We were sitting on a couple of small boulders on the edge of the trail, just past the first true false summit on the trek up Mt Elbert, pausing for just a moment to catch our breath. This was becoming a trend - hike up 20 feet, stop, catch our breath, repeat. Josh said it best, Mt Elbert is a rollercoaster of emotions, luckily we tended to ebb at different points of the climb, so one of us was always feeling okay.
Little did I know I was climbing for more than just the views.
We woke before our alarms, at 5 am. The tent was covered in a thin layer of snow and the wind kept us up most of the night, whispering thoughts of ferocious wildlife through our ears. I was jittery on the drive to the trailhead, anxious and feeling underprepared for the ambitious climb we were about to take on.
Josh was feeling excited, and I was surprised he wasn't more nervous since he'd been the one worried about the climb since he first mentioned we attempt it. As we drove up to the mountain my anxieties multiplied, it is towering as you drive up to its base, as you would expect from the second highest mountain in the continental US.
The weirdest things can make you feel better in situations like this - just the fact that there were bathrooms at the trailhead completely calmed my nerves. It was a sign that a lot of people do this, and make it back to use the bathrooms.
The first hour of the climb was easy. It was in the woods, trees breaking here and there to give way to a warming day, lakes below and nearby mountains we could use to check our elevation. We were hiking on the Continental Divide trail (North trailhead), which we both thought was cool. You could walk along the equator and never know that you'd been walking on such an important line, but you know you're on the Continental Divide, especially when you finally get to the summit and all you can see are rows and rows of mountains. Slowly but surely the hike got steeper and steeper. We set our sights on the tree line, allowing ourselves to think that was the halfway point and resting in our hammock for a solid lunch.
The tree line might mark the halfway point, but only as far as distance is concerned. It took us far more time to hike the exposed, rocky, stair-like terrain to the summit. This portion of the climb was both mentally and physically exhausting. We kept motivating ourselves through the progress of a couple ahead of us. When they paused, we paused, if they moved forward, so did we.
If we were on that mountain by ourselves I'm not sure we would have made it to the top. The instant camaraderie is evident at the summit, where people share their experiences, other 14-ers they've accomplished, taking photos, and sharing secrets for getting free sandwiches back on earth.
Mount Elbert has three false summits, but for a couple who had never experienced a mountain of this magnitude before, every twist in the trail seemed to present a false summit. In a way the thought of a summit gives you a burst of energy, even if it completely deflates when you realize that you still have a long way to go.
I kept asking Josh if he wanted to turn around. We'd still made it higher than any hike we could have done in Ohio, where the highest point is 1,550 feet and classified as a hill. Even if he had trouble breathing, his legs were exhausted and his body couldn't tell if it was hot or cold (or maybe this was just me?) he never once let on - we were making it to the top.
It's hard to describe how I felt when we finally made it to the top. It's really incredible what those last 25 feet in elevation do the view. Especially on top of Mount Elbert, where you are higher than everything around you, it's a really visceral experience. I was overcome with pride, anxiety (now we had to go back down, and it was steep!), but mostly, awe. It was hard to hold back tears.
We climbed Mount Elbert at the end of September, so the leaves were at their peak. You could spin in circles and no matter which direction you were facing when you stopped, mountain views extended to the horizon.
And then we pose for pictures, with another couple taking pictures with my cell phone and my camera. Josh plays along for a few shots, but I turn because he said my name and he was down on one knee holding a ring. If I thought the mountains were making me tear up, this love that we've shared for 5 years, love that has led us to accomplish one of the most difficult things we had ever done, love that led him to propose to spend the rest of his life with me in front of a small crowd, definitely had me choked up. All of my fatigue, anxiety and thoughts of the mountain dissipated into pure happiness. Needless to say, I was no longer worried about the trip down the mountain.
I could give you a bulleted list of advice for climbing a mountain like Mount Elbert, but it's really a test for your mind. There were people old and young, in amazing shape and average, from near and far, there was even a dog on the summit. How long can you push yourself? I promise you'll feel like you've entered a different world when you finally make it to the top and you'll form an unparalleled bond with nature.
Laura Ryan is an avid hiker and Communications Associate living in Columbus, Ohio who is working on her Master's in Public Health from The Ohio State University.