Stephanie DiCenso could’ve cried about the skull fractures. About the broken jaw and eye socket. About the nerve damage. About the internal bleeding and brain swelling. About what the neurosurgeon told her parents as she lie unconscious:
“If she doesn’t die, she’ll be a vegetable.”
But Rose DiCenso only recalls her daughter crying on one occasion. It was when the nurses would give Stephanie something to read and then ask her questions.
“Simple questions,” her mother says, “and she couldn’t answer. That just broke her heart.”
Short-term memory loss was another harsh result of what happened that May day in 2001.
DiCenso was 19, leading a horseback tour through the Garden of the Gods. It’s not known why Boots, the buckskin mare, suddenly reared up. But when she did, she sent Stephanie crashing to the ground. The horse tumbled, too — landing on the rider.
DiCenso doesn’t remember what happened. She just remembers one thought piercing the confusion in her mind:
“I’m gonna get outta here.”
So she did. And after all the surgeries and all the therapy sessions, after weeks and months spent acclimating to her new reality — the headaches and exhaustion, the imbalance of her body, the lapses in memory — DiCenso resolved to live without boundaries.
Colorado’s highest mountains, the relentlessly steep slopes that crush lesser souls, became her happy place. They remain so, as do horses.
“There’s a lot of people that take a hard fall, and some of them don’t come back,” says Travis Templeton, a friend and fellow equestrian. “But some of them hop back on and keep going because they have that drive. She’s one of those that keeps on going.”
DiCenso shrugs off the praise.
“Maybe it’s just better that I don’t remember anything vs. having that memory,” she says one frigid, windy day on the plains east of Colorado Springs.
She’s at the corral where she keeps her beloved Mayday, who’s 33 and too old for riding now. DiCenso is here to feed him and show him affection.
On her drive over, she forgot something. She had to turn around, back toward the stock and field store to get grains and treats for Mayday. She still has lapses like these.
A hiking partner, Amber Hansen, has heard DiCenso mention lasting side effects on their grueling way up 14,000-foot peaks. DiCenso wouldn’t linger on the accident. But it made Hansen think about what the summits meant to her companion.
“It’s almost like, with every adventure, you have another story to tell,” she says. “It almost becomes the ability to write the next chapter of your story.”
It was a few years after her fall that DiCenso discovered the allure of the fourteeners. It was a new sensation for her there atop Mount Harvard; she had never powered herself up to such heights before.
This marked the beginning of a mission — she’s scaled 38 unique fourteeners with a total 63 summits — and a new identity.
She started a blog called Colorado14erGirl, filling it with stories and pictures.
She’s written of such tribulations as the stomachache that kept her up all night at camp near Mount Lindsey. Still, she managed to bag what would be her most technical fourteener to date.
“No summit is ever easy,” she reflected, “but the journey makes it all that much more rewarding.”
In the days after climbing Shavano and Tabeguache, she wrote of climbing up a haystack, falling and twisting her ankle. “Nearly a month passed before I could fit into my cowboy boots again,” she posted, along with a picture of the puffy, purple foot.
“Onward and upward,” she continued, recounting the painful ascent of Castle Peak. “No matter what hurts you, just work through it. Your attitude will determine your altitude.”
Humboldt nearly defeated her. She descended a steep talus field that was “never ending,” she wrote. “I sat down to reevaluate and started to cry.”
She didn’t stay there long, though.
“The mountains make us stronger and shape who we are,” she concluded. “What doesn’t kill us makes us summit more mountains.”
She’s daydreaming of them now here on the plains, the bitter wind howling and rattling the walls of the barn as she brushes Mayday. He hooves the ground constantly — “impatient,” she calls him, also describing herself when it comes to fourteener season.
She’s got more mountains to climb, despite her mother’s worry. Rose understands.
“For her, I think it’s just a way to be strong and be in control,” she says.
Not long ago, she found her daughter sifting through old doctor reports. The confusion was fresh. How? Why?
“She got upset,” Rose says. “But it’s like she said. ‘It’s all in the past.’”
And ahead are more adventures. More stories to tell. More pictures to take.
“People think I’m crazy for hauling my Nikon up these mountains,” DiCenso says.
But the pictures help to tell the story, to keep the memories forever.