Never Underestimate a Mountain

Submitted By: Kristen GraceBoard Member & Wilderness Ambassador in Denver

When two women set out to climb a mountain, they don’t let anything stop them.

They aren’t afraid to wake up at 4am. They don’t let fierce winds or freezing temperatures scare them off. And they definitely don’t turn back when the summit is in sight.

Even if they probably should.

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Climbing Mt. Bierstadt – 14,065′ (Georgetown, Colorado)

When we set out to climb Mt. Bierstadt, it was late September and the Denver highs were still in the 70s and 80s. Packing a heavy coat for hiking seemed excessive. We thought to bring hats and gloves, and to layer up just in case, but even that seemed like overkill.

Mt. Bierstadt was the first 14er I climbed after moving to Colorado in Summer 2016 and it taught me an important lesson: never underestimate mountain weather.

Because mountain weather is fickle and no matter how warm it is in Denver, in the mountains it’s always cooler and a sunny day can change to powerful storms in minutes.

The Climb

We hit the road around 4am so that we could arrive, stretch and start our climb just in time for sunrise.

The base of Mt. Bierstadt is only about an hour and half drive from Denver, making it one of most accessible 14ers in the state. It’s also a good choice if you’re looking for a quick and challenging day hike since the out and back is only a few hours.

The first part of our hike took us through a flat valley. It was deceptively pleasant and made starting out in the dark totally worth it. We watched the sun light up the snow-covered mountains with shades of pink and gold. This view alone was worth the trip.

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But once we started to climb, we realized something was wrong: it was windy. Really windy.

And windy means cold.

The part of this hike that people neglect to share is that you are completely exposed to the elements once you reach a certain point in the trail. That means there is no shelter from the wind, especially when you get closer to the rocky summit.

As we climbed, I questioned both our sanity and safety.

I couldn’t feel my toes, my face was completely exposed and it was really cold.

This should have been enough to make us turn back… but we were on a mission.

The summit was 20ft in front of us. How could we quit?

The Summit

I learned later that my hiking buddy, Chi, had been shouting for us to turn back, that it was too cold and the wind was too strong to keep going.

But I couldn’t hear her over the sound of the wind whipping around us. So as I continued to push on, she begrudging followed.

Not being able to communicate was another reason we should have turned back. If only I’d known.

But miraculously, we reached the top.

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We pulled out our signs and snapped a few pictures. “Click, click, okay, let’s go!” My mouth was too frozen to smile.

The pictures we managed to take showed a clear, wide open view of the Rockies that only the top of a 14er can provide. I just wish I’d been able to actually enjoy it!

Then a strong gust of wind threw me into a rock, nearly tossing me off the mountain. With the threat of death feeling very real, we raced back down. Mission accomplished — we were ready for the hike to be over.

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On the way down, the weather improved. It was actually warm enough to enjoy the view!

As we passed groups of people headed to the top, we noticed that many were even less prepared than we were. We saw hikers in shorts and tank tops. We saw sandals!

I was already feeling bad enough about misjudging the intensity of this hike, but I admit, seeing others more foolish than me attempt the climb made me feel just a tiny bit better.

We tried to warn our fellow hikers that they were in for a shock at the top, but most brushed us off. It was beautiful and warm at the bottom! How could it be cold at the top? A rookie mistake.

The Aftermath

In the end, we made it. All our fingers and toes intact.

But this experience changed the way I prepare for serious hikes.

First, I always check the forecast before heading out. I want to know if there is ANY chance of rain, wind or snow. When you’re over 10,000ft in elevation, it matters.

Second, I pack for every possibility, even if most things stay in the car. Extra clothes, raincoats, snacks, hand warmers, etc. You never know what you might need.

Third, I never underestimate the intensity of the climb. Just because you’re in shape doesn’t mean the elevation won’t affect you. When you’re at high elevation, you need to be aware of how you’re feeling and when it’s time to call it quits.

Finally, I’ve made peace with turning back. Finishing the Mt. Bierstadt climb was stupid. It was dangerously cold and windy, and we were not prepared. While I’m proud of us for pushing ourselves, it was a huge risk and we got lucky. When faced with a similar situation, I’ll never put my goals ahead of my safety again.

But at least it was beautiful!

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New Zealand: or what study abroad trips are really about

Submitted By: Mia Zavalij, Board Member

It’s been difficult to write about my study abroad experience in New Zealand. I chose to go to New Zealand because it was one of the last options left by the time I had decided to spend my next spring semester, and my last semester of undergrad, abroad. Of course, I also chose New Zealand because of it’s breathtaking sights and landscapes. I mean, could I really not have a great time in the country where Frodo and Bilbo Baggins journey through Middle-earth?

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The truth is, a study abroad trip, or almost any solo trip for that matter, is always about so much more than the trip itself. Although I was thrilled to be travelling to one of the notably most beautiful countries in the world, I would have eagerly jumped at the chance to go to anywhere else.

The decision

I was holding on to some deep seated dissatisfaction with my life. I worked incredibly hard in college, and was fortunate enough to have cofounded a successful nonprofit at a very young age. But my hard work didn’t translate to my academics. It had been four years since I recovered from an eating disorder and I had even planned awareness raising events on campus. But, internally, I was still plagued by my past and felt incredibly disconnected from my body. I had one year left until graduation. I’d graduate after five years of undergrad, and a robust resume that I wasn’t proud of. The feeling of “this isn’t enough” followed me. So the option was, push through and finish up undergrad in one more semester OR — my dad offered me another alternative. Why don’t you study abroad?

