What went right, what went wrong: Five lessons learned on the trail

All revved up and ready to go.

Experience can teach you a lot about hiking, and as the years go by, understanding yourself, your skills and your limitations goes a long way to being a safer hiker. Mistakes often turn into lasting lessons that make future outings much more enjoyable. And while that newbie phase can be fun and exciting, it can also put you in a world of hurt.

It’s one thing to use those lessons to help yourself. But what about the people you’re with? I hike solo from time to time, but many times I’m with other people, with varying levels of experience, ability and ambition. Mix a bunch of these folks into one outing, and you can have a comprehensive, positive experience, or you can have a hot mess.

Those years on the trail have given me a mix of both. I’ll summarize a few scenarios and go over what went right, and what went wrong.

BACKPACKING TRIP

View hiking up Wheeler Peak, NM.

Books, movies and tales told face-to-face can make outdoor adventures appealing to a wide group of people, and my own stories of hiking New Mexico’s highest mountain, Wheeler Peak, drew some interest. I took my wife, Bec, her sister, and two friends and we hauled our gear to the trailhead of the Middle Fork Trail. It is a 16-mile round-trip hike.

Our plan: Hike five miles to Lost Lake, camp there, summit the next morning and then head back down for steaks and high-fives in nearby Red River.

In terms of, well, everything, this group was all over the map. My friends had done plenty of backpacking in the western U.S. and in China, but were a little light on their fitness. The same could be said for Bec, who was also new to backpacking. Her sister, Liz, was also a relative noob in backpacking, but was in marathon-ready shape. People’s gear was anything from high-end to inadvisable.

In terms of our objective, all of us summited the peak and made it back to Red River safely. Success! Right? Well, sort of. My friends had their moments of altitude sickness. Liz did great. Bec’s boots lacked proper support and her socks gave her blisters early on in the hike. By the time it was over, her feet were wrecked and the back side of her foot was shredded. What should have been a tired but happy scene at the trailhead was really some dazed folks and no shortage of tears.

What went right: We got most of the gear right, and the scope of the trip was (barely) within the level of everyone’s abilities. We reached our objectives, and got back safe.

What went wrong: Plenty. Only two of us were really in shape for this effort, and it’s asking a lot of new hikers to embark on a higher-altitude backpacking trip in the Rockies. Footwear was obviously an issue. I’d say we got away with a lot of mistakes, and this easily could have bred more serious situations.

Being the leader of this group, a lot of that is on me. I could have easily picked a different objective more within the group’s collective abilities, and a pre-trip gear check would have saved my poor spouse a lot of grief. As for the others, they are responsible for their own conditioning, and to a degree, everyone is accountable to do the proper research on gear. We all learned from this one.

WEATHER ON THE MOUNTAIN

Marching up toward the Keyhole on Longs Peak, CO.

As you grow in your outdoor experience, bigger and tougher goals become more appealing. Easier walk-ups give way to scrambles, which often lead to exposed, airy climbs. Before you know it, the newbie hiker of years past is boasting summits of big Latin American volcanoes, or Rainier, or maybe Grand Teton while eyeing Denali.

That’s not me, but the progression is similar. I went with some friends to tackle Longs Peak, Colorado, a couple of years ago, hoping to knock off a tougher peak.

Longs Peak is a lengthy route. Alpine starts often have you hitting the trail at 2 a.m., with thoughts of beating the weather around this notoriously unpredictable mountain. It has a big stretch near the top where you don’t want to be when the weather goes south.

We set off at 2:15 a.m., and made OK time to the Boulder Field, a bumpy section just before the standard route’s famous Keyhole. The Keyhole is where hiking gives way to scrambling, climbing and exposure en route to the summit.

But we’d heard from others that a previous day’s storms had dumped some wet, sloppy snow over the upper portions of the mountains. Clouds were swirling around the summit. Winds were up. A couple of us (me, for one) were dragging a bit. When we got to the Keyhole, we took a peek around the corner and saw, with dismay, that the reports we heard were true. The route conditions looked bad, especially since some of us weren’t as salty as the rest.

The de facto leader of the group, a fella named Dillon, saw it right away. And he’s the one who called it. We munched our summit food at the rock shelter by the Keyhole, packed up and headed down the mountain, stopped well short of our objective.

What went right: We listened to the voice of experience. Dillon has it in bucketloads. Even though we were equipped for the task, those of us on the lower level of experience might not have been ready for the route conditions. And the weather’s unpredictability made it an obvious no-go. Any protests were weak and short-lived. We knew the truth.

What went wrong: Nothing for anyone else. I’d criticize my level of fitness for that one. I know better now. Aside from that, I have memories of a big, burly mountain, Chasm Lake, and sunrise over one of the nation’s iconic national parks.

PACING A NEWCOMER

Hiking down Mount LeConte.

