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Climb Higher

With the right preparation–and a little help from a half-dozen friends, two exotic techno-gadgets, and one very sweaty hypoxic chamber–can a sea-level-dwelling rookie climb the highest peak in Colorado?

From Sea Level to Summit | You, At Altitude | The Kili Cure | How to Reach Your Peak

It’s 5:25 a.m. on September 18, six days short of my 55th birthday. In a parody of rebirth, I extrude myself through the flaps of a tiny pup tent in Colorado’s San Isabel National Forest. My body is shivering and sodden with lung exhaust, which has condensed and rained down upon me in the cold night. The altitude here, 10,280 feet, represents a refreshing descent from Sewickley’s higher simulations. On the whole, I’m feeling splendid: There is nary a trace of headache, regurgitative urges, or psychiatric detachment I’d all but accepted as my baseline state back home.

After relieving myself on a lodgepole pine sapling, I use the pulse oximeter to confirm that the apparent bonhomie is no fluke: oxygen saturation a robust 93 percent…heart rate a relaxed 54 beats per minute.

Overhead, dense constellations scatter before the morning sun. The crisp air is redolent of the distant campfires of elk hunters. In this wee morning splendor, I can almost see why people actually enjoy communing with nature and whatnot. What a day! Excitement now trumps all anxiety.

Until, that is, my eyes lock on the crescent moon, which is rising beside a gargantuan pyramidal presence in the gloaming. Suddenly I realize what the colossus is: my magnet and my nemesis, Elbert!

In the gathering light, it’s clear the mountain has donned unseasonable raiments. From treeline to summit, the peak is cloaked in shades of white–a mix of slush, crust, powdery fluff, and ice crystals. From steamy Pittsburgh yesterday, the promise of icy wisps seemed almost refreshing in a beer commercial kind of way. Now that I am actually here, I’m reminded once again that distance is the greatest cosmetic.

By 8:30, with breakfast wolfed and gear packed, I make my way to Elbert’s official trailhead, elevation 10,367 feet. From this vantage, the peak is concealed by a forest of pines. Left unhidden is its immediate neighbor–the aptly named Mt. Massive–which soars to heights seemingly unscalable by hominids like me.

At 8:53 a.m., my oxygen/heart rate readings are an acceptable 89/72. I take one final cleansing breath and launch off into the woods. If distance swimming has taught me anything, it’s to avoid flooding yourself with lactic acid in the first 45 seconds of an all-day swim. Taking pains to pace accordingly, I ford a small stream without falling in; negotiate several rocky switchbacks steep enough to trigger sweating and the delayering of garments; and somehow manage to stave off total exhaustion–until 9:13 a.m.

The entirety of the vertical ascent in these first 20 minutes: 400 feet, or about one gothic cathedral climb. Despite such modest advance, my ox sat has dropped to 81, and my heart is jack-hammering 132 times a minute. After a restorative rest, my readings stabilize at 86/102. Once again, I soldier onwards and upwards, reaching 11,000 feet by 9:34 a.m.

From Sea Level to Summit | You, At Altitude | The Kili Cure | How to Reach Your Peak

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