Hiking safety: 3 tips to avoid lightning strikes in the mountains

Lightning at Rocky Mountain National Park. (NPS photo)

Lightning at Rocky Mountain National Park. (NPS photo)

For what it’s worth, plenty of you who read this site already know all about what I’m getting ready to discuss. For the rest of you who are not as experienced at hiking and climbing in alpine areas, this is just a gentle reminder that even though summer in the high country is prime-time hiking weather, there is one really big reason to watch the clouds.

Lightning.

On July 11, Rebecca Teilhet, 42, of Yellow Springs, Ohio, was killed by a lightning strike in Rocky Mountain National Park, Colo.

A day later, Gregory Cardwell, 52, of Scottsbluff, Neb., was also killed by a lightning strike in the same park. In those two days, 21 people were hospitalized after lightning strikes in RMNP, USA Today reported.

Finally, during that weekend’s Hardrock 100 ultramarathon in southwestern Colorado, competitor Adam Campbell was knocked to the ground by an indirect strike while he was racing atop Handies Peak, a 14,000-foot mountain near Lake City. He wasn’t hurt badly and finished the race. But a scary moment just the same.

According to the National Weather Service, more than 70 percent of all fatal lightning strikes in the U.S. occur in the months of June, July and August. More than 30 percent of all lightning deaths take place in July, making it the peak month for fatalities, USA Today reported.

I’ve also heard that New Mexico, a state with plenty of alpine/above-treeline territory, leads the nation in lightning-related deaths.

A few facts to be aware of:

The Rocky Mountains have a monsoon season, and that season runs through the summer. It works like this: As the sun heats the air during the morning, clouds form and coalesce. Little puffy clouds bloom into larger clouds, which eventually become storms. These storms then shower the mountains (and later the plains east of there) with rain and, unfortunately, lightning. During the summer, this is an almost daily occurrence.

Typically, the storms start forming around the lunch hour. And it doesn’t take long for a few puffs of innocent-looking clouds to turn into thunderstorms.

Knowing this, you need to be off the high point of your hike or climb NO LATER than noon, preferably before. The reason is simple: Most alpine routes are pretty long, at least a few miles from the trailhead to a summit, and it takes awhile to get from the midpoint of your trip to treeline again. So depending on how long your route is, it could take hours before your get to treeline and relative safety. Getting caught in the middle of a storm above treeline is quite dangerous.

When you are above treeline, you may be the tallest thing on that slope or ridge. And there is a good chance you’ll be carrying something metallic, such as trekking poles. Many hikers and climbers can tell horror stories about hearing an audible hum or ringing from a trekking pole or ice axe during a storm. You don’t want that experience.

When you see clouds like this one forming over Huron Peak, you know storms are on the way and it's time to get below treeline.

When you see clouds like this one forming over Huron Peak, you know storms are on the way and it’s time to get below treeline.

So here are a few tips:

1. Check the weather forecast. See what the chance of storms will be in the area you plan to go. If there is a high chance, you might pick another day.

2. Start early. Pre-dawn is a good idea to start your hike at the trailhead, and I’d say no later than sunrise.

3. Watch the weather. Look for those white puffy clouds. A couple in the sky aren’t a big deal. A bunch of them could be signs of things to come. If those clouds start getting gray bottoms, it is time to consider turning around. And if you see rain falling from them or hear thunder/see lightning, even if it’s miles away, start going down immediately. Lightning can travel several miles.

There are always exceptions. There will be that dry, clear-sky day where lingering above treeline in the afternoon is no big deal. Maybe rain is just rain and not from a thunderstorm. But it is always wise to heighten your chances for success and lessen your chances of a serious incident. There are enough potential pitfalls when wandering around in an alpine wilderness. So keep your eyes on the skies and your watch, and don’t let yourself be at risk of becoming the next lightning strike victim.

Stay safe!

Bob Doucette

Gear review: Keeping cool with the Hydro Flask

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In the summer months, one of the big needs for people who are active in the outdoors is water. But a major problem is keeping that water cold.

Conversely, the icy blow of winter conditions can be softened by a hot drink.

But as we’ve all experienced, the conditions often make those cool/hot drinks rather tepid.

Enter Hydro Flask. The maker of insulated metallic water bottles promises to keep the cold nice and icy and keep the hot stuff steaming.

We’re in prime hot weather conditions right now, so this is a great time of year to put the Hydro Flask to the test.

The testing conditions: Bright, hot and humid weather on a 90-minute trail run. Starting temps were 93 degrees, and by the time I got done, they’d risen to 95.

The goal: To see how well as 12-ounce Hydro Flask would keep my ice water cold.

