February 2016, the weekend of Valentine’s Day is fast approaching, and the fuchsia wrap dress I bought in New York City two months previous in hopes of obtaining a date, is staring at me from the center of my bedroom where I had strategically placed it on a hook.
Eye to eye, we are ogling each other intently and now I feel as though it’s taunting me. “Hey! Are you going to get to wear me or not? If so, get on it!” What was supposed to be a symbol of encouragement became a daily reminder that in just days my favorite holiday would turn up, and I would be without love and dateless for the first time in twenty years, due to my impending divorce.
Valentine’s Day brings back magic. Something about the pale-pink frosted sugar heart cookies and images of cherubs with arrows pointed right at the heart. It’s when in fifth grade Richard Nichols stuffed a fake gemstone ring along with a secret admirer note inside my homemade cardholder taped on my school desk. It’s the day my father would place five red foil boxes of chocolates on the kitchen table, for my brother, sisters and I.
Not one to give up easily, I held out for the last minute possibility of meeting someone special in a bookstore or in line at the grocery store. But this didn’t happen. Then I was sure it was going to happen at Red Rocks where I workout on the stadium stairs once a week, or potentially the local library where I pretend I am writing or finishing up a project. Alas, days away there would be no “cosmic coincidence” or eleventh-hour flash of lighting that would place me face to face with my tall, dark and handsome.
Of course, a night out with my single girlfriends was an option, but I just wasn’t feeling it. Having girl talk at an elegantly set table with a cream-colored linen tablecloth, lit with candles, and watching couples lovingly – or not so lovingly – look into each other’s eyes… no thanks, too many memories! And a glass of any alcoholic beverage would have just made me long for my true heart’s desire: long-term love, a real relationship.
The fuchsia dress would have to wait. This was not going to be a romantic, red wine, chocolate heart weekend with someone new. Instead an extremely difficult, life-changing mountain adventure would lead me to a whole new side of myself.
Here’s What Happens
Growing up near the Sierra Nevada mountain range, I have always been outdoorsy and a nature lover. But I took to the mountains in a whole new way to help myself through the emotional lows of divorce, by getting out in nature and physically challenging myself through hiking. Soon local trail-hiking turned into taking on Colorado fourteeners. A fourteener is a mountain peak exceeding 14,000 feet. There are 54 in the state of Colorado, and I had completed seven in just four months. A winter fourteener was my next goal. So when the opportunity to hike Pikes Peak over Valentine’s weekend presented itself through an adventure meet-up group I’d recently joined, I signed up.
I’m up at 3:30 am to meet the group at the Lincoln Light Rail Station by 5:00 am. There we will carpool for the ninety-mile drive to the trailhead. Equipped with waterproof winter hiking boots, micro-spikes, a new mint-green layering jacket the REI sales rep swore by, my purple RAB “puffy” coat, a turquoise wind-breaker, and a multi-colored hat on top of my head, plus hiking poles and a backpack filled with supplies including a water bladder, a small bottle of Gatorade and some food, I’m semi-confident and ready to go.
I offer to drive, and three passengers join me. A chatty woman in her forties, a male Penn state graduate who has recently moved to Colorado, and a native Coloradan in his twenties who has several fourteeners under his belt.
There can be a few awkward moments when you hike with a group of people you are not familiar with. Essentially everyone is sizing each other up, checking out fitness levels and comparing gear. Of course age doesn’t equate with ability, but once we gather at the trailhead I admit to feeling relieved after I spot a male hiker older than me.
The hike is to be an approximate sixteen-mile “out and back.” I’ve never hiked in snow, but a couple of miles in and I’m getting my mojo. Denver is to hit 50 degrees that day, and snowfall is not predicted in the mountains. However, every mountain range dictates its own weather patterns and mountaineers are always at the mercy of Mother Nature, but so far it’s clear and sunny.
A few miles in we make a stop to put on our stabilizers and have a snack. It is at this point that I realize the hose to my water bladder has frozen. I use hand-warmers to thaw it enough for a few swigs. A friend suggested I fill Nalgene bottles. I wish I heeded his advice.
Soon we make it to Devils Playground. Purportedly this area of Pikes Peak gets its name because lightning bolts are known to bounce from boulder to boulder in the open and exposed area.
Sunny blue skies do not promise a wind-free day, and soon we enter into an abyss of unrelenting sustained winds of 50 to 60 miles per hour that have no plans to quit or even calm for the hikers it decides to cruelly whip. Winds of this magnitude are enough to keep a palm tree and her fronds in a perpetually hunched-over position. This kind of wind gives the illusion that it’s snowing in some places, a sort of snow mist and fog.
