Family time on Quandary Peak

About 13,000 feet on Quandary Peak’s east ridge.

It was a moment I dreamed about for a long time, and at a somewhat unlikely place. But in the end, it all made sense.

I generally don’t do repeat summits unless I do them by a different route. I’ve hiked Wheeler Peak twice, using two different trails. Same for Mount Shavano, with the second ascent being a spring snow climb.

Having done Quandary Peak’s east ridge route three years ago with my brothers Mike and Steve, it was not a route I expected to do again. But I did, and I’m glad for it.

Last week, the whole Doucette clan got together with the Meyer family in Breckenridge, Colo. Many of the younger set, having heard me and Steve talk about hiking the 14ers before, had built up some excitement about doing it, too.

Quandary is just a few miles south of Breckenridge, and its trailhead is readily accessible to anyone who can drive there. It was a natural choice for five of our group who wanted to go but had yet to be any higher than 10,000 feet.

You have to understand, the whole point of this blog is to encourage getting active and getting outside. So when the opportunity to take family members/newbies up their first 14er came up, I said, “Let’s go!”

A friendly tip list at the trailhead.

About the mountain

Quandary Peak, at 14,265 feet, is the king of the Tenmile Range. It’s a long, complicated peak, with a rugged west ridge that has been known to trap and strand unwary climbers. During the winter and spring, the gullies on its north and south slopes fill with snow, allowing for people to attempt snow climbs.

But it’s most commonly ascending via its east ridge, a long, gently rising slope with a great trail and amazing views. It’s rated Class 1 with mild exposure, making it the perfect route for beginners to try their luck at bagging their first 14er. Aside from Grays Peak, Torreys Peak and Mount Bierstadt, it may be the most commonly hiked 14er in the state.

The gang at the trailhead. Can you see the excitement?

About the group

My brother Steve and I would reprise this hike, having done it together with our brother Mike back in 2009. The rest: All noobs. Which was perfect.

Joining us was Steve’s wife, Beth; his three children, Hillary, Hannah and Hunter; and my sister’s daughter, Elisabeth. The group was pretty fired up about trying this.

All had varying athletic and fitness pedigrees. Hillary is a walk-on for the Pitt cross country team. Hunter plays high school basketball. Hannah stays fit for cheerleading, which she will continue at the collegiate level. Liz is a life-time soccer player, eventually playing in college. Beth ran cross country back in the day, and whipped herself into shape via Zumba. Don’t laugh – she’s in shape!

Near treeline, going up the east ridge.

The ascent

After dragging everyone out of bed at 5 a.m. so we could get to the trailhead by 6:30, the bunch was surprisingly pumped about getting started. Liz sprinted a few yards up the trail. Beth found something to laugh about, which got her a little winded at 10,000 feet. It was a chatty bunch as they followed my slow-churn pace up the trail.

“Is this the pace you usually hike?” Hunter asked me. I answered in the affirmative. He thought I was being slow so they could keep up, but that was hardly the case. I’m sure most of them could have blazed by me lower on the mountain, but as is always the case in the high country, you have to think with a longer view. Hiking at 11,000 feet is not the same as it is at 13,000 feet. And then there’s still another 1,000 feet to go to the summit, then the long trek back down the hill.

A mountain goat. They’re common on Quandary and are generally pretty peaceful creatures.

Pace, in this case, is often about pacing. Even on a straightforward route like Quandary’s east ridge, you can expect to burn thousands of calories in a place where your appetite wanes. Blow yourself out going up the hill and you might have a pretty lousy time dealing with altitude sickness, fatigue and dehydration.

Cresting the shoulder of the ridge, we reached flatter, more pleasant hiking. We also got a good look at the remainder of the route. There was still another 1,000 feet of gain to go, with the steepest hiking ahead.

Here’s where my deliberate pace paid off. By now, I was down to counting off anywhere from 50 to 125 steps before stopping for a short breather. Everyone told me later that each break came at the perfect time. It was gratifying to hear this. Not so much that I was teaching the younglings a thing or two, but more of the fact that I wasn’t pushing to group too hard. We were making excellent time, and no one was suffering too much.

From left, Hillary, Hunter and Liz make the final march to the summit. Well done!

The last 150 yards or so is pretty level hiking to the true summit. Watching my kin make that final march was pretty rewarding. They’d all done it. Sharing that moment with them was incredible, and by all accounts, I think at least a few of them might be hooked. Hillary told me she would do this every day if she lived here; Liz, who lives in Colorado Springs, is aching to do another one. I think she could be a candidate for being a 14er finisher before she turns 30.

That’s not to say everything went perfect. There were a few blisters. Some queasiness at the top. And headaches. But everyone got something out of those mishaps – lessons on what to do and what not to do in the high country.

Here are some cool summit shots:

From left, Hannah, Hunter, Beth, Steve, Liz and myself, with Hillary in the background.

Looking north from the summit at the Tenmile Range.

Summit style, via Hillary.

The coolest part of this is they all got to experience something that was a big part of a man who was such a huge part of all our lives.

I mentioned earlier my oldest brother Mike. He’s no longer with us, a victim of cancer who passed a little over a year ago. There are good people, there are important people, and then there are great people. Mike was a great man. Among his many accomplishments (and there were sooo many), he had more than three dozen 14er ascents to his credit. One of his first was Quandary Peak, a mountain he’d hiked numerous times, including once with Steve and I.

Sitting with him in his hospital room, I’d asked him what his favorite mountain was. He said it was Quandary, and among the reasons was the fact that it was a great place to take first-timers. You see, he got more out of sharing his love of the peaks with others, teaching them what he knew, than any personal sense of accomplishment. He got a particular kick out of being with me on my first 14er summit back in 2004, and then Steve’s in 2009.

I totally get that, especially now. Mike was dearly missed at our reunion, but in many ways, he was there all along. He would have loved being with the whole gang, playing games, golfing, chowing down and just hanging out. And he would have relished in taking the noobs up the hill for the first time, seeing the joy on their faces at the summit views, wildlife sightings and achievement. The whole week was very much in the spirit of who he was.

On our summit day, all of that made it worth doing a repeat. Here’s hoping the next time comes sooner rather than later.

Bob Doucette

On Twitter @RMHigh7088

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