The adventurous summit to La Plata Peak occurred on June 20, 2016. Normal, sane people plan for plenty of sleep the night before attempting a summit, but Little Bear & I decided over beers at midnight that a 14er climb the following morning was in order. When my alarm rang at 3:00 AM., I think I was still dreaming as I put on my Aksel's "Colorado 14er" hiking socks. I was imagining the Class 2 mountain & wondering whether I could accomplish the ascent. The peak is ranked the 5th highest of the 53 Colorado Fourteeners, wth a summit of 14,336 feet above sea-level. We opted for the Northwest Route, a 9.25 mile roundtrip trail that gains 4,500 feet in elevation from trailhead to summit.
The sunrise that morning was nothing short of glorious, an absolute spectacle that made the collegiate peaks even more majestic than usual. We arrived at the trailhead around 6:00 A.M. & began our ascent feeling optimistic. Little Bear was nice & chatty, which distracted from the chill in the air & the heaving in my lungs. The steepness of our trek began early on, as we approached a set of man-made steps that were built into the edges of the mountain's wilderness. The heaving in my lungs increased ten-fold. I kept reminding myself to hydrate, knowing that I would make myself nauseous if I continued climbing without enough water running through my body.
I remember vividly the switchbacks of this trail, full of loose dirt, gravel, & tiny, unforgiving pebbles of death. I slipped multiple times climbing up, already dreading how I would navigate during the descent. I have a crippling fear of heights, believe it or not, but I love climbing mountains, so I have learned (okay, I'm still learning) how to find a healthy balance in that relationship. We continued to climb, taking in the breathless views of the forests & surrounding mountain ranges. Despite the hundreds of photographs I took that day, not a single one could possibly serve this mountain or its wilderness justice. The beauty is indescribable, even with the photographs to prove it.
Nearly one mile from the summit, I began experiencing a dizzy, nauseous feeling, my body telling me to rest, eat, & hydrate. Even though I am acclimated to the altitude in Colorado Springs (approx. 6,050 feet ASL), anything over 12,500 feet will make me feel a little tipsy. It gets harder to speak, lift my feet, & even walk straight. Due to snow, we lost the main trail & began bouldering to the top -- it helped to "crawl" up the rocks with my arms & legs, as opposed to following the trail & relying on the strength in my legs to carry me to the summit -- but I also exerted so much more energy in the process. I was beginning to feel worse, even when we had recovered & found ourselves back on the main trail. I wanted to give up.
Something you should know is that I had just written my love story to the mountains a few days prior to this ascent & posted it to the blog (see link below). The irony is that I detailed my unending love for the mountains mere days before ascending La Plata, where I exclaimed every ten steps of the last mile that, "This is awful," "I hate this mountain," "I want to give up," & "WHY are we doing this?!" I'm certain I muttered other more colorful phrases as well, & Little Bear laughed as she dissected how my "honeymoon phase" with the mountains was now officially over.
I wanted to punch her for calling me out, but I knew that she was right -- plus, I needed to save my energy for the summit. The lingering, torturous last mile to the summit, I thought about all the ways that my relationship with the mountains was now going through a bit of a rough patch. How my relationship with the mountains parallels all of the real-life romantic relationships out there in the world. Here's what La Plata Peak taught me about relationships:
1. All relationships seem like a good idea in the beginning. Of course we want that summit-high, but we forget that it comes with a price. The same is true of relationships -- they are messy, they usually require some combination of blood, sweat, & tears, & they are exhausting. Not saying they aren't worth it, but we forget about all of the effort required to make a relationship work because we only see this person for the golden pedestal on which they are standing. The "honeymoon phase" leads us to believe that our lives will be full of rainbows & sunshine if we are with this person. But then we start climbing & a few months into the relationship, true colors begin to show & we begin to notice the amount of effort that will be required to make the relationship work. You wonder if the view will be worth all of the energy. Note: some relationships are worth the work, while others are not.
2. Sometimes you need to take a break... & that's okay. Breathe. Relax. Focus. What is the end goal, what do you want, & how will you get there? It's healthy to take a break to reevaluate & reprioritize your life as it relates to the relationship that you're in. Maybe that means stopping altogether, calling it quits, & turning around. Or, maybe that means giving that extra bit of drive, patience, & determination.
