climbing gray’s in a whiteout

The Big Idea: difficult experiences are the hardest to forget.

Coloradans climb 14ers like New Yorkers eat bagels.

There are a lot of varieties to try, and you’re not really a native unless you’re able to list the mountains/delis you’ve visited. Coloradans, however, believe summitting 14ers is much cooler than eating bagels, and sub sandwiches for that manner. (For the uninitiated, a 14er’s peak rises higher than 14,000 feet in elevation).

You’ve most likely noticed some patterns and personality in my stories by this point, so you can probably sense this is one cult tradition I could easily get behind. I love the outdoors, adventure, and a good challenge. Putting it all together in the form of a statewide ritual felt like the greatest hobby ever.

While the first time Erin and I summitted a 14er is a moment I’ll never forget, it’s an experience she rather would. We were totally unprepared for what unfolded during our ascent, you see. While that only served to heighten the sense of adventure in my mind, it was so distressing in Erin’s, she wouldn’t entertain the thought of climbing another 14er for quite some time.

Generally, we believe we create memories with our minds, but it’s our emotions that determine what we retain. We don’t actually see memories for what they are. Feelings are sticky, they attach themselves to past events as we construct memories based upon what we felt. When we recall past events, the facts may be fuzzy, but sensations are as sharp as ever – especially the negative ones.

When I think about this particular trek up a 14er called Gray’s, I don’t remember how many switchbacks we navigated, or how many miles we hiked. I clearly remember, however, feeling alive as the relentless winds of a winter storm pummeled me. Erin, on the other hand, remembers with scrupulous detail how miserable she felt while sliding down ice-covered scree, wishing our day would come to an early end.

As it turns out, it’s the painful memories we’d most like to forget that are toughest to leave behind.

I squeezed my watch as the alarm and glowing green face said it was time to rise and shine. There were still a few hours left before sunrise, but we needed to break down our campsite near the base of Gray’s and get moving. The weather becomes more variable in the afternoon, so we’d have to start our descent down the mountain’s face far before then.

I folded our tent and crammed my sleeping bag into its stuff-sack. Once our gear was neatly consolidated I sat down beside Erin and gratefully accepted a cup of coffee.

“How’d y’all sleep?” I asked as our group of friends, Grant, Bre, and Danny walked over. Their packs and headlamps were strapped on, ready to begin our journey.

“Well…” Danny sighed. “Bre woke up in a stupor around midnight, freaking out that someone was trying to get into our tent. I didn’t sleep much after that.”

“Bummer,” I said as I studied Danny’s bare legs. “Shorts? Will you be warm enough in those?”

“Yeah man, we Peruvians are cold weather people,” he laughed. “Besides, it supposed to be pretty sunny today.”

“Hope so,” I nodded.

“You guys ready to get rolling?” Grant, the native Coloradan among us, asked. “We should head out if we want to make both Gray’s and Torrey’s,” he advised, referring to Gray’s sister peak, which can be reached by traversing a saddle connecting the two summits.

Erin double-checked her backpack and confirmed she’d tucked her camera inside. “Ready!”

Our journey began as we navigated a skinny trail cut through thick sagebrush. Every so often, I turned around to watch the dispersed trail of headlamps tracing our footsteps. The track of lights looked like little ants against the pre-dawn blackness, all following little breadcrumbs we’d dropped along the way. As the sun gently rose a few hours later, we all stopped to suck down water.

“So far so easy,” I said as I attacked a granola bar and gazed back at the looming walls of rock on either side of the valley.

“Well, I think I’m a little too hydrated,” Erin spoke up. “I’m going to find a place to do my thing.”

A few minutes later, Erin came running back to our group. “Did you guys knows there’s a huge cliff that way? Like, sheer, hundred-foot drop-off huge. I was almost toast!”

“We’ll stick together now,” I reassured her. “No worries.”

Shortly after we resumed our trek, the temperature began to plummet. Normally, the temperature climbs as the rising Colorado sun shines. On this particular morning, however, it was getting so cold that if we stopped moving, we began to shiver and rub our hands together to generate heat. We were all wearing some sort of light windbreaker, but none of us had planned for winter weather.

