The next morning, back in ranks early, Cadre John told us we would be heading to Red Rocks open space. Half the group would start the day rock climbing, while the other half did the Manitou Incline, then we’d switch. We broke off into our carpools and headed out. By the time we all met up at Red Rocks a couple hours later, the plan had changed. John said the other group would go to the Garden of the Gods instead of the Incline. He said they were “taking it easy on us after our rough hike yesterday.” I was more than a little disappointed. I didn’t come on this trip to take it easy. I felt jipped yesterday missing Torey’s and now again today, missing the Incline.
Garden of the God’s was pretty though. Mostly large rock formations that people were climbing on. We spotted a bear hiding in the bushes which was definitely the highlight for me. It didn’t take us long to walk around, and then we found a hole in the wall Mexican place where I ate the biggest burrito I’ve ever had in my life for about $5. Score. Nice and stuffed, we headed back to Red Rocks to do our own climbing.
Back at Red Rocks, I laid in the grass as I watched everyone take their turn. I’m not ashamed to admit I used some of my cbd chapstick to take the edge off a little. One by one I watched teams pair up, one to climb, and one to belay. Vito was at the top of the formation taking photos. I was safely on the ground hanging out with Ripley.
Amanda, seeing me sitting there wallowing in my nerves and avoiding my turn, took initiative and offered me her harness. No turning back now. I put on the harness, and I started to climb. My breath was shallow, and my hands were shaky, but I started up the wall.
Halfway up, I felt like I ran out of options. I couldn’t find a place to get a grip and move upward. I started to panic, and I asked for help. Cadre John guided me from the bottom. I moved up one more step, then decided I couldn’t do it, and started to lower myself.
A few steps back down, I said screw that, and started up again. I will NOT let my fear win. I am going to the top. I remained determined, and I made it up.
This was why I came to Colorado. To conquer my fear of heights. And while I most certainly was not over my fear, it was a huge step.
When I got back down I decided to explore a bit instead of just lying there waiting for everyone else to go. I hiked up the backside of the rocks and sat on the highest point I could reach. The view was astonishing. I could see to the Garden, I could see the Incline, and I could see for miles in every direction. I took some pictures and videos, then called my boyfriend. After we talked, I said a prayer for Eric, his friends and family, then I sat and meditated for a few minutes before I heard a rustle. Vito had hiked up as well. He had a bag of ashes in his hand. When I asked who it was he told me it was his father. We discussed him briefly, he spread the ashes, and then we both headed back down.
Suddenly, it was time for the Rappel portion of the day. We had to start at the top of the rock and make our way down. There was terror in my heart. I sat on the side where I had a view of the rock wall and watched. I started to get jitters. I hiked up to the top and looked briefly over the edge. Holy shit. We were high, and I couldn’t imagine lowering myself over the edge of the wall. For a second, I decided I couldn’t do it. I would have to sit this part out.
No Athena. This is why you are here. This fear will hold you back from every big mountain you want to climb in your life. DO NOT LET IT. The Cadre will guide you. This is the safest way to learn. YOU CAN DO THIS.
I put on the harness, and walked over to Cadre John. Jason, straddling the top of the rock, said “Athena, is this your first time repelling? That’s sick!” I replied, “If you mean sick, like I’m going to vomit, then yeah.” I told Cadre I was terrified, and he calmly talked me through it. “Hold onto the rope, pull the knot toward your belt to lower yourself, if you don’t pull, you won’t move.” I asked him to repeat it like 2 more times as I turned to lower myself over the wall. FUCKFUCKFUCK. Deep breaths, and I was clutching the wall, I couldn’t let go of it. “Stick your legs out, you want to sit in an L shape.” I heard, but I wasn’t processing. Still scared to push off, I scraped my shin on the wall. I slowly pulled the knot toward me, and started to lower myself, then straightened by legs. “Let go of the rope.” “NUH-UH,” I replied. I kept lowering inch by inch, freaking out.
Realizing it was my knot pulling that was lowering me, I finally recognized I had control of the situation. I took a deep breath, and let go of the rope. Nothing happened. I didn’t move. Feeling secure finally, a wave of relief rushed over me. I felt confident, smiled, and repelled the rest of the way.
Shawn, the one in our group with the most climbing experience, who I had vented about my fear to earlier, congratulated me when I got down. After we had all finished, he showed off by rappeling, face forward. I was in awe of his confidence.
