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.
[Photo by Hilary Oliver]