Alone time: A case for going solo

There are days where you wish you never would have gotten out of bed.

Most of the time, those days pass. The sun rises the next day, you breathe easier and chalk up one bad day as something you have to go through every now and then.

But there are times when those days run back-to-back. Or maybe they run on for a week. Or several weeks.

I’ve had a few of those stretches. Personally, I’d like to forget most of 2010-2011. But more recently, it goes something like this…

There is, legitimately, a lot of angst over this little guy.

There is, legitimately, a lot of angst over this little guy.

I wake up in the morning and check the headlines. Ebola has made it to the United States. Elsewhere, some crazy, well-armed maniacs are making a case for beheading people they don’t like. And according to one group, the rainbow flag is now the new “sign of the beast.”

Add to that a few long, stressful shifts on the job, and let me tell you, I’m ready to escape. I’m ready to be away from people. I’m ready to see no one, hear nothing, and just be still for awhile.

Funny thing. I was involved in a Twitter chat recently where the topic was solo travel. It got me to thinking about those times when I hit the road for some serious alone time.

Back when I was in college, my family was spread out all over the world. At one point, I had a sister in west Texas, a brother in Colorado, another brother in Germany and my parents in France. I was attending courses at a small Baptist liberal arts college smack in the middle of Oklahoma.

I was cool being on my own. I liked school. I had good friends, things to do and a certain feeling of, dare I say, “accomplishment” for making it on my own. Never mind that I had my parents’ gas card and plenty of help along the way. But I digress.

When the holidays rolled around and campus cleared out, I’d often make my way to my sister’s place in Midland, a small west Texas city built on the petro-riches found deep underground in the Permian Basin. The routine: Load up my duffle, slip on a thick hoodie and a jacket, and buy a pack of cheap cigars as my truck rolled southwest to the flattest land in all of Texas. That’s an eight-hour drive, boring as hell and I loved every minute of it.

Probably not your idea of a good time, but hear me out. After a semester of communal living, tight class schedules, high stress and all that other business, those eight hours on the road — blowing cigar smoke out the window as the sound of the engine, the tires on the road and the music on the radio droned on — was just the release I needed. The yellow, orange, red and purple glow of sunset over the horizon was a pretty sweet bonus.

I’m sure the trip would have gone by faster with some company, but then I wouldn’t have been able to burn all those cigars, wouldn’t have been able to sing all those songs a full volume, and wouldn’t have had all that time to decompress.

Going solo is often about just that – decompression. The time alone without distractions to just drink in what’s going on around you without having to satisfy anyone else’s agenda but your own is exactly the tonic I need when life gets a little too crazy for a little too long.

A rainy day in the Wichita Mountains. This was taken on a different outing, but the visual effect is the same.

A rainy day in the Wichita Mountains. This was taken on a different outing, but the visual effect is the same.

Those couple of years that went awry (I mentioned 2010-2011 earlier) was also a time when I had one of the most amazing and memorable outdoor experiences of my life. A solo hike in the Wichita Mountains of southwestern Oklahoma included a near-miss with a charging buffalo, a record-setting torrential rain storm and some absolutely incredible scenery – ancient granite peaks shrouded in rain and fog, transforming the appearance from sandy, beige granite into icy hues of pewter, silver and white.

When I tell people about that hike, they wonder aloud what would have happened to me if that buffalo would have gored me (self-rescue would have been a serious issues), or how I could possibly enjoy being soaked to the bone for hours on end.

But being alone allowed me to really pay attention to my surroundings. When you’re solo, your senses are heightened to a point where every sight, smell and scent is much more intense than it would have been if you had shared it with others.

It also gave me time to think. And believe me, I had a lot on my mind.

But in also focusing on the task at hand – navigating wilderness with no one else there to help – it also allowed me to escape. Maybe not forget. But even if for a day or two, just to not be where all the world’s troubles were, where all my problems were –  yes, that is an escape. As hostile as the conditions, and maybe the wildlife, were, that place at that time was a refuge not unlike the smoke-filled cab of my little pickup motoring down a west Texas highway.

More recently, a group climb in northern Colorado got washed out by bad weather, forcing me to make a choice: Go solo in a drier part of the state or go home. I chose the former.

I camped at the trailhead parking lot, which was dark and empty, nodding off to sleep to the mellower tunes I had on my phone before waking up in the pre-dawn hours and setting off on the trail up Missouri Mountain.

When you're walking into this misty void alone, the experience is visceral. This is on Missouri Mountain's summit ridge, just shy of 14,000 feet.

When you’re walking into this misty void alone, the experience is visceral. This is on Missouri Mountain’s summit ridge, just shy of 14,000 feet.