Observations: A metal flask is going to be heavier than plastic, but not so much as to be cumbersome. It fit perfectly in my Nathan Triangle hydration pack. Being a 12-ouncer, it was a bit small for a 90-minute workout, but no worries — they make many, many sizes to suit a lot of different needs.

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How it performed: In a word, flawlessly. I sipped on my water throughout the run, trying to conserve what I had. By the time I finished, there was nothing left but ice cubes. Yes, after 90 minutes in mid-90s temperatures, the Hydro Flask kept itself cold enough inside to keep the ice cubes intact. Hydro Flask advertises that its double-wall insulated stainless steel construction can keep drinks cold for 24 hours. What I can tell you is that it was more than up to the task for my run.

The price is decent: about $20 for the 12-ounce bottle.

Some other features: It’s BPA-free and has a lifetime warranty.

In the future, I’ll test its abilities to keep hot drinks hot. But round one is a success. You can look at Hydro Flask products at hydroflask.com.

Note: The Hydro Flask was part of a box of complimentary products furnished to me by Cairn, a monthly subscription company that sends subscribers boxes of gear to try out for themselves. For more information about Cairn, go to getcairn.com or follow Cairn on Twitter @getCairn.

Bob Doucette

How a guy who hated running became a runner

NOTE: This is an excerpt from a larger project I am working on. But I think it explains a lot in terms of how someone like me, an avid non-runner, became a runner. Have a read, and share your stories with me.

This guy used to hate running. In this pic, I just got through running. 15.75 miles.

This guy used to hate running. In this pic, I just got through running. 15.75 miles.

I used to hate running. Or rather, I grew to dislike it very much. Every kid likes to run around all day, or ride their bikes or whatnot, but there came a point when those pesky indoor habits took over just around the time I started to attain my adultish size. That’s when running, whether for sports conditioning or just for general exercise, got hard.

I ran for awhile with my dad in high school, mostly as a means to get in shape. I was a skinny little whip, and a few years of sitting on my butt playing video games had done nothing to make a man out of me. Some mileage at the local park seemed like a step in the right direction.

But after a time those daily trips to the park wore on me. I didn’t find the love for it that a lot of people did, nor did I find a use for it in terms of helping out in other areas of my life. Instead, as a junior in high school, I discovered the weight room, and after a few weeks of pumping iron I discovered my pecs.

When it comes to instant gratification, or something close to it, it’s hard to beat that “pump” after a good lifting session, and as the days turn into weeks, when the stick-like frame of adolescence starts packing on some bulk, well, it’s a little addictive.

Needless to say, I’ve been a gym rat ever since.

But weights as a cure-all for fitness are pretty one-dimensional. Lifting is great and all, but there are just some things that won’t happen if all you do is lift.

What will happen, aside from bulking up, is you won’t be able to last long on the basketball courts. You won’t be able to run very far. Cycling becomes a chore. And unless your diet is spot-on, you’re going to get fat. Gyms are filled with a lot of characters, and among them are really strong guys who are also really fat and are well on their way to dying young because they sport huge frames with sub-par cardiovascular systems. The idea of having a heart attack or stroking out is unnerving to me, and has been all the way back to when I was a teen.

So I did what a lot of non-runners do. I cross-trained. Sort of.

There were the cardio machines, but they were a last resort kind of deal. I played basketball with co-workers and friends for years, and got a lot of benefits from that — great workouts, feeding my competitive urges, and gaining camaraderie with the dudes I’d play ball with.

They didn’t seem to mind that I wasn’t very good. I was what you might call an “effort” guy.

In the midst of all that, I got into a job that gave me a once-a-week night shift that left me with some free time during the day. In the town where I lived I saw this martial arts studio advertising jiu jitsu, and thinking that sounded pretty cool, I signed up without even knowing what it was. Seriously, the first time I heard the word was when Keanu Reaves incredulously asked “Tank” if he was really going to learn jiu jitsu about halfway through “The Matrix.”

I wasn’t so fortunate to have a computer program beam Royce Gracie greatness into my brain. It took awhile for it to stick, but stick it did. I did that for about seven years, and eventually became an assistant instructor. I met a ton of great people, learned a lot about combat sports and found another way to stay in shape that did not involve running.

That’s not to say I didn’t dabble in it from time to time. I hit a stretch in my late 20s where I started running again, and I think that actually lasted a couple of months. Occasionally (like once every six months) I’d head out the door to get some outside time and lumber around the neighborhood. There were also a few times when basketball or jiu jitsu were on hiatus that I’d force myself to do something, and that something was usually a mile or so of running at the park or in the neighborhood. It would feel good afterward, but not good enough to make me a runner.