A couple of years ago, my sister-in-law Jen wanted to go with me to Great Smoky Mountains National Park to hike Mount LeConte. While not the Rockies, the bigger mountains of eastern Tennessee can have long routes with plenty of elevation gain. LeConte was no different, with the route we chose being the Alum Cave Bluff Trail: 11 miles with nearly 3,000 feet of gain to its summit.

Jen’s a gamer, but she’s also new to this. We took off on the lower part of the trail, and I set my usual pace.

Not long after you hit Arch Rock, the route steepens. We live around 800 feet above sea level, and by this time we were getting into the upper 4,000-foot level. It was right about there that I figured it was wise to slow things down.

Once we got to Alum Cave Bluff, we took a break. I wasn’t sure how much further Jen wanted to go, but after catching her breath, we decided to keep going. With a more measured pace and breaks every 20 to 30 minutes, we topped out on one of Tennessee’s highest peaks. It turned into a spectacular day that lit a fire under her for more adventures.

What went right: Recognizing that our early pace was too fast, and breaking the hike down into more manageable chunks. This is what I have to do in the Rockies, and it would make sense to do that here where the elevation was significantly higher than at home. It was also important to “read” my hiking partner: She’s got a lot of heart and a true competitor’s spirit, so her capacity to endure some physical hardship was going to be greater than others. That, combined with the right pace, got us to the top and back safely.

What went wrong: Really, it went about as well as I could have imagined. Had I insisted on keeping a faster pace, our trip likely would have ended sooner, and might have led to some hard feelings. I can’t emphasize how important it is to observe your partners. Glad we nipped that in the bud early.

NOT FEELING RIGHT

Late light at Hobbs State Park, AR.

I’m going to rat on Bec again with this one.

We were out in Arkansas recently, having a very chill few days in the hills and woods near Bentonville. We wanted to spend one day hiking some trails, and I found some good ones at Hobbs State Park.

But Bec was suffering from allergies, which led to some allergy medicine being taken the night before our planned hike. It did great in helping her sleep. But it left her in a fog the next day.

My plan was to get out there and hike as long as she saw fit, then turn around and head back. In more recent months, she’s gone on day hikes with me that went anywhere from two to five miles, with our most recent outing in New Mexico. She handled five miles at 8,600+ feet just fine, so I had no real worries.

I wanted her to lead for a few reasons. First, I figured it would be more fun for her if she had something to look at other than my backside. Second, it would allow us (force us) to go at her pace. And third, she wouldn’t be pressured to keep going if I was plowing away in the lead.

But dang, that medicine. It left her groggy and her head was swimming. She was kicking rocks the whole way, just short of tripping on, well, everything. It was a gorgeous day with good temperatures, and the forest in this park is a fantastic mix of hardwoods and pines. No matter. The medicine’s after-effects were making this outing a big case of “nope.” A mile in, we turned around, headed back to the car and hunted down some dinner.

What went right: Making her lead was the right decision. I wanted this to be fun for both of us, and crashing down the trail as fast as I can wasn’t going to do anything for me. I was just happy to be out there, regardless of how far we went. Having her set the pace and lead the way gave us the best chance of both of us enjoying it. When that became impossible, it made sense to pack it in when she was ready.

What went wrong: Really, nothing. We missed out on the overlooks further up the trail, but had we pushed through and done the whole four-mile loop, would it have been any fun at all? Nope.

SICK AS A DOG AT 14,000 FEET

I wish I could say I was feeling great about this summit in this pic. I wasn’t.

Now I’m going to tattle on myself. Back in 2008, a group of us decided to take a shot at Mount Yale in Colorado, a 14,000-foot peak near Buena Vista.

I’d been battling respiratory issues in the weeks leading up to the trip. A hacking cough pestered me to no end. But I figured I could give it a go.

We backpacked in a mile, set up camp and set out for Yale’s summit the next morning.

Early on, things seemed fine. I started slowing down more around 12,000 feet. Nothing unusual there. But at 13,000 feet, I started feeling side cramps. Normally, cramps like that occur when you’re running or sprinting, not when you’re hiking. Leg cramps? Sure. A side-stitch? No. But that’s what I was feeling. With no real idea what was going on, I pushed on.

The cramps got worse, and by the time I topped out, I was gassed. Here’s where things got weird.

Those side cramps, which came with the expected heart/lung stress of going uphill at altitude, didn’t go away. Anytime I got moving, the cramps would take hold. When I stopped, I was getting strangely cold. Soon, symptoms of altitude sickness were taking hold. I was moving slowly down the mountain, and weather was moving in. Treeline seemed incredibly far off. My declining physical state, and the conditions moving in, got me worried.

I knew if I got to treeline, I’d be OK. But I also knew I needed to eat something. I did, though I almost barfed it up. Having been on the mountain much longer than I thought, I was running low on water.

