Twenty years ago, in the mountains of Red River, New Mexico, a nine-year-old Carley Rutledge made her way above the treeline to Wheeler Peak for the very first time. This embedded a true love into her soul: hiking. Hiking Wheeler was a coming of age moment for the Texas-born Rutledge kids and after that day, Carley could not be stopped. This love of the outdoors and taking the mountains step by step led her all over the world, and as fate would have it, landed Carley as my next door neighbor in Libby Hall at the University of Colorado Boulder. I gained a new best friend that first move-in day in 2013 and every day since, I have watched in awe as Carley’s adventurous spirit fueled her every move…but there was one hike that she could never quite get out of her head.
Sylvia Bussey, a native Austrian living in Texas, was Carley’s high school Spanish teacher. She was planning a trip for a group of students to take them all the way to the tiny alpine town of Mayrhofen, Austria, to set out on a three day trek over a glacier and into Italy in the Zillertal Alps. You bet it, Carley was the first one to write her name on that list. However, Carley was called on a different path that year when she was diagnosed with stage IV Ewing Sarcoma, an aggressive bone cancer that halted her hiking adventure through the Alps. After a relapse in 2012, Carley participated in a cutting edge vaccine trial that put her cancer in remission for eight years, allowing her to once again return to her adventuring roots in Boulder and beyond. During our college years, I watched in awe as she set out to study in the Galapagos Islands and South Africa, where she cage-dived with Great White sharks and did not blink twice before jumping off of the highest commercial bungee jump in the world, traveled to Alaska, Belize, Ecuador and everywhere in-between…and the list goes on.
As our friends witnessed all of this, we came to learn that Carley lived on a different clock than the rest of us. She didn't feel she had an option but to adventure; the time was always now.
All the while, that long lost hike in the Alps was still on her mind. It was only a matter of time before she had to make it happen. In the summer of 2019, Carley made that hike a reality when she visited Austria with her dad, John, and their family friends, Wyatt and his dad, Dave. They had the adventure of a lifetime.
When Carley returned home, she would talk endlessly about the hike to her family and closest friends, and really anyone who was willing to listen. From the Austrian landscape, to the rich history, to the hüttes they stayed in, their mountain guide, the cows, the food, the beer and on and on and on. The trip was deemed her best adventure yet.
When 2020 rolled around, the outdoors became a safe haven for so many of us, including Carley. In a twist of fate, during the same hike she did back in Red River, Carley began having back pains. The back pains led to the discovery that her cancer had returned, and this time it was in her spine. After four spinal surgeries, relearning to walk multiple times, and don't you worry—at least three scuba dives and more adventures, Carley’s battle sadly came to an end in November 2021.
Her adventurous spirit did not.
While there’s no right way to grieve your best friend and sister, we thought, What better way than to follow in her footsteps on her favorite hike she ever did? The goal was to plan a trip for eight people: Carley’s brothers, Blake and Grant, their partners, Ali and Kristen, myself and Carley’s two other best friends, Monica and Jenny. Some of us trained for months, others hiked once the weekend before.
Hiking in Austria was a vastly different experience than the Rockies we knew in Colorado.
We set out on our hike from the town of Mayrhofen, sitting at a mere 2,077 ft. in elevation, which Grant joked was even lower than Lubbock, Texas. We hit our highest elevation at 11,050 ft. on Schwartzensfein Peak. Lubbock jokes aside, climbing 9000 feet in 2 days was no easy feat. Our preparation methods differed vastly from the local hikers. Where the Coloradans packed 3 gallons of water, the Austrians packed 1 liter. The scarce amount of hütte-provided lunch sandwiches perplexed us. By Austrian definition, the only necessities are hiking poles and sturdy boots.
This disparity became apparent when Sylvia suggested we take a “hydration” break and enjoy some radlers on the way. Highlighting yet another difference in hiking methods, we typically drink beer after we summit.
The radler-induced second wind led us past majestic cows, blooming wildflowers, roaring rivers and lush hills. Hills, that one would say, were alive with music. I’m telling you, it was true magic. It wasn’t long before we laid eyes on our first homestead—the incredibly beautiful and historic Berlinerhütte. The Berlinerhütte is one of the oldest throughout the Zillertal Alps, dating back to the 19th century, when the hütte system was first being established. The construction of huts in the area was driven by the need for shelter and logistical support for shepherds, travelers and traders navigating through the challenging alpine terrain, but over the years, it has become a haven for hikers and skiers to make sure that no matter where they are on their journey, there’s a safe place to sleep if the weather turns. But this place is way more than just shelter; it’s a community. It’s a community with a damn good restaurant and one of the most spectacular views to sit and admire after a long day’s hike. It was everything Carley made it out to be.
It was here that we met the wise mountain guide that Carley had spoken so highly about, Stefan. His English was sparse, but we were still able to have a conversation about life and loss. It was due to Stefan’s deep understanding of grief that he rearranged his commitments to guide us the same way he had guided Carley four years prior. He shared his own grief with us, and recalled Carley’s humor, spirit and determination.
The next morning, we began our 4600 ft. incline across a glacier to Schwartzensteinhütte before sunrise. With our pockets full of stolen breakfast food to fulfill our lack of lunch, we zig-zagged through snow and ice until the glacier’s apex came into view. With our ropes, crampons and harnesses on, we followed in Carley’s footsteps to the ultimate summit.
It was in moments like these that I felt Carley all around us. As butterflies swirled around us, we looked into the distance, seeing the view that Carley had always wished for us to see.