Peak-Bagging Nostalgia

You know that Bryan Adams song about the summer of ’69? Every time I hear the line, “Those were the best days of those lives,” I cringe. I detest the idea that a certain period of our lives can be “the best.” What is Adams saying? That everything after the age of 18 was crap? That he doesn’t look forward to a time that might be even better? I wouldn’t ever want to take on such a depressing outlook.

Yet, here I am, nostalgic for the summers of 2010 and 2011 that I spent in selfish peak-bagging pursuit of the Colorado’s 14,000-foot mountains. Between those two years, I climbed nearly them all, saving only a few to finish in 2012.

As this summer winds to a close, I’m feeling like I haven’t come close to seizing its opportunity like I did back then when I packed in every trip I possibly could. I miss those weekends I spent over those two summers climbing new peak after new peak.

There are lots of elements of those summers I don’t miss in the slightest. I remember one trip I took after getting off work to ten pm. I drove four hours, stopping somewhere along the way in a gas station to shut my eyes for a half an hour, before beginning a climb at 3am to meet my partner who had camped the night before in the basin half way to the summit. Another time, I got stuck in a thunderstorm at 14,000 feet on one of Colorado’s most deadly, rotten peaks. Once, a partner and I hid behind a boulder during a hail storm, listening to a rock avalanche slide off the mountain in the dark. Then there was the time I twisted an ankle above 13,000 feet in 60+mph winds. Or the time I slid 100+ feet down a 60 degree snow slope, unable to self-arrest after I planted my un-tethered ice axe into the snow, and it tore out of my hand.

I spent at least one or two nights every week sleeping in either the back of my car or in a tent, sometimes in wind, hail, or snow. Blisters covered my toes, and I thought toilets and sinks were the most amazing things ever. And hot showers?! Frigin amazing!

Every Monday morning, I came into work with what I called a “hiking hangover,” exhausted in every aspect of my body from my legs to my eyes.

Plus, I missed all those weekends away from my spouse. And it didn’t take long for my friends to realize I would rarely be available on the weekends. By the end of each of those summers, I was simply homesick, longing for my cats and my couch and good, old-fashion TV time.

Here are the parts that I miss: the camaraderie I found in my hiking partners. The strategizing we did during the work week, watching weather patterns and peak condition reports, planning our next conquest. I miss starting out a trail in the dark and finding myself surrounded by 360 degrees of utter beauty by the time the sun’s rays first lit a peak in alpenglow. I miss getting to know the nuances and character of a mountain that had before been a stranger to me. I miss looking up at a peak and believing down to my core I would never be able to climb it, only to find out how wrong I was.

To make that time even more special, I think of those few years of the golden era of my chronic pain. Yes, I carried my headache up every single one of those mountains, but unlike the years before and the years since, I rarely had “bad” days of such severe pain that climbing would be impossible. Coincidence? Who knows. But I like to think not.

Mostly, I miss the simplicity of it all. Fifty-eight summits all falling into two categories: checked off or not. There may have obstacles along the way, but the basic premise was always the same: each time, I turned towards a mountain, began walking, and didn’t stop until I reached the highest point or some unforeseen circumstance required me to retreat, saving the peak for another day.

The truth is that nothing worth doing in life is ever so simple. Currently, I’m attempting to finish a book I’ve been writing for years, and damn, I wish I had beta from other climbers and route guides to help point the way. I wish I knew that there were 58 summits, and that when I touched them all, I was done. Navigating relationships is even trickier. And messy. How about personal development and working on those aspects of myself that hold me back from being the best person I could be? Yeah, I wish that had such a clear definition of success.

I wish coping with chronic pain had a clear end point just like climbing Colorado’s 14,000-foot peaks.

Reaching those summits, in and of itself, was really an exercise of futility. Touching a bunch of rocks at the tippy top of random mountains didn’t change anything about me or the world. It was all those lessons I learned along the way – what it means to persevere, believe in myself, and trust in others – that made the journey life changing and made the more real, more difficult parts of my life more attainable.

Who knows, maybe life will present another existential crisis that will have me scaling Colorado’s 13,000-foot peaks someday (which are often more technically challenging). But for the time being, I don’t have any desire to venture off on another peak-bagging frenzy. I’m satisfied with climbing when I feel the itch, whether it is a new mountain or an old friend, and trail running in the hills other days when I crave the beauty but don’t have the need for the sense of accomplishment a summit brings. Added bonus: now, I don’t always say no to friends’ invitations for weekend activities and sometimes, I even sleep in on a Saturday.

I’ve realized that what I miss when I yearn to re-live those summers is about so much more than driving through the night and hiking all day to check off a new box. Was it the best time of my life? Yeah, actually, maybe. But I wouldn’t ever want to limit myself by saying it will forever remain that way.