"That... that's not happening," Kim stated, matter-of-factly, as she pointed at a snow covered mountain that stretched four thousand feet above us. We faced the Sierra, just outside of Mammoth Lakes. She laughed nervously, and continued "Ellie, you can do it. But there's no way my legs will be able to haul my body up that thing." Four hours (and multiple bouts of tears) later, we stood on the summit of Mt. Laurel, hugging, crying, and giggling about the 3,000 feet we gained over a steep, mile long slope covered in slippery shale and patchy snow. About a year ago, my old Subaru, fondly known as King Baxter, hauled me and one of my best friends from peak to peak in Utah, Nevada, and California. The road trip of the century. Kim and I danced on countless summits, and scrambled all over the remote, usually overlooked and seldom climbed peaks that crossed our path. I've always loved standing on top of mountains. But not as much as Kim.
My first encounter with the sheer insanity that makes Kim the passionate, driven, and willing-to-suffer-like-no-other person that she is was a couple winters ago, when she invited me to climb Gray's and Torrey's with her. That's another story, but we ended up traversing a twelve mile long ridge (of course it wasn't the standard route... this is Kim we're talking about) in seventy mile per hour winds, all above twelve thousand feet, which made for a seven thousand foot day. After that day, I was hooked. Hooked on obscure routes up random peaks that most people would write off, hooked on hellacious bushwhacks that left your shins battered and thighs scraped and bruised. When Kim realized that she found someone else that liked to suffer the way she did, she invited me on a two and a half week long road trip in which we would log somewhere around three hundred miles with somewhere near seventy thousand feet of vertical gain on summits all over the western states. So you can imagine my disbelief when Kim, the girl that never bailed on a mountain, especially one that had seemingly no consequence, boldly proclaimed that she would not stand on the top of Mt. Laurel. Of course, she did indeed stand on top of it. It was anything but easy. Exhausted bodies and even more exhausted mental states made the small mountain seem impossible.
Since that day, we have joked that "if we can get up Mt. Laurel, we can get up anything, we can DO anything." We used that example to push us this past summer in the San Juan Mountains, and I repeated it over and over again while coaxing Kim through the final miles of Never Summer 100k, which she ran with a fractured knee cap. But something changed this winter. Somehow, we both softened. I began to bail on peaks that I wouldn't have even questioned a year prior, and Kim began to doubt herself before she ever began to climb the mountain, so she usually wouldn't even start the peak. Busy schedules and big life decisions kept our lives separate. We stopped running together, we stopped hanging out, and we stopped climbing peaks, together, and alone.
I don't speak for Kim, but the "burn-out" made me question everything. It made me come up with ambitious plans to suffer through the wind and snow on winter fourteeners, only to make it to the trailhead, put on my skis, and then bail from the peak to a lake that laid beneath the summit. The lakes always seemed like a good place to turn around. It was cold and miserable on the summits, and usually, another two thousand foot climb was way too daunting to even consider. Whenever Tyler would come out with me on these attempts at epicness, I'd always admit defeat and excuse myself by saying"maybe I'm just a lake person now."
After a few rough months of feeling like a different person, a weaker person, someone that had forgotten how to suffer, Kim contacted me. She would be graduating from Colorado School of Mines, and she felt like she needed to climb a mountain to celebrate. So, in a Kim-like way, she picked a peak that would be no easy task. She opted for Mount Fairchild, a rarely climbed peak in Rocky Mountain National Park. Yesterday morning, we woke up at 3:30, drove up to the trailhead that rested at 8,400 feet above sea level, and proceeded to have the biggest day in the high country that either of us have had in a very, very long time.
As we hoisted heavy packs onto our back, Kim looked at me and announced "Ellie, there's probably zero chance of us actually getting a peak today." I laughed, nodded, and started walking up the gradual, tourist-grade trail.
The night before, Kim's black forerunner pulled into the driveway. She bounced out of the truck with a map and promptly sat down on the concrete. "So this is what I think we should do. Let's get off the trail here," she pointed directly at a river crossing, "and then we'll just head up this ridge. I think it's gonna be brutally steep." After the spring storm the week prior, the avalanche danger was heightened to a point that made the standard route uncomfortable. The standard route would take us into a basin surrounded by slopes that were prone to sliding. The ridge that Kim now pointed to on her antiquated paper map avoided any potential danger. She looked at me expectantly, "So?"
So that's where we ended up. Cussing our way up a ridge blanketed by a thick, densely forested, and a posthole worthy wet-snow cover. Even in snowshoes. "Let's try to make it to tree-line!" Kim breathed heavily behind me," I think I can do that. I just want a view. That'd be a good day for me." I agreed. That sounded attainable. I could see tree-line five hundred feet above us. Of course, as soon as we made it to where the trees could no longer survive in the thin air, we decided that we could make it to the next bump on the ridge. Kim kept throwing out numbers; 10,800! 11 k! "No wait, let's get above 12, I think that next bump is 12,300!" Then we were at 13. I looked back at her, and laughed in astonishment, "Kim, I think we're pulling a Mt. Laurel. I think we're gonna get a summit dance in today."
The last five hundred feet crawled by brutally slow, but then... we stopped going up. And, as I looked around in bewilderment, I realized that I was the high point of the long, drawn-out ridge. That could only mean one thing. We were on the top of the mountain.
If you told me a year ago that I would be proud of that moment, I'd probably laugh. A five thousand foot day was just an average day in the Juans. I didn't plan on the burn-out, but I knew it was imminent last year. Kim and I both went so hard. An easy thing to do when you're surrounded by 13ers and 14ers begging to be climbed. It's impossible to regret the summer that both of us had last year, even if it did wreck us for a few months. But it's also impossible to not look forward to this coming summer, especially now that we know that we remember how to suffer, and can summon the old Kim and Ellie. We're both different people now. Things have changed, we've built and lost relationships, we've given up on ourselves and our abilities to do the things we did so easily last year. But we're back. And we're not lake people.