By: Sara Iacovelli
When we parked the car at Guanella Pass, I was ready to go. I posed for a photo from a boulder at the bottom of Mt. Bierstadt, in brand-new brightly-colored leggings and a borrowed windbreaker, pointing at the peak like it was a billboard. Tyler, then my partner of a little more than a year, snapped my picture and smiled in his unshakable way. We’d come, at my insistence, to hike the trail to the top of this mountain.
Tyler was a Denver native, familiar with fourteeners—the local pet name for peaks that reach more than 14,000ft above sea level. I was a transplant from the mostly-flat east coast who had only recently learned the word. Colorado has fifty-three of these peaks—more than any other state—and tackling them is a point of pride for fitness freaks and outdoor obsessives (also more numerous in Colorado than any other state). I, a bookish drinker, born in Queens and raised in an Italian deli, was not one of those people. Still, I’d been desperate since moving out West to convince myself that maybe I could be.
Mt. Bierstadt sits in the front range of the Colorado Rockies, less than two hours from Boulder, where we lived. It is, according to various online hiking forums, one of the easiest peaks of its kind: “a good choice for your first fourteener.” The trail is well-maintained and just seven miles roundtrip, with roughly 2,850ft of elevation gain. A walk in the park, as far as the locals are concerned. How hard could it be?
The year I’d moved to Boulder, it was, despite my presence, ranked the “skinniest city in America” by a Gallop poll: a mere twelve percent of its population was reported to be overweight. The cities along the front range (Boulder, Denver, Fort Collins, and Colorado Springs) consistently boast some of the lowest obesity rates anywhere in the United States, and attract the cream of the physical crop as tourists and transplants. As a rare resident with a BMI above thirty, I was reminded of these statistics often—particularly when I tried to partake in the state pastime of open air sports. The trek up Bierstadt was no exception. As I struggled to catch my breath I was sure all of the much leaner hikers on the trail mocked me as they passed: What was a two-hundred-pound flatlander doing all the way up here? Shouldn’t she know better than to think this is where she belongs?
I’d come to Colorado for graduate school—and to “expand my horizons”—with a mix of awe, intimidation, and resentment. I knew I didn’t fit in. Everyone seemed to be blonde, and skinny, and wealthy, and really into jam bands, and I was none of these things. Nor was I athletic. I had the hips, breasts, and appetite of my Italian heritage, and the attitude and wardrobe of my New York upbringing. I didn’t own a proper jacket, or practical shoes, or a sports bra that fit me. I’d been camping only once in my life, at a New Hampshire campground five minutes from a supermarket, which I was pretty sure by Colorado standards didn’t count. I didn’t grow up skiing—I thought only very rich kids did—I grew up crying in public school P.E. class. Still, I tried to keep an open mind.
My first weekend in town, I was sure I had met the rugged-hipster mountain man of my dreams, who would take my hand and guide me in this strange new territory. Tipsy on the roof of the house I’d just moved into, he shyly kissed me and promised to take me to his favorite spots in the mountains. Already it was all coming together— with this man’s guidance and affection, I’d find my way into a life outdoors. Two weeks later, he met the blonde, skinny, granola girl of his dreams at a Phish concert, and that was that.
My fate was decided: I wasn’t going to thrive here. I counted down the days til Christmas, when I could return home to New York and commence complaining about the small-minded middle-of-the-country folk to my old lovers and friends. But in the interim, I begrudgingly began to adapt.
If I was going to explore the rocky mountains, I was going to do it my way—in a lacy romper and a floral headband, with a bottle of wine in my backpack. I was learning to be outdoors, if not exactly outdoorsy. But when I got to know serious hikers, I drew back, afraid to be exposed as as the weak-limbed fraud I knew I was. I could play along if the journey wasn’t too long or steep or treacherous, but if you were bringing poles along, I had other plans. A carefully curated level of interest hid the limits to my abilities. “I probably could if I wanted to” became a mantra, and I convinced myself it was true.
When I met Tyler, at a bar one night in downtown Boulder, my abandoned dreams of a life-changing high-altitude romance came rushing back. Sure, he took me to see a Grateful Dead cover band on our first date, but still I sensed something about him was different. He, too, had that palpable, floundering eagerness of a person still trying to figure out where they might belong.
