GEORGETOWN – When Rob Barlow was in high school, a pulmonologist told the asthma-afflicted teenager who had spent too many days in the hospital that he would be tethered to an oxygen tank by the time he turned 30.
So Barlow’s 31st birthday in July was reason to celebrate – even though he was, essentially, bedridden once again. But while hypothermic and shivering through a lightning storm in a rain-soaked tent at the base of the electrified Snowmass Mountain, Barlow knew he was winning.
“Sort of a golden moment for me,” said Barlow, who stood atop the summit of Longs Peak a little more than 71 days after he set out to climb 105 of Colorado’s highest peaks.
Barlow, a lawyer with the Denver District Attorney’s Office, reached the summit of 58 14,000-foot high-points and 47 peaks over 13,800 feet, moving from trailhead to trailhead on bike or on foot – just to set his Centennials project apart.
The record-setting mission covered more than 2,100 miles, during which Barlow never used a motor other than his own muscles, reported The Denver Post.
“I like being challenged. To do something that hasn’t been done seems very appealing to me,” he said, sunburned and lean with a wonky knee after scaling four mountains in a day, including the not-on-the-list Argentine Peak “just for kicks,” marking his 101st Centennial summit. “That’s why I like my job and it’s why I like these mountains. The lessons out here translate to everything else. It’s about perseverance and sticking to it and toughing it out.”
Emotions on a mission such as this one closely follow the GPS graph. Just as the peaks often are spectacular, the valleys can be dark.
But the stomach flu that left Barlow vomiting every few pedal strokes outside Leadville didn’t eclipse the jubilation of navigating the daunting Cathedral Peak in the Elk Mountains. He had to return to the far-from-a-road Chicago Basin twice to finish nine peaks in a remote corner of the San Juans. Huddling with a buddy – minus sleeping bag, tent or even a tarp – above treeline for a cold night on the flanks of the remote Jagged Peak, after 20 miles of hiking in southern Colorado’s Weminuche Wilderness, can’t overshadow the gratitude he has for a 17-person support team that shuttled his bike around mountain ranges and kept him fueled and warm.
After he pedaled up to the Guanella Pass summit and Mount Bierstadt trailhead on a recent morning, Barlow’s girlfriend drove his bike to Summit Lake Park on Mount Evans so he could pedal another 100 miles to Rocky Mountain National Park and climb his final peaks: Mount Meeker and Longs Peak. (He would have pedaled all the way down Mount Evans, but transportation officials closed the road the day after Labor Day.)
A buddy shouldered mule duty when he climbed Crestone Needle, Crestone Peak, Columbia Point, Kit Carson Peak, Challenger Point and Mount Adams on the first Wednesday in July, leaving Barlow on the eastern flank of the Sangre de Christos around 2 a.m. and then shuttling the bike around to the north end of the San Luis Valley. There Barlow saddled up and rolled down to the village of Crestone after a 26-mile day of hiking.
But he was alone on most hikes and had no support for 11 days, hauling his gear on his bike over big passes such as Engineer and Lizard Head. Those one-pedal-stroke-at-a-time days made him appreciate his crew even more.
“There’s not a chance I could have finished this thing without friendship and help and love. I’m a lucky dude,” he said.
He didn’t grow up so lucky. He spent most of sixth grade unable to go to school, laid low by infections and lung problems. As a kid, he was in and out of hospitals, fighting to breathe. All through college outside Chicago, he wheezed. He could slip into anaphylactic shock after the most fleeting contact with allergic triggers, like a horse.
Colorado’s mountain air helped. When he started at the University of Colorado Law School in 2008, his asthma faded. He climbed his first fourteener – Mount of the Holy Cross – in 2009. Without water, and wearing a T-shirt and skate sneakers, it was not pleasant. The headache lasted days.
“I swore I’d never do it again,” he said.
Barlow ignored his first-time toil and became an avid mountaineer.
Before he started his Centennials project, he had climbed all 58 of the state’s 14,000-foot high points and a couple dozen thirteeners in less than six years. That was just practice. In the summer of 2014 – one year into the Arvada resident’s gig at the Denver DA’s office – he hatched a plan. Link 100 of the state’s highest points – including the five unofficial peaks that don’t have the requisite 300 feet of relief to qualify as a stand-alone fourteener – and do it all by bike. (He said he asked his bosses for the time off, telling them about his audacious plan, and they approved. Really, how many ADAs have broken mountaineering records?)
