Colorado hiking and climbing: Solitude on Matterhorn Peak

A morning view of Matterhorn Peak.

Some of the best times I’ve had with friends are when a group of us hits the road, finds a mountain trail and hikes, backpacks and climbs together. No TV, no cars, no sounds of anything except the babblings of the natural world and the racket that a group of buddies inevitably makes.

Apparently I’m not alone. There’s a growing tribe of people who relish in the same thing. They like the same activities – and the same mountains – I happen to like.

I wrote a story about hiking and climbing Colorado’s 14ers a few years back and talked to a woman who said Longs Peak – one of that state’s more popular mountains – had more than 30,000 people a year climbing it.

Near treeline is this ancient dome. Possibly an example of primordial volcanic activity?

Given the length of that mountain’s routes and their difficulty, you know there are some who stay away from Longs and head to more accessible, easier peaks. So you might guess that those mountains might receive even more visitors.

And therein lies the problem: What happens when you and your buddies are joined by scores of other people just like you and your buddies? Or hundreds? Suddenly that good time outside looks a lot like a day at the city park, but with altitude and people dressed in North Face gear.

There’s nothing wrong with that, of course – I’m all for as many people enjoying the outdoors as possible. But if your reason for being outside is to have some solitude (even if it is with friends), then joining the conga lines that form on the trails to a summit can definitely subtract from the experience.

Another look at Matterhorn and its eastern slopes. When I look at that, all I can think of is what it would be like to pick a line and ski down that mountain. Unbroken S turns, anyone?

You can avoid the holidays, the weekends or whatever, but sometimes you just need to pick a place that gets overlooked. I found such a place, sandwiched between two popular Rocky Mountain destinations. It even has a famous name.

Matterhorn Peak.

The mountain itself lacks the bells and whistles that drive many weekend warriors to the high country. For one, it doesn’t have that magic number in terms of elevation. In Colorado, that’s 14,000 feet. Instead, Matterhorn tops out at 13,590 feet, playing little brother to loftier neighbors Wetterhorn (14,015) and Uncompahgre (14,309). For some, if it doesn’t top 14,000 feet, it doesn’t show up on their radar.

Going up the slope. It’s steeper than it looks. In the background is the summit tower.

It’s mostly a hike, straight up a somewhat steep, grassy slope until you reach a rocky, jumbled summit tower that goes more vertical. It’s rated Class 3 scrambling, with a variety of ways to reach the top. None are too exposed, and none are very long – maybe a couple hundred feet of climbing and you’re done.

This makes the mountain rather undistinguished compared to the sweeping verticality of Wetterhorn or the startling bulk of Uncompahgre. This is not to mention how amazing, difficult and wild much of the rest of the San Juan Range of southwestern Colorado is.

But I’ll tell you what Matterhorn is. It’s beautiful. Its jagged west ridge is a stark contrast to its graceful east slopes, culminating in a spiky summit. It blends in with its neighbors like the second in a row of shark’s teeth that look pretty impressive in a panoramic view. And because it’s seldom climbed on its own merits, Matterhorn is a rather lonely place.

The summit tower. The easiest route to the top is to pick a line to the climber’s right. It steeper and more fun to just go straight up.

If you’ve read this blog much, you know that I often share my outdoors travels with a good friend of mine named Johnny Hunter. The two of us did this peak together on a mild autumn day at a time when the aspens were turning gold and orange, and the skies were as clear and blue as you could possibly imagine. In the distance, you could see snowpack clinging to the walls of shadowed ridges to the south near American Basin.

We had a good time on that mountain. The slog up the slopes was OK, but there was some fun to be had on the summit tower, picking routes, testing handholds and footholds and then relishing one of the best summit views I think I’ve ever seen.

Johnny Hunter at the base of the Matterhorn summit tower with Uncompahgre Peak in the background.

I’ve bragged about the views atop Huron Peak on the Sawatch Range, and indeed, they’re awesome. But we’re talking about the San Juans here, and where Matterhorn stands is in a neighborhood with some of the wildest peaks around. I’ve mentioned Uncompahgre and Wetterhorn. But to the north are more amazing mountains, formed by the three powerful geologic forces of uplift, volcanism and glacial carving. Coxcomb and Redcliff peaks loom in the distance, and further away, the sharp profile of Precipice Peak appears.  Like Matterhorn, these are rarely climbed, although their allure is strong among trad climbers/alpinists looking for more than a walk-up or a scramble.

But what was most remarkable is what Matterhorn lacked that day. Aside from Johnny and I, there was no one on that mountain.

Not a soul.

