Monday, August 19, 2019


I admit this is a birthday I wanted to ignore. I mean, 40. Phew. The number might explain why I was so dog-days-of-summer tired, burnt out on sun and heat, and dreading a commitment to upcoming months of intensive training. I suppose this would be the best time to submit to a much-needed reset. But what would that say about my impending senescence, if a milestone birthday brought the perfect excuse for a silly adventure, and I just let it pass me by?

I'd first imagined the adventure one year ago, as I was jogging down Old Fall River Road after summiting three 13,000-foot peaks that just happened to be a ridge I wanted to traverse in Rocky Mountain National Park. "I did three 13ers for my 39th, which means I need to do four 14ers for my 40th!" The math didn't actually work out, and I don't even care all that much about 14ers. Mountains are mountains. But I admit, there is transcendental draw to climbing as high as one can go. The air is rarified in more ways than simple lack of oxygen.

I’m not sure when I decided that birthdays were for adventure. It was probably my 12th, when I pushed to host my own party at Magic Waters, the rundown waterpark near the prison. Being a kid with a late-summer birthday was always sort of hard. Friends were either out of town or busy with back-to-school. It felt anticlimactic to become the age that my peers had been for months. Twelve is probably the hardest age of them all, but it marked my becoming a “young woman.” I wanted to acknowledge this as something special. 

 The day of my birthday proved bleak with threatening thunderstorms. Pools cleared out as thunder rumbled, and then one of the shoddy waterslides was shut down due to an unspecified failure. A wildfire burned in the foothills, and black smoke billowed overhead. I remember gazing at the ominous sky and feeling a kind of foreboding, a gloom that lingered as adult hormones began to take hold — a sense that life was always in the process of ending … not beginning.

For my Four-14er adventure, I schemed a fairly straightforward route. The knee I injured in May remains slightly unstable, and some lingering pain was enough to justify taking no big chances with difficult terrain. I researched 14ers with reasonable proximity and routes that didn't go harder than an easy class two, and came up with Huron, Belford, Oxford and Missouri — four rubbly summits in the Sawatch Range. Sticking to standard routes would require 34 miles of hiking with 12,000 feet of climbing. Some of this could be cut off by driving a road, but even in my contrived adventures I am something of a purist, so I planned to hike every mile. I considered trying to knock it out in one day, but didn't want to risk wrenching my wobble knee on rubble in the dark. Plus, it's my birthday. This didn't have to be a sufferfest.

The day I turned 18 was my first and last experience with bungee jumping. I was accompanied by my senior-year boyfriend, Eric, who was a few years older and attended community college. He won my heart by offering to pick me up from high school every afternoon in his Saab, which saved the indignity of walking. After graduation, I returned the favor by dragging him on difficult hikes in the Wasatch Mountains. He always obliged, even when it was clear he was terrified of exposure. (In hindsight, 40-year-old me is even more fearful that he ever was, and I miss the chutzpah of my youth.) 

The final straw was the Pfeifferhorn, with its razor-thin ridge and loose-scree scramble up a vertical-looking face. During the descent, I crossed onto the steep snowfield above Lower Red Pine Lake and pulled a gallon-size Ziplock bag out of my pack. “Easier way down,” I suggested, knelt onto my “sled,” and immediately plummeted into an uncontrolled slide. I attempted to kick my body sideways — the way one stops a snowboard — and began to spin. The world gyrated in a blue and white blur. I remember feeling confident that if I couldn’t stop before I hit the lake I’d just swim, not acknowledging that my body would probably be spinning at freeway speeds when I hit the shallow water. Eventually the whirling slowed, my head stopped spinning, and I staggered onto my feet. The summit ridge was now hundreds of feet overhead. “Made it!” I called out, although Eric was too far away to hear. I wasn’t surprised when he turned to climb down the rocky side of the ridge. He still swears that he watched my limp body bounce across an exposed boulder field. He was amazed when I stood and raised my arms, apparently unscathed. We would never hike together again. 

