Why a less-than-stellar time can still be a good race

The look of a happy runner. Never mind where I finished. (Fleet Feet Tulsa photo)

The look of a happy runner. Never mind where I finished. (Fleet Feet Tulsa photo)

I’d bombed down the hill and picked up my speed for the last quarter-mile of my latest race, high-tailing it across the finish line with an impressive kick I hadn’t had in a competition in quite some time. I was feeling pretty good about myself.

The race, the 5-mile Escape From Turkey Mountain trail run, was on my home turf in Tulsa. It was overcast and unseasonably cool that Labor Day morning, which made pushing my pace a little easier than was typical during my training days in 90-degree temps over the summer.

I crossed the finish in 56:16. Not fast, but for me and on highly technical trails, I thought I did OK.

Then I looked at the time sheets that were posted on the side of a van near the finish line. Ninth place out of 12 people in my age division. And 69th out of 96 men overall. Bottom third.

Ouch.

I haven’t been that low on a chart in quite some time, maybe since the 2012 Tulsa Run, where I was happy to just finish. The winner in my group was 18 minutes faster. Eighteen minutes!

I’m no speedster, but it would have been really easy to get down in the dumps about such a pedestrian showing. In the end, however, I didn’t feel bad at all. Here are a few reasons why:

My training over the spring and summer has been abysmal, but it’s getting better. When you get a $2,000 tax bill and a $4,000 car repair tab, you have to do something. And that means working more to earn more. So working a full-time job at nights and doing some part-time work a couple days a week means that many training days just flew away like frightened birds. That loss of mileage comes with a price. I haven’t run more than 8 miles since the Oklahoma City Memorial Marathon (where I did the half), and many weeks I was lucky to get 13 miles total. Last fall, that was a mid-sized long-run day!

It showed up in my workouts and on the trail. I dragged a bit on Wetterhorn Peak, and really suffered in my backpacking trip to Chicago Basin. My lack of conditioning is the reason why I bagged two peaks instead of four on that latter trip. So when I got back from Colorado, I resolved to buckle down and get things moving again.

I’ve had three straight weeks of pretty good training, sometimes in brutal heat. But I’m finally starting to get my legs and lungs back. Which leads me to the second reason why I feel fine with that so-so finish…

For the first time in months, I had an extra gear at the end of a race. Three weeks of good training and a blessedly mild and cloudy race day meant I could push hard without feeling like I was going to keel over. I was familiar with these trails and I knew when to turn it on for one last burst. It’s too bad I didn’t have that gear available the whole race. That would have been awesome. But it was there at the end as I bounded down the hill, over rocks and tree roots and scooted quickly across the flats.

I finished winded and a little tired, but feeling good. Compared to most of my runs over the past six months, I felt like Usain Bolt.

They didn't ask me if I won my age group. They fed me just the same. Burgers and beer at 9 a.m.? That's how we roll.

They didn’t ask me if I won my age group. They fed me just the same. Burgers and beer at 9 a.m.? That’s how we roll.

Even with my relatively lackluster time, I got pretty much the same thing as everyone else — a T-shirt, a burger and a beer. So unless you were a top winner or top 3 in your group, I got exactly the same thing you did when I crossed the finish. But that’s pretty selfish of me. More importantly is this…

At a time when people are fighting to prevent an outlet mall from eating up precious woodlands and trails on Turkey Mountain’s west side (and the bummer feelings that go with that prospect), it was nice to see a few hundred runners out there busting their butts, having fun and enjoying the trails.

I saw all ages and sizes. Some were fast. Some were walkers. Some were kids while others were well past retirement age. Men and women. Friends running as a group. More than a few had never run a race on trails. And several were from out-of-state.

The finish line scene at Escape from Turkey Mountain. Many, many happy runners. Way happier than mall shoppers.

The finish line scene at Escape from Turkey Mountain. Many, many happy runners. Way happier than mall shoppers.

That says a lot about the value of Turkey Mountain Urban Wilderness. On a day when most people were sleeping in, overdosing on Netflix or bumming out at the lake, a few hundred people got up early, gathered at the park and ran their tails off. There’s something beautiful and amazing about that, and it wonderfully illustrates what a gem Turkey Mountain is to Tulsa. I can only hope more people will see and recognize that.

Lastly, and most important to me, I had fun! It feels great to run without injury or pain, to chug along, to turn on the jets, to be outside and to test yourself. Scored on all fronts. I’m three weeks into getting back into form, and everything indicates that I’m on the right track.

If this keeps up, I’ll be a whole different runner come November, and hopefully next spring.

Bob Doucette

Update: Where things stand on Turkey Mountain vs. the outlet mall

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Trail enthusiasts picking up trash on the privately owned lands of Turkey Mountain’s west side.

It’s been about a week since news about the planned outlet mall on the west side of Turkey Mountain first broke.

There have been a few developments since the, but truth be told, the “plan” for this outlet mall is in the infant stages. So much so that city officials attending a town hall meeting for the Tulsa’s District 2 admitted that they didn’t know anything about it until the developer announced it.

But there are other things to report. Here’s what I gather so far…

Public response to the outlet mall has been pretty strong, with trail enthusiasts coming out loudly against it. An online petition to preserve the west side of Turkey Mountain was started late last week, and thus far has nearly 4,000 signatures. You can see (and sign) the petition here.

A Facebook page opposing the Turkey Mountain outlet mall popped up and already has more than 1,400 likes, and the Twitter hashtag #KeepTurkeyWild is trending. Multiple blog posts have been written on the subject of why developing Turkey Mountain for retail is not a good idea.

It should be noted that local media has taken notice, publishing and broadcasting stories on the public outcry against commercial development at Turkey Mountain.

UPDATE: The George Kaiser Family Foundation, which owns a significant chunk of the west side of Turkey Mountain, has said it has no interest in developing its portion of the land in question, as reported Wednesday by the Tulsa World newspaper. Presumably, that puts a whole lot of land out of the equation (and saves a lot of trails) while isolating the pocket that is being considered for the outlet mall.

The city has taken an interesting position on Turkey Mountain. Like I pointed out last week, everything west of the Powerline Trail (which includes the 50-acre plot at 61st Street and U.S. 75 where the outlet mall would go) is private property. The city of Tulsa has pretty much taken a hands-off stance toward that property.

