I have a shameful secret.
I was born and raised in Colorado, yet somehow this 22-year-old nature lover never hiked one of our 54 fourteeners. So when The Gazette assigned me to hike one, I decided I’d hike four.
Two other Gazette interns joined and we packed into a Volkswagen and drove into the mountains before dawn. Sitting next to Danae Bucci, I watched the high-beam headlights pierce the 3 a.m. darkness. Photographer Parker Seibold slept in the back, but her dog, Nera, perched her head beside Bucci and me to watch the road, too.
By the time the Volkswagen had jostled up the dirt road to the Kite Lake trailhead, slivers of light hit the tops of the peaks surrounding us.
As we stepped out of the car, a cold, whipping wind hit us. With gloves, hats and packs, we were ready to face not only the wind, but also the peaks of Democrat, Cameron, Lincoln and Bross.
We made our way toward Mount Democrat, and less than five minutes into the hike, I could practically hear my lungs struggling to suck in oxygen. But I barely paid attention as the three of us emitted oohs and ahhs over the mountainside’s beauty.
“Look at all the wildflowers,” I say.
“They’re beautiful,” responds Bucci.
Tiny flowers and succulents speckle the ground. Parker crouches, her camera clicking away. But we can’t stop for long. We’re here to scale mountains, and we dare not risk losing the race against the sky and later threat of lightning. So we keep on.
My watch reads 0.63 miles. We’ve been hiking almost an hour. At this rate, we might not reach all four peaks.
“How are you feeling?” I call across the trail to Bucci. She gives me a thumbs up.
Seibold has two cameras slung over her shoulders in addition to her pack. “Nera!” she calls and then gives a whistle. The chocolate-colored dog bounds across the trail back to her side. She smiles with a nod.
Pairs of hikers pass us, all giving a warm “howdy” or “hello.” Other hikers mean business. One runs by with no signs of slowing. We, on the other hand, do slow. We slow all the way to a stop and sip from our camelbacks.
Another hiker approaches from behind and grins. “I’m from Pennsylvania,” he says, puffing. “We don’t have mountains like this.”
He glances up the mountain and back at us.
“You guys got this,” he says and marches ahead.
And he’s right, we do “got this,” and we must keep on.
We arrive at the saddle, halfway to the summit. It’s time to scramble. The trail becomes a jumble of rocks, some loose, some not.
Seibold must climb without damaging the cameras. I also struggle to balance as Nera anxiously yanks her leash, which I’m holding. And Bucci, who lives at sea level in Boston, battles altitude sickness as the air thins with every step.
“I just kept feeling nauseous,” said Bucci. “And I slowly got a headache as we went higher and higher in altitude.”
But we keep on.
As the slopes become steeper and the rocks looser, our pace slows, especially when we hit a wide patch of snow. The path through is only wide enough for one person, so we prepare to follow in single file.
We wait for other hikers to descend before making our way through the patch. One of the hikers coming toward us is a familiar face — the hiker from Pennsylvania.
“You’re almost there,” he chirps. “This is the false summit. The top is just about 200 yards farther.”
So we keep on.
We slog through snow and scramble up more rocks, reaching the false summit. As we step onto the ridge, the final summit comes into view a couple of hundred yards ahead.
It’s the home stretch, and I want to run. But the altitude has other plans, and my lungs hold me back. Nera pulls forward, and my steps pick up speed.
As I take the final steps to the highest possible point, Bucci and Seibold also arrive.
“Wahoo!” I holler into what feels like infinity. I can see the Earth stretch beneath me in all directions.
We kept on. We made it.
As I look across the sky, plump clouds hang in the west. I look at my watch. The time reads 10 a.m. We made it up Mount Democrat, but the risk in those clouds means we must go down.
We set out to hike four peaks but the weather cut our hopes short, although, admittedly, our legs and lungs thanked us for the shortcut.
But it doesn’t matter. I’m free. No longer will I have to be ashamed. I hiked a fourteener.
Danae Bucci contributed to this story.