Mt. Audubon, Colorado, is billed as an “entry-level” 13er – a mountain with a summit of at least 13,000 feet above mean sea level. Five years ago, I’d never be considering doing anything this strenuous. I just wasn’t in that kind of shape, I would’ve told myself. Not anymore. I’ve been working out regularly, eating fairly healthily and I’ve got newfound confidence in my physical stamina which didn’t exist during my adolescence.
“Perfect,” I thought, “A nice, easy climb to get some pictures and prove to myself that I can summit an honest-to-God mountain.”
I am the definition of a flatlander. I grew up on Long Island, New York in a town with an elevation of something like seven feet. I spent my college years only 500’ higher above sea level, near Rochester.
Before attempting Audubon, I had done some climbing in the Rocky Mountains, but no summit attempts. This would be my first, and while I naively believed the moniker “entry-level” to mean it wouldn’t be too challenging, I at least made sure to adequately prepare myself gear-wise with the purchase of a new raincoat.
On a Saturday night, I prepped my gear and set my alarm for 5 a.m., begrudgingly, because I’d knocked back a few beers with co-workers – probably a mistake in terms of hydration, but I needed the socialization. When you’re working, sometimes the whole week feels like a climb up a mountain, and a weekend night out with friends becomes your personal summit.
The Mt. Audubon trail goes well above tree line, so I needed to be down by noon otherwise I risked a much unwanted confrontation with mother nature. At 7:30, I arrived at the trailhead, grabbed my Canon XS and my Nike backpack and off I went.
At the very beginning of the hike, I felt full of energy and confidence. I was able to negotiate around the small bits of snow I encountered early on in the hike. I turned a clearing and suddenly the few inches turned into feet. A group of fellow hikers, with dog in tow, had started earlier than I did and was now standing atop the snow bank attempting to rediscover the trail.
I introduced myself and helped out with my map. We decided that the switchbacks which climbed from below the aspens and pines were likely covered in a few feet, but they might be passable, and once we got above treeline there would be much less snow to contend with.
The switchbacks were indeed tucked under feet of snow and ice. I wished I had brought snowshoes, but I made due with my singular trekking pole. I had to get down low, and I slipped a few times – once nearly down to a drop of about 30 feet to some lovely aspens, just waiting to enjoy breaking one of my legs or arms. Had I not brought my pole, I would’ve bit it for sure. As I slipped, I jammed the aluminum pole into the powder and, by sheer luck, found a patch of firm snow.
It took me a few minutes on one knee, shaking with the adrenaline rush, but I regained composure and made it up the first few switchbacks. The final climb up the snow was steeper than I’d ever bargained for. My hiking shoes were built for dry conditions, and getting traction on snow took effort. I took another slip and nerves took over. I started shaking again and thought about turning around.
“Hey guys, I don’t think I’m gonna make it – it might be safer for me to turn around,” I said to the group I’d joined up with.
I thought about it, and I realized if I turned around now and fell on one of the earlier switchbacks and injured myself, I wouldn’t have the group to help me out. Bravado entered my thought process as well – I set off on this climb to prove that I could do it. If I didn’t press on, I’d be proving that I couldn’t make it. No part of my psyche or ego wanted that result.
I decided the better option was to stick together and press on. And, thankfully, our earlier prediction was right. Once we got above treeline, the snow cleared up.
However, it was quickly replaced by a new nemesis – wind. At first, only a steady fifteen or so miles an hour. As we climbed up the side of the mountain the wind got steadily more intense. By the time the summit was in sight, it was hitting at 30-45 miles per hour relentlessly. At this point, I realized a crucial piece of gear I’d left home without – gloves. Thankfully, one of the ladies in the group I’d joined up with had an extra (very pink) pair. They barely fit, but they did the job just fine – and looked plenty stylish.
Above the treeline, the path bypassed a snow field but crossed over talus fields of loosely packed rocks. They were difficult to negotiate, but the scenery helped take my mind off the treacherous goings. Wildflowers lined the path, adding a splash of color to the otherwise earthtone-dominated palette. Birds were nesting along the trail, they attacked us in an effort to protect their young.
With about a half an hour’s climb remaining, I started eating the peanut-butter-and-Neutella sandwich I’d packed for lunch. Because of the temperature and altitude, every bite was a challenge – my jaw didn’t want to move. Breathing is difficult enough at 13,000 feet, chewing is entirely different. But with each successful taste, my body felt refreshed and renewed. Kerouac wrote about this phenomenon in Big Sur, I finally discovered for myself how dramatic the effect can be.
We made it to the pass, a few hundred feet lower than the summit. The view from this point let us see the western side of the mountain for the first time during our climb. Storm clouds, at our altitude, were headed right towards us. The wind started picking up to the point where it became difficult to stand.
With some regret but in the interest of survival, we decided to abandon our summit attempt and get back down the mountain, fast. This wasn’t my decision, it was the group leader’s call, and even though I’d never met him before encountering him on the trail, I could tell him to be much more experienced at altitude than I. That made me instantly trust his judgment.
With the ever-increasing wind at our back, scrambling down the talus fields proved much more difficult than climbing them. I came close to twisting my ankle more than once due to poor foot placement, cursing the talus field, my foot and myself each time it almost happened. Such an injury at that altitude in those conditions could be life threatening.
Thankfully, we descended at a good pace. Once we successfully made it to the treeline, we had only one more obstacle to overcome: the snow-covered switchbacks. We knew they’d be much harder to climb down than they were to ascend, and we were right. I ice-skated down most of them, using trees and my pole for much-needed support on the way down.
I fell to one knee more than once. The group’s dog casually strolled past as I struggled to find traction and grip, and gave me a half-quizzical, half-showing off look, as if to say “What’s wrong? Don’t your paws work in the snow, too?” I expected him to stick out his tongue at me as he passed with the all the grace of a creature descended from wolves.
With the help of my trekking pole and sheer determination to get back to my car safely, I made it past the snow and back on solid ground. I’d taken slips that causes my heart to thump-thump-thump and my body to shake and I needed a few minutes to calm down before continuing. But I made it back, and I felt great about it. Five years ago, I never thought I’d be physically fit enough for such a climb – that day on Audubon, I proved to myself that I could make it up a mountain – a real, swear-on-my-mother’s-grave mountain.
Before leaving, I stopped at a vantage point to take pictures of Audubon from the trailhead parking lot. I looked up, set my eyes on the great big thing I’d just climbed and all I could think was, “Holy damn. I just got down from THERE?!”
I hopped in my car and drove away with exhausted calves but one of the most satisfied smiles I’ve ever worn. No, I didn’t reach the summit, but that was no real fault of my own physical or mental will – it was simply too dangerous to continue. I know if conditions were better I would’ve made it to the top, and I took that as a personal victory. For a flatlander, nearly reaching the 13, 553’ summit of Colorado’s Mt. Audubon was good. Coming back down safely, all limbs intact and with some great pictures, more self-confidence and new friends to boot? That was great.