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30 Peaks Before Age 30: Ashley Gossen’s Quest

This is a quest case study. (Read others or nominate yourself.)

In The Sound of Music, Mother Reverend sang “Climb every mountain.” We’re not suggesting that was Ashley Gossen’s inspiration for tackling 30 peaks before her 30th birthday—but it came to mind when we heard her story.

See if you wind up wanting to hum along.

Introduce yourself and your quest.

I’ve been fascinated by mountains and the outdoors since I was a little girl growing up in rural Pennsylvania. As I got older, I dreamed about moving west and spending time in the beautiful places I only ever saw on television.

When my dream became a reality, and my then-boyfriend (now husband) and I moved to Seattle, I became hooked on hiking. Spinning on that love, I decided to hike 30 peaks before I turned 30, the last peak being on my actual birthday.

When I climbed the first peak, Mt. Pilchuck, I didn’t know it but I was looking into my future. I gazed at all the tall peaks around me, including the snow-capped Glacier Peak. I couldn’t wait to explore those mountains and everything felt so new and exciting. Later, standing on top of Glacier Peak, I felt accomplished and experienced. I knew the Cascades were my home.

At the top of Glacier Peak.

Why did you decide to undertake your quest?

I wanted to do something special for my 30th birthday – something that made me feel strong and happy, and celebrated me. The day I made the decision, I poured over guidebooks and make a list of peaks. I counted how many weekends I had to finish. I had such a burst of excitement and purpose.

Setting a modest goal was so energizing. As an added bonus, since I did half the hikes solo, the quest built confidence in myself as I made it to #30.

How did you pick which peaks to hike?

Many hikes I did were local, so I choose them just by reading descriptions in hiking books. I compared ratings and special features, which ones I felt drawn to, and planned when I’d want to hike them based on time of year (ideally, I wanted to miss a lot of snowfall).

The flowers at Lake Ann.

What were your favorites?

Peaks 17 & 18, Stawamus Chief and Panorama Ridge Point, were done on my honeymoon with my favorite hiking partner. Those were incredibly special. And the grand finale, Peak 30, was Glacier Peak, a big climb with – you guessed – glacier travel.

I was attracted to Glacier Peak because it is nestled into the surrounding mountains, not standing out like Mt. Rainier or Mt. Baker. You can only really see it when you hike around the heart of the Cascades, and it always feels special when it comes into the view.

The hike itself had a certain wildness to it. We had to hike two days just to get to the base of the mountain, and glacier travel required ropes, crampons, and ice axes. We trekked all over the mountain, including the peak, for six days. On my 30th birthday, we celebrated with fresh picked blueberries.

You can see the full list of the peaks on my blog.

Sourdough Mountain.

What were the costs associated with hiking all 30 peaks?

Most of the hikes only required gas money. I already had equipment. A couple peaks were out of state – Mt. Whitney in California and The Wedge & the Ramp in Alaska – so I did pay for a few plane tickets, but the money was never exorbitant.

On Navaho Pass.

What memorable moment is fresh in your mind?

One of the longest hikes I did was Mt. Whitney. It’s 14,500 feet up, and two of my best friends and I did a 22-mile hike to the peak, gaining over 6,000 feet in altitude. We started before sunrise, climbing switchback after switchback.

At about 11,000 feet the sheer height slowed us down, and eventually we were stopped every few steps to catch our breath. But once we were close to the peak, I had a surge of energy, the pounding in my head subsided, and I felt great. On the summit we took naps, ate Snickers bars, and just felt alive. Bonding over our misery on the way down the mountain was actually fun—it felt just like we were in college again.

Roped up and ready to climb Glacier Peak.

How did you overcome a low point in your quest?

I’ve always admired mountaineers and wanted to climb a glaciated mountain, but Glacier Peak was really hard for me. My husband and I taught ourselves how to tie knots and practiced the art of “roping up” in the back yard. We went out in the winter to practice using ice axes. Then we invited my husband’s brother to come with us. We were ready… or so I thought.

We backpacked the two days into the mountain, and once there the sky opened up on us the night before we were supposed to summit. It rained and hailed with earth-shaking thunder and lightning. I was terrified. Surely it was a sign that we should be retreating the next day, not scaling the large mountain.

The next morning the storms were gone but still I tried to talk my husband out of going up, “Nope, he said. “You’re just scared. We’re going to climb up that mountain and we’ll be just fine.”

He knows me well. I was scared but I got up, packed my gear and clicked on my headlamp. We climbed to the summit of Glacier Peak that day and it was one of the best days of my life.

Lily5

Scaling Glacier Peak.

What did we miss?

These mountains have become such an important part of my life. They are humbling and they make me feel strong and confident. Turning 30 was scary at first, but I found that my thirties are about reflection and acceptance of self. Climbing Glacier Peak was the beginning of this era, a time of feeling comfortable in my body and proud of what I’ve accomplished so far in my life.

For a long time, I wasn’t sure that I was a true adventurer. I haven’t hiked 2,000 miles on the Pacific Coast Trail or trekked the Himalayas. I don’t run marathons on the weekends. I don’t think I’ve ever felt completely guilt-free about downing a carrot cake Clif bar like I’ve actually exerted enough energy to deserve all those calories. On nights before a hike I pack everything and put it by the door so I can roll out of bed and straight into the car. I actually look forward to the hour-plus drive to the mountains as it’s extra time to wake up.

But now I feel like a true adventurer. Stepping out on a goal-oriented series of events doesn’t have to be something epic. I think of an adventurer as someone who sets a goal to do something they are passionate about—and then pursues that goal.

Keep up to date on Ashley at her site, Alpine Lily, or via Twitter @alpine_lily.

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