Bill Tongue was first to realize they would not summit Pikes Peak. Or perhaps Ling Li just didn’t want to believe it.
Tongue, a longtime regular on the mountain, knew his similarly seasoned partner had been in serious situations before. “But I think maybe she underestimated this one a little bit.”
This was amid relentless, blistering gusts above 12,000 feet last February. He insisted they turn back. Li told him that was a good call: He should turn back while she pushed on. Only later would she feel guilty about putting a friend in that predicament; she had done it a few years before and swore she’d never again.
No, Tongue wasn’t about to leave her. But no, Tongue wasn’t about to be the victim of his partner’s wild pursuit.
“She had a long streak going,” he says. “That was in jeopardy that day.”
Long story short, Li arranged a ride down, the winds let up and the two made it. And so the streak continued.
Li is into her seventh year of climbing Pikes Peak every month, regarded in local mountaineering circles as a record. February marked her 100th ascent. But March has been different.
Days and weeks have gone on in the month defined by a historic blizzard, and she has told herself it’s OK. It’s OK if the streak ends.
But then she feels that all-too-familiar tug.
For years, she’s been talking as if she’s ready to let the record go. She wants winter to be all about ice climbing and skiing. She wants to focus on the world’s other mountains and the ones she has yet to do in Colorado, including her last fourteener, South Maroon.
These are things she tells climbing friends. But, “I know when she lays her head down at night, she thinks about Pikes Peak,” says Larry, who likely knows Li’s obsession better than anybody but withholds his last name because he wants to keep a low profile.
He also has been summiting monthly, often alongside her, breaking deep snow fields and trekking back in these winter months when return rides aren’t an option with the Pikes Peak Highway closed.
Sometimes they ascend the mountain’s fearsome north face, via the technical Y couloir. Otherwise, the typical round trip she logs at about 26 miles ends sometime before midnight.
Larry’s monthly streak snapped shy of seven years in 2016. “That dictated my life,” he says. “I couldn’t do things until I got up Pikes Peak, that’s how bad it was. And she’s in the same boat. She’s of the same mindset.”
Li, 49, has juggled a part-time job (swim coach) and full-time job (owner and guide of Worldwide Adventures travel company) all the while maintaining the streak. Travel sometimes brings her home with a seemingly impossible window, just a few days left to summit before she’s even recovered from jet lag. And she’s always pulled it off.
Pikes Peak has been her training platform for those higher adventures: first Kilimanjaro in 2012, later, for example, Russia’s Mount Elbrus, now the two Himalayan peaks scheduled in the fall. That’s how the streak started, for training. No streak intended. But it has become something else.
“There’s pressure,” she says. There’s the doctor who during a routine check-up asked first how the summits were going. There’s the people she passes on Barr Trail — “You must be Ling!” There’s this journalist asking for an interview.
She has the burden of a reputation.
Call it inertia, Tongue says, an object in motion staying in motion. “I gotta believe part of it is inertia, a movement already in progress. Initially, I bet it was her driving it along. But now, I gotta think it is driving her along.”
• • •
Another climbing partner, Steve Jeroslow, knows Li as “pound for pound, the strongest person I have ever met.” That means something coming from the Denver man who has been mountaineering since 1972.
“She once told me she weighed a whopping 116 pounds. She’s extremely lightweight, but she’s 110 percent muscle; there isn’t an ounce of fat on her. She’s just incredibly powerful.”
She wasn’t competing in triathlons, wasn’t practicing yoga and Pilates, wasn’t lifting, and she certainly wasn’t climbing, but Li was showing her might at a young age. Growing up in England, she was outracing her two brothers and the others boys at school.
Not that her parents were impressed.
“My family, we’re not athletic,” Li says. “I grew up in an Asian culture where it was all about education.”
Her dad was raised in China, her mom on a farm in Malaysia, both knowing what it was like to go to bed hungry. They knew education to be the breaker of poverty. And starting fresh in England, they knew their children would study hard and long, earning scholarships and high-paying jobs.
It was “a sheltered upbringing,” Li says. “I was never allowed out, never had any friends, never went to parties, never went anywhere.”
Until she was 17. She chose a school far away, Loughborough University in England’s East Midlands. That pleased her parents, as it was an engineering school.
More important to Li, it was an athletic school. She trained and ran with some of the country’s best, later discovering the tranquility of the UK’s mountainous Lake District.
She graduated and went on to a high-paying IT job that made her parents proud. But five years in an office was enough. Li would craft her own destiny.
She sought adventure.
“I could have been born in Asia on a farm and still there, feeding the pigs,” she says. “But I’ve been given these opportunities to make something of (my life). I got an education, and I could have been making a lot of money. But life’s not about money. It’s about living. I have a rich life because I have the outdoors.”
• • •
Li’s parents, now living in Singapore, “know nothing” of her mountain exploits, she says. She half-jokes: “This can’t get out!”
The word is out locally. “She is legendary,” Jeroslow says. “They call her the Queen of Pikes Peak.”
But as impressive as the monthly streak has been, he might prefer it ended. The worry is shared by several friends, who tell her she has nothing to prove.
And she knows they’re right. She doesn’t need to impress anybody. She doesn’t need a record.
Yet she couldn’t keep herself from the March summit. Late last week, she powered through the cold and deep snow, tagging the top and post-holing her way to Barr Camp for the night. She texted from there: “It was brutal!”
It was peaceful a week before. She was on the trail late in the afternoon, too late to try the summit, she knew. That was OK.
She noticed the stillness, the kind of quiet that prevails after a harsh winter storm. “Isn’t this great? There’s like nobody here right now.”
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