I expected Sunday to be awful, but it was surprisingly okay. My muscles were very sore, but not unbearably so. I could hobble around the house well enough and only had real trouble getting up and down stairs and transitioning between standing and sitting positions. Thankfully my joints seemed to have recovered, so I really only had the muscle pain to deal with.
I was, however, sore in a place that I never expected to be — my face. Apparently when I’m in pain, I make a grimace-y/ouch-this-really-hurts face and grit my teeth against the pain. You know how your mom always used to tell you that if you made a bad face for too long your face would get stuck that way? Well, she was wrong. You face won’t get stuck. But if you make that really bad face for 4 1/2 hours straight, it will leave your jaw muscles more than a little sore the next day. So if you ever find yourself in agonizing pain for any amount of time, always remember to relax your face. I cannot emphasize this enough.
And what about my toenails, you ask? Despite my new hiking shoes, I honestly didn’t think I’d make it down the mountain with all of my toenails intact. On the way down, all of my toes felt incredibly bruised and battered. I thought for sure that at the very least my pinkie toenails were history (although I wasn’t too concerned about this since, aside from my two big toes, my little toes sport the tiniest toenails that ever were, so it would take all of two seconds [okay, maybe a little longer than that] to regrow a couple of pinkie toenails). I am happy to report, however, that my new shoes served me well and I have a grand total of zero bruised toenails. Not even a little tiny bruise on any of my little tiny toenails. Thank you, Merrell.
By Monday my face was better, but I was still hobbling badly from sore leg muscles. I was okay with the hobble, though, as it added legitimacy to my claim of a whopping 725 exercise minutes for the week, which I proudly wrote on the office exercise challenge board. All it took was one look at me hobbling around the office to convince my coworkers that I had, indeed, spent an entire day hiking the Peak.
Tuesday — 3 days after the Big Hike — was the first day that I was able to walk straight, with only the slightest hint of hobble in my step. The pain, as Tim had predicted, was finally starting to fade.
As for the accomplishment?
- 12 miles.
- 14,110 feet.
- 10 hours and 40 minutes of hiking.
- 1 unforgettable experience.
Yeah, I’d say the accomplishment is still there. And it still feels damn good.
Would I do it again? Not for a long, long time. And if I ever do climb a mountain again, I will definitely be getting a ride down from the top. Never in my life do I want to walk downhill for that amount of time ever again. Not ever.
But was it worth it? Absolutely.
(Full photo set here.)
We rested at the top for a good 40 minutes, sitting (sitting! it felt so good to sit on something besides rocks!) in the summit house and sharing a celebratory pretzel. We eventually peeled ourselves out of the plastic booth, refilled our Camelbaks, took one last look at the view from the top, and begun our descent.
Aleisha described the way she felt as she walked down the mountain as “the worst pain [she'd] ever experienced in all [her] life.” And that right there is our descent in a nutshell.
The pain. Oh my god, the pain. Knees and feet in absolute agony for six excruciating miles of steep downhill walking. Legs trembling and threatening to collapse underneath me. Altitude-induced nausea, forcing me to stop and rest even though I knew stopping would only make the pain worse. It hurt. For four and a half hours, it hurt so bad.
Aleisha, who had struggled with the ascent, did awesome at powering through the pain of the descent. I, however, did not do so well. I would have been the straggler of the group for the entire trek down the mountain had Tim not been incredibly kind and walked slowly with me, encouraging me, making jokes, and doing everything he could to keep me from focusing too much on The Pain. At one point I tried to tell him how much I appreciated him walking with me, how he was helping me more than he knew, but it just so happened that at that very moment I got something in both my eyes and a big lump of dust or something in my throat. And that’s why I couldn’t get the words out to express my gratitude. (Shut up. There’s no crying in hiking.) (Or is that baseball?)
Aleisha was really great, too. When the nausea and pain got so bad that I absolutely had to sit down for a minute, she waited for us even though she knew that stopping would only intensify the pain of the next few steps. On several occasions we offered to give her the car keys so she could continue at her own pace and wait for us at the car, but she wouldn’t take us up on our offer. We had all started this hike together, and we were sure as hell going to finish it together.
When we got back to that first bridge, 400 feet from the trail head, Aleisha was so elated that she skipped … but she only made it 3 steps (skips?) before realizing what a terrible, terrible mistake that was. The look on her face said it all: After climbing a mountain, skipping is just about the most painful thing you can possibly do.
We finally got back to the car at 7pm. I gingerly took off my shoes and stretched out across the back seat, giving my muscles and joints some much-needed relief.
The rest of the night is a bit of a blur. We hobbled into Chili’s for some dinner, and the guy seating us totally laughed at us. I can’t really blame him, though; I’m sure the sight of three twenty-somethings moving like geriatric ninety-somethings was pretty amusing. And getting out of the booth after sitting there for an hour? Oh, it was bad. Very bad.