Eventually I got to treeline. I ran into a group of hikers, swallowed my pride, and asked if they had anything they could spare to drink.

When I got back to camp, my condition only worsened. Back at home, a hospital visit revealed a severe case of pneumonia, pleurisy and fluid around my heart. Recovery from this mess took a couple of months.

What went right: Well, I did summit! In all seriousness, though, not much. It was good that I recognized my predicament, kept heading downhill and, when available, asked for help. I ate when I needed to. I put myself in a position to get home safely, see a doctor and get treatment.

What went wrong: Almost everything else. This trip is a laundry list of avoidable errors. For starters, I should never have gone. The hacking cough was a good sign that whatever was ailing me wasn’t done. Those weird side cramps should have been a big enough red flag to turn me around. The two liters of water wasn’t enough. Pneumonia is a serious condition anywhere, and downright dangerous at altitude (that’s what prompted the altitude sickness). Fluid around my heart and my right lung could have been lethal. Mount Yale is a beautiful mountain, but it’s not worth my life. It was good that I humbled myself and asked for help when I saw those other hikers. But that humility would have been better served by staying home.

I could go on, but that’s a good sampling of scenarios I’ve faced, along with the good and bad about the decisions that were made. Experience is a great teacher, and hopefully it’s made me a better – and safer – hiker.

Bob Doucette

Advertisements

Seen on the run: Reminders from the past of why I run

We have these, right here in town. (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service photo)

I remember the first time I saw an eagle in the wild.

No, it wasn’t on some adventure deep in the Rockies, or some other rugged mountain landscape. It was about six miles from home, in the middle of a city, and not far from the river that splits my community two.

Not 30 feet from the paved path I was running on, and overlooking the Arkansas River, there it was: A big, bald eagle, surveying the waters flowing by and likely looking for lunch swimming under the surface. It was one of the coolest and most random things I’d ever seen on a run, and to see it smack in the middle of Tulsa’s southern reaches made it that much more unreal. And yet there it was, in all of its regal glory, presiding over its domain. As it turns out, bald eagles have become a fixture along the river. You just have to know where to look.

More importantly, you have to be out there in the first place. If I hadn’t been on my weekly long run, I’d never have seen it at all.

***

I remember when I first started running more seriously, and how enamored I became with the little details I saw during even the shortest, simplest runs. I made a point to take my phone with me not to provide music or capture my pace, but to snap photos of how the downtown Tulsa skyline looked from a certain angle, or the way the glow of a sunset bathed the buildings in warm, fading light.

I’d come home and write notes about interesting people I saw, weird things I smelled and small epiphanies I had while I ran. I learned a lot about my city. One park I run through commemorates the 1921 Tulsa Race Riot, something that for many Tulsans was left out of their history lessons despite being the scene of the single worst outburst of racial violence in American history. Years later, I still run through that park, reminded that we’ve yet to get past racial divides.

Night running scene.

There were other details of the city to be gleaned from these runs, too. On a couple of occasions, I’d run at night. An urban landscape has an entirely different feel at night than it does during the day. Light from street lamps catches broken glass on the pavement and in alleys, making them glisten in a harsh sort of way. It’s harder to see people’s faces, thus more difficult to discern intent. But no one ever bothered me. A smoky bar served up whiskey shots next door to a private workshop where a bearded, tattooed fella in a plain white tank tinkered under the hood of a classic car. Nighttime in the city, away from the “safer” venues, is just as alive as it is in the day. It just feels more mysterious, if not risky.

And many times, I’d notice people. The suits and the slackers mixed at different paces, and transients often barely budged. On one street, I’d spot someone talking to himself while walking briskly, totally focused on whatever conversation was happening via Bluetooth. Around the corner, someone else, slumped against a wall, might be wallowing in his own puke, having drank too much bourbon the hour before. Down the street, a tattooed pizzeria worker sat out by the curb, getting one last smoke in before his break was over.

I see scenes like this every day when I run. It fascinated me for a long time, me being a guy who until that time had spent a lifetime living in suburbs and small towns, far from anything one might define as urban.

As the years have gone by, however, all of this has become normal. I still see cool stuff, but more often any run is more of me and the run itself, battling through fatigue, the elements, injuries and whatever else is motivating me or telling me to stop. And as I age, the chorus of inner voices telling me to bag it seems to get bigger. And louder.

***

Last week was one of the lousiest weeks of training I’ve had in a while. Fall is here, but Oklahoma rarely pays attention to the calendar. It was just another hot, humid week, and if you run much you know that heat and humidity sucks all the fun out of running. If I didn’t have a couple of races to train for, I’m not sure I’d even have bothered.

But we got a break this week. On Monday, cloud cover. Blessed cloud cover. Eighty-eight degrees in direct sun (plus humidity) is one thing. But 88 and cloudy is another. As in better.

