Apr 2, 2021 | ACTIVE LIFE | By Cecilia Timberg | Photos by Isaac Yee and courtesy of Cecilia Timberg
As I stepped out of the car into the 15-degree chill of the Quandary Peak trailhead, there were three things coursing through my veins: caffeine, adrenaline and cockiness.
The caffeine and adrenaline were a side effect of the 3 a.m. wake up and the silhouette of the mountain against the inky pre-dawn sky. The cockiness came from my knowledge that Quandary Peak was known as one of the easiest 14ers in Colorado and one of the safest to summit in the winter. I had already summited three other Colorado 14ers since the beginning of the school year and was sure that this one would be my fourth.
It was with this confidence that my three friends and I strapped our snowshoes to our packs and started the ascent at 6:02 a.m. When we checked the weather on the peak earlier that morning, the forecast had promised sunny skies, above zero temperature, and 15-20 mph wind: a perfect day to summit.
We reached the tree line as the sun rose above the adjacent mountains. The shadows we had seen at the trailhead began revealing themselves as Mount Lincoln, Mount Democrat, and dozens of other massive mountains surrounding us. We paused to strap on our snowshoes and marvel at the oddly haunting nature of the snow blowing viciously off the nearby peaks as we stood in the stillness of the morning.
As we climbed up the ridge, the wind began to pick up, starting with sudden gusts and slowly transitioning into a more sustained presence. We pulled our gaiters above noses, our hats down to our eyes and continued pushing up the mountain.
About a mile and a half from the summit, we broke for water and my friends pointed out that all the moisture that had accumulated on my face was frozen, creating a layer of ice caking the bottom half of my face. I laughed it off. I was well aware that hiking 14ers came with all sorts of uncomfortable side effects.
Soon, the wind became so intense that our shouts were swept down the mountainside before they reached each other. Communication became nearly impossible unless we paused our ascent and turned to shout at each other. We kept climbing.
As we crested the false peak and started across the ridge to the final ascent, I bent my head low against the wind and pushed forwards, unaware that I was being slowly blown off the mountain.
In a much-needed break in the wind, which had now reached about 40 mph, I raised my head to discover that the wind had blown me to the edge of a cliff that was flanking the ridge. My left snowshoe was inches away from a cornice, an overhang of snow notorious for collapsing beneath hikers and skiers and sending them to their death.
The wind picked up again suddenly and my friend caught me as the entire weight of my body was blown still closer to the edge of the cliff. It was at that moment that I knew we had to turn around.
I am not a quitter. I am as summit-driven and stubborn as anyone I know, but this was different. I was feeling great physically — my lungs were well adjusted to altitude, my heart was strong, and my legs were not following their usual pattern of cramping up on long hikes — but that did not matter. I was at the mercy of the mountain. At 777 vertical feet and less than a mile from the summit, we turned and headed back down.
There is no formula for when to abandon a summit attempt. There is no quantifiable way to measure risk, reward, and regret. Even as we descended the mountain and dipped below the tree line, I was haunted by guilt and my longing for a crazy success story. More than that though, I was haunted by the idea that one of us could have let the possibility of a crazy success story drive us to significantly risk our health and safety.
I was humbled that day. I was reminded that mountain climbing was not about conquering a mountain but learning from it. I have learned a lot from summiting 14ers, but I learned even more from not summiting Quandary Peak. I learned that when you have done everything within your power to keep yourself safe and still you feel powerless against the dangers, turn around.