stock up on all sorts of pre-made food from Whole Foods, so I might eat like a queen on the road. With a full cooler, piles of sleeping bags and blankets, and a new playlist, I + dogs left Leadville on the morning of my birthday for the 4.5 hour drive to Silverton.

I make a lot of jokes about how I live in the middle of nowhere, but the truth is Silverton is the middle of nowhere. It’s a tiny, ragged town (both tinier AND more ragged than Leadville, which is apparently possible) situated so deep in the middle of the mountains that it’s only accessible by gnarly mountain passes. Red Mountain Pass, from Ouray, is so gnarly in fact that it’s closed nearly every day now for construction because the outer lane is falling off and they’re trying to blast deeper into the mountain so the future pass can be more than one single lane. Red Mountain Pass (also called the Million Dollar Highway, which is great because I think at this point they’ve spent WELL over a million dollars on this road and it makes me think of Dr. Evil saying “one MILLION dollars”) is named for the iron oxide in the slopes of the surrounding San Juans (it’s true, they’re really red, the San Juans of Silverton and Lake City are extremely large piles of red dirt). I just found an amazing article (http://www.durangoherald.com/article/20140624/NEWS01/140629751/Highway-to-hell-) that says not only is Highway 550 one of the 12 most dangerous roads in the world, but also that it is notorious for having the highest avalanche danger per mile, and this beautiful piece of prose “the narrow road winds through the mountains like a drunk crazily stumbling, and there’s no guardrail to protect cars attempting hairpin turns from hurtling into the jagged ravines that lie, stunning and ominous, hundreds of feet below.” In fact, there are no guardrails because it would be too hard to push the snow off, and let me tell you, the stories of snowplow driver deaths are so harrowing that I can’t even fathom how much that job pays at this point.

the red mountains of this area of San Juans, from Red Cloud

the red mountains of this area of San Juans, from Red Cloud

Anyway, I rolled into Silverton, was amazed by the decrepit and tiny town I found, then promptly drove up a Jeep road looking for a campsite. What I stumbled upon was EPIC. Up on a hillside, miles into the wilderness, waterfall in proximity, spectacular mountain views. “Welcome to Silverton, Sarah, please enjoy this, the best campsite of all time, in honor of your birthday.” I almost considered setting up a tent and making a campfire, but chose instead to bunk down in the back of Hooptie in a cozy, warm nest, and read until I fell asleep.

the view from the best campsite of all time.  Not pictured is the waterfall to the right of this view, best night of sleep ever!

the view from the best campsite of all time. Not pictured is the waterfall to the right of this view, best night of sleep ever!

Waking up in the morning in your truck in the middle of nowhere, there’s not a lot to distract you. You get your chameleon cold brew out of the cooler, throw some nutella on a tortilla, and put your running shoes on. I’m not gonna lie, you guys, I rarely even change clothes for the duration of a running trip. Who’s going to care? The mountain? Then you run all day, sleep all night. You’re limited to the food you brought with you (plus the Snickers and Coke you’ll inevitably buy when you go into town later), so I pretty much eat Nutella and tortillas, pb&j’s, and on this particular trip chips and (fancy) buffalo fake chicken wraps (for the two days they lasted). And I don’t even care. At home I wouldn’t touch a pb&j at this point I’m so sick of them, but sitting on the tailgate between trails it’s pb&j mow time. Read by headlamp, fall asleep. The next day is much the same: wake up, drink cold brew, eat Nutella and tortilla, put on yer shoes. Run mountains, come back for lunch, run more mountains, go into town. Snickers and Coke. Find a new camping spot.

