Athletes can be a source of inspiration for many of us. Or a source of “hate.”
By “hate,” I mean the type of jealous negativity to which we have assigned the word “haters” in pop culture lingo.
This is the strange juxtaposition I found myself this summer while in Colorado. The athletes I’m talking about aren’t the kind we see on TV (no Tim Tebow analysis here), but are instead the ones that seem to grow like weeds in the Centennial State. I can’t imagine another place on earth that has more endurance athletes per capita than Colorado.
It’s easy to see why. The state’s average altitude is thousands of feet higher than the places most of us live. Its geography and favorable weather make people want to get outside and move. And traditionally “bad” weather is eagerly anticipated here: Snowstorms mean ski and board season.
Colorado is a petri dish of fitness. When Men’s Health does its fittest/fattest cities, Colorado towns are always high on the list of the fit. The state is likewise at the bottom of the nation’s obesity naughty list (though it is, like the rest of the country, getting a little pudgier every year). It’s no wonder that the U.S Olympic Training Center was plopped down in Colorado Springs.
It is into this environment that I plunged this summer with the idea of getting to the summit of Huron Peak, a handsome mountain in the middle of the state that stands at 14,003 feet above sea level.
By 14er standards, this mountain is considered one of the easier ones to do, though anytime you start hitting those heights it is, at the very least, a physical and mental challenge.
For most of us, anyway.
There are others who see a day in the mountains as just another workout. When you’re slogging away 50 steps at a time toward the top, breathless and slow, the uber fit breeze by you like they were trotting through an easy two-mile run back in the city.
Me and my hiking buddy, Johnny Hunter, drove to the Huron trailhead and ran into some interesting people. One person I saw was a dude who stood about 6 feet, 4 inches and maybe weighed about 190. The man was lean and fit. He hopped out of his SUV, donned a small hydration pack and a pair of headphones and took off running up the trail.
Keep in mind the trailhead started about 9,000 feet, and this guy was going to run it. I can only presume that his plan was going to run most, if not all, of it straight to its 14,000-foot terminus.
We later met a gal who wasn’t going to summit Huron that day. Her plan was to run a few nearby ridgelines as a method of training for the Leadville 100. The Leadville 100 is actually two 100-mile races: One on the bike, another an ultramarathon.
“Which one are you doing?” Johnny asked her.
“Both!” she answered.
Yep, these were the type of people we’d share the mountain with that day.
I should preface anything else I say here that it’s not like Johnny and I are couch potatoes. Johnny is an avid runner, has competed in numerous triathlons and is a swim coach. This man is constantly moving. Fitness has been a regular part of my life since I was in high school. I run, lift and train regularly. But a little injury here and a little weight gain there can slow you down. Also working against us: We’re both flatlanders, living our lives in the 1,000-foot range. Our bodies just aren’t accustomed to breathing oxygen levels that would eventually be about half of what they are where we live.
As we started out, we kept a steady but slow pace, breaking through to treeline sometime after 9 a.m. The trail flattened out for a bit, then turned into steeper switchbacks as we headed up toward the summit ridge. By the time we got to about 12,000 feet, I was down to the old routine of taking 50 to 75 steps, stopping to take 10 breaths, then moving forward to take another chunk out of the route.
Meanwhile, we’re getting passed by just about everyone on a fairly crowded day on the mountain. Old, young, men, women, dogs – you name it. We were getting lapped by the field in a big way.
I managed to pass a person who had passed us earlier, then took a quick rest at the summit. The weather was holding out for now, which allowed us to get a quick bite to eat, snap some summit shots and enjoy the views.
Huron Peak is known for some of the best views in the Sawatch range. What it lacks in technical challenge it more than makes up for in its scenery, particularly as you gaze west toward the Three Apostles – West Apostle, Ice Mountain and North Apostle. These don’t rise to the heights of Huron, but they are high and wild peaks that look like they would be very interesting climbs. Ice Mountain in particular has a steep, thin couloir that was still filled with snow, even in mid-August. I’m hoping to return here soon.
The skyline surrounding Huron brings back some memories as old friends come into view: Mount Shavano, Mount Yale, and a host of other Sawatch 14ers that are a part of my high country past. It’s inspiring to see them, as well as several other summits I’ve yet to see.
The summit break gave us an opportunity to strike up conversations with other people lingering at the top. We started talking with one couple who happened to be FBI agents based in Denver. Over the course of the conversation, we learned that they’d started late – 10 a.m. – which meant that they’d topped out in a shade over two hours.
