A Colorado Girl Aims High: 14,000 Feet, Plus
Megan Emmons, at 7, has reached the top of all 54 of her state's '14teeners'
BUENA VISTA, COLO. — At about 12,500 feet, the seven adults began to watch the gathering clouds in the west with concern. The temperature in the Rocky Mountains near Buena Vista, Colo., was dropping rapidly.
But their young companion saw the situation differently. "Please, oh please," a little girl whispered through her missing front teeth. "Oh please, let it snow. Let it snow just when we get to the top. "Then we can slide down the mountain. That's even more fun than hopping on the rocks."
Less than 15 minutes later, Megan Emmons's voice from 200 yards above was the only sound as she scrambled across the endless rock fields leading to the 14,005-foot summit of Mt. Huron.
If there is a human mountain goat, she's been bred by Randy and Kristin Emmons of Alamosa, Colo. At seven years old, Megan has claimed the summit of all 54 of Colorado's "14teeners."
Her next goal: Pakistan's K-2, the world's second tallest peak at 28,250 feet.
While no one keeps records of the ages of climbers, the Colorado Mountain Club - the unofficial guardian of Colorado's summits - knows of no other child this young to have stood on top of the state this many times and in this many places.
A seasoned mountaineer with a love of marmots, skipping rocks on mountain lakes, her parents, and math, Megan is also a vibrant advertisement for the joy of the high country.
She is a passionate advocate of protecting the majestic peaks that she is so fond of scaling. She's a ready partisan in the fight to keep unprepared climbers, hikers, and hunters from Colorado's fragile mountaintops.
"One time, we saw a lot of goats all around a dog like [they were saying], 'Don't bark at our children!' " she says sternly. "Mountain goats are kind of like the owners of the mountains. They belong in the mountains. Dogs don't. They're never on a leash."
"There are too many climbers," she adds. "And the bad thing is that some of them don't believe in what they're doing. They don't know how to climb the mountain right."
Megan, after more than 90 climbs on rock, snow, and ice with her father, knows avalanche signs, safety, belaying, and how to climb the mountains "right."
It's not, her father explains, for the accomplishment. It's for the enjoyment.
"She has a love of mountains as opposed to a love of reaching summits," the astronomy professor says. "It's the whole experience issue. It's not making it to the top."
His wife agrees. "We know people who'd say, 'I've been there and done that' and that's not what the mountains are really about," says Kristin Emmons, a high school math teacher. "We didn't want her to get into this counting thing."
Megan started counting - and climbing - before she could really do either. When she was eight months old, her mom and dad carried her to the tops of Mt. Lincoln and Mt. Bross in central Colorado. She then crawled the last few feet to the summit of Mt. Democrat.
"As soon as Megan could talk, she looked up and said she wanted to climb (Mt.) Little Bear," Mrs. Emmons recalls. "I guess she just liked the name. Climbing has brought her a lot of confidence. She had to learn that she could do it and she has."
Prompted by the plaque her father tacked above her bed - "Fear is the Thief of Dreams" - Megan has enjoyed taking on a mountain-size challenge.
"She's very independent and very responsible," says Lynnea Cook, her second-grade teacher. "Since she's a single child, she's been in an adult world most of the time. She can talk to any adult, yet she plays with the kids really well."
"She likes challenges, in the classroom, or anywhere."
In the summer of 1995, after Megan climbed the ice route up Oregon's Mt. Hood, one of her father's college students mentioned that she could become the youngest person ever to climb all of Colorado's 14teeners under her own power.
She took the challenge and she and Mr. Emmons began a training program that included running to the top of the 14,014-foot San Luis Peak.
"We're very proud of her but not so much for the climbing," Mrs. Emmons says. "It's more that she set out to do something and then worked and worked and worked until she did it."
Proving to be a "capable" partner for her father - a climber for 27 years - she began to change his life the day after her birth.
"I was out in the Sierras, ... when Megan was born a little early," Mr. Emmons says. "One of the ways to look at this, I thought, was that this would interfere with what important to me," he continues. "But it didn't evolve like that.
"I thought I could love both this little package and the mountains."
Megan reached the top of her last 14teener, Mt. Capitol, on her second try on Aug. 3, 1996. Two weeks earlier, she and her dad had turned back after driving six hours and hiking three to a campsite at 12,500 feet.
A bear eating a cow did not stop the couple. The weather did. "On the way back down, when we got near where we'd seen the bear, Megan was singing Christmas carols as loud as she could," Mr. Emmons remembers. "I don't know how many rounds of 'Jingle Bells' we went through."
Returning for the second try, they once again encountered bad weather - lightning and fog - when they awoke around dawn. "Megan reacted really well," her father says. "She just went back to sleep and by 10 a.m. it was clear enough."
It took them most of the day because the Emmonses refused to climb behind inexperienced mountaineers. "They kick rocks off," Megan explains.
"Reaching the summit is not the important thing," Mr. Emmons constantly teaches Megan. "It's reaching the car afterward, and in the winter it's reaching a paved road after reaching the car."
She's learned these safety lessons well. And today, Mr. Emmons rarely overrules her climbing or hiking route even in avalanche country in winter. She knows the mountains, loves their beauty, and has little trouble handling difficult situations.
On the Mt. Huron climb, she seemed unaffected by the decreasing oxygen and the uphill route - much of which she chose.
"Cool," she says while dancing on a stump, looking down on the twisting south fork of nearby Clear Creek, and waiting for the adults to catch up. "I think we can stop here." Later, outdistancing many of the other climbers en route to the bottom, she stopped to build a snowman.
"I'm never going to be done climbing 14teeners," she laughs. "Well, maybe when I'm over 100. Or maybe 60. Somewhere between 60 and 100."