I wasn’t alone on that first climb. I’d been on hikes, of course, but Mount Elbert was my first 14er—Colorado lingo for 14,000-plus-foot mountains, of which there are more than 50 in the state—and cocky, 25-year-old me decided to start with our state’s highest peak. I was afraid of heights and wearing jeans; Peter, my hiking partner, was still my boyfriend.
The first 2,000 vertical feet wound us through forest, the bark of the pines and aspens alternating between brown and white. Somewhere near 12,000 feet, though, all that life disappeared. It was just us, the rocks, and the false summits.
So many false summits. Every time we saw a bald peak up ahead, we thought it was the top and got excited. We’d pant our way over rocks and dirt and more rocks until we’d get close to the “summit,” only to realize there were even more bald peaks ahead. Frustrated, we continued on, the occasional columbine popping through rocks, a reminder that life exists even when it appears everything is dead.
Peter and I kept each other going, sharing false summit exasperations and annoyed, “Gee, I thought I was in good shape” glances. We continued to climb, dodging the sharp rocks, until eventually—really, truly this time—we reached Mount Elbert’s 14,439-foot summit.
The top wasn’t what I’d imagined. I’d expected trees, grass, bushes, green things, but instead found only rocks in various shades of gray, tan, and blue. And yet, it was incredible—beautiful, even. Prior to Mount Elbert, I’d seen the 14ers without really seeing them. Living in Denver, our chunk of the Rockies is almost always visible, especially the Front Range 14ers. The mountains are constantly there if you look west, distant backdrops of our lives. But standing atop Mount Elbert, the jagged, vein-coursed rocks welcomed me. As maddening and challenging as the hike had been, I’d enjoyed it. I wanted more.
Soon after that first climb, I decided that I would hike 40 Colorado 14ers before I turned 40. And because Peter was always game to support my ideas, he said he’d join me. By the time I—we—climbed our fifth 14er, we were married. But this is not a love story.
Peter and I were ambitious at first. We knocked out all the “easy” mountains within a couple years, driving two, three, four, or more hours west to a blur of trailheads. On my 28th birthday, we learned why you should stick to the trail after I slid a couple hundred feet down Conundrum Peak while attempting a shortcut. The next August we tackled Longs Peak, one of Colorado’s most notorious 14ers, known for being, well, long.
The more I hiked, the more I came to love those rocks. Some are tiny and make you slip on your way down; others are bigger than you and require maneuvering to get around; and then, of course, there’s the top of the mountain: an amalgamation of the tiny and bigger rocks that reveals an unexpected sort of beauty. During those hikes, I didn’t know what lay ahead for Peter and me. I didn’t know of the pain, disbelief, and intense sadness to come. I had no idea that those rocky steps would eventually help me learn a brutal, but necessary, life lesson.
The year I turned 30, pregnant with our first child, I took a break from mountains. Same with the following year, when I was pregnant with our second. I kept moving fast, checking things off my list. Peter found other ways to try to keep up.
After the babies, we continued to hike 14ers, but only one or two each summer. They were a nice break from responsibility. It was quiet on the mountains when it wasn’t quiet at home, and the views couldn’t be beat. It was nice to look out over pretty things, distracting ourselves from our increasingly complex lives with what’s out there.
The distractions kept coming. Or rather, we kept creating them, my version and Peter’s. They got progressively worse, challenging our commitment to each other and what we thought we knew about ourselves. We kept climbing because it’s what we did in the summertime and I’m big on doing what I know, what’s familiar and comfortable.
By the time I—we—climbed our fifth 14er, we were married. But this is not a love story.
Like our kids, the 14ers were an accomplishment we shared together. Spending the day panting our way up three or four thousand vertical feet, we could be with each other while still being, at least mentally and emotionally, apart. Until we finally reached the end.
I hadn’t intended on climbing San Luis Peak, my 32nd 14er, alone.
Peter was supposed to come with me, but three days earlier, at age 36, I’d gone and ended the relationship I’d built my life around. Peter’s distractions had become too much. I was heartbroken, in denial, intensely depressed, and, occasionally and mercifully, numb. I was afraid, but I knew one thing: I still wanted to climb San Luis.
I was afraid of driving the 4WD road to the unmarked trailhead alone. I was afraid of sleeping in the back of my car the night before alone. And I was afraid of the 11.25-mile route I’d planned to take alone. (The mountain’s trail is, fittingly, said to be the loneliest of all our state’s 50-odd 14ers.)
I had fears about everything else, too. I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to pay my mortgage, or raise my kids, or cook us dinner. I was afraid of explaining the breakup to my family, friends, and the people who aren’t either of those but still needed to be told. I was afraid I wouldn’t get through each moment without losing it altogether. In my bones, I felt that I couldn’t do this, any of it. Not the mountain and not this hazy new life.
Still, I fought my depression, fears, and exhaustion and drove that 4WD road and found the trailhead. I slept uncomfortably in the back of my SUV, and I woke with the sun to start my hike.
Just before hitting tree line, I thought I saw a dog run ahead of me—strange, because I hadn’t yet encountered a person. I followed the movement to a mountain clearing and saw that the dog wasn’t a dog but a buck, and he wasn’t alone. There were more bucks, as well as does and fawns, just off the trail from me. They let me get closer, just living their animal lives while I lived my human one. I felt like I was in on their secret, and for once, I didn’t have anyone there to share it. I was alone, but instead of feeling like a punishment, it felt like a privilege.
After watching them for a bit, I continued hiking. One step in front of the other, until I eventually reached the top, and then, more careful with my steps, the bottom. Everything felt raw and amplified, but especially the anguish I felt on the five-hour drive home when Peter didn’t call or text to make sure I’d made it down safely. I grieved the loss of our life together, and I grieved it hard.
Post San Luis, I did the rest of my 14ers alone. With my 40 by 40 goal in mind, I kept hitting the trails. I convinced myself I could tackle more elevation gain—and I did. When I felt like I couldn’t do anything at all, I could still climb. I’d be falling apart at home, but I’d be a badass on the trail.
Being out there on the mountains healed me better than anything else. The winding paths, the unfamiliar wilderness, the next grouping of trees that should look just like the last but somehow felt new and different, those barren rocks—finding my literal route helped me find my metaphorical one.
Days before my 40th birthday in summer 2021, I still needed two summits. I decided to finish with Grays and Torreys, a popular, 8.25-mile route that leads up and over two 14ers. It was a Wednesday, and I started at sunrise. Few people were on this typically heavily trafficked trail.
I thought a lot about Peter on my way up, alone with the rocks. I never imagined I’d be heading for the final summit without him, and yet there I was, doing it without him. Almost three years to the day that our marriage ended.
Physically, the hike up the first peak, Grays, was one of the hardest I’ve experienced, even though it’s known to be an easier 14er. My legs felt heavy and my breathing fast. Maybe it was the weight of the moment; maybe it was just 40.
I was also second-guessing my route-finding skills, which was odd since these mountains have one of the clearest trails to their peaks. I wanted there to be someone to follow, to have validation that I was going the right way. But there wasn’t anyone for me to follow anymore, so I kept going up, and eventually reached the summit of Grays. I didn’t stay long; my sights were set on Torreys.
From the saddle that bridges the two mountains, I took my heavy legs and my doubts and fears and headed up 14er number 40. As I walked, tears flowed. Not tears of sadness, but tears of pride. Over the past three years, the grief of losing Peter and my former life had slowly slipped away. As I neared the summit—Torreys’ magnificent gray peak beckoning me—I knew that no matter what came next, I could do the impossible. I was all right on my own.
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