And then life began to change. My work schedule blew up those lunchtime basketball games with my coworkers, and the thought of jumping on an elliptical or a treadmill just crushed my spirit. One day after work, I headed down to the gym, lifted weights for about an hour, then peeked out the window. Within sight was a running path, not even a mile and quarter long, that wound its way around some small ponds and through a couple of tree groves. It was approaching dusk and the temps outside where somewhere in the 70s.

I looked at my options. The treadmill. The elliptical. The stairmaster. Then I looked outside again.

What the hell, I thought. I needed to do something, anything, besides the cardio drone thing.

So out I went.

And that, my friends, is when the magic happened.

The “trail” — really a concrete path with short and long loops — was deserted. As I started out, it was the little things I noticed in between labored breaths.

Turtles on the shoreline jumped into the ponds at my approach, then poked their tiny heads out of the water to see what I was doing. Ducks muttered their little quacks as they paddled on the water’s surface. Sometimes I’d see some geese fly in on approach, their great wings spanning wide, then flapping hard for a soft splashdown. All sorts of furry little friends were out rooting around in tall prairie grasses, and smaller birds darted through the skies feasting on an airborne buffet of insects.

I made a turn back toward the trailhead, and from behind a small stand of cedars, there they were: four white-tailed deer, munching on grass and keeping a wary eye out for coyotes and people. They froze as I rounded the bend, then gracefully — and quickly — bounded away. The beauty of their athleticism has stuck with me, burned into my memory in a way I can’t explain, other than the fact that I know for certain I would not have enjoyed that little moment had I stayed inside and succumbed to the contraptions designed to raise my heart rate while taking me nowhere.

I’d covered a little ground, man. I’d seen some things no one else got to see, at least not right then. I breathed clean air that didn’t come in from a vent. Aside from my own labored breathing and heavy footfalls, I heard absolutely nothing but birdsongs, duck calls and the persistent prairie winds blowing through the trees.

With so much upheaval going on in my life at that time, it was on that jogging path that I found a small slice of peace. The solitude of the mountains I treasured so much, and yearned for so badly when I wasn’t there, was right here all along. I simply hadn’t recognized that I didn’t have to drive halfway across the country to find it. In a small way, that evening provided me an escape that was akin to a lifeline to a drowning man, but it was always present, ready to pull me out of the chaos every time I laced up my shoes and headed out the door.

That was the day I became a runner.

The non-runner is all smiles after the Tulsa Run 15K.

The non-runner is all smiles after the Tulsa Run 15K.

Bob Doucette

Gear review: Arc’teryx Traverse Perimeter hiking pants

Comfort, breathability and water resistance in your clothing are key when you're hiking to places like this. (Noel Johnson photo)

Comfort, breathability and water resistance in your clothing are key when you’re hiking to places like this. (Noel Johnson photo)

We’re in the heart of the summer hiking and backpacking season, a time when a lot of people are trying out all the new gear they could get their hands on, budget constraints notwithstanding. So any number of backpacks, trekking poles, water filters and other assorted gadgets are getting put through their paces.

But what about the gear you put on your body? The stuff you wear is as important as anything else.

I tend to skimp here, but there is high value in putting the right clothes on your body. Breathable, flexible, durable and functional clothing will keep you comfortable as you do all those sometimes uncomfortable things.

I recently got a chance to test a brand that I have eyed for some time. Arc’teryx is known as a high-end maker of outdoor clothing with a reputation for making some pretty fine stuff.

In my case, I recently bought a pair of Perimeter pants from the company’s Traverse collection. And for my test, I took these to the Rockies for a weekend of camping, hiking, mountain climbing and other outdoor fun to see just how they’d fare.

Arc'Teryx Traverse Perimeter pants. (Arc'Teryx photo)

Arc’teryx Traverse Perimeter pants. (Arc’teryx photo)

My impressions are as follows:

Fit: I’m pretty fussy when it comes to fit. Too loose and you just do too much sagging. Fine for hip-hop, terrible for hiking. To tight and you feel, well, constricted in all the wrong places, a particularly annoying problem when going up steep inclines or reaching for footholds in awkward places. I did all of that and then some.

Simply put, the Perimeters fit incredible. They never sagged (really important to keep the cuff from snagging your boot heel), but stretched when I moved. The waistline was perfect, and the inseam gave me no problems. If only all my pants fit this well.

Comfort: Breathability and resistance to water are key, and again, the Perimeters score well here. I encountered a lot of snow on different parts of this trip, so that meant I got wet. But the pants dried out quickly, and also kept my skin dry. With the hard work of going uphill for hours, I never had a problem feeling overheated in my legs.

