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How the 'Cookie Hiker' finds joy in Colorado fourteeners

July 28, 2016 Updated: July 28, 2016 at 7:57 am
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WOODLAND PARK - Noel Johnson felt lost as she sifted through her son's closet. He had taken off for college, the second and last child to leave the house. And Johnson was beside herself.

"I no longer was Mom," she said, reflecting on that summer of 2010. "I didn't have an identity outside of being Mom. ... I had to create a me. I needed to find out who I was."

Her new identity began that day in that closet when she found her boy's old hiking boots and strapped them on.

Six years later, her home in Woodland Park is a tribute to Colorado's tallest mountains, with renderings of them hanging on the walls. There's a shadow box with pictures of 58 14,000-foot peaks - 56 of them covered by pins.

In August, Johnson, 49, will hike the last two: Wilson Peak, then Mount Evans.

And with her, she will have cookies.

Mom has become the "Cookie Hiker" - as she widely is known in the tight-knit circle that fourteener enthusiasts form. On their online meeting place, 14ers.com, they will post of their joy for crossing Johnson on the trail. Frequently during her ascents, a stranger will holler her way: "Cookie Hiker!" And she will greet them and pull from her pack the Tupperware containing the famed desserts, as tasty as they are ornately designed, themed for each peak.

It started with her bringing the cookies for herself, for a treat at the summit. Then she started handing them out.

 

"I never intended the Cookie Hiker to be what the Cookie Hiker has become," she said, showing one of her recent batches: gingerbread squares with icing formations of Mount Rainier, prepared for her recent climb up the 14,410-foot volcano in Washington.

That cookies are a part of her reputation is no surprise to her; she learned the art of baking from her mom when she was young, and she honed her skills as Mom herself. To Johnson, the surprise of being the Cookie Hiker is the hiking part. She never cared for nature growing up a military brat, bouncing around to 17 homes. She learned to make friends fast.

"Really, I've become somebody who my past friends wouldn't know," she said.

The identity hasn't come without a cost.

On Aug. 17, 2013, she was about 300 feet from the top of Capitol Peak, one of Colorado's more dangerous fourteeners. She was working up a steep face of loose rock, a ledge below her and a partner 20 or so feet above. She had nowhere to move when a big rock tumbled down from that partner's foot, down on the top of her helmeted head.

The blow left her dazed. Some time passed before she heard: "Rock! Rock! Rock!" It was a bigger one, and it too crashed into her skull.

"That one split neurons, crushed the membrane," Johnson said. "The left side of my membrane was turned to oatmeal pretty much."

It was stupid, finishing Capitol, camping out a night, completing the hike a day later with her head throbbing. It was stupid, but then again the brain's left side controls rational thought and she lost the ability for that, as she learned two days after getting home. Her headache had persisted, so she checked into a doctor.

She was diagnosed with a traumatic brain injury. She was told to stay away from mountains.

"I have to climb mountains," she told the doctor. "That's what I do."

Three weeks later, she was atop Pikes Peak. She bagged 19 peaks that summer. The next year, in 2014, she did 27. She estimates she's summited fourteeners at least 125 times.

She couldn't stop, even as the pain in her head raged on. There was depression, but the antidepressant wasn't going to pull her out of it - it only left her numb, unable to feel. She realized she couldn't be happy, and she realized she couldn't make others happy, and that especially bothered her. So she ditched the medicine. She climbed on.

She still deals with the pain, and she climbs on. So what if she is slower, she thinks. She notices the beauty around her more. And it is what makes her happy. It is what makes her pain go away.

The strangers help too, the ones who call to her: "Cookie Hiker!"

"Sharing," she said. "I enjoy that. Just sharing."

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