‘This is so spiritual for me’

It was 33 degrees atop Stone Mountain, with a wind that made it feel like 25.

But that was an insignificant inconvenience for Margie Bowen. She has climbed Stone Mountain in bitter cold, blazing heat and driving rain.

Only one number mattered to the 63-year-old retired DeKalb County schoolteacher and coach on New Year’s Eve: 500.

Standing at the very top of the cold, 825 feet tall mountain, with dozens of supporters documenting her achievement via Instagram, Bowen celebrated her 500th trek to the peak.

Kristin Cederquist, a former student, had changed her holiday plans to be there.

Cederquist, who graduated from Lakeside High School in 2001, was scheduled to fly back to her current home of Lansing, Mich. Instead, she she booked a later flight, put on some shorts and climbed the mountain.

“I went on number 42 with her in 2010,” said Cederquist, one of several former students who climbed Tuesday. “When I heard she was doing her 500th, I knew I wanted to be here.”

Bowen’s story — at least the Stone Mountain part — started in mid-2010.

“I was driving home on the last day of school and asked myself, ‘What am I going to do?’” Bowen said. Gas prices were skyrocketing, so she had pretty much nixed the idea of traveling.

She decided to tackle Stone Mountain.

She grew up in Avondale, so she had climbed Stone Mountain before, but never with a purpose. She set a goal of climbing it 20 times that summer. She climbed it 50 times.

She was hooked.

She started posting information and photos of her climbs on Facebook. Soon her students started joining her. Then her neighbors and co-workers. Her husband, Dale, climbed on occasion, but he prefers the flat ground of their neighborhood.

With a red pen — she is a former teacher — she meticulously charted every climb.

By the end of 2010, she had climbed the mountain 100 times. By mid-2011, she was up to 200.

“I never meant to do 500,” said Bowen, who taught and coached gymnastics, volleyball and soccer for 42 years. “But I just kept counting, and the climbs kept accumulating.”

She decided to shoot for 85 climbs in 2013, which would put her total at 500. But she suffers from arthritis, and her body hurts sometimes, so she worried about making it. She set Elvis’ birthday (Jan. 8) or Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday (Jan. 15), as soft backup targets.

On the last day of the year, she made her goal. In the pack of about 50 climbers that accompanied her were her grandchildren and a few winded journalists, including one television reporter who made the arduous climb in high heeled boots.

Bowen’s daughter, Kristin, and Kristin’s boyfriend, Benito Ferro, had come up with the idea of making the event a social (media) gathering. They partnered with #weloveatl, an Instagram community that brings Atlantans together to tell the city’s stories through photography.

As they marched up the mountain, many of the climbers were feverishly taking photos on their smartphones and posting them.

“A lot of people out here don’t even know Margie,” Ferro said. “They just wanted to be part of the event.”

As the cold wind cutting across the top of the mountain began to chase some of the climbers back down, Bowen, along with her husband, her daughters and grandchildren, remained.

“This is like my church. This is so spiritual for me,” she said. “I climbed during my husband’s cancer and my children’s life transitions. I just kept going.”

She took a moment to take in the distant views of downtown Atlanta and the North Georgia mountains.

Someone asked her what she had planned for 2014: Did she have a New Year’s resolution?

“I’ll worry about that tomorrow,” she said. “Rest is a part of training, so I will rest some. I need to not climb the mountain every day – maybe every other day.”

Then she turned the query back on her questioner: “Now what’s your goal for 2014?”

To see more photographs of Bowen’s historic climb, check out the following hashtags on Instagram: #margie500, #weloveatl, #instameetatl.

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