First 14er is result of lifestyle change
Leaving behind two packs a day, 70 pounds and the video games to become a climber
I’m a Colorado kid. I’ve rafted, fished, hiked, mountain biked and played all over this state. But never have I climbed one of the mountains we are so famous for. Five years ago I was a two-pack-a-day smoker and pushing 270 pounds. I was a decent bowler and an amateur golfer, but that was all my fitness level would allow. I could barely hike down to the side of a lake to fish.
Four years ago I kicked the smoking habit which, although extremely difficult, was worth every painstaking minute. Then I got outside. I started biking the Riverside trail. Just a mile or two at first but eventually I was riding 20 miles a clip.
One day I looked up and everything had changed. I was no longer glued to my video games and my easy chair. I was outside enjoying myself. I instigated the lifestyle changes that so many people only talk about and was now faced with a new question. What am I going to do next?
Last January I put this same question to my friend. Mike is 12 years my junior and loves fitness, dabbling in cross-fit and focusing on pushing his physical limits. He thought the best way for me to test mine was to climb a 14er, or two. He had climbed Uncompahgre Peak when he was younger but just last year had summited Snowmass Peak and found it to be the perfect test for fitness. If I was curious as to where I was compared to my smoking days then this was the test.
I knew I needed to get in shape first, though. I was healthier but not healthy. The bar is pretty low when you do nothing but smoke and drink for 15 years. So I set a tangible New Year’s resolution – do whatever you need to climb a 14er in six months.
After some consultation and research, Mike and I decided to start with Uncompahgre Peak. It has the advantage of having a trail nearly all the way to the top. We figured we could do the easy peak first and then do one or two more challenging peaks later in the summer.
Then something happened. Mike graduated from college (congrats bro!) and with his well deserved grad money he decided to get outfitted. New pack, new bag, new stove, new kitchen, etc. Between that and the weather, our tester trip to check my fitness level turned into a three peaks in two days backpacking adventure. Instead of just Uncompahgre, we added Matterhorn Peak, a 13er, and Wetterhorn Peak, a class 3 scramble, to the trip. It was no longer a trip to see if I could make it, it was a trip to see if I could survive it.
The challenge got my Irish up. I dropped more than 30 pounds in six months and didn’t give up beer. I made smart choices when eating, exercised once a day, sometimes twice, but, most importantly, I did not lose focus of my goal. I wanted to be on top of that mountain.
Yes, I had bad days, but I also had good days and the most important advice I can give to someone looking to make the changes as I did is to not get down on yourself when you have a bad day. I quit smoking a dozen times before I actually quit. Every time I quit I learned a little more about how to stop. Fitness is the same way. You learn what works for you a little at a time, even on the days you fail. Don’t beat yourself up. Just keep at it and before long you will end up in the same place I did. Not dreaming about sitting on top of a mountain, but sitting on top of a mountain with your best friend having lunch and sipping 18-year-old scotch. (Not a lot mind you. Just enough.)
After some planning that featured discussions with veteran outdoorsmen, Gerry Roach’s book “Colorado Fourteeners: From Hikes to Climbs” and www.14ers.com, we decided to approach our trip from the Matterhorn Creek trailhead. Our plan was to climb Wetterhorn and Matterhorn on the first day with fresh legs. We’d hike Uncompahgre on day two.
The Matterhorn Creek trailhead is about 9 miles outside of Lake City. Take Hindsdale County Road 20 past the Nellie Creek trailhead to Matterhorn Creek. A 4WD trail will shed the last .6 miles but it is an easy enough hike from the 2WD parking area at an elevation around 10,300 feet. From here, the approach to Wetterhorn and Matterhorn is from the south.
Uncompahgre sits about 2.3 miles west so a base camp between the two makes perfect sense if you want to do some backcountry camping. The easiest way would be to grab the Horn pair from the Matterhorn Creek trailhead and then drive over to the Nellie Creek trailhead and camp for day two before tackling the “Unc.”
Walt Whitman once said, “I no doubt deserved my enemies, but I don’t believe I deserved my friends.” If you don’t think this is true then try this. Grab a buddy, head to the trailhead, tell him you’re broke and he needs to buy gas on the way home, then tell him you forget your hiking boots.
This will go one of two ways. You both go home or your friend bails you out of trouble and buys you new shoes back in Lake City, putting your start time of dawn aside to make sure you are safe. (On a side note, if you are at Johnny Carino’s and have a server named Mike, please tip him well. I still owe him $50 dollars on a new pair of shoes). Friends are cool.
Footwear issue resolved, we hit the trail. It’s a decent incline, around 1,000 feet per mile, but manageable even with full packs on. The path is worn and easy to follow. I saw immediately I was going to have problems keeping up with my cross-fit friend. I am in the best shape of my life. Unfortunately, so is he. However, Mike has been one of my friends supporting my lifestyle changes, so he was more than accommodating, adjusting his speed to keep us both at a pace we were comfortable with. Another friend gave me a piece of advice for the trip that came in handy, “go at a pace you can hike all day.”
For the first mile or so I had this constant thought in my head of “what are you doing?” My pack was heavy and I knew we were barely getting started. There was a level of concern I couldn’t shake. I had no idea what to expect. After all, we had ice axes and helmets strapped to our packs. Nothing had prepared me for the thought of heading up a mountain with an axe in my hand and helmet on my head. Plus, there was this fitness question. After spending the better part of my life smoking, was I going to have the lung capacity to climb a 14er safely? The Altitude Sickness web page kept throwing nasty facts in my head. But, when you’re walking in shoes your friend bought you, you block that out and keep up. There was no way I was going to even hint at a complaint after the start of the day. With that mindset we were in the shadows of Matterhorn and Wetterhorn before midday.