flannel lined nest in the back of Hooptie

flannel lined nest in the back of Hooptie

Then I was in OURAY. I fucking love Ouray. Headed up to Mt. Sneffels (I know.) it’s immediately obvious that there’s a whole lot of snow above 12k. Sneffels, from Ridgeway to the West, actually has incredible vertical prominence (7,200) for the Colorado Rockies, and as this section of the San Juans have very distinct jaggedness and striped ridges, she was named for a volcano in Iceland, Snaefell, that appears in Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth. Apart from some silly Kansas tourists who don’t know the number one rule of Jeep roads (if you can’t drive faster than you can walk, then you or your car don’t belong) the drive in to Yankee Boy Basin was absolutely spectacular and fully otherworldly. I parked a ways below the basin for the extra mileage and headed out, woefully under prepared (while I suspected I would come across snow, I didn’t manage to bring spikes, wool socks, or gaiters). The trail up Sneffels crosses the basin, heading to Blue Lake Pass, then you take a sharp right to climb a crazy steep gully all the way to the ridge. It was actively snowing pretty good, and near the sharp right I ran into a guy hiking with his dog. “I was heading to Blue Lake Pass but there’s blizzard conditions! Where are you going?” I smiled awkwardly and lied through my teeth, “Oh, just hiking until I feel like turning around.” He accepted my terrible lies and went on his way, and I took the sharp right and started climbing the gully full of two feet of wet snow.

this was taken in the basin.  up the gully and on the ridge we gained FEET of snow!  and as you can see, I was woefully underprepared

this was taken in the basin. up the gully and on the ridge we gained FEET of snow! and as you can see, I was woefully underprepared

The climb made me question my sanity, as usual, because when you’re climbing so steep that you can barely ascend in the snow, how do you think you’re going to get down? And as usual, I relegated that question for later thought and powered up. The ridge boasted stupidly hard gusts of wind, and I thought about the TH sign that warned of the wildly high winds (up to 200 MPH!!) one might find on the Sneffels ridge. I pulled my buff over my face and carried on. By the time we made it to the summit, Lu was coated in wet snow (and a little pissed) and I was trying to remember how long it had been since I felt my feet. We paused long enough to turn my phone on and hope that it would stay on despite the cold for the 15 seconds to take this selfie:

the black at the bottom is Lu

the black at the bottom is Lu

then turned around. Tramping through the thigh deep snow on the ridge was cold but fine, and an excellent preview of winter. Descending the gully was about as I expected (not possible without spikes) so I took advantage of the lack of exposure and excellently slippery wet snow and glissaded almost the entire way. When we were back in the basin, Lu gave me the familiar “you can’t be serious, we’re going back already?!?” look and I wish you could argue with dogs sometimes because it was very different than the “you can’t be serious, why the fuck are we up here!?!” look that she had on no less than an hour ago. The basin offered stunning Northerly-ish views that I hadn’t noticed on the way in:

an entirely different world

an entirely different world

Descending to where we parked took us below snow altitude and apparently out of the storm going on in and around the basin; it was sunny and hot and I had to strip all the winter gear in a hurry. Back in Ouray it was nearly summer again. We ran the Ouray Perimeter trail and it further and further cemented my mad love for this teeny tiny town. Also, this is great, I found a campground on the edge of the city

really.

really.

My speculation is that because you can drive your rv’s and trailers into Ouray from the North, but to camp anywhere you’d have to take them up on Red Mountain Pass or on one of the various Jeep roads (towards Sneffels or Imogene Pass or off of Auditorium), the alternative is to park in town I guess. Get a Coke in town, pb&j, find a place to camp, read by headlamp until you fall asleep. Wake up, drink cold brew, nutella on a tortilla, put on yer running shoes. Find a mountain, run up it. Pb&j. Repeat. Coke in town, find a place to camp, read by headlamp, fall asleep.