I suffered a bit on that trip, and the weather was dodgy the entire ascent. The only voice I heard was in my head, telling me to turn around and pack it in. But that same sense of heightened awareness I experienced in the Wichitas returned as I plodded my way up past 13,000 feet, and ultimately an amazing time where, for the first time in my life, I had a high summit to myself.

Hours later, I was back in my car headed toward civilization. As it turned out, I missed the news of the day – a mass shooting at a Navy station that ultimate kicked off another predictable social media shoutfest over guns.

At that point, I wished I was back in the bosom of wilderness, and away from the angst and outrage of “the real world.”

After the week I just had, I feel that pull pretty bad. The world can be a noisy, angry place. When I’ve had my fill of that, the quiet indifference of the wild, taken in on my own, sounds like paradise.

Bob Doucette

Places I like: Wetterhorn Peak

For many years, I had this thing for a Colorado mountain called Wetterhorn Peak. I saw pictures of it. Heard about people climbing it.

And then I saw it. Five years ago, while hiking Uncompahgre Peak, I finally laid eyes on this beauty. That’s when a low-grade obsession began — not all-consuming (that would be weird), but frequently on my mind.

A few months ago, I finally got to climb it. What usually happens after a climb a peak is something like still feeling a great appreciation for it, but the allure it had previously fades a bit.

That didn’t happen this time. Every time I see a picture of Wetterhorn, or relive that late spring ascent, I still find myself in a bit of awe. Not because of the difficulty of the climb (it’s not an extremely tough ascent), but more from its beauty.

Four ridges rise to its 14,015 summit. From the north, it’s rise is nearly shear. The south features a dramatic and signature sweep. Its east and west ridges are steep and rugged.

Pictures tell the tale better. Here is Wetterhorn as seen from the summit of nearby Matterhorn Peak.

Wetterhorn Peak as seen from Matterhorn Peak.

Wetterhorn Peak as seen from Matterhorn Peak.

My friend Kay hiked in from the north and snapped this amazing photo.

Wetterhorn as seen from the north. (Kay Bessler photo)

Wetterhorn as seen from the north. (Kay Bessler photo)

Wetterhorn wears the snow pretty well.

Late spring snow conditions on Wetterhorn's east face.

Late spring snow conditions on Wetterhorn’s east face.

And like a true beauty, she holds up well in a close-up.

The Wetterhorn summit, with the Prow to the left.

The Wetterhorn summit, with the Prow to the left.

And if you’re fortunate enough to reach Wetterhorn’s summit, the views from the top are incredible.

Amazing views to the north from Wetterhorn Peak's summit.

Amazing views to the north from Wetterhorn Peak’s summit.

Climber and BASE jumper/wingsuit flier Steph Davis writes a blog she titles “High Infatuation.” Though I think that term has a different meaning for her than for me, I can definitely  relate to the sentiment. Especially when it comes to this mountain. She hasn’t lost her luster.

Bob Doucette

Places I like: Chicago Basin, Colorado

chi1

You know how wild a place is going to be based on how difficult it is to get to. While not a foolproof axiom, it generally holds up.

And that describes Chicago Basin, Colorado, very well. You can either hike in from some 20 miles out or hop a train and get dropped off in the middle of nowhere to start your journey to this slice of alpine heaven.

It’s a lot different than most of Colorado. The state is pretty dry by nature, but the San Juans tend to accumulate more rain and snow than neighboring ranges. And compared to the rest of the San Juans, Chicago Basin gets even more. The end result is a place so lush, so green, that is practically drips with foliage.

At times, the clouds and mists obscure the real rock stars of the basin – its peaks. But invariably, these beauties refuse to remain veiled for very long. Four summits towering more than 14,000 feet crown the upper reaches of the basin and even more 13,000-foot peaks join the show. Like the wilderness itself, all these mountains are wild. No gentle, grassy slopes for these crags. Instead, you’re greeted by sheer cliffs, tall spires and rocky ramparts that create an imposing – and inspiring – skyline.

In some ways, it’s too bad you can see these scenes from the road. But like a lot of things in life, with great effort comes great rewards. You’re going to have to do more than take a long drive to see Chicago Basin. But if you’re willing and don’t mind the toil, you’re going to see real wilderness on its terms, and in its full glory.

chi2

Bob Doucette

Colorado’s Mount Sniktau: A gateway to alpine hiking

Scenic Mount Sniktau's summit ridge.

Scenic Mount Sniktau’s summit ridge.

This one goes out to the people who need an altitude fix and need it fast.

Or those who are unsure about this whole alpine hiking thing but want to at least give it a try.

If you live in the Denver area or you are traveling there and have a little time to kill, let me introduce you to your new best friend: Mount Sniktau.

You might remember that thing I wrote about the road trip/train ride/rainy hike/mountain climbing thing in southwestern Colorado’s Chicago Basin. But before I stepped foot on the trail leading up to that little wilderness paradise, there was another ascent that was supposed to gear me up for the challenges to come.