We could see, from miles away, the flea-like profiles of people dotting Wetterhorn’s summit. And surely there were hikers on Uncompahgre. But we had Matterhorn to ourselves. Had we decided to just sit and not speak, all we would hear were marmots, pikas, birds and the wind.

Looking down a somewhat exposed section on the final pitch.

There has only been one other time in my life that I’ve had that much solitude on a mountain (Oklahoma’s Mount Mitchell), and it’s never happened in Colorado, with this one exception. It made me realize that a peak like Matterhorn is worth climbing on its own merits, not just because of the route or its views, but also because it’s one of the rare high country places that is so accessible and yet feels so remote.

A look at the rugged connecting ridge between Wetterhorn and Matterhorn as seen from Matterhorn’s summit.

GETTING THERE: From Lake City, turn west on Second Street, then a quick left on Henson Creek Road (also marked as the Alpine Loop Scenic Byway). Follow a decent dirt road for another 11 miles (you’ll pass Nellie Creek Road and arrive at the Matterhorn Creek trailhead). From here, a car with good clearance can drive higher up the trail.

Coxcomb Peak (left) and Redcliff Peak. Coxcomb is considered one of the more challenging 13er climbs in Colorado.

ABOUT THE ROUTE: From the trailhead, hike north up a well-maintained trail for about a mile until you get to a split in the trail. Going left will take you to the trail leading up Wetterhorn Peak’s slopes. Going right will take you toward Matterhorn Peak and, further east, Uncompahgre Peak. At near 12,000 feet, you will arrive at a junction in which you can continue north or go east toward Uncompahgre. Instead, start hiking west up the grassy slopes of Matterhorn Peak. All the hiking to this point is Class 1.

Precipice Peak. Sheer, rugged San Juan goodness.

At around 13,300 feet, the grassy slope ends and the rocky summit tower begins. Much of the mountain at this point is a steep jumble of boulders. By veering to the climber’s right, you can take an easier Class 3 scramble to the top. Going straight up the tower is slightly more exposed and steeper, but still Class 3. Ascend the remaining 200+ feet to the summit. Be sure to test your handholds and footholds, and know that if you choose a line further to the climber’s left you will encounter higher exposure and looser rock.

Aspens turning, cottonball clouds and brilliant blue skies along the Matterhorn Creek Trail. This is the Colorado high country in the fall.

Bob Doucette

On Twitter @RMHigh7088


No mountaineering experience? Apparently no problem on Everest

Lookey! Visual proof that I’m overqualified for Mount Everest!

I come to you slightly annoyed.

I think it’s easy for those of us who are into the culture of the outdoors to get too bent out of shape over some of the stories that are big topics among our own.

This time of year, it’s Mount Everest. May is the time of year most climbers who scale the peak make their bids. The common complaints about Himalayan mountaineering often wear thin after awhile.

But not this spring.

The world’s highest peak, like all peaks in the Himalayas, is quite dangerous. There’s no guarantee you’ll summit. You’ll spend a lot of time and money trying. And there’s a chance you might not survive it.

One would think that given the risk involved — even when doing a totally supported, guided climb — there would be some standards as to who is allowed to try.

Well, there’s not. There are no legal requirements, other than age. So guide services set up their own standards. And while some require climbers to produce a climbing resume of big mountains and proficiency in basic mountaineering skills, others do not.

As in, no skills at all, according to a recent Outside Online post. Here’s a quote:

Back in 1996, when the Everest disaster that led to Jon Krakauer’s bestseller Into Thin Air occurred, there were only a handful of outfitters here. Now there are closer to a dozen, and the clients are paying anywhere from $25,000 to go with a local outfitter, to $80,000 to go with the most reputable Western outfitters. Back in 1996, a big deal was made of climbers who supposedly didn’t have much experience because they’d only climbed a few peaks around the world. But now you literally have people showing up at Base Camp who have never strapped on crampons before, have never climbed any mountain, who are trying this. So the level of experience has fallen off dramatically, while at the same time the number of people has increased just as dramatically.

Did you catch that? No experience required with some outfits. Mountaineering proficiency has dropped while the number of climbers has increased, creating traffic jams at chokepoints that left 300 people waiting to summit last weekend. That deadly combination is believed to have killed four people.

I guess it’s not all bad news. I’ve strapped on crampons before. Even used an ice axe. And I run a little, so I’m in decent shape.

Maybe I’m a cinch to get on one of these summit teams after all.

Anyone want to sponsor me? Summit or bust.

Bob Doucette

On Twitter @RMHigh7088

Twin Rock Mountain, photographically revisited

A few weeks back, I posted a trip report about a day trip me and a good friend of mine made to southwestern Oklahoma’s Wichita Mountains to knock off Twin Rock Mountain and Granite Mountain. I loaded that report up with photos I took with an iPhone3S, meaning that there were limitations as to how good those pics would be.