Utility: This is a simple set of pants — it’s not overrun with pockets everywhere, and they do not convert into shorts. That fine with me. My pack can hold my stuff, and I’m more comfortable on the trail and on the rock in longer pants unless it’s warm or hot. The pockets, while snug, were roomy enough. A side zippered pocket was a good place to stow my phone, which I use as a camera when on the trail. The stretch in the fabric allows you to stuff those pockets with small items and not feel constricted.

Some hiking pants have internal or built-in cinch systems rather than belt loops; the Perimeters do not. Again, fine by me. Belts are more reliable.

Durability: The fabric is thin, but marketed as being tough enough for rock climbing. We did a good amount of that on our summit day; nothing technical, but on rugged rock just the same.

I also did a couple of glissades down some snow slopes, picking up some good speed on my seat while dropping several hundred feet in elevation on soft snow with some bumps here and there.

After the trip, I looked at problem areas for damage — knees, cuffs, and so forth. Everything looked good. But when I checked out the seat, I noticed a small tear, maybe a couple of centimeters long. I don’t know if that came from the glissade, or grinding out a tight spot on the rock higher up the mountain, but it is what it is. I’d say the pants were tough enough for hiking, but something else on the mountain proved to be too much.

Despite the snow (and not a small amount of postholing), I kept dry during my test. (Brad Lee photo)

Despite the snow (and not a small amount of postholing), I kept dry during my test. (Brady Lee photo)

Overall, I liked these pants a lot. They are a definite upgrade from other hiking pants I’ve owned, and definitely the most comfortable pants of any kind I’ve ever worn (I’d wear these to work or just walking around any time). My hope is that what I experienced with the tear was an anomaly from that trip. But if you’re looking for a good pair of hiking pants and don’t mind shelling out a little extra cash, this product is worth a look.

Price: The Arc’teryx Traverse Perimeter pants for men retails for $119.

Bob Doucette

Five (dubious) reasons why running in a storm is awesome

Bad running weather? Depends on how you look at it. (Wikipedia Commons photo)

Bad running weather? Depends on how you look at it. (Wikipedia Commons photo)

The other day, I’d planned a trail run and took a look up at the TV in my gym to see what the weather was doing. I knew there was a chance of storms, and sure enough, there was that green, yellow and red arc forming to the northwest that signified a line of storms headed my way.

They looked to be about 50 miles away, so I figured I had time.

I was wrong. Really wrong. About two miles in, I was far away from finishing when storms just unloaded on me.

There are a lot of negatives to being caught in a storm. Hail, for one. And tornadoes. Fortunately, none of those were present. But there was plenty of lightning, and that’s not so great.

But there are some pretty awesome things about doing a trail run in the middle of a storm. So here’s my Top 5 reasons why running in a storm is awesome…

1. The temperature change. After pounding out a few miles in hot, sticky conditions, that quick temperature change feels sweet. Couple that with the wind, and it’s a refreshing experience. Never mind that it might be a portent of doom. Just enjoy the moment.

2. No sunburn! One great thing about a cumulonimbus cloud formation is it does a pretty great job of blocking the sun. It might drop hail on you, or gale force winds, but it lovingly spares you the dangers of ultraviolet rays. I think.

3. You get a cool, refreshing shower. This is actually pretty awesome. Summer running can feel downright gross. But that pesky downpour will wash all that slimy sweat away, and as a bonus, it will cool you off. And a cooler runner is a faster runner.

4. You get a built-in excuse to play in the mud and jump in puddles. However long you’re out there, you get to revert to when you were 8 years old and play in the rain without having to feel weird about it. Splash away!

5. Solitude. No one else is dumb enough to be out on the trails in the middle of a thunderstorm, so you get to be away from people for as long as you like. No one yukking it up while you try to absorb the powerful atmospherics of rolling thunder, blowing winds and driving rain. This is actually a really cool experience, if you’re one of those “embrace the elements” type of people, which I am.

The bonus for me was rolling up on some friends at the trailhead who were chillin’ under a pavilion and knocking back some suds. Being the good people that they are, they shared, and it turned out to be a pretty awesome time.

Do you like running in bad weather? Not likely, but if you do, share some of your favorite bad weather trail run moments in the comments.

Bob Doucette

Alas, no love for the lonely marmot

It’s lonely at the top. Especially at the tops of mountains. Just ask a marmot.

Hours on end with no one to visit with except other alpine rodents. And when folks come along, well, this is how it goes down.