3. Take care of yourself, too. In any relationship, please don't forget to take care of yourself in the process. La Plata would have killed me if I hadn't been amply prepared for the journey. I can't rely on the mountains to feed me, give me water regularly, or sustain me -- & you shouldn't be relying on a relationship to meet your basic means of survival, either. Do not become so dependent on your partner that you become roadkill for the mountain lions. Learn how to be independent, happy, & complete on your own first. The right relationship will only enhance your skills & abilities.
4. Sometimes you tumble... hard. We make mistakes. We mess up. We take a giant leap, having faith in our knees, only to have them buckle beneath us. Tumbling leaves us with bruises, scratches, scrapes, & scars, sometimes so deep that we don't want to look at them or have anyone else get near them. Life has no magic formula for success because our lives are full of endless possibilities, some of which we can control, & others that are beyond our reach. Just because you have failed in the past -- with past relationships, with past partners, or if someone from your past has failed you -- doesn't mean that you can't get back up & try again. You may be slow-moving at first, but keep moving. Don't quit. You'll notice that all of the tumbles down the mountain were actually making you stronger for your next adventure.
5. Love is a choice. And you get to decide whether to stay or go. Staying doesn't make you any stronger than the partner who chose to leave, & leaving doesn't make you any stronger than the partner who chose to stay. Just because things worked out between Mount Evans & Mount Bierstadt doesn't mean that things will work out for you & your partner. You both have a choice, you both always have a choice. Climbing La Plata absolutely kicked me arse & I wanted to give up more than once. I sought the advice of a trusted friend, Little Bear, who helped me realize that I did, indeed, want to continue in my relationship with La Plata. Choosing to continue the climb wasn't easy. Every step was increasingly more difficult than the last, but I chose to continue anyway. Because I chose to stay, I was also choosing to fix my attitude towards the peak (albeit, not always willingly). I think choosing whether or not to love someone is both the best & the worst part about being in a serious relationship. We all have some major flaws, but choosing to love our partner means that we are choosing to love all of them, completely inclusive of their past, present, & future mistakes & shortcomings. Sounds absolutely terrifying, much like my ascent on La Plata.
I would love to say that when I reached the summit, I forgot about all of the pain that my body was in... but, truth be told, I was dreading having to go back down the mountain. I was proud of myself, certainly, & felt overwhelmed to have Little Bear by my side. I would not have summited without her encouragement, wit, & sarcasm -- I absolutely would have turned around. We hogged the summit all by ourselves for over an hour, drinking our summit beers, eating lunch, & watching the clouds. The sun was warm & the wind was practically non-existent, the most ideal weather for a climb to date.
The reality of the descent began settling in & we packed up our picnic-spot while prepping our mental strategy. One would assume that going down is way easier than coming up, but that person would also be wrong. The trail was incredibly slippery even though it was completely dry, thanks to those pebbles of death. We were able to glissade down a portion of the peak, on a vodka rain poncho nonetheless, which was probably the most exciting part of the hike. I was terrified I would somehow fall off the side of the mountain, but the poncho didn't let me go. Bless you, vodka poncho.
This mountain tested me physically, mentally, & emotionally, every step of the 9.25 mile, 12 hour journey. I still wonder how we survived, between the three hours of sleep & my ability to trip while rounding every switchback. Back on the trail after glissading, I fell at least six times, one stumble in particular leaving me with the gnarliest, darkest bruise I have ever experienced. Another stumble almost knocked me off the mountain entirely (sorry, Mom), but I was able to catch myself before sliding an extra few hundred feet.
Alas, the views did not disappoint, & despite the fatigue in my body, I felt blessed to be this tightly knit to the wild. I could see the highway & the specks of vehicles that navigated their way around the bends. I could see more trees than I could possibly count. I could see more marmots on the trail than actual people. My love affair with the mountains is still alive & well, & I assure you that I will continue to choose love for the mountains, no matter the cost, strain, or difficulty.
Megan Elizabeth is a storyteller based in Kalispell, Montana. Take a peek at her blog & portfolio, drop her a line, & follow her story on Facebook & Instagram.