Closer to the top, we decide whether to shave off some tough terrain full of talus and boulder fields and deeper snow by hiking the highway. There are only two Colorado fourteeners with highway access, Pikes Peak and Mount Evans. The group decides not to take the highway route; I don’t weigh in on this decision. I’m too busy trying to swallow bites of bagel with peanut butter, hardened by the cold, while waving back to a woman and her husband who spot us from their new silver car. Dumb asses, I know they’re thinking, total fools.
And I’m thinking, you must feel great with your seat warmers on, and what an adventure for you, watching us!
Onward. Sometimes the universe places someone in your path ahead of time because you may run into trouble, or you may need moral support. For me, this would be Michael. Michael and his bright yellow down jacket and backpack loaded with ice axes, and a pair of snowshoes. He’s a seasoned mountaineer, the kind of guy you might see at a Mount Everest base camp.
Michael stays behind me, and several times I say, “Go ahead, I don’t want to slow you.”
But he always replies, “No, I’m good. Sometimes it’s good to take a hike slow and steady.”
He is right where I need him to be. There is no way I’m going to be the last one up. This is my greatest fear of the day, straying from the group and getting lost.
Wind, wind, and more wind. I’m not cold, I’m properly geared, but I can’t take in normal amounts of air, or drink, and I can hear the pellets of snow hitting the jackets of my fellow climbers, as well as mine. The exposed, unprotected skin on my face is taking a good thrashing.
At one point I look up, throw my black-gloved hand into the air and, like a crossing guard with authority, yelled in a commanding voice to the gods of wind, “Stop, be still!” And they hear me, but instead of calling off the commotion I hear a little voice answer back, Don’t resist the wind – become more like a kite!
One minute I’m up, then one good gust of wind and I’m down just like that, landing in a soft pile of snow. There is no harm to my body, but my psyche is scathed as I remember a ledge not far back, and think, if that gust had caught me on the ledge, the ledge I consciously looked away from…
The wind, the noise, the rattling, the pellets of snow combined with dirt stinging exposed areas of my face, I’m regretting not bringing my ski goggles, I’m trying to breathe, when a young fellow climber says to me, “We are all feeling it, we’re all struggling.”
I think, Thank God, you mean, not just the older woman in the group? You too? I need to hear that, in that moment. I just do.
First false summit, and I’m about to cry. My entire body weakens, then I tell myself to toughen up, I remind my thighs that they are in good shape, and give them a good whack to wake them up. I remind my lungs that they are trained and can handle this, and I say to myself, Annie, you got this, you got this, And then I sing, Put one foot in front of the other, the song from the movie Santa Claus is Coming to Town.
Closer to the top and another false summit, but I can see the roof of the Summit House, a landmark building at the top that was supposed to have donuts and hot coffee for adventurers and tourists. Now we’re post-holing in parts, foot and leg drop into deep snow at times thigh-high. A lot of effort is needed to pull out. Shins banging against rocks, and I’m hearing the little voice inside my head, Don’t resist the wind, become more like a kite and flow with it.
At last, with three others behind me, I make it to the top.
The smooth, flat parking lot gives our legs a welcome break. We meet the others, who are huddled underneath the awning by the door of the building and are shoveling in food. We missed the hot cocoa and the warm room by just fifteen minutes. I know I need calories so I pull out my sandwich, then I see two others arrive, but no Steve, the young man from Pennsylvania who had carpooled with me. I’m concerned.
A park ranger pulls up in his big-ass souped-up silver Ford pickup truck. Window rolled down he yells, “I’m checking in to see if anyone needs anything. I’m closing the highway, due to the high wind. It’s blowing snow on the roads and freezing, making the roads treacherous.”
I make it known that the ranger needs to check in with Steve as soon as he summits, and so he waits.
Steve is swaying by the time he arrives, and it turns out his toes are beginning to change color. He does not have proper hiking boots, and also shows signs of high altitude sickness with a headache and no appetite. Feeling responsible for Steve, and admittedly not wanting make the trek down the mountain because now I am dehydrated, I end up with Steve in the ranger’s truck. But not before I give Michael a thank you hug for being my guardian angel for the day.
In the back seat of the truck, I pick up a half full bottle of blue Gatorade and ask the ranger if I can have it. He says he picked it up on the trail, and I said I didn’t care. Instead he offers me his Nalgene bottle full of water, which is like a strawberry smoothie to a young kid with a sweet tooth.
Once on the highway the ranger thinks it’s cool to show us just how bad the roads are, intentionally hitting the brakes on the corners so we slide. He has a false sense of power in his truck, a kid out of high school except he’s in his early sixties. Dude, I’m thinking, I’ve been through a lot already and I’m not in the mood to experience a dramatic scene right out of a movie, where you take two hikers to their deaths down the side of the mountain.
I say, “Can you please stop? You’re scaring me.”