I was out on a simple four-mile out-and-back run through a neighborhood that might be generously classified as “working class.” It’s on the upswing, but there is plenty of industrial desperation still waiting to be remedied here. Not that it bothers me – that sort of environment is way more interesting than any suburban scene I’ve ever trodden.

Anyway, I ran by a house where a fella was on the porch, working on some sort of machine, and he had his tunes on full blast: ‘80s funk and R&B. I ran past, reached my turnaround place and headed back. I’d pass his house again, this time from the same side of the street. On deck: Rockwell’s “Somebody’s Watching me,” featuring none other than the King of Pop. I’m not sure why, but when I got in earshot, it gave me an extra bounce, and I made sure to let the dude know that I wish I had his tunes with me the rest of the way. We both got a laugh out of that.

Getting some miles on the trails. I see cool stuff out here. (Clint Green photo)

A day later, on a six-miler, I was on trails close to the Arkansas River again. I didn’t see them, but I heard them: eagles. Somewhere close by, the master raptors were calling out, and would likely be on the hunt for more fish soon. It got me thinking about all the other wildlife I’ve seen, usually when trail running through nearby wooded hills. Squirrels and rabbits, hurrying away from the path. An armadillo ambling along, rooting through the leaves for bugs. And on one blessed run, a massive owl that was silently gliding below the canopy, then extending its wings to make a full stop just a few feet away from where I ran. One of the most majestic things I’ve ever seen.

That’s when I was reminded why I still do this. Races are fun, and great motivation to get in shape. But for me, there’s no finish line or medal worth the weeks and months of training that it takes to finish a long-distance race. Instead, it’s the things I encounter along the way.

The random faces that make a city live and breathe.

The myriad of colors of a cool evening sunset.

The smell of fall from decaying foliage on the forest floor.

And timely reminders from the past, be it the cry of a regal bird of prey, or the music pumping from the speakers owned by someone getting their funk on during a warm autumn afternoon. Any finish line glory is gravy after that.

Bob Doucette

Three things on running, goals, and a plan to go with it

Chugging my way toward a goal.

I think there are generally two types of runners. The first kind encompasses those whose fitness revolves around the run. Training for races is a year-round endeavor. Their social lives might be centered on running, races and other runners. In terms of fitness, everything else is secondary, and there really is no offseason. These people could be anything from 5K speed-burners, habitual marathoners, ultramarathoners, or execisers who have found their “community” in running.

The second type of runner is the person who incorporates running into a larger fitness regimen. These people mostly enjoy it, but the intensity of their running workouts varies on the goals. Under this sizable umbrella will be recreational runners who race occasionally, exercise generalists (think Crossfiters, beginning exercisers or recreational athletes) or those who look to use endurance training for specific goals (professional athletes, adventure racers, mountaineers and so on). Rather than being the central focus of training, these people use running as one of many tools for conditioning.

I’m in the second camp, more or less. I don’t race year-round, and frankly, I don’t race much at all. Running is a means to an end, but it’s also something that clears my head and gets me outside. It doesn’t matter to me if that time is spent running two miles or 20. I run more when it’s cooler, and I definitely have an offseason where I’m running fewer than 15 miles a week.

That said, when the fall rolls around I look forward to packing on the miles and training toward a goal. And that goal would be a race or two. I’m not racing for a spot on a podium; I’m not that fast. But I like challenging myself, finding ways to make the body God gave me push past old barriers. The cooler temps of fall make this season the ideal time to do just that.

Last year, I’d come off a so-so period of training that gave me some mediocre results at the finish line. I’m getting older, and it would be easier (maybe expected?) to attribute eroding times to the inevitable progress of time. I know that will be true one day, but I refuse to give in now. So in the fall, I worked on a few things and earned an unexpected finish: my second-fastest half marathon time. It was cool seeing a training plan produce results.

This fall, I’m turning it up a notch. Once again, I’ve signed up for the Route 66 half marathon in Tulsa (this will be my fourth time to run it). I picked out a tougher training program (Hal Higdon’s Intermediate 1 half marathon plan), dialed back the lifting and plugged in some more time on the bike. I’m three weeks into it now, and a few things have become apparent.

Lean and mean back when I was in race shape. Maybe by November I’ll be in this form again.

First, it sure feels good to regain my conditioning. I had fun with the weights, and there is a different kind of conditioning that comes with strength training, but there is a beauty to seeing your endurance return. As the miles pile up, so does the sense of accomplishment. I’m not there yet. But I’m getting back into race shape.

This piece of paper is partially running my life. But that’s not a bad thing.