The marmot approaches. Looking for company, conversation, or perhaps a bite or ten from whatever’s in your backpack, this adorable little furball turns on all his charms.

marmot1

Their eyes meet. “Come to me, my love, and bring your Clif Bar.”

marmot2

And then it gets awkward. The little guy’s fuzzy advances are blown off. No cute pet talk, no freebies from the GORP sack, barely any acknowledgement from the target of his affection. Or greed. Or whatever. The pain of being spurned must be unbearable… wait a minute. Is that thing looking at me? Oh hell no, you little mountain rat. Stay away from my stash!

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(In all seriousness, look, but don’t touch. And definitely do not feed them. It just emboldens them to shred your pack, tent or car looking for treats.)

Bob Doucette

Settling old scores on Colorado’s Wetterhorn Peak

Wetterhorn Peak, as seen from Matterhorn Creek Basin.

Wetterhorn Peak, as seen from Matterhorn Creek Basin.

Four years ago, things were different for me.

I’d had a goal of trying to climb Colorado’s Wetterhorn Peak, an airy, dramatic 14,015-foot mountain inside the northeastern San Juan Range.

But life being as it was, the two times I’d planned to try it fell through. So for the past four years, I’ve groused about not getting this summit under my belt.

Fortunately, I wasn’t alone in wanting another crack at it. A friend of mine, Noel, had likewise made a run at Wetterhorn, but at the time looked at the conditions and the verticality of the peak and called it a day a few hundred feet of topping out.

Noel is a different hiker and climber now than she was then, but Wetterhorn remained the bully on her peak list that continued to stand in her way.

So when she set a date to give it another shot and invited me to tag along, I jumped at it: Two people looking to expel a mountain demon that mocked us from higher up.

We wouldn’t be alone on this one. It would be a reunion of sorts with the same cast of characters from last June’s Mount Sneffels group: Dave, who had already climbed Wetterhorn twice, would be leading the way, and Chuck, another stalwart whose peak list is growing bigger by the week, joined in as well.

Coming along were folks I hadn’t met yet: Brady, a younger guy who is starting out on his peak-bagging journey; Michael and Tarra, a married couple finding a common interest in the high country; Durant, our elder statesman who we joined on a climb of Torreys Peak’s Kelso Ridge two years ago; and Dan, a friend of Michael and Tarra visiting from Minnesota.

Our campsite. Pretty awesome!

Our campsite. Pretty awesome!

Our group was a big one, but all were pretty laid back and easy to get along with. We shared some pretty sweet grub — bratwursts, cheeseburgers, mac and cheese, bacon and a whole bunch of cookies (Noel is kinda famous as the 14ers’ “cookie hiker” for her habit of bringing and sharing carefully crafted cookies with folks on the summit).

Not so awesome. I guess "leave no trace" does not apply to gun nuts. Pick up your empties!

Not so awesome. I guess “leave no trace” does not apply to gun nuts. Pick up your empties!

Hot food, a warm fire, good company and a bright, starry night was a dang good way to end the day. But the real fun was yet to come.

The ascent

It’s hard to put into words what makes Wetterhorn Peak such an appealing mountain, but I’ll try. First, just look at it. The long sweep of its southeast ridge (the most common route to the top) shoots up toward the top, promising some verticality at the end of the climb. It connects with neighboring Matterhorn Peak with a spiky, dragon’s-tail-like ridge. The other ridges and faces of the mountain are nearly sheer. Tectonic uplift, ice-age glacial carving and volcanic violence give the San Juans the most dramatic alpine skyline in the state, and Wetterhorn’s graceful sweep and sheer cliffs are emblematic of everything that makes the range what it is.

The gang greets our first sight of the basin, Matterhorn Peak.

The gang greets our first sight of the basin, Matterhorn Peak.

Aside from all of that, the peak is a gateway of sorts. People who have done the “walk-up” mountains in the state and are looking to tackle something more challenging often make the drive into southwestern Colorado to give Wetterhorn a try. The route isn’t prohibitively long, and the toughest parts — the steep, west-facing cliffs that culminate the climb — are airy yet solid. You get the excitement of big drop-offs and verticality without having to fret over loose rock.

The hike up Matterhorn Creek Basin is mostly what I remember from the last time I was here. A confusing sign at the first trail junction (go right, or you’ll add four miles to the route), a roaring creek, and of course, the welcoming vista that is Matterhorn Peak. The basin opens up and frames the peak beautifully. Gerry Roach, who wrote the famous guide to Colorado’s 14ers, described the peak as “stately,” and seeing that mountain staring down at you, you pretty much get his meaning.

This sign is confusing. When you see it, go right.