“Graupel, that’s interesting,” Grant said as he swiped his hand along a rock and inspected the wintry mix clinging to his glove.

“You nerd,” his wife, Bre, joked after hearing Grant’s weather-science master’s degree speaking.

“Well this graupel is making my hands as cold as Danny’s legs,” Erin said.

As we kept moving up the trail, slowly but surely, we started to see hikers in front of us turning around. It was either too snowy, slick, or just plain miserable to continue. In fact, the wind smacking my hood was so loud I couldn’t hear Erin expressing how much the weather sucked until she was close enough to tap me.

After another hour of moving up the trail, we were closing in on the summit. Roughly 600 feet of vertical elevation remained when we crouched out of the wind to assess everyone’s status. Erin was miserable. Danny didn’t look too good. The altitude was getting to him, and he was feeling a little queasy. Grant and Bre, like me, were cold, but up to make a final push to the summit.

As you might imagine, the deceptive part about summiting 14ers is the thinning air. As you gain elevation, it compounds the effort required to take each additional step. Hiking at a mile high is one thing, hiking 9,000 feet higher is a whole different experience.

The blowing, wintry mix turned to snow as Erin shivered in her windbreaker. “Time to move,” I said, wanting to keep warm while making progress.

Less than an hour later, we made the summit. Shaking from the cold and winded from the effort, we held up a sign that read “GRAYS PEAK, 14,278FT” and posed for a picture. There were no breathtaking views, no gazing across the Rockies from atop the world. Instead, we stood in front of a solid white backdrop. I kid you not, apart from the earth-colored boulders around our feet, the back of the photo is as pure white as a brand-new bedsheet.

We were standing on the peak of a 14er in the middle of pure Colorado whiteout, and clearly, we didn’t come prepared.

“I can’t even see Torrey’s right now,” I said to Grant after we snapped a few photos. “This is going to get pretty sketchy.”

“Yeah, there’s hardly any visibility,” Grant agreed.

“You’re not considering hiking across, right?” Erin overhead us.

“Well, we should definitely get Danny down to lower elevation,” I pointed out.

Grant nodded. “No doubt. I’m amazed he made it here. Altitude sickness is no joke.”

We all agreed that traversing to Torrey’s Peak was too risky. It would be just as risky to split the group, so it was settled. We’d head down after spending just a few minutes atop Gray’s. As we picked our way down the slope, I considered how people always talk about making it to the top of a mountain. Really, we should talk more about making it down.

Making it back down Gray’s turned out to be just as exhausting and even more mentally taxing than the trek up. The snow that was once light and fluffy had turned to ice, creating a slick glassy film that coated every surface we stepped or held onto. Unstable footing and the unforgiving force of gravity worked together to bring us crashing onto the jagged rock time and time again.

Eventually, we made it off the mountainside. When we passed the valley and reached the trailhead, I knew we’d never forget that trip, no matter how many mountains we visited. Erin, however, was convinced she’d never hike another 14er.

She preferred to forget the experience altogether.

If you were to ask about that trip up Gray’s, I would say it was incredible, while Erin would say it was incredibly unenjoyable. Erin recalls feeling such intense discomfort that her impression of 14ers was colored with a dark shade for quite some time.

For a while, I’d joke about picking more, and more difficult, peaks to climb, just to get a rise out of her. I’d always get a reaction because as far as she was concerned, she was done with 14er’s. Yet, when I’d mention climbing Gray’s in a whiteout, she couldn’t help but recall the experience in vivid detail. The feeling of blustering wind and sliding down icy rock still rush to her mind.

We all have memories we either label as pleasurable or painful. Strangely, it’s the painful times we most want to forget that are most deeply engrained in our brains. They seem to find the folder marked Do Not Erase. Even a years-old event can feel as fresh and raw as an event that occurred yesterday. That’s why Erin reacts so strongly to the mention of 14ers.

Pleasurable moments, by contrast, usually fade with time. It’s easier for the details of euphoric experiences – like summitting Gray’s, from my perspective – to escape us. They’re written over by more recent experiences, as if the folder labeled Keep in our brains already hit its storage limit.

