Read Caption
Starting up the south ridge of Mount Bierstadt; Photograph by Avery Stonich

No Matter How You Climb, We All Stand on the Same Peak

Last weekend I decided to punish myself. By punish, I mean undertake some sort of brutally long hike to prepare myself for climbing Mont Blanc. I settled on tackling a 14er, since Colorado has quite a few—53, in fact, more than any other state in the nation. I guess you could say Colorado has tentacles that connect to heaven, extracting pure goodness that flows down the mountains and spreads across the vast public lands in our beautiful state.

I chose Mount Bierstadt, one of the easiest 14ers—if you follow the usual route that climbs to the top in three miles. But that wouldn’t do for a training climb. So my husband and I opted to hike 4,500 vertical feet up the south ridge, on a mostly off-trail route. We decided it would be a great chance to break in our mountaineering boots, even though they’re decidedly heavy, stiff, and ill-suited for this sort of hiking. And we donned hefty packs to mimic—as closely as possible—how punishing Mont Blanc will be. Good times.

We set off at a bleary hour in the ink-dark night, under so many stars it looked like someone had spattered glow-in-the-dark paint across the sky. It was pretty easygoing for the first four miles, before we broke off from the trail and began the real ascent.

As we followed the ridge, I assumed the peak in view was Bierstadt. It seemed like a long way off, but I hadn’t signed up for easy, so I settled in for the climb. The higher we got, the better the views. Dawn’s early light gave way to the sun’s waking rays, which inched their way across the hillsides, illuminating the mountains with a peaceful glow.

I didn’t have a sense of how long the hike would take. After more than five hours, the summit neared and I could smell victory. Until … ooops, the real Bierstadt came into view, and I realized I’d been staring at a false summit.

My gas tank was near empty. I honestly wondered if I would make it. And I’m not prone to giving up. The day urged me on. The sky was “Colorado bluebird”—a deep, pure azure. Not even the tiniest wisp of a cloud marred the endless sea of blue. There was simply no excuse to turn back.

I had some time to ponder during a couple more hours of tedious scrambling over a seemingly endless talus field. I’d like to say I was fully present in the moment, but I needed a thing or two to take my mind off the slog. My thoughts wandered.

I mused over how far I had to go, because as we all know, when you’re at the summit, you’re only halfway.

I thought about people with disabilities who have pushed themselves harder and farther than I ever have and have accomplished amazing things.

I thought about my mother, who suffered 14 years with cancer, and how I used to take her to a reservoir trail and walk alongside her as far as she could go before she had to collapse into her wheelchair. I pictured the determination and triumph on her face as she pushed through the pain—even if it meant walking just five feet farther than the day before.

And then the sound of voices pulled me from my reverie. After seven hours of having the mountain to ourselves, we joined the main trail, which was clogged with people. The giddy laughter of children bounced off the hillside. We shared the peak with dozens of happy, celebratory souls—men and women, young and old. Some had practically pranced up the mountain. Others had taken it one slow, painful step at a time. But all shared the triumph of achievement.

It doesn’t matter how you get there. Everyone’s journey up the mountain—or through life—is different. What matters most is that you challenge yourself. That you get out of your comfort zone. That you don’t give up when the going gets rough. And that you respect other people’s ways of doing things.

I didn’t care that there were all those people on the peak with me. Or that they didn’t walk as far as I did to get there. Because everyone’s peak is his to bag any way he chooses. And for some, the “easy” trail isn’t easy at all, but every bit as challenging as my route was to me.

The outdoors is a great equalizer. What every one of us on the peak that day had in common was the joy of being outside in the mountains. Colorado might own bragging rights to 53 of the highest peaks in the country. But we as a nation share millions of acres of public lands where we can get outside, have fun, pursue adventure, and restore our spirits. Our nation’s true wealth comes from the bountiful natural resources we have chosen to protect. Now get outside and explore!

Avery Stonich is director of communications for Outdoor Industry Association. Follow us on Twitter: @OIA and @averystonich.