But, the thing was, he wasn’t a bike rider.
So at 180 pounds, he started training. First, it was six months of daily hot yoga. Then came trail running, mountain biking and road riding. He got a bike, a Giant cross bike, with knobby tires on a road frame meant for fire roads, but not necessarily single track. For his final push before departure, he started twice-a-day Insanity workouts – long, high-intensity cardio and aerobic intervals sprinkled with brief rests – as well as yoga. When he started up Red Mountain and Culebra Peak, just north of Colorado’s border with New Mexico, on July 1, he weighed 153 pounds. He’s even lighter now. Even though he’s pretty much constantly eating.
“I’m never not hungry,” he said after finishing two BLT sandwiches and wishing he had another.
Route planning was a critical part of Barlow’s mission. His friends couldn’t help him while on route, per the rules set by record-setting predecessors such as Colorado endurance athlete and mountaineering guru Andrew Hamilton. Hamilton, a 42-year-old Denver dad of four, in 2015 set the speed record for climbing the state’s highest peaks, scaling all 58 points over 14,000 feet in Colorado in a mere nine days, 21 hours and 51 minutes. In August, endurance athlete Joe Grant pedaled his gear-laden bike from his home in Gold Hill to the trailhead of 57 fourteeners and climbed each – without any support crew or ever riding in a car – in less than 32 days, besting the previous record set by Golden’s Justin Simoni.
“What Joe and Justin did, that’s unreal to me,” Barlow said. “Carrying all that weight. Just amazing.”
The fourteener community is tight-knit, with the tribe of biking, hiking, endurance-running and mountaineering record-setters eager to share strategies and route ideas. They all have different tacks: supported or unsupported, loop or trailhead-to-trailhead, with varying ideas on routes. But they all share a similar ethic about moving efficiently and swiftly through Colorado’s most demanding terrain.
Barlow said he leaned heavily on Hamilton, who advised him on route selection and training. Like Teddy Keizer, who in July 2015 flew out from his home in Oregon on his birthday to celebrate Hamilton breaking the fourteener speed record he set in 2000, Hamilton was planning to meet Barlow at the Longs Peak trailhead to celebrate his friend’s success.
“He was hoping to pick my brain on the Centennials, but I learned lot more from him because he had already scouted most of them,” Hamilton said, admitting he is mulling a Centennial scheme for another potential record-setting adventure. “I had a good feeling he was not getting in over his head, and he definitely went into this with the attitude that if it rained, he’d just sit it out. He knew it was about the journey.”
Hamilton said Barlow’s quest appealed to him because it was both self-powered and supported. Support teams can relieve energy-sapping logistical challenges that don’t really have much to do with the mountains – like backtracking off a summit to retrieve a bike or gear instead of forging forward toward the next goal.
“When you are self-powered but supported you can really focus,” Hamilton said. “It gives you the opportunity to pick a truly graceful route through the mountains.”
Even though he wasn’t necessarily racing to beat a time, Barlow went light and fast, running up most of the peaks in July. He didn’t carry mountaineering gear, meaning he had to scramble up Class 5 sections – the most difficult in the hiking world, where walking becomes rock climbing and most people employ ropes in case of a fall. His pace slowed after the rugged, dangerous Elk Mountains, where he was pinned by weather for a couple days.
“The Elks kinda broke me,” he said, describing an epiphany during that lightning storm below Snowmass Mountain, where he told himself to slow it down “and be safe . because it was about finishing, not a time.”
The last 20-plus peaks “have pretty much been survival,” he said, pulling up the leg of his trousers to reveal his left knee, swollen to the size of a cantaloupe. It jiggled when he touched it, like a water balloon.
Barlow is raising money for the American Lung Association, using his website– 1700mountainmiles.com – to harvest donations for the association’s Champ Camp, a week-long summer camp in Ward for kids with asthma. Since 1979, the camp has helped thousands of kids who have breathing problems not just live but thrive. Maybe he can help kids see the opportunities of a life in the hills. Fighting for breath can make a kid really strong, he said. That strength can carry them to heights they might not see while in the trenches battling lung disease. Barlow knows that hard-earned tenacity.
“You definitely learn a lot about yourself doing this sort of thing and suffering,” Barlow said. “I’m tougher than I ever imagined. I can do a whole day without eating. I can hug it out with a friend to survive overnight. When you set out to do something like this, you don’t really imagine how many times you are going to be uncomfortable. But I pretty much grew up uncomfortable.”