My friend Matt and I were in Denver, but still a couple of days away from meeting up with our merry band of backpackers in Durango. Denver is a fine town, and the mile high city is substantially higher than my hometown. But you’re not going to acclimate for 14,000 feet by hanging out in a city 9,000 feet lower than that.

So the prescription was to find an alpine hike that was close to Denver, but one that we could get to in a passenger car with low clearance.

After looking at my options, I eventually settled on Sniktau. Mount Evans would have been a solid choice, too, but I’d kinda been there and done that the year before. Similar deal with Mount Bierstadt and Quandary Peak. Grays Peak and Torreys Peak? The road to the trailhead was too much for our car. Castle Peak was pretty far, and a longer day than we wanted.

But then there was Mount Sniktau, elevation 13,234 feet.

Midway up Sniktau's grassy slopes.

Midway up Sniktau’s grassy slopes.

Just past Idaho Springs with easy access from Interstate 70, this seemed to be the ticket. The route was short but high, giving us some flexibility on start times and hiking speed.

My only worry was that it would be lame.

The thing is Matt has been to some pretty awesome places. He hiked New Mexico’s highest point, Wheeler Peak, a few years ago. Did the Maroon Bells loop. And last fall he hiked to Everest Base Camp in Nepal. I might be easily amused, but I wasn’t so sure about Matt.

But he was also battling a bum ankle he’d sprained a couple of weeks earlier while burning up the trails at Turkey Mountain on a trail run.

That’s a lot of considerations going into what would be a big week in the Rockies.

Looking west toward Loveland Ski Area.

Looking west toward Loveland Ski Area.

Hiking it on a weekday was a good choice. The trail is popular, mostly because of its proximity to the Denver area and its relatively short length (3.5 miles round trip). I can only imagine how busy it would be on a weekend.

As you drive west on I-70, Sniktau is the first big mountain you see to your south. When I was less familiar with the area, I wondered if it was a 14er (maybe Grays Peak). I know better now, but that’s how big it looks compared to the surrounding mountains just before you hit the Eisenhower Tunnel. Those high, green, grassy slopes just seem to rise forever when you look at them from the road.

Eventually we wound our way up Loveland Pass, where a small parking lot is carved out at the top. A stone staircase leads up from there and took us to the trail that followed Sniktau’s steadily rising ridgeline.

The route takes a break before heading up to Point 13,152, a false summit on Mount Sniktau.

The route takes a break before heading up to Point 13,152, a false summit on Mount Sniktau.

A whole mix of people was out that day. A group of kids wearing way too much clothing. More seasoned hikers with their trekking poles and hydration packs. An old dude with a butterfly net.

The pass is near 12,000 feet, so the total elevation gain is not that much. But you pick up about 1,000 feet of it right off the bat. The trail is decent, though pretty sandy.

At the false summit and a rocky windbreak, looking toward Sniktau's true summit.

At the false summit and a rocky windbreak, looking toward Sniktau’s true summit.

Another thing about Sniktau: It’s windy. Breezes sweep over its ridgeline constantly, and they can get pretty strong at times. Higher up on the mountain, it’s no surprise that people had constructed a few windbreaks to take shelter from those gusts.

Hiking up the ridge, you don’t get to see the real summit until you top out on the false summit, Point 13,152. From here, you drop into a saddle, then begin the final ascent to the top. Somewhere just short of the  false summit, and then most of the way to the top the trail goes from sandy BBs to scree and talus. But the rocks are pretty solid, a relief to Matt, who was constantly minding that wonky ankle.

Torreys Peak as seen from Mount Sniktau.

Torreys Peak as seen from Mount Sniktau.

By the time we topped out, the winds died down. An older couple and their adult daughter were there, snapping pics and checking out the views and the marmots who were, in turn, watching us.

Sniktau gives you some pretty good views of nearby mountains – Torreys Peak is the closest “big” mountain in view, and Quandary Peak further away, to name a couple.

Matt hanging out near the summit, taking in the views.

Matt hanging out taking in the views, I-70 far below.

What we weren’t expecting: A C-130 darting between the peaks, having fun as only pilots can. We’re more accustomed to seeing planes of that size flying over the mountains, not flirting with mountaintops and ridgelines.

Clouds began to roll in, and it was time to go. Those sandy parts of the trail nailed me on the way down, causing a slip where I banged my hand pretty hard on the rocks and got a nice cut in the process. Hey, if that’s the worst thing that will happen, I’m fine with it. But it’s a good lesson – I was wearing worn-out running shoes instead of something more fit for hiking, so my trail grip wasn’t the best. I’ll know better than to be so casual next time.