Enter my friend Johnny Hunter. He’s one of the best hiking and climbing buddies you could ask for. He also takes a real camera with him, he knows how to use it and he comes back with great pics.

As much as I liked the report, I think the trip deserves a better photographic treatment so you can get an idea how rugged and beautiful the Wichitas can be. So that’s that this post is all about — a tribute to Johnny’s photographic skills.

Zooming in, the landmark Crab Eyes formation just gets swallowed by the surroundings of the Charon’s Garden Wilderness Area.

Here’s a rugged panorama of the northeastern side of Charon’s Garden’s peaks, with Elk Mountain and Mount Lincoln in view. A hiker’s and climber’s paradise.

Just under the clouds are the summits of the Wichitas. Here, Johnny gets a moody shot of Granite Mountain from the summit of Twin Rock Mountain. Beyond is the vastness of the southern plains.

This image seems to capture the pain of what it’s like to live atop the Wichitas’ wind-scoured peaks.

The common saying is that a picture is worth a thousand words. I don’t think I’ll ever get Johnny to write a guest post for me, but I’m glad he lets me use his photos. There’s more than one way to tell a story.

Bob Doucette

On Twitter @RMHigh7088

Four killed on Mount Everest; more crowds expected

Mount Everest. (Wikipedia Commons photo)

It looks like a bad combination of events has led to tragedy on Mount Everest. Authorities are saying that four people have died after a busy weekend of people trying to reach the summit of the world’s highest mountain.

Bad weather only recently relelented, setting up about 200 people to try to make a bid for the top while the weather window was open. The predictable result: long bottlenecks high on the mountain at some of its well-known chokepoints.

According to reports, altutide sickness and exhaustion may have been the cause of death for the four who were confirmed dead.

It would appear a similar-sized group of climbers is already queuing up for another push up the mountain, which could create the same situation that caused last weekend’s tragic events.

The latest news from the mountain, via The Associated Press, can be found here.

You can read the original story on this situation here on the New York Times’ website.

New Mexico hiking and backpacking: Wheeler Peak’s Middle Fork Trail

My friends Ben and Kendra at one of the waterfalls low on Wheeler Peak’s Middle Fork Trail.

Who says you can never go back again.

Three years after summiting Wheeler Peak – New Mexico’s highest mountain at 13,161 feet – I went back a second time with friends and family to tackle it again, but from a different route. This time, we chose to take the more often-traveled and scenic Middle Fork Trail: Slightly shorter than the East Fork Trail, but packed with sights that draw small crowds to its lower features.

I counted no less than three waterfalls and one lake down low. We saw plenty of people whose sole goal that day was to hike to the lake and photograph the falls – not unexpected on a holiday weekend, but somewhat disconcerting when the thought of finding campsites came to mind. That fear would subside later on, however, as the bulk of these folks would not hike much further than two miles in.

The lower trail is not just a path for hikers, as super-fit mountain bikers like to test themselves on the path’s steeper pitches. The trail is wide enough that you’re unlikely to get plowed by bikers. I personally marveled at the two guys who passed us going up, grinding away uphill on their granny gears before eventually turning around and cruising down the hill later on. It’s not like we were slacking off, carrying 35-pound packs to our eventual campsite higher up. It just seemed like those guys were working a whole lot harder than we were.

Not every growing thing is green.

Carpeted in green, the forests of Carson National Forest were in prime health that summer.

This particular trip was a few years back, and at that time the southern Rockies had received a good amount of rain during the summer monsoon reason. This meant that alpine forests on Wheeler’s eastern flanks were lush and green. Between the drought and beetle kills that have been plaguing the mountain west in recent years, it had been a long time since I’d seen a Rocky Mountain forest look that healthy.

This surreal scene greeted us at our campsite at Lost Lake. The lake is five miles from the trailhead and inside the Wheeler Peak Wilderness Area.

We camped in mists, with deep gray clouds settling close to the waters of Lost Lake, barely shrouding the numerous bighorn sheep that were grazing in the area. I prefer filtering water from running streams, but this snow-fed lake proved to be an excellent source for cooking and drinking water. Only two other people camped here, far from us, giving us a good amount of privacy. Sometimes it pays off to hike to places that are harder to reach.

Waking up the next morning, I got on early start on breakfast, boiling water for oatmeal. While the rest of my group just started arising from a rough night’s sleep (it takes a while to get accustomed to sleeping on the ground at 10,500 feet) I was joined by a female bighorn and her lamb, who were slowly ambling down the hill. Their casual pace through our camp was evidence of a surprising lack of concern over their proximity to humans.

