Quandary Peak (Summit County) — 14,265 feet—So named by miners who could not identify ore found on the mountain.
My friend and coworker Young organized a hike up this 14er for anyone who wanted to go. Her offer was accepted by Megan, Kimm, Kimm’s husband Steve, their son Ben and his friend Cameron, and their dog. Four of Young’s Korean hiking buddies also joined us, along with one of their husbands. And me.
I met Young, Megan, and Sue at CBS at 4:15 am. We drove through Ute Pass and across South Park under the light of an amazing full moon.
We crossed Hoosier Pass as the sun came up. Young pulled over for photos.
That’s Quandary Peak in the left distance.
Another view from near the trailhead.
We arrived around 6:40 to find all the trailhead parking lots packed. We wedged into a spot along the road. As we waited for the other members of our group to arrive, I noticed this sign. Megan and I laughed at the last line. I told her, “If all goes well today, maybe we can be friends.”
The trailhead was at 10,937 feet above sea level, which meant that I had 3,328 feet of elevation to climb. We finally got started a few minutes after 7:00. The first third of the trail ran through a pleasant pine forest. The trail led up stairs that Young actually helped build.
I was feeling good at this point, and was actually quite a ways out in front of the group for much of the way. That’s Mount Lincoln in the distance. It’s another 14er that’s 30 feet higher than Quandary.
When the trees thinned out, we could see the peak of Quandary in the distance. Just kidding. The mountain has a false summit that’s a long, long way from the peak.
The false summit of Quandary is on the right. North Star Mountain, which reaches 13,614 is in the middle, with Mount Lincoln poking up in the distance. I think that’s Mount Silverheels (13,829 feet) on the far left on the other side of Hoosier Pass.
The false summit is out of view behind the trees in the next photo. The actual summit can be seen here. It looked and felt like it was a long way away. This shot also shows how crowded the trail was. It was pretty much like this from this point to the summit. I’m told it’s called a “conga line.” Most of the people were friendly and polite, so I didn’t really begrudge their presence. But Quandary on a summer Saturday is not the place to seek solitude.
I’ve been told that Quandary is one of the pretty 14er treks, and I can believe it. The trail looks over the Blue Lakes in the valley between Quandary and North Star Mountain.
The last section before we left the trees had a lot of steps made of uneven slabs of rock. These made for hard climbing. We were already close to 12,000 feet. On all my mountain climbs, I’ve had trouble with dizziness. I just can’t get enough air when I’m that high up, no matter what I do. The dizziness began as I climbed the steps, and I soon wasn’t having a lot of fun. This next photo is looking back to the northeast. The wiggly line is the road through Hoosier Pass that we drove this morning. In the hazy distance is South Park.
We finally made it out of the trees and found the surface covered with rocks.
As we approached the false summit, the sky turned gray. The one thing I’ve always been told about climbing 14ers is to definitely, absolutely NEVER be on the exposed face during storms. I was ready to turn back. I figured it was probably already dangerous and would only get worse. I could see how much mountain I had yet to climb and was not at all interested in climbing another hour and then having to turn back short of the top. But Young said we should go a little further and see what happened. As it turned out, a few minutes later the sky was clear again.
I was no longer leading the pack. Steve, Ben, and Cameron had disappeared uphill. Young was hanging back with us slowpokes.
I was feeling miserable and fine. Miserable because I couldn’t get air. Fine because that’s how I always feel at that altitude—it’s my mountain-climbing normal. When we climbed Mount Evans last summer, I was on my own for much of the way, so nobody could see how often I had to stop and gasp. This time there were people around. Sue is an oncologist. She noticed me suffering and took me on as her special project. She kept checking my palms and telling me to drink more water and giving me food to eat. I appreciated her thoughtfulness, and I figured maybe, since she was a doctor, that her advice might help. Whenever my dizziness made me wobble, she would subtly position herself to catch me. Since she weighs about 95 pounds, I’m not sure how that would have worked if I had fallen. That’s her in the maroon coat right behind me. She climbed up and down the mountain with her hands in her pockets.
When we finally crested the false summit, it was demoralizing. There was a long plateau and then a long, steep climb yet to go.
The trail, such as it was, was a barely discernible path where trail maintenance crews had dumped smaller rocks in between the larger rocks to smooth things out. We were still at just about 13,000 feet here. That’s Kimm on the left, with my personal physician on my right.
We still had this to tackle. To get a sense of the scale, notice the chain of people all the way up.
I had a method to my misery. I would set a goal up ahead—a particular rock or patch of color. The light gray chevron visible in the two previous photos was a big one. When I achieved it, I would stop and bend over my hiking poles until the dizziness stopped, then I would look up, set my next goal, and climb. I felt great if I managed to go a couple feet past my goal.
Sue kept telling me to drink more water. But I began noticing something around this point—drinking water made me feel sick. I was siphoning the water through tube from a bladder in my backpack. I think the lousy feeling came over me because, when I was drinking, I wasn’t breathing. The Koreans kept giving me slices of orange and fruit snacks “for an energy boost.” But energy wasn’t my problem. My legs were fine. I just couldn’t get air. I think they were surprised when I would stop for 30 seconds and then keep going. I’m sure I looked like I needed more rest than that. One of Young’s friends decided to inspire us by singing operatic style. It didn’t help. Not a bit.