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That’s fine, I suppose. Except for one thing: The city has a responsibility to make sure that any development within its limits is done in a way that is actually good for the city.

It would be easy to say that increased sales tax revenue and new retail jobs is good for the city. But this would ignore other factors, such as rainwater drainage issues (just how much runoff from the mall would pour into the ravine just to the east of the mall site, and how much damage would that cause?), traffic issues and the impact of the needed infrastructure expansions on lands that are on 61st Street and Elwood Avenue. Contrary to what many people think, if the mall gets built it will likely affect the rest of Turkey Mountain, as well as properties owned by homeowners, a church and even city property. Four- and six-lane roads (where there is now a two-lane road) have a tendency to do that.

And let’s talk about economics. What economic good does this undeveloped green space provide the city of Tulsa? You’d be surprised.

There was a cycling/running race there last weekend, and each race comes with entry fees that benefit businesses that organize and run these events. A trail running race will take place there on Monday. Money made at these races support local jobs, and sometimes they also raise funds for charities.

And all these trail enthusiasts who bike, hike and run at Turkey Mountain spend money on things like trail shoes, hiking boots, hydration packs, bicycles, cycling gear, running clothes and any number of other things that go with these activities. A lot of retailers sell a bunch of gear to this spend-happy demographic. They might not be buying $200 Coach purses, but they might be buying $160 Hoka trail shoes or $2,000 Trek mountain bikes, and those generate sales tax dollars, too.

Some people have said trail users have been getting away with trespassing for many years now. Really? If a property owner allows people to go on that land, improve that land, clean up that land, and so forth, can you really call that trespassing?

So let’s dive into that a little bit. At least a couple of times a year, crews of volunteers go out to Turkey Mountain with trash sacks, saws and shovels and do horrible things like picking up trash, trimming back overgrown areas and improving trails to prevent destructive erosion. Yeah, some users leave behind trash. But a lot of other users clean that stuff up by the truckloads. Here’s some photos of “trespassers” keeping things clean and wild at Turkey Mountain, including those places on private property.

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This doesn’t include programmed trail maintenance programs that have built the system that exists there today. And it does include times where we’ve cleared out illegal campsites (from real trespassers) and helped police locate a mobile meth lab so it could be safely removed.

Far from being trespassers, I’d say the city’s outdoor community has been an excellent steward of Turkey Mountain, be it the part on city property or the parts on private property. We care about this place, and it shows not just how passionately we oppose retail development there, but also in the previous weeks, months and years that we’ve been out there trying to keep it healthy, safe and clean. And we do this for free.

I’d emphasize that no one I’ve talked to is against building an outlet mall. We’d just prefer to see it built somewhere else. And for the future, it would be good for all the stakeholders involved — the city, land owners, trail users, and so forth — to come up with a long-term use plan that would help us preserve the city’s lone open and wild green space.

Turkey Mountain is a special place, a unique facet to the city of Tulsa. Large numbers of people get outside, get healthy and spend time with their families out here. Tulsa has fine parks, but this is one of those rare places within the city limits where you can get outside and be in a truly natural setting. If we lose it, it’s never coming back.

So keep an eye on this situation. If it’s important to you, pay attention, write your city council representative (the council has final say concerning approval of big developments like this) and talk to your friends and neighbors about it. Get involved.

Bob Doucette

Paving paradise: The (possible) story of how an outlet mall will eat Tulsa’s Turkey Mountain

A look across the river toward Turkey Mountain Urban Wilderness, Tulsa's lone wild green space. Could it be endangered by developers?

A look across the river toward Turkey Mountain Urban Wilderness, Tulsa’s lone wild green space. Could it be endangered by developers?

Some big news hit my hometown this week.

A couple of days ago, a real estate development company announced big plans to open a high-end outlet mall on the Tulsa’s southwest side. Potential retailers named in the announcement include outfits such as Coach, Nieman Marcus, Polo Ralph Lauren, Ann Taylor and more.

Promises of new jobs and more revenue for the city were touted as potential benefits to the project. And it would dovetail quite nicely with the existing Tulsa Hills shopping center and a neighboring retail development to the south, The Walk at Tulsa Hills. It would seem that the southwest corner of the city was getting ready to explode into shops, restaurants and parking lots filled with happy customers all too willing to plunk down their hard-earned shekels on whatever goods they fancied that day.

But that corner of the city is also home to something that is the opposite of this proposed temple of free enterprise and commercialism. It’s home to the city’s only wild green space.

It’s home to Turkey Mountain Urban Wilderness.

I’ve written about this place a lot. It’s where I go trail running, and when I feel a little more easygoing, a place I like to hike. I train here. I compete here. I have met some truly awesome people in this place, folks who I now call friends. It’s a slice of hilly, wooded wild land filled with twisty, rugged and wonderful singletrack trails that challenge trail runners and mountain bikers like no other place in the state. It’s the place where a mountain hound like me can escape, a small plot where I can get my adventure fix.

I’m not alone in that. Usage of the park, which is owned by the Tulsa River Parks Authority, has increased steadily over the years. People hike with their families here. Folks ride horses here. I can’t tell you how many miles I’ve logged since discovering this gem three years ago when I became a Tulsa resident. Green spaces like this are rare in this part of the country, and the citywide love for Turkey Mountain has grown mightily in that span of time.

And now developers want to plop a mall right next to it. Some would argue right on top of it.

I’ve been watching social media posts about the planned outlet mall, and where it would be located. It’s definitely somewhat complicated. So I’ll try to explain it as concisely as I can.

Turkey Mountain “proper” includes a chunk of land on a couple of ridges on the west bank of the Arkansas River. It’s bordered to the south by a major thoroughfare, to the north by city and industrial property, and to the west by privately owned tracts. Some might include those undeveloped western tracts as part of “greater Turkey Mountain,” as a web of trails runs through all of it, with landowners seemingly OK with allowing trail folks to explore unhindered.

On that west side is where the concern lies. The outlet mall would be built on a corner lot of private property. But like much of the west side of “greater Turkey Mountain,” the tract to be developed is intersected with trails. Here are a couple of images (courtesy of Ken “TZ” Childress) showing a map of Turkey Mountain and the outlet mall tract superimposed.

