Quandary Peak and Honey Pear Crisp with Hazelnuts and Thyme
Eleanor Roosevelt said, “Do one thing every day that scares you.”
And for a woman that endured the loss of both parents and her brother at a young age, I can’t imagine what it took to scare her.
The adrenaline rush triggered by fear can make me tingle all over with an undeniable sense of being alive, but I’m too much of a chicken shit to actively seek fear on any regular basis let alone every day. Besides, I scare so easily, fear finds me, employing the ever-effective element of surprise without me going to look for it. Changing lanes on I-94 is enough to make me sweat through my favorite leather jacket. A single, unannounced sneeze out of Greg can send me off my chair, which is how I earned the nickname “Froggy.” (Really, I don’t know anyone who sneezes as loud as he does.) With that in mind, it’s possible that I rack up 365 scares in a year without even trying. To my credit, fear has never kept me from doing something that thrills me, like traveling to Thailand, jumping out of what my horrified family members called “a perfectly good airplane”, or getting a tattoo. Of course those were all premeditated events with conscious choices. Most of the time fear comes fast and furious without warning: that damn sneeze or a fat rat racing across my sandaled foot in the alley.
That’s how it found me in Colorado, 14,000 feet in the air, approaching the apex of Quandary Peak. Greg and I had climbed from 10,850 feet to just over 14,000 in two plus hours, covering nearly three miles of precipitous, rocky ground. Quandary Peak reaches 14,265 feet above sea level, but from where we were, I couldn’t see the summit. The climb ahead was steep– steeper than an attic staircase in an old house and steeper than any climb I’d faced before. To reach the top—wherever it was—we’d have to scramble up a terrain that resembled the surface of the moon except that in the video of Neil Armstrong touching down, the rocky, cratered surface looked flat. I was facing a wall of rock, standing on legs that were already quivering with fatigue.
From the beginning, I was never sure we’d make it to the top. We’re in good shape—still capable of running eight-minute miles without audible gasps and doing pushups without getting our knees dirty—but climbing a mountain is, uhm, a lot different. This is a good time to remind you that Chicago, where I make my home, sits at an elevation of approximately 600 feet above sea level and is flat with a capital “F”. The climb and what it would do to my quads worried me, but the altitude worried me more. A few years back Greg and I climbed Mauna Kea (EL 13,796 ft.) on the Big Island of Hawaii. On the hike Greg experienced his first bout of altitude sickness. We’d been together for six years, but I’d seldom seen him weak or vulnerable, and it scared the hell out of me. He doesn’t remember the altitude sickness. The memory that is permanently lodged in the score-keeping side of his brain is that the entire sole of his left foot was covered in blisters, or “one giant blister”. The Guinness Book of World Records blister was, as I learned on our way to the top of Quandary Peak, my fault, because I was the one who insisted on going on “and on”, intent on reaching the top.
But Mauna Kea was thousands of miles and many years away. Here on Quandary Peak our feet were as yet, blister free, and our breath while shallower with each short step wasn’t yielding to the woozieness that overcame Greg in Hawaii. We stopped for a water break when Greg announced that we’d made it to 14,000. He handed me the bottle for a luxurious sip. The air temperature was just above freezing with a strong, chilling wind blowing from the valleys below, but we’d built up a lot of heat in the climb so the cool water was refreshing. I let out a deep sigh as I swallowed and casually turned around to take in the view that I’d been missing due to my laser focus on the unstable trail.
Cue up the music from the shower scene of Psycho here: I nearly lost it right there. When we stopped my throbbing quads were singing, “dang, that was steep,” but the view from 14,000 feet screamed, “crazy lady the only way you’re getting down is if you roll off the edge into that pristine mountain lake below.”
I’m not sure what I said or if I said anything, but something prompted Greg to say, “We can stop here. I’m okay if you want to stop. I’m just happy we made it to 14,000.”