Second, a structured program is a good thing. You can make stuff up on a day-to-day basis, and there’s a place for keeping things unstructured. No one wants to be on a training program for 365 days a year. But following a training program works. When you stick to the program, results will follow. It’s a great metaphor on life: get the information you need to succeed and put in the work. Success often follows.

Cross-training on this guy FTW.

Third, it’s good to have one workout a week that’s just fun. It’s important to have something to look forward to that’s not a rest day or a burger binge. For me, it’s the weekly cross-training workout on my bike. These workouts never exceed 60 minutes, which is a modest bike ride by most people’s standards. I’m not a “cyclist,” but I enjoy my time in the saddle. Sunday rides are the best.

It’s going to get harder, and balancing work, life and this training program will get tougher as November rolls around. But I’m cool with that. The hard things are usually worthwhile, and I know if I can stay healthy and stick to the plan I should see improvement over races past.

Are you running in the Route 66 Marathon of the half? Or are you doing any other fall races? If so, let me know how it’s going in the comments. You can also follow my progress on the training program daily on Twitter by searching the #rt66run hashtag.

Bob Doucette

Mountain reads: ‘Exposed: Tragedy & Triumph in Mountain Climbing’ by Brad McQueen

NOTE: This is an installment of an occasional series on books, old and new, about outdoor adventures.

Put yourself in this situation: You plan a mountain adventure with your wife and your dad on what is supposed to be a straightforward alpine hike. As the day wears on, a few things go awry: You make a wrong turn and get off-route. The weather worsens. The darkness of night takes over. And when it’s all said and done, you end up in a freezing bivouac fighting off hypothermia. By the time morning arrives, your spouse has suffered permanent injuries due to frostbite, and all of you are lucky to be alive.

But despite the guilt over what transpired, the pull of the mountains remains so strong as to be undeniable.

That’s the backbone of the 2015 book “Exposed: Triumph and Tragedy in Mountain Climbing” by Brad McQueen, a Colorado mountaineer who has built quite the alpine resume.

When I started the Mountain Reads series, I wanted to find books that told interesting and important stories about adventures in the high country. McQueen’s book does both.

When something bad unfolds in the mountains, people often write a book about it, explaining the highs, lows and lessons that incident provided. “Exposed” does this, but doesn’t stop there. While his mishaps on Mount Evans provide the frame of his story, it’s just one part of a still evolving tale of McQueen’s mountaineering life.

McQueen details not only hikes and climbs in his home state, but also those in Wyoming, Washington, Tanzania, Ecuador and Alaska. You get a good sense of what it takes to prepare for his more ambitious climbs while learning the emotional pull that climbing can bring.

In that respect, “Exposed” is also a family story. McQueen and his wife, Melissa, are in fact an outdoors team, as she has also put together a respectable list of accomplishments in the mountains. Overcoming the trauma of their shared Mount Evans experience is a major thread in this story, and in several places throughout the book, Melissa McQueen adds her words to provide context to their tale.

You might also learn something about climbing in the process (there is a succinct appendix and glossary of terms at the end of the book), including a short but instructive bit about crampon technique on snow and ice. Nuggets like that are scattered throughout the text.

I liked this book, and I think most people who enjoy the high country will, too. Pick this one up and see how a regular guy has lived some extraordinary adventures.

Bob Doucette

With five deaths in six weeks on Capitol Peak, mountain safety takes on greater urgency

Capitol Peak, Colo. (Wikipedia commons photo)

Anytime someone dies in the mountains, it gets attention. Landslides, avalanches, falls, or otherwise, the terror of finding your end on a high peak garners headlines.

People speculate how it happened. They express grief and sympathy for the fallen climber’s family and friends. A few may even throw barbs toward the victim, though that is, thankfully, rare.

This is repeated every year, especially in the summer when hordes of hikers and climbers take advantage of longer days and more favorable weather to get their summit fix.

But this summer feels a bit different, in that the volume of deaths seems to be on the rise. And more than that, the number of fatalities on one particular mountain, Colorado’s Capitol Peak.

I’ve never climbed it, but I know some people who have. There is bountiful information about the peak and its challenges available online and in books. From these sources, I can tell you a few things about the mountain: It’s exposed, with large drop-offs and a number of “no-fall zones.” Like the rest of the Elk Range where it resides, it’s notoriously loose, with rotten rock in all the wrong places. It doesn’t take much for toaster-sized rocks – or boulders far larger – to tear loose from the mountainside and careen down its steep slopes, and God help you if you’re in the fall line. One friend of mine survived a rockfall incident, but deals with traumatic brain injury symptoms years later after having two loose rocks smash into her head during a climb in 2013. Thank God for climbing helmets, or she’d be dead.

More recent news has solidified the mountain’s reputation. Over the past six weeks, Capitol Peak has claimed five lives.