The proposed outlet mall tract, in red.

The proposed outlet mall tract, in red.

The outlet mall tract superimposed on a map of Turkey Mountain's trails. A large section of those trails (admittedly on private property) will be gone if the mall is built.

The outlet mall tract superimposed on a map of Turkey Mountain’s trails. A large section of those trails (admittedly on private property) will be gone if the mall is built.

One of the tragedies: Losing trails there. If the mall goes in, the vista pictured below goes away, to be replaced by rows of stores, Dumpsters, and parking lots filled with oversized SUVs. It will be gone for good.

An endangered view.

An endangered view.

The deal is about done, though the timing is interesting. Developers of this proposal are admittedly competing for business from another developer looking to build its own outlet mall on the city’s east side. It sure looks like an unsubtle way of courting retailers to me, looking to stick it to a rival. Anyway…

I see a couple of problems for people like me, who would rather see the whole swathe of land stay wooded and wild. It’s private property. The owners can sell it to whoever they want, and if that buyer wants to build a mall on it, they can, provided the city gives its OK. I find it hard to believe that city leaders would turn down a money machine, at least not over the objections of non-moneyed people like me. I fully realize that when it comes to who gets heard, big money wins every time.

But we’ve been here before. A couple of years ago, another developer pitched a plan to build a theme park on the banks of the Arkansas River. Jobs, tourism and money, he promised. Besides, he said God told him to do it. All it would cost was wiping out some of the southern trails on Turkey Mountain.

A bunch of us objected. Loudly. And the Tulsa City Council stiff-armed the proposal as roughly as Adrian Peterson fends off opposing tacklers.

AD! Help us stiff-arm wanton commercial development! (twincities.com photo)

AD! Help us stiff-arm wanton commercial development! (twincities.com photo)

We breathed a sigh of relief.

But can we hope for a similar outcome here? I’m not so sure. An outlet mall is downright reasonable compared to the far-fetched, divinely inspired theme park scheme we brushed off in 2012. But if we speak up, there are possibilities for positive outcomes:

  1. We can convince the current property owner to scrap the deal and sell the land to River Parks, or to donate it for a sizable tax break.
  2. We can convince the developer that the fuss is not worth the fight, which could buy a little time to come up with a more long-term solution to preserving the green space.
  3. We can force city officials to win concessions from the developer to limit encroachment and impact on the wilderness area.

The cost of doing nothing? It’s hard to say. But it is within our nature as a society to erode our treasured wild places. It’s happening all over the country, even in places as sacrosanct as the Grand Canyon.

Some people won’t understand the sharp aversion to the outlet mall that me and thousands of others have. They like the idea of more shopping options and big-name stores.

But here’s the thing: We have malls. Lots of malls. A huge development in southwest Tulsa already exists, and another one is on the way. High-end retail already flourishes in places like Utica Square, and the whole 71st Street corridor surrounding Woodland Hills Mall (interestingly, owned by the same people proposing the outlet mall) has engulfed a huge chunk of south Tulsa with miles and miles of big-box stores, chain restaurants, department stores and other shops. We have places to shop already. And yeah, there is room for more.

But Tulsa has one – just one – wild green space. Only one sliver of undeveloped forest where parents can take their kids to explore nature. One place where you can be in 15 minutes and lose yourself in wilderness. One place where there is no pavement, no street signs, no honking horns, car exhaust or neon lights. It’s unique to the city.

And just to be clear, this is not just some silly trail runner being overly sentimental. Turkey Mountain is an asset, one that promotes physical and mental well-being, as well as explorative curiosity. And we need to protect it. We need to pass it on for future Tulsans. We can guard that asset or we can sell it out. And for what? Most likely, a brown-and-gray collection of boxy buildings with stores that will likely fade out for something else many times over.

Sometimes the best investment is plain old conservation.

This is that time.

Bob Doucette

Gear review: The Osprey Xenith 88 multi-day backpack

The Osprey Xenith 88 multi-day backpack, loaded and ready to go on a trip up to Chicago Basin, Colorado.

The Osprey Xenith 88 multi-day backpack, loaded and ready to go on a trip up to Chicago Basin, Colorado.

When it comes to gear, I like to find something I like and stick with it for as long as it will last. Good gear isn’t cheap, but it also lasts. That’s one of the reasons my gear stash is filled with durable pieces I’ve had for years.

One of the best examples is my collection of backpacks. None of them are newer than six years old.

Until now. An unfortunate incident with an airline turned my trusted expedition backpack into a tattered mess. So I needed to get a new pack that could match the performance I’ve come to rely on with the old and now ruined bag I’ve used for a decade.

I’ve heard a lot about the products made by Osprey, a manufacturer of high-end packs that gets high marks for comfort and versatility. So I gave my wallet a little exercise and plunked down the cash for Osprey’s Xenith 88.

The timing was good, as I had a backpacking trip planned a few weeks later in southwestern Colorado. This turned out to be a great way to give the Xenith a test run.

Features

My old pack was very basic. It had an adjustable internal frame, ice axe loops, an expandable  bag and not much else. I had to improvise in some things (no sleeve for a water bladder), but this was one tough, reliable piece of gear.

The Xenith is anything but bare bones. It has everything I mentioned above, and then some. A few features stuck out…

The hip belt system comes with Osprey’s heat-formed fit that you can get done in-store, or your body heat will allow the belt to fit your body over time. That same belt also comes with pockets that are ideal for things like snacks or other small items you can stow within reach without having to take the pack off and dig around inside. Big thumbs up there.

Little things abound: a whistle on the chest strap (a nice safety feature), a flexible outer pocket that’s great for things like rain gear and plenty of room on the frame to let air circulate between you and the pack – really nice for people like me who sweat a lot. The lid has two compartments instead of the single pocket most packs have. A small detail, but one that is useful if you need to separate different parts of your load at the top of the pack. And I really like the cinch tab on the drawstring at the top of the main compartment. Fewer parts (not spring-loaded like most cinch tabs) mean fewer things to break down.

I also liked how well the bottom compartment easily swallowed up my sleeping bag. The bag is a little bulky, and zipping it up in my other packs is a bit of a chore. Not so here.

