14er’s Self-Propelled

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On July 26, 2016, at around 9 a.m., I rolled up to a roadside convenience store in Georgetown, Colorado, hungry and exhausted. I had left my home in Gold Hill, biked roughly 60 miles of mostly downhill road to this point. I was only a handful of hours in to what would be a month-long undertaking to link all of Colorado’s 54 Fourteeners, self-powered and self-supported.

Gear layout in the backyard the day before leaving. Photo by Fred Marmsater.

I had yet to summit a single mountain, but was already feeling overwhelmed with the immensity of what lay ahead. I bought a sandwich and a cup of coffee and splayed out on the picnic table across from the store. On my first bite, I realized I had forgotten to grab condiments. I briefly considered walking the 50 yards back to the store for mustard, but decided the marginal improvement in taste wasn’t worth the effort.

This inauspicious start was not what I’d hoped for, but the reasons for this early implosion were obvious. A couple of weeks prior to my departure, a forest fire outside of Nederland had devastated a number of homes and structures less than 10 miles away from Gold Hill. Following a stressful week monitoring the fire, I went down to the San Juan Mountains to run the Hardrock 100. Halfway through the race, I whacked my head on the roof of a tunnel coming into Ouray, the brunt of the impact leading me to drop-out shortly thereafter.

Ascending Humboldt Peak (14,064 feet). Photo by Fred Marmsater.

A week of organizational chaos ensued as I made the final preparations for a month away from home. I slept for two hours on the night of July 25th, then at 5 a.m. on the 26th, I set off pedaling from my house already physically and mentally drained.

From the Georgetown Market, I biked the 11-mile ascent to Guanella Pass, then hid my bike in the bushes near the busy Mount Bierstadt trailhead. The plan was to link Mount Bierstadt and Mount Evans via the Sawtooth Traverse—roughly 10 miles round trip with a modest total elevation gain of 3,500 feet. While I had regained some physical pep, my mind was still restless. For no good reason, I was irritated at all the people on the mountain. Despite this being one of the easier Fourteener traverses in the state, I still made a rookie mistake, running out of water on the way over to Mount Evans. A second major bonk followed, which had me lying flat on my stomach trying to suck a tiny drizzle of water through my straw filter from a sandy puddle.

It was early evening when I got back to my bike. I sat in the parking lot eating a thawed-out frozen burrito trying to find the motivation to ride 90 miles to Pikes Peak that night. I had an imperative to be in southern Colorado in four days to summit Culebra Peak, a private 14er whose owners only issue a single day-climbing permit, so time was of the essence.

These initial 24 hours had set the tone for what lay ahead—an arduous month spent mostly alone, emotionally fluctuating between countless moments of intense elation and deep self doubt.

Coasting south off Guanella Pass, I tucked into an aerodynamic position on my bike to gain maximum speed with the least amount of effort. My hope was to reach Jefferson, a small community off of Highway 285, for a resupply before pushing on to Pikes Peak. I arrived a few minutes after the last store closed. Demoralized, I sat on the side of the road in the dirt, a little over 100 miles into the trip and with just two peaks down. I ate a handful of trail mix from my dwindling food stash and spent a good 10 minutes trying to convince myself that another 70 miles of riding really wouldn’t be that bad. I rode on, fighting my body’s desperate need for rest, my headspace alternating between acceptance and frustration.

Trying to find motivation to ride 90 miles through the night to Pikes Peak from the Mount Bierstadt trailhead. Photo by Fred Marmsater.

At around 3 a.m., I arrived at the Crags Trailhead on Pikes Peak’s northwest slope. I collapsed in a pile of hurt and exhaustion, crawled into my bivy sack and instantly fell sound asleep. These initial 24 hours had set the tone for what lay ahead—an arduous month spent mostly alone, emotionally fluctuating between countless moments of intense elation and deep self doubt.

Over the next 30 days, I battled incessant rain, hail and thunderstorms through the San Juan Mountains. I struggled through the endless talus of the Sawatch Range, the tedious and complex challenges of the Elk Mountains, followed by the snow and ice from the Tenmile Range to the finish. Somewhere along the way, I stopped caring about all of my shortcomings and began to accept things as they were. I shifted my perspective from trying to understand my feelings and emotions to instead becoming an observer of the process.

Exactly one month after my initial bonk, I found myself back at the Georgetown Market with only Longs Peak in Rocky Mountain National Park left as the final summit of my grand adventure. I bought a sandwich and a cup of coffee, and sat inside to shelter from the cold and rain. I didn’t care about having mustard or not, or how bad the coffee tasted. A month on the road had taught me to be more accepting of my circumstances, to not hold on to my expectations, but instead to be open to the experience and simply let life unfold. This was elective, after all. I had put myself here.

On the final day, I reached the Longs Peak trailhead at 3 a.m. It had rained steadily for most of the 80-mile ride from Georgetown, but the downpour subsided. I thought about taking a short nap before heading up, but I was greeted by a number of enthusiastic hikers readying themselves for an ascent. Their zeal motivated me to get going immediately with the hope that I might catch the sunrise on the summit. The lower flanks of the mountain were socked in thick fog, the rock covered in a layer of ice and snow. I made my way cautiously to the top via the Loft Route, which I assumed would be the least treacherous. I arrived on the summit just as the sun was peeking over the blanket of clouds that enveloped the valleys below.

As I stood there alone on the summit, I was filled with a sense of relief and contentment. I felt an acute awareness of my insignificance in the universe, yet deeply grateful for the chance to experience this extraordinary life.

This article first appeared in the 2018 issue of DIRT magazine.

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