That’s half the time it took Johnny and I. (At this point, again, the “hater” in me was coming out.)
As clouds started to build to the west, we knew it was time to get going down the hill. During the summer, afternoon storms are a daily occurrence in the Rockies and it’s wise not to be above treeline when the weather hits. Our descent was slow as we were quite tired. I’m pretty sure we didn’t eat enough that morning and along the way, and it was taking its toll on us now. People who summited after us are now passing us on the way down. Even on the way down, the theme of getting lapped continued.
We were below treeline when we met up with a guy in his early 20s who was, quite honestly, way overprepared for a day hike on Huron. He sported a stuffed expedition-size pack and had snowshoes strapped to the outside. Snowshoes in August? By now, high country snow was mostly limited to a few patches here and there. At first glance, he looked like he’d been blindsided at the local REI shop and was now compelled to test drive every bit of gear on which he’d mortgaged his future.
I should have known better than to assume anything upon first glance. As it turned out, he was in the midst of a multi-week solo backpacking trip that included scores of summits. A native New Yorker, he’d moved to Boulder with the hope of becoming a guide. The backpacking trip he was on was training for an anticipated summit bid for Denali.
As he left, he hiked down the trail, hauling that huge backpack as if he were strolling down a neighborhood sidewalk loaded down without so much as a heavy thought on his mind.
Eventually we got to the trailhead, loaded up and took off to the cabin. Both of us were dead tired and sore. Altitude-induced headaches plagued us both. I’m sure trail-running dude, Leadville 100 gal and the Fabulous FBI duo felt no such pains.
But at this point, I understood what the day really meant. Yes, I was able to push my way to the top of Huron and back. But the enjoyment of the day was robbed from me, to a certain degree, by less-than-optimal fitness on my part. The others I’ve mentioned here had no such issues.
Each mountain I’ve hiked and climbed has meant something different to me. There was that first peak that gave me a taste of the pleasures of the high country. There was the solitude of a seldom-climbed 13er that helped me understand the asthetics of avoiding crowds. One mountain proved thrilling while another almost killed me.
Huron taught me to pick up my game. I have goals I want to achieve in the mountains, but those goals will require more of me, or at least more than I brought to the slopes of Huron Peak.
I imagine some people who know me are wondering why I’ve gotten into this running kick so hard. There are a lot of reasons, but one of them has to do with an old lesson of which I sometimes need to be reminded.
The world is just a bigger, more interesting place to those who are able-bodied and fit. That’s not to say all people who are into fitness are using it as a means to live a little larger. For some, it’s a means to an athletic end. For others, it’s vanity. And still more, it’s about a desire to stem the tide of unhealthy lifestyle habits.
For me, it’s simpler. I could probably get by hitting the gym a few times a week, doing the cardio drone thing for 30 minutes, and eating a few more salads and a little less barbecue. I could even practice portion control to keep my weight down. But living that way would not really get me up the mountain, or at least not in any way that would be enjoyable. I would rather relish in the outdoors in the way the superfit folks I saw on Huron seemed to. The more fit you are, the more things you are able to do.
I may not ever run an ultramarathon. There’s a good chance I’ll never sniff the fitness levels of the typical Colorado endurance freak, but I won’t be a hater, either. Instead, I will do better, and if I do I’ll be able to live more.
ABOUT THE ROUTE
Take County Road 390 (14 mi. north of Buena Vista) and go west 11 miles. This is the same road you take to get to the Missouri Gulch trailhead. At the 2WD trailhead, veer right and go another 2 miles up the 4WD road. There are lots of campsites all down this road, right up until you get to the 4WD trailhead. A stream follows the road, so that gives you an excellent water source.
The trail starts as modestly steep switchbacks all the way to treeline. It is in excellent shape and easy to follow. Above treeline, it flattens out into a broad, high meadow. Great views of the Apostles are here, and there is a small pond. This is easy walking until you hit the switchbacks going up the shoulder of the mountain. It’s steeper here and doesn’t let up until the summit. Again, the trail is excellent here.
As you ascend, the trail pretty much gives way to boulder hopping/hiking and remains about the same level of steepness. The summit is quite small but unexposed. It’s also spectacular.
The route is 6.75 miles round trip, with an elevation gain of 3,500 feet. It’s classified as Class 2 (moderate to difficult hiking) with mild exposure.
For more information on this peak, check out this link:
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