So I decided to climb Grays Peak (in the Starbucks attached to the REI in Denver less than 16 hours before starting my hike):
Disclaimer: This isn't a play by play of what happened, I left out many details and choose to focus on the parts of my hike that may not have seemed like big deals in the moment but scare the crap out of me looking back. I'm trying to document what I want to learn from this experience and maybe encourage others to be safe as well. I also want to point out that overall this was a great day in the mountains without serious injury and I thoroughly enjoyed it.
It's been two weeks and a day now, and It's occurred to me that I do want to talk about it, because I think I do have something to add to the conversation or at least remind myself and others to be safe, even if its all been covered before, mainly because of how serious the mistakes I made can be. Not always (such as in my case), but once in an unfortunate while, and I'm grateful I ended up ok.
What worries me about how I climbed my first 14k ft peak is my knowledge of how disasters happen: rarely is there ever one singular bad event, it does happen, but more often there is a series of events that compound to create a scary situation. This is as true in mountaineering as it is in aviation or any other high consequence endeavor.
(I would like to add that the fact that I was alone should count as a point of concern, but I do not include it below because of the number of people who hike/climb alone these days and the fact that there were at least 3 other parties in the area that day and at no point was I unable to see another person)
walking up the valley
First sighting of Grays Peak (just right of center)
In my case, the first issue was sleep deprivation and mental fatigue. I had just driven 1000 miles by my self in one day from Madison Wisconsin to the winter trail head for Grays Peak, skipping a nights rest, which I had tried to make up for by sleeping a few extra hours at the trailhead. That alone is reason for concern: driving that far by one's self in one go is dangerous and my exuberance got the best of me, a theme that will continue.
Secondly, I had not acclimated to the altitude. I was well aware of this issue the entire time but I had decided it was an inconvenience and risk I was ok with.
Third issue: I did not apply sun screen. I had a full bottle in my pack and I had just read the day before that UV exposure doubles at 14,000 ft but for some inexplicable reason I didn't think I needed it. Maybe because I was tired and to tired me there was no reason to apply sun screen in 40 deg. F weather. However, it was still late may, and the sun's angle is very direct. To add to this, there was still snow everywhere. lots of it, reflecting extra sunlight right into my face. I would go on to develop 2nd degree sunburns over the majority of my face and the parts of my neck that were exposed. The immediate consequence of this burn being that I became dehydrated, a problem made worse by the next mishap:
4: somewhere around 12,000 ft, I lost one of the 1L nalgeen bottles from my pack. Because of the lack of oxygen and deep snow, I was trudging 15 to 20 feet at a time, basically up to the point My muscles and lungs wouldn't let me continue, before plopping down on my ass to recover for 2 minutes after which I would feel amazingly fresh and then repeat the process. During one of these cycles, my pink nalgeen, which was the more full one at this point, must have been forced out of its side pocket due to me collapsing into the snow without my noticing. By the time I noticed this absence, I could not see my lost nalgeen and the amount of effort it took to gain even 20 ft of elevation deterred me from going down to look for it. I realize now how stupid that was, especially with only 2/3 of a liter left and still a majority of my miles to go. I started stuffing my remaining nalgeen with snow, hoping it would melt.
5: I ignored my turn around point. I'd promised myself if I hadn't made it to the top by 2pm, I'd turn around. when my watch read 2pm, I was still very much Not at the top but I could tell I was very high up, probably well above 13,500 ft. I readjusted my turn around point to 3pm. Normally this is bad. However, there were a few factors that influenced me. the weather was perfect, I knew that there were no storms forecasted, and all things considered, I was feeling really good, even if I could only advance 20 ft at a time.
looking northwest almost at the top of Grays
I reached the summit at exactly 3pm. The recent snow blanketed everything above treeline, adding to the impressiveness of the area. At no point during the day had I seen anyone above ~13,500 ft, the highest being a group of skiers, leading me to believe I was the only person to summit that day (There were 5 other people that I know turned back well below me due to the deep snow). The summit seemed to have appeared out of nowhere when I was about to turn back. I remember exclaiming "no way!" when I suddenly came over the last rise. I know part of me at the time knew I had no business being there under the current conditions and I hadn't actually believed for most of the climb that I would reach the top. Even though looking back I am frustrated with my stupidity, I am thankful that I made it up there. That brief moment on the summit truly felt wonderful. But I did pay for it.
Enjoying the view
The 6-ish miles from the summit to the car objectively were pretty quick, in contrast to how they felt.
Looking SSE coming down from the summit
Another shot of Torreys Peak being beautiful on the way down
a corniced Continental Divide Trail and Mt. Edwards beyond
looking back down the valley from where I'd come. (Kelso Mountain on the left)
I was first aware of my sunburn about halfway down but did not know how bad it was until later when I woke up in my Glenwood springs hotel room hardly able to move a single muscle in my face without pain. My face was blistered and cracked and oozing yellow stuff. I knew I was running low on food and water and I'd be too embarrassed to buy anything anytime soon (I looked like a zombie). I made the drive back to Madison in two days, cursing myself most of the way and taking strange looks from strangers at gas stations (it got to the point that I'd look for stations that were empty). I felt helpless.
It took a full week of lying in bed with help from my amazing GF to recover. Never has a mountain taken so much out of me, but I have been very lucky. I was let off with a warning, and I know others, many on this site, have not been so lucky. I want to feel excited about this climb as an accomplishment but also I feel a bit ashamed of my actions. nothing too serious actually happened, but this is not the way to climb mountains. I will return with better form.