Hiking Colorado: Quandary Peak (My First 14er) and Bear Peak

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At the trailhead, Alec leading the way.
As I mentioned before, two aspects of my long weekend in Colorado deserve their own posts, and this is the second of the two - my experiences outdoors. Between a 14,265' 14er and beautiful Bear Peak, I got my fill of beautiful mountains and banked a number of important lessons!

Quandary Peak, East Ridge - 14,265'

Less than 24 hours after I arrived, Alec and I were en route to the East Ridge route up Quandary Peak. Quandary ranks 13th among the 14ers in Colorado at 14,265', and is the tallest peak in the Tenmile Range.

The East Ridge trail begins at 10,805' and covers just under 7 miles round trip. The trail head was already 4,000 ' higher than I'd ever been. It was a formidable task for my first full day in the mountains, but I was more than up for the challenge!

After the two hour drive from Boulder, we arrived to find what seemed like hundreds of cars lining the dirt road and overflowing from the small parking lot. That's the beauty and the curse of being in a place where playing outside is everyone's favorite past time; there'll never be a shortage of company on the easily accessible trails! The weather couldn't have been more perfect. From the top, we had clear views of Atlantic Peak and Fletcher Mountain along with a handful of deep blue lakes. The eastern slope still had a bit of snow on it, too! I'm glad it was my first 14er.

Being at altitude, generally considered over 8,000', affects every person differently. As this article describes, "the concentration of oxygen at sea level is about 21% and the barometric pressure averages 760 mmHg. As altitude increases, the concentration remains the same but the number of oxygen molecules per breath is reduced. At 12,000 feet (3,658 meters) the barometric pressure is only 483 mmHg, so there are roughly 40% fewer oxygen molecules per breath." Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS) can plague even the fittest athletes while some are unaffected, especially when given proper time to acclimatize. Our bodies are remarkably efficient at adapting. We will actually produce more red blood cells to carry oxygen through the blood, and undergo other changes to help adapt.

On the summit of Quandary Peak, and definitely feeling the altitude!
I didn't expect to have an easy time with it and tried to stay keenly aware of what my body was telling me. The hardest part was trying to figure out if, at any point, the way I felt actually dangerous because I'd never felt any of the symptoms before. To my surprise, I was completely out of breath no more than ten steps into the hike. It was strange to feel winded without having gone anywhere! My pace was normal at the beginning of the day, but slowed considerably the higher we went.

All I could think about was how with every step I took, I was up higher than I'd ever been before, and hanging on to that feeling was what got me to the summit. I teared up at one point, thinking about how incredible it was to be so high! By the time the summit came into view, I had started a process where I'd count 30 steps and pausing to catch my breath over and over. I was nauseous at the top, but two and a half hours after starting, I was ecstatic to be standing at 14,265'!

The descent was downright painful. My feet felt heavy, I was dizzy, and by the time we reached the car at 10,850' I'd developed a migraine. Thankfully, the medicine I typically take for them did the trick. We packed up the car and drove another two hours through Buena Vista and into the San Isabel National Forest to spend the night at 10,000' before planning to attempt Huron (14,003') the next day.

We set up camp just outside of a the small "ghost town" of Winfield, but by 8pm I decided we needed to head down. I wasn't recovering as quickly as I was comfortable with and as a result of being lackadaisical about sunscreen application, I'd developed a pretty awful sunburn. So we reluctantly packed everything up and drove back to the comfort of 5,400' in Boulder.

Looking back, our plan was ridiculously ambitious, borderline insane. Two 14ers in two days when I came from sea level? Regardless, the sunset  was spectacular.



Bear Peak, Boulder

The next morning, I'd recovered enough for a hike, but at lower elevation. We chose Bear Peak, which had been among Amy's recommendations for our weekend. Just a mile up the road from Boulder, the trail ascends up a beautiful wooded canyon to the summit. With a little hand over hand scrambling, we made it to a perch that overlooked Boulder to the east and a dark cloud covered Long's Peak to the west.

This day was a struggle for me as well. Despite having to gain less than 3,000' over the course of the day, the 7-mile hike in long sleeves and pants to protect my sun scorched skin in 90-degree heat really took it out of me. I assumed I was still recovering from the day before as well. But as always, the views from the top made the journey well worth it!

On top of Bear Peak feeling pretty humbled and hot, but excited to be up high again!


Lessons Learned at Altitude

Build in Time to Acclimatize - I went up to 14,265' 24 hours after coming from sea level, which essentially goes against everything I'd learned about preparing for a high altitude climb. I didn't give my body any time to adjust, and paid the price. If we'd done Bear Peak the first day, then driven to the base of Huron to sleep, I might have fared better.

