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Inspired Living

Winter Mountaineering Adventure Recap (More Than Just Endurance)

Sarah Stanley

Date: March 3, 2012 Peak: Spread Eagle Peak (13,423 feet)

Location: Sangre de Cristo Mountains in Colorado

Weather: 0 degrees on the ridge with 30 mph winds making it -25F degree windchill. Translation= bitter, bitter cold.

Character building on the scale of 1-10: 97

The day began at 12:30 a.m., after a 2.5 hour nap. Good thing I'm used to ultra training/racing! A few hours previously I made sweet potatoes mixed with chia seeds and hemp hearts and also energy triangles (almond flour, coconut flour, a little hemp and coconut milk, unsweetened coconut, chia seeds, ground flax seed, coconut sugar). So good!

Matt picked me up at 1:30 a.m., and then met Jed at the Park n' Ride to drive down to the trail head. Three hours later we arrived and met the other people that were also climbing with us. There were 12 (10 guys/2 girls) of us. Some VERY impressive climbers/mountaineers. The other girl (also named Sarah) has climbed all 638 peaks (584 13ers and 54 14ers). Today's plan was to climb five peaks. Insert laugh.

If you are like me, you're probably wondering what in the world a "13er" or "14er" is. I didn't know what a 13er or 14er was before I moved to Colorado so don't feel bad :). A 13er or 14er refers to the elevation of the mountain summit/peak. So the views are quite breathtaking - literally. Coloradans love their peaks!

And from an ultra running point of view, climbers/mountaineers are very similar. The only difference is the gear (especially in the winter). We are both up for an entire day (24 hours), both sports are physically taxing (exhausting!), challenging, and the people are pretty friendly. Both groups have their own unique qualities and it's a lot of fun to be surrounded by some seriously awesome athletes!

So at 4:45 a.m. in the freezing cold, we bundled up, ready for the adventure ahead. Little did I know what I was in for. Last summer I climbed one 14er (an easy one) and two 13ers on the same day (also known as peak bagging). Let's say right now that winter climbing is a totally different beast than summer climbing. While my fitness/endurance level is pretty good and my pain tolerance is quite high, today would teach me that me endurance has nothing to do with this sport. Gear does.

With our headlights on, snowshoes strapped on, we began the trek up the mountain. I was really excited. I love adventure. We started at a little over 9,000 feet, so we had a long climb ahead of us. My snowshoes were not staying on, so TWICE another climber had to help me secure them. Cold hands and a speck of light doesn't make it an easy task. There was some confusion over which summit route to take, but it was finally decided to take the left route. I'm sure it had a name, I just don't know it.

Now you would never guess there was a trail. Just a forest full of trees and snow, which means someone had to "break trail." Thankfully, that was NOT me. I was doing good enough to just keep breathing panting gasping (OK, maybe I'm exaggerating a tad). The faster climbers obviously broke the trail. At this point the other Sarah passed me and I told her this was my first winter climb. She asked me why I picked such a hard one (this should've been my warning signal). Now I was worried. I asked her how many she had done, and she replied "a few." My gut was telling me she was being WAY too modest so I told replied "it's OK, you can brag." I knew her reply, because when people ask me how many marathons or ultras or or how far I run, I reply the exact same way. She laughed and was soon out of sight.

Now let me attempt to describe the "trail." The trail is on a side of mountain cliff, feet of snow, weaving in and out of trees. So you're trying to navigate how in the world you're going to climb up a few feet with snowshoes on and not fall back down. Oh, and keep breathing too. A few trees were down in the "path," and trying to step over them made me feel like Bigfoot. As the morning wore on, I turned around a few times to watch the sun rise. It was beautiful. If I wasn't trying to keep warm I would've taken a few photos.