The ranger can only take us halfway down the highway, to the Devil’s Playground area, because he needs to man the roads. I’m thankful to be driven this far, but I’m concerned for Steve, and for the fact that I did not pay attention to the trail during our ascent and do not feel as though I can rely on Steve to navigate us back. So I ask him outright if he remembers the trail, and will his feet be okay, or should I get us a ride to my car from a stranger?
“Best to hitchhike if you can,” he replies to my questions.
I approach a group of three young men who have just moved to Colorado from India, and tell them that we hiked to the top of Pikes Peak and that my friend has the onset of frostbite, and I’m dehydrated, and ask if they will give us a ride to Crags trailhead and my car. I am honest and tell them it’s about an hour away.
“How many are you?” The driver asks.
“Just two,” I respond.
He talks it over with his buddies, then turns to me and replies, “Sure, just let us take some pictures first.”
Their warm car also has a case of bottled water, and we are given permission to have as much as we want. With Bhangra music blaring in the background, Steve’s feet warming up, and my energy slowly coming back, I feel like dancing.
Once at my car, we offer to take them to lunch and give them money for gas, neither of which they would accept. Their only request is that we take them on a hike during summertime, which I later did.
The other hikers trickle to the parking lot between 6:45 and 7:15, headlamps strapped on foreheads, weathered and exhausted. We caravan to Colorado Springs for dinner. Pizza has never tasted so good.
The only frosted anything I saw over Valentine’s weekend was the white of snow spread unevenly across rocky terrain.
The jewels I laid my eyes on were the individual snowflakes that sparkled radiantly and stood out like a perfectly-cut diamonds atop a pile of coal.
The only fantasy realized over this Valentine’s weekend would be a long lavender oil and epsom salt soak in my tub later that night, a visual I used to motivate me as I struggled during the final ascent.
The truth is: wearing the pink dress for someone was never going to heal the pain of divorce or make it go away. I wanted relief from the heartache of my new reality, that my twenty-year marriage had come to an end and my long-bonded family that includes two children was never going to be the same again.
And I was facing the fact that I was single at 51, a huge life change I never imagined for myself. This brought up a slew of fears and self-doubt. Was I still desirable? Were there good men out there who would find me attractive? By society’s standards was I too old for love? In my mind, having a date might validate that I was still desirable and worthy, and that I still had “it.”
Summiting Pikes Peak was a confidence-building threshold experience. I realize that the many qualities I have long admired in my adventurous friends, like discipline, risk-taking, perseverance, and physical fitness, are found in me as well. And another confidence booster – Colorado is full of badass athletes and mountaineers, so when my friends called me a badass after hearing about my adventure, I owned it.
I did not go on this hike expecting to have a threshold experience but it became one. Reaching the top gave me the indelible earned memory that I now have in my bank to draw on for strength and confidence whenever needed.
I’m proud of the photo taken at the top of Pikes Peak of me in my purple puffy coat and colorful hat. I am bright eyed, and weathered as my ruddy cheeks reveal, but only I know that my quick, forced smile hid my true thoughts of, Oh f**k I’m so glad this is over, and now how am I going to get down the mountain? But it is proof that I did it. I did it. Summit Elevation: 14,114 feet, with an elevation gain of over 4,600 feet, over seven hours to reach the top. Indeed, I am crossing this one off my list. And, I swore off winter fourteeners after Pikes, said I’d never do another again…. at least until I got the offer to hike Mt. Sherman two weeks later.
To quote Whitney Houston, “The greatest love of all is happening to me. I found the greatest love of all inside of me.” Confidence-boosting experiences are a great way to find new sides of yourself to love. My own love is guaranteed this Valentine’s weekend, and I may just wear the fuchsia wrap dress, or I might hit the trails with my new red snow shoes. I’ll decide.
Annie’s five Valentine adventure and confidence-building tips:
- Invite the universe to bring a special experience to you, that doesn’t have to do with a love interest or a date. The universe always has your back, and will bring you exactly what you need in exactly the right time — Ask, just ask.
- Try something new, or sign up for something new. Something that will stretch you, something you’ve admired that others do, but don’t think you can do. Brainstorm and write it out!
- Join a local meet-up group, a local community of people with similar interests. In Colorado there are many outdoor groups, but I’ve also seen everything from meditation to writing, from pub-crawling to fishing! It takes confidence to show up at an event with people you’ve never met before.
- Don’t be afraid to get out in nature in the wintertime, no matter where you live. Snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, and simple trail-hiking are invigorating confidence builders! There are programs and guides in every state, and REI and other outdoor companies rent equipment so no need to invest until you’ve tried!
- Book an adventure for spring or summertime that will force you to start training for it now. I just signed up for a cycling trip in Croatia for June, and I’m not a cyclist! Best hit the spin classes!
May the love, adventure, spirit and energy of Valentine’s Day inspire you to create your own new reality, one that includes a newfound confidence within you!