The eternal excitement, glory and joy of being a noob

My friend Rick (left) and I at the top of Wheeler Peak, NM, in 2003. Check out that cottony, newbie goodness we're wearing.

My friend Rick (left) and I at the top of Wheeler Peak, NM, in 2003. Check out that cottony, newbie goodness we’re wearing.

If there is a title that nobody wants but everyone’s had, it’s that of being the newbie.

The noob.

A rookie.

We’ve all had our turn at being a beginner, a gaper, or whatever other term that is used to describe someone who is new to climbing, skiing, mountaineering or whatever. Usually we’re desperate to shuck that label, learning the lingo of the sport, buying all the right gear and going for “the look” of someone who has been there and done that, as if wearing/using the right brand of stuff will give us an outdoorsy version of “the thousand-yard stare” or something.

As for me, guilty as charged. Years later I ask myself, why the hell did I do that?

One of the glories of being a noob is the excitement of the “new.” You might remember it: You saw something that looked awesome, and decided you wanted to try it. So you made your plans, prepared for the task, and then got it done. The anticipation of the reaching the goal, and the satisfaction of having done it, is one of the sweetest rewards in life.

I remember a few years ago, I’d just gotten into the peak-bagging thing and was consuming stories and books about it like a starving man at Thanksgiving. Many of the most compelling stories I saw involved ascending on snow, and in my book, I couldn’t be a “real mountaineer” unless I attempted a snow climb. (For the record, I still don’t consider myself a “real mountaineer”).

I hit up my buddy Johnny on the idea. Being the kind of guy he is, he agreed to play along. We picked a mountain, found a date, and let those newbie vibes propel us toward an adventure neither of us had ever done before.

It felt awesome.

***

I’ve been drawn to the mountains ever since I was a kid, growing up in the suburbs of Denver with the Rockies an ever-present visual any time I looked toward the west. But for all the childhood camping, fishing and other adventures in the high country, I never visited to top of one of these titanic piles of rock.

Years later, my brother Mike got into hiking and climbing the Fourteeners, Colorado’s peaks that top 14,000 feet. He’d tell stories of the hardships and rewards of reaching these high summits, and the photographs he showed me – glorious vistas, dizzying drop-offs, and other amazing sights – compelled me to consider taking on that challenge.

But it was one I knew next to nothing about.

I remember going on vacation in Red River, New Mexico, having a good time exploring that town and some of the others in a region called the Enchanted Circle of that state’s Sangre de Cristo range. Included in that was a whitewater rafting trip, which would normally be the highlight of such a vacation.

But what stuck out was the morning I looked outside my window, stared at Red River’s ski mountain, and decided I was going to hike to its summit.

So that’s what I did. I don’t remember how long it took, how lengthy the route was, or anything like that. But I do remember feeling pretty rad hiking to the top – somewhere over 10,000 feet – and waiting on all the people who taken a ski-lift ride to the top. They rode up. I got there under my own power.

My gear: Jeans, a cotton T-shirt, a jacket and a pair of steel-toed work boots, with a dead tree branch used as a walking stick. You know, typical noob stuff.

***

Me on Mount Shavano, going up the summit pitch.

Me on Mount Shavano, going up the summit pitch.

A lot of planning went into that snow climb. I wasn’t so dumb as to pick a mountain that was out of my league. We chose familiar ground – Mount Shavano, a mountain I’d summited five years before in summer conditions with my oldest brother. In the winter and spring, there are three ribbons of snow that look like a stick figure with its arms signaling “touchdown!” in a gully leading to a saddle between Shavano’s summit and another nearby, lesser peak.

It’s called the Angel of Shavano, and if you’re going to pick a first-time snow climb on the Fourteeners, this is the route you choose. It’s not too steep, and in late spring, avalanche danger is minimal. If you catch it early enough in the spring, more snow will be with you all the way to the summit.