This sign is confusing. When you see it, go right.

What was different than last time was the snow. The mountains are beautiful and powerful places without snow, but something greater with it.

They’re also a little trickier. Postholing for a few miles takes a lot more time and energy than it does in dry conditions. Snow and ice also offer other challenges on steeper slopes. None of this was present the last time I was here, and we were warned to expect to cross more than a few snowfields on our way up.

The next trail junction. Go left. Matterhorn Peak in the background.

The next trail junction. Go left. Matterhorn Peak in the background.

Truth is, it wasn’t that bad. Yeah, there was some postholing, and if you’re unlucky, punching through a weak layer of snow might cut up your leg a little if you’re not wearing gaiters. But we got through all that OK.

In any case, it took some hiking for Matterhorn’s big brothers to appear. To the right, Uncompahgre Peak — the undisputed king of the San Juans, and Colorado’s sixth-highest mountain — emerged. And then to the left, we got our first full look at Wetterhorn.

Tarra, Dan and Michael pause for some photos. Wetterhorn can be seen in the background.

Tarra, Dan and Michael pause for some photos. Wetterhorn can be seen in the background.

Noel, with Wetterhorn behind.

Noel, with Wetterhorn behind.

Looking back at the basin.

Looking back at the basin.

Like Matterhorn, much of the peak was covered in snow. The trail heads northeast, then cuts back west on a somewhat long approach to the mountain’s southeast ridge. We were lucky on the weather so far, though the predicted sunny skies and 60-degree temps never materialized. It stayed mostly cloudy, and I’m not sure the temps breached the 40s the entire time we were higher in the basin.

As per usual, I struggled to keep up with my Colorado friends. They were kind enough to wait up from time to time while we back-of-the-pack folk trudged on. I think I remember hearing one of our crew who is new to this asking, “You guys do this for fun?” Hey man, I relate. Sometimes I wonder. But the payoff comes later. Always does.

We finally reached the ridge and crossed our last easy snowfield before the fun started. As vertical as Wetterhorn looks at first glance, it doesn’t start getting steep until you pass the “yellow dirt” section of the southeast ridge. This is where the peak earns its rugged reputation.

Matterhorn and Uncompahgre to the east.

Matterhorn and Uncompahgre to the east.

Approaching the southeast ridge, with the summit shown.

Approaching the southeast ridge, with the summit shown.

At the beginning of the yellow dirt, near 13,000 feet.

At the beginning of the yellow dirt, near 13,000 feet.

It was steep hiking at first, and then you hit some gullies that start to take you up toward the mountain’s distinctive prow. We’d been told in the days before the climb that the snow that was left was pretty easy to get around, but what we discovered is you either had to traverse some snow in the gullies or go well off route and up to avoid them. Most of us kicked-stepped into the snow and got across; the snow, while soft, was still firm enough to get solid footing. As with all things related to snow, however, that was temporary.

Steeper Class 2 hiking up the ridge.

Steeper Class 2 hiking up the ridge.

Going up mixed rock and snow in the gullies.

Going up mixed rock and snow in the gullies.

The snowfield below the prow (left) and the summit to the right.

The snowfield below the prow (left) and the summit to the right.

At the top of the snowfield below the prow, looking back. What a view!

At the top of the snowfield below the prow, looking back. What a view!

At the bottom of the ramp, where the final, steep pitch to the  summit begins.

At the bottom of the ramp, where the final, steep pitch to the summit begins.

Past those gullies, we hit one more broader snowfield just below the prow, leading up to a small notch that overlooked a flat piece of angled rock that slopes down before taking you up to the peak’s final pitch. The snowfield wasn’t bad, and the ramp — somewhat scary looking in pictures, if heights aren’t your thing — turned out to be no big deal.

Looking up the final pitch.

Looking up the final pitch.

There was no holding Noel back. While this was one of the few peaks that turned her back, she’s built up quite a resume since then. I looked up at that final pitch, and I have to tell you, it looked pretty steep for a Class 3 route. But the rock was extremely solid, and handholds and footholds were plentiful. Friends of mine who have climbed it before likened it to climbing a ladder. I have to agree. It’s about 75-80 degrees and very airy behind you, but easy climbing nonetheless.

Instead of going straight up, you could also walk this ledge to easier climbing. This is looking back on the ledge.

Instead of going straight up, you could also walk this ledge to easier climbing. This is looking back on the ledge.

Most write-ups of the mountain have you come up to a ledge that goes to your left, then leads you to mellow Class 3 climbing to the summit. Pictures of that look a little spooky, too. I checked out the ledge on the way down, and though it’s thin (no more than 2 feet at its widest) with a big cliff to your left, it’s not nearly as scary as pictures make it out to be.