He did, however, agree to go bungee jumping. We drove to the Fun Dome, a tower that loomed almost directly over Interstate 15. We paid for three jumps each. I remember the experience being nothing like I expected, noting like hiking big mountains. There was no thrill, no affirmation of life — just pain and nausea. This was the day I realized that I wasn’t, and would never be, an adrenaline junkie.

Thursday and Friday brought an encouraging weather window. It was a few days early, but the days surrounding my birthday were busy, and I'll avoid weekends at any chance. I found a lovely campsite just a quarter mile from the Missouri Gulch Trailhead, where I was packed and ready to start at 11:30 a.m. The campsite was ideal; it meant I'd get all of the road-walking — 12 miles' worth — out of the way on the first day. Although I'll admit that I quietly love boring, predictable road-walking. I don't have to watch where I put my feet, and there's no real concentration or effort to it. I can look up as much as I want, trace the contours of the mountains, wander through the landscape of my mind, and reflect on the past and future. Birthdays moved to the forefront of my mental reel. For a day of contrived importance during a month I never liked, I was surprised how impactful many of my birthdays have been.

If was lucky to survive to see 18, it was pure fluke that got me past 19. For the celebratory weekend, my friends and I went to the “beach” — the rocky shoreline of Jordanelle Reservoir. I had recently taken a short-lived interest in long-distance swimming, and announced plans to swim to the opposite shoreline and back. The water was cold, and I was relieved when my limbs adjusted to the shock. It took about 20 minutes of swimming to realize I was in a greater deal of trouble. My legs were so numb that I could no longer effectively kick, my shoulders were quaking, and my torso felt like a sack of refrigerated meat, too heavy to keep afloat. Survival instinct kicked in as I turned back toward shore. Fear was absent, but there was an urgency to my movements, and a primal understanding that sleepiness was my worst enemy. By the time I made it back to land, my core temperature had dropped substantially. I staggered onto the beach, feeling no relief, only numbness and blurred vision. My friends offered me a towel. There was a sharp electric jolt when my teeth finally started chattering. I huddled in direct sunlight amid 100-degree heat for the rest of the afternoon, shivering.

The jaunt up Mount Huron was fantastic. The trail cleared out by early afternoon, the skies remained friendly, and I made great time for relatively little effort. I even snagged a "CR" on a Strava segment out of 137 hikers — keeping in mind that women who label their ascents as runs aren't included in the hiking segments. Still, the recovery from my knee injury has been a little frustrating. There were times when I wondered if I'd ever be able to use it normally again. That I can still charge up a mountain at a reasonably fast clip is gratifying.

Huron is just barely a 14er at 14,003 feet. But it's high, and somewhere above 12,000 feet, I found myself wavering. After a number of years dealing with asthma and thyroid-related breathing difficulties, I've become well-acquainted with oxygen deprivation — both physical and mental effects. Low blood oxygen often begins as a mild euphoria, a feeling of transcendence, before plummeting into crushing fatigue and depression. But those early effects, I will admit, are magical. I floated through the rarified air, dancing through a semi-dream state. Such an empty, gorgeous place to have to myself, so unhindered. I can't believe this life has given me 40 years. What a gift.

The universe has often been kind to me when I didn’t deserve grace. My 21st birthday demanded a night of low-rent debauchery at the Red Garter, a rundown casino in Wendover, Nevada. My friends were at the bar when I snuck off to the roulette wheel. Empowered by my legal adulthood, I put two dollars on 21, which landed. Seventy dollars in hand, I was about to walk away, but a flutter of still-unappreciated adrenaline hit. I placed $20 back on the number 21, reasoning that the rest was more than enough winnings. To my utter astonishment, the number landed again. What I felt in that moment was less like an adrenaline rush and more like horror, as this was an obscene amount of undeserved money. 

Embarrassed, I didn’t tell my friends about the big win. A few months later, the saved money would go toward the purchase of a ’96 Geo Prism. I’d burned out the engine of my ’89 Toyota Tercel during the return trip from Wendover, while attempting to max out the speed gauge across the Bonneville Salt Flats.

