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No Longer a 14er Virgin

by Laurel McHargue

“Left foot. Right foot. Feet. Feet. Feet. Oh how many feet you meet.” How would Dr. Seuss have known just how I was feeling as I placed one foot before the other, oftentimes only with inches of separation, as I trudged my way to the top of my first 14er? Living with my super-human husband for the past 26 years has made me realize that it’s okay to say, “Not today, Schnookums,” to any number of adventures he might conjure, but I had promised myself that I would make it to the top of at least one 14er before summer became a memory. I didn’t have to prove anything to Superman, but I constantly find it necessary to prove things to myself, and I didn’t want to be a 14er virgin any longer.

La Plata peak was the destination … 14,336 feet to meet … and my entourage would include Mike (a.k.a., Superman), Nick (my favorite oldest son), Anne and Eric (Virginia friends from another lifetime). I was feeling rather cocky about the day that stretched before us; after all, I had lived “at elevation” for two whole years, and our friends had just arrived from the flatlands. Surely their lack of acclimatization would balance my lack of fitness, and I’d at least be able to stay two steps ahead. Surely. Plus, I had six amazing gluten-free power cookies from Nourish Bakery, a Camelback full of H2O, and my comfiest Melanzana wicking shirt. I was set.

The day was magnificent, and the first couple miles were a breeze! Rolling, open fields filled with wildflowers enticed me onward. The swampy little boot-sucking mud ponds were slippery, but added amusement to our adventure. I was in the lead, feeling strong, and saw no reason for my situation to change. Silly me.

As the terrain became distinctly more vertical, it dawned on me that merely living at 10,200’ was not providing me with a decided advantage over our flatlanders. Although I maintained my lead for a while (not that I’m competitive or anything), my focus narrowed considerably, as did my footsteps. And when I finally had to concede my lead, I was reduced to staring at the ground directly in front of me (because then I couldn’t see the endless “up” ahead) and thinking of Dr. Seuss. “Left foot. Right foot. Feet. Feet. Feet.” Stinky feet. Stinky, soggy, mud-encrusted feet, the smell of which overpowered the clean mountain air. I was starting to suffer.

But The Foot Book was not the only Seuss book that came to my deteriorating mind. My butt muscles were becoming “Thing One” and “Thing Two” from The Cat in the Hat, although they were no source of amusement. How many muscles are there in the human body? And why were they all threatening to sabotage my success? I was going to make it to the top, regardless of how many “Things” were aligning to thwart me.

By the time I reached the rock fields, an indication that “the top” was inevitable, Nick was asking me, “Who are you, and what have you done with my mother?” Evidently, I was becoming irritable. But who wouldn’t be? Every rock threatened to slide, and those that appeared stable exposed razor-sharp ridges upon which to step. I discovered that when I raised my head to plan my next route I became dizzy, and I finally asked Mike (who had been following me with words of encouragement like, “Remember, pain is weakness leaving your body”) to take the lead.

Evidently, he heard, “Go ahead, honey, sprint to the top! I’ll be fine spinning around in circles back here on the false summit!” He was off faster than a new bride’s negligée. And what’s the deal with these false summits? Like rock salt in a wound, they make you want to cry. But cry I would not, as I knew I had to conserve water, mine having just run out. My cookies were a distant, fuzzy memory. Everything was fuzzy. Fortunately, one of my flatlander buddies was right with me. Eric said, with no acrimony at all, “I’ll stay here with you. We don’t have to go to the top.” And that was all I really needed for my final push.

I’ll leave out the part here where I waved Mike a one-finger-salute across the snowy divide which separated the false summit from the final destination … I’ll plead delirium, which was pretty much true at the time … because we eventually were able to communicate more clearly (O.K., civilly) once our group was together again at the top. Ahhh, the top.

With barely enough time to wring out my stinky, soggy socks, it was time to beat feet back down the mountain. Ominous clouds on the horizon meant there could be no dilly-dallying. My biggest issue upon starting the descent was that I kept tilting to my right, though I thought I was walking in a straight line. It became quite comical (to me, at least), and Nick performed a quick EMS altitude-sickness check on me. With more water and a spare tube of Gu, I would be okay, but I sure was not feeling fleet of foot. Left foot. Right foot. Feet. Feet. Feet. Stumbling, fumbling, bumbling feet.

Shouldn’t going downhill be a breeze after all that lung-sucking exertion required to climb? I erroneously thought the descent would be a relatively easy stroll, but “Thing One” and “Thing Two” were back to wreak havoc on my thighs and knees, occasionally causing them to fail on me. ‘Twas a more arduous task than I needed at the time, but I was just happy to be heading home, and the clouds slowed their advance long enough for us to admire the spectacular scenery around us. By the time I got back to the mud bogs, I was downright giddy.

The wildflower fields near the start of our day’s adventure must have tripled in beauty for our return, or perhaps I was still delirious! And the cold-running stream I had leapt across on the ascent was now a miraculous cure for my bruised, abused feet – feet that had taken me to the top of my first 14er and back – feet that were able to help me accomplish a remarkable feat.

At the end of my eventful Seuss-filled day, I did what all good once-virgins do; I asked myself, “Well? Was it worth it?” And although I still felt both sore and abused, I decided that this “first” would, in fact, make me look back some day … some day far, far in the future and say, “Ahhhh … YES!”

Laurel McHargue teaches English at Lake County High School to pay for the doctor’s bills that threaten to follow her astonishing “feats”!