By this time, my feet had gone in/out of numbness and were freezing. I tried to ignore the pain. My hands were a different matter. As I using trees to propel myself up the cliffs, my three layers of gloves became wet. My hands began to throb then sharp, stabbing pain. I was almost in tears. I shook, clapped and rubbed them (which I learned later is NOT what you are supposed to do) and tried to keep moving. The pain gradually subsided. Getting out of the tree line was exhausting. I had no idea how I was going to make up the snow-banked cliff. Looking straight up scared the crap out of me. As if I needed anything more to take my breath away. I thought about Ed Viesturs and I have even more respect for his accomplishments. As I was inching myself up the mountain, I knew five peak summits were out of the question. I didn't even know if I was going to do one. There were a few times where I was thrown on my back and I wondered what in the world had I gotten myself into.

With my hands in a sad state of affairs, I couldn't unzip my backpack to get any food. And my water hose had already frozen ages ago. I knew I needed to keep hydrated, so I periodically ate some (clean) snow.

There was another climber, Brian, who we had been leap-frogging and we finally caught up together. He was getting ready to dump his frozen water out so he could reduce his weight and I gratefully took some frozen sips. There were a couple of very difficult spots where I had absolutely no clue how I was going to get up them. It took MANY tries, but I finally managed to do it. Funny how you think you can't do something, but if you want it bad enough, you'll do it. Might take falling down and picking yourself up, surveying the damage, and then moving on. Fascinating.

So when Brian caught up to me, I was at a part of the mountain that kept wanting me to give up and go back to the car. Every time I tried to get up, I slid back down. I probably spent at least 30 minutes trying to get up this itty bitty little section. Brian finally suggested that we take our snowshoes off and put on our MicroSpikes. I was ready to ditch the snowshoes. Moving giant feet up a mountain side was not a piece of cake. But it was still not easy going. He used his ice ax to make "steps" for me, which was SO nice. I got on my hands and knees for the hundredth time and crawled up the snow cliff. Why am I doing this again?

Remember too, that besides your body weight, you are lugging other weight - like your clothes/gear, including a backpack. I probably had an extra 50 pounds on me. Talk about a workout!

I remember asking Brian if I should just give up and he said no way- we're almost to the tree line. So I kept going with only God's grace. I inched my way up and finally the trees were gone and we were now in full head on wind exposure. We put our ski goggles on so the snow & wind wouldn't blind us. We carefully zig-zagged our way across the side of the mountain to the first ridge. It was amazing to see all the other peaks in their full glory. The snow made them majestic!

I was the one breaking trail this time, but at least I could see where I was going (I'm sure there is a life analogy in this). So up we went. My feet were still on fire (a different kind of fire than a month ago) and my hands were not in the best state of affairs either. We finally made it to the first ridge and sat down. With the wind whipping around us, we both eat and drank a little. My first food of the day and my second sip of the day. Because my hands were stiff, I couldn't get to anything previously during the day. It was around noon and that meant I had gone seven hours with barely anything to eat or drink, I was surprised I was still standing. As much as I wanted to stay sitting, I knew we had to get moving. The wind was NOT helping matters any. We later learned that is was 0 degrees and 30-plus mph winds. I thought I was going to blow off the mountain at least 177 times.

By this time, my hands were really, really, really bad. I was seriously considering calling it a day and heading back down. I've read a few mountaineering books and I remember a few things Ed Viesturs said. No. 1: Getting to the summit is only half the battle; you still have to get back down. No. 2: Always be safe. With the wind whipping me around like a kite, I was seriously questioning my safety. No. 3: Be off the summit by 12 noon. That had already come and gone. Lovely.

My hands were not in good shape and and I still had at least another hour to the summit. We met a few of the climbers on their way down and they all had just done one peak. My spirits picked up a little at that news. Matt gave me something to drink, said to be safe and he continued his descent and Brian and I continued our ascent. It was tough going. Picking our way across the ridge is not an easy task. We kept climbing. And my hands kept throbbing. Three more guys were on their way back down and Jed gave me some hand warmers and another pair of gloves. I trudged on. There was a false summit which totally demoralized my spirits.