That’s an extraordinary number, given the fact that the mountain hasn’t had more deaths than that over the previous several years combined. And for more perspective, it’s just two fewer than Mount Everest recorded during its spring climbing season this year. I don’t want to equate the two mountains, but the numbers are what they are.

So what do we know of the 2017 fatalities? The first two seem to be cases of falls associated with loose rock. But the last three indicate something else.

The third and fourth deaths on Capitol Peak, Carly Brightwell and Ryan Marcil, were a couple who had climbed the mountain, then fell on a steep section below the summit but before the solid yet very exposed knife-edge ridge.

The fifth death, Zackaria White, was a climber who fell in the same area.

What separates these two incidents is the experience of the climbers. The couple in question had some time in the mountains under their belts. White did not. In fact, Capitol Peak was his first 14er (a mountain that meets or exceeds 14,000 feet above sea level).

The knife-edge ridge on Capitol Peak. (Wikipedia commons photo)

What they have in common is it appears all three people tried to find another route down the mountain to avoid traversing the knife edge, according to local search-and-rescue team reports. They cliffed out, got to a point where they could not ascend or descend, and fell to their deaths.

Those similarities would, at least, point toward some obvious lessons: Stay on the route, especially on challenging mountains like Capitol. But this is no cure-all, as evidenced by the other fatalities on Capitol, as well as two more deaths on the nearby Maroon Bells, a pair of striking but dangerous mountains in the same range.* The “Deadly Bells,” as they are known, are like the rest of the Elk Range: steep, exposed and littered with loose rock that can break off under you at any moment. Deaths on the Bells, as well as a number of mountains in this range and many others throughout Colorado (10 fatalities so far this year), come with a wide variety of causes.

In fact, if you were to make a list of causes of death (and preventative measures to minimize risks for each situation), it would be so broad as to nullify any attempt at standard, one-size-fits-all practices to curtail mountain tragedies. To wit: bring the 10 essentials; eat and hydrate; get an early start; watch the weather; study the route; bring an emergency locator beacon; be in top shape; don’t wear cotton; bring the proper footwear; don’t try a mountain beyond your abilities; hike with a partner; and so on. Even if you did all these things – and most people do – there is a chance that you could still die on a mountain by pure blind chance. That, too, has happened often enough, claiming newbies and veteran climbers alike.

It should be noted that the ratio of people who have safely summited Capitol Peak, and any number of other Colorado mountains, to those who have died on them is starkly in favor of survival. For every death, thousands have successfully climbed and come home intact.

But rescue and recovery missions are expensive, taxing and at times risky endeavors. Given that, and the growing number of people who try their luck in the high country (to the tune of hundreds of thousands every year) mean that the myriad of ways people can get into trouble will only ensnare more, which will mean more rescues, more risk on the part of the rescuers, and to those who can’t be saved, more deaths.

An exasperated Pitkin County Sheriff Joe DiSalvo told the Aspen Times his office would more aggressively educate people on the risks of climbing mountains, especially the ones in his jurisdiction. Mountain Rescue Aspen is drawing up plans to do just that.

But here is where we are: We exist in a time where outdoor adventure is more popular than ever. Social media, especially channels like Instagram and Facebook, drive people to do more, push harder and otherwise ply their skills for the sake of not just enjoying the high country, but to pursue “likes,” audience growth, and potential sponsorships from gear companies, retailers and others who seek out social media influencers to market their brands. They may not be the only drivers, but they are potent. And they will only grow more powerful as populations in Denver, Salt Lake City, Seattle and Portland, among others, swell.

To be frank, I don’t know if there’s an answer here. I can’t say if this summer in Colorado is an anomaly or the beginning of a trend. But it does bring me back to a couple truths.

First, the ultimate responsibility has and always will lie with the individual. No one forces anyone to climb mountains. For those who do, the burden of preparedness and safety is squarely on their shoulders. Given the massive volume of information out there on mountain safety, there is no excuse for being uneducated on the topic or on the peaks people climb.

Second, it’s important for people to have each other’s backs. Teach those with less experience than you. Be the one to give guidance on the trail to your partners, and take charge when needed. Know when it’s time to call it a day and turn around. Those lower on the pecking order need to pay attention to those with more experience. And those with the experience need to get a good read on their partners and understand their limitations, or any other problems that may arise. Teams should not split up unless absolutely necessary, and believe me, that’s rare.

We know people will have problems in the high country. We know people will die. And we’ll analyze these incidents, looking for answers. But don’t expect a cure-all solution. As lame as this might sound, we must do the best we can at taking care of ourselves, doing the things we love in the places we cherish, knowing that these marvels of nature can snuff us out at any time, with total indifference, even if we do everything right. It’s the nature of mountains, and one none of us should ever forget.

Bob Doucette

*An earlier version of this post said there were four deaths in the Maroon Bells this year. There have been two.

