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The Height of Adventure: Climbing a Rocky Mountain

Why did nine NextTribers climb a 14,000-feet mountain in Colorado? Because it was there. Ellesor Holder reports from thin air.

Reality quickly set in around 13,000 feet when a mountain goat and her baby trotted by navigating nimbly the steep incline and rocky terrain that I was stumbling over.

“Whose idea was this?” came a voice from behind me. It was Jean, my childhood friend and fellow NextTriber, who came from Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., elevation nine feet.

“Jeannieeeeee,” I sputtered breathlessly with a laugh as I paused on the path leaning on my hiking poles and taking in the vast stretch of mountains surrounding us.

I was referring to Jeannie Ralston, founder of NextTribe, who e-mailed me last fall with the idea of a trip to climb a Colorado “Fourteener” which refers to one of the 58 mountains in the state with altitude higher than 14,000 feet.

I have always wanted to do one; I’d tried years ago when I was in my 30s, but a quick-moving summer storm made me turn around before reaching the top.

“I’m in,” I exclaimed when I read about the trip, which would base in Breckenridge, CO. And with a quick text to my new friends from the NextTribe Inca Trail/Machu Picchu trip last October, I wasn’t the only one signing up. High-five and hiking boot emojis started popping up on my phone and five of us were booked. Joining us too would be a NextTribe trip newbie, Lisa, from San Antonio,TX. Together, we would hike our first fourteener—under the guidance of three local NextTribe women who have climbed numerous fourteeners.

Read More: The Women Who Prove You’re Never Too Old for Adventure

On Our Way to Quandary Peak

hiking trips for women over 50

Starting out before dawn; at sunrise, the group still had 9 hours of hiking ahead of them.

Jeannie Ralston and I have known each other since college and have shared many adventurous escapades including topping out together on the Inca Trail at Dead Woman’s Pass at 13,800 feet. I also have something of an Everest obsesssion. I’ve read everything ever written (I think) about the climb. I follow the big name climbers on social media. I’m fascinated with the resilience and strength it takes to make that summit.

So when Jeannie put together this trip, I saw it as a chance to taste even a little bit of what goes into conquering the highest mountain in the world. Plus, it would be done in true NextTribe style–totally immersive, culturally engaging, and awe-inspiring with like-minded women who would be all “in” for a Colorado Fourteener challenge.

We are leaving at 4:30 in the morning, so set your alarms.

Known as one of the “easy” fourteeners, Quandary Peak, part of the Tenmile Range, is the 13th highest summit in Colorado at 14,272 feet above sea level. The trailhead is just a 20-minute drive from Breckenridge. The hike has an elevation gain of 3,300 feet and from the trailhead it’s 6.7 miles out and back.

We spent a few days in Breckenridge, acclimating to the altitude there, doing warm-up hikes, enjoying beautiful dinners. The night before our big adventure, we met in the lobby of our hilltop lodge with our three guides who Jeannie secured for our safety and peace-of-mind. Renee, Judy, and Lisa shared what to wear, what to eat, and what to expect. One would be the lead; one would be in the middle, and one would be bringing up the rear—the “sweeper.”

They’d be carrying two-way radios and ensuring we ate, stayed hydrated and paced ourselves for a successful summit attempt. As we concluded our meeting and headed out for a carbo-loading dinner, Jeannie reminded us, “We are leaving at 4:30 in the morning, so set your alarms tonight.”

Into Thin Air

The nimblest creature on the mountain; the rocks and the steepness made climbing slow and difficult.

Dressed in layers, with headlamps on, day packs secured, and gripping our hiking poles, we set out into the pre-dawn darkness. Taking the lead was our astonishingly agile and experienced high-altitude guide, Judy, who wasted no time moving us up the trail.

“Set your pace and find your rhythm,” she shouted with coffee-fueled enthusiasm.

“This is no joke already,” Jean stated as we started up the steep trail.

“Surely it will plateau and flatten out a bit soon,” I said hopefully. Nope.

