I’m a goal-oriented lover of structure, at my best when working toward something. I love to hike and in an average year, I’ll summit ten to fifteen peaks, often revisiting local favorites. When spring of 2020 came around, I was off to a usual start having already hiked several peaks that year.
As COVID-19 became omnipresent, everything felt shakable, vulnerable. I felt pangs of panic rising through so much uncertainty. I work as a flight attendant and suddenly my career and lifestyle seemed completely in jeopardy. Nothing was safe or familiar anymore. So what did I do? I freaked out, realized I was freaking out, then set an arbitrary personal goal to steady my nerves and keep me busy.
I chose a goal that would: 1) incorporate social distancing, 2) be outdoors, and 3) be physically challenging. The idea to hike 50 individual peaks seemed instinctive. It hit all the marks I wanted and also fell into my usual interests and efforts, just ramped them up.
I decided that for a peak to count, it needed to include at least 1000 feet of elevation gain. However, peaks reached by scrambling along ridgelines connecting two peaks would also count, so long as there was at least 300 feet of elevation gain and loss between them. I also wanted to visit any National Parks that could be visited safely as I went, since many were open to drive through with no fees, no facilities and few people.
Suddenly, I had focus. I took a three month leave from work to help out my company, and now I had focus andtime. It felt like even though the world was in chaos and I couldn’t find eggs or toilet paper, I’d been given what I needed to succeed.
I made a list of the local Wasatch mountains I had summitted before and decided which to repeat. I knew of a loop where I could hike seven peaks in a day, and how to manage thirteen over three additional multi-peak days. I loosely planned out possible individual peaks to redo, and listed several first-time summits I hoped to try in new mountain ranges, over several states.
Since I knew I could do twenty local peaks in four days, the procrastinator in me decided to wait to start until more snow had melted out at higher elevations. I took road trips through southern Utah and Oregon, and paddleboarded a section of the Colorado River, my peakbagging fantasies never out of mind.
All roadside mountains seemed like potential conquests. I remember seeing Mt McLaughlin as I drove through Klamath Falls, researching it that night, and getting sucked into a wormhole of the neighboring possibilities. I knew I’d be back in the area for a Rogue River trip later that summer and made tentative plans to attempt a summit in the Cascades.
I started hiking in late May with four summits down and knocked out several of Salt Lake’s lower elevation gems to build up my legs. Feeling strong and energized, I decided to take a solo road trip to Colorado to attempt fourteeners (14ers) for the first time. Even though I’ve hiked at higher altitudes, the idea of hiking Colorado’s highest had always intimidated me, making them perfect additions to the fifty. I hoped to hike several but was unconvinced I could hike one.
I set out rickety with trepidation and returned eight days later with seven 14ers, sixty-four miles, and a farflung hot spring under my belt. I couldn’t believe it, seven! I had never hiked that many unknown peaks in quick succession. It made me feel like, even though I was only on peak seventeen, I could do this.
Before the Rogue trip, I flew into Seattle and hit up one of the Olympics before driving down to the put-in. The rafting trip was five days of low flow excitement, followed by a peaceful sojourn to Redwood National Park and along the Oregon coast. I returned to the Cascades and hiked one, just like I’d hoped for: Mt Thielsen, a twisted witch’s hat towering above the treeline.
Back home, I went thundering up mountains like a runaway train. Brighton Loop, Bullion Divide, Olympus and Timp– nineteen summits in ten days. Then, I took a quick trip to Rocky Mountain National Park, and bagged one there.
It was around then that a friend of mine had a stroke of genius and asked me why I hadn’t been in costume in all of these summit pictures I’d been posting. Honestly, I was struck dumb– how had I not thought of that? I’m a long-time attendee of Burning Man and have amassed more than my fair share of costumes. I was saddened (albeit relieved) to hear of the event’s cancellation, and here was this brilliant new way to celebrate the exuberance and absurdity of the festival, to make people smile, and to help relieve some of the melancholy of missing my festival family.
My friend and I decided that for each new peak, there was a distinct costume, even if that meant multiple peaks/costumes in one hike. I was reenergized by this new facet and excitedly executed ideas about a clown, an 80’s prom, and a can-can dancer. I broke out my collection of faux furs. I wore discernible costumes as well as random beloved pieces mashed together into a vibe. I even carried a 50 pound, maroon, velvet sitting chair to the top of a mountain to fulfill my “distinguished gentleman” idea.
By mid-November, I only had four peaks left and was struggling to finish them. The world had quieted, seemingly adapted to this “new normal,” and I wasn’t anxious anymore. But I needed to finish. I was working a lot, but I had five days off, so I set out to find my final four somewhere across Utah. I looked for tall mountain ranges on the sides of highways, researched the highest point of each, and hiked them. Three more down.
I had one peak left to finish and I wanted it to be memorable and new. I also wanted to hike in one more state, so I chose Telescope Peak in California, tallest peak in Death Valley National Park. The early December temperature was 68 degrees at the valley floor, -282 feet below sea level, but the frigid air at 11,000 feet had considerable bite. More than once, I was grateful to have the floor-length red cloak I’d brought for my final costume, to wrap around my frozen hips during the 12 mile trek. I took in the breathtaking, expansive views, wrote in the summit log (something I often skip) about my journey and my incredulity about it happening, then scurried off to regain feeling in my hands and face. I did it!
At the year’s end, as I went through all of my statistics on my social media and fitness apps, I made a ridiculous discovery. Before the world was ending and before I was really keeping track, I had hiked six mountains prior to starting my goal, not four. I also realized I had omitted a hiked peak. So that final scramble through southern Utah to find snow-free summits, and the trip to Death Valley? All for funsies, because I was already done.
All in all, I hiked 53 peaks in 7 states, and visited 15 different National Park Service sites during my journey, all while largely avoiding others. Not bad at all. This fifty peaks thing may be over, but wearing ridiculous costumes on mountaintops? I’m just getting started.
Blog post and all photos created in partnership with Gregory Mountain Products and Jack Ledbetter