Almost three years ago today, back in August 2011, I hiked New Mexico’s Wheeler Peak: 13,161 feet, 11 miles, six hours. In retrospect, it had been a mistake to go on an all-day horseback ride the day before. My quick, small horse Frankie had alternated between a jolting gallop and a full canter over sage brush land and dusty plains. I could barely walk, much less hike to the highest point in the Southwest. But I did.
We woke up at five am and drove to the Taos Ski Valley. It was overcast and cold as we set out along the mossy bank of a small stream, over meadows of purple flowers, into a damp pine forest. In the verdant woods the sun started to shine through and catch on the yellow flowers. We came out into a surreal wasteland of jagged glacial rocks.
And then suddenly the bare mountains up ahead dipped into a sea of deep green pines that led down into a clear blue lake. We took off our shoes and sat on the bank, tempted to stay there rather than continue on up to the peak. The only thing that kept me going was not knowing how much further I had to go. The constant hope that I was almost there got me up the initial almost vertical slope that looked like it would lead right to the top, beyond the alpine zone into the greenest rolling hills, up into the mountains where the vast lake looked like a small pool below.
We were still fresh and laughing, but soon the hike became steeper and we had to scramble over unstable piles of glacial rocks. My hiking partner, whom I didn’t know particularly well, had bad asthma that was exacerbated by the diminishing oxygen supply. This, more than anything, was what kept me going. By worrying about him I was able to put aside any thoughts of my own pain and exhaustion. My constant affirmation that he could do it meant that I, in perfect health apart from my riding bruises, could do it too.
Hours in we reached that awful point where we could finally see the top, but realized we had over a mile of steep uphill climb to go. Every step up seemed to hold less oxygen. We were using our hands to climb as much as our feet. But then we made it up to the ridge, and were able to look our and see the world down around us on both sides. We stayed for a while, ate a little and drank water, rested and took pictures, momentarily exuberant once again. Not long after we started our descent.
At first the walk down was exquisite. I felt light and energised once again. After a while, it became more painful, if less of an effort, than going up. I walked as fast as I could. It was overcast in the way that makes all colours particularly vivid; the greens were deep olive, the flowers vibrant purple. A few of us (accidentally) took a different path through the forest. The last leg of the journey, which had been easy to hike up, was incredibly long on the way back. We stumbled along the trail, continuing only because we knew it would end soon.
When it did we were giddy, cheerful and talkative, albeit immobile. I fell asleep immediately on the drive home, only vaguely aware of the Alpine meadows giving way to the red landscape of Taos.