For those of you who have never stood at the base of one of these mountains and gazed at their monstrosity, you are missing out. These mountains are massive juggernauts that tower over the other peaks around them. Once we found the Wetterhorn trail, something else took the place of all that worry and concern – adrenaline.
All I could think about was getting on top of that mountain. Mike was equally excited. We stashed the packs and attacked it from the east. Even though we had made more than 2,000 feet of elevation gain already, we still had 2,000 more to go. Wetterhorn Peak is the 49th highest 14er in Colorado. For you GPS people, it sits at 38º 03’ 38” N, 107º 30’ 37” W. The trail takes you to about 13,000 feet. Then the test of not only physical fitness, but mental awareness begins.
I was certainly feeling the altitude at this point, but the body felt surprisingly good. I didn’t realize how much effort we were going to have to put into finding a route though. What I thought was going to be a physical challenge ended up being more of a mental challenge. We had brought maps, copies of route tips and some pictures to help guide our way and we used them all. Navigating the scree and getting to the prow took more than a smile and a handshake. Be prepared to use both your feet and hands, but a rope isn’t necessary. It is tricky, but the summit is attainable without technical climbing gear.
The final pitch is the most intimidating due to a steep scramble and the sense of elevation. One doesn’t literally climb to the top over a 1,000 foot cliff, but it feels like it. We dubbed these “pucker moments,” and there were several. My strategy was focus. One hand, one foot, other hand, other foot, and don’t do anything stupid. This is a good approach. If you don’t look up it helps fight the urge to look down. Do this until you run out of mountain.
The summit was a life changing outdoor experience. Having dreams is one thing, chasing dreams is another, but catching a dream is something totally different. Touching the summit rock after such a strenuous afternoon physically altered me for life. My two-packs-a-day past seemed to be put to rest. Panoramic views surrounded the accomplishment and overwhelmed all the senses. Whatever problems you had when you started seem small and trivial. And the mountains continue on in all directions for miles. On the valley floors we are surrounded by mountains. Even on the passes we travel between mountains. On the summit of a 14er, we are finally on top of the mountains.
After a small sip of 18-year-old-scotch and some lunch we headed back down. The descent was bittersweet but we still had two more peaks to climb, and we did get a later start than planned.
We opted to set up a small, non-invasive, environmentally friendly base camp at the base of Matterhorn and rest up. We had a full day already and our bodies were worn out. The plan was to be up with the sun for Uncompahgre first thing. Climb Matterhorn on the way out and head to the truck where we had our victory dance waiting for us.
The weather was perfect. It was windy at times and although the sky did get dark once or twice it never rained or forced us to put on warmer layers. Windbreakers were all we needed. Uncompaghre sits three miles east of Wetterhorn (38º 04’ 18” N, 107º 27’ 41” W). It is most easily accessed from the Nellie Creek trailhead but we opted to hike down into the valley and double back up the ridge on the east side. The “Unc” is the sixth highest peak in Colorado (14,309 feet), and is one very large chunk of rock, seriously huge. A 700-foot cliff sits on its northwest side. For the most part, there’s a trail all the way to the top. The one short scramble is no more than 10 meters long. Anyone with some common sense can do this one.
This mountain was different than Wetterhorn. The lack of route finding made this a long trek. I found this challenged my fitness more than the technical scramble up Wetterhorn. It was one foot in front of the other, up and up some more. The cardio challenge was on. For the first time I was dizzy and didn’t feel very good. I’m sure it wasn’t Acute Mountain Syndrome, but the elevation had something to do with it. I honestly think I didn’t eat enough. That much exercise in those conditions requires a hefty caloric intake. Mike kept getting farther and farther ahead, but I needed to hike slower and safer. My lungs have healed some, but in the high altitude I could feel my chest hurt in the same places it used to when I smoked. That habit still keeps me from doing the things I want to do and I haven’t had a smoke in more than four years. But I was wearing shoes I hadn’t paid for yet, so I kept on at a steady pace, stopping to snack and get my mind right when needed.
The Uncompahgre summit is as spectacular as Wetterhorn. It is the sixth highest point in the state, which certainly demands respect. The cliff is worth seeing. The only pucker moment on this ascent is standing on top of that edge and looking down. The sense of pride I found after summiting two 14ers in two days was intensified by my struggle to the top. Nothing like being reminded of who you used to be and finishing something because of who you are.
The mission to find my fitness level was successful. As we came off of Uncompahgre I knew there was hardly any gas in the tank for the 13er. When we made it back to base camp at midday Mike and I assessed our situation. The clouds were darkening again and I was feeling every one of those high altitude miles. Come to find out so was he. We concluded that although we could probably summit Matterhorn, the descent and the long trek out was a safety concern, especially if we pushed our luck with the weather. We loaded up everything and headed for the victory dance.
That sip of scotch on the top of Wetterhorn was a mighty fine sip, but those iced down beers at the truck were divine. Resting our blistered feet and listening to one of our favorite bands with a cold beer was the perfect end to a trip that started out the exact opposite way. We had overcome physical barriers, mental challenges, and my sheer ignorance of leaving my hiking boots at home for a backpacking trip. All that aside we were both happy.
Personally I couldn’t be more pleased with the lifestyle changes I have made. No, we didn’t climb all three peaks on our original plan, but mountaineering seems like everything else, you learn a little more about it every time you do it.
A few simple facts remain. I have been smoke free for more than four years, I’m more than 70 pounds lighter, and I have a pair of 14er summits on the resume. Life is pretty good.