The reason I kept going wasn’t fear of failure or pride. It was the realization that I had given up an entire Saturday and gone through a great deal of discomfort to get this far. I wasn’t about to go through all that without something to show for it.
Here I am with Kimm. I don’t remember what I was doing, but from the look on her face, I’m guessing I was illustrating the way I felt.
Me and Sue. Notice the sky.
There was a summit. I finally reached it at 11:20, four hours and 20 minutes after I started.
I found place to settle, took off my backpack, and rested. As soon as I stopped climbing, I felt fine. Here’s the view to the northeast.
Looking southeast toward Hoosier Pass.
Proof I made it. I felt fine, except that I couldn’t bring myself to eat anything. It just wouldn’t go down.
Young showed up with her sign and took photos of all of us.
With Megan, Kimm, and Young
With Kimm (left), Sue (red coat) and her friends. I don’t remember this photo being taken, and I have no idea what I was pointing at.
After maybe 15 minutes, Young said we should get going. There were some clouds building in the area, but they didn’t amount to much yet. I put my backpack back on and was ready to go, but we hung around taking photos for another 10 minutes. I put on a brace on my right knee because going down Mount Evans last year almost destroyed me.
We’d hiked for maybe 10 minutes when the cloud overhead turned black and it began to hail and thunder. This was a terrible feeling because we were at least 2,000 feet and a couple miles from any kind of shelter. All we could do was keep going.
The air was soon filled with electricity. Megan noticed it first when her hair started crackling and standing straight out from her head. I thought it was kinda funny until I started feeling it too. The current came through the button on the top of my hat and exited through my shoes. I could feel it running all the way down my body. It hurt to hold my hiking poles. I kept going and waited for the lightning to strike. The electrical storm probably didn’t last for more than three or four minutes, but it felt like a long time. To make it more exciting, the hail and rain kept up for about half an hour, which made the rocks wet and slippery.
Not long after the storm passed, my legs gave out. Both thigh muscles just quit. I had spaghetti legs. If I could lock my knees, I was fine. But that’s impossible to do when going downhill. I relied completely on my hiking poles. There’s no way I could have made it without them. It was brace, step, stumble, recover, brace, step, stumble, recover, repeat. All the way down the mountain. By this point, we were among the last people on the mountain. I’d quit taking photos, but Young still was. The photo below shows best what I was dealing with. I look crippled, and essentially was. Most of the group went on ahead, but Young, Megan, and Steve stayed with me. (Steve had summited, then gone down below the treeline when the storm hit and waited for the rest of us there.)
I have always had reserves of energy I could tap into, but not this day. I was beat. It wasn’t just my legs. I had a sharp pain in my stomach. People kept giving me food to eat, but my body wasn’t digesting it. It was just sitting there. My hands were also tired and sore from gripping the poles and supporting my weight.
I’ve never been so frustrated in my life. I was weak, and I was slowing everybody down. I don’t generally picture myself as a hero. Maybe sometimes a sidekick. But NEVER as the person who needs to be rescued. The thing that kept me going was a lack of options.
When I finally got back to the trailhead, it was around 2:30. It had taken me two-and-a-half hours to get down. I managed to stumble over the the sign for the group photo. I deliberately stood in the shadow so my tears of frustration wouldn’t show.
Tony, the guy in the blue shirt in front, gave me a ride the 200 yards from the sign to Young’s car. He told me the total round trip from trailhead to summit to trailhead was 13 miles. My phone recorded it as 9 miles, which Young said was close to accurate. According to the Internet, the length is 6.2 miles, but nobody I talked to believed it was that short. Whatever the length, the altitude gain was 3,450 feet.
When Sue got in the car, I thanked for for helping me and watching out for me. She responded by saying, “Thank you for accepting my help. I didn’t think you would. You were adorable. It’s not just me saying that. All the women were saying it. You just kept going. And you have such a sweet face.” Or something like that. I very much appreciated her kindness, but I doubted her judgment.
As we drove away, we took a look back at the mountain.
The ride home took forever. My muscles were hurting, but that was the least of it. I had to ask Young to stop so I could use the bathroom in Fairplay and again in Florissant. When I finally got home around 4:30, I had to go badly again—and then again a little while later.
In retrospect, I think my body simply wasn’t processing the water I was drinking or digesting the food I ate. I was bloated and dehydrated. That’s probably what caused my leg weakness. Or maybe I’m just old and out of shape.
I went to bed for three hours, then got up and watched a movie. On Sunday, I took four naps. By Monday, I was feeling human again.
Last year, we started our climb of Mount Evans at 12,850 feet and hiked up 1,650 feet. Those who care say the altitude gain has to be 3,000 feet to count as an official 14er climb. I’ve now officially climbed a 14er. Never again. The dizziness that I always face is no fun. And I’m also not willing to risk the issues I faced this time.
Halfway down the mountain, Kimm caught up to me and asked if I was going to be Megan’s friend. When we got back to the car, I told Megan it was official. So at least the hike accomplished that.