Here’s the problem: Johnny and I don’t live anywhere near a mountain where you could practice snow climbing. Sure, you can buy the gear – crampons, an ice axe, a helmet, etc. – but that won’t mean anything unless you get to actually use that gear.

Of course, that didn’t stop us. We bought the gear online and watched videos on how to self-arrest. That would work, right?

So in early June, we packed up my rig and drove to Buena Vista, Colorado, checked into a hotel and tried on our crampons for the first time. The next day, we’d see what this whole “snow climbing” thing was all about.

***

That New Mexico trip lit a bit of a fire in me. The day after hiking that ski mountain, I picked up a brochure on some of the more popular hikes in the Red River area. One of them was Wheeler Peak, the state’s highest mountain, described as “extremely strenuous” and a good 20 miles round-trip from the East Fork trailhead. I hiked a little of that trail that day, clearly not expecting to top out, but just wanting to see what it looked like.

The next year, I was back. I did some serious planning for this one, picking up real hiking boots (as it turns out, steel-toed work boots are not ideal), a day pack (complete with water bladder!) and what more or less qualified as the ten essentials. I recruited my brother Mike and a friend named Rick to give it a shot.

The one thing we had going for us was we were all in excellent shape. It helped that Mike had done hikes like this many times before, so this wouldn’t be the blind leading the blind, so to speak.

But our noob-ness showed. In choosing to return to Wheeler Peak, I’d picked a walk-up (good choice!) but also one with what turned out to be 21 miles of hiking, all of it over 9,000 feet. That’s a big day for anyone, especially for a couple of beginners. And while my footwear choice was good, I was still wearing cotton clothing and sporting a dead tree branch as a walking stick.

But our hubris was rewarded. The weather held out, our conditioning was adequate, and we reached Wheeler’s summit and got back to the car in less than 10 hours. To this day, it ranks as one of my favorite summit hikes, and it turned a curiosity into an obsession. In the months to come, I devoured all things mountaineering.

I was going full-on noob.

***

Johnny and I hiked awhile before we spotted a place where we could traverse and reach the snowfield of the Angel of Shavano Couloir. We’d missed the place where we were supposed to turn, but no matter. We could get there now.

Soon we were at the couloir’s base. We stopped, ate some food, and strapped on our crampons. The helmet came next. Winds were barreling down on us through the gap in the saddle above, but the skies were mostly clear as we, for the first time in our lives, kick-stepped our way up the couloir.

There is a rhythm to this type of hiking that is far different than the normal slog up a trail: Kick, set the ice axe in the snow, step up, then kick again. Traction was good, and we methodically reached the saddle, then turned our attention to the summit pitch. Mixed snow and rock lay before us until we reached the summit slopes, and then a thick blanket of snow all the way to the top. It was as if the lords of winter had set a path upward, covering the rocks and tundra of the mountain with a magical substance that made the climb easier, more interesting, and even a bit more scenic.

It taxed us – neither of us were in great shape, but before long, we’d topped out. Two snow-climbing newbies from Oklahoma showed up and got it done. It felt pretty rad, that I might be able to graduate from being a mere hiker to being christened a “mountaineer.” Years later, I know better. But on that summit, it was a real consideration.

Might we be recognized for our outdoor excellence? Did we finally have that thousand-yard stare? Had we earned the right to be elevated from the ranks of the newbies?

Nope. Not yet. That would become apparent soon enough.

***

So. Much. Noob. And so much awesome. The crew on Mount Belford, 2004.

So. Much. Noob. And so much awesome. The crew on Mount Belford, 2004.

The excitement of the noob takes on many forms, but there are a few common threads. One of those has to do with gear.

A lot of time is spent researching what gear you need, what brands work best, and the kinds of outer wear that will keep you warm and dry during your time in the alpine. I remember spending significant time online, shopping different retailers for all the stuff I wanted: Tents, backpacks, sleeping pads, socks, boots, sleeping bags, camp stoves, and so forth. When not online, I haunted a few local outdoor shops, spending far too long drooling over gear I could never afford but eventually walking out with something I figured I needed. Many lifelong gear junkies are born during this stage of noobism, and I now possess enough stuff to lend to like-minded friends.