Road trip distractions: The value of getting sidetracked

I’m not sure how you do road trips, but my normal pattern has me going from Point A to Point B as quickly as possible. I want to get there, have my fun, and avoid dragging out the long drive home.

But there is something to be said for sacrificing a little time to enjoy the little distractions along the way. They might slow your journey, but sometimes that’s not a bad thing. I found one of my favorite barbecue joints in Salina, Kan., just because me and my travel buddy had a craving for pork. We blew more than an hour there, and it was worth every tasty bite.

On my last trip out west, we took a couple of stops to examine some scenery in northwest Oklahoma. The Sooner State is known as a prairie state, but there are some unique bits of scenery that are worth a stop.

First up, the Gloss Mountains. Or Glass Mountains. Officially, I think it’s Gloss, but Glass Mountain gets its name from the mineral formations visible at its peak.

Glass Mountain. Or Gloss Mountain? Whatever. It looks cool.

Gloss Mountains State Park contains loads of mesa-like formations like this. There is a bunch of hiking throughout this park, and it’s a cool contrast to the gently rolling plains that dominate the scenery in northwestern Oklahoma. The park is just east of Woodward, which, by the way, is home to another great barbecue find, Wagg’s. Trust me on this one.

Dramatic skies help frame the shot of this formation in the Gloss Mountains.

The Gloss Mountains were on our way to New Mexico, so it’s not like this stop took lots of time. But seeing Black Mesa on the way home would be a much longer detour. Again, totally worth it.

Black Mesa is in the far northwest corner of the Oklahoma Panhandle. Cimarron County is as flat as a board. But that changes abruptly when you get to area surrounding Black Mesa. One minute you’re in flat, high plains prairie. The next, you’re driving around and between high cliffs and hoodoos.

Hoodoos south of Black Mesa.

More hoodoos. There is also the remains of petrified trees at nearby Black Mesa State Park.

In some ways, Black Mesa is the easternmost outpost of the southern Rockies. Lava flows filled ancient valleys eons ago. As softer rock and soil eroded over time, Black Mesa’s harder volcanic rock remained. The Black Mesa summit is Oklahoma’s highest point (4,975 feet above sea level), and has a good trail to the top. As you drive west into New Mexico, more of these formations are visible, as well as a number of dormant volcanic cinder cones. All of these arise just before the Rocky Mountain uplift soars into the skies west of places like Raton and Cimarron. So yeah, Black Mesa is sort of where the Rockies and the high plains meet. It’s a cool place.

Black Mesa. Very green for this time of year.

Another shot of Black Mesa, near the trailhead. The formation is huge, so you’re looking at a small corner of it.

Near Black Mesa you can see dinosaur tracks. A number of bed and breakfasts operate near Black Mesa, and the natural setting of Kenton, a small town nearby, is about as scenic as you can get in this part of the world.

Going here added about 90 minutes to our return trip, but it was worth it. Cedar, cactus, sage and shortgrass carpet these rugged lands. If you’re looking for a place with an Old West feel, Black Mesa has it.

Anyway, all this is to say that if you have the time and can pull over from time to time, do it. You never know what  you’ll discover, or what you’ll learn from out-of-the-way places. And if you’re really lucky, maybe you’ll find a spot with good ribs.

Bob Doucette

Hiking the La Plata Trail

La Plata Peak, as seen the day before we tried to summit it.

What a week at had been already. In just a few days, there had been pleasant trails and old mill town ruins in New Mexico. Thirteen thousand-foot peaks along the Front Range. And the day before, the old mines and high ridges of Mount Sherman with my nephew Jordan.

We were halfway through our trip into the mountains together, with one more target in mind: La Plata Peak, one of the higher points of the Sawatch Range and a commanding presence not far from Leadville and Buena Vista.

Rain greeted us shortly after leaving Mount Sherman, and lingered for much of the evening as we set out to feed ourselves and find a decent place to camp before heading out to give La Plata a try.

It’s been awhile since I’ve done anything in the Sawatch Range, but what I remember still holds true: These peaks are big, and the routes are long. They start a good 1,000 feet or more below treeline, and your generally pick up 4,500 feet or more of gain in anywhere from nine to 12 miles round trip. Bagging one of them is, for the average person, a pretty big day that requires an early start and decent conditioning.

We turned in for the night at a National Forest Service campground just off the highway. We did it with all the comforts we could cram into Jordan’s keep, which meant our tent would be posh by most tent camping standards. We owed ourselves a decent night of sleep.

As the night went along, we both slept hard. The alarm rang shortly after 4 a.m., and neither one of us was particularly urgent about getting up. I could feel it in me, that maybe this wasn’t going to be my day. At the same time, you have to break out of that mindset, get moving and pick up the task at hand.

Getting close to treeline.

