DENVER — With howling wind and snow whipping around the top of the mountain, Jennifer Bealer could almost taste the sweet satisfaction of a goal completed — summiting Mount Rainier. A long-time dream that was about to come to fruition after months of intense training.
But a few words from her guide ended it all: The weather is not letting up, he said. It’s not safe. We have to turn around.
And so, barely 1,000 feet from the summit of the highest mountain in Washington, the 38-year-old Denverite and the rest of her group turned and started their way back down to camp.
“I was just like, ‘I didn’t make it. I just spent six months of training and not seeing my family and … everything,’” Bealer said, tearing up. “I had never felt such depression.”
Every weekend in the mountains, away from her husband, pushing her body and mind to the brink — seemingly, for nothing.
At that time, she had no idea how such a defeating, disheartening blow could lift her higher than she’d ever been.
Falling for the mountains
Growing up in Pennsylvania, Bealer had a range of outdoor activities at her disposal: hunting, fishing, hiking, camping, boating, Girl Scouts, snowboarding. She did it all.
When she moved to Colorado in 2004, she started hiking more, and summited her first 14er in 2010. She’s in the middle of her quest to reach all 58 peaks in Colorado above 14,000 feet. So far, she’s completed 40.
“I feel like I found my calling a little later in life, so I’m kind of like, ‘How do I catch up on all my lost time?’” she said. “I love climbing mountains because it’s the only time where my brain turns off. My only focus is one step in front of the other, how is my breathing, what’s the weather doing, where’s the summit, where’s the trail. I love that I’m not focused on anything else in life.”
That was only amplified in 2017, when she visited the Pacific Northwest with her husband. Their final stop was Mount Rainier and Bealer said she was instantly hooked. Not long after they returned from the vacation, she started planning a climb up Rainier and booked a guided trip for June 2018.
She started seriously training in December 2017. Her weekends were quickly filled with long hours climbing up and down Colorado’s tallest mountains. Rain or shine, snow or sun — she was out there pushing herself to grow physically and mentally stronger. She said she met a lot of new friends along the way, and became more and more comfortable hauling a heavy backpack up to the summits.
“I love that feeling when you’re up there,” Bealer said. “You’re looking out above everything. It’s like you’re in another universe.”
Meeting reality on Mount Rainier
Bealer packed her bags and flew out to Washington on Saturday, June 9, 2018. She met up with her guide and the rest of her group and two days later, they started the trek to Camp Muir at 10,500 feet. They’d stay there before moving up to High Camp — around 11,000 feet — which would be their last stop before the summit at 14,411 feet.
Before they started the trek, Bealer checked the weather forecast on her phone. It wasn’t favorable: 50 mph winds and storms were expected the day they were supposed to summit.
But weather changes fast at that altitude and the group arrived at Camp Muir in high spirits. Bealer said it was a beautiful day.
The following afternoon, they left the camp to head to High Camp. As they climbed, clouds rolled in. Once they reached the camp, they ate dinner quietly, Bealer said. Everybody knew that poor weather was on its way.
Around midnight, the group woke up and prepared to try to summit. As they got ready, their guide said it wasn’t looking promising, but he felt confident they could still try. Bealer zipped and buttoned herself into her clothes, put on a headlamp and stepped outside.
Step by step, they started walking up. They made it to the first break spot and started for the second, which was around 13,400 feet — just about 1,000 feet from the summit. The wind was ripping across the landscape and snow swirled around the group, Bealer said. The storm wasn’t letting up.
That’s when the guide broke the news: They’d have to turn back for safety reasons.
There was no alternative. No waiting it out or pushing forward to hope for the best. The journey was over.
A large pill to swallow
Bealer has a self-described “summit or bust” attitude, so it’s fair to say it was very challenging for her to acknowledge the trek as a success without standing on top of Mount Rainier.
As the guides and group retreated down the mountain, Bealer was surprised to hear her fellow hikers celebrating a job well done. It didn’t make sense in her mind — they hadn’t summited, so they hadn’t succeeded, she said.
In the weeks afterward, she mourned it like a loss.
“It dawned on me later — like three months later — that I really focused too much on not making it and should have been focusing more on the experience,” she said. “I kind of feel guilty that I didn’t just enjoy the time when I was there. In my mind, I was like, ‘I have to go back.’ It’s this emotional mountain and I need to go and conquer it again and bring a different perspective to it the second time around.”
While she knew she would return to Mount Rainier at another time, she asked the guides about other mountains with higher success rates. They talked about Denali in Alaska, Aconcagua in South America and the other Seven Summits, which are the highest mountains on each continent.
As she sat in the Seattle airport to head back home to Colorado, one of those summits stuck with Bealer. And even as she worked through a broken heart after Mount Rainier, the sense of a new, fresh adventure slowly started to put it back together.
Learning how to try, try again
Most people who start to climb Mount Kilimanjaro are successful, and the longer you take, the better your chances.
Still, climbing a mountain of that magnitude and elevation — its summit stands at 19,341 feet, which is significantly taller than any Colorado 14er or Rainier — sounded impossible, Bealer said. But the more she researched Africa’s tallest mountain, the more enticing it seemed. She showed it to her husband, and while he’s not as passionate about hiking as she is, it appealed to him too, she said. An eight-day trek had a success rate of 90 percent.
“It would be like walking for eight days,” she said.
She could do that. And so could her husband. So, just a few months after she had returned from Rainier, Bealer booked a trip for them to climb Kilimanjaro in March to celebrate their 10th wedding anniversary.
The couple left on Monday for Tanzania and after 28 hours of flying, they will land on Wednesday. After a gear check on Thursday, they will start the climb the following morning. For the next eight days, they’ll walk skyward, with plans to summit on March 21.
Bealer said it was sort of funny to be back in the same sort of training cycle as 2018, when she was prepping for Mount Rainier. But a few days before she set out, she said there’s one major difference this time around.
“I’ve learned now from Rainier that it’s not about the summit,” she said. “So, I’m definitely attacking this mountain differently, mentally. I’m going to go up there and have fun.”
She paused and smiled slightly.
“I think it’s going to be life-changing.”
Spirit of Our Colorado: This online series highlights the extraordinary things your not-so-normal neighbors are doing in the outdoors. Do you know somebody pursuing something wild, inspiring or just downright daring? If so, please send information to Stephanie Butzer at firstname.lastname@example.org. And join the Our Colorado | Through your photos Facebook group if you love sharing pictures of our state.