I am windburnt and sunburnt (a winning combo), my nose is raw and scaled from constantly running, my skin is breaking out from the sweat and sunblock.
The achilles tendon on my right foot feels funky. My left ankle rolled out during a descent and is a little tender. My knees ache from carrying the rest of me up and down thousands of feet.
But I’ve never felt better.
And it’s because the ghosts are gone.
Called to Colorado, to the mountains specifically, this trip was planned for a while. It was planned, and then my life changed in a few big ways, and it was almost un-planned. But I had a very strong sense that I was meant to do this, so I did. And I brought my ghosts with me.
I arrived with the intention of attempting my first 14er, Mount Bierstadt, but I told my cousin, who accompanied me for the first half of the trip, that I thought I needed to try a few more mountains besides the one I had carefully selected.
“I’m done with these people,” I told her, gesturing to my ghosts, who were morosely trailing behind me. “I want to leave one at each summit.”
“That makes sense,” she replied. “Let’s do it.”
We started with Cupid’s Peak, a 13,117 foot mountain at Loveland Pass.
The initial ascent was tough. I felt all three ghosts wrapping their fingers around my legs and ankles, dragging me down, sneering at me, demanding I sink into gravity and go no higher. The altitude tried to press icy fingers against my brain, threatening a headache, but I had prepared for that; I had protection.
The ghosts thought they were stronger than me, but they had no idea I had crafted a new heart; one made of clay and yarn, rock and paper, cobbled together with glue and needles. It was messy, but it was sturdy.
Cupid’s Peak was slow at first, a constant beating of feet. Then there were several dips and valleys, a cluster of confusion. I thought we were at the top only to find out we weren’t; we passed and returned to the summit, searching for the truth, wondering why this peak felt never-ending.
Then, Cupid appeared. Familiar smile, shifting eyes. I remembered the night we stood outside, rain dripping into eyelashes, swapping numbers, feeling something new. Then I remembered everything after.
I gently disentangled Cupid’s ghost from around my knees and left it standing on the mountain as we walked away. I didn’t look back, but I felt the ghost go.
Grizzly had a steep, rocky ascent with scrambling and uncertain paths. It stole my breath and made my heart slam dangerously. It was sudden, intense, potentially fatal. But it was different from Cupid, and that made it interesting.
When Grizzly appeared in front of me, I wasn’t surprised. I thought about the kaleidoscope night we first met; the magnet that yanked us together, the same one that later drove us apart. The storm that followed.
This time I didn’t reach down. I violently shook the ghost clinging to my right leg off, sending it spiraling towards the edge of the summit.
I smiled as I descended, even when I fell.
The first two ghosts gone, I rested.
The next day, in the dark before the dawn, we started the summit of Mount Bierstadt, the 14,065-foot-high beauty I had been eyeing for half a year.
It was deceptive. The beginning was steady and true. The trail was well-marked and obvious. There were no slips or false starts. But then the elevation got higher, the ground got steeper, and boulders and rocks created obstacles to climb over. And yet I loved it, even as it hurt.
When Bierstadt appeared, the remaining ghost at my ankles sunk its spectral teeth into my flesh, and I clenched my jaw. The memories came too fast. They whipped by me, wrapped around me, and I went faster in turn, the summit quickly approaching. I bounded on boulders that I felt a kinship with, pretending I was a mountain goat. They held me up, they kept me strong as the memories chased me.
But out of all the memories, the only one that mattered was the last one.
At the top, Bierstadt stared up at me, cold and unrepentant. The final ghost latched on my legs started to pull itself upwards, towards my heart.
Because you can’t. Because you’re not good enough. Because you don’t deserve it.
I looked down at the ghost, clawing its way towards what was still beating in my chest, what carried me up three mountains. “No,” I said. “It’s not yours.”
I yanked the ghost from my body, held it up to the sunlight, and watched as it unfurled and unraveled, becoming morning mist that was swept away by the mountain.
The last ghost gone, I took a deep breath.
Then I descended.