Trail Stories

It was just past 4:00am on Monday and I was at the Mt. Elbert trailhead. Temps were in the 30’s, it was dark, and the air was dry. I looked up to see thousands of stars twinkling in the early morning sky It’s a sight I hadn’t seen in such a long time since moving out of my van and into the bachelor/bachelorette party capital of the world, Nashville, TN. I clicked my headlamp on and started hiking up the trail that’d take me to the highest point in Colorado.


A year ago, I was living the whimsical lifestyle that is Van Life. But that changed last August when, after a lot of thought and conversations, I decided Van Life wasn’t for me anymore. I got a job and put down roots in Nashville to be closer to my, now, girlfriend along with my brother. Instead of waking up and going climbing or mountain biking wherever I was that day, I found myself dodging all the other Nashville transplants in rush hour traffic as I adjusted to having to be at a desk at 8:30am. It’s been a bit of an adjustment, but one thing I didn’t want to go to waste was my fitness.

Nashville surprisingly has a great climbing community with two climbing gyms and tons of fitness classes. I ended up developing a solid routine: climb on Monday and Thursday and go to the Core and Alpine Fit classes on Tuesday and Wednesday. Friday I’d climb if I felt up for it and the weekend was my oyster to do whatever I wanted, as long as it involved being outside.

After about the 33rd burpee one night in Core, with sweat pouring down my face, I thought to myself, “Why am I doing this?” Maybe you’re like me and need a goal to be motivated and hate working out just for the sake of working out. Eventually I reasoned with myself that at some point, somewhere in the future, someone’s going to shoot me a text asking if I wanted to do something audacious and I’d never forgive myself if my fitness was the only thing stopping me.

That time finally came while I was on a work trip in Vail, CO. After four days of working an event, my friend, Ryan, asked what I was doing before I flew back to Nashville the following day. I was beat after having worked a festival for four 12-hour days in a row. I tried to reason with Ryan that maybe a 2:45am pick-up time to hike up a 14er after a long week of work was a bit much and that maybe we should settle for a four mile sunrise hike.


Last time I tried to a hike a 14er, I got altitude sickness on Mt. Bierstadt. The kind of altitude sickness where I was vomiting uncontrollably and had a headache so intense that I was craving the feeling of a hangover. I feel like my hesitance was justified, but eventually talked myself into it by saying, “When else am I going to get to do this?”


The first couple of miles in the dark were fairly easy. We started at an elevation of just over 10,000 feet, so the air was filled with oxygen and the uphill sections weren’t making my legs scream. Ryan and I could carry on a conversation without getting winded and we even managed to keep a 3mph pace. As the sun started to peek over the mountains on the horizon we found ourselves above treeline. Oxygen was sparse above 12,000 feet and the trail came to a steep grade. Eventually we could only hike, slowly putting one foot in front of the other, for 30 seconds before we’d have to stop and inhale as much oxygen as we could before continuing.


Hiking 14ers always sucks in the moment. For the average human, like me, it’s a struggle-fest to get to the top and take in that full 360 view of the valley and other lower lying peaks.

My mind started wandering as I continued up the trail. I didn’t feel great, but I felt good enough. My legs felt good. Stomach felt good. Head felt good. Everything was feeling good. Even though nothing felt bad, my brain still wanted me to turn back to the trail head. A sense of fear rushed over me and I remembered everything I had felt five years ago on Mt. Bierstadt.  As I looked up ahead, contemplating my route for the next 30 seconds, I started repeating to myself, “This is why I’ve been training.” This is the exact moment I thought about months ago in the middle of a never-ending round of burpees, while I was doing sprints up a steep hill, and running up and down three flights of stairs with a 40lb. sand bag draped across my shoulders.


At 7:30am I walked across the rocky ridge to find a small American flag flailing in the 30mph winds at the top of the highest point in Colorado. I took a couple of breaths and looked at that 360 degree view I had been working so hard to see; and feel (without altitude sickness). I train so I can take in these views.

By: Justin Fricke, Merrell Ambassador

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