She Belongs To The Mountains

I rank them by altitude and tackle them one set at a time: the 200 highest, then the tricentennials. I'm told I was the first woman to climb Colorado's 100 highest peaks; mathematical precision makes the task seem manageable.

There are 638 mountains in the Colorado Rockies over 13,000 feet high. I'd climb them all, if my joints allowed it. I want to possess these mountains as they possess me. I want to know everything about them—the density of their forests, the color and scent of their flowers, the angle and texture of their rock.

After my divorce, I climbed for the exercise, burning off bad memories like calories, transforming grief into muscle. "What's the rush? Are you training for an ultra-marathon or something?" a friend asked. He'd turned back at timberline, exhausted by the pace I set. In my 40s, I had legs of granite, my heart and lungs were a 200-horsepower engine that propelled me upward at 1,800 vertical feet per hour. Sixty-five heartbeats per minute, 3,900 per hour. I've recorded each triumph in my notebook, like a bird-watcher, marking the date and initials of my companions. For the solos with my dog, the most loyal companion of all, I spelled his name backwards: God.

Mummy Mountain, early August: I glanced back at dilating clouds and picked up the pace as I scrambled up the last 200 feet of the summit block, beating the lightning-charged hailstorm to the top by 10 minutes. Then I outran the rest of the storm by choosing the right shortcut back down. Back at camp, a Boy Scout leader coveted my spot for his troop of 10. I was happy to comply, confident I could hike out in time to have dinner with my parents, who'd rented a condo for the week. I told them I was hiking with a friend. How could I explain that even though I was alone for the first time in my life, I wasn't really alone?

Pole Creek Mountain, late August: Eight miles up Lost Creek, I found a safe place to cross, where migrating elk had flattened the bank. Their muddy hoof prints provided stirrups for my splash-free leap to the other side. Several hundred feet below the summit, elk tracks helped me again, guiding me safely through a cliff band.

Mount Silver, mid-September: The whoosh of a low-flying hawk awakened me from an afternoon nap in the tundra. It was three hours back to camp, and the sun would set in two.

When I told my mother how many peaks I bagged the summer after my divorce, she said, "You love the mountains more than you will love any man." I was furious, even though she was probably right.

I hadn't recovered from a recent blind date in Denver.

We met at my favorite Mexican restaurant. He ordered chips with hot salsa, and said, "I reserved a room for you at the motel across the street."

"Even the coyotes don't do it that quick."

"You misunderstand. I thought you'd be too tired to drive home tonight. It's 60 miles, isn't it?"

"I'm not driving home tonight. I'm camping in the mountains." There were too many jalapeños in the salsa; I drained my second glass of ice water.

"It's May. There will be snow up there. You're alone."

"My tent and sleeping bag are in my trunk." I looked at his watch—mine vanished in a ravine during a particularly arduous climb—and excused myself before the waitress brought the main course. "Got to pitch that tent before dark."

I never told him about my trophy collection, which was probably bigger than his. It certainly covered more territory: Pico Asilado, hidden in a back valley, like its name suggests; Gold Dust, Treasurevault and Lucky Strike, where I detoured around one collapsed mineshaft after another, dragging my mutt by the collar to keep him out of the arsenic-tainted water. Kit Carson and Ulysses S. Grant on opposite ends of the state (one of those ironies that comes with naming mountains after conquerors); while Arapaho and Navajo share a ragged ridge in the wake of their defeat.

Only a few of the mountains in my collection bear women's names. My favorite: Silverheels, the nickname of an anonymous prostitute who nursed the miners of Fairplay through a smallpox epidemic. After contracting the disease herself, she covered her ruined face with a veil and vanished.

I climbed Silverheels twice: Once before the divorce, testing my wings, then afterwards with sympathetic women friends. On the way down, we wrapped our jackets around our hips and rolled down the mountainside like a spilled sack of potatoes until we tumbled, unharmed, into a bed of moss campion and alpine forget-me-nots. Kathleen unbuttoned her shirt. Mary started giggling. I ripped off my clothes and they followed suit, a pack of alpha females intoxicated by our collective strength.

I climbed until the vision in my left eye clouded over, and my ophthalmologist scheduled cataract surgery. I climbed until a boulder toppled over, pinning my right leg beneath a ton of immovable weight. Now there's a permanent dent in my calf—a badge of courage, or foolhardiness.

I'll keep climbing, until my heart gives out, and they find me beside the trail, belly up, my grinning skull a whimsical warning to those who dare to venture out on their own.

At age 61, Jane Koerner is still climbing but at a much more sensible pace.

This essay originally appeared in High Country News.