Little details like this -- a hydration sleeve in between the main compartment and the frame -- are what make the Xenith stand out from more basic backpacks.

Little details like this — a hydration sleeve in between the main compartment and the frame — are what make the Xenith stand out from more basic backpacks.

But my favorite feature is the water bladder sleeve. Most packs have this inside the pack; Osprey built this outside the pack, but between the bag and the webbing on the frame. What this means: It’s still ideally placed (close to your back and in the middle of the pack, keeping that heavy load from pulling you backward), but it takes up zero space inside your bag. So the heaviest item in your pack is even closer to your back, but isn’t a factor when loading the inside of the main compartment. As a bonus: No chance of something inside your bag puncturing your water bladder. Freaking genius.

The pack is light, especially for its 88-liter capacity and overall size: Just 5 pounds, 9 ounces.

Performance

Getting to know a new piece of gear is a process. How it fits, adjusting straps and getting familiar with how its systems work takes a little time. No better way to do that than on the trail.

My load was somewhere between 35 and 40 pounds, with food, some clothes, a sleeping bag, a pad, climbing gear, a first-aid kit, a cook set, a water filter and other, smaller items.

The fit was good. The salesperson who helped me pick the pack sized me up correctly. No problems there. Even with a full load, I felt fairly well balanced during the initial seven-mile hike to camp.

Padding on the straps and the belt helped ease the load, though I did get a hot spot on my left hip on the way up, and on the opposite side going back down. Weird, yes. But I have a feeling that was at least partially due to how I loaded it. Call it half “new pack syndrome,” part user error.

Me on the go, with the Osprey Xenith 88 on my back.

Me on the go, with the Osprey Xenith 88 on my back.

One of the major problems you see with hauling packs is a difficulty in finding the right load-bearing balance between hips and shoulders. Too much on your hips and you get a lot of sway, or you get pulled back too much. Too much on the shoulders and you’ll get soreness and circulation cut-off issues, which leads to headaches. Obviously, this is an issue of proper loading and adjusting of straps. But little things – like comfort – affect how you adjust that pack to fit. It sure made it easier for me to find that right balance.

Once thing I would have liked to see: More vertical expandability. My old pack had that, making it able to increase its volume not just out, but up. The Xenith can certainly expand out, but not too far up. It’s not like it’s a great thing to have a tall pack riding on your back, but it’s nice to have that potential for extra room.

Overall

If I were to sum it up, the Xenith is a solid, versatile and surprisingly light multi-day/expedition-sized backpack. Many of its design elements are innovative. And it’s a comfortable pack. I see few drawbacks at all.

Osprey is not a discount brand, so expect to pay a little more. It retails for about $360.

In summary, if you’re looking for a new bag for your backpacking adventures, this one’s a winner.

Note: Osprey did not furnish me with this pack; it was paid for with my own funds.

Bob Doucette

You don’t need cardio, but it’s something you should do

In some circles, there has been a de-emphasis in cardio routines in order to get lean.

In some circles, there has been a de-emphasis in cardio routines in order to get lean.

My friends, it’s time we came face-to-face with the truth about cardio.

If you want to get lean and mean, get strong, and look good in the mirror, you don’t need a lot of it.

That’s right. You don’t need to spend hours every week running, cycling, hitting the elliptical or doing whatever it is you choose to do cardio-wise to lose weight, drop fat and all that other good stuff.

It’s been pointed out in some circles that trainers can take seemingly flabby clients and turn them into shredded ideals of what a physique should look like without having them succumb to long, frequent cardio sessions.

Conventional wisdom tells you otherwise. A whole lot of cardio burns a whole lot of calories, right? And when it comes to weight loss, we’re all trying to find ways to create caloric deficit (i.e., burn more than you consume).

But a growing number of are telling people they can peel off unwanted fat by simply eating right and lifting weights, with minimal cardio. Stick to the plan, the story goes, and you’ll pass the mirror test with flying colors.

You might be thinking that this is bad advice, a gimmick to get people to buy expensive training programs. But here’s the truth: The premise is correct.

When it comes to fat loss, you can lose a bunch of it with the right training and diet plan, and you don’t need to spend much time at the track or plopped into the seat of a stationary bike. An increasing number of physique athletes are finding this out and having success.

But there’s a catch, at least in my opinion. And it goes into the reasons I will always have a strong cardio component in my workout plans.

If you downplay cardio fitness too much, you’re missing out. Sure, you can lose the flab without running a lick. But if you don’t run a lick, there are a lot of things you can’t do, or won’t be able to do as well as those who take their cardio seriously.

Let’s start with the basics. Strong cardio workouts build stamina. And stamina helps in a lot of arenas where sheer physical strength and leanness take a secondary (or even lesser) role.

High stamina helps with sports. If you like to play team sports, or compete in individual sports, endurance will allow you to compete at your best for a longer duration. Name the sport, it doesn’t matter. More stamina translates to better performance, and the way you gain stamina is by working on your cardio.

You're going to need strong cardio to see this.

You’re going to need strong cardio to see this.

Feeling more adventurous? Maybe you’re interested in having some fun on a long hike, backpacking trip or trail ride? A powerful physique will help hoist that overnight pack with ease, but when your hike to camp lasts five hours and you’ve spent the bulk of that going uphill, having a strong endurance component to your fitness will make that slog a whole lot more bearable.

Pssst. Competing in endurance sports is fun. (Courtesy photo)

Pssst. Competing in endurance sports is fun. (Courtesy photo)

And here’s something else: You can feed your competitive bug by competing in endurance sports. Running, cycling, triathlons, ruck challenges, obstacle course races — all these things are fun, and they are sports you can do from when you’re young all the way into old age. But a prerequisite is, at the very least, a stout heart and a strong pair of lungs.

Finally, I’ll add this: Think about what you’re missing if you skip the cardio. When you take your cardio outside (my preference), you can soak in the awesomeness of long bike rides, awesome runs, epic trail outings and more. It’s been proven that time in nature is good for your body and mind. And soaking in a little sun gives you some sweet Vitamin D. You won’t get that by becoming a permanent indoor gym rat.

