Sometimes weird things happen on days that are just... pretty normal days. This is about one of those times. Jon and I decided to hike Mount Bierstadt nice and early on a Monday morning. The forecast predicted a clear, sunny day, albeit quite cold and windy. 20 degree high on the summit with sustained 35mph winds, and gusts over 60mph. The two of us pride ourselves on trying new things, experiencing extremely harsh conditions and all things snow and cold. So we didn’t hesitate to gear up and hit the mountain.
Bierstadt is a very straightforward mountain. The route never gets too crazy and the total length is short. We felt this was the perfect mountain to be in these high alpine conditions for the first time because of those reasons. We are pretty knowledgeable, have a lot of experience in the harsh, freezing, brutal wilderness and are good at keeping a level head, even in difficult situations.
Mount Bierstadt via Western Slopes
7.4 miles round trip
2,737ft of elevation gain
Hike time: 3hrs 25min
We started hiking at a quick clip. Pretty much having the trail to ourselves and enjoying a lovely sunrise. We both remarked a few times that we expected it to be windier. We weren’t kidding ourselves; we knew that we’d be experiencing major wind once we started closing in on the summit, but where we were, it wasn’t very windy. About a mile in and it was time for a pee break. It’s always good when you can do this before all the shrubbery disappears and all the snow presents itself. So we took off our packs and dispersed to pee. As I was peeing, a crazy gust of wind came and blew my stream into my pants. Something that had never happened before. I was shocked. We were not far into the day and it seemed like a god damn joke. I was wearing wool leggings with wind blocking hardshell pants. So I figured it would probably dry, or at least be okay. It was still dark out and I couldn’t tell the exact damage. But I was pretty sure it wasn’t too big of a deal.
We hiked on and very suddenly after a switchback, the wind started. It wasn’t so bad, definitely a wind speed we knew well; I would guess between 25-35mph. The terrain began to change as well, from dirt and rock and tundra to tundra with large patches of snow. And then eventually straight snow. We put on our spikes for traction and kept on trekking. The snow slowly got deeper and deeper. A little deeper than we expected and we began post-holing regularly. If you don’t know what post-holing is, it’s that terrible thing when you take a step on what you expect to be solid snow, but your leg breaks through and you sink way down. Like hammering a post into the ground. A post hole. Post-holing is tiring and annoying and can make you very cold. It can also be dangerous, because you don’t know whats under foot. It’s mostly annoying though.
During this long stretch of post-holing, we didn’t talk much. Because the winds were rapidly increasing, making it hard to hear. So top that with the tiring in and out, jerky trudge of post-holing, there wasn’t much to chit chat about. So I went into my mind and started doing what a lot of hikers do; reflecting. And the things I started meditating on were kind of dark. Some hard situations that have impacted me deeply. Some questioning of my value and talents. Wondering about choices I’ve made and whether they were the right choices. That kind of stuff.
“I only went out for a walk and finally concluded to stay out till sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in.” -John Muir
Now, for those who don’t know, I am okay in most situations. Even situations that suck.
Challenging physical pursuits.
Mentally taxing situations.
I am pretty easy going about stuff. Because I almost always feel confident in my judgements and knowledge. And life is uncomfortable, right? So you have to be comfortable with uncomfortable things.
I can handle any four or five of those things listed above. But all of them together... that’s my limit. I know that now. Anyone can deal with many things. After all, life is just some sort of balancing act. And the truth is, I haven’t been extremely balanced for the past little chunk of time. I’d been ignoring some of the things I should have been dealing with in a straightforward manner. And all of those things presented themselves on the western slope of Bierstadt. And it’s kind of funny how once you start to acknowledge those little unbalanced bits, the more there are. Nature knows how to pull them out, one by one, laying them out in a clear manner.
The slope grew a bit steeper and we eventually reached the saddle. This was an opportunity to take some photos and rest for a minute or two. Here the snow was much more frozen, alleviating that post-holing bullshit. But from here, the winds picked up considerably. The 35mph winds were sustained. Never halting or easing. And the gusts began. I don’t know that they were 60+mph yet... but they were strong and they were blowing chunks of hard snow and ice everywhere. At those same high speeds.
I told Jon here that I didn’t really care if we summited. And of course, I wanted to summit. Of course I wanted to. But I felt weird. I felt kind of mentally heavy and worn out. I had a lot of my mind that was taxing. I was no longer focusing so much on the beauty around me, or the amazing weather that was taking place. I was feeling very anxious.
To distract myself, I started to walk around and take more photos. Sometimes when I’m feeling anxious, I can pull myself out of it by delving into my art. And honestly, I figured if I decided to forgo the summit, at least I would have photos from the almost-summit.
Because where we were was incredibly close to the summit. Just a little bit of class 2 boulder hopping, very, very light scrambling, and we’d be there. About a quarter mile or so. But that wind was bugging me. The gusts pushing me more than I liked. The tiny chunks of ice hitting my exposed face at very high speeds. This is also where I realized that my wool leggings were freezing. Not cold. Freezing. Turning into stiff, iced over, pee pants. I started to go numb from the waist down. An uncomfortable and tricky kind of thing. I could still feel my feet and the ground. But I was uncomfortable both externally and internally from my calves to my hips.