I don’t like being turned back on mountains, but it’s something that has happened more often lately. Most of the time, it’s been because of adverse weather. Hence, the early starts before mid-day monsoon storms start forming over the Rockies. On this hike, I figured I could shake off whatever was holding me back once we got going. Summiting wasn’t that big of a deal to me that day, but I didn’t want to disappoint Jordan by costing him a bid at the mountintop.

Anyway, we got going right around dawn, hiking the road from the La Plata Trail parking lot. A small sign and a side trail marked the place where we’d turn off and start heading up the mountain.

We’d been warned that the beginning of this trail is deceiving, and that it gets steep once you’re a couple of miles in. Below treeline, I figured, would be easy enough, and would give us time to get a rhythm when the real work was set to begin.

On the lower part of La Plata’s summit ridge.

My take on the lower part of the trail: the trail builders did an excellent job constructing this thing. Plenty of steps on the steeper parts, and then some flatter portions. But I won’t lie: those steep steps were kicking my butt. I was already in a fight early on, sweating profusely, and wondering when my body would adjust and get into gear. Nagging thoughts of this not being my day were creeping in. I was getting quiet, just slogging away, and keeping an eye on our progress.

In this position, the hike out of the trees seems to take forever. When you hit treeline, you normally have another 3,000 feet or so to go before hitting the summit. So it can be discouraging when you’re hiking through the woods, working hard, and seeing hundreds of feet of gain left before your even break treeline.

When we were close to treeline, I got a better idea of what people were saying about this trail. The trees thinned, giving way to willows up a steep slope and a long series of switchbacks that make the trail up Missouri Gulch look tame. I was stopping often here, and not talking much.

Tasty scenery.

“Hey man, are you mad at me?” Jordan asked. He’d noticed my quietness.

“No man, just keeping my head down and trying to get through it. Fighting it a bit. I don’t talk much when I’m like this.”

He understood. Jordan had been hiking strong thus far, but like me, was wondering how this day might unfold. The switchbacks leading to the ridge seemed endless.

“So what do you think?” he said during a pause.

“Man, I don’t know. But let’s get up there and see how things are going,” I said, pointing to some otherwise nondescript landmark up the slope.

We repeated this process a few times, checking in with each other, catching our breath, and looking at the route ahead. We got to one point where I could see the route joining the ridge that led to the summit.

“Let’s get up to that point up there and see how things look,” I said.

When we got to the ridge, the views opened up. Spectacularly. The summit ridge was in full view, giving us a good look at the work ahead. On the other side of the mountain, La Plata’s formidable Ellingwood Ridge came into view, a long and demanding Class 3 scramble that often proved too taxing for many climbers.

A mellower part of the trail with some sweet scenery to boot.

By now, it was nearly midmorning. I wasn’t sweating as much, but I think that might have been due to early onset dehydration. Jordan had gone through a good chunk of his fluids already. Small puffy clouds were beginning to form and multiply. We were at 12,000 feet, and the way I was moving, it might have been at least another two hours before we climbed the remaining 2,300 feet and 1.5 miles or so that were left.

At this point, we both knew. Jordan was hiking stronger than me, but even in his superior condition, it probably wasn’t happening today. I figured we could have slogged it out, but we stood a good chance of being on the summit with storms overhead and being low on water. The previous couple of days, I’d bagged three summits. Jordan was with me on one of those, and had a particularly tough training session the day before, part of his process of getting ready for a burly obstacle race in late August. Neither of us had slept that much for the past three days.

At 12,000 feet, we decided that choice view of Ellingwood Ridge would be our summit that day.

It was a bit of a relief. Knowing that the car and a good meal weren’t but a couple of hours away, I can say the level of disappointment wasn’t that extreme.

On our way down, with sweeping views ahead.

We saw plenty of hikers going up as we descended. Many of them were young Colorado natives, powering upward in ways that could only bring me envy. And then there was a solo hiker ambling his way up with some sort of weird music playing on his smartphone. We chatted him up a bit, with him telling us he’d done Castle Peak and Conundrum Peak a couple of days earlier. We told him what we’d been up to, and got scolded: “I’d never do another 14er right after doing one the day before!”

I didn’t have the heart to tell him that I’d already done the back-to-back thing, and it wasn’t that big of a deal. We let him go on his way, weird musing blaring, giving him a collective eyeroll.

In the woods, clouds starting to build a little.

It’s often on the way down when I notice how beautiful a place is. There’s no deadline now, just ticking off landmarks and getting back to the car. I will say this: The La Plata Trail is as good as advertised.

Driving away from camp and the mountain, big storms thundered overhead. At the speed we’d been going, we may have been still above treeline at that time. Or maybe not. We’ll never know. But La Plata Peak isn’t going anywhere, anytime soon, and it’s a place I’d gladly revisit.

Clearer skies looking back at La Plata Peak.

Bob Doucette