Don't be Lazy About Sunscreen - Between the excitement and frenzy of packing up to go, I didn't pay nearly enough attention to protecting my skin. It's finally beginning to heal, but I could've avoided all of it with a little more patience.

Eat and Drink A LOT - I thought I did a decent job of drinking enough water and electrolyte-enhanced beverages, but I didn't pay much attention to what I was eating. One of the things Tiffany told me she'd learned was to eat and drink every time you stop, at least every hour. It definitely helps with the last bits of the ascent!

Climbing at Altitude is Pretty Uncomfortable - I already knew this, but now know first hand exactly what it feels like. That was a big part of the reason for the trip; I wanted to experience the discomfort and learn how to overcome it. It's all just part of the sport. I found that focusing on myself, on each step, and keeping positive thoughts in my head made a huge difference.

Give Yourself a Break - All of these mistakes aside, this was a learning experience. I went to Colorado to learn. And boy did I. But I'm a perfectionist and don't let myself off the hook easily. After going at what I felt like was a snail's pace, not recovering fast enough, and skipping the second 14er we had planned, I felt like I'd let myself down. I struggled a lot with feelings of inadequacy. But instead of beating myself up about it, I needed to take a step back and realize what I was able to accomplish.

As the title of this post suggests, I had an absolutely amazing time exploring Colorado's outdoors, and learned so much over the course of the four days I was there. I love how playing outside is a lifestyle there, and how many people embrace it. I'm depositing the memories and lessons into my memory bank for Rainier, and for the rest of my adventures!

4 comments :

Sassy Rojo said...

Here are a few more not-so-pro tips that might help you with Rainier:

Drink every time you eat - altitude kills both hunger and thirst. I would always drink and never eat or vice versa.

You may want photochromic lenses for Rainier - they change from clear to sunglasses and will help you see better as the sun rises and the glare starts to come in on the snow.

You *may* be able to do a Camelbak on Rainier, but it may freeze. Nalgenes in water bottle parkas are a better bet.

The night before you summit, drink till you pee clear. I'm serious.

Wear a metric crap ton of layers on summit day. It'll be cold as balls when you leave camp at midnight or so and it only gets colder. You'll burn up on the descent, however. It's a lot faster and the sun will be up.

Make sure your crampons have anti-bots. OMG, don't use a pair without anti-bots. You'll spend the whole trip balling-up. I have a pair I'm happy to send over to you to use for the trip!

For a 2-day climb, your pack should be about 20-30lbs without water. Ask me if you need "lighten-up" ideas.

The summit bid isn't a race and don't be afraid to share this with your guides if you feel they're pushing too hard. Establishing a steady pace is more important. :)

Courtney said...

Sorry we didn't meet up while you were here. Friends and I did some peaks that are closer to Colorado Springs. I would say for Rainer give yourself plenty of time to adjust. When I first moved here I rode the train (didn't even hike) up to the top of Pikes Peak (w/in 24 hours or so of coming from sea level), and I got sick! Last year I hiked Pikes (13.5 miles to the top) as my first 14er. I was so nervous that I was going to get sick. But I think living at 6k+ feet really made a difference. Obviously you can't go live on the side of Mt. Rainer, but get there and up as high as you can, as early as you can. Or maybe even get one of those high altitude tent things that you put on your bed? I'm not sure how expensive they are, but being adjusted to altitude makes a HUGE difference. I've watched so many really in shape friends struggle with even the easiest of hikes once they come out here...

Katie said...

thanks for the support and advice, ladies! we're moving from Paradise at 5,000' to Camp Muir at 10,000' the first day of the climb and sleeping there, which I think should make a huge difference. I'm banking all of these tips for use on the mountain!

Sassy Rojo said...

Here are a few more not-so-pro tips that might help you with Rainier:

Drink every time you eat - altitude kills both hunger and thirst. I would always drink and never eat or vice versa.

You may want photochromic lenses for Rainier - they change from clear to sunglasses and will help you see better as the sun rises and the glare starts to come in on the snow.

You *may* be able to do a Camelbak on Rainier, but it may freeze. Nalgenes in water bottle parkas are a better bet.

The night before you summit, drink till you pee clear. I'm serious.

Wear a metric crap ton of layers on summit day. It'll be cold as balls when you leave camp at midnight or so and it only gets colder. You'll burn up on the descent, however. It's a lot faster and the sun will be up.

Make sure your crampons have anti-bots. OMG, don't use a pair without anti-bots. You'll spend the whole trip balling-up. I have a pair I'm happy to send over to you to use for the trip!

For a 2-day climb, your pack should be about 20-30lbs without water. Ask me if you need "lighten-up" ideas.

The summit bid isn't a race and don't be afraid to share this with your guides if you feel they're pushing too hard. Establishing a steady pace is more important. :)