I also recall spending hours on online forums and different hiking and mountaineering websites, perusing trip reports, route descriptions and topical discussions, even weighing in a few times when I felt I had enough knowledge to actually add something to the conversation. I believe I reached this level of expertise and wisdom after collecting four summits. Or was it five? Anyway…

You would figure that all this preparation, time and monetary expense would have quickened the learning curve, but it ain’t so. Noobism tends to hang around awhile, sticking to you like a bad cold. And that brings me to a second thread: Learning the hard way.

It took me a few mistakes to get a better handle on how to do the backpacking/hiking/mountaineering thing. I remember being annoyed at the mosquitoes below treeline while hiking Mount Elbert, so I reached into my bag and applied plenty of DEET-infused bug spray to keep the little buggers away. Wanting to be sure every bit of exposed skin was protected, I sprayed some on my hands, then rubbed the stuff onto my neck, cheeks and forehead.

Mike and I on Mount Elbert in 2005. By then, some of the noob had worn off of me, but not much.

Mike and I on Mount Elbert in 2005. By then, some of the noob had worn off of me, but not much.

Total noob move. Anytime I’m hiking uphill (especially at elevation), my body is working hard. I’ve long contended that I’m one of the sweatiest humans on earth, and this is true even on a cool alpine morning. The combination of my sweat and newly applied DEET was not a good one, as the stuff ran down my face and into my mouth. I can tell you through experience that DEET tastes terrible and will make your lips go numb. You can thank me for that pro tip later.

I also learned that when choosing foods for a backpacking trip, canned tuna, MREs and self-heating dinners aren’t the best options. All of them have a good deal of water in them, and that extra weight will make your pack go from a reasonable 35 to 40 pounds to 50 to 60 in a hurry. That, and the extra cotton hoodies and whatever other extra crap I used to bring.

Speaking of crap, it’s also wise to bring toilet paper, and to make sure that your toilet paper is in a waterproof container. Backpacks usually aren’t waterproof, and toilet paper loses its effectiveness when getting drenched by rain. A self-sealing baggie will do wonders to solve that problem, unless you simply omit bringing it altogether.

On the backpacking trip where I was learning these valuable nuggets of knowledge, some of my buddies were getting the hard-knocks treatment as well. For some reason, everyone on the newbie crowd thinks it’s cool – nay, even necessary – to attach as much shit as possible to the outside of your pack. I don’t advise that, especially if your gear is hanging on the bottom of your pack. All that junk swinging around and hitting the back of your legs is no way to hike.

And then there was the gun. Another member of my party sported an enormous pack, strapped a hydration pack to his chest, and a leather holster with a .40-caliber revolver, loaded and ready to roll. Revolvers ain’t light, and it took about a quarter mile of hiking, huffing and puffing before the decision was made to go back to the trailhead, hide the gun in the van and lock it up tight.

We survived all these newbie mistakes. Not only that, but both trips ended up being a good time. Most of us ended up topping out and coming back with good stories about the mountain. Some of us even decided that we should keep doing this stuff, even though camping on the cold ground is decidedly uncomfortable, as is straining for breath above 12,000 feet and running away from afternoon thunderstorms that toss hail and lightning upon you out of the blue. I guess we could just do an all-inclusive tropical vacation in the Caribbean, but really, where is the fun in that?

You can’t summit a beach, and the gear for a week at Sandals isn’t nearly as cool. But that’s probably the noob in me talking.

***

Johnny on Mount Shavano. He's the least noobish noob I've ever known. He did awesome on what was our first snow climb in 2009.

Johnny on Mount Shavano. He’s the least noobish noob I’ve ever known. He did awesome on what was our first snow climb in 2009.

