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 around 11 a.m. Friday 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…
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.
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…
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…
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…
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.
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