With each step I took my hands (fingers mainly) were beyond the point of throbbing. It was full on PAIN. Pain producing tears. I fell down on a pile of rocks and knew I was done. I yelled to Brian and he came over and I told him my fingers were frostbitten. With only about 200 feet to go to the summit, it was heartbreaking to have to turn around, but getting back down was the first order of business. Brian was incredible and gave me his gloves (which I am buying a pair for next time I embark on this type of adventure). We were practically hurled down the mountain by the wind. Going down is just as hard as going up. Your footing is dependent on if the rock decides to stay or move. Talk about a little scary.

My only goal was to make it back to the car/trail head as quickly as possible. Ed was right. Making summit is only half the battle. Little did I know that the day was about to turn worse.

After finally falling down the mountain, we were approaching the tree line and the trail. Brian and I had made a mental note of where we had emerged from the tree line earlier in the day. To make matters worse, the wind had blown so much snow around that we couldn't even find the others foot prints. We were chin deep in snow and I was wondering if I was going to drown in the snow. Such a lovely feeling. With each footstep I took I had no idea how far I would fall. At times my legs were one direction and my head another direction. One leg shouldn't be by your head. At some points, I just rolled down the cliff like a panda bear right into a tree and prayed I wouldn't hit head first. You had NO control over the snow. None. It was kind of frighting to say the least.

Brian and I tried to find the trail head, but no such luck. We went left and then right. Breaking trail in chin deep snow is beyond the hardest thing I have ever done in my life. There were a few moments of wondering if SAR (Search And Rescue) would have to come find us. The pain in my hands was slowly beginning to subside, but my feet were another issue. I didn't have gators (another rookie mistake) and so hours of snow had accumulated inside my snow pant leg and skin. I knew I was getting cut with every move I made. I tried to put the pain out of my head and keep focused on the task at hand: getting back alive and in one piece.

Finally, Brian said we had two options. Keep going right, praying and hoping we would find the trail and abandon our snowshoes or go left and go down the creek ditch where we would eventually hit the trail. I voted for option 2. We had been going across the snow which was exhausting and we were making no ground. So we headed over to the ditch area and hoped for the best. I got to practice my glasading skills (if you can call them that). The snow was so thick that it kept piling up between my legs. So I kept having to push it away. Standing up was only worse. Not knowing if you were going to sink past your head or only to your waist can certainly be fearful. We slowly inched our way back down the mountain.

There were a few times that Brian was concerned about avalanches. One time Brain made a step and was suspended over air. We quickly moved left. We took turns breaking trail. I don't think I have ever used so many different muscles in my life at one time. It was a very good thing I was in shape. Having to lift your leg feet above your head so you could pick up your other leg and move a foot takes a lot of strength, determination, and energy. A few times I just rolled down, backpack and all. I'm sure it was a sight to behold. Soon we were in the thick of the forest and becoming one with trees was now a natural thing.

We kept moving forward the best we could praying we could make it out before dark (and alive). I was still in major pain, but when you are just trying to survive, your instincts turn off the pain meter. I was focused on making it down in one piece and no SAR call. After a few hours of this, we finally hit the trail. That was a nice perk to the day. It was still tough going because we didn't have snow shoes. Because I was lighter than Brian I kept falling way more then he did. It was so hard to take a step and not know if you were going to sink or not. The ice that had formed between my skin and pant leg kept reminding me that I still had a leg. I didn't even want to look at the damage.

At around 4 p.m. - now 11 hours of relentless forward motion - I finally stopped and said I needed to eat and drink something. So I had some of my energy triangles. We had no idea if we were minutes or hours from emerging into the promised land. We kept going on and then my left leg fell and I heard my knee pop. It really, really, really hurt. At first, I thought I tore it and SAR would have to be called, but I propped myself up and dug my leg out and hobbled on. Falling in the quad deep in the snow with almost each step I took. I never want to do that again.