Ouray

Ouray

What all of this means is: I love the simplicity. There’s no distractions. I always bring my journal but I almost never write in it, unless it’s to record one of my profound breakthroughs during a run (here’s one from Silverton, it’s fucking gold: we’re not looking for anything, we’re trying to find ways to sacrifice more and pay the price of freedom-for it is steep. Sometimes you have to break the things you love, and sometimes you have to love the things you fear; most often both). I run all day, I don’t have to think about what I’m going to eat, it’s just fuel. I don’t have to do work around the house, or go to work. I rarely talk to anybody, and I never, ever feel lonely on these trips, despite that I spend all of my time completely alone. I come back glowing, and it’s because I’m completely rejuvenated. When people say “no worries or cares” I think what worries most people isn’t even the worries-it’s the constant process of making the 3,000 decisions that go into your daily life. Those constant decisions are there in most vacations, too. The simplicity of a running trip…I think I’m onto something.

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SNOW (and so I’ve had my mountains all to myself)

I’ve basically spent the entire winter dreaming of winter being over. Do I like winter sports? Yeah, of course I do. But whoa mg all of this snow is cold and wet and it gets in the way.

You know what I’m so tired of?? Post holing. It was so bad one time and my shins were so swollen and bruised that I felt like I had stress fractures all over again (you road runners know what this feels like).

if you cannot tell, this is up to my waist.  MY WAIST.  I call this snowwimming

if you cannot tell, this is up to my waist. MY WAIST. I call this snowwimming

Anyway, the point is that there was a two-part happening that’s made me realized why the snow is secretly good (it’s a theme this winter-something I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about). I went down to the Front Range to visit a friend and had two days of most excellent summer trail running. It was more than magnificent. It was fast and wild and rolling and hard and FINALLY I was tired from fast elevation gain and not from dragging in the snow. We burned up Bear Peak, stood in the river and drank from waterfalls, raced mountain bikers. We also dodged all sorts of people, answered questions, listened to their small talk, and actually ran into some friends.

from Bear Peak

from Bear Peak

So then I came home to the mountains, where it was actually snowing (of course) but it didn’t stick. So we went up to Half Moon Creek. And get this-they’ve opened the road! It’s not passable yet but MORE THAN HALF was clear of snow.

LOOK!  It's the ground!

LOOK! It’s the ground!

I had to carry my microspikes for the 4 miles in to the TH because there wasn’t enough snow to wear them! But, here’s what I realized is the problem with such magic. When the snow is all melted off of Half Moon Creek road, you’ll be able to drive right up to the TH (imagine that!) and even camp along it! When the trails are clear of snow, it will be downright easy to summit my mountains…which is fantastic, until I think about the piles upon piles of fair weather Coloradans that will come out when it’s easy again. The snow: it makes me cold and wet, it exhausts me and causes me to carry all kinds of different equipment, it bruises my shins and knees and other things when I fall dramatically on my face. And the snow: it’s the exact reason why I’ve spent an entire winter almost completely alone in my beautiful mountains in perfect quite and solitude.

Just me and Luna, enjoying the summit of Quandary ALONE for the 7th time this winter or so

Just me and Luna, enjoying the summit of Quandary ALONE for the 7th time this winter or so

Someone told me after I moved here that the other long distance runners in town do road miles and skate ski on the groomed paths around town, but they most certainly don’t run trails in the winter. Like it’s dirty and wrong! Which is why I’m probably the only one filling out those Mt.Massive Wilderness use permits.

welcome to mt. massive wilderness

welcome to mt. massive wilderness

As much as I’ve enjoyed running with my feet on the ground, I’m going to continue loving my peace and alone time while I have it.

on the way back in n. 10 mile trail north of Frisco

on the way back in n. 10 mile trail north of Frisco

...and me looking awkward, just for good measure.  By the river on the way up Mt. Yale

…and me looking awkward, just for good measure. By the river on the way up Mt. Yale

Elbert & Massive (the two tallest peaks in CO in 24 hours)

I hadn’t gotten to a fourteener since the epic Sawtooth day of awesomeness, so I got this guy on the books. Mt. Massive (14,428) and Mt. Elbert (14,433) (you guys know how much I love parentheses-elevation is speculated, there are a lot of numbers floating around but they’re all within a few feet).

