High altitude is hard on the body and mind, and before you take the first step toward the summit that looms so ominously in the distance, you may notice that your breathing is strained, each lung full of cold air more forced than the last. If you’re timing it right, your trip is starting before the sun has broken across the horizon, and the alpine environment is still and icy. For a moment, you wonder why on earth you decided to get out of your warm bed to do THIS, of all the fun, relaxing things to do on a Saturday morning. Other hikers are either arriving or already crawling up the mountain, and as you observe each of their solemn faces you feel something click within your chest. You ventured forth from a secure place to accomplish something, to utilize your body in the most arduous of ways, to conquer nature. Once there, it becomes obvious that you must take your first step forward, and you do, every single time.
Ascending through the sub alpine forest is, simply put, jaw-droppingly beautiful. In the summer months, water trickles down the middle of the dirt trail between the dark green, thin spruce and fir trees scattered around the neighboring slopes. Occasionally, wetlands will riddle the landscape, offering up shimmering auras of blue and green while the soft sound of water running past smooth rocks hangs in the air. If you’re lucky, you might be able to observe a family of moose lumbering across a shallow pond. The bull moose, with his impressive antlers, will be observing the environment for threats while the cow and calf sip at the glass-like surface on which they stand.
Eventually, all trees and large shrubs disappear, and the world opens up. The alpine tundra is characterized by endless stretches of moss covered boulders and fragile mountain flowers. Toward the heavens, the azure sky embraces the Earth in all directions, clear, pristine, and warm.
Then, in the east, the sun explodes above the horizon, its body emerging slowly, yet powerfully as it washes the world with life and energy. As it crawls ever higher, moisture hidden in highly elevated crags, couloirs, and marshes rises into the air en masse, congregating into the puffy white clouds that eventually turn into the ferocious, ravaging thunderheads of the plains.
The awe of being in the midst of such an inspiring, pure environment never leaves the heart of a mountaineer, however, as time goes on, your eyes go from a state of observation to one of focus. The higher you get, the less oxygen you receive with each breath, and you notice the differences. At 13,000 ft, your muscles cry out for respite every few minutes, or seconds, depending on your level of experience, and the sun beats down with unrivaled brutality. Sunscreen is just as important as water on the top of a mountain. That lesson needs to be learned only once. I’d suggest not having to learn it at all.
The final stretch of any ascent is painful and protracted. The air is hot and dry, the landscape barren, and the progress slow. It is during this stage where minds return to the warmth of their beds. This makes movement even slower. But just like the beginning of the hike, the mind says, “you made it all this way, might as well go for it.” And again, you do go for it, every time.
When the summit comes into view—an elevated sweep of rocks filled with sweaty hikers quietly taking in the view—you want to run the rest of the way, despite the fact that your muscles might give out beneath the weight of your body and daypack. You resist the urge to take in the view. You want to be comfortable when you do give your respects, so you find a nice smooth rock, peel away the sweaty outer layer of clothing that’s covering your hot body, and you sit down with a plop, moaning with satisfaction.
The summit of a mountain is the first place the sun touches when it’s at its zenith. It is the exact location where the sun and earth collide. With that consideration in mind, looking out from the top of a mountain is a deeply moving experience. The feeling is a combination of both resounding insignificance and absolute personal importance. From on high, the world looks massive. You can see lakes, rivers, roads, houses, tiny hikers crawling like ants, atmospheric movements, airplanes, and so on. The contours and wrinkles in the face of Mother Earth seem infinite and ever changing. Being one part of the immeasurable planet on which we stand is humbling, to say the least.
Once the feeling of complete irrelevance passes, you reflect on your body and the struggle you endured to get to where you are and you realize how special you are. Of all the people in the world, you have climbed to the top of the land and breathed in the still, clean air of freedom. Your legs are achy, you have a slight headache, and your throat is dry, but despite your discomfort, happiness squeezes your heart. It took you five hours to get to the summit and you couldn’t be happier with your efforts. The ability of the human body is truly something to behold and you pity those who don’t have the open-mindedness to push themselves to the limits.
The climb down isn’t nearly bad as you’d think. Going down is 100% times easier than going up, and something about seeing those who started later that you makes you smile. Their sweaty, grimace-laden faces remind you of the struggle you were facing an hour or more prior. Once you get to your car, you sit for a moment to relish your victory. You look back at the mountain one last time, nod, then start the engine.
But when you get back home, you feel it. Your knees are pissed off and your stomach demands homage, and the few patches of skin that somehow avoided being covered in sunscreen itch and burn. It was still all worth it, though, even days later when your hamstrings tighten up. It’s still worth it. No one can trivialize the experience of ascending a fourteener, it just isn’t possible. The place where the sun and earth collide is a unique site of respect, pride, and accomplishment, and no one can take that away from you.