And here’s the kicker: Do all of these things — lift, eat right, and get your cardio on — and you’ll probably get leaner, too.

So no, you don’t need a lot of cardio to get lean. But yes, you should do it, because your life will be better for it in the long run. By all means, eat right. Get into the gym and move that iron. But tailor your fitness to your goals. And if your goals entail something that requires a good deal of stamina, be careful not to fall into an extreme view of putting your cardio in the back seat.

Bob Doucette

Bros behaving badly: Hitting golf balls from the summit and 5 other things you shouldn’t do in the wilderness

Dudes hitting golf balls off the summit of Grays Peak, Colo. Not cool. (14ers.com Facebook page photo)

Dudes hitting golf balls off the summit of Grays Peak, Colo. Not cool. (14ers.com Facebook page photo)

The photo above is something that caused a bit of a stir in the mountain community in Colorado. You can see what it shows: A group of guys on the summit of Grays Peak, hitting golf balls from the top.

Grays Peak is one of those heavily trafficked mountains that’s close to Denver, with easy access from Interstate 70. It’s also a straightforward hike to the top, so as you can imagine it attracts a lot of attention from people looking for an altitude fix. Much moreso than, say, the more demanding peaks deeper in the mountains.

I’ve got a problem with this. For starters, you don’t know if your tee shot if going to hit someone below (there is more than one trail to the top of Grays). But the real sin is that I’m sure these douchenozzles made no effort to retrieve their golf balls. Like I said, Grays Peak is a busy place in the summer. But guess what? It’s also a wild place. To whatever degree you follow Leave No Trace principles, I think we can all agree that what happened here was nothing more than frat boy littering.

(Disclosure: I didn’t take this picture.)

It got me to thinking of some other things noobs need to refrain from when out in wilderness areas…

1. Don’t crap or piss on the trail or on a route. Trust me, you can hold it long enough to get well off trail, even in above-treeline areas. No one wants to step on your defecation or grab a wet handhold courtesy of your bowels.

2. Don’t feed the wildlife. And don’t mess with wildlife, either. Yes, a marmot will eat out of your hand. So will the occasional pika. But animals should not be conditioned to see humans as food sources. Besides, the food we eat is not healthy for them. And for cryin’ out loud, don’t be an idiot by chasing wildlife around, or otherwise doing harm. Some dude kicked a squirrel off the Grand Canyon rim last week, an action I cannot fathom.

3. Take your dog, but take care of your dog. Keep your pooch under control (especially around people, other dogs and wildlife), don’t let it crap on the route/trail (and clean up after it if it does), and be cognizant of your dog’s abilities and stamina. Most dogs can’t handle rough, bouldery routes, and almost none can manage Class 3 climbing and up. Feed, water and monitor your dog. Don’t get your pet injured or killed.

4. Haul out your trash. Period. Don’t leave it, bury it, throw it in a creek or lake or burn it. Just bring a plastic sack and haul out your garbage. I’m stunned by how few people get this, especially when it comes to things like food wrappers and summit signs.

5. Have a good time, but make sure your party doesn’t ruin other people’s day. I’ve seen and heard of some wild stunts people do in the mountains, all in the name of fun. I’m all for that. Hot tub on a peak? Sure. Kegger on the summit? It happens. Grill a burger, have a sing-along, pitch a tent — all of these things and more happen on high mountain summits, and it’s cool as long as you don’t ruin the moment for everyone else. Be cool about it, be done with it, and then leave that peak in as good or better condition than when you found it. Have fun, but be mindful of others.

And for that matter, don’t hit golf balls off a summit. Be better than that.

Got a few don’ts of your own? List ‘em in the comments. I’d love to hear from you.

Bob Doucette

The Fellowship of the Trail: Backpacking and climbing the peaks of Chicago Basin, Colorado

Clouds swirl around Peak 18 (left) and Windom Peak in Chicago Basin.

Clouds swirl around Peak 18 (left) and Windom Peak in Chicago Basin.

“You can’t underestimate the power of people’s desire to be part of a group,” my friend Matt told me.

I can’t remember what the exact subject was, but his statement was part of a longer discussion we used to kill some time and miles while driving through Kansas on our way to Denver.

I met Matt a couple of years ago when I worked day-shift hours and was able to join some group runs at Turkey Mountain, a local trail haunt for Tulsa runners and mountain bikers. Post-run burritos and beers turned into discussions about the mountains, backpacking, hiking, and climbing. He was itching to go on one of these Rocky Mountain adventures, and when I told him about some plans for a backpacking trip to Chicago Basin, he was all in.

Chicago Basin is one of those places that’s not easy to get to. It’s in one of the most remote corners of the most out-of-the-way mountain range in Colorado, the San Juans. There’s no road to the trailhead. Your two methods of getting there are either on foot (one really long hike in, just to get to the trailhead) or hopping a steam train in either Durango or Silverton and getting dropped off at a midpoint stop that used to be the rail town of Needleton (no such town exists now, just a wide spot by the railroad and a bridge over the Animas River).

The reward comes after hiking in several miles and seeing the prize before you: A collection of 13,000- and 14,000-foot peaks in the basin. Each mountain offers its own set of challenges, both physical and mental.

But as much as this story is about the place, it’s also about the people. You know, the group.

The cast

A lot of the people on this trip were familiar faces, people who had been kind enough to let me join them on past trips – Chuck, Noel, and Bill – strong hikers, good climbers, and either close to or past the point of topping out on all of the state’s 14,000-foot high points.

There were a lot of new faces. Some I know “virtually” though 14ers.com, its Facebook page, or through other means. Joining Bill on the drive down was Jenny, a young and pretty ambitious gal when it comes to the 14ers.

We had some “power couples.” And by that, I mean they were pretty awesome. Nathan and Danielle, both rock-solid climbers, and the perfect yin and yang. Nathan is pure chill, and Danielle might be the happiest person I’ve ever met (if you want to find her, just follow the laughter). And then there’s Mike and Maggie – Mike (also known as “Mikey Zee”) being the funniest dude I know, and Maggie playing the role of calm in the midst of Mike’s hilarious chaos. More on that later.

There were the mountain goats – Mike W., Zach, Todd, Steve and Andrew. And the Bosnian Baron, Senad, who was an absolute beast on the hill.