I kept glancing off into the distance and could see the Incline. I asked around if people wanted to do it tomorrow after ENDEX, and a couple agreed. Then we headed off to a local BBQ spot for a smorgasbord of food and beers. I talked to John about his mountaineering experience. He travels a lot to climb and I got some great info out of him. Then we all heard stories about Alpha groups trecherous climb the previous day, they had went off trail near Evans and encountered some sketchy ridges. I was somewhat sad I hadnt made it to Alpha, but also relieved knowing I might’ve been petrified out on the ridge.
Family in the woods.
Back at camp, Cadre broke out the beers. We all gathered around the fire sharing stories. Cadre John told us he was currently homeless and traveling the world climbing. His next destination was South America for a while, and then he was going to apply to school at Harvard. People started affectionately calling him Cadre Homeless Jesus, as he had a very impressive beard and long hair. He was sad he would have to shave and look presentable for his interview. I was impressed by his brains and free spiritedness.
I was eager to chew off Melinda’s ear about her ultra running experiences, and she was happy to oblige. She told me about a couple 100 milers she had done, the Barkley fall classic, and how she had affectionately been given the nickname “Catnip Blackbile.” I would explain, but I’m sure you can infer how an ultra runner might get a black bile nickname, and it aint pretty. I really love the endurance community of weirdos, the rare few who would appreciate and even boast a disgusting nickname.
Cadre Edge told us about his personal training group, 18-Alpha fitness and his plans for the future. Overall, it was a great night. We got way too drunk, stayed up wayy too late, and really solidified our bond as the Ascent class of 2018.
Our class was really unique. If you know about Ascent history, you know it’s typically led by Cadre Chris Way. The ONLY go ruck cadre who isn’t SF. All I know about him is he finished Selection, and is an excellent climber. When I registered for this event, I had anticipated him leading the class as always, and I had spoken to several people who had done Ascent in the past and spoke very highly of their experience. Chris recently took leave, I have heard to focus on himself and further his knowledge and experience. It has been said he quit the company, but I am not 100% sure of this. Cadre Mickey who has also been on this event in the past, did officially recently leave the company. I had heard that Cleve and DS were supposed to be on this event also, but somewhere along the line, that changed. To sum up, NONE of the original cadre were on this event. Our class got a totally different experience than we had anticipated, and many were upset by it. On the fly, Cadre were hired to work it last minute, and many people think it compromised the intergrity of the event.
I am not saying I didn’t appreciate the cadre we had. I think they did the best they could at a moments notice, and I appreciate their effort. They simply didn’t have any experience with this event or the way it was run in the past. As such, I am going to address something many GRT’s have been asking lately. I have heard numerous people say that this was the last Ascent class. I cannot confirm or deny if that is true, but if it is, it’s likely because the men who were involved in starting it are no longer a part of it. I think if attention is given to it, it can continue in the future, but that is not up to us to decide. I know all of us there will share a bond forever and I am truly grateful to have been there.
Ascent was unlike any event I had done before. It was not a Challenge where we are just getting a 12 hour beat down, it was a bunch of weirdo GRT’s just spending time together in the mountains. It was a wonderful event I am happy I got to experience. I got to spend time with like minded people doing things that we love. I gained so much knowledge from my new found friends and I got a chance to learn a lot about the cadre.
The next morning, we were all lined up in ranks before sunrise. The cadre spoke, patched us, and then told us we could stick around if we wanted for more survival classes which would start in an hour.
I was getting my boots on by my tent when Vito ran by me, quickly whispered “Wanna see the sunrise?” then ran off. I jumped up and chased after him. He swung by a couple other tents, and the others did the same. It was a perfect light-hearted moment in the early morning, all of us prancing after Vito onto the mountainside like excited little children. We hiked out onto an outcropping of rock and sat in silence, staring in awe as the sun rose over the mountains. Troy shared a biblical quote that I wish I could remember, and we all felt unified and at peace. We took a few photos and soaked in the moment, then slowly headed back to camp.
We all hugged each other tightly and promised to stay in touch. Most who had agreed to do the incline backed out, but Justin stuck by me. We quickly showered, grabbed breakfast, and headed back to Colorado Springs.
The Manitou Incline is next to Pike’s peak. It is a staircase built into the side of a mountain, with a very steep grade. The trail starts above 6,000ft and it climbs 2,000ft in less than a mile. There are no guard rails and no flat points. Just UP for 2,774 steps.
We started up with a decent pep in our step and quickly passed many who started before us. But by the time we reached about 1/4 of the way, I was winded and need to stop occasionally for a minute or 2. Justin was obviously fresh and I told him he could head up ahead of me. He assured me he could use a break as well and waited, but I’m sure it was out of consideration for me. The stairs were numbered every 100 or so, which was kind of cool in the beginning, less so as we went on and the air became thinner, and the grade became steeper.