Lu came with me to my Monday morning class, then we headed to Mark’s house to set out for Leadville, CO (but first-coffee and a quick grocery store trip). With iced coffee and frosted donuts, we were en route to the mountains.

On the way into the national forest to the TH, we came across my friend Chris from the Evans hike who was meeting us for the hike up. I had chosen the Southwest slopes route because we were going to be getting a late start-we hit the TH at 11am. So we were looking at 9ish miles and 3,950′ gain. The first couple miles were in the woods and meadow and very lovely, but the gain started pretty quickly and we were headed up.

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Mark was feeling hella strong (probably all of that Orange Theory working out, we speculated) and I was feeling hella-not-energized (here’s a moment that I’m going to take to tell you that I did not properly feed myself or hydrate on Monday…I did not take this trip seriously enough and had cookie dough and Coke for dinner the night before…then coffee and donuts for breakfast WHOOPS. Lesson=learned) and my thighs were BURNING and I wasn’t getting to my second wind very quickly. So Chris and I took it relatively easy while Mark trucked on.

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This was basically the story of the whole ascent, but it was beautiful and pleasant. When we reached the top, Mark was sitting on the rocks chilling and we commented about where the summit actually was (Massive has several false peaks) and we were informed that we were on it!

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The ascent went pretty quickly, we were back down around 6:30. Chris was dying to put his feet in the river, and Mark and I were dying to go into Leadville for some Coke. Sad, right? Nothing like a cold soda after working your thighs to death! There is KILLER camping in the forest between our TH and the Elbert TH that was further east on the way in. We picked a spectacular spot in great vicinity to the roaring river (and with the world’s most epic firepit, that I, of course, didn’t take a picture of because my phone was dead by now). We had Mark’s tent so it was put up in a jiffy, and I used my badass fire starting skillz to get a roaring fire going to cook our veggie dogs and bourbon baked beans over. Chips and coke too!?! Plus-Lu got the extra “dogs” and beans so we hit the tent with full happy bellies.

Not quite a 5am wake up, but 6am so not too shabby. We broke camp and headed to the Elbert TH to rock out one more mountain before we had to head back to Denver. The Elbert TH was already very crowded, the parking lot nearly full and a line for the highly overused bathrooms (should’ve pooped at the campsite, damn). There’s a bit of trail in the woods that’s a nice windy hike, then suddenly BAM! steep incline that never lets up. We passed several people in this section, constantly thinking- any second now, this steepness will let up. It never, ever did. It was a wild trail, the standard route, just up and up with no breaks. But, to gain 4700′ in 5 miles is a lot!

Still snow.

Still snow.

We were fully prepared with food and water, though, and I felt amazing on this hike. Just hauling ass and taking names. We continually encountered more and more people-good lord this trail was busy on a Tuesday! Then we got to the steepest of the steep parts! Oof! I had a mantra in my head on this one-can’t stop, won’t stop. I was rocking as hard as I could. We had seen 3 people trail running on this route (I know, right?? New goals) and somehow right in the middle of the steepest stretch with a little less than a mile left to go I suddenly thought I could run to the finish. That didn’t happen. But, I didn’t take any breaks and was pretty proud.

We spent approximately long enough to take this picture on the summit-it was crowded.

We spent approximately long enough to take this picture on the summit-it was crowded.

We really burned it on the way down. And we realized something-we didn’t start Massive until 11am on Monday-and headed down from the Elbert summit it was only a little after 10am! Two peaks in 24 hours! It felt good.

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The Elbert trip was the fastest fourteener I’ve done to date. I thought about it a lot on this trip and decided to go for my new goal: 28 fourteeners before I turn 28, which means I’ve got 18 to go before October 3rd! It’s a tall order, but I think it’s doable. We fueled down at the Boathouse in Frisco-fries, mountain dew, and pizza.

The mountains are waiting, so get on your way.