Dave coming up the final pitch, with the ramp below.

Dave coming up the final pitch, with the ramp below.

Tarra and Michael climbing to the top. (Brady Lee photo)

Tarra and Michael climbing to the top. (Brady Lee photo)

That said, none of us used it. Instead, we opted to keep going straight up. That last 20 feet or so was the steepest, but it was pure fun.

I don’t have a ton of summits under my belt, but I’ve seen some good ones. When I got up there and looked around, I was stunned how gorgeous it all was.

Coxcomb, Redcliff, Precipice and Heisshorn.

Coxcomb, Redcliff, Precipice and Heisshorn.

The view into the basin, as well as the sea of southern San Juans peaks behind it, is dizzying in its scale. Most ranges in the Rockies are slender north-to-south ribbons of peaks, but not the San Juans. It is a massively thick alpine wilderness, with snow-capped mountaintops as far as you can see.

Far to the west, I made out Mount Sneffels and the dramatic 13er peaks that surround it. Further still, the Wilson group guards the range’s far west boundaries, giving way to the broad west slope that spreads far into Utah.

Matterhorn and Uncompahgre.

Matterhorn and Uncompahgre.

Back east, mighty Matterhorn suddenly looks humbly small. And past that, broad-shouldered Uncompahgre Peak hunches down like a lion surveying its own private savannah.

In front of us to the north are some of wildest 13,000-foot peaks I’ve seen. Coxcomb and Redcliff, joined by a ridge, Precipice jutting out further still, and the spiny, fin-like edge of rock that is the Heisshorn.

Taken together, this is one heck of a panorama. I figured it would be tough to beat the summit views from Matterhorn’s summit, and indeed, Wetterhorn as seen from its eastern neighbor is striking. But aside from what I saw on Sneffels a year ago, there’s simply no beating Wetterhorn’s views for me.

Chuck, Dave,Noel and Brady, with some random dude kneeling.

Chuck, Dave, Noel and Brady, with some random dude kneeling.

When we all topped out, several things crossed my mind. For Noel, this was a redemption achievement. Unnerved last time, she plowed through with no trouble now.

It was also cool to see Michael and Tarra doing this together. Michael has a lot of summits under his belt, but not Tarra. And seeing that his was her first Class 3, well, we were all impressed. She didn’t freak out at all. It’s awesome to see couples doing this together. I know that not every couple is going to share this interest, and that’s fine. It ain’t for everyone. But it’s pretty great to see a couple getting after it on the mountain as a team.

The gang: From left, Chuck, Dave, Noel, Brady, me, Tarra, Michael and Durant. (Brady Lee photo)

The gang: From left, Chuck, Dave, Noel, Brady, me, Tarra, Michael and Durant. (Brady Lee photo)

The cookie hiker with her own custom cookie. (Brady Lee photo)

The cookie hiker with her own custom cookie. (Brady Lee photo)

As for me, it was a score that had been settled. Past plans for Wetterhorn fell apart, and I could not stop thinking about this mountain for four freakin’ years. As it turned out, it was a pretty great host. At least, up to that point.

Getting down

Anyone with a little experience will tell you getting down a mountain is often more difficult than going up. Gravity makes ascending hard; it makes it tricky going down. His is particularly troublesome on steep rock, but we found our real issues on those snowfields.

The big snowfield below the prow wasn’t too bad, as it’s not very steep. Even with the warming temperatures, it held up OK.

At the end of that snowfield is where those gullies, some of which were still filled with snow.

This is where things got interesting.

Michael and Tarra heading down.

Michael and Tarra heading down.

The snow conditions had deteriorated since the morning. Whereas before they were somewhat soft, now things were getting downright mushy. Kicksteps that held firm an hour before were falling apart now.

Dave slipped, but quickly caught himself. On another snow gully, I slipped and skidded about four feet before halting my slide, and it’s a good thing, too. I’m not sure where things ended, but there are sizable cliffs on that side of the mountain. The thought of skittering off the edge into that oblivion is pretty sobering.

After catching myself and standing back up, I saw something no one ever wants to see high on a peak.

Me crossing a snow-filled gully. This was taken on the way up. On the way down, it was pretty sketchy. (Noel Johnson photo)

Me crossing a snow-filled gully. This was taken on the way up. On the way down, it was pretty sketchy. (Noel Johnson photo)

In an adjacent snow gully, Durant also had his feet go out from under him. Unfortunately, he didn’t catch himself as quickly as Dave and I. He slid for about 100 feet before slowing himself down and eventually hitting a large rock, which brought him to a stop. Durant got up OK, a little bruised from where he hit that boulder, but able to continue down. I’m fairly certain that had he not hit that rock, he would have stopped at a dirt section where the snow ran out. But there is a sickening, helpless feeling of watching someone slide down a snow slope at increasing speeds, where you can do nothing but hope that he finds a way to halt the skid before disaster strikes. Had he been in another snow gully, this could have gone from being a scary story to something tragic.