And then one last character who appeared out of the mists of social media – Miss “go! go! go!”, a runner and climber named Kay who I follow on Instagram (you can find her at halfpint22,and her feed is a good one). I saw her at the train station in Durango, recognized her, and discovered that she’d be part of this merry little band. Small world, folks.

Matt enjoying the ride on his way to his first 14er experience.

Matt enjoying the ride on his way to his first 14er experience.

In their midst was myself and Matt – a newcomer to the 14er scene, a fella with a huge sense of curiosity and a dude who was down for anything.

So many different personalities. So many challenges. You could taste the potential for something big. Early on, there’s no telling what that was going to be. All of it would depend on how well these folks would work and interact together under trying conditions.

Riding the rails

When it comes to backpacking, most of it steers away from touristy stuff. Leave that to the vacationers hiking a half mile from the parking lot to take a picture of some nondescript waterfall. So it’s a curious twist that to go into one of Colorado’s more remote wildernesses, you have to jump on a 19thcentury-style, coal-powered steam train with several carloads of tourists willing to pay $100 a pop to take a slow, scenic ride between Durango and Silverton. Uniformed staff give passengers details about the train and the route. One of them had a retro, curled-up mustache that was big back in the day. Or is that more of a hipster thing? Confusing times, man.

The rig that took us to the trailhead.

The rig that took us to the trailhead.

The train operators know their customer base, though. Backpackers are given the option of riding in the cheaper open-air cars. You kill two birds with one stone – save backpackers money (we ain’t loaded, ya know), and spare the rest of the passengers that lovely odor we tend to accumulate over a few days on the trail. Oh, and there’s a beer car.

Chugging along...

Chugging along…

Anyway, the train gave the group a chance to catch up with old friends or break the ice with those we just met. A couple of hours in, the train stopped near a pedestrian suspension bridge spanning the Animas River. The tourist experience was over. Time to hike in.

Where is this? Washington state?

If you’ve been to Colorado much, you know it’s a pretty dry state. Even with all the winter and spring snows, and the almost daily summer afternoon thunderstorms, the Centennial State is somewhere just shy of a desert in most of its environs. This is especially true of the western third of the state.

And we're off!

And we’re off!

The San Juans are different, though. Something about this mountain range, some trick of topography and geography, collects moisture. I saw that in a big way a month earlier, when Wetterhorn Peak was still socked in with snow late into June. But it was nothing like what we experienced hiking nearly 7 miles into Chicago Basin.

It was warm. Humid. Lush. Moss hung from the trees, and everything around us was carpeted in green. The skies were bright, but pocked with heavy white-and-gray clouds that threatened to dump rain on our little slow-moving parade that trudged up the trail.

The trail starts easy enough.

The trail starts easy enough.

I wondered out loud if this is what it was like to backpack in the Pacific Northwest. Having only been there once, my frame of reference is limited.  But one thing I do know – Rainier and other Cascade giants notwithstanding, most of the Pacific Northwest lies comfortably below the 8,000 or so feet above sea level where this little jaunt started.

It’s been awhile since I’ve been backpacking. I’m pretty good at keeping my pack weight low, but the last time I strapped 35 pounds to my back and headed up a hill was 2009.

And then there’s this: I’m working a lot these days, which means training less. I quickly became the guy in the slow lane amongst a group of hikers who were decidedly much faster than me.

Jenny and Bill as we get closer to camp.

Jenny and Bill as we get closer to camp.

I’d like to blame it on being a flatlander. It’s a great excuse I’ve used before, like an old reliable crutch I could use when bringing up the rear. But then Matt comes along, a fellow Tulsa guy, and the altitude didn’t seem to bug him much. He was near the front of the line that day, and pretty much the entire time. Freak of nature? Maybe. More likely he’s just in way better shape and able to hang with just about anyone.

Our group was big, and it was a pretty busy weekend in the basin. So we were forced to hike in a little further and higher than we originally planned. After a few creek crossings and a long trudge up, the sight of my buddies in camp just uphill from a stream was welcome indeed. It was warm, and I’d long since sweat through everything I was wearing.

The view from my tent.

The view from my tent.

So began the daily routine of camp chores – setting up the tent, filtering water, getting ready for dinner. Everything is tougher at 11,000 feet. But little things help ease the burden.

Enter Noel. We first met each other a couple of years ago and have since hiked and climbed several mountains together. She’s closing in on bagging every 14,000-foot peak in the state, and in the time it has taken to do all that work, she’s learned a few things about backpacking. Nothing beats good eats when you’re at camp, and aside from her famous cookies (she’s known as “the cookiehiker” for a reason), Noel has learned a thing or two about making dehydrated meals. She offered to bring me a few for this trip, and I gladly accepted. Dinner that night was chicken and couscous. What did you eat the last time you went backpacking?

Noel and I.

Noel and I.

Anyway, I’m lucky to know this gal.

That’s not to say that everyone else ate miserable food. Nathan and Danielle hauled up unusually heavy packs, but the reasoning behind that added weight became clear with the sounds and smells of sizzling bacon. The two carried a small cooler full of tasty foods and a skillet, among other things. Much jealousy ensued.

I made sure to soak in the scenery. Across the creek, the steep, grassy shoulder of Mount Eolus rose high above. Up the basin, the dramatic profiles of Peak 18 (this beauty needs a better name) and Windom Peak loomed overhead. Deer and mountain goats circled the camp, unafraid and curious.

Late afternoon sun on Peak 18 and Windom Peak, as seen from camp.

Late afternoon sun on Peak 18 and Windom Peak, as seen from camp.

The sheer number of people in our group made the surroundings seem a little less wild, but there was no doubt that we were deep within the folds of wilderness.

Everyone turned in early. Rains were off-and-on all afternoon and evening, and to have any shot at a summit, an early start was required.

The alarm was set for 3:15.

Mount Eolus and North Eolus

Twenty minutes.

From sundown until my alarm went off, I think I might have been unconscious for just 20 minutes the entire night. The rest of that time was spent tossing and turning, mitigating the discomforts of sleeping on the ground (hello, shoulder and hip soreness) and occasionally dozing a bit. But sleep was elusive. Altitude will definitely mess with your sleep if you’re not used to it.