I wrapped up the first leg in about seven hours, which gave me all evening to cook dinner, relax, and read my Kindle in the tent. This felt like undeserved opulence during my supposed birthday vision quest. I slept poorly though, weirdly overheated at 9,000 feet, and a little anxious about the following day. Mountains do scare me. They didn't so much when I was 18, but the fear is worsening as I age, mistakes stack up alongside experience, and my understanding of consequences deepens. Just because lifespans hit 80 or 100 years old, doesn't mean we'll get another minute. The chaotic workings of the universe decide our timeline. We have some say, though, and it's counterproductive to take risks. Risk-taking may not be the best path to a long life, but few would dispute that risks are necessary for a good life. So I seek, and also I fret.

Anticipating a long day with more uncertainty about the weather, I was back on the trail by 5:30 a.m. The trailhead parking lot was already full, and dozens of people had set out in the predawn darkness. Colorado 14er culture is amusing. I can't say I fit in with this crowd, with their alpine starts and cardboard signs bearing the altitude of each peak, but I'm here, all the same. It was a lovely morning, but the wind was already howling by sunrise. I crossed a valley scoured by recent avalanches. It looked as though a bomb had hit, with massive trees littered like toothpicks down the slope. The power of mountains ... we underestimate it, all of us.

The day I turned 24 was the day I embarked on a 3,200-mile bicycle tour to New York. Having spent most of the summer driving around Alaska and only casually hiking and mountain biking, the weight and wobbly handling of my fully loaded touring bike was an unpleasant surprise. The rim brakes squealed as we descended out of the Avenues neighborhood. We merged onto Interstate 80, sadly the only way east out of Salt Lake City. For the rest of the afternoon we pedaled that unpleasant freeway shoulder toward Park City, under the hot August sun, with barely any training on my young legs. My heart soared with an exhilarating sense of freedom. This would be my greatest adventure. Life wasn’t just ending one day at a time; it was always in the process of beginning anew.

By 8 a.m. I reached the summit of Mount Belford, a tiny nipple on a broad ridge soaring 14,203 feet over far-away oceans, and closer to 4,500 feet over Clear Creek, where I'd camped. The ridge was windy and cold, and I didn't linger.

The steep descent to the saddle between Belford and Oxford brought a bout of dizziness. I'd been too high for too long. This segment wasn't going to be quite as effortless as the previous day, but I was resolved to keep up as strong of a pace as I could manage, because the "weather" was coming — and I can't always count on the universe to be kind.

Oxford is a little lower than Belford, 14,160 feet. I hit this summit at 8:45 a.m., and tried to stuff down a protein bar. My stomach was having none of that nonsense. Ugh, altitude. The rapture of the heights had faded. Gloom and doom crept into the foreground. "It's just oxygen," I told myself, a reminder that my perceptions were shaded by body chemistry, and reality wasn't nearly so dark.

By 26 I was embroiled in a quarter-life crisis. My parents visited me in Idaho Falls and brought a birthday gift, a cabinet set for my apartment. The furniture felt like a sign that I needed to stop being so wishy-washy, set better anchors, and focus on my career and future. Two days later, my long-distance boyfriend — with whom I believed I’d finally severed ties; I was even dating other people — decided to drive all the way down from Alaska and talk me into returning with him to the Last Frontier. Adventure lust took hold, an unstoppable force set in motion. Everything after that happened in quick succession, as though the universe was making decisions for me. By mid-September I had a newspaper job, an cabin high on a ridge above Kachemak Bay, and a whole new life in Homer, Alaska.

Descending just a thousand feet made such a difference. The ridge from Belford to Elkhead Pass was stunning — high basins and peaks over every horizon. I skidded down snowfields to return to Missouri Basin, where I'd connect with the final 2,000-foot climb to my fourth peak, Missouri Mountain. My emotions were in a brighter place, but I felt solidly nauseated by this point, forcing down applesauce to keep the glucose flowing. My calves started to cramp. At times I was forced to kneel down and wait for the gripping pain to release. The route snaked through a tumble of boulders beneath a cliff face, well-defined but far from easy. Clouds began to gather overhead. The steep side-slope made me feel uneasy. The 13,000-foot mark is where the mental darkness returned. Misery mountain. It's probably best I saved this one for last.