I’d add that when the mountain is free of snow, these gullies are pretty mellow, especially compared to the steeper pitches higher up. Snow just changes things. But to everyone’s credit, no one panicked. We just took our time getting across the dicey sections and moved on. But all that is a good reminder to learn about current peak conditions, make sure you have the right gear, properly weigh your skills against those conditions and trust your instincts.

These were the snow slopes we glissaded down. Pure fun!

These were the snow slopes we glissaded down. Pure fun!

Not every encounter with snow was bad, however. A little further down the trail we came up on a long snow slope that looked pretty inviting. A lot of us have pondered the fantasy of taking a zip line down from a summit after a tough hike or climb up. The next best thing: a glissade.

The term “glissade” is a fancy word for sliding down a snow slope on your butt. It’s pretty simple. You sit down and launch yourself downhill, using your ice axe or whatever tool you have available (a climbing helmet or trekking pole will work) as a brake and a rudder. Gravity does the rest.

Dan was first to go, and he did it with style, running downhill before flinging himself down the hill. The rest of us followed suit.

It was bumpy in spots, and there were a few times where it seemed like I’d lose control. But I won’t lie, it was a ton of fun. It also helped us lose about 1,000 feet of elevation and saved somewhere around 45 minutes of hiking through some rough stuff. My knees are forever grateful.

The rest of the hike down was pleasant. It stayed cool, but not unbearably so. Though taxed, I still felt pretty good. I’d eaten and drank enough to stave off the headaches I usually get from this stuff. We ended the day snarfing down some pretty good barbecue in Lake City before heading back to camp.

Having spent so much time studying this mountain, thinking about it, even obsessing a little, I can say it was worth the wait. I love the San Juans. Their wildness embodies adventure, and Wetterhorn Peak exemplifies that spirit in just about every way. The peak threw a lot at us – great views, steep inclines, pleasant climbing, even a little danger. It gave Noel a second shot at exercising an old demon. It gave Tarra a gateway of newfound confidence to do more in the mountains. I got to settle an old score. All but Dave got to see this peak’s summit for the first time. And all of us got to do this together.

That’s the beautiful thing about the mountains. You build bonds that are unlike anything else. Those common struggles, the victory of topping out, the shared experience of a common peril – all of these things are indelible. And in this group’s case, they are shared. It would be hard to find a better place to do it than on Wetterhorn Peak.

GETTING THERE: In Lake City, take Second Street to Henson Creek Road and turn left. This is also called the Alpine Loop Scenic Byway. Drive 11 miles to the Matterhorn Creek trail road, turn right. If you have a car with good clearance and preferably four-wheel drive, go 0.7 miles to the trailhead. There are dispersed campsites along the road all the way to the trailhead, though filtering water from the streams is not advised. Too much spoilage from mine tailings.

ABOUT THE ROUTE: Hike a good trail up Matterhorn Creek Basin until your reach your first sign at 0.75 mile. At that junction, go right. Continue up the trail to the next junction, then go left. The trail will take you toward the base of Wetterhorn’s southeast ridge. At the base of that ridge, hike northeast through a yellow dirt section before the trail gives way to rockier terrain. Climb the rocky gullies leading up to a prominent rock formation called the prow. There is a notch to the right or the prow; go over that and work your way down to an angled rock slab ramp that goes down to the base of the final pitch. Climb up solid rock until you reach one last ledge. From here, you have two choices. Turn left and walk along a narrow, exposed ledge before going up easy Class 3 climbing to the summit. If you don’t want to walk the ledge, just keep climbing straight up on steep but solid rock until you reach the top. Hiking is Class 1 until you get past the yellow dirt, where it turns into Class 2. Climbing can get steep, but the handholds and footholds are solid and plentiful and do not exceed Class 3.

EXTRA CREDIT: Plan a bigger trip out of it and climb neighboring Matterhorn Peak (13,590 feet, Class 3) and Uncompahgre Peak (14,309 feet, Class 2).  Matterhorn is accessible by the same trail as Wetterhorn. Uncompahgre can be reached from there as well, or by driving up Nellie Creek Road further east.

Last bit: A fun video Dave made of the climb. Enjoy!

Bob Doucette