I felt bad for Matt, with all the rustling around I was doing, but he scoured some ear plugs to help him get some Z’s. Lucky for him.

A quick breakfast preceded the gathering of gear. Headlamps on, the group headed up the trail, looking to tag the summits of Mount Eolus and its neighbor, North Eolus.

“We’re going to take our time,” I remember Noel telling me the night before. “There’s no rush.”

Yeah, right.

Alpenglow on Mount Eolus.

Alpenglow on Mount Eolus.

It was immediately clear that the pace being set on the trail was going to be a fast one. Not a problem early on when the incline was more gentle. But to get to the peaks above, you had to hike up a sizable headwall that was at times pretty steep. I started in the middle of the pack, but quickly drifted toward the back. There was no sense trying to keep up with these folks.

In time, I was reduced to counting off 100 steps, then stopping to take a breather. The skies began to show the initial signs of dawn as the headlamps ahead drifted further and further up and away. I’d really hoped to be stronger that morning, but it wasn’t happening. So I kept chewing up the slope, slowly, until the group had gathered near the stony saddle between the two peaks.

Sunrise over Chicago Basin.

Sunrise over Chicago Basin.

I was grateful for Bill and Jenny at this point. They were closer to my speed, and as we hit the higher parts of the route, we ended up climbing together.

Of the whole crew, Bill is the most experienced. He’s already summitted all of Colorado’s 14ers, many of them multiple times. Well over 100 14er climbs and counting. Add to that Rainier, Mount Hood and Pico de Orizaba, and you get the picture. Been there, done that.

Getting ready to cross the Catwalk. Jenny takes one last look back.

Getting ready to cross the Catwalk. Jenny takes one last look back.

Jenny is no slouch, either. She got the 14er bug a couple of years ago, and is less than 10 peaks away from bagging all the state’s 14,000-foot summits. She’d been to Chicago Basin before — a year ago, in fact. One of the challenges before us turned her back last time – the connecting ridge between the peaks called the Catwalk.

The Catwalk is unlike any saddle I’d ever seen before. It’s a skinny sliver of rock, anywhere from five to 15 feet wide, a couple of football fields long and with near vertical drops on either side. If you’re headed toward Eolus, the exposure to your right is particularly dramatic. It’s no surprise that the Catwalk has turned back more than a few people, just based on the visuals. It’s not tough to cross once you get past the initial intimidation factor. With a little encouragement, Jenny slew that dragon, and we got a good look at the work ahead.

Crossing the Catwalk.

Crossing the Catwalk.

Mount Eolus’ summit pitch is defined by its ledges. Huge, solid blocks make up a system of those ledges you have to navigate as you snake your way up a path that parallels the northeast ridge. We checked that out for a bit, but instead decided to reverse course and tackle the ridge directly.

This meant a couple of things. One, the route to the summit was much more straightforward. And two, the climbing was tougher and the exposure more dramatic.

Climbing the ridge. (Mikey Zee photo)

Climbing the ridge. (Mikey Zee photo)

Close to topping out on Eolus' tiny summit.

Close to topping out on Eolus’ tiny summit.

Danielle led here. She’d give us a few hints of what was to come, followed by half joyous, half nervous laughter. Sometimes getting a straight answer in the midst of her exploratory glee was elusive.

“Danielle, talk to us like a human being!” Bill shouted at one point. Followed by more laughter.

There were a couple of moves we had to make that were pretty committing. Nothing overly difficult, but you needed to hit it right and not have any mishaps. A fall on that ridge would send you into a rocky abyss. There were a couple of times I asked myself, “You’re really going to do this, huh?” And then I did it and moved on. Before long, we’d all topped out. Crazy summit photos ensued, some daring, some, er, interesting. I’ll just leave it at that.

Looking at Sunlight Peak, Sunlight Spire and Windom Peak at the other end of the Basin.

Looking at Sunlight Peak, Sunlight Spire and Windom Peak at the other end of the Basin.

To date, I’d say Eolus is the most challenging peak I’ve done. The approach, the route-finding, the climbing and the exposure – it all combined for pretty great summit. I remember telling Jenny, who crossed back over the Catwalk with decidedly less trepidation than she had 40 minutes earlier, that she’d grown a bit since we first walked up on that ridge. But I may as well have said the same thing about myself. No way I would have climbed that ridge five years ago. No way I would have crossed that catwalk a decade past. The truth is, a lot of us were making some strides in the Basin that day.

Mount Eolus, as seen from North Eolus' summit.

Mount Eolus, as seen from North Eolus’ summit.

I was good with tagging Eolus and calling it a day, but the scramble to the top of North Eolus from the Catwalk is short. The rock was different – slabby, grippy and sharp. Ideal for friction climbing. It may have been the easiest Class 3 pitch I’ve ever done.  Twenty minutes later, summit No. 2 was in the books.

Glorious San Juan wilderness.

Glorious San Juan wilderness.

The views from these peaks are stunning. On this end of the San Juans, wild peaks abound – the stony sentinels Pigeon and Turret peaks, the verticality of Arrow and Vestal, and on the opposite side of the Basin, Sunlight and Windom.

Mountain goat chillin'.

Mountain goat chillin’.

Wildflowers galore.

Wildflowers galore.

We called it a day from there and started the hike down. Green alpine grasses were littered with wildflowers, and mountain goats patrolled the meadows looking for places to graze or just lounge in the sun. Strolling into camp, I pretty much had decided I’d be sleeping in the next day.

Heading back toward camp.

Heading back toward camp.

The weather hates us

We’d topped out early – an 8 a.m. summit of Eolus, and by the time we were done being lazy atop North Eolus, it was about 9:30. We were in camp by noon or so.

Routines picked up again – eat, nap, filter water, cook food. Stories were shared. Kay, being the most energetic of the bunch, had also tagged Glacier Point, a high 13er in the Basin between Eolus and Sunlight. But before long, the weather decided to interrupt the party.

Clouds enveloped the peaks. Light rain began to fall, but not so much as to chase us into our tents. But it kept intensifying, then added some thunder and lightning. So into the tents we retreated.

