The Shrinking Of An Adventure

Brendan Leonard waits for his Good To Go meal to cook near midnight on top of Mount Bierstadt.

I padded down the talus in the moonlight, my headlamp switched off, in front of my girlfriend. I was just happy to be moving again, wearing all three light jackets I’d brought, not having thought the summit temperature would be below freezing in August. I had one-upped her idea—Let’s go trail running after work Friday—with another idea: Let’s go have a late dinner on top of Mt. Bierstadt instead. At the top, I’d shivered through dinner and dessert as Hilary joked that it was better than waiting an hour and a half for a table at one of Denver’s popular restaurants.

Bierstadt is the closest 14er to Denver, and one of the most mellow 14ers overall: 3½ miles on good trail, with a short section of packed-down talus near the top, only 2,850 feet of elevation gain total. It’s funny how mountains can get smaller over time. I’ve lived in Denver on and off for a decade now, and our dinner hike to the top was my fifth time on the summit in that time. I’d hiked up there with three different friends for their first-ever 14,000-foot summit, and the last two times, we’d started the hike at 8 p.m., just as the sun set, hiking the whole way in the dark.

As we descended the trail Friday night—actually, Saturday morning, as we left the summit at exactly midnight—I calculated in my head our ETA back in Denver, and whether either of us would feel like eating a 3 a.m. breakfast at Tom’s Diner. Smoke hung over the repeating ridges off to the west, with just enough muted moonlight to faintly light them up.

I thought back to my first summer in Colorado, when I didn’t know anything, had a pair of uncomfortable hiking boots and a decent backpack, and put what I thought was a superhuman amount of miles on them both. I hiked 14ers, which are a lot of people’s first steps into the Colorado mountains—there’s a ton of information out there about them, there are several close to Denver, and at this point, there are usually enough other people on their trails on a Saturday that it’s hard to imagine getting lost. That first summer, I stood on top of six of them, and half a dozen smaller peaks. I pored over Gerry Roach’s Colorado’s Fourteeners guidebook, read trip reports on 14ers.com, and every Friday night before a hike, I anxiously packed my daypack and worried about food, thunderstorms, the drive to the trailhead, altitude sickness, and my own fitness, and slept fitfully before getting up at 5 a.m. or earlier.

Every one of those first mountains was a huge adventure, and images from the high-altitude Colorado I saw that summer still pop into my head from time to time, maybe the way you remember the feel of your first few dates with your wife or husband for decades afterward. I more or less stopped ticking off new 14ers, being fortunate enough to get distracted by rock climbing, trips to the Tetons and the Wind River Range, and to Europe. And a few of those first few mountains shrank a little bit in my head, and became a little less daunting. I climbed a couple in the winter, skied one of them a couple times, and took my mom up one for her 59th birthday. What I lost in youthful fitness, I gained in the sort of wisdom you get from walking hundreds of miles of trail and talus, and learning how to pace yourself so you don’t have to stop every 100 feet once you get above 13,000 feet.

Somewhere in there, Mt. Bierstadt became a fun hike, a place I’d consider cooking dinner on a Friday night (in good weather, anyway). As much fun as that is, there’s a small part of me that mourns the wide-eyed experience it was for me 10 years ago. I’m not the world’s most accomplished mountaineer (or probably even the most accomplished mountaineer in a three-block radius of my apartment), but I think plenty of us have that trail we’ve ridden dozens of times, or the couloir that used to terrify us but is now a walk in the park, or a climb we could send with our eyes closed now that we’ve done it 20 times. There’s a particular nostalgia that bubbles up when I think of that first time.

As Hilary and I walked the last few feet of trail into the parking lot, I spotted three sleeping bags spread out next to a parked car, with three people trying to sleep in them, I assume before getting up in a few hours to start up the trail to Mt. Bierstadt (and maybe the traverse over to the Sawtooth and Mt. Evans, which I did on my first time here years ago and thought I was going to die). I tried to quietly open and shut our car doors so I didn’t wake them up at 1:30 a.m., and thought to myself with a smile, Those guys over there are having an adventure.

-Brendan

[Photo by Hilary Oliver]

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12 Comments

  • I was just thinking about this the other day, specifically with regard to 14ers. Our first summer here was a lot like yours – filled with easy 14ers that felt like mega adventures. Elbert, Quandary, Bierstadt, Yale … I remember pouring over maps and trip reports (for trails that there was no way in hell we could get lost on) and the butterflies that would surely appear in my stomach before we hit the trail. I miss those days a little bit too but I also love to see the progression. There’s always something out there that scares us and it’s nice when those things get harder and harder. Anyway, great post!

  • I have felt this too – mostly the loss of that nervous anticipation before a big hike up a 14er. Not knowing what to expect, or even if you’ll make it. Doing some of the lesser known routes, or even making up your own routes does bring a lot of that joy back.

    One of my happiest finds this year was the Grouse Canyon route up Princeton. I felt like I was doing my first 14er again, just beautiful. I was excited to happen upon a trail U didn’t know existed! The waterfalls and cliffs around me were beautiful. It wasn’t exactly clear where the route was going – I couldn’t see the summit for the first half of the hike. I was just happy that there’s was trail again at the bottom (since trails = civilization).

  • I’m getting the stoke high to climb my first two 14’ers this weekend! A weekend backpacking trip has never felt more adventure like, full of anticipation!

  • Same applies to bike racing! The nerves are still there with road and cyclocross, but I’ve raced on the velodrome so much, that I rarely get nerves anymore (unless there is a state champ race on the line…that’s another story). Can’t say I miss the nerves all that much though.

  • I had almost the exact same thought on the same mountain in June. I was up for a site visit on bierstadt as I was taking a group of volunteers up to do trail work later that month. I had to meet a USFS group to preview the trail the following morning, so I drove up the night before to sleep out and get away from the Denver heat. I started walking the trail around 9pm just to take some long exposure photos, and after moseying along for a while found myself at the top. I too just had my 10 year colorado anniversary and I remember my first 14ers and just how consequential they seemed, now it’s a casual late night photo hike. Thanks for the article.

  • It’s been 42 years since I went to the Army Surplus store in Boulder and bought everything I needed for backpacking. A new arrival from Wisconsin, I was wide-eyed at venturing out into the wild on my own. None of my family did that. Now, at 63, I am still out there, albeit with much better gear. You are right. The newness is gone, what was once intimidating feels like home. But the joy, the glory, the freedom — it’s all still there. Especially on top of a peak in the starlight. Dance in the moonlight. And encourage others to explore their backyard. Thanks for your insights, Brendan. Always special.

  • AWESOME!

    My first real mountain was Mt Mansfield in August 2006. I remember how in awe I was at this amazing mountain and the whole hike was quite an adventure. I now live 15 minutes away from the mountain and frequently hike it before work or when I have a couple of free hours. The hike is still a fun day outside, but is more like visiting an old friend than meeting a new, mysterious stranger.

    It is great seeing people experiencing adventure anywhere and everywhere.

  • Thanks for this Brendan – it takes me back to preparing, training for Bierstadt as my first 14er too…2003….esp. your mention of Gary R’s book – had it memorized and just in case took photocopied pages for the route with me. Thunderstorms turned me back 1st time – but 2nd try made it to the top w/my Sister and Son – never forget it – and remembering it more now after reading your blog! Thanks for great memories brought to the surface my friend!

  • Man, lots of memories similar to this: Hiking Wheeler Peak for the first time in 2003, then taking friends and family up that mountain three years later. And a whole bunch of small and big trips since.

  • If you love exploring the outdoors and want to know how to train for outdoor adventures, I invite you to visit my Instagram @Rontheram

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