Debbie Barnes
Community correspondent
Vail, CO Colorado

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April 22, 2010
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Reporting Readers: Skies clear as hikers reach summit

"I want to climb a 14er," I announced to my husband, Ray.

In response, he vehemently launched into a 14er-climbing game plan. He visited www.14ers.com and discovered that Colorado has 53 peaks higher than 14,000 feet, each with a class system rating difficulty. Grays Peak, at 14, 270 feet, Class 1, ranked 9 of 53 - he assured me, was perfect for gumpies like us. It is the highest peak on the Continental Divide - in the United States.

He guessed we could hike it in six hours or so. Six hours? Let me look at that. Whoa! Snow saddle? Vertigo? Altitude Sickness? Exposure!?! Maybe we should talk about this ...

The day of the hike came, though, and we gathered our hiking necessities: hiking boots, waterproof clothing, energy bars, Camelback, camera, trail map from the Web site, sunscreen. For courage, I kept repeating the words of a not-so-famous mountaineer: "Roc iz gud."

At the trailhead, we paired up with other first-timers and began our 3 1/2-mile ascent. Gray's Peak loomed sharply ahead, glistening in the summer sun. We signed the visitor's book, and since I drank enough caffeine to lift a car, I kept up with Ray, who has much longer legs than I.

We were comforted by seeing so many other hikers, many of them in shorts and tennis shoes, all smiles. But half an hour into our trek, it began drizzling rain and we were thankful for our rain gear. The wind picked up and hikers, abandoning their mission, poured back down in droves, complaining of the wind, the cold, the poor visibility and the snow.

We, however, pressed on. At 13,000 feet, oxygen deprived, we attempted a photo op: one picture and the camera's battery died. Disappointed, we resumed the climb, stopping more frequently now, leaning in toward the mountain to let descenders pass.

The trail was narrow enough and crowded enough that we had to step aside to allow folks by. The burning in our legs would not subside and our hearts raced on. I complained to my husband, "This mountain is kicking my ..."

Even though we chose a route off the trail map that required no technical climbing, it was all pretty much straight up, switch backs or not. Needless to say, it was slow going. The snow continued, and at around 14,000 feet, folks who had summited whispered words of encouragement to us as they came back down, "You're almost there. It's worth it."

Miraculously, we arrived at the top, amid the fog, and were surprised at how amazingly small the summit itself was. We were at 14,270 feet and a pile of rocks near one edge was our only security, so we hunkered down near them to catch our breath and grab a snack.

To our delight, a burst of wind cleared the clouds, and momentarily unveiled the most spectacular view ever. It was fabulous. To the north and northwest we could see Hager Mountain, Mount Bethel, Pettingell Peak and Mount Parnassus.

Our new hiking buddies were kind enough to take our photos, which they later e-mailed to us. Since we had to make space on the summit for other successful climbers, we quickly grabbed one last look and began our descent.

The descent was tricky too, but much quicker. We were the veterans now, so we practically ran back down the mountain, whispering words of encouragement to the folks coming up, "It's worth it."

We didn't get to use words like "belay" or "glissade" but we felt victorious just the same. The hike took us approximately six hours from trailhead to summit, about 7 1/2 miles round-trip. The actual ascent is 3,040 feet.

Gray's Peak is touted as one of the most popular climbs for novices for its level of difficulty and close proximity to Denver. My advice to would-be climbers? Charge your digital camera battery before you climb a 14er and layer up with waterproof clothing.

Someone defined mountaineering as this: "Slow walking uphill while not feeling very well." While this is fairly accurate, I came away with an understanding even more profound than that:

"Roc iz gud."

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The VailDaily Updated May 3, 2010 12:38AM Published Apr 22, 2010 09:42PM Copyright 2010 The VailDaily. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.