At 14,440 feet and on top of Colorado, we felt as if we had conquered the world. Even though Mt. Elbert was our easiest peak technically speaking, it was fitting to end with this mountain. Over the course of two short months, we had pushed past every physical, emotional, and mental limitation we had previously held and stood in places neither one of us ever thought possible. We were on top of Mt. Elbert before the sun rose, and even though it meant we didn’t run into any other climbers to interview, we shared one unforgettable morning alone, together.
“It feels like the universe has made things happen for a specific reason. The fact that we got up there, had the summit to ourselves and then left fairly early, it felt like fate.
Maybe we needed to finish this project with only each other.”Alex
At the trailhead once again, we set our alarms for 1:45 am and crawled back into the two-person tent we snuggled up in all summer. After about ten minutes of trying to catch some sleep beneath the stars, we abandoned our attempt of shuteye and let mindless chit chat turn into one of our deepest conversations of the summer. We talked about why our project had made it off the ground, how our friendship had been tested and ultimately grown stronger, and everything in between. Finally drifting off, our alarm woke us up with maybe three hours of sleep between the two of us. Packing up camp in the dark, yet again, we made the final preparation for our last climb of Small Towns to Summits.
We choose the southeast side, or Black Cloud Trail route as it was the most technically challenging. As we found the trailhead our conversation from the night before picked right back up and wove its way onto the trail. We allowed talk of past relationships and personal growth to make the hours of climbing under the stars melt away, as they always do. It wasn’t until this late-August morning that I fully appreciated the physical strength we had gained over the summer. The trail was steep – gaining nearly 5,000 feet of elevation in just over 5 miles. We were sweating as we climbed, but plugging away without letting the elevation giving us any pause. We reached the top of the steepest part of the climb, about 1.5 miles from the summit, and realized we were hiking far too quickly. Because we had never before made it to the actual summit of a mountain for sunrise (with various attempts to do so), we padded our time in the morning. With an estimated one hour left of hiking, we had about 2.5 hours until sunrise. Stopping to layer up, chat, and snack under the pitch black sky we took a moment to acknowledge the strength of our legs during that climb. This summer had changed us.
Continuing our climb along the ridge of Colorado’s tallest peak, light slowly began to seep into the sky. Mt. Elbert lays in the middle of the Collegiate Range, a cluster of >14,000 ft peaks in Colorado’s Rocky Mountains. We walked and watched the sky illuminate the ridges of mountain layers as far as the eye could see, while the peak of Elbert ahead of us slowly came into view. last few feet of the climb. summit. having to leave.
Skipping, singing, and laughing down the mountain we soaked up every single second of pure giddiness only nature can bring. Once we were a good distance from the summit and in a peaceful meadow, we stopped to snack and reflect. During the entire ascent and on the summit, we didn’t see any other hikers. As far as we were concerned, the mountain was ours that day. Though this didn’t give us the opportunity to interview fellow climbers, we decided we could interview ourselves. At the end of this project, we joked, we counted as climbers worthy of an interview. What started as a light-hearted conversation as we tried to process the state of joy we were experiencing evolved into a deep, meaningful reflection upon what the summer of 2019 had brought us.
“I think you and I almost are in like a childlike state of pure joy right now. I am in a place that is so beautiful, surrounded by mountains, with someone that is just the most special to me. And to have climbed the last mountain successfully, to have summited five out of six peaks that we set out to, I don’t think either of us thought we would do this well. It’s more than proof of concept, it’s just proof of ourselves and I can’t wait for what’s to come.”Katie
“Neither one of us are professional athletes. This is the first thing either of us are doing in this field, and we know that we have weaknesses and a lot to learn. It’s really easy to think you’re not allowed to explore or put your work out there because it’s not perfect. Perfectionism is something I’ve always struggled with, and I’m starting to have the confidence to overcome these emotional mountains – in the same way I have the confidence to climb the mountains physically.”Alex
There were many different routes up Elbert all of a similar difficulty – none of which required any climbing equipment or route finding skills. Black Cloud Trail was rated to have sections of class two scrambling, but we never had to even use our hands to help us up the mountain. Though our mountaineering and climbing skills had rapidly accelerated over the summer, we took this opportunity to return to what brought us together in the first place: simply putting one foot in front of the other up one big hill.
“The climb itself wasn’t really technical or challenging but enjoyed it just as much as any of the other climbs. Throughout the summer, I’ve learned to appreciate the beauty that’s in front of me – how can you not be happy here? No matter what’s in your past, or what’s in your future, how can you not be happy in that moment, being on that summit?”Alex
This summer we learned that it doesn’t matter if you’re carrying an ice axe, saddled into a harness and rope, or only using your own two feet. Every journey and every climb is dynamic, changing, and transformative. Walking off one last trail of our project and collapsing into the Kia Soul, our home for two entire months, we shared one look that explained how we felt more deeply than any amount of words ever could. A look of exhaustion from our climb and lack of sleep, yet feeling accomplished, changed, and closer than ever. We allowed a few moments to soak in what was the end of our project. One conversation and one idea back in October of 2018 had led us around the Western US, interviewing and climbing in places neither one of us ever imagined we could be. If Billy, our Kia Soul, could talk – she would be at a loss for words as well.
We climbed back into the car, took off our smelly socks, downed massive Chipotle burrito bowls, and headed towards Denver. From the minute we had hit the road towards Mt. Shasta back in June, we knew had Denver to look forward to. Both of us had connections in the area, and we planned to celebrate the end of our project in the mile high city after our final climb. What we didn’t anticipate was that we would also be scrambling to pull together our final plans for the John Muir Trail as we were there. Denver was a mix of celebration and excitement over what we had just accomplished, with a healthy dose of nervousness for our first thru-hike. Riding the high of successfully summiting five out of six mountains over the summer, we thought we were perfectly prepped for the JMT. If the lessons we had learned over the summer road trip could have been condensed into 24 hours and then experienced 18 days in a row, that would be a good start to explaining our time in the Sierra Nevada backcountry. But, after our climb on Mt. Elbert, none of what was to come mattered. We had done much more than summited another mountain together – we had made Small Towns to Summits come to life.
Though we’re writing and making videos from Colorado in these few weeks, we still have all of our content from our climb of the Grand Teton to share. We experienced pure magic in the Tetons and we cannot wait to show why Exum Mountain Guides gave us the greatest climb of our lives. Check out our social media channels to make sure you don’t miss a post!