After dropping Aleisha off (and enjoying some delicious ice cream courtesy of my mother-in-law), we went home to a very lonely Benjamin and a very lovely hot bath. We slathered our legs in IcyHot and crawled into bed. My knees hurt so bad that I could barely move. As I drifted off to sleep, I was simultaneously relieved to be off my feet and dreading the pain that was sure to come when I got out of bed the next morning.
Before we knew it, we were half-way up that boulder field of a peak, and we were doing surprisingly well. It was like climbing a rockier version of the Incline, only easier. Almost like the very last part of the Incline after the fake summit where it’s suddenly not as bad anymore and it’s made even easier by the fact that you can see that you’re only a few steps away from the top. Climbing those boulders to get to the summit involved a different type of movement from what we’d been doing for the past six hours, so it worked muscles that weren’t yet exhausted. The summit was within reach, and those last few steps were far easier than we ever thought they would be. Over dinner that night, all three of us would agree that this was, without a doubt, our favorite part of the hike.
At 1:40pm, 6 hours and 40 minutes after we’d begun our ascent, we reached the summit of Pike’s Peak. And damn, did that ever feel incredible.
It would be impossible for me to explain how good it felt to achieve something that just one year ago I didn’t even want to do, let alone think for a moment that I would be able to do it if I had wanted to. But there I was, standing at the top of Pike’s Peak. And I’d gotten myself there on my own two legs. If there were a word that could encompass simultaneous and overwhelming feelings of elation, accomplishment, relief, astonishment, exhaustion, hunger, awe, pride, and so much more, it probably still wouldn’t adequately describe what I felt at that moment in time. But it would be darn close.
The great thing about reaching the top of the Hill of Death (besides the obvious fact that we didn’t have to climb the Hill of Death anymore) was that we could finally see our destination. As we were climbing the HoD, I wondered whether we’d be able to see the Peak when we got to the top, and whether or not that would be a good thing. Would the Peak look so high and so ominous that we’d be overwhelmed with all we still had to do?From where we enjoyed our sandwiches, we could see the Peak. And rather than looking ominous, it looked absolutely, 100% do-able. We had only traveled 3 miles — half the distance to the top of the peak, –but we had completed 75% of the elevation gain (I told you it was steep). All that was left to do now was cross a ridge and power through that last difficult bit that was the Peak itself, and we would reach the summit.
Crossing the ridge was a very welcome break after the Hill of Death. Nothing was very steep; it was kind of like taking a leisurely stroll (at 13,000 feet). As we walked, we enjoyed some phenomenal views — miles of rolling mountain tops to our right and a few glimpses of the city far below the ridge to our left. It was absolutely stunning.
After another short but difficult climb (though nothing could compare to the Hill of Death), we stood looking up at a hill of boulders — now all that remained between us and the summit. We braced ourselves for a difficult climb. We knew it was going to be tough climbing what looked like a poorly-constructed stone staircase (if you really used your imagination), but we were so close to the top we could taste it.
The ascent started really well. Aleisha wasn’t feeling 100%, so she was having a little harder time than Tim and I, but we were all still going strong for the first leg of the trail. We crossed the creek we’d crossed on that first bridge two more times — once with a second bridge and once by simply jumping over. Although it wasn’t such a simple jump for Aleisha, who lost her footing on the rocks and ended up with one very cold and very wet foot. But that didn’t slow us down. Wet foot or no, we had a mountain to climb!
About the time we hit tree line, the hike really started to get difficult. We’d reached the altitude where there’s not enough oxygen for trees to survive, so breathing was becoming more of a challenge. To add to the difficulty of decreased oxygen levels, we had come out of the trees onto what we have “lovingly” dubbed The Hill of Death. The Hill of Death, as you may have guessed, was not pleasant. In fact, it was downright awful. Not only had we been hit with altitude that sucked the air out of our lungs, but we were also faced with the task of ascending a very steep hill on a trail whose makers did not believe in switchbacks. To say it was difficult would be a gross understatement. It was take a few steps, stop to breathe, repeat. All the way up this seemingly endless hill.
We weren’t the only ones having a hard time with the Hill of Death. We had only seen two other groups of people on the trail while we were below tree line, but once we set foot on the Hill of Death, we looked up and saw at least 20 people bottlenecked ahead of us, all of them doing the same “take a few steps, stop to breathe, repeat” exercise. The Hill of Death was by far the worst part of the entire ascent.
When we finally (finally!) reached the top of that bastard hill, we very happily found a boulder on which to lounge and eat our lunch. Those were the best peanut butter and jelly sandwiches we have ever tasted.