What surprises me, though, is how often I see people heading up the mountain late, in the face of incoming bad weather. It was true again that day.

I was pleased at how scenic the hike actually was. Naturally, I assumed a peak so close to Denver and so heavily traveled would be less than inspiring. But that view of the summit from high on the ridge packs a lot of punch.

So go ahead. Bypass the busy 14ers. Get your elevation fix, get it fast, and savor it on Sniktau.

GETTING THERE: From Denver, take I-70 west past Idaho Springs, then exit south on U.S. 6 (the Loveland Pass exit) Drive to the top of the pass and park at the trailhead parking lot. The trailhead will be on your left as you park.

ABOUT THE ROUTE: From the parking lot, go up the staircase to the trail and continue hiking up the ridge to Point 13,152. The trail gets a little rougher from here, and earlier in the summer, there might be snow on the route. Continue hiking down the saddle and then up the final pitch to the top. The route is 3.5 miles round trip, with about 1,300 feet of elevation gain. Class 2 hiking.

EXTRA CREDIT: Many people cut their teeth on winter hiking on Sniktau. And for those who want give ski mountaineering a try often do it on Sniktau’s slopes, which is pretty convenient for skiers at nearby Loveland Ski Area. Lastly, you can link up Sniktau and nearby Grizzly Peak and Torreys Peak if you want a bigger day. And if you’re particularly stout of heart, the trail would make a great ridge run.

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

The list: Pros and cons of backpacking

Backpacking is awesome. Sometimes. (Matt Carver photo)

Backpacking is awesome. Sometimes. (Matt Carver photo)

If you’ve ever spent any time in a wilderness, you know there are good and bad sides of the experience. All of it makes for some fun stories, fond memories and more than a few laughs.

I just got back from a short backpacking trip in the San Juan Range of Colorado. Aside from not being used to the backpacking thing (it’s been awhile since I’ve truly been “backpacking”), there are a lot of little things that stand out to me. So what follows is a list of pros and cons to leaving home and heading out into the bush for awhile…

Pro: Leaving behind all the bad news you get inundated with via TV, websites and social media. For four days, I didn’t hear a word about war, Obamacare, shootings, the tea party or any of that other crap that drives people a little crazy. My biggest debate was whether or not I would dare to leave my tent and go out in the rain to go pee or just hold it awhile longer.

Con: Coming back to civilization and being run over by war, crime, Obamacare, the tea party and all of the other crap that drives people crazy.

Pro: Not really having to worry about what you look like or smell like for several days.

Con: Smelling yourself in your clothes and sleeping bag, and then seeing what you look like when you come back into civilization. Nothing quite as unsexy as the underbeard, otherwise known as the neck beard.

Pro: Being overjoyed by the little things, like the taste of summer sausage your campmate shared, the sound of a nearby creek, and nailing it when it comes to taking the perfect poop (don’t judge until you’ve done it).

Con: Having to poop in the woods. Eww.

Seeing wildlife is cool. But sometimes wildlife is annoying. And gross.

Seeing wildlife is cool. But sometimes wildlife is annoying. And gross.

Pro: Seeing wildlife, like mountain goats, marmots, deer and other critters you otherwise might see outside of a zoo.

Con: Putting up with their behavior in camp, whether it be marmots stealing food/clothes (they do that) or mountain goats ravaging that bush you peed on just for a taste of salt. Again, eww.

Seeing stuff like this is why I hike and climb mountains. I kinda wish it wasn't so hard, though.

Seeing stuff like this is why I hike and climb mountains. I kinda wish it wasn’t so hard, though.

Pro: Summit  views. No explanation needed.

Con: The physical thrashing it takes to earn that summit view. Nothing quite like being out of breath for three hours straight. Note to self: Next time, run more and run more hills. Sheesh!

Pro: Having awesome gear that keeps you warm and dry during an alpine downpour.

Con: Being stuck in a dry but cramped tent for 12 hours during an alpine downpour.

There are many, many more. So I invite you to share your list. What are your pros and cons to backpacking? Share ‘em!

Bob Doucette

Preview of what’s to come: A Wetterhorn Peak trip report and a gear review

Heading up Wetterhorn Peak.

Heading up Wetterhorn Peak.

Been away for a bit, but plenty of good stuff to come. A quick trip to Colorado gave me the opportunity to climb a peak I’ve been eyeing for quite some time — Wetterhorn Peak. Best yet, I got to do it with a very cool group of people. What do you think of that view? They only get better the higher you go.

I’ll post a full trip report later (complete with video!) — today is going to be a travel day. Needless to say, the weekend’s hike and climb had its share of hard work, fun, and some adventuresome moments. I’ll also be posting a gear review related to a pair of hiking pants that I was able to test over the weekend.

Have a great start to your week! We’ll talk soon.

– Bob Doucette