CLEAR CREEK COUNTY - Alyson Kirk was asleep in her Nissan Pathfinder, which she'd been living in during her "second rock bottom."
Her hiking group arrived at the trailhead sometime after 4 a.m., and she switched on her headlamp, the light piercing the darkness and connecting with the friend of a friend who introduced himself as John after briefly being blinded.
"He was like, 'Whoa,'" Alyson recalls, "and I'm like, 'Hey, I'm Alyson.'"
So began the relationship of Colorado's youngest, most accomplished mountaineering couple.
Says Gerry Roach, the climbing legend and author of the state's preeminent mountain guides: "They have done the unthinkable."
Since meeting that morning in August 2011, Alyson, 35, and John, 42, have joined a list of five other people who have claimed scaling all of the state's peaks above 12,000 feet - all 1,313 of them. This summer, they aim to become the third and fourth climbers to have all 468 mountains above 11,000 feet checked off, with 51 left for Alyson and 50 for John.
The 11,709-foot Chief Mountain is not one of these. It's one not far from their home in Morrison that they'll repeat now and then. They're hiking the trail now for a quick, after-work jaunt, adding to their list of 10,000-plus summits that grows every day.
That's not an exaggeration. They'd feel as if the day were wasted if they never got on top of a mountain.
"That's why we get out every day," says John, a finance manager, a numbers guy through and through.
He's the creator of listsofjohn.com, a go-to source similar to 14ers.com, but different for how personally stat-based it is, tracking one's ascents all over the country. Packed with maps and data and rundowns of mountains in every range and county, the site has opened the door to Colorado's more obscure summits, inspiring a community of mountain junkies.
That included Alyson. When she met John, she already had bagged the state's fourteeners.
"Then he tells me about the 676 12,000-foot peaks, and the 584 13,000-foot peaks, and he says he has this website, and it's this tool. John's like, 'Let me tell you how it's really done.'"
Throughout their tireless conquest since 2011, logging 50,000 miles a year on two 4Runners and countless miles by foot through pathless wilds, the Kirks have connected on a deeper level.
"This is our addictive personality trying to put it into something healthier than drugs and alcohol," Alyson says, easily covering the trail with long, muscled legs she's transformed from a past life.
She grew up in Aurora, eventually succumbing to the alcoholism of her parents. She was 20 when she woke up in the front yard with no idea how she got there, a morning not unlike many drunken mornings.
But this one was different. This time, the thought of dying young stayed with her. And in an attempt to shake it, she drove to Echo Lake, where she felt profound peace and decided to turn her life around.
That was her "first rock bottom." The second came about seven years later. Just when she thought the fourteeners could solve all of her problems, she was diagnosed with an eating disorder. She was struggling through a divorce.
So was John when they met. He and his first wife "were just kind of drinking buddies," he says. "I guess once I started changing for the better and going after the goals I set for myself, it became much more of a mismatch."
It was the mountains changing him, keeping him from the 12-pack of the day. He moved to Colorado for the fourteeners.
"I had to fill some kind of experiential void," he says. "When I was drinking a lot, normal life was just kind of purposeless, and I got really bored. It was like a way to make things exciting."
Every peak became like the baseball cards and model airplanes he collected as a kid. "I had to have all of something," he says.
So he studied maps, plotting the most efficient routes to link multiple summits in a weekend, however much bushwacking required and however heavy the pack on his back. He and Alyson stick to the same regimen today. He finishes work Friday, and they hit the road, getting to their destination in the middle of the night and powering on.
When they're not in the hills, they're competing in ultramarathons. Alyson most recently won the Lone Star 100 and the Hellbender 100 - two sufferfests a month apart. As miserable as she was at the end, all she could think about was which 100-mile race she would do next.
"The experience itself is something you want to keep having," John says. "It's not so much about the accomplishment as much as it is just having been through the experience and wanting to have more experiences like that."
The simple hike up Chief Mountain is enough to satisfy them for now. They stop to take in the panorama, including Rosalie Peak. In the book she wants to publish to inspire others, Alyson writes that this 13,575-foot mountain "became the shrine to the end of one tortured life and the beginning of a new one with hope."
She laid in the snow with a broken femur, her once-230-pound body down to 115 from the depression. Awaiting rescue, she promised herself she would emerge again from rock bottom. She would "live authentically."
Months later, she met John. And never would any mountaintop be any less marvelous, no matter how many times they visited, no matter if it was just another quick trek up Chief Mountain. Up here is better than anywhere down there.
Contact Seth Boster: 636-0332
Editor’s note: This article has been corrected to state Alyson and John Kirk would be the third and fourth climbers to summit all of Colorado’s mountain’s above 11,000 feet.