As a climber of tall mountains, Yin Ling Li pursues environments that are alien to most people. Beautiful in their barren landscapes, the high places possess their own tranquility, save for the restless wind.
"Every summit is different," Li says. "When you're climbing there, it is so surreal, like outer space."
She could be describing any of the mountains she has climbed. But here she's speaking about 14,115-foot Pikes Peak, the iconic giant she has climbed once a month for 38 consecutive months.
"It has become a monthly challenge that's like ... I can't miss one now," she says.
Li, 45, is one of a loose group of athletes, including a handful of mountain runners who have — or have completed — climbing streaks on Pikes Peak. Steve Bremner and Brandon Stapanowich, longtime local ultrarunners, tagged the peak's granite cap a dozen times in 2012. And Katie Katalin, a mountain runner from Colorado Springs with multiple finishes in the Pikes Peak Marathon, is working a current streak of nine monthly climbs.
"For me, it was a personal challenge," Katalin says. "I knew other people had done it before. I didn't know if I could do it and stick to it throughout the winter."
Pikes Peak is sometimes mistaken for being tame. More people visit its summit — by train, auto, bicycle and foot — than perhaps any mountain in the world. Barr Trail, the 13-mile singletrack trail that starts in Manitou Springs and leads to the summit, is gentle compared to other Colorado 14er routes.
But Li and other climbers are quick to warn that Pikes Peak is anything but easy. It is a big mountain with a climb that includes an elevation gain of 7,400 feet. Li climbs there monthly to train for other challenges. She became hooked on Pikes Peak while preparing for a climb of Mount Kilimanjaro (19,341 feet).
"I came back and thought I'd be done with Pikes Peak," she says. "But no other peak gives me that much elevation gain in 26 miles [round-trip]. If I did that elevation elsewhere I'd have to do a backpacking trip, and I don't have the time."
While thousands of Incline climbers and day-trip hikers ply the peak's lower elevations, Li does not encourage all of them to try monthly summits. "We've had some situations," she says. "It's serious stuff and the mountain is underestimated, especially in the winter."
She received a taste of Pikes Peak's dangerous nature while hiking above timberline in January. An early snowpack had become a sheet of ice, and a fresh snowfall had coated it. As she climbed, her feet slipped. She had worn microspikes for improved traction, but admits it wasn't enough. Experience with her ice axe, a climber's best friend, saved her from a potential long and dangerous slide down the mountain.
She says experiences on Pikes Peak helped her play it safe last year on Mount Elbrus (18,510 feet) in Russia, when snow and wind thrashed her climbing team only 300 feet from the summit. She captured video (on.fb.me/1DtKCMn) of the point at which her team decided to turn back. The wind roars, snow plasters the camera lens, and she says calmly: "The conditions are incredibly harsh ... we know it's dangerous and we're heading down now."
Safety is the No. 1 concern for the mountain runners, who move quickly and climb with less gear than Li. Stapanowich makes his summit attempts only when the weather is right, and he checks in with the Barr Camp caretakers on the way up and down. He climbs with other seasoned individuals and always packs food, water and extra layers of clothing.
Bremner and Stapanowich climb the safer snowfields on the peak's eastern face when Barr Trail becomes icy and dangerous above treeline.
Besides the obvious physical challenge, there is a mental game to be played. And the game is dictated by one rule: Avoid summit fever. That can be difficult when the goal for the Pikes Peak streakers is one successful climb per month. Katalin says the mountain must dictate the day's events in any season.
"When it comes to mountains and Mother Nature," she says. "I think you need to be smart and know your limits."