The summit ridge was longer than I'd expected, rolling ceaselessly toward never-ending false summits. The off-camber surface was loose and rubbly, and the footing was bad. As I neared the peak, exposure became more pronounced. At times I knelt low because I didn't trust my shoes not to slip off the side. I rounded a rock outcropping just in time to see a man I'd been shadowing for some time, scrambling on all fours up the seemingly vertical side slope. His motions were frantic. Dust swirled around him as he emitted a harrowing, guttural growl. I could only surmise that he actually did slip off the trail. He recovered his stance and looked up at me. I couldn't quite see his expression, but I could sense what he was communicating. Be very careful. I didn't want to go. I didn't want to be here anymore, on this high mountain with its poor footing, clouds already rolling in, stomach and leg muscles revolting. The true summit of Missouri Mountain was now less than 500 horizontal feet away. Could I really justify turning back now? Why are mountain summits so symbolic?

By the time I hit 30, the boyfriend had broken it off for good, and I was bitterly single, somewhat homeless, and stuck in a stressful and all-consuming job in isolated and rain-soaked Juneau, Alaska. Unsurprisingly, I took this milestone birthday hard. I planned a barbecue at the house where I was crashing, inviting the few friends who hadn’t shrunk away amid the awkwardness with my ex. I dreaded this party, and posted sad memes on Facebook about how I didn’t think anyone was going to show up. The night before my birthday, I spent hours after work preparing food in my friends’ kitchen, staying up well past 3 a.m., just so I’d have the time to check out for most of the following day. My new plan was to finally tackle Mount McGinnis — and thus, make my own way "over the hill." The nipple-shaped peak over the Mendenhall Valley was one of the most prominent summits in Juneau. The 4,000-foot ascent on muddy roots and tundra was exhausting, and it rained most of the way down. Near the bottom I took an hard fall that would prove to not be my last injuring accident on a mountain on my birthday. Still, I hadn’t felt so satisfied in a long time. There was a sense that the mountains would always be there. No matter what changed in my life, mountains would remain.

Symbolism, and the stories we tell, form the base of our lives. I knew I couldn't turn my back on four 14ers at this point. Cold wind buffeted my legs as I side-stepped off the crumbling trail and climbed onto the rock outcropping, hoping the scramble would go. It was such a relief to be back on solid ground, even ground that was somewhat technical and exposed. I scooted up a few pitches that proved more tricky to down-climb with heavy fatigue, knotted calves and a wobble knee, but nothing was terribly difficult. Suddenly I was standing on top of Missouri, elevation 14,075 feet. Mountains conquered — if not fear.

I looked back at the tiny nipple of Mount Belford. The profile reminded me of Mount McGinnis, which renewed reflections on a birthday adventure that's now a decade in the past. How does so much time just slip away? I suppose that's why we seek out these memorable experiences, these connections to the stories that go on. 


  1. Wow, amazing story as always!

    But it might be time to break the new birthday pattern next year - I'm certain you can do three 15ers, but before this gets out of hand, let's get the math back on track with two 14ers and one 13er. =D

    Although there's three 15ers in Alaska that might be possible to string together, so...

  2. It was my 12th birthday as well when I sort of accidentally decided that birthdays are for adventure! Maybe there is something about 12.

  3. If we used Base 11, you'd only be 37.

  4. Ok this is a fantastic post and a reminder of why writers are so valuable in this age of photography overload. Your photos are stunning but I would never guess at the windy tumult and the treacherous trails you dealt with if I hadn't read your story. And all the memories that accompanied you on this trip are special too. Again HB and I hope the 40s deliver peace and adventure plenty.

  5. I've always thought that a January birthday was supremely unfair. Hb, you are still young. I used to do big things for birthdays but meh. The older I get the less I want to acknowledge the calendar. Though it beats the alternative.

  6. 40 eh? You've yet to peak, girl :)
    Box Canyon

  7. Sadly ironic that the internet's number 1 cold fan should have a mid August birthday.

  8. Happy Birthday (now much belated)! As always, superb writing; I especially enjoyed your recall of past birthday adventures.


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