Eliza Steinberg has conquered more than half the state’s 14ers, including its most difficult
Published in 2021 Colorado Super Lawyers Magazine on March 3, 2021
Eliza Steinberg was about 10 years old when she climbed her first 14er. It was Mount Sherman, “one of the easiest ones in the state,” she says. Now, at 33, she’s summited 30 of Colorado’s 58 14ers—some of them more than once.
Tackling the state’s tallest peaks is something of a family tradition. “I did [one] every couple of years, growing up,” says the fifth-generation Coloradan. “We do family trip 14ers.” Her parents, she adds, are still doing backpacking trips in their 60s.
She took a bit of a break during undergrad but picked it back up while attending the University of Denver Sturm College of Law. “I needed an outlet. I needed something else to get excited about that wasn’t work and law school,” she says. Since 2013 she’s devoted her summers to adventuring with her husband, Mitch, “and 14ers became a huge part of that.”
One of her most memorable climbs was Longs Peak. “I grew up in Longmont, Colorado, and looked at this mountain every day when I lived there,” she says. “Conquering Longs Peak was pretty awesome because of that and because it started a new era of climbing ‘difficult’ 14ers for me.”
This past summer, she checked off the most intimidating of the bunch: the class 4-ranked Capitol Peak. “The reason it’s ranked so difficult is because of the exposure and technical climbing at the top,” Steinberg explains. The 17-mile, two-day backpacking trail takes adventurers up 5,300 feet, and across the notoriously dangerous Knife Edge just before the 14,130-foot summit.
With steep, sheer rock faces on either side of a razor-sharp ridge, the Knife Edge has claimed several lives. “There’s nothing like that feeling where your heart is beating out of your chest on the Knife Edge,” Steinberg says. Her husband traversed it on foot, while she straddled the ridge and scooted across using her hands, knees and feet. “That was probably the most intense part of any 14er I’ve ever done,” she says. “This was the first time I was like, ‘OK. If I screw up or if I misstep, I could fall. … It just gave me this different feeling of fear that I’ve never had before.”
Reaching the summit is always exhilarating—“You have these amazing views and this feeling of accomplishment,” she says—but every climber knows that the peak is only the halfway point. “On these difficult ones, it takes just as long and it’s just as nerve-wracking to go down.” It’s when she gets back to safer grounds, “and you’re looking back up at the mountain, and it’s daunting; you’re [thinking] ‘I can’t believe we just did that.’ That’s when you get the dopamine high.”
Preparation is the key to her success on the trail and in her family law practice. “You cannot go into a courtroom unprepared,” she explains. “You take the time, you put in the work, and then you’re going to get a good result.”
It’s the same for a climb. “You have to do your research and make sure that you know what route you’re supposed to be following,” she says. Once the climb begins, “if you’re not focused and you’re not ready to do that climb, you could hurt yourself or you could be much worse than that. You could die.”
They’re similar mentally, too. “You get a little anxious leading up to trial. You get anxious leading up to a big climb. But once you start, all of those anxieties and fears kind of fall away and you just become superiorly focused.”
Steinberg is mixing mountains and the law in other ways. A member of the executive council and wellness committee for the Colorado Bar Association Young Lawyers Division, she became involved in promoting wellness among young lawyers.
Last summer, she led a group of more than 20 lawyers to the summit of Mount Sherman. “It was one we were able to execute in the middle of the pandemic because you can definitely be socially distanced on a hike outside,” she says. “And Mount Sherman has the biggest summit ever. It’s like a football field.”
A climb like Sherman is pretty accessible to first-timers, at least for those who are capable of a basic day hike. “It’s not a difficult climb, physically, but weather is one of the things that we always need to prepare for.”
She’s learned that lesson well. When she took the bar exam in 2017, she decided to celebrate with her siblings and her husband by climbing four 14ers in the Chicago Basin over a few days. It rained—“I’m not talking a drizzle, it was torrential downpour”—the whole time. She hit her limit on the second day. “I could not do the bar exam, followed by four 14ers in the pouring rain,” she says.
She wants to go back someday to finish, but for now, she’s holding onto an important lesson from the trip: “It was definitely a growing moment where I realized these 14ers are a huge mental process. And at some point you need to know when you can or cannot do something.”