The arrival

I landed in Auckland, New Zealand on February 15th. I was at the top of the North Island and I had one last flight to go before my final destination to my soon to be home for five months, Wellington. It all felt pretty surreal. My flight from Maryland to California had been delayed because of a snowstorm, causing me to miss my flight to New Zealand and forcing me to stay the night in LA in a crappy Holiday Inn room by the airport that reeked of smoke. So I won’t be lying when I say that Auckland felt like a breath of fresh air. When I made it to Wellington, my wonderful homestay mom picked me up and drove us up a steep hill to the neighborhood of Melrose, where she was hosting two other students. Lisa, from Germany and Dan, from China. These women became nothing short of family. The house itself was idyllic. A charming white house, with wood floors, tall windows and front yard with a view of the bay. I opened the door to my temporary room and sighed, yeah I could be happy here I thought. It felt like a blank page, white walls and empty spaces. 

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My journey through Middle-earth

Despite being in an entirely new country, it was easy for me to find my way to my old habits. I made friends easily, said yes to everything and constantly told myself I was somehow screwing it all up. I had begun to fill my schedule with people and things without intention and my mind filled up with the uneasiness of it all. I’d come home and wonder, but what am I supposed to get out of all this? Did I decide to explore the right things today? Why don’t I feel like a new person? Am I supposed to be enlightened by now? Am I taking enough classes? Am I taking too many classes?

A few weeks in I decided to wipe it all clean again, I physically slid off all the clutter from my desk and went back to the drawing boards. I told my newfound friends that I went on this trip because there were some things I needed to do on my own and although within days we had become “the goon squad” and were already lifelong friends, they understood. I decided there wasn’t anything I needed to be getting from the trip, and my only objective was to feel whole. I crumpled up all of the lists I had made with the things I had to do and places I had to visit, the lists that were beginning to weigh me down. I committed instead to go on one hike every single week, no matter where I was in the country. And I wrote five magical words on one sticky note. “Today, I will enjoy myself.” I woke up every single day for five months and saw those words. It didn’t matter if it meant I was studying by the beautiful Wellington waterfront or taking a run along the coastline in Lyall Bay. Oh and that’s the other thing. I took my very first run out of desire. Of course it’s easy to love running when you are surrounded by rugged coastline. But that was the first time I was running not because I had to. And not because I felt shitty about eating and six miles was my personal punishment for being born with hips and thick legs.

Woman vs. wild

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Now this is the fun part. Cue montage of a woman in flannel and khaki pants trekking up mountains, backpacking along coastlines and laughing while drinking wine with her friends as they watch the sunset on a beach. Now picture me, my experience was hardly as graceful or picturesque. It was me and my new best friends eating string cheese in the dark for dinner when we arrived at a hostel in the middle of the night. It was running through the streets of Wellington in the middle of a cyclone for the fun of it. It was jumping off a pier off the coast after seeing the shadow of a couple of stingrays swimming just beneath the surface and screaming “fuck it”; likelihood of death by stingray: low, belief of death by stingray: high. It was taking a five day backpacking trip in the Abel Tasman with my friend Anna and missing a week of school because it was oh so worth it. And it was getting in trouble with a park ranger because you messed up the dates on said backpacking trip. Oh and also learning the absolute wrong way to back your backpack. It was drinking Scrumpies (cheap, super sweet cider) with my friends in their dorm room and learning that iced coffee actually meant coffee milkshake no matter how many times you said you just wanted ice in your coffee. It was climbing up Mount Doom (you know the one in Lord of the Rings), and hating every minute of it because with every step up, the rocks would slide you back down again. But also loving it, because you were going to tell everyone that you climbed up Mount Doom. It was going to hot water beach, and digging in the sand to find the hot water only to find you made a bunch of pits in the sand that were filling up with lukewarm water. It was taking a windy and narrow kayaking trip  that was above your skill level and getting stuck in the bushes along the way. It was never as glamorous as I thought it should be, but it was always glorious. It was full of lessons, memories and people that I will treasure for a lifetime. And yes, by the end I really did feel like I was whole again.

It wouldn’t feel right to share my experience in New Zealand without compiling a list of some of my favorite adventures. So if you ever do find yourself in New Zealand, I hope you make some pretty imperfect memories in these places too:

  • My favorite multi day backpacking trip, and how I learned the best way to not pack a backpack: Abel Tasman, South Island. If you love the idea of hiking up mountains while having a view of the coast and its beaches, and being able to take a dip in the ocean at the end of the day — this is the most perfect backpacking trip.10155633_10201786735449920_1532715957692977262_n.jpg20140327_072146
  • When I felt the strongest, aka my favorite day hike: Tongariro Crossing, North Island, New Zealand. Great for hiking up volcanoes, Mount Doom and discovering the beauty of emerald green lakes. (

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  • Most peaceful hostel: Little Earth Lodge – Whangarei, Northland, New Zealand. Also the best place to find the greenest of hikes. 

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  • Most challenging kayaking experience: Tokaanu, just outside of Lake Taupo, North Island.
  • Coolest experience: Waitomo Caves, North Island. Make sure to take an evening walk through the surrounding forest — you’ll be surrounded by glow worms in the trees and the starry skies.
  • Favorite beach (and hot tub!) : Hot Water Beach, Coromandel Bay, North Island. You really can dig up your own personal hot tub.10174833_10201900368050664_6000726863604297452_n