My fear of heights got the best of me about halfway up and I started to panic. Suddenly I couldn’t look down, and I eventually started bear crawling, afraid to let go of the floor. I had to occasionally stop and sit, not from exhaustion, but from fear. I was overwhelming myself. I found comfort clutching the metal wire that connected the stairs together. “Look, I found a handrail,” I joked as I clutched the ground. I apologized profusely to Justin, telling him to go ahead without me as I was sure I was holding him back and potentially ruining what was probably an amazing experience, but he remained understanding and upbeat. “I dont blame you, it’s scary up here.” I took a deep breath and continued on, scrambling up as fast as I could. Justin actually applauded how fast I was moving and commented jokingly that I was getting a full body workout by bear crawling.
I dont understand my fear, I never could. I know its completely irrational, especially in that moment when we were walking up a flight of stairs, but somehow in my brain it seems plausible that I could just slip off the mountain. I know that I have this fear, and I always warn my friends when we do something steep, but I will continue working on exposure therapy and hope I can cope with it someday. I am obsessed with mountains. I hope one day to be able to trek the Himalayas, but I know this will be the fear that holds me back from achieving my goals if I don’t work on it. My legs work; I have trained them enough to cope with treacherous terrain for hours and days on end. It’s my brain that doesn’t cooperate. I panic, I take short breaths, I get winded, and it slows me down where I shouldn’t. I’m working on it as best I can.
When we finally reached the summit, several strangers cheered for us and reached out for high-fives. I felt a wave of relief rush over me. It was done. The people took a photo for us, and I took one of the ruck, and then I was finally able to admire the view from the top. It was amazing. We gathered ourselves and walked over to the side to relax.
We sat there for a while, chatting on the top of the incline. I was astonished not many people were around, and it felt like we had our own isolated space on the top of the mountain. I was finally able to breathe and take in the appreciation for all that had happened that week. I was grateful for the experience, and I was grateful to Justin for being so supportive and understanding of what an emotional disaster I was. After a while, we headed down a trail on the other side of the mountain, stopping occasionally to take in the view and for photo ops.
It started to rain and I was overwhelmed by emotion again. I love the rain. Justin noticed my energy change and asked if I needed a moment alone. I said yes and he ran down the trail a bit ahead of me. I took another moment to meditate and say a prayer, and when I heard people behind me, I ran down the trail to catch up with Justin. We jogged the rest of the way down, as the decline grade made it easy, and the rain was starting to feel cold.
Once back at the bottom we got a quick bite, then headed towards Denver. Justin asked if I was gonna go back to my friends house. I knew I wasn’t, but I told him I didn’t know. I didnt’t really want to think about it. Justin had a 9pm flight and I dropped him off at the airport, then pulled into a gas station to figure out where I was going to stay for the night. I debated sleeping in the car till the morning, but realized I deserved a warm bed, and got a hotel room. When I got there I was exhausted, but when I saw they had a pool, I decided I needed a cleansing swim to cap off the week. It was empty, and was exactly what I needed. When some people showed up, I took a moment in the hot tub, then headed back to the room.
Sleeping in big puffy sheets felt amazing, and I was only out for maybe 6 hours before I had to get up to catch my flight. I slept on the plane in comfy sweats, and came home to an 80 degree day. Not in Colorado anymore. I checked in on Anthony as soon as I got back, but he was busy. Being home again was strange. I went to work, and when I got off I went to Eric’s crash site. I stared at the fence he went through for a while, seeing the cement ripped out of the ground, the bushes battered. I could picture it in my mind. I sat on the ground in front of all the photos and candles and flowers for a while by myself, then headed home.
I sent a message to Justin thanking him for being there for me all week. I don’t know anyway that I can convey how important his presence was. A bunch of us posted in the ascent group all week, sharing photos and thanking each other, but there are only 2 I have kept in touch with since. It is now 5 weeks later.
Life since has been interesting. I had the 9/11 memorial Heavy and the Killington Spartan Race since, each of which I could write an entire blog post about, but I wont. My busy schedule coupled with my depression and general laziness to do things lately isn’t exactly conducive to me pumping out blog posts. We shall see where this goes. I’ve always been very introspective, but communicating my thoughts and feelings outwardly has always been something I’ve struggled with.
Right now I am mostly focused on trying to be a better person, and taking care of my friends. I think that’s what I need most right now.