Tyler checked college kids’ IDs for a living and dreamed of getting out of town. He listened to and liked me, not in spite of my stubborn resistance to Boulderization but because of it. Here, to my amazement, was a Coloradan who wanted to learn from me as much as I wanted to learn from him, who actually preferred me and my thick thighs and my anxious intellect to the carefree stick-thin hula-hoop-enthusiasts I couldn’t help comparing myself to. On paper we didn’t have a ton in common, but we each wanted badly to absorb some part of the other. He let me read to him in Italian and fill his bookshelves with feminist theory. I let him bring me to bluegrass shows and to trip on mushrooms in neighboring Utah’s red rock deserts.
This eager new beau took me on my first backpacking (or “real camping”) trip, a small success in my amateur hiking career. He taught me how to set up a tent and how to find a lost trail. I was sure by his side I could do anything. I wanted him to see that I could, too.
By the time we prepared to climb Bierstadt, I’d been in Colorado for nearly two years, and I felt like I’d grown a few muscles and learned a few things. I even owned hiking boots. I read enough trip reports online to believe that if the self-proclaimed amateurs who wrote them could do it, I could, too.
I was as determined as I was nervous. This would be the deciding test in my tenure as Coloradan: passing it would give me the cultural cachet I needed where my New York street cred had no sway; the confidence I needed to chill around people who made me conscious of every flaw on my fleshy figure. Maybe if my body could pull this off, I’d run out of reasons to feel bad about it. Maybe making it up the mountain and posing for an instagram-worthy photo at the top would put me on par with all of the effortlessly fit folks around me. Maybe the alpine winds would blow all of my insecurities away.
Or maybe it would be a disaster.
About fifteen minutes in I started suggesting we turn around. It was late spring, and the winter’s snowfall had barely begun melting. We were soaked to our knees before we’d gained any elevation from the parking lot. Then it was pure incline, on a trail that, in its clearest sections, alternated mud and ice. My calves were both burning and frozen. “How the hell is this supposed to be anyone’s idea of fun?” I scoffed, gasping for air. My mountain man laughed, and encouraged me to keep pushing, but I knew no amount of moral support was going to get my fat ass all the way up that snow-covered mountain.
A little past the halfway point, I found a rare boulder not covered in snow and sat down on it, defeated. It’d been almost two hours of constant post-holing—another word I’d just learned, and now hated—and slow, never-ending uphill movement. The trailhead seemed a universe away, but the summit—as the snow got deeper and the incline steeper—seemed even further. Tyler, who’d soldiered on so far without complaint, took a seat next to me, in quiet admittance that he was tired, too. We shifted to a dry spot of ground just off the trail and took a break. Before we knew it, both of us were asleep.
When we awoke, disoriented and unsure how much time our exhaustion had let pass, we agreed to turn around and call it quits. It was getting late in the day, and we were no match for the trail conditions. I apologized, profusely, for my failure. For disappointing both of us. For being overeager. For not being good enough.
Tyler half-shrugged before putting his arm around me. “I’m not disappointed,” he said, and tried to comfort me. “The snow makes it really hard. We don’t have the right gear for this. Besides,” he laughed, “you were the one who wanted to do this.”
It was true. I was the one who dragged a kind and unassuming man halfway up a mountain just to prove to him that I could do it, even though I couldn’t do it, and he didn’t care.
Tyler, unshaken, smiled: “I have an idea.” He took off his windbreaker and tied it around his waist, motioning for me to do the same with the one I’d borrowed from him. We planted ourselves on the ground with the windbreakers secured underneath us and mischievous, childish grins appearing on our faces.
“Ready?” he asked.
And all at once we took off sliding, right back down the mountain we had worked so hard to get up. We skidded as far as the snow would take us, laughing as we got stuck and had to start again.
Sara Iacovelli is the director of the VIDA Count and the fiction editor of Noble / Gas Qtrly. She currently lives in Seattle, where she teaches, writes, plays roller derby, and hikes at significantly lower elevations.