Almost four hours later, my hands were finally beginning to calm down. Praise the Lord. Brian asked for his gloves back and I had this little bitty liners on for hand protection. Thankfully we knew we were almost done. We remembered different landmarks. That was encouraging.

And then finally, FINALLY! We were out of the deep, white, forest and making the way to the promised land, aka: car. When we reached the cars and the other climbers we all clapped and rejoiced. I said hallelujah and Praise The LORD. I then began to survey the damage. See photo for the proof. Brian told me that he was proud of me. He said most girls would have cried and gotten upset when we found out we were off route (aka, lost). But I kept it together and was stoic. I said thank you. Must be my ultra training :).

There were two other climbers who thankfully were able to bring our snowshoes back down with them. I hobbled over to the car and scraped my snow pants off, peeled my wet shoes and socks off and tried not to scream in pain as I did so. It is fascinating to me that you can make yourself get through some pretty awful stuff and then when it is done, your body realizes that you are finished (torturing yourself) and all the things you didn't notice before are now coming to light. My body was beyond wrecked. They all asked me if this was harder than running a 100 miler and my answer was YES. The main reason was that I didn't have the right gear for the weather and conditions. Gators, boots and gloves. Lesson learned, but I hope it isn't too late.

We went into town and the guys had pizza while I ate my sweet potatoes with hemp hearts and chia seeds. I was still shaking and couldn't get warm. I pulled my socks off and was shocked to see my left toes purple and black. I took a deep breathe and asked the others what I should I do. I stumbled over to the kitchen and got a tiny bowl of lukewarm water and crammed my toes in it. As the feeling started to come back, pain shot through my body. I almost fell out of my chair it was so intense. I have officially found new limits of pushing my body.

Finally we made the three hour drive back to Denver. It was a long ride. I was SO tired. Being up for almost 24 hours, 12 hours of that with intense climbing/surviving. I used every muscle in my body and then some. It was a full body workout times a million.

After getting back home close to 11pm, I scraped myself to the bathroom to get a warm bath. I had to help my feet warm up. I was still having sharp, shooting pain, but I was told that was a good sign as that meant the blood was trying to circulate again. But it sure hurt something fierce!

I collapsed into bed and promptly fell asleep (and prayed for no nightmares). The next morning I woke up to see my left ankle black and purple, very stiff and very swollen. Moving it was beyond the question. And the cut was way deeper then I had originally thought. My left knee where I felt the "pop" wasn't fairing much better either. And my fingers? The blood was trying to come back and everything I did HURT. You don't realize how much you use a body part till you can't or it REALLY hurts if you do. It hurt to type, turn the water on to wash my hands, hold my water cup, turn the door handle, eat- you name it, it hurt. I never knew how much my fingers did before then. I will never take them for granted again.

I spent the day trying to recover, drank a bunch water and replenishing my body with nutrients to help heal my body. And Amazing Green Wheat Grass is magic. I was feeling rundown and within hours after drinking it, I was feeling much better. I love how your body can heal itself with real food.

I've tried to think back over those 12 LONG hours. Many words come to mind, but I think a few of them sum it up well. Tough. Strong. Courageous. Insane. Freezing. Bitter cold. Character building indeed. I've done many challenging athletic things in my life, but this took the cake, ice cream, and kale chips. I guess almost losing your limbs qualifies (insert laugh & smile).

As of this writing, I can hardly walk, my left ankle is very swollen & stiff and dark purple about 3 inches in height around bottom of calf and top of ankle. We're thinking it is a bad sprain + frostbite. My toes are still numb and I'm getting used to not feeling my fingers.

I learned a few things and because this adventure report is already over 3734 words, I'll save it for another day :). In the meantime, never under estimate a mountain summit. And your will to survive.

peace, sweat, love: life.