The hike began with a short downhill segment, but as our guide, Barbara, had warned us, the trail soon became steadily uphill. Slowly we climbed, often resting after a particularly steep section. Four days ago most of the fourteen women in our group, with the exception of my friend Chris and I, had been strangers. Now we were united in the day’s challenge, a twelve-mile hike to the top of Eaglehead Mountain and back. This was the most demanding hike that I had ever attempted, and I hoped that I was up to it. Barbara seemed sincere when she kept repeating, “You can all do this.” Her confidence and encouragement were contagious. Soon we were all speaking her language — “good job,” “we can do this,” “keep going.”
After two hours of climbing, we reached the flat, open expanse of Windy Pass Ridge, where we were relieved to walk on level ground for the next two miles. The scenery was dazzling — distant clumps of trees, scattered snowy patches, a meadow dotted with colorful wildflowers, and an endless array of mountains.
Before long, our greatest challenge of the day loomed — the final ascent to the f Eaglehead summit, elevation 10,000 feet. We had already climbed quite a distance from our start at 7,000 feet, but from our current vantage point, the final segment looked to be almost straight up. We could also see that a small snowfield lay across our path — there was no way to avoid it.
Exchanging words of encouragement, we worked our way upward. The group began to spread out as each woman made the climb at her own pace. I forced myself to place one foot in front of the other as I slowly snaked my way up, crisscrossing the steep hillside. The effort and the elevation made it difficult to breathe, and my progress slowed to a few steps at a time followed by a stop to gasp for air. I wondered whether I would ever reach the top.
Barbara had gone ahead to help each of us across the snowfield. Making the transition from solid ground to the first step onto the snow set my heart pounding even faster than it already was. The snowfield was at a steep angle on the slope, and I envisioned one false step sending me tumbling. Crouching to lower my center of gravity, I inched forward, placing my feet into the footprints that Barbara had crunched into the snow. I focused intently on the remaining white area in front of me. When both feet finally touched firm ground, I stood erect and sighed in relief.
One last climb remained. I could see two of the women at the top and heard them calling, “Good job! You’re almost there!” I strode the last few feet to the Eaglehead summit and gazed at the payoff — 360 degrees of the most stunning mountain scenery that I had ever seen. Tears filled my eyes in the exhilaration of accomplishing a challenge that required both physical stamina and emotional tenacity.
Those of us at the top shouted encouragement to the remaining climbers and cheered as, gradually, others reached the summit. But I worried when my friend Chris still hadn’t appeared and several reported that she was having trouble — she was breathless and nauseated from the altitude, and her boots were causing her feet to blister. I felt selfish for having gone ahead at my own pace instead of staying with her. Finally, the last little group appeared over the summit — Chris, supported by Pat on one side and Barbara on the other. Everyone had made it.
We ate our lunches, shared our climbing stories, and admired the endless landscape. Everyone, including Chris, was revitalized, and Pat and I helped her bandage her blisters. We zigzagged our way down the mountain, bushwhacking toward Golden Trout Lake, where we would rejoin the trail. In the rockier areas, we picked our way slowly, step by step, often holding out a hand to steady the hiker behind us. And in the end, that’s what it was all about — the amazing power of a group of women to elevate one another to achieve a goal.