The Quandary 14’er. Observations of an aging human.

Coming out of the tree-line, noticing the bright moonlight, we shut off our headlamps, casting the trail in an eerie black-and-white moonscape. We hiked by moonlight!

Quandary Peak, left, dominating the Breckenridge valley.

Quandary, for many Coloradoans, is just another one of those 53 peaks in Colorado over 14,000 feet in elevation. For me, however, it was a daunting collection of challenges posed by my college-aged kids. Would I get up at 2:45am to attempt to summit at sunrise? Would I know how to hike in darkness with a headlamp and not trip and fall? Would I keep the pace? Would I tumble off the wind-blown trail on the way up?

Quandary Peak is apparently one of the easier Colorado 14’ers to hike; only 3 miles from the trailhead to summit. How hard could it be?

Yup. Pretty hard.

Those of you who have followed The Undiscovered Country know that I will try anything … once. For example, a 7 mile cross-country ski-in trip to Uncle Bud’s Hut.

Some quick observations:

  • At 2:45am, not a lot of cars on the road to the Quandary trailhead, up near Breckenridge, about 2 hours from Denver.
  • Hiking in the middle of the night, with disappearing trails, steep rocky steps and tree roots galore, is … trippy? exhilarating? disorienting? All of the above.
  • Hiking with a headlamp is surprisingly do-able (especially with the adrenaline of: am-I-going-to-survive-this energy).
  • Hiking with a headlamp is also highly claustrophobic, in that your entire world is the stomp of your boot, the clatter of your hiking poles, the next visible tree, the next rock, the next chance to trip in your faint circle of light.
  • About 4am, coming out of the tree-line, noticing the bright moonlight, we shut off our headlamps, casting the trail in an eerie black-and-white moonscape. We hiked by moonlight! This distracted me from the gusting, bone-chilling winds and the constant scramble over the rock fields. Nope, don’t have a camera that can capture this. But, next best thing (below):
Stars, the son, and the hint of sunrise.
Pre-dawn scramble. Before the madding crowds.
Pre-dawn gloam in solitude, then blazing sun on descent, increasingly crowded.

About 530am, a purple, then green, then orange glimmer of sunrise to the east. Interestingly, the rocks started to glow orange UNDERNEATH, while faintly white on top. Is this what sunrise hiking is like? Never, have I ever…

Imagine: much darker, and somehow, the rocks glow orange underneath…

About 630am, after some shifting clouds, orange crepuscular rays burst through and the entire rocky ascent turned brilliant orange, moonlight banished. 4 liters of water disappears fast on a constant upward climb at 11,000 then 12,000 then 13,000 feet. So do snack bars and ham and cheese sandwiches.

Summit! about 7am. How could 3 miles take 4 hours? In hindsight: donning and doffing gear. Frequent gasping-for-air breaks (disguised as water breaks). I have no idea how Everest climbers have base camp far above 14,000 feet. Even acclimated to 5000 ft altitude in Denver, the additional elevation is tough on the lungs, heart, brain.

The US Geological Survey marker, 14,200 ft. Quandary Peak.

The timing of our climb, on a Saturday morning starting around 3am, was good; few people on the trail, and at our summit, we were among the first 10 people there, taking pictures. The descent, however… Well, lets just say, the photo below was about 8am. Within the hour, we saw hundreds of other peak-aspiring hikers on the narrow trail.

Rocks, and a cool ridgeline hike.

I’m thankful of active offspring who invite me along on such adventures. I’ve summitted 3 peaks that were 14’ers: Gray’s and Torrey’s, and now Quandary. Today I vow that this is my last 14’er: no need to punish this body any further.

On the other hand, I said the same after Gray’s and Torrey’s, two peaks side-by-side and commonly done on the same hike. I made the mistake that day of not bringing hiking poles. The descent, not the uphill, was my undoing: near the end of the hike, my right knee was so swollen and painful that I ended up keeping the knee straight and just swinging it outwards to take a step forward. In our family, we call that the “Pinocchio leg” for somewhat unclear reasons.

Quandary summit with daughter. The Rockies go on forever, it appears.

My main goal this trip: 1. Survive. 2. Use hiking poles to aid descent and avoid Pinocchio leg. 3. Blog about it. Success!

CMIO’s take? What are you doing to recharge?

Author: CT Lin

CMIO, UCHealth (Colorado); Professor, University of Colorado School of Medicine

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