For The Love Of The Death March

What A Hike On Mount Elbert Taught Me

Most hikers and back-packers have experienced the 'Death March,' but for those who haven't, I would define it as this: "a hike in which you are forcing your legs to move one foot in front of the other, while simultaneously feeling as if you're already dead or dying." Hence, the name. 

Last August, my boyfriend and I decided to go to Colorado for a 5 day whirlwind. A concert at Red Rocks, climbing in Boulder Canyon, a hike up Mount Elbert and a trip to Aspen to check out his old stomping grounds. I would categorize us as weekend warriors so I didn't really think about the altitude and strenuous nature of the hike we were going to do. We strategically planned our hike for two days into the trip in order to be at least a little acclimatized for Elbert, a climb with over 4,000 feet of elevation gain. But we consider ourselves pretty fit and up for a challenge, so we went for it.

And wow, did it shut me down. Barely .5 miles from the trailhead, I was heaving in air at an alarming rate. Why do we do this to ourselves? My favorite podcast host, Chris Kalous, calls hiking 'the long approach to nowhere.' In times like this, while I'm fighting for each breath and my quad muscles are screaming, I question my sanity and the sanity of every mountaineer who has ever set foot on a long, arduous hike. 

Here are some fun thoughts I've had during death marches:

  • "This isn't even fun." 
  • "Where are we even going?!" 
  • "Other people are at brunch right now.. oh, brunch sounds really good. Can I just have a bloody Mary instead?"
  • "Does my mom know where I am right now? Should I have texted her before I left the service area in case I literally die on this trek?"
  • "We still have time - should we just go back to the car and go get some ice cream?"
  • "Why don't I have a dog that is trained to carry me up the mountain like a horse?"

I'm sure you have had a few of these yourselves. But somewhere between mile 2-3, the magic starts to happen and you begin to change your tune. Similar to running, something crazy happens around this time. Your legs warm up, they move briskly, and your breath begins to calm down. You start to feel like an epic adventurer who can conquer the world! Dare I say, you might actually start enjoying the hike. Yes, it's true, you actually start to let your smile come out again. But what we're talking about here is a death march, so let's get back to the brutality of this hike up Mount Elbert. 

Getting those hiking legs going

It's not that this hike is significantly more difficult than what I'm used to it. I blame the thinner air and the false summits (curse you, false summits!) for the mental challenge this presented. I felt as if we would never stop hiking. The mountain just kept tricking us into thinking we were almost there, to the summit, where we could snap some photos and start descending down towards the car to enjoy some beer and Watermelon Sour Patch Kids. But, alas, we didn't make it to the summit for about 5 hours. And all the while, I felt as if I was walking in quicksand and not breathing in real air but perhaps a thinner version of the recycled air that exists in planes. Finally, after this seemingly tedious task, we made it to the summit and, boy, was it glorious.

Cursing the false summit

I looked around; looked at the other insane and awesome people who made it to the top, looked at the views we had of big, jagged Colorado mountains as far as the eye could see, and I seemed to get my mojo back. It may also be because I choked down a bagel sandwich immediately upon reaching the summit and was feeling great after a carb-load, but either way, I was amazed and in awe. The death march and struggle to breathe properly was worth it after all.

In awe of the beautiful mountains

Going back to my question earlier, why do we do this to ourselves? Why do humans do things like this? What value do we get from it? It's not until after we come down do we understand the gravity and importance of the mountains and why we death march on. These activities that push our bodies and demand more of us open up a world of possibilities. It helps us to feel more powerful, mentally and physically. The things that we learn about ourselves when we push through a tough challenge are invaluable and crucial to our development as human beings. It's moments like these that we should cherish in the mountains; they force us to be so present in our bodies and allow us to reflect on the incredible world we live in. 

So, is the death march always fun? No. Is it always worth it? Yes.

We want to acknowledge and thank the past, present, and future generations of all Native Nations and Indigenous Peoples whose ancestral lands we travel, explore, and play on. Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures and follow local regulations. Please explore responsibly!

Emily Holland

Born and raised in Upstate New York, currently living in the Greater Boston Area. Lover of pups, mountains, climbing, hiking, trail running, road running, lake life, etc.