Breaking through treeline on a bluebird day.

Horseshoe Lake, about 11,500 feet.

Maybe a mile from camp, the Middle Fork and the East Fork join, leading to Wheeler Peak’s signature sight: Horseshoe Lake and the surrounding amphitheater. I remember being awestruck the first time I stumbled upon the place, and I had a sense of anticipation about the reaction my group would have when they laid eyes on it.

The lake made another good place to grab a snack, filter some more water and get a quick rest before tackling the final piece of the route and hitting the summit.

Another shot at the lake, looking toward the next section of the hike.

Horseshoe Lake, seen from higher up on the trail.

Looking down at the lake and the forest from the shoulder of the summit ridge.

The hike up the shoulder of the summit ridge that rises over the lake is the toughest part, gaining a good piece of elevation at a rate not seen elsewhere on the trail. Things level out more once this section is tackled, going into a steady, more gradual incline leading toward the final summit pitch. It’s a long stretch, and by this time the tell-tale head-pounding from a circulatory system working on overdrive had settled in.

Summit view, looking west into the Taos ski valley.

A quick turn north and up a short series of switchbacks takes you to Wheeler’s summit. To the west you can peer into the Taos ski valley. North is Colorado. All around you is the beauty of the Sangre de Cristo Range.

Some people refuse to do a summit twice. They’re always seeking a new peak to bag, and I know why. New challenges and adventures await.

But with each mountain, there is always something new to see. That’s why I don’t mind a repeat.

Another summit view from New Mexico’s highest point.

GETTING THERE: From Red River, take NM 578 6.4 miles until the pavement ends, then go right on Farm Road 58. You will drive about 1.1 miles to the trailhead parking lot, but on this road a car with good clearance is recommended.

ABOUT THE ROUTE: Like the East Fork Trail, this route is long, well-marked and well-maintained. You will initially hike on a relatively wide trail that is used by hikers and mountain bikers. This will last for a little over two miles before you enter the Wheeler Peak Wilderness Area. From here, it’s hikers only (no mechanical transport allowed). After five miles, you’ll reach Lost Lake, a great place for camping with multiple spots that are well-spaced. From the lake, continue following the well-defined trail for another mile or so until you reach treeline and the highest alpine lake on the mountain, Horseshoe Lake. You’re now at about 11,500 feet.

The trail gets steeper as you ascend the ridge overlooking the lake. This is the hardest part of the hike, which eventually levels out some as you hike below the ridge on the mountain’s south side (you’ll be heading west). From here, the route goes up, turns north, and then follows a series of switchbacks that leads you to the summit. Total round-trip route length is 16 miles, Class 1 hiking. Elevation gain is about 3,521 feet.

NOTE: All photos by Ben Grasser.

Bob Doucette

On Twitter @RMHigh7088

Window opens on first Everest summit push

Mount Everest. (Wikipedia Commons photo)

Is anyone else as fascinated by the spring Everest climbing season as me? It’s one of those things that I’d love to do, given the time, training and funding.

Here’s a post from Outside Online’s blog about how some 200 climbers are getting ready to make a mad dash for the summit during a rare good weather window this spring. Best of luck and safe climbing to all of them.

Fitness: A compound movement workout for legs

One of the great things about how exercise is evolving these days is a desire of people to get stronger doing exercises that mimic real-world movement. More to the point, there is a pull away from isolation exercises and toward compound movements.

I’ll admit that I do plenty of isolation exercises, mostly on things like arms and shoulders. But the reason for that is to provide symmetrical balance. I don’t want one side of my body overpowering the other; that just leads to injuries.

But there are other areas where I do my best to use compound exercises almost entirely.

My desire to be a stronger hiker and runner has led me in this direction when working out my legs, and similarly when trying to build up those upper body climbing muscles, it’s nothing but compound movements.

I want to focus on legs in this post. Legs are the most neglected body parts in the gym, mostly because people see results faster when working their upper bodies, and let’s face it – working the legs is really hard work if you do it right. This is particularly true when those leg movements are based on compound movements.

One other thing I try to do is design a workout that does not last longer than an hour, preferably within 45 minutes. A workout that long, plus cardio, makes for a lot of work and time spent in a day. Go any longer than that and the possibility of overkill rises dramatically.

What I’ve been doing lately has been refined from what I’d been doing for a couple of years. Gone are the isolating exercises on machines. They’ve been replaced by compound movements that mimic what I might see in the everyday world or out on the trail.