Rain that night flooded some people’s tents, and about half the group decided they’d had enough. The other half geared up to have a go at Sunlight and Windom peaks. As for me, I decided a relaxing day at camp was in order. Laziness rules!

As folks started packing up, we had a little fun with the mountain goats. For the uninitiated, here’s a little secret about mountain goats: They crave salt. And a great place for them to find it is where campers pee.

Yes, it’s gross. But it’s automatic. These creatures patrolled our campsites looking for places where we’d urinated, then licked the ground greedily, as if we’d spilled manna from heaven at their hooves.

Mike, who we also know as Mikey Zee, decided to have a little fun. He whizzed on a bush not too far from my tent, then watched the fireworks. Goats flocked to the bush. Munched on the bush. Fought over the bush. Eventually, the shrub was completely denuded of foliage. Certainly not something you see on any of those PBS nature shows.

Eventually I had the camp to myself. The group left, with idea of meeting up a day later in Durango. So I chilled out, swatted at flies and waited for the rest of the gang to return from the summits.

Matt tearing it up on Sunlight Peak. (Bill Wood photo)

Matt tearing it up on Sunlight Peak. (Bill Wood photo)

Everyone had stories to tell. Matt, by travel buddy, tagged Sunlight and Windom. I considered this a major feat, as he’d confessed earlier his fear of heights and had taken a pass on the Catwalk. What does he do the next day? He climbs one of the toughest, most exposed of all the 14ers. Again — growth, man.

Others had done the same. And Kay, looking for more, did both of those plus Peak 18.

Back at camp, more stories were told, experiences compared, congratulations handed out. I didn’t regret my day of rest to that point, but later on I realized I’d missed out. I actually slept well the night before and felt good that morning. An opportunity missed, perhaps? Maybe. But I can always go back.

As had been the norm, the weather turned sour. So for a second straight day, we were chased into our tents. For 12 freaking hours.

There are only so many times you can look at pictures, take naps and otherwise try to kill time when you’re stuck in a cramped tent that long. It got old. My body ached. I’d hoped for a small break in the rain just so I could stand up and move my body. But it wouldn’t happen. By morning, with more tents flooding (ours had stayed remarkably dry; others’, not so much), all of us were ready to get down and find someplace dry.

Back to civilization

The rain stopped long enough for us to pack up and get moving down the hill – 7 miles to the Needleton stop, 7 miles to our first taste of civilization in several days.

You’d think a march like that, with full packs, would be a drudgery, but in reality it was pleasant and fast. The weather was cool and mostly overcast and the trail was soft and forgiving. Two-and-a-half hours later, we were at the tracks waiting for our ride home.

About an hour later, the train appeared. We loaded our stuff, found a spot in the open cars and waved at the crowd of backpackers who’d disembarked in their own adventures. My first order of business – a Coke and a bag of Lay’s potato chips. Manna from heaven, and not the goat kind, either.

What followed was a tour-de-eat like you wouldn’t believe. First stop, in Silverton, we gorged on burgers and beer. Once we got turned around and back in Durango, more gluttony. And on and on.

Chowing down and having a few laughs at a restaurant in Durango with my tribe. (Mikey Zee photo)

Chowing down and having a few laughs at a restaurant in Durango with my tribe. (Mikey Zee photo)

At a Tex-Mex place in Durango, the whole group reunited. Stories were swapped, and Chuck got an impromptu birthday serenade from the restaurant’s wait staff. Pretty surprising, considering it wasn’t his birthday. Remember what I said about Mikey Zee being the funniest man I’d ever met? Yeah, that gag was his idea. Between that and a whole lot of other hilarity, I can’t remember the last time I’d laughed that hard.

With the trip wrapping up, I recalled a few conversations that Matt and I had with Bill and Jenny on the way to Durango. The 14er scene is a lot like high school, Bill had reasoned, with new people all wide-eyed at the experience (like high school freshmen) and the experienced hikers and climbers there to show them the ropes (like seniors). Romances come and go. And people move on, just in time for the noobs to graduate to senior status and welcome in a new group of fresh faces who in turn look up to them and their high country tales with wonder. And so the cycle goes.

But Bill added something a little deeper than that, making the scene seem less transient. Work was work, he said, but the mountain scene was different.

“These people,” he said. “these are my friends. They’re the ones I want to hang out with and do things with.”

It’s hard to say how many of us would even know each other if not for the shared love of the mountains. Maybe none of us. Maybe we’d be involved in some other deal, with other people, or we’d just get lost in our own world of collective anonymity.

But that ain’t the case. We do know each other. We like each other’s company, work well as teams and support each other. In sharing risks and struggles, we bond in ways that’s not possible in most other circles.

It’s sort of like what Matt said during that long drive through Kansas. You can’t underestimate the power of wanting to be part of a group. You just hope you find the right one.

As for me, I think I have. I kinda like my tribe.

GETTING THERE: Snag a ticket, from either Silverton or Durango, and hop the steam train to the Needleton Stop. Open-air, round-trip tickets cost about $90. If you park at the train station, there is also a parking fee at the gate.

ABOUT THE ROUTE: Hike across the bridge crossing the Animas River. A good trail goes all the way to the Basin. About 5.5 miles in, you will see places where you can camp. Campsites are available up to 7 miles or so from the bridge crossing. From there, follow the trail up the headwall – steep Class 1 and 2 hiking. Higher up the headwall, you will cross rock slabs that are slippery when wet. At the saddle between Mount Eolus and North Eolus, you’ll see the Catwalk. Cross the Catwalk toward Mount Eolus. The rock is solid but exposed. Mostly, it’s a walk with an occasional scrambling move.

Once off the Catwalk, follow a series of cairns up the ledges leading to the summit. Or, for a more direct climb, go up the northeast ridge proper. Taking  the ledges is Class 3, with 4th-class exposure. The ridge is Class 4 climbing, with 4th-class+ exposure. You will be able to climb over or around several stone blocks; some require traverses that are pretty committing.

For North Eolus, follow the ridgeline immediately off the end of the Catwalk. Pick your route toward the top; the rock is slabby and easy to grip, with just a few short, Class 3 sections to climb. The rest is Class 2 hiking, and a short trip from the saddle.

Bob Doucette