For example, when I recall my wedding night, it feels like I missed most of it. I was caught up in the high of seeing my bride, celebrating with family, and catching up with friends, so the details are fuzzy. However, I can perfectly recount the conversations from our honeymoon which centered on how I was selfishly wandering off to find my own adventures in a foreign country (guys, your wife isn’t supposed to cry on her honeymoon, just so you know). Those moments are filled with heartache, not happiness, and they’re far clearer in my mind.

A Boston-based psychologist, Elizabeth Kensinger, backed this phenomenon with evidence in a groundbreaking study.

She found people who feel negative emotions during an event are far more likely to accurately recount the event. Similarly, she discovered that we retain adverse memories for far longer than pleasurable ones. A plausible explanation she offers for this is threatening and harmful times are more valuable to our brains. They help us survive and avoid future pain.

That sounds reasonable to me. However, I think there are other factors at work here, too. Personally, I tend to internalize my flaws while writing off my accomplishments as accidents. I attribute wins as good things that just happened to go my way, while I hold myself personally accountable for my failures. “If only I had just…” is the start of too many sentences in my life.

I know that holding onto screw-ups and painful experiences is no way to live. If I always allow the sweet moments that lighten the sting of past pain to fade way, it’s only a matter of time before I’m crushed under the burden of years-worth of negative memories.

Luckily, Jesus said there was a better way. He showed us it’s possible to live lightly in a world filled with heavy, grievous moments. While life will never consist of four-hour lunch breaks and weekly bonuses at work, he said that’s more than okay. In fact, he regularly sent his followers out into the whiteout.

The twelve who followed Jesus were told to go face down some pretty serious baggage, like diseases and demons. I’ve never seen a demon, but I have to imagine they’re not pretty, and the sight of them probably sticks in your mind for some time. Yet, as they left to tackle demons and diseases, Jesus instructed them, “Take nothing for your journey, no staff, nor bag, nor bread, nor money; and do not have two tunics.” He didn’t even give them a windbreaker.

If we choose to follow Jesus, we’ll be called into the unknown, often feeling like we’re sliding on our butts down frozen rocks. Rarely will we be equipped for what we’ll encounter. This can seem very counter-productive on the surface, like Jesus just doesn’t know how to plan very well. I think it’s all for our good, however. He just wants us to follow the path he created, instead of wandering off the side of the mountain.

Faithfully following Jesus into the whiteout will always be hard work, but fortunately, he warms us up along the way. When our past produces feelings of guilt, anger, and sadness, he cloaks us in grace, forgiveness, and hope. Jesus reminds us that he accepted the physical wounds of the cross, that we might be given the emotion healing we need to keep moving forward.

Even the apostle Paul, a man whose past was stained with the memories of executing Jesus’ followers in the bloodiest of ways, was able to write, “[I]f anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.” Paul didn’t cling to the oppressive experiences he’d rather forget, saying to himself, “If only I’d killed one less Christian…” He embraced the joy and new life he found while following Jesus’ call.

A French priest and professor, Henri Nouwen, wrote about this intersection between mental health and spirituality. Some of his most salient words read:

To be grateful for the good things that happen in our lives is easy, but to be grateful for all of our lives the good as well as the bad, the moments of joy as well as the moments of sorrow, the successes as well as the failures, the rewards as well as the rejections that requires hard spiritual work. Still, we are only grateful people when we can say thank you to all that has brought us to the present moment. As long as we keep dividing our lives between events and people we would like to remember and those we would rather forget, we cannot claim the fullness of our beings as a gift of God to be grateful for. Let's not be afraid to look at everything that has brought us to where we are now and trust that we will soon see in it the guiding hand of a loving God.

Everyone is willing to embrace the wins and warm moments. Standing on a mountain top in the sunshine is the easy part. Enduring whiteouts and leg-burning trials while we’re wholly unprepared is the difficult part – and the part that usually sticks with us over the long-term. I think, though, that’s exactly why Mr. Nouwen says we’re to be grateful for both kinds of experiences. God’s able to use the good and the bad to shape us for the better.

By the way, in case you’re wondering, Erin did climb another 14er. Almost poetically, one year later, she summited Mt. Bierstadt while raising money for Colorado children suffering from mental health challenges.

Want to read more?

don’t stop now, download a free preview of my latest book Living Forward, Looking Backward to read more stories just like this