Here’s how it looks:

SQUATS: Three sets of eight reps, with the weight going up each set. I don’t squat heavy, mostly because I really want to emphasize slow reps, a deep midpoint and a finish that focuses on driving with the lower body and stabilization from the core. So it might be a set of eight with 135 pounds, then eight reps of 190, and eight more at 235. I drop down with my thighs below parallel, then drive up, back straight. I do not lock out my knees at the finish of the lift. Squats are legendary in their ability to work the entire body and build up every part of your legs, particularly the thighs and glutes. Provided your knees and back can cope (for most of us, that is the case), squats should be in your arsenal of leg exercises. You can also do bodyweight squats, squats with dumbbells or squats with kettlebells.

Starting position on the barbell squat.

Midpoint position on the barbell squat. Try to break parallel on the bottom of the exercise. As you raise up, drive through your heels and push with your thighs/glutes, engaging the hips. Do not lift with your back.

LUNGES: Like squats, this is another “super exercise” that really works your whole body. It’s technically a hamstring and glute exercise, but the stabilization of the core and work on the quadriceps are also factored in. I do three sets of eight, with dumbbells. I increase weight with each set. As an example, I’ll start with 20s, then 25s, then 30s. Variations can include bodyweight lunges and walking lunges. Again, if you’re serious about working your legs, this must be in your routine.

Starting position on the lunge.

Midpoint position on the lunge. Notice the knee is not going too far ahead of the ankle, back is straight.

WEIGHTED STEP-UPS: I think this is an amazing exercise that is overlooked by many. It’s very simple: Step up on a higher object, use one leg to lift you up, then step back down, alternating legs. I add a slight twist: At the top of the lift, I do not place my trailing leg on the bench, instead holding the top position on one leg, then stepping down. This keeps tension on that leg, which is exactly what I want to do. Again, I’ll do three sets of eight, adding weight as I go. I go light: 10s, 15s, then 20s. They key is form, trying to work the legs and glutes and not using momentum to lift me up. Body weight step-ups are also good: After all, you are lifting your entire body up! I like this one because is mimics going up stairs or hiking steep paths, thus simulating elevation gain – a much different motion than level-plane walking. Like squats and lunges, this works your quads, hams, glutes and core.

Stepping up to the bench.

Midpoint position on the step-up. Notice the other leg is not stepping on the bench, keeping all the tension and work on the lifting leg.

ROMANIAN DEADLIFTS: Again, a seldom-used but killer exercise. This focuses on the hamstrings, using tension on both the lowering and raising portions of the lift. You can use dumbbells or a barbell. Strong people will pile on large amounts of weight, but I’d encourage you to start light and get the form down. You start standing, knees are not locked out. You then bend down at the hips, back straight, concentrating on a slow, controlled lowering. Be careful not to round your back: Keep it straight. When the weight is nearly touching the ground, pull back up, concentrating on keeping your back straight and tensing your hamstrings. There will be a slight bend at the knees – not locked out straight, but not bending down, either. I’ve done heavy and light, but I find that going lighter allows me to go slower (which is better) with less stress on my back. Remember, this is a leg exercise, not a lower back exercise. So I’ll use dumbbells, starting with 40s, then going up to 45s and 50s for sets of eight.

Starting and ending position on the Romanian deadlift.

Midpoint of the Romanian deadlift. Back is straight, action going down and back up is using the hips as a hinge, with a slight bend at the knees. You should feel tension on your hamstrings and glutes, as these are your target muscles.

CALF RAISES: In this workout, the calf raise is the only isolation exercise I’ll do. But in this case, I think that’s OK. You can do this standing or seated on a leg press; use body weight, dumbbells or a barbell; and single or double leg. My calves are pretty strong, so I do three sets of ascending weight on a leg press, using 265, 310 and 360 pounds for sets of 12. I go slow, not letting the tension in my calves allow me to “bounce” the weight back up (I see people do this a lot, and it’s counterproductive). There are so many variations on this family of exercises that I may have to write an entire post on it. However, much of the other training I do – mid-foot strike running in particular – blasts my calves several times a week. If that is your experience, keep that in mind – your weightroom work on calves should supplement that already heavy load you put on your calves. Don’t overdo it.

Starting point on a one-leg calf raise.

Midpoint of the one-leg standing calf raise. Be sure to drive through your big toe, which helps prevent your ankle from rolling out. Ankle roll-out will stop you from working the whole calf.

Seated calf raise to start.

Seated calf raise midpoint.

So that’s the routine. It won’t work for a bodybuilder or figure competitor, but as a support system-style workout for runners, hikers and backpackers, this should help build a strong, athletic and healthy foundation.

Bob Doucette

On Twitter @RMHigh7088