“I’m not imagining things, right? You saw it too? My folks’ flirting?” I asked the next day, as Sam and I huffed along the East Ridge approach of Mount Elbert, the next fourteener on Hector’s to-do list. Somewhere ahead of us, Hector and Luca’s laughter bounced over ice and snow and I looked around, hunting for prognostic signs of an avalanche…The cusp of winter brought with it a biting breeze. Sweat on my neck and back prickled like drops of ice. I zipped my fleece to my chin and yanked down my stocking hat.
“Once upon a time, they were in love,” Samuel theorized. “I don’t know if that ever, one hundred percent goes away. Most people just don’t act on that sliver of love.”
“And they have a child—me. They can never be rid of each other entirely.”
“If you want to put a negative spin on it. I think it’s more likely they appreciate the life they’ve created together. While their relationship didn’t pan out, the evidence of the love they shared still exists in you. Sadly, that evidence is currently the butt of late night television jokes.”
I groaned. The Tonight Show even hash tagged “#MyNightmareDoll” in Nellie Nympho’s honor. It was a trending topic within fifteen minutes.
Conversation died as we ascended into higher elevations. The climb had challenged my long-distance stamina, but in terms of difficulty, it was a Class 1. We stuck to the ridge proper, navigated rocks and tundra, and only needed snowshoes to traverse slick ice slabs above the timberline. But I tensed at each crackle or far-away boom, which may have been, but most likely wasn’t, an avalanche. Samuel watched me closely, gripped my hand whenever I’d start to panic.
There were no avalanches on our climb, and the wind died down to a gasp once we reached fourteen thousand feet. By the time we summited, that familiar high raced through my body like a shot of pure oxygen, lost to me for three years. How could I have forgotten this feeling?
Compared to Himalayan peaks, our Colorado fourteeners were babies. But as I discovered this unearthly corner of the earth, washed in indigo and ice, over the clouds and into the sun, I was struck with the thought: this is what it’s like to stand on a different planet.
“She’s baaack,” Hector smirked. I rolled my eyes—yes, I enjoyed the climb. I turned my grin to Samuel, but it fell from my face as I assessed his health. He pressed his fingers to his temples and swayed. I caught his arm and guided him down to a rock.
“Whoa there. Have you been drinking enough water?”
“Nearly a liter.”
That should have been plenty. Worry pounded in my chest. “Headache? Nausea?”
“Yes to both.”
Crud, not good. Hector slung his pack from his shoulders and rummaged through it.
“Altitude sickness, man. Here’s a couple of Tylenol. Take those and if you start feeling really bad, like you’re going to pass out, let us know.”
I agreed and helped Samuel to his feet. “Sounds mild, but we better start the descent before it gets worse.”
It did get worse, but not the sickness. Samuel had ankles as strong as sequoias from all of his running and strength training. Seriously, even a chainsaw couldn’t bring down those things. But toss in the dizziness of altitude sickness and uneven ground, and his ankle rolled like a rock star. He splinted it and we helped him limp the rest of the way down Mount Elbert.
Altitude sickness and sprained ankles aside, we had our first fourteener in the bag (Hector said we couldn’t count Pikes Peak because we took the tram). It was ugly, but it counted.