I didn’t want to turn around. With the summit this close and no real threat of anything, I didn’t see the point of turning around. So we got back to it! Heads down, against the wind. I tried to pull my wool Buff up to protect my face from the blowing ice, but it immediately filled with my snot and steamed up my sunglasses, so I pulled it back down and continued to be assaulted by ice. In itself, it wasn’t so bad. But paired with the anxiety and the wind and my freezing pants and the cliffs to my right- it started to upset me. It was an irritation that I didn’t want to deal with. And what funny thinking is that!? Weather was irritating me at nearly 14,000ft? Really? I think that shows how I was feeling. Just not in it. Distracted and “off”.
The final push to the summit is not hard. But paired with icy snow, 60mph gusts of wind, and the mood I was in made it less straightforward. And at one point, Jon slipped a bit going up a steep section. Even if he had slipped bad, he would have been okay based on where we were. But with the fear of heights I have, that fucked with me bad.
A fear of heights is a really shitty thing to have when you love standing on tall peaks.
Can I just stop for a second to say that? I know it’s not that uncommon, for mountaineers to fear heights. But it does suck. I like to think it keeps me cautious and safe. And thus far, I have never had a close call, so maybe it does. But the anxiety that comes with a fear of heights, when you’re standing on some rock 14,000ft in the sky, it can be really overwhelming.
So the slip that I watched dumped some adrenaline into my system and made me feel some panic. Not super ideal.
And I plopped myself down between two small boulders. A place to feel protected from the insane, strong and stinging winds. I told Jon I didn’t want to move. And I started to take some photos. But the winds became too strong, hurling ice at me and my camera. My legs were totally numb. It turns out sitting on the frozen ground was not a great choice with my wet pants situation. My face was burning in pain from the ice hitting it relentlessly. And I couldn’t stop thinking about all those things weighing on me.
Jon said “You did it! You conquered some fears!” He was talking about heights.
I responded “I’m having a panic attack.”
And I was. It happened all at once. Out of nowhere. I started to lose control of my breathing. Tears started pouring out of my eyes. I felt immobile. Frozen in place at 14,060ft in the sky. Being whipped by some of the strongest winds I’ve ever experienced. Exposed and alone.
I knew what was happening. And I was really scared about that. Panic attacks can go from bad to total-shut-down quickly. And that could not happen. Not here. Panic attacks can cause me to pass out. They can cause my whole body to cease up. And that could not happen.
I told Jon we needed to get off the summit. But that I couldn’t move. After a couple minutes figuring out what felt like the safest way to get up, I got up. And crouch-walked a few feet. To get back down to the saddle, we had to go through that steep class 2 section, covered in ice. We got to the first little section of boulder hopping and a giant gust of 60mph wind blew ice into my face and I lost it. I crouched all the way down and started to hyperventilate. Creating that horrible noise that only a panic attack can. That terrible, loud, guttural noise the last bits of air inside make squeeeezing out of the body. And then I had no air. And my vision was replaced with tunnel vision.
I remember thinking “Just move. Move. If you don’t move, he’ll have to call Search and Rescue. Do not make that happen. Just get to the saddle. Have a panic attack, it’s okay. But don’t do it yet. Go!”
The next ten minutes were me on and off walking, crouching, trying to breathe, crying and telling myself to GO. To do whatever it took to not have to call in help. Because it was unnecessary. I could do this. I had this. How could this be happening? It was all this blurry train of thought that was both scary and shocking.
I talked to myself constantly. Assuring myself that it was okay. That I was fine. That I just had to get to the saddle and then it was fine. Then anything was fine.
We made it to the saddle. We made it to the western slope, and down the slope, and back to the switchbacks, and then to the willows and then to the lake and to the trailhead.
I had calmed myself considerably after the saddle, and as we descended, more and more, I started to feel normal again. But mentall exhausted and embarrassed. I couldn’t believe what had happened. I didn’t like it. Who would? It felt wrong and strange to have panicked in a place that is comfortable to me. Surrounded by beauty and achieved by adventure. But it happened. And it happened for many reasons.
I feel so lucky for so many reasons. Because this situation could have ended a lot worse. I feel lucky to know my body and mind. To be physically fit and mentally gritty. I’m thankful to have knowledge of mountains and trust in my gear.
This was a first. And hopefully a last. I don’t know what triggered my panic attack. I assume it was a combination of so many things. All of the emotions I had presenting themselves and bursting out, to be met by very harsh conditions.
I share this story for one simple reason. We are all just human. And that means things can go wrong. Even if you are prepared and know what you’re doing.
This was an important reminder of that for me. It showed the fragility of things.
It also reminded me of the power inside us all; the power of the mind and the power of the body.
I came home and started to work through some of those things I thought about on Bierstadt. Those things that weighed on me. And the weight became less so. And the pain from what had happened began to ease. ..