I’d be lying if I said everything went according to plan for Johnny and I. Yes, we did properly use our new-fangled snow gear, and we summited Mount Shavano without skidding down a slope and breaking our necks. It’s not a huge accomplishment, given the ease of this particular snow climb. But we do get credit for a successful outing.

However, we broke a couple of rules. For one, we topped out well after noon. Maybe something like 1:30 in the afternoon, which will get a whole lot of finger-wagging, dismissive looks and maybe a couple of lectures from the non-noob crowd. I’m OK with that. We dodged a bullet, or more precisely, an afternoon storm.

But we were admittedly not in the best shape of our lives, and we felt it going down. Shavano’s trail is rough, and we arrived back at the trailhead beat up. Our knees, backs and ankles were all singing a chorus of “why do you do this crap to us?” in an angry harmony.

But that wasn’t my worst sin (Johnny gets a pass here). Not even close. And it’s something I wouldn’t realize until later that night.

We were far too tired to do the big victory dinner back in Salida. Instead, we opted to hit a Subway, crawl back to the motel in Buena Vista and turn in early. Gluttony at a local pizzeria would have to wait.

But as I was sleeping, I woke up feeling dampness on my face. I figured it might be sweat, but I wasn’t hot, nor did I feel sick. And the stuff was sticky to the touch.

As it turns out, the moisture I was feeling was the gunk that normally appears when you become so sunburned that your skin blisters. And that makes sense, because that’s what happened. Worst of all, it was totally avoidable. Let’s rewind.

Back on the ascent, when we stopped to don our mighty crampons and unhitch our fearsome ice axes from our packs, I left one small detail out. Even though it was in my pack, I forgot to apply sunscreen.

In the words of Rick Perry, “Oops.”

This is a multifaceted problem. First, all noobs are told to bring – and use – sunscreen, because the sun at high altitudes is particularly intense. Thinner air and closer proximity to that giant ball of atomic fire means more radiation is zapping your unsuspecting epidermis. Sunburns are easy to get in the high country.

But wait! There’s more. When you’re on a snowfield, you get double the pleasure as rays from the sun are reflected off the snow. If the direct sunlight doesn’t get you, the reflected sunlight will.

And we’re not done yet! Remember how I said how windy it was that day? As it happens, the wind was blowing right in our face at a steady 35 mph, gusting to over 50. Chafing from wind burns is actually a thing.

The predictable result was my face turning into a blistered, scabbed-up mess that made me look like a monster. An inexperienced, noobified gaper of a monster.

I’m more careful about sunscreen now.

Years later, I’ve tackled more peaks, done tougher ascents and perhaps, in the minds of some, finally moved on from the newbie stage. But in my mind, I’m still there. I don’t feel too far removed from noobland because I know where I stand in comparison to some of my friends who have climbed most or all 58 of the Fourteeners (I’m not even halfway there). And for them, they are a few steps behind those who climb these things in winter. Or those who have climbed the glaciated giants of the Cascades, Alaska, Mexico and South America. And those people look like lightweights compared to the mountaineers who ply their skills in the Alps, the Himalayas and the Karakoram.

Besides, there are benefits to keeping the newbie spirit alive. I’d hate to get to the point where some mountain hikes are “beneath me,” or I get too jaded because of the growing crowds of first-timers clogging the trails. I never want to lose the enthusiasm I had when I hiked Wheeler Peak back in 2003, or when my friends joined me a year later on our Colorado backpacking trip.

The mountains offer varying degrees of sufferfests – sometimes by their nature, other times by our own hand – but for a bunch of us, the allure never dies unless we let it. And I don’t want to. Experience is awesome, and it makes you safer, more capable, and able to do more in the peaks. My wish, no matter how many mountains I climb, is to keep the sense of wonder alive as long as I can, to view each summit through the eyes of a guy who is a newcomer to the high country, much like I was years ago in northern New Mexico on a fine July day.

I’ll just remember to leave the cotton T-shirt at home and to apply the sunscreen. Liberally.

Want to read more great newbie stories? Lose yourself in this glorious thread.

Bob Doucette

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