One woman’s emotional and insightful journey as she attempted to summit all of the 13,000-foot peaks within a 10-mile radius of Silverton, Colorado, during last summer’s COVID-19 lockdown
TRIALS & TRIUMPHS
The slope’s shale façade clung to the earth below through gravity alone. Each step I took sent the whole thing rumbling into disequilibrium. Once the angle grew too steep, it was only a matter of time. Traction was futile and I felt the earth give way as my left foot sent a microwave-sized hunk of quartzite thundering down the valley floor. Brace for impact. I thrust my trekking poles into one hand and clawed at the crumbling hillside to arrest my fall, sliding about 20 feet before making contact with a thorn-like root that brought me to a halt.
I cursed, loudly. Sitting in a precarious position I grumbled about my minor puncture wound, pissed off that this mountain dare try to thwart me.
I glanced up, taking in the terrain. I forgot my hand immediately. You have got to be kidding me. I was off route — again. Instantly, self-pity replaced pain and I began to cry there on the rocks. It wasn’t a big deal — I’d tried to be smart by contouring and accidentally gained about 600 feet of unnecessary elevation.
Though I don’t like to admit it, history would suggest I am not, say, a “natural” when it comes to route finding. I’ve learned this the hard way, multiple times. Despite knowing how to navigate with terrain and map and compass. Here I was — wrong again.
I’d driven three hours to better access these 13,000-foot peaks, only 6 miles as the crow flies from my home in Silverton. Running on an hour of sleep, the ridge linkup of Peaks One, Two, Three and White Dome (northwest of the better-known Trinity Traverse and Vestal Basin) proved harder than anticipated. The route demanded scary, Class 5 moves and a knife edge traverse on rotten snow without gear.
Get me out of here. Like a toddler knocked down on the playground, I sat in the rubble throwing a tantrum about the inhumanity of how many miles I still had to cover before reaching freedom. I can’t do it. I won’t. I’m tired. My feet hurt.
Of course, after about five minutes I knew I was in the wilderness — not kindergarten. No one was coming to pluck me out and deliver me to work at 7 a.m. the next morning. I picked myself up, went down, up, down again, took a bath in the river and trudged slowly back to the car.
It’s one of my favorite memories, actually. Wanting to be anywhere else in the world usually means some sort of growth is happening; for me anyway. In the moment, I’d rather be anywhere else on earth than that godforsaken land. After a few days in the world of clocks, I’m plotting my return. That’s how it goes — trials and triumphs. A self-serving cycle that serves no real purpose other than somehow making life feel a little more alive. When experienced directly, it’s enough to always come back and try again.
Over the course of five months, I skinned, scrambled and sometimes suffered my way to the top of ninety-four peaks higher than 13,000 feet, or thirteeners. I learned valuable lessons along the way, pushed myself to achieve things I never thought possible and gained a newfound appreciation for the incredible adventure in my own backyard. All of those things are true except one: I didn’t actually succeed. Only in writing this article did I discover my failure — I climbed 94 of 98 peaks — unknowingly missing four by about a quarter mile each due to my lack of thoroughness in counting dots on a map.
If the goal was to feel success, I achieved it — each summit I stood on slowly boosted my confidence.
Over a year ago, the COVID-19 pandemic descended upon the Southwest and the rest of the world. Like so many others, I found myself out of a job, unable to visit friends and overwhelmed by uncertainty.
The timing couldn’t have been worse. I had left my comfort zone and community in Durango six months earlier to take a chance on love. That meant moving to the mining-turned-ski hamlet of Silverton, Colorado — approximately 48 miles north, 2,796 feet higher and roughly one twenty-eighth the size of Durango — to start a new life with my partner in the heart of the San Juan Mountains. At the time, it was a dream come true.
However, along with the onset of the COVID pandemic and the “Stay at Home” order, my dream had been unraveling for months; and without work as a distraction, I was forced to face the reality of a failing relationship. Everything seemed to be spinning out of control; so I did what I always do when nothing makes sense. I turned to the mountains.
After two months in lockdown, my existential anxiety and restlessness reached a fever pitch. By mid-May, I came up with a solution — to climb, hike or ski all of the thirteeners (peaks above 13,000 feet) within a 10-mile radius of my house before the end of the year. I figured if I couldn’t find relief from my emotional prison through the usual coping strategies (work, spontaneous cross-country road trips, drinking wine with friends, etc.), I might as well channel that energy closer to home. I desperately needed to believe I had direction, even if just up the side of a hill.
The journey began on May 19, 2020. I downloaded a file of waypoints called “CO Thirteeners” and started hiking. Well, technically, skinning — since my first thirteener, Bonita Peak (13,286 feet) was still caked in snow at the time.
At first I didn’t tell anyone about my plan. I kept it close for several weeks, silently evaluating the thirteeners on my list saying I was “going for a run” (a believable fib when you live in a town where 12,000-foot peaks outnumber year-round residents three to one). After a few cruiser summits, I gained confidence that I stood a reasonable chance of success, and took to social media to announce my plan.
