Although I’ve been in Denver for a while now, I just hiked my first ’14er’ this weekend. A ’14er’ is a mountain that is higher than 14,000 feet in elevation and there are 53 of these mountains in Colorado.
Hiking a 14er has been on my Colorado and Fitness Bucket List since I moved to Denver but until Alex moved here, I spent many of my summer weekends (prime 14er hiking time) traveling to visit him. And secretly, I was holding off until he and I were together in Denver, permanently, so we could do our first hike together.
So when our backpacking plans failed because of major afternoon thunderstorms forecast for Saturday, we looked at the map we bought for backpacking and researched 14ers in the area to hike on Sunday.
Enter Mount Yale.
Mount Yale is a 14er off the same trailhead that we’d wanted to backpack in Buena Vista, CO, approximately 2.5 hours southwest of Denver.
We plotted our route, re-packed our backpacking bags with hiking gear and set our alarms for 3:30 a.m., planning to leave our apartment by 4 a.m. Unfortunately, we missed the first alarm and got out of our apartment at 5 a.m. instead. Oops.
The early morning drive was very eerie – lots of low clouds!
We arrived at the trailhead close to 7:30 a.m., changed into our hiking boots and hit the trail.
The general guideline of hiking 14ers is that you should start your hike no later than 6 a.m. to avoid afternoon mountain storms. Afternoon storms were definitely in Sunday’s forecast so our plan was to hike as far as the clouds would let us. If it looked or sounded like a storm was rolling it, we would call it quits and head back down immediately. I did not want to get almost struck by lightening like Paula.
This hike is 4.5 miles up, starting at 9900 feet elevation, ending at 14,196 feet elevation. That is almost 4,300 feet in elevation gain – almost 1000 feet up per mile in length averaged. Ho-ly cow.
We spent the first 2 miles busting our booties to make up time. Lots of elevation gain but because we were at lower altitude, we were able to push a bit harder. Our first 2 miles took us less than 1 hour. (foreshadowing: this likely caused problems later!)
Until we hit the treeline (line of altitude in which trees cannot grow anymore), we were hiking through dense, beautiful forest and followed a couple different streams.
We made it above treeline and just under the 3 mile mark (13,000ish feet) in about 2 hours. We’d decided this would be our decision point – if the clouds looked safe, we’d continue up. If the clouds looked ominous or we were unsure, we’d head back down. To be caught above treeline with no cover during a thunderstorm is bad news.
The clouds were light and wispy and we saw a few other groups of hikers up the mountain ahead of us – we decided to keep going but would keep an eye on the clouds. We spent a lot of time debating this choice (10-15 minutes) - Just because another hiker is continuing doesn’t mean we should!
Treeline! Just about 3 miles into the hike, 1.5 miles from the summit.
This is where it starts to get hazy for me. We wanted to keep moving to get to the summit as quickly as we could to avoid any storms that may roll in – unfortunately for me, our pace was a bit too fast for me. Alex is naturally a faster hiker than me and I was trying my best to keep up with him. Mistake.
The last 1.5 miles to the summit were brutal – my body and muscles were tired, my mind was tired from waking up so early, my stomach felt queasy. I started taking breaks very frequently – mostly because I thought I was going to lose my Shot Bloks I’d been eating on the way up.
Still so far away!
We trudged through mile 3 slowly – It is SO HARD to hike in such thin air! And even more hard when racing the weather clock. Once we got to mile 4, we knew we only had .5 miles left to reach the tippy top.
And that’s when these clouds moved in completely and made me really nervous. Moments earlier, we could see across to mountains – now, thick clouds.
We had .25 miles left to go – we were so close! Now I know these clouds are harmless but at the time, I didn’t know.
Each step was exhausting and I was stopping every few feet, ready to throw up. It. Took. For. Ever. to get up the last few switchbacks – and when we did, there was a boulder field to scale to get to the very tippy-top and the official summit. The clouds, coupled with my altitude sickness, had me calling it quits halfway through the boulder field – we made it past 14,000 feet and called it a win.
Alex at our top
We turned around and shortly after we started, my mind and body went downhill fast. So much nausea! Alex sat me down, fed me some food, emptied my pack to lighten my backpack and helped me get slowly down the trail. As I sat, I felt a million miles away from my body, couldn’t focus on anything. I just wanted to shut my eyes to rest and wake up at the bottom of the mountain. As we got moving again, I keeled over every few steps, dry heaving. Not fun.
As we did get lower in elevation, my head started to come back to me and I could mentally talk myself through the nausea.
Around 12,200 feet, my nausea had dissipated and we were able to motor down the last miles back to the car. With blue skies the whole way. Dang it! As thankful as we were for no rain, I’d wished the weather wasn’t so perfect. If we’d known storms weren’t on our heels, we would have hiked slower, I would have not gotten sick and we would have actually summited.
We finished our 8.8 mile hike in just over 5.5 hours, summiting at 3 hours and 17 minutes. For this hike, I left my Garmin running the whole time to track our entire time on the mountain – usually I just track actual time hiking.
I knew that my sickness on the mountain was in direct correlation of the high altitude we were in. I had Acute Altitude Sickness with 7 of these 11 symtoms: Nausea, fatigue (super shaky), lightheadedniss, shortness of breath/couldn’t catch my breath, drowiness when I sat down or took a break, peripheral edema (swelling of hands/feet – see below).
Causes? Rate of ascent into high altitudes (quicker than I should have), altitude attained (more than 14,000 feet), amount of physical activity at high altitude (a lot, with extra weight in my backpack that my body was unfamiliar with).
Basically, I pushed myself too hard, too fast into high altitude. I should have taken it slower. I know if we hadn’t been racing the weather, we would have hiked slower and I would have been absolutely fine. Lesson learned!
Check out how swollen my hands were! They felt like over-stuffed sausages – it was hard and hurt to clentch my fist at all! For contrast, here’s my hand today.
The swelling went down soon after our hike – my hands were normal again by the time we made it to a local restaurant to eat.
So, we may not have reached the official summit of Mt. Yale (darn you, Mt. Yale!) but we made the right choice to call it quits when we did. Next time, we’ll take a bit more time hiking above treeline and pick a day to hike when the weather isn’t quite so ominous.
14ers: 1 down, 52 more to go!
Mt Yale, Buena Vista, CO
Total time: 5:36 / time to summit: 3:17 / miles hiked: 8.81