Best of 2015: Spending the night on top of a Colorado 14er
January 3, 2016
Recently, I met adventurer Dr. Jon Kedrowski from Vail, who slept on the summit of every Colorado 14er in 95 days. He wrote a book on the experience, titled "Sleeping On the Summits," and inspired me to leave my 500 thread-count cotton sheets and down comforter in order to set up a new bed — at the top of Quandary Peak.
I have always enjoyed hiking and ski touring at high altitudes, but it never occurred to me to stay there overnight. Returning home to a hot shower and pillow-top mattress for a good night's sleep was part of the reward. That being said, sometimes we must leave our creature comforts behind and seek out new sensations, so here begins my journey to 4,000 meters, where I slept on rocks, in the dark, cold air, with exceptionally strong winds, just to understand what it means to sleep at high altitude.
Finding a crew
I'll be honest — the idea of resting my body on a pile of rocks with little protection from the wind, along with becoming the lightning rod as the highest thing around, did not initially sound appealing.
Those who have climbed Quandary know that when you reach the top, there is no soft, grassy spot to pitch a tent. Even though I have hiked that mountain many times — I even ran up and down it in less than two hours for the Quandary Crusher race — I had no idea what to expect when preparing for an overnight excursion.
For my own safety, I called up an experienced high-alpine mountaineer, Summit local Steve Lipsher, who has summited Denali, Cho Oyu and other high-elevation mountains. Lucky for me, he was well prepared, with warm sleeping bags (rated to negative-40 Fahrenheit), two lightweight sleeping pads, headlamps and a few other goodies.
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Mistakes to avoid
We began our ascent after work and ended up finishing in the dark. Hiking with a large pack slowed my normal pace and it took us longer than expected.
At this stage of the journey, when the sun retired for the night, my body temperature began to drop as the sweat soaked my core. My hands were completely frozen, almost numb, making my dexterity and motor skills extremely hampered. Normal tasks like zipping up my jacket or placing the tent pole in a grommet became nearly impossible.
When hiking any mountain, especially in a cold climate like the Rockies, it is a good idea to bring a dry under layer. Removing the wet shirt will keep your body warm. However, I should have done this earlier. Without the sun's warmth, I needed to get my body temperature back to normal as quickly as possible. I placed my hands on my stomach and under my armpits to warm them, but it was not until about 30 minutes under the sleeping bag in the tent that I felt warm.
Then there was the hot apple cider. It gave me comfort for the night ahead, both psychologically and physically. As I set my head down on my puffy jacket, the wind continued to rustle the tent, making sleep difficult.
Climbing and sleeping high can be dangerous. First, the human body reacts differently at altitude. Living at 9,600 feet, my body is relatively acclimated to altitude, but for anyone who does not live here, it is a good idea to become aware of the symptoms that might come with sleeping at altitude and how high-altitude mountain climbing effects the human brain.
As you go higher, there air gets thinners and there is less oxygen, placing the brain in a state of oxygen deprivation. Rational decisions are not as clear, you become easily fatigued from exertion and can be at risk of acute mountain sickness, a condition that causes headaches, insomnia, dizziness, fatigue, nausea and vomiting, or, in extreme cases, hypoxia.
Second, sudden storms and lightning often roll in unexpectedly at altitude. Being the highest point above tree line when this happens is a bad idea. Check (and double check) the weather before leaving to make sure you are not in danger.
Lastly, being wet and cold outdoors has major effects on your health and wellbeing. In extreme cases, you can get hypothermia or loose fingers and toes to frostbite.
Why do it?
High-alpine climbing makes you feel alive, like you are on top of the world and all of your cares are far away. You have a singular focus, and that is survival. Being on top of a giant mountain brings you closer to nature. The stars above appear to be so close, almost like you can reach out and grab them. The scenery is incredible, especially when the day is about to break: The sky magically transforms, like a painter throwing color on a canvas. The awe you feel watching colors morph across the horizon is stunning. When was the last time you stared up at the sky and saw the alpenglow hit the surrounding peaks, watching life begin to wake up?
Adventurers, in general, have an obsession with pushing the limits and getting to the summit. Mount Everest sees between 600-700 people per year, all of whom attempt the tallest mountain in the world knowing that only half will reach the top — and that 1.7 percent of them will not make it back at all.
Recently, I watched the movie "Meru" at the Breckenridge Film Festival. From a rational perspective, climbing a big-wall route at 21,850 feet in the cold and snow did not seem like a safe or smart goal. However, sometimes, with that level of risk comes a better reward.
We, as humans, push boundaries to help others realize what is possible. I understand the thrill of reaching the top, but I wonder if the pain and suffering is worth the high risk. Is the glory of being the first to summit a big-wall climb in freezing-cold temperatures worth the danger of getting there?
Today, as I write, I feel real pain from the experience. My quads are on fire from carrying a large pack up and down a 14er. But, sleeping on top of Quandary gave me a new appreciation for what others are passionate about. When we challenge ourselves in uncomfortable situations, we learn more about ourselves. As mentioned in "Meru," climbers have a short attention span, perhaps because they have killed a few brain cells at high altitude, but, more likely, they somehow forget about the pain in order to keep thinking about the next wild adventure.
Shawna Henderson is a multi-sport adventure athlete and founder of AdrenalinEscapes.com, a web-based booking platform to connect active travelers with guides and adventure sports in Colorado. Through her website and writing, Shawna offers insights on new outdoor gear, activities and destinations to fuel your passion.
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