It was a perfect road map to success — a unique list of peaks that no one else cared about (the epicenter was my actual house, for starters) which I knew I could finish by the end of the year. At the time, it didn’t seem like a big deal that I hadn’t counted every single waypoint within that 10-mile circle I drew on the map. There were a lot of thirteeners (at least 70); I knew that much because of how many times I lost count trying to tally a total. It didn’t matter if the total was 69 or 96 — I was committed. There would be plenty of time for counting dots on the map later. Now, it was time to hike.
A little context: “peak bagging,” while not my favorite term, is the widely acknowledged terminology for the hobby of ticking off summits usually based around some measure of topographical prominence. For instance, Colorado’s fourteeners — a list of 54 (or 58, depending who you ask) peaks higher than 14,000 feet — draw thousands of peak baggers from across the globe each year to their summits (often with a hand-drawn sign, for proof) on a quest for the bragging rights that come with ticking off the whole list.
The thing about peak-bagging is there are a lot of rules. Most people take the 54 or 58 number as the officially recognized total count of 14ers in the state and call it good. If you start digging, however, the total number of peaks higher than 14,000 feet in the Rocky Mountain State reveals itself to be between 59-74. Um, what?
According to the U.S. Geological Survey, there are 59 points in Colorado measured above 14,000 feet. One of these points, “Sunlight Spire,” gets bumped off the official list due to years of being thought to measure five feet below 14,000 (inconvenient, really). Then there’s the prominence rule. Somewhere between when people started climbing mountains and today, the decision was made to only “count” peaks with at least 300-feet of topographic prominence. This means a mountain must rise at least 300 feet above the saddle connecting it to the next highest point. In fairness to our brazen forefathers taking on the impossible task of measuring mountains, they needed to narrow it down somehow.
If you think counting fourteeners is tricky, please do not attempt to tally the thirteeners. It’s a mind-bending black hole of mathematical equations, “hand-over-hand” measurement units and a whole lot of people trying to make claims and official lists to fill the information void.
It was July by the time I realized my mistake. My project was going swimmingly. I’d even gone back to work and still managed to tick about 40 summits on top of a 40-hour work week. The dent was big enough that I sensed the time had come to figure out exactly how many peaks I had left. Turns out, you shouldn’t trust everything you get from the Internet. The most widely accepted figure when it comes to how many thirteeners in Colorado is 637. I’d assumed my canonical folder of waypoints represented this number since it was commonly referenced on the sites I used for route beta. This was not the case.
By the time I realized my list also included unranked thirteeners (bumps on ridgelines, essentially), I’d already done at least 10 of these unrecognized blips — peaks discarded by the mainstream peak-bagging community. Well… I can’t quit now, I thought. Summer was halfway over and my goal just grew from 79 to 94 total peaks to truly succeed at what I’d started.
I saved an easy one for last. On October 14, 2020, I hiked a long, but straightforward trail up the 13,222-foot Macomber Peak on the northeast edge of town. It was only fitting to have views of Silverton on the final 10-mile radius thirteener. I brought Oso, my dog, for his 56th peak of the season, along with a chewy bar and a mini bottle of champagne for the summit.
In less than two hours, we reached the top. I took summit selfies, drank celebratory bubbles and allowed myself to feel proud — something I hadn’t really done when the pressure of more mountains lingered. Today, I gave myself permission to feel good — happy, accomplished — like a total badass. Ninety-four peaks between May 19 and Oct. 14 wasn’t bad, especially since I’d been back at work full-time since June. I worked hard to get there — often tagging summits on the way home from work in Ouray, rarely making it to the car before dark. I’d put in the effort and now, I could reap the rewards. It felt good.
Gazing over the picturesque mining town, I sensed a well of emotion behind the smile I put on for the camera — for myself. With the joy, there was deep sadness. In the triumph, a pervasive sense of failure. Town reminded me of what I go to the mountains to avoid — tricky nuances in the “real world” of clocks, toilets and complications.
Anyone who climbs mountains knows and accepts (to varying degrees) some level of failure. It’s part of the game, and you can’t enter the arena without signing the waiver. Climbers who “fail” because they recognize when potential risks outweigh potential rewards are generally praised, not condemned. This unspoken pact, however, ends at treeline.
The real world below is not so forgiving. You don’t get credit for “failing” at a job or relationship or not making a deadline. No one tells you it’s the “right thing” when you bail early on a promise because you perceive it to be a risky endeavor. Put simply, it’s not that simple on the ground.
As of April 2021, I’ve reached 95 of 98 peaks. I no longer live in Silverton and call Ouray home. I fell madly in love with the San Juan Mountains while working on my Thirteeners Project.
The honest version of this story is that I did fail. But this has allowed me to realize something: 95 of 98 means I get three more rounds — three more chances to enter that wild mountain arena I don’t always push into without external motivators. There’s no end to this story because it’s not over yet. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.
SUZANNA LOURIE is a former travel writer turned wilderness guide whose love of the San Juans inspired her to try this whole writing thing once more. She spends most of her time above treeline between Durango and Ouray, usually exploring remote thirteeners and running (downhill) with her pup Oso. Suzanna believes in pushing your comfort zone and finds a healthy dose of challenge (sometimes even fun) learning the more technical side of climbing rock and ice whenever possible.