The trail was now a continuous line of switchbacks up the mountainside, dotted with not only day hikers but mountain goats as well.

The trail wound its way up among the forest trees; our headlamps occasionally revealed stairs in the path constructed out of dirt and trimmed logs. Then, with the sun’s rising streaks of orange light, our surroundings were illuminated, showing us in greater detail the towering trees, verdant plant,  and vibrant wildflowers lining our path. Lucky for us, Renee, our flora and fauna expert, pointed out the wildflower varieties and colorful blooms as we stopped for sips of water and to catch our breath.

Once we ascended above tree line and looked up, there was a collective gasp and someone said, “look at all those rocks!” The trail was now a continuous line of switchbacks up the mountainside, dotted with not only day hikers but mountain goats as well navigating the very rocky, rugged terrain.

“Look, even the mountain goats are breathing hard,” I said to Denise who was close behind me as we passed two panting while they rested on a rocky ledge.

The Wedding March

Continuing up the seemingly never-ending rocky path, Denise said, “I like your pace.” My pace was my own version of the traditional wedding march; I took two steps before pausing.  Instead of step, pause, step, pause I was doing step, step, pause, breath. Step, step, pause, breath. On the Inca trail, Jeannie had coached us to use the wedding march on the uphill climbs. It worked then and with a little variation was working now as we moved up the steep incline and unsteady terrain.

As we continued up, I couldn’t help but ask a hiker already heading back down, “Is that the summit, I see just there?”

False summit!? What the heck!

“No,” he said matter-of-factly, “it is beyond that point. You’ll see when you get up there, past that false summit.”

“False summit!?” I shouted as he hopscotched his way past me. “What the heck! The real summit is still higher up!” Back to step, step, pause, breath. Step, step, pause, breath.

I thought of the people I’d read about on the top of Everest, how they had to reach way down into their reserves to get to the top. I told myself that this false summit was nothing compared to the notorious Hillary Step.

The Peak of Joy

Clockwise, from upper left: All our feet around the geographic marker at the top of Quandary Peak; the whole group made it at last; Renee Brune, one of the guides who made the summit 3 months after a double knee replacement; the author celebrating on what felt like the top of the world.

One by one, we each trudged up and over the rocks to the true summit. Gathering at the geological marker, we high-fived, hugged and celebrated together with big smiles and photos. We all made it! We climbed Quandary Peak. Everyone was full of exhilaration and joy, especially our guides who reveled in our accomplishment bagging our first fourteener. And especially our guide Renee, who made it just three months after having a double knee replacement.

You’d think going down would be easier, but you would be wrong.

Energized by the breathtaking views and replenishment of food and drink to our bodies, it was time to head back down. You’d think going down would be easier, since you’re not exerting effort to pull your feet up, and you’re dropping in altitude rather than gaining. But you would be wrong.

The rocky terrain made the downward journey unnerving. Each step had to be meticulously placed, with our hiking poles serving as body-steadying support. But even with the challenges on the descent, we shared stories, encouragement, and lots of laughter. Then, looking up from the trail beneath our feet, we saw trees. Beautiful, green trees.

“Is it a mirage?” my friend Courtney said with a smile.

“No,” I said, “It is trees… and the end of this rocky madness.” Trees meant no more rocks, no more slipping and sliding, no more hyper-focusing on each step. We screamed with glee and Courtney even hugged one of the trees. But our joy was short-lived.

I shouted back, “Courtney, hold onto your hiking poles, it’s a false tree line!” We both stopped in our tracks laughing. There were more rocks and treacherous trail ahead.

Finally, we did get below the “real” tree line where the trail was more manageable and easier on the eyes and feet. We made it back to the cars one by one. There was no mistaking, we were physically spent but we were also forever bonded by this one-of-a-kind hiking experience. Friends all “in”—NextTribe style.

Read More: How Walking the Camino de Santiago Changed My Life

By Ellesor Holder


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