Women of Adventure
Any body can do it
Ultrarunner, author and advocate Mirna Valerio sets big, scary, audacious goals. Race times typically don’t factor in. Finishing and defying expectations do.
By Mirna Valerio
Mount Jo was my first-ever mountain. Like that elusive but highly memorable first kiss, it was messy, unpredictable, exhilarating. There were parts of it that were unpleasant, but the entirety of the experience shed some light on the potential of this mountain-loving thing that was just beginning to crack open my soul.
I was with a group of my peers in eighth grade, on a camping trip over a long weekend in April. Some teachers of ours had volunteered to spend this frigid long weekend with us, and we loved them for taking us 4 hours away from the city into this not-green-yet place that would leave many of us changed.
The nights were cold, and we shivered in our too-thin sleeping bags in our lean-tos. We huddled together, shivering until we didn’t, until we grew bored with listening intently for bears creeping around outside and fell asleep.
The morning of the first full day, we set out on a hike. We’d be out all day, and there would be no reward like soaking in a cold stream afterward. Or views even. It would be hard, but they knew all of us could do it because we were strong and smart. All we had to do was work together and get it done. Did we have our two sandwiches packed? Our drinks? Our snacks and extra socks? Gloves, hat? Check, check, check and check. Buddies? Check.
Maria was my buddy. She and I were the biggest and tallest girls of the group. We fell to the back almost immediately but still managed to mostly keep up with the group. Sometimes we had to hoist each other over a fallen tree or down a slippery boulder that still had ice on it. We reassured each other on the steep stairs, too.
We made it, although it was the hardest thing I had done. The hike was long, as we had started way back at our campsite. But the views were incredible, I thought. I was so happy to be there, not in Brooklyn, and to be with my new friend, Maria, who didn’t care that I was pretty shy and quiet. She was, too. We were big, strong, adventurous girls — slower than everyone else to the finish, but finishers nonetheless.
Mountains made a comeback in my adult life. Mount Bierstadt was my first-ever 14er, one of those majestic mountains that clock in at 14K in the air or more. Unlike Mount Jo, climbing Bierstadt would prove to be a meandering love affair filled with long and difficult ascents and a false summit (along with a deceptive feeling of accomplishment) along the way. Reaching the real summit was the much-awaited kiss, albeit on chapped lips.
Well, when I arrived at the Guanella Pass trailhead to meet with my new(ish) friend, Theresa, I was already overwhelmed — simply by having driven a serpentine, steep road in early morning darkness to get there. I thought that maybe I had bitten off more than I could chew. Looking up at the massive protrusion of rock surrounded by a chilly but expansive alpine meadow in the increasingly pale blue light, it looked like failure — or the potential of it anyway.
My coach had put it on my training schedule to help me prepare for the difficulty of the 2018 TransRockies 6-day stage race. I even started to entertain the notion of abandoning our quest to get all the way to the top, because even though it was still dark, we could see one of nature’s behemoths standing indifferent and powerful before us.
Theresa and I were the biggest (and quite possibly most colorfully dressed) on the trail. We started the trek to the top at 5:30 a.m. and helped each other out by locating cairns and such, or yelling out, “Step to the left of the boulder — it’s not stable.” We’d dig things out of each other’s hydration packs. We shared snacks and made sure the other was well-hydrated, protected from the sun’s exposure and not too lightheaded. It was tough, but we were experienced outdoorspeople and trail runners. We knew that difficulty lay ahead, but we were willing to give it our all for the sake of doing it. We also knew very well when to turn around if storm clouds darkened the horizon. If we weren’t moving quickly enough, we would turn around for safety so we wouldn’t get caught on an exposed ridge during the almost daily mountaintop thunderstorm.
As we started ascending, it was clear the morning would be a long one. The trail took us through the meadows and past a small body of water on the left, and then it gradually started to switch back on itself as it climbed. It was fairly gentle at first, allowing us to think that we had it in the bag. But at some point, we both started feeling lightheaded. I knew this feeling. It was exactly what it felt like to be 12K up in the air with little oxygen to breathe. We acknowledged this and kept on our way, hydrating and noshing on our snacks as we continued.
Every now and then we stopped to take photos of the stunning vistas all around us. Snow over there on that mountain! Our cars all the way over there — is that where we came from?! Those ants are people! Look off into the distance, and try to look pensive, OK? WHOA, is that where we’re going?
Several folks passed us on the way up. Were we OK? Were we having trouble? “No, we’re great, thanks.” We moved slowly (compared to most other folks) but deliberately, taking breaks when we needed to. We offered water to a young man who thought he wouldn’t need any on a 7-mile out and back trail with 2,700’ of gain and at elevations over 11K feet. We leap-frogged a family with a teenager who was having a hard time keeping up, although he was trying his best.
It was one of the “easy” ones, all the guidebooks said. And without having any other experience on 14ers, I looked forward to this “ease.” But there was none … well, maybe except for being able to easily look out on the lush, green alpine meadows at the foot of the mountain. The little wildflowers that poked through the grasses were easy on the eyes.
Up we went. Slowly switching back and forth. Theresa would forge ahead a little, I’d take selfies, and then we’d leapfrog, this time with me in front, calling out the cairns because we were already above tree line. Up and up, sometimes rolling an ankle on a small boulder.
This is mental preparation, coach said.
You can do this, physically.
But the mountain will play games with you, mentally, physically, emotionally.
By its sheer magnitude, it might look unscalable, unattainable, out of your realm of possibility, out of reach. But it is not. Make your feet follow your heart. Any body can do this.
And as we discovered, Theresa and I, all we needed was knowledge, a plan, good gear, physical readiness, mental acuity and the will to go forth with nature’s flow guiding us. We had on waterproof jackets, high-altitude sunscreen, warm wool socks, buffs, thin gloves, polarized sunglasses, fancy watches with altimeters and a lot of anxiety.
We continued to make our way up, finally reaching the last quarter of a mile to the top, which would be scrambling. Scrambling might be my favorite activity ever, after running and lacrosse. It engages your whole body and requires some planning, balance, strength and willingness to embrace unsteadiness. We ascended and ascended, stretching our strong and limber legs up and down boulders, using our grip strength for leverage, our cores for stability — with our eyes trained on the top.
A few more cairns, and we were near the top where all the folks who had passed us were hanging out. Some took pictures with the elevation on it, and others simply sat taking in the gorgeous vista. We could see their heads bobbing or bowed down in meditation.
One young woman, who was hiking with her parents, was overjoyed to see us. “Oh, there you are! I’m so glad you made it! I was hoping that you would!”
Theresa and I sat down on two available boulders and ate our snacks, taking more pictures and videos, with lots of laughter and gratitude that our bodies did the job. Our lips may have been chapped, and our lungs struggling, but our hearts were filled with the enormity of what the mountain had allowed us to do and be on her trails.