At the risk of stating the obvious, there's a big difference between hiking the hills of southern Illinois and climbing the mountains of Colorado. I was made painfully aware of this on a recent trip to the Rocky Mountain State with my son, James.
Now, James and I had worked on getting ready for Colorado by doing some hiking around Carbondale, including an 8-ish-mile hike, with backpacks, on the Forest Road Loop at Trail of Tears State Forest in Union County.
And we felt pretty good about ourselves after hikes around Garden of the Gods and up Cheyenne Canyon near Colorado Springs.
But one of our trip goals was to climb a Colorado 14er -- any mountain that exceeds an elevation of 14,000 feet above sea level.
As complete novices to Colorado, we talked to the staff at the local REI store, and there was consensus that Mount Bierstadt was one of the easiest 14er's around.
So, Mount Bierstadt it was. (And you gotta love any mountain called, literally, Beer City!)
The Mount Bierstadt trailhead is located in the Guanella Pass (elevation 11,669 feet), a few miles south of Georgetown, Colo.
In an effort to get acclimated, we spent a very cold night at the Geneva Park campground (elevation 9,813 feet) and arrived at the Mount Bierstadt trailhead the next morning a little before 6 a.m. (Early starts are recommended to avoid getting caught in afternoon storms.)
At this point I want to say that the hike, all 6.4 miles of it, was the best and hardest thing that I can remember ever doing and that altitude sickness is real!
During the 6.5-hour hike, we walked through a frosted alpine meadow, sat in glorious sunshine at over 14,000 feet, and on the hike down, got pelted by hail while watching mountain goats!
The altitude sickness kicked in at approximately 13,000 feet. I was hiking along, feeling good, when all of a sudden I started to get a combination of light-headed, nausea and tingles. It's hard to explain. I told James that I was "starting to feel something" and that I needed to stop.
He said he had been feeling it, too, and asked if his lips were blue. I'm not sure how he knew it, but they were.
A friendly mom, hiking with her 12-year-old son, stopped and offered encouragement. Her lips were blue, too, which made James feel better.
As we pressed onward and upward, we had to stop often.
Rock cairns marked the trail at intervals, and at first we hiked from cairn-to-cairn before stopping. Then, we stopped every 100 steps. Then we stopped on an as needed basis. And for the last couple of hundred feet of rock-hopping to the summit we were literally stopping every few steps up.
But we made it to the summit! And the view from the top of Mount Bierstadt was amazing. It was a gloriously clear and sunny day, and we could see forever. Veterans of other 14ers, already at the summit, commented about how unusually nice it was.
We also shared the view with several yellow-bellied marmots that seemed both annoyed with and curious about the crowd at the top.
I was wearing a St. Louis Cardinals baseball cap, and noticing that a young woman told me that she was from St. Louis and that her sister lived in Marion. I told her we were from Carbondale.
She offered to take a picture of me and James.
She said, "This is a lot different than Giant City State Park, isn't it?"
I agreed, smiling. And I posed for a once-in-a-lifetime photo with my son.
• Mike Baltz has a PhD in biology from the University of Missouri and writes about changing the world from his home in Carbondale.