“Are you worried about how we’ll make it down on shaky legs?” I asked. If he was afraid, he was doing a bang up job of hiding it.
“No, but I can tell you are. Bob, we don’t have to do it.”
Maybe I was a bit woozy after all, but I was suddenly overcome with gratitude tainted with a healthy serving of shame. I knew that if the tables were turned, I would be prodding him—blistered foot and all–to get to the top. Like a well-intentioned but obnoxious cheerleader, I’d recite various incantations meant to inspire, but would likely have the reverse effect (Remember the first marathon we ran together sweetie when you “hit the wall”?) I mean well in those moments, I really do. I believe that I’m helping him, me, his biggest fan, his wingman. With the clarity of hindsight I see those moments are selfish on my part. I’m hell bent on accomplishing the mission with or without him, but I let myself believe that he will thank me when we get to the finish line or the top, even if his foot is oozing puss. (Please let the record show that this is not a part of me I’m proud of.)
While this may have been our first “14er” as the avid climbers call the 14,000 plus foot peaks, Greg has a lot more alpine hiking experience than I do. If he wasn’t scared, why should I be? More than that though, I trust him to look out for me. Greg isn’t a big risk taker especially when it involves my safety. If the guy who reminds me to be careful every time I strap on my running shoes thought we were in grave danger, he would never suggest we push on.
I turned my back on the majestic view and the path of our descent to face the wall of sharp rocks before me. And we pressed on. Several yards up the trail we caught up with a group of sure-footed mountain goats. Their hard hooves clicked and clacked as they ambled up the mountain. I briefly considered whether or not I could climb in hard, rigid shoes, let alone be so nimble. A rock gave way under my foot as if in answer. Though I’m far less graceful than a goat I managed to regain my balance. I kept climbing and watching my feet. There would be no looking up until I was at the top with but one choice: to go back down.
A half hour after the fear inducing water break, we reached the summit of Quandary Peak. Two more goats were there waiting for us, perhaps hoping we’d invite them to our Clif Bar and apple lunch. We took turns signing the scroll, proof that we had indeed made it to the top. Then we found a smooth rock to sit on and rest our Jell-O legs. Greg took pictures of me and the curious goats, while I took in the view, this time without flinching. Ice-capped mountain tops undulated across a blue sky in every direction I turned. My fear was nowhere to be found. I didn’t want to leave, but not because I was afraid; I was sad to leave such beauty behind me. I turned slowly in a final circle without blinking, hoping to permanently imprint the magnificent view in my mind’s eye, where I could turn to it later when inspiration was hard to come by. Another hiker reached the summit; it was time for us to go. We left him the same gift that greeted us—the view, alone, and started our way back down, following the goats that had welcomed us to the top. One foot in front of the other, eyes on the trail, and my fear in my wake.
Gluten-Free Honey Pear Crisp with Hazelnuts and Thyme
4 cups pear slices, skins on
2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice
3 tablespoons honey
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1 tablespoon plus one teaspoon cornstarch or arrowroot
1/2 cup all-purpose gluten-free flour mix (You can substitute white whole wheat or all-purpose flour)
1/2 cup rolled oats
1/4 cup brown sugar
2 teaspoons fresh thyme leaves, chopped
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup unsalted butter, softened
2 tablespoons honey
2/3 cup hazelnuts, toasted, skins removed, and coarsely chopped
- Preheat oven to 350°F. Lightly grease 10, 1/2-cup individual ramekins or an 8×8-inch baking dish.
- Combine lemon juice, honey, cinnamon, and cornstarch together in a bowl. Add the pears and gently stir to coat.
- Whisk together flour, oats, brown sugar, thyme leaves, cinnamon, and salt. Add butter and honey; using fingertips, rub in until moist clumps form. Rub in the hazelnuts.
- Evenly divide pear filling between ramekins or pour into baking dish. Sprinkle on topping.
- Bake for 20-